Davey obtained his PhD from the University of Southern California in 1968. With the encouragement of George Woodcock, he began writing literary criticism, a body of work from the 1970s to the ‘90s which would be described as 'the most individual and influential ever written in Canada.'
From 1975-1992 Davey was one of the most active editors of the Coach House Press. In 1984 he co-founded the world’s first on-line literary journal, Swift Current. In 1986 he became the chair of the English Department of Toronto’s York University, where he quickly assumed a nationally influential role. Then, in 1990 Davey came to London, where he was appointed to the Carl F. Klinck Chair of Canadian Literature at UWO. Here he began a new writing phase involving analysis of various Canadian cultural scenes—from literary criticism to politics, celebrity, and popular crime writing. These studies have given him much fodder for his poetry.
Over the years, the stance Davey has taken in his criticism has occasionally put him into conflict with the Canadian literary establishment. For example, he has described Canadian literary and academic prizes as institutional rewards for 'banality and careerism'. On the other hand, he has often been seen as a 'poet’s poet'.
Through his books of poetry, his literary and cultural criticism and his rich range of essays on diverse topics, Davey has been a major figure in introducing the idea and practice of postmodernism to writers in Canada.
So far Davey has published 27 books of poetry, six since 2000, the latest being ‘Spectres of London, Ont’ (2012), which we will be reviewing here. He also has numerous non-fiction titles.
INTERVIEW by D’vorah Elias for London Open Mic Poetry Night
Elias: Can you tell us a little bit about how and when you started writing poetry?
Davey: Apart from a few random earlier poems, starting would be back around 1960 when I realized with something of a shock that it was possible to write startlingly different poems from what most poets were writing, and that as well it could be possible never to write quite the same way twice – that one’s poems could keep challenging both accepted poetry practice and one’s own past practice.
Elias: How has your poetry evolved over the years?
Davey: My poems in general have gotten longer, they make more use of prose stanzas, they’ve moved increasingly away from the lyric, I’ve thought of them at times as being composed of sentences or discourses rather than of words.
Elias: Were you initially influenced by any particular poets? If so, who were they?
Davey: I was initially influenced more by poets’ ideas about poetry than by their poems – it’s no big deal to write a copy of someone’s poem but to apply their ideas in a new way can be special. One idea that has stayed with me long-term is Robert Creeley’s advice to put yourself at some risk – of failure, embarrassment, ostracism, bad reviews – every time you write. It was advice later reinforced by the example of Louis Dudek. Another was Robert Duncan’s that poems aren’t about events or themes or people: every poem is about itself and language – about what the language can show you is possible while you’re writing.
Elias: Can you talk a little bit about the influence Warren Tallman had on your career?
Davey: Warren Tallman – he was the most intellectually adventurous prof I met as an undergrad at UBC. He was sure I would be a poet because I was a reckless delinquent, he thought, in life and language – he liked writers like that: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lenore Kandel. However, if you want be a poet, I figure, it’s better to be more delinquent in language than in the rest of life – you live longer, & get to try your hand at writing more things.
Elias: What inspired you to found TISH?
Davey: I didn’t found TISH by myself – I co-founded it, & then managed it for 19 issues. Each issue was 12-20 grubby mimeograph pages. We mailed it out free to people – mostly writers – who we thought should see it. Tallman sort of egged us on to do it by saying we wouldn’t be able to, and then was so impressed that we did that in later years he published 4-5 essays about it/us. We just figured the world needed a magazine that was a working space – that didn’t publish conventionally polished poems, or publish things to win prizes, but published poems in which the writers took chances, outreached themselves, attracted useful criticism, or offended other people’s ‘standards.’ We didn’t want to have to think about other peoples’ standards in order to publish.
Elias: Please talk a little bit about what intrigued you so much about the Kristin French/Mahaffy murders that you decided to write Karla’s Web. Can you please elaborate a little bit about what you learned during the process of writing that book?
Davey: Well, the public receives information about such events as the Kristin French/Lesley Mahaffy murders only through representations created by the media. In this instance those media representations were as distortingly cliched as the most derivative of poetry. The two victims portrayed as the virgin and the whore. The murdering couple portrayed as “fairy-tale” – pure innocence that concealed pure evil – and as “monsters” – creatures beyond human possibility. The murdering couple in fact were distressingly ordinary and human, as Karla’s recent life suggests. Unfortunately, humanity has a long and ongoing history of murder. So I wasn’t so much intrigued by the killings as dismayed by the socially naive media depiction. What did I learn? – a lot about the legal system, which seemed to do the best it could.
Elias: I have very much enjoyed reading Risky Propositions. Can you please talk a little bit about the creative process that went into the writing of this book.
Davey: I was working at the time (2004) with the idea that poems can be made up not just of words but of propositions – sentences that may or may not be true. And that you could make a poem by juxtaposing these. Plays of course have always been made that way. Poets who write found poems or flarf work that way. So then I thought what if what if I looked for risky ways of doing this, such as looking for phrases associated with socially volatile topics and constructing propositions that used these phrases. So the first poem in Risky is about phrases used in raising children. The second is about how Margaret Atwood might be characterized by sentences used to describe the actual town of Atwood, Ontario. Much of third is constructed from sounds heard at a dog show. The fourth is made from the minutes of a scholarly association by extracting most of its verb phrases, so that the verb then seems to be in the imperative mood – “be found, be adopted” etc., or by splitting the verb to create a new meaning; “exploring the changes” becomes “ring the changes”; “missing from the minutes” becomes “sing from the minutes.” The sixth, the Margaret Atwood Conference poem, is made up of short stanzas that each begin with something actually said at the conference. Each line of the seventh poem is the title of a Canadian book with one or two letters changed. The eighth consists of eleven proposed statements that might explain why a straight guy could fall in love with a lesbian. The tenth is an elegy for Jacques Derrida made up entirely of sentence fragments and phrases taken from the dust jacket of his book Aporias. The eleventh is an application of Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes to the communication strategies of dogs.
Elias: What do you think your legacy will be for the world of Canadian poetry?
Davey: There was no legacy in writing Karla’s Web, as risky as it may have been. People who write of TISH as Canada’s “most influential” magazine seem to be pointing to it as a legacy. But I’ve never tried to control such perceptions. I didn’t set out to be famous, just to enlarge what can be done in poetry, and to collaborate with those who feel similarly. Those who respond to my work do it on their own. I suppose I may not have a legacy because my writing remains hard to classify – or just looks weird. Although if you Google my name right now, among the things that comes up are five photos of writers who Google says “People also search for” – George Bowering, Fred Wah, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, and Louis Dudek. That’s sort of a legacy I guess.
Elias: Your theoretical essays and academic work have had a tremendous impact on the world of Canadian poetry but also on a much larger scale. What has been your greatest contribution to the poetry community in Canada?
Davey: I probably haven’t had as much impact as I’d hoped. With my TISH friends and others such as bpNichol, I set out to liberate Canadian poetry from short lyric poems about being sensitive or special and from narrowly Canadian concerns such as beer, canoes, beavers, lakes and pine trees, and then Al Purdy, and Margaret Atwood with her Survival book, kept taking it right back there. That had been part of reason I wrote my 1974 guide book to contemporary CanLit, From There to Here. But I think I have helped writers such as Nichol, Marlatt, Wah, Gail Scott, and perhaps even Louis Dudek, have a larger presence in our literature than they might have had. I may have similarly helped younger writers of unconventional texts too.
Elias: You’ve had a long, illustrious career with many books published. Which one of those is your favourite?
Davey: My favorite? Probably The Abbotsford Guide to India. It has been translated into Gujarati and published in Mumbai. A high school student in Abbotsford, in B.C., made a short film from it. Once when I was visiting in Mumbai university students read one part of it to me translated into eleven Indian languages. A poet there published a parody of part of it. An American theorist of nationalism and post-colonialism devoted a book chapter to it. Bookstores in Canada sold it in both their Poetry and Travel sections – something which can happen to conceptual poetry. I got to create the artwork and photographs for it as well as the poetry sections.
Elias: Can you share any particularly special memory from your writing history?
Davey: Well, in 1989 I’d been living for most of the year in Europe, working on two new books and letting most of my mail pile up in Canada. In May I drove from France to Yugoslavia where I’d knew I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Ohrid, a few miles outside of Skopje. A couple of days before, I checked into a hotel in Skopje and strolled over to the university to ask the Canadian studies people for directions. Their secretary said they were all at a reception in the library. I discovered that the reception was for a book launch and for the book’s translator. The Canadian ambassador was there. The book was mine -- another conceptual poetry book, Postcard Translations, that I’d written and published in Toronto a couple of years before. They were happily astonished to see me wander in – they thought I might be still in Canada. Their cover image for the book (a translation into Macedonian) was a postcard on which the stamp had my photo – so everyone recognized me. My poems had already mailed me to Skopje.
Elias: I have seen a copy of your newest book Spectres of London Ont (Limited Edition 2012), which is also obviously a conceptual poetry book, and similar in some ways to the one you just mentioned, at least in that it is composed of post cards. But it is also a gorgeous book to look at, each page an enlarged, hand-tinted photo from the early days of London, with words overlaid, as if fallen there from the whimsical thoughts of someone in the present who has just discovered these postcards in the attic. Can you tell us something about this book? How did you come by the pictures, did you tint them yourself, and will you have any copies for sale at the reading?
Davey: This is the fourth booklet like this I've done of text overlaid on historic postcards -- the first two on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the third a slightly more humorous one, Canonical Canadian Literature. I did find a few of the postcards for the first two booklets in my family attic, in the mid-1980s -- my maternal grandmother was, in her teens in County Durham, caught up in the postcard collecting craze of 1895-1920, and had gathered many hundreds. Those brought me to my Postcard Translations book of 1988. But most of the cards I've used recently I've found on the internet. In Spectres the tinting on the cards is original, although for some I've altered the colour intensity or balance. Yes, I'll have a few copies for sale at the reading.
(Interviewer D’vorah Elias was the featured poet at London Open Mic Poetry Night’s Feb. 6th, 2013 event.
See Interview with D’vorah Elias: http://www.londonpoetryopenmic.com/2/post/2013/01/dvorah-elias-feb-6th-2013.html) .
See Seven Poems by D’vorah Elias: http://www.londonpoetryopenmic.com/3/post/2013/02/dvorah-elias-feb-6th-2013.html)