Since 1963, Davey has been the editor-publisher of the poetics journal Open Letter, and co-founded the world’s first on-line literary journal, Swift Current, in 1984. A prolific and highly-esteemed author of numerous books of poetry and criticism (the latest published in 2012) Davey writes “with a unique panache as he examines with humour and irony the ambiguous play of signs in contemporary culture, the popular stories that lie behind it, and the struggles between different identity-based
As an introduction to the poems, here are two excerpts from our interview with Frank Davey (interviewer is D’vorah Elias, our Feb. 2013 featured poet).
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: 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.
Complete Frank Davey Interview
Poems by Frank Davey
Children who get away are usually found at neighbours
unless they live on farms or in forests.
Wayward spouses are often found with lovers.
Teenagers who get away are often found living
on downtown city streets or in shelters for the homeless.
Dogs that run away are sometimes found with lovers.
City dogs that get away are found by the Humane Society
or concerned citizens.
Dog show dogs that get away are followed by groups of people
variously shouting loose dog! don’t chase him! stop that dog!
Don’t touch her! yelled the Rottweiler breeder at Oromocto
when her young bitch swerved in & out of the terrier ring.
Everyone stood back, including the terriers.
My teenage son used to climb out of his third-floor window after bedtime
but usually climbed back up before breakfast.
My brindle Great Dane bolted out the front door
& broadsided a Chevy Nova. The dog was unhurt
& happy to come back home. The car was insured.
Small children dart out from between parked cars.
Older children become chronic runaways.
Some dog breeds have behavior problems.
Some car models are high risk.
Most runaways believe they can come back when they want to.
Risks at home & away from home are difficult to calculate.
Few dogs knowingly run away from home.
© Frank Davey
Risky propositions, Talonbooks, 2005
My mother says I can catch a bird
if I put salt on its tail. I go outside
with shaker. The birds stay away.
My grandmother teaches me Morse code.
Dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot I tap.
No one replies.
My mother says that eating fresh carrots
will help you see in the dark. My father is growing carrots.
“You should take that with a grain of salt,” he says.
My teacher says I should write a story.
I write a story about Taiwan.
“What’s a taiwan?” ask the Mennonite boys.
I put a long blonde hair from one of the girls
into my Bible. Nothing happens.
“It’s the wrong hair,” my father says.
The church starts a cub scout pack.
There are five of us. We learn to send smoke signals.
To no one.
My father tells us about a line-man who was so pie-eyed
that he threw up from the top of the hydro pole.
“Those kind aren’t worth their salt,” says my grandmother.
The clerk in our dry-goods store writes a book of poems.
He calls it Cloth of Gold and sells it at the front counter.
“Sells it by the yard, eh?” says my father.
At school I re-write the story.
I set out to carry it home.
Two big boys from the high school
dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash -dot-dot-dot
tear it into pieces and throw it into the creek.
“It’s going to go far,” Ron and Kenny say.
My mother hurries down the hill to the creek
to gather the pieces. She finds most of them
and scotchtapes them together into a different story.
It’s supposed to be about Taiwan, I say.
“Did you say ‘tie one on’?” asks my father.
© Frank Davey
Back to the War, Talonbooks, 2005
From Digital Knowledge
Does anybody know who said the quote that goes something like this?
Does anybody know who the waterboy for the tri-city americans is?
Does anybody know who makes the best wet nitrous kit?
Does anybody know who made the Swine Flu?
Does anybody know who this girl is?
Does anybody know who’s in charge of security here?
Does nobody know this gecko?
Does nobody know about chronograph watches?
Why does nobody know?
Does nobody know the difference between there is and there are?
WHY DOES NOBODY KNOW THIS?
Why does nobody know how to write about science?
Why does nobody know about the coptic orthodox religion?
Does nobody know how to write a resume anymore?
Does nobody know anything any more?
Why does nobody know how to pronounce Martyrdom correctly?
Is anything known about memory leaks?
Is anything known about the life of Thespis?
Is anything known about orthologous or homoloous genes in other species?
Is anything known about natural resistance to this virus?
Is anything known about the expected dose?
Is anything known about the universe before one-trillionth of a second?
Apart from the New Testament and gnostic texts is anything known about Judas?
Is anything known about him, why his wife should be buried at Chiswick?
Neither is anything known about brothers Michael and Chris Harrison.
Is anything known about the kind of pedagogy used by Hillel and the other rabbis whose sayings are
recorded in the Pirke Avot?
The specified print monitor is unknown.
The heart is unknown country.
Driver state is unknown.
The U.S. space tracking network has not found the craft and its current orbit is unknown.
Sometimes the actual image link is unknown.
His name is Unknown.
Why the sender is unknown.
The specified protocol is unknown.
Michael’s cause of death is unknown.
User info for my name is unknown.
At one point she blurted out, “Mel, do you know what you are saying?”
Do you know for sure you are going to heaven?
Do you know the risks of being overweight?
Do you know about anatomy?
Do you know about sickle cell anemia?
Do you know where your data is?
How do you know if it is time for joint replacement surgery?
How much do you know?
Do you know lyrics?
How do you know your spreadsheet is right?
Little is known of dangerous resistant bacteria data gaps.
On a big issue, little is known.
Very little is known of this saint’s life, for his biographers constructed their “Lives” long after his death.
So little is known about us “out there.”
Very little is known about the benefits of wearing facemasks and respirators to control the spread of
Often, little is known about home health aids.
Little is known about Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Little is known about the actual experience of parents.
Too little is known about depressed adolescents.
Little is known concerning the natural enemies of the Iris.
Don’t you know who I am?
Silly kangaroo, don’t you know the rules?
Don’t you know you’re toxic?
Don’t you know there’s a war on?
Don’t you know how to do it yet?
Feedback is appalled, don’t you know?
Don’t you know that up to 10 megabits is just fine?
Don’t you know Cain that the bird is the word?
© Frank Davey
Bardy Google, Talonbooks, 2010
I sit on the edge
of the dining room, almost
in the living room where my parents,
my grandmother, & visitors
sit knee to knee along the chesterfield & in
the easy chairs. The room is full, & my feet
do not touch the floor, barely
reach the rail across the front
of my seat. ‘Of course
you will want Bobby to play.’—words
that jump out from the clatter
of teacups & illnesses. The piano
is huge, unforgettable.
It takes up the whole end wall
of the living room, faces me down
a short corridor of plump
knees, balanced saucers, hitched
trousers. ‘Well when is
Bob going to play?’
one of them asks. My dad says,
‘Come on, boy, they’d like you
to play for them,’ & clears
a plate of cake
from the piano bench. I walk between
the knees & sit down
where the cake was, switch on
the fluorescent light
above the music. Right at the first notes
the conversation returns to long tales
of weddings, relatives bombed out again
in England, someone’s mongoloid
baby. & there I am at the piano.
with no one listening or even
going to listen
unless I hit sour notes, or stumble
to a false ending.
Instantly they are back to me. ‘What a nice
touch he has,’ someone interrupts
herself to say.
‘It’s the hands,’ says another
‘It’s always the hands, you can tell
by the hands,’ & so I get up
& hide my fists
in my hands.
© Frank Davey
Back to the War, Talonbooks, 2005
About Frank Davey
Strathroy resident Frank Davey grew up in BC and studied at UBC where in 1961 he co-founded with George Bowering and Fred Wah the influential and contentious poetry newsletter TISH. His first volume of poetry, in 1962, was described as ‘the act of the moment’ rather than poetry as the commonplace attempt 'to express ... feelings.' In 1965 he launched the avant-garde poetry and criticism journal Open Letter, and, with the assistance of bpNichol, developed it into what many still see as Canada's most important forum for discussion and examination of innovative and experimental ideas and texts.
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.'
His most important early contribution was his withering 1974 critique, 'Surviving the Paraphrase,which discredited thematic criticism in Canada, including that of Northrop Frye, D.G. Jones and Margaret Atwood.
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.