What does it mean to be a man? It's not - anymore, thank goodness - a simple question. Tackling the complexities of how to be a good man today is no small task for anyone, but Degan Davis set himself that formidable challenge in his debut collection of poetry What Kind of Man Are You (Brick Books). The result is a beautiful, thoughtful collection.
Stevie Howell praised the book, saying it "lives as equally in the heart as the mind... As readers, we find ourselves witnessing this sensitive exploration during an historical moment in which What Kind of Man Are You may emerge as one of the most urgent questions."
Degan has a unique background to bring the nuance and sensitivity required to his subject matter: he works as a Gestalt Therapist in addition to his writing. The relational aspect of the Gestalt approach serves Davis well as he navigates the rocky terrain of contemporary masculinity and its limitations, demands, and confusions. The poems open themselves to future possibilities around gender and identity even as they explore current archetypes, delving into sex, love, music, war, and more. There's even a dash of levity to the collection, a welcome and humanizing force.
We're excited to kick off Poetry Month 2018 with a conversation with Degan, as part of our Poets in Profile series. He tells us about the surprising value of writer's block, "the stickiness and burn of shame" that accompanies writing contemporary masculinity, and a formative teenage encounter with MacBeth.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
Being stuck, being blocked – and acknowledging a kind of numbness - has actually helped me to write. The tactile act of putting words down with a pen and paper often returns me to my body, and to words that have resonance. Over time, I’ve found that just being with these stuck places, and taking time to simply be, to rest in boredom, invites something fresh, murky, dangerous or “truthful,” to arise. Writing about what it is to be a white man in this era of gender fluidity contains the stickiness and burn of shame. Often I feel my sensations and emotions require a vocabulary I need to learn and re-learn, and then translate. I remind myself that slowing down, being still, accepting that nothing is happening, is a shield, and part of the process. Then, I wait, like an ornithologist waits, for signs or flickers of something to emerge.
What do you do with a poem that isn’t working?
a) put it in a drawer and forget about it for a few months.
b) grimace, fret, make deals with a prime mover.
c) transplant the best phrases to an essay. (I’d long been carrying the image of a boy with a high fever in a hospital bed, proudly hiding a leg wound from a figure he wanted to impress. It didn’t work as a poem, but it did in an essay about covert power and masculinity in childhood.)
d) read the poem out loud and let my ear edit the lines as much as my eye.
e) cut off the first three lines, and the last three lines. Then bring the poem to others. Ask writer friends to choose what they think is the strongest line, and then try moving that line to the end. Openings are often scaffolding; and endings try to convince too much.
f) open the drawer with the forgotten poems in it. See what lines have the most oddness and clarity; this, to me, makes the most compelling art. The sense that certain lines feel they weren’t written by “me,” but somehow exist in their own right.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
There were few things (barring sex and music) more seductive to a grade eleven boy than Macbeth. The young-ish from Spain teacher touched her throat while reading. Led us to this inferno of love and ambition and the misdeeds of adulthood, as adulthood sat blooming in us. Lady Macbeth, herself, could have been any one of us - not murderous, but full of teenage obsessions. Raze out the written troubles of the brain. Is that not a wish for any sixteen-year-old? The play was akin to a blurry, high-octane high school Saturday night. Fights. Love. First kisses. Bon-fires. The promise of immortality. As a teenager – even a pretty peaceable boy – I was hypnotized by this capacity for violence from a man who began life too full of the milk of human kindness. In writing about men now, I am still asking in poems: What is the draw to aggressiveness? What is this shadowy thirst for control? Can our darkness be transmogrified into something good? Yes, the story was riveting. But it was the language that won me. The images and similes like the first taste of rum. Surely, this Shakespeare was himself a brilliant loquacious old soak, who drowned in poetry, and yet lived. And what a mix of darkness and light. Shakespeare’s language was pure music, and a carriage for ideas. Of course, I was half in love with teacher. Or maybe with her love of words. She was a passionate newcomer to our school, and I can picture her now at the front of the class, heralding in this language both direct and dreamlike. Afterwards, telling no one, I sought out poets and read them in my bedroom: Blake, Dickinson, Rilke, Glück…I see the teacher now like the Spanish Dancer in the Rilke poem of that title. The one who he likens to fire. The one who is ablaze and, at the end, flings the flames off and moves to stamp them out with powerful small feet. Though it is a fire that cannot be quelled.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
I’m going to list two books, as they brought out a similar response in me: Falling Awake, by Alice Oswald, and Spencer Reece’s second collection, The Road To Emmaus. Both have verse of such wakeful presence. Oswald is a poet of vision. Someone who has spent long hours walking and noticing. Flies (at the end of the season) fall awake mid-sentence… / shaking with speeches, and invite the questions, what dirt shall we visit today? / what dirt shall we re-visit?
The poems shake me awake with their unerring clarity, their blink-less turning toward impermanence and hints of something other within. Oswald views life and death with the same generous eye. I have returned to her poems as much for a reminder of how to see, how to be awake and alive, as how to write.
In Spencer Reece’s Road To Emmaus the poems are composed the way that our life rivers out, with memory ever-flowing beneath each present moment. In the title poem, the narrator (a Chaplain, as Reece is) tries to understand a complex and challenging old friendship in a kind of therapy session with a Sister. Every time we met, Sister Ann prayed first. /At times, my recollections blurred or a presumption would reverse. Memory gets caught in eddies. How do we trust what we remember of who we were? How others moved us? What shines through in this rendering of intimacies - and through these poems - is the act of being heard: Whatever the case, he listened, he listened to me. / I missed his listening. / Listening, Sister Ann said, is a memorable form of love. Spencer Reece’s poetry leans toward its own particular form of love; love of the small details: the loony Tuesday-ers going to AA meetings, two male lovers reading to each other on a green couch; the above-mentioned friend whispering to the narrator at their first group therapy meeting, I’ve grown as Fat as Elizabeth Taylor. In these poems his wryness, clarity of language and unflinching eye, reveal the little ways affection slips its way up through pain. The lines are simple, affecting and have the texture of a life well worn, like an old, beloved chair. He catches the dignity of our days - no matter our missteps or loneliness. Reading him makes me feel our frailties are, if not, holy, then glowing.
Degan Davis spent his childhood in Mattawa, Ontario, at the confluence of two rivers. He works as a Gestalt Therapist, both in a university setting and in private practice. Degan’s poetry and non-fiction have appeared in such places as The Globe and Mail, The Malahat Review, Riddle Fence, and The New Quarterly. He is currently working on a collection of essays about masculinity, femininity, and how to be a good man in this era. He lived for many years in St. John’s and now lives in Toronto. What Kind of Man Are You is his first poetry collection.