Updated: Sep 15, 2021
Interview With Arlice W. Davenport
by Linzi Garcia, publicist for Meadowlark Books, September, 2020
Tell me about yourself. I will give you one long declarative sentence. I am a philosopher, a poet, a husband, a follower of mere Christianity, as C. S. Lewis so beautifully describes it, a traveler, a pilgrim, a seer, a friend, and a newspaperman who edits everything he sees -- to his dismay. Although each of these descriptions could be unpacked at length, I will simply say that I am also a synthesizer, pulling together the disparate sides of my personality into an integral whole. Or at least that is my goal. When I was much younger, I wrote in my journal, “One must live religiously or poetically. Otherwise your life is wasted.” Those sentences need to be unpacked, of course, but I will simply quote Yeats’ often used, inspirational excerpt: After the final no / there comes a yes, / and on that yes the / future world depends. I try to live for that yes.
What has your writing journey looked like? I started writing when I was very young, at first doing mostly classroom assignments. Then my parents bought me a typewriter. I hit that shift key and never looked back. I remember one incident as an adolescent in which I appointed myself the chronicler of the fantasy baseball league my neighbor and I played (mostly when we were bored because we couldn’t play the real thing outside). I would type up game stories and play-by-play descriptions, run it over to him to wait with great anticipation for him to read it. He looked at the first page and said he was bored. “I don’t want to read this,” he added. “I want to play!” I ignored him and kept writing. Ironically, my first job at The Wichita Eagle newspaper was in the sports department, where I did learn, over a lifetime in many departments at the paper, including sports, to write and write well. As for my poetic journey, it is told, albeit briefly, at the end of Setting the Waves on Fire. I always relate the same story of being inspired by E. E. Cummings at 17, and launching my poetic career in high school, which has continued to today. Fittingly, I have an homage to Cummings in my new book.
Why a poetry book now? Anytime is a good time for poetry. But I’m publishing my first book now because, as in an old-time cop-show murder, I had opportunity, means and motive. And also accomplices: Tracy Million Simmons, publisher of Meadowlark Books, and Robert L. Dean, Jr., an excellent poet friend, who got the ball rolling with Tracy. (Are my metaphors holding up here?) In truth, with the help of both of them, I was able to realize my long-standing dream. And when that happens, it’s time to celebrate.
What was the curating, editing, and publishing process like for this book? Bob Dean encouraged me to put together a manuscript, which he then edited. He sent it back, and as a longtime newspaper editor, I did the detailed copy-editing, proofing, copy-editing, proofing ad nauseam. (Ask Tracy [Publisher of Meadowlark Books]). When I thought the manuscript was at last ready, I sent it to Tracy on Bob’s suggestion, and for some mysterious reason, she said yes. I had been waiting for that yes: yet another day to celebrate.
Tell me about the organization of the sections and the poems within. I wanted the book to emphasize spirit and transcendence, which you can wrap up in one word, “Being.” I divided the book into four fairly equal sections to build from spirit, world and poetry to a crescendo in Being. Adding poetry to the mix is self-evident, and world matters because of the nature of poetry (which I will get to) and because of my wife’s and my many travels around this lovely, but deeply threatened globe.
What has Laura added to your life poetically? My wife is my Muse of Beauty. We have known each other since we were 7, and she looks as young now as she did the day we married 40 years ago. She has inward, radiant beauty that constantly reminds me that beauty has to be at the heart of poetry. Poetry is language chasing beauty. (I’ll explain that later, I hope.) Poetry begins in wonder of our experience, which happens to us; we do not control it. And poetry shows that all experience is symbolic, or better, re-presentational. It re-presents the world behind the world, which is beauty first, and the other foundational Platonic virtues: Goodness and Truth. Keats had it right with his “beauty is truth / truth beauty” formulation. Here he is: “Beauty is truth–truth beauty–that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Laura is my beacon of beauty and the eternal subject of all my love poems.
Why did you choose the Rilke quotations that you did? Why only Rilke? I used the specific quotes from Rainer Maria] Rilke because they best supported my divisions of the book. Why Rilke? Because I would say that he is the best, only and most visionary poet to give voice to my own poetic aspirations. The opening of the first Duino Elegy tells the whole story: Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? / and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: / I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence. / For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. / Every angel is terrifying. Translation by Stephen Mitchell.) Nobody can top that.
Many authors, including Mary Oliver and William Blake, and other artists, such as Michelangelo and Van Gogh, are acknowledged and paid homage to. How have these creators individually and/or collectively impacted your life? Why do you feel it’s important to recognize them in your art? I can answer that in a short sentence (to your relief!): They are all maestro or maestra of their art. They are all visionaries (although Oliver’s vision is less fiery; it doesn’t aim to bring down the hammer; it aims to open our eyes to the depth, breadth and, again, beauty of what is before us in the natural world). That type of mastery of one’s calling is something that I greatly admire and aspire to.
How has poetry helped you work through philosophical inquiries? How has it complicated them? Now this requires a long, philosophical answer, which I will spare you. So let me say this: Both philosophy and poetry begin in wonder, philosophy in the wonder of Being, that there is anything at all, that the world exists and continues to exist when it is utterly contingent; poetry emerges in the wonder of experience, which happens to us, which is spontaneous and continuous and cannot not happen to us. Both paths ultimately lead to the primal presence of Being. Philosophy reaches it through contemplation and rational articulation; poetry does it through the symbolism of language. Poems use language to re-present the presence of Being, to show that our experience is symbolic; it stands for something more than itself. It is the nature of pure presence in experience that it is best re-presented or symbolized in song/verse/poem. Heidegger explored the ontological link between philosophy and poetry. They are almost interchangeable. But that’s probably enough philosophy for today. My aim in poetry is to bring ideas and images of our experience together in the poem, then let them do their own individual magic.
Are there any poems in this book that you’re particularly drawn to or proud of ? There are many; each has a story, an emotional resonance, a sense of triumph. But if I had to pick one, it would be “Losing Your Way,” which is inspired by the great modern Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. This is how it ends: Tomorrow, if you meet yourself, / burdensome and strange, / you will have lost / your one chance for glory. // You will have lost / your way in a dark wood. / You will have lost / the mothering protection of the sea, // whose gentle tides are forever / taken away, never to return the same. Even though it is my work, it still strikes me as simple, beautiful and profound.
How has your travel impacted your perspective, poetic content, and writing style? Travel is the great counterpart to poetry; it opens up the field of our experience to the “always-more” of the world, not in quantity but in quality. Travel strips us of our presuppositions, our pretenses, our cultural safety nets, and exposes us to the “always-new” of a different country. World travel is one of the most expansive means of broadening your mind, deepening your spirit, delighting your senses, and laying down a new direction for your life. Rilke said in “The Panther,” “You must change your life.” Travel can do that, if it is done right, which means if you work at it. Like poetry, travel is ecstatic; it pulls you out of yourself toward new horizons. Those horizons can stretch on and on for a lifetime. The paradox of the ecstatic is that in taking us out or ourselves, it reveals ourselves. Without your ingrained cultural defenses in a new country, you quickly discover who you are and whether you are a true traveler. Travel is like poetry and like pilgrimage. They move you (sometimes literally) into a new understanding/dimension of yourself.
Describe what it means to have the heart of a poet. To have the heart of a poet is to be open to the depth and breadth of experience, which again comes to us. That experience -- for the poetic heart -- shows forth, manifests another, deeper experience, which calls out to be re-presented in language, in imagery, metaphor, form. Thus the heart of the poet extracts the heart of experience and expresses it anew in a different mode: poetic language. That type of heart can never be too big, too sensitive, too full.
What was your response to the praise you received for this collection? That is easy. Even when I think I have done well, I am always humbled by praise. I ask, “Did I really accomplish that? Do I deserve this recognition? Is the poet being praised only a persona? Is he really me?” Whatever the answers, I am always pleased to hear that others enjoy my poems; that they spend time with them, find something meaningful in them; that they might develop the habit of reading poems regularly. Poetry is like a good virus that is passed on through practice and praise. If you don’t like that simile, please don’t shoot the messenger.
What is your relationship to those who provided praise? I have known Roy Beckemeyer and Bob Dean since joining the Kansas Authors Club, District 5, in 2018. I have known April almost the same amount of time, when she published my poems on River City Poetry in the fall of 2018. I admire all of them for their innovative, invaluable contributions to local poetry. They cast Wichita in a good light nationally. We can’t live poetically here without them -- and many others.
Tell me the story of this cover image. This photo by Rob Greebon of Texas is fantastic. I wrote the title poem of the book on a trip to Italy and the Cinque Terre, which is a region of five villages (or worlds, literally) on the Mediterranean coast. After settling on my book title, I started searching for images that would correspond to it. I saw some dramatic ones of Riomaggiore that were horizontal and therefore unsuitable for a book cover. Then I found Rob’s photo, and I knew immediately that I had to have it. The perspective, the colors (all Cinque Terre villages are like that), the gorgeous evening light, the inrushing of the sea in the bottom third of the image, the matching blues of sky and water -- all this just shouted, “Excellence!” So I contacted Rob; he graciously worked out a deal with me; and the rest, as we say, is beautiful history. Also, my friend Ron Muhlenbruch designed the book cover, which I think is also brilliant. I could analyze why it is so effective, but I think the immediate impact of just seeing it for the first time is better for the reader.
What are you most looking forward to about this book release? I want readers to find joy, aesthetic pleasure, and wonder in my book. Of course, those books need to be sold. If that happens, then I will be very pleased.
Do you have any plans for book events after the major release? I am not the most socially outgoing person, but I am open to all ideas about how to promote my book. I suppose giving virtual readings would be the easiest approach. So, someone please contact me about such an opportunity.
In addition to the Meadowlark website and social media pages, how can people stay connected with what you’re up to and/or contact you? Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website, www.inpraiseofpoetry.com.
Nothing more about me. But I would love to talk about my book or about poetry in general with anyone who is interested in it. Again, just email me to get started.