Jeffrey Davis and the disruptive power of poetry

Last month controversial German comedian Jan Boehmermann performed a poem criticising strongman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on German TV. The poem wasn’t very good but it tapped into outrage at the way President Erdogan was attempting to regulate German freedom of the press. It’s still causing controversy.

Good.

It’s the first time in ages a poem made any kind of impact on wider society. According to the US Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, only 6.7% of Americans read a poem in the last 12 months.

So why does Jeffrey Davis still write poetry? He’s an author, speaker, creative strategist and a writing and yoga teacher. Isn’t that enough? Apparently not. ‘I cannot not make art,’ Jeffrey says, and ‘In this faith-in-data and fetish-in-productivity age of which I am a part, poetry is a subtle yet radical disruptor’.

On the eve of publication of Jeffrey’s latest collection of poetry, The Coat Thief, I spoke to him about the place of poetry in our shiny happy digital age.

First defined as a poet

The Coat Thief is the outcome of thirty years of Jeffrey thinking of himself as a poet. He tells a neat story about when the power of words first really dawned on him.

‘When I was six or seven my father gave me his father’s daybook, which he’d been using as a diary. He told me I could write my thoughts down in it. It was news to me that I had thoughts, let alone any worth writing down. So one day I’m sitting on the curb outside my house with the daybook and a pencil, writing, and along comes my sister’s fourteen-year-old friend Theresa Stubblefield. I had a major crush on her. She says “Tell me what to write and I’ll put it in your book.” I say “When Theresa Stubblefield is eighteen she will freeze herself. When I am eighteen she will unfreeze.”’

Ever since then Jeffrey has written ‘poetry about love, grounded in the everyday that finds music in the monotony of life’.

The Coat Thief

I asked Jeffrey to describe The Coat Thief. ‘This collection is not in a singular voice. I’ve given way to my many voices, connecting with Keats’s idea that a poet has no identity. It’s a way of being in this world, of finding empathy. I wanted these poems to be accessible, plainspoken.’

What triggers the poems? ‘Sometimes one originates from a nucleus of feelings. Other times, they’re triggered by lived experience. The third trigger is art. For instance, my long poem The Source is a meditation on Rothko’s painting of the same name.’

Jeffrey’s poems have a quality of stillness about them that I appreciate. They’re clearly the product of many years of exploration, clear-eyed reporting and hard work. It takes me a very long time to respond to good poetry – as it should, perhaps – but I particularly like The Mad Man’s Grocery List and the image of the ‘Yolk-haired boy bounded by common sense’. Other poems have a feel of Gary Snyder about them. When I mentioned this, Jeffrey took it as a great compliment.

Kittens with visions

Despite Jeffrey’s years of dedication to his muse, he’s making poetry in the age of the Internet, when social media is clogged with asinine verse of the ‘kitten with visions’ variety. So, what does he think of what’s been called the ‘cult of the amateur’?

‘I do agree that there’s been a diminishment of the appreciation of craft and everything has been reduced to expression. But I’d much rather people found their voices than they were muted. I’ve worked with so many people whose voices have been stifled and stymied. Most of all, though, I think the way poetry takes rational discursive language and sometimes twists it can powerfully disrupt our habitual way of feeling and listening, even in this digital age. And, as the example of Jan Boehmermann proves, poetry can still be radical and dangerous. For myself, if people find just one poem that stays with them, that’s enough.’

Business as unusual

Despite poetry often being seen as rarified or obscure, many poets have been in business. And they’ve not just been copywriters like Salman Rushdie – who came up with ‘Go to work on an egg’ (although it may have actually been author Fay Weldon). American poet Wallace Stevens spent most of his life working for an insurance company. TS Eliot was in in the foreign transactions department at Lloyds.

For Jeffrey, ‘thirty years of thinking as a poet gives me a distinctive edge in branding, helping me figure out how I can turn a beautiful phrase. Poetry helps me find the space between sense and nonsense where wonder lies.’

I agree.

Disrupt Monday 23rd with Jeffrey

To celebrate the launch of The Coat Thief, Jeffrey’s inviting all of us, ‘poetry lovers and poetry scoffers’ to take part in what he’s calling a ‘ripple of disruption’. Jeffrey would like us to stop work, slow down and read, write or recite poetry for fifteen minutes at 10 AM Eastern Time (that’s 4 PM CET) on Monday 23rd May.

I think it’s a great idea. Find out how to join the #DisruptMonday movement now .

How to buy The Coat Thief

You can either order The Coat Thief from your nearest fine book emporium or online at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Indiebound

Golden Notebook