Hamilton Matthew Masters
Geffrey Davis

Geffrey Davis, an Arkansas poet whose work grapples with fatherhood, fishing and the safety of Black lives in America, was awarded in September the Porter Prize, presented annually to an Arkansas-connected writer. Davis teaches at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, is poetry editor for the Iron Horse Literary Review and is the author of two full-length poetry collections. We corresponded with Davis over email about his latest, “Night Angler,” a 96-page wonder that manages to make a poem about evasive trout feel as if it belongs next to an elegiac verse for Tamir Rice or, as in “Pillow Kombat with the Ultimate Sleep Fighter,” alongside a meditation on Davis’ life as a new parent. 

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There’s a lot of music to the poetry in “Night Angler,” of course, the lyrical kind and the rhythmical kind. But there’s also literal, actual music in a few of the poems: your son’s first word as a “human note.” There are references to harmony and grace notes and minor keys and the memory of bass thumping from a “burgundy hooptie” you and your friends drove around in as teenagers, which gets linked to the more recent memory of the murder of Jordan Davis in a gas station parking lot in Florida. It made me wonder what your relationship is to music. Do you, as the poem “The Fidelity of Music” suggests, play guitar? 

Yes, I do play guitar. In fact I started playing (self-taught) around the same time I started seriously writing poems — so, nearly 20 years ago, off and on — but, beyond some oh-so-rare jam sessions with musician friends, that sound-making has stayed very private.

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There’s also, of course, the musical through-line of the tune “You Are My Sunshine,” which appears in the book across a wide spectrum of tones and situations. Why this song, and what about it made you think it would be right for weaving through this book?

“You Are My Sunshine” is one of the only songs I can remember my mother singing — as a lullaby of sorts, but sometimes more casually — and from a young age, it resonated and stayed with me. I think it might have something to do with its emotional shading, both direct and complex: a double admission of joy and sorrow (“you make me happy when skies are gray”), a bluesy proof of love (“you’ll never know, dear, how much I love you”), a sensitivity to presence and absence (“please, don’t take your sunshine away”), all layering and loading the prayer/praise/problem of (I almost wrote “the poem”) the song’s core: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” I think that’s some of why the song’s dynamic seemed to stay available and audible during the writing and revising of my book.

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One of the more remarkable things you’re able to do in this collection is to find ways to talk about water and waterways that feel new, even though water and rivers are among the oldest and most reliable of metaphors for poets to tap into. How do you manage to skirt cliche in your own work? And how do you teach your students at the UA to find new grooves on poetic turf that is already so well-traveled?

It was other writers who first demonstrated ways into new resonance over that old ground, perhaps starting with Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” (which has some real yucky moments, as well as some real singing). I often tell beginning writers (like I must still tell myself) to mark how you feel when a writer moves you (where at in your body do you feel moved), and to claim that resonance and your part in being available to it; and then, as a writer, risk trying to do that to yourself — make yourself available to the changing of your own mind/heart.

Excerpts from Geffrey Davis’ “Night Angler,” courtesy of BOA Editions, Ltd. follow.  

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The Night Angler 

—for J 

     A headlamp guides me through October 
cornfields, along the slender crossties 
     of bridges bulky in waders, I sidestep 
thick brier, patches of poison ivy, 
     all the way to the river’s edge, where I kill 
the lamp, and soon the moon’s blue albedo is 
     enough to enter water with dream- 
fish prowling the currents. I begin casting 
     toward the far, cloaked bank: all ear, 
all fixed on the grim swish of my streamer 
     threshing back and forth—a mad bat parting 
night air. In time I will lead my own boy 
     into the precision of this contraction 
inside the throat this animal alarum in the dark. 
     When my first cast conjures nothing— 
no monster trout panicking the line— 
     I slide further into the river’s cold, send more 
barbed asking through deep shadow. I labor long 
     to lure a sudden swallow—: the wilderness of hunger 
pulsing on the other end of these hands.

***

Pillow Kombat with the Ultimate Sleep Fighter 

Those who say they “sleep like a baby” 
haven’t got one.  —found fortune cookie proverb 

Like in a video game, size does nothing 
to decide advantage:—my demure son 
throws his demure weight around our family bed 
with resolve, and so I revolve inside discomfort’s 
orbit, the planet of my sleepiness demoted, 
dwarfed—unstudied! Just as I reach my parental 

threshold of self-denial, just as I go to reinstate 
the matter of physics—energy and force—he executes 
his special move: a combo of lovey words struck 
half-consciously across the dark, launching me 
into another vain-cycle search for deep space 
shut-eye. Then his favorite toy sheep tucked between
 
my folded arms (FINISH HIM!). Then the fresh delicacy 
of his foot plopped upon my forehead (FATALITY).

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Self-Portrait as a Dead Black Boy 

at thirteen for a whole dark season 
I was lethal with my pellet gun murdering 
minor things that wandered into yard stalking 
the thin woods between our house & the highway— 
I picked off any bird squirrel rabbit snake 
I could track if I had two surprised seconds 

to explain the meaning of my hands my instincts 
would have been to show you the weapon 
to turn hoping you could see gentleness 
poised behind the risk—: so when Tamir Rice 
was shot X times: the toy pistol he carried 
couldn’t have killed anything big or small 
even if he’d tried:— but of course 
as the story goes that math’s all wrong 

the law among my friends growing up: 
whoever’s car had the best sound—assuming 
they wasn’t in trouble with they mamma—drove 
we rode the wheels off of TT’s grandma’s 
burgundy hooptie because of how 
the bass from its speakers trembled the tips 
of our hair & slapped our young bodies alive 
with a beat—: so when Jordan Davis 
was shot X times: his legs & lungs 
& aorta pierced—a citizen who hated 
the rattle that black folks can make when 
they make it out the house:— all around 
America’s trespass music fell even now 
a different mood than mine hits my ears like rain

III. 

I made it to twenty-eight without owning 
a gun & then my son burst onto the scene 
with thousands of miles between me & my 
tribe—so I learned it took just hours to return 
loaded & licensed to conceal a new danger 
however as soon as I felt that dark 

weight tucked against my torso I realized 
the mistake—how few & unsafe the scenarios 
with me pointing this threat at another 
threat to survive—: so now on my knees 
I’m preparing my heart to receive the next shots 
until a new divinity forbids one more black body 

be burned down according to an imagination that feeds 
its godliness with fear as seen through smoke 

in my thirties now I buy sneakers that don’t 
slip off my feet & feel older for the fit 
on the way home from getting new pairs 
we stop at a local farmer’s market & 
before exiting the vehicle my boy & I change 
into our fresh kicks to feel godly while walking 

aisles of shining produce & hand-crafted candles—: 
so when Philando Castile was shot X times: 
a bullet searing through each year 
of his little girl’s life in the back seat I can’t 
see his shoes in the documentary of this dying 
but his body slides in & out of his safety 

belt as cop keeps weapon trained:—a dark 
star stopping the open question of his window

sometimes a sleeplessness 
blesses you: in our shared family bed 
I lie awake & hear the steady 
sonata of my wife & son’s unconscious 
breath turning our room into 
this shore with a mid-night tidal 

music I wouldn’t want to live 
without—: so when 
Eric Garner was denied 
air for X seconds: the song 
& kin of his lungs flattened 
above the city’s dirty sidewalk 

:—let us pray 

on occasion I weep 
while watching the living 

brown X of my hand move 
across the page: swift & 

controlled & sometimes remaining 
perfectly still—: so I’ve written 

this poem out in longhand 
in the best cursive I can manage 

under light that bends into something 
soft enough to call healthy 

none of which can keep me 
alive no matter the grace