Steve Davenport, Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, dealt with aging, anger and the Midwest at a Caxton Club poetry reading held Friday, Nov. 9.
Before Davenport read an excerpt from his book “Overpass,” he explained the motivation for his project.
“A good friend of mine had developed stage-four breast cancer and couldn’t say certain things out in public. She couldn’t say things she wanted to say about cancer because everybody would swoop in to hug her or to tell her anger wasn’t useful,” Davenport said.
Despite his desire to move away from formalist poetic structures, he saw “Overpass” as a way to combine curtailed sonnets with “badass content.”
“But she was angry and I said, ‘You know what, I can do that, so I began writing the poems in ‘Overpass,’’” Davenport said.
Davenport said that upon finishing “Overpass” he vowed to write poems that were not “formally contained.”
“I’m trying hard not to be a formalist,” he said.
Davenport is 59 now, and as he has aged, more and more of his poetry has come to discuss the breakdown of his and his friends’ bodies.
“The kind of content that makes some people look the other way because you can’t write about cancer, testicular cancer and breast cancer without real anger,” Davenport said.
Davenport, self-described as an even-keeled person, also made light of his recent ailments.
“I have to say for a writer, if you can have a stroke, a light one, and survive it and all the psychological damage that comes with it, it’s cool because you get to have a cerebral angiogram,” Davenport said.
However, he also pointed to the difference between writing about or for angry people and writing while angry.
“The act of crafting anything, especially a poem, you can’t be angry when you do that or you’ll write a poem that is screaming and shouting and sort of formless. It carries energy that won’t last for very long, it’ll be temporal, dissipate within one or two readings,” Davenport said. “If you want to write something that will last you have to work craft in and you do that with a calm mind. I try to do it by carrying language into the poem that is visceral.”
Another one of Davenport’s main topics was the Midwest.
“He is probably the most Midwestern poet I’ve ever seen,” sophomore Victoria Baldwin said.
“When you get landscape and whiskey and have a really visceral way of talking about the things you want to talk about, that’s a Midwestern poet to me,” she said.
Just to be sure, Davenport confirmed that his preferred spirit was “cheap bourbon.”
Recognizing the importance of the Midwest in his literature was a late-in-life development for Davenport.
“At 40 I finally was able to look down at the ground beneath my feet. When I was a young man I was too busy looking chaotically in all directions, looking at women and chasing my hormones,” he said.
He was impressed with the audience of approximately 20 students and faculty who attended the event.
“I’ve only been here a day. It’s been quick and furious,” Davenport said. “I will say this is probably the most enjoyable poetry reading I’ve ever done. Very responsive audience. I watch a lot of these at the U of I and sometimes undergraduates don’t have anything to ask, but there were real and good questions here.”