Lyric Essentials: Jessie Janeshek Reads Olena Kalytiak Davis

Welcome to the next episode of Lyric Essentials, where we’re excited to talk with poet Jessie Janeshek about the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis. Janeshek shares how she relates to Davis’ poetry, tells us about the time she heard Davis read at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and speaks about the ways in which Davis’ poetry has influenced her own. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to share with us?

Jessie Janeshek: “The Outline I Inhabit” is one of my favorite poems, so that one was a given, and I was just happy to share it. I also wanted to include something representative of Davis’ more overtly experimental work (which is more what I’m discussing in the rest of these questions), so I went with “small quilled poem with no taste for spring.”

Jessie Janeshek reads “small quilled poem with no taste for spring” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

RS: What do you admire about Davis’ work?

JJ: I admire—and also relate to—Davis’ ability to fuse the experimental and the traditional. Although my work has often been described as “experimental” (whatever that’s meaning these days), my training in poetry is pretty traditional. I was a literature major as an undergraduate and, though I wrote on my own, I didn’t take a creative writing workshop until I started my MFA. I knew I had much to read and learn before I threw my hat in the ring. I still have much to read and learn now.

Knowing and understanding traditions of poetry strengthens your own work—even if you aren’t using those traditions explicitly in your work—and makes you a more informed, appreciative reader of others’ poetry, past and present.

Davis, however, does use traditions of poetry explicitly, and her engagements with them are fascinating and rewarding. It gives me pleasure to be challenged as a reader and to consume contemporary work that revisits and reappropriates literary pasts. Davis pushes poetic traditions (forms, tropes, themes, etc.) in ways that feel current, feminist, and also authentic to her voice and aesthetic. Her work is strikingly intelligent without being pompous, fresh yet aware of its history, funny, and true.

RS: How did your relationship with Davis’ work begin?

I was recommended Davis’ first book, And Her Soul out of Nothing, by someone at Emerson College during my MFA studies. (I’m pretty sure it was one of my teachers, Peter Jay Shippy, who recommended her work to me, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.) So I bought her book and read it and ended up really liking it. I then bought her second collection, shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back handed importunities, which had come out pretty recently at that point. I continued reading her work throughout my graduate studies and included her with writers I used to contextualize my own poetry in the critical introduction to my creative dissertation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

In summer 2014, my boyfriend and I were visiting Paris, and he pointed out that a few poets were reading at Shakespeare and Company that night. I started freaking out because it was Davis and another one of my favorite poets, Charles Simic. We attended, of course, and it was awesome to see them, especially because it had been a lucky surprise. A day or two later, we were at the Palais de Tokyo art museum, and we saw Davis and, I think, her daughter. I was scared to go up to talk to her, so I didn’t. I’m still mentally kicking myself for that one because I was really stupid. My loss.

Jessie Janeshek reads “The Outline I Inhabit” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

RS: What are some of your favorite words or lines from these poems?

JJ: I’ve been repeating the last six lines of “The Outline I Inhabit” to myself since about 2004. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I have taken a lot of dreary solitary walks, and I can easily imagine the speaker on this cold, dark, road, feeling kind of beat-up, their brain humming “just like an old refrigerator.” I think the iambic pentameter of the Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway line also helps with that:

Walking down Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

I’m not thinking about composition.
I’m not delineating anything.

Walking down Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

I’m feeling terrifically heavy.
I’m feeling as well grounded as the dead. (Davis, And Her Soul Out of Nothing)

I didn’t record this poem because it seemed like it would be a bit long, but I love the end of “this is the kind of poem I’m done writing, or, a small pang in spring”:

turns out, I am the cock of the rock. gallinaceous and pugnacious and
(pang): I guess,
a little disappointed.

like beckett in spring, ping,
like beckett in spring. (Davis, shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back Handed importunities)

Throughout her second collection, Davis engages with spring (in the sense of “spring” as it has been created by the tradition of lyric—and particularly pastoral—poetry: the season of young love and frisky shepherds, hope, rebirth, innocence, simplicity, and/or etc.). These lines stick with me because the idea of Samuel Beckett (at least as he is known through his writing) having hope in spring and being let down is both absurdly funny and also kind of sad, like Beckett’s work and a lot of Davis’s work. The sounds (“spring,” “ping,” “pang”) are great, too. I actually used “like beckett in spring. ping” to caption a facebook photo of me unsmiling but wearing hot pink marshmallow Peep bunny ears, which seemed to me a fair visual interpretation of the line.

RS: Has Davis influenced your own work? If so, how?

JJ: Yes, I think so. She’s definitely one of the writers who has taught me that it’s okay to write “difficult” poetry if that’s what you feel called to do, even if such “difficult” work isn’t in vogue. I keep putting “difficult” in scare quotes because, well, difficulty in literature seems to scare people away sometimes. Maybe I’ve just been reading poetry with my college students for too long, but I find that people sometimes get turned off when they don’t know exactly what’s happening in a text right away. I’m kind of the opposite. If I can figure out what’s going on in a poem (or a song or a movie or a TV show) immediately, I usually don’t have much desire to stick with it because what’s the point?

Tangentially, Davis has also influenced me in the sense that both of our projects depend on pre-existing traditions/a pre-existing body of knowledge. My work is nostalgic (and when I say that, I mean both the pleasure and pain of nostalgia), exploring both cultural and personal nostalgia. The cultural nostalgia I frequently engage with and reappropriate is that of the “golden age” of Hollywood and its shadow side, film noir. I would imagine my poems are “better” if you know something about that stuff when first entering them; however, I hope they’re also inviting, challenging, and enjoyable if you don’t know much about the conventions, people, histories, and politics of that era. I strive to write poems that will be exciting whether or not you know much about where they’re coming from, but I also hope—as I hope is the case with Davis’s work—a reader with questions will take the chance to research some of what’s being talked about in the work, using the work as an excuse to learn more about something new.

Olena Kalytiak Davis is a Ukrainian-American poet and the author of four collections of poetry: And Her Soul Out of Nothing (1997); shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back handed importunities (2003); On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed (2009); and The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems (2014). She’s won a Pushcart Prize and several fellowships for her work, along with the Brittingham Prize in Poetry.

Further reading:

Purchase And Her Soul Out of Nothing from the University of Wisconsin Press
Read this New Yorker review of The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems
Listen to a conversation with Davis from the podcast series Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (And Other People)

Jessie Janeshek‘s three full-length collections are MADCAP (Stalking Horse Press, 2019), The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), and Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010). Her chapbooks include Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), Hardscape (Reality Beach, forthcoming), and Channel U (Grey Book Press, forthcoming).

Further reading:

Visit Janeshek’s website
Purchase Janeshek’s latest collection of poetry, MADCAP, from Stalking Horse Press
Read Jessie’s review of the work of an earlier Lyric Essentials poet, Nate Logan

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.