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Interview with Poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Author of a more perfect Union

I am excited to share with you my interview with local poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, author of the poetry collection a more perfect Union and Poetry Coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

About the collection:

In the tender, sensual, and bracing poems of a more perfect Union, Teri Ellen Cross Davis reclaims the experience of living and mothering while Black in contemporary America, centering Black women’s pleasure by wresting it away from the relentless commodification of the White gaze. Cross Davis deploys stunning emotional range to uplift the mundane, interrogate the status quo, and ultimately create her own goddesses. Parenting, lust, household chores—all are fair game for Cross Davis’s gimlet eye. Whether honoring her grief for Prince’s passing while examining his role in midwifing her sexual awakening or contemplating travel and the gamble of being Black across this wide world, these poems tirelessly seek a path out of the labyrinth to hope.

Stay tuned for some video readings and more upcoming events with Teri (virtual and in person).

Please give Teri a warm welcome:

Savvy Verse & Wit: What is your earliest memory of poetry? Was it read to you? Did you write it? Did someone gift you a book of poems?

Teri Ellen Cross Davis: My earliest memory of poetry is less memory and more fact. My mother taught me to read to Nikki Giovanni’s work. She would read it to me – I was four. I remember the hard cover, tan and coarse, not the paper jacket, she’d taken that off and stashed it away somewhere probably like I do now with my children.

SVW: Can you recall the first poem you wrote and what it was about?

TCD: My first poem was in third grade. I was eight and it was about a squirrel. I sat in my living room and watched the squirrel from the safety of my house. The squirrel was running around the base of a wide oak tree in our backyard, right at the perimeter of a fence that separated our yard from the neighbor behind us. What I love about thinking about this is that my family just gave me that quiet time to sit there and watch that squirrel– no one demanded anything of me, I was just allowed that time and I discovered a poem.

SVW: Did you mimic someone else’s style? And how have you evolved in your poetic skills since then? Speak a little bit about your writing journey.

TCD: My writing journey is a long one. My mother gave me Maya Angelou I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings at 12 at the same time she gave me Carlos Castaneda The Teachings Of Don Juan. Both blew my mind. I also came across my mother’s college poetry books, so Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets and an Oxford Edition of Modern Verse, which led me to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost.

In high school, my English teacher gave me Ntozake Shange’s For the Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf and by then I had also started a poetry club inspired by my love of Edna Saint Vincent Millay. I continued reading poetry on my own and by college I felt confident/bold/reckless enough to read my poems aloud to an audience.

But it was at Cave Canem in 1999, which was also the first year I had a poem accepted for publication, that I truly laid claim to being a poet. And I will say that running a poetry series for 16 years has definitely had an effect on my voice and ability. I have brought in so many poets who range in terms of their style and to see that this variety exists lets me know that I have a place somewhere within this whole cannon.

SVW: As the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library, what’s your role and how does that work fit into the poetic culture of the D.C. region?

TCD: I select the poets and themes for the reading and themes for the overall seasons. I write up most of the material for marketing and remain the primary contact for the poets. I love using themes and collaborating with different organizations as I see these actions as ways for me to open up poetry and poets to a new audience.

In terms of how it fits within the poetic culture of the D.C. region, we occupy a national profile but on a local level. I try to involve local poets in introducing and moderating conversations with the poets but I also involve local poets as readers too. Taylor Johnson and Michael Collier are examples from this past season and I often rely on local poets for “Not Just Another Day Off” the Martin Luther King programming that I do at the Folger. And the series has history! I am coordinating the 53 rd continual season and am excited to continue adding the Folger’s tradition of bringing emerging and established poets to the actual or virtual stage.

SVW: In your new collection, a more perfect Union, music (especially Prince) plays a large role in your poems, why was it important for you to include Prince and others in your collection, exalting them like gods and goddesses?

TCD: Mainly because the influence of Prince on my work and in my life is like that of a God. His voice is in my head, his lyrics are the ones that I’ve committed to memory, and his music- it just makes my body move and touches my spirit. I think music is an incredible way to communicate to others, whether it’s about social issues, breakups, falling in love, having a child, like poetry, music just occupies this aural space and I want to honor that. I honestly listen to music every day. I like to think that somewhere inside me lurks a singer/songwriter!

Teri Ellen Cross Davis reads The Goddess of Cleaning:

SVW: Why is it important for poets to explore the new and old gods and goddesses? Your poems are infused with pop culture and the old world. How does this blending help readers see that the “more perfect union” is possible?

TCD: I’ve often chafed at the idea of fitting into any one category. I recognize that who I am is a layering of the old and the new, the high and the low, the avant guard and the mainstream and there’s nothing wrong with that. I try not to hold anyone element of that in higher esteem than the other.

I love letting my diction soar like a kid on the swings who then jumps off and hits the dirt. It’s so much fun to mix it all up and I think once we can let go of these ideas that we have to remain rigidly fixed into any one category and that we can’t respect the others, once we let that go, we can become fully realized people who can honor, respect, and acknowledge all of it. I loved my time with my great aunts and my grandparents and I loved my time in college hanging out and going to Freaknik.

I can be both of those people. Why can’t we all see the beauty in the old world- recognize the traditions and knowledge in those old gods- but also take in with fresh eyes and open hearts the new gods as they pop up? In such openness we stay fresh, we stay absorbent, and we continue to learn.

SVW: The book cover is as sensual as the poems inside. Is this collection a love letter and to whom?

TCD: Thank you for that! In many ways this collection is a love letter to the idea of America; an America that we haven’t seen rise to its full potential in terms of equality and freedom for everyone.

But it’s also a love letter to the American citizen, to the human being, who sees something greater in this country and knows how deeply it is flawed in its failings to live up to the ideals it presents to the rest of the world.

I just want to tell people “I see you and I feel the same way you do”- the frustration, the rage, the sadness, the disappointment and that perhaps together we can enact the change that we want to see and not wait on others to do it but at the same time I recognize that there are those in power who need to understand that so many of us have a righteous rage regarding this country and it needs to be acknowledged and we need to be heard. So this book is my barbaric yawp.

Thank you, Teri, for your candid answers, and I cannot wait to hear you read live in person.

Here’s a treat for my readers, a YouTube readings, and a list of upcoming readings on her schedule:

Poets in conversation feature on Politics and Prose Live! With Teri Ellen Cross Davis and Sandra Beasley:

About the Poet:

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union, 2019 winner of The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize and Haint  winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She’s a Cave Canem fellow, member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective, and lives in Maryland.

If you are in the areas or online, check out her upcoming events:

Comments

  1. Great interview! Sounds like a fantastic collection.

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