I met Jon when I inquired about the low-rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Five days later, he had me admitted. During the program he wasn’t just the director, he was a mentor and friend to every student. When I had a serious medical issue that prevented my attendance one semester, he created a remote program that allowed me to complete my requirements and graduate with my cohort.
Jon, I can never thank you enough for your compassion and friendship. Yôotva – Thank You, George
My name is Jon Davis. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up in the nearby town of Orange. After graduating high school, I worked for eight years, primarily as a mason and a warehouse manager, before attending the University of Bridgeport. I went on to earn my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. I taught for 30 years, 28 of them at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 2013, I founded the IAIA low residency MFA in Creative Writing, which I directed until my retirement in 2018. From 2012-2014, I served as the City of Santa Fe’s fourth Poet Laureate. I have published seven books of poetry, one book of poetry in translation, and six chapbooks of poetry.
My new book of poetry, Above the Bejeweled City, will be available from Grid Books on September 15. Here’s the official book description:
In his seventh poetry collection, Jon Davis exhibits the range and mastery that is the result of fifty years of study, teaching, and practice. Above the Bejeweled City opens and closes with homages to Federico Garcia Lorca’s dream-struck ballad “Romance Sonámbulo.” In between, he inhabits what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the “inexplicable existence” that marks our passage here on Earth.
Part absurdist, part satirist, part tender correspondent, Davis writes in the slipstream of writers like Joyce, Beckett, Parra, and Plath. In an age that calls out for hopeful verse, Above the Bejeweled City offers, instead, a treatise on defeat and despair—and on how letting go is a way of holding on.
I think of it is as the third book in a tryptich with my previous two books, Improbable Creatures and An Amiable Reception for the Acrobat. All three books were written more or less simultaneously.
Do you write in more than one genre? I write in many genres—poetry and short fiction primarily, but I’ve also written screenplays, plays, creative nonfiction, literary criticism, satire, and songs. My first published writings were record reviews, and for a while, I was the music critic for a weekly newspaper in New Haven, Connecticut. I also write poetry and perform as Chuck Calabreze, an alter-ego of sorts that I developed in the 90s.
What brought you to writing? I was always an avid reader, and, for some reason, when I was in third grade, I suddenly wrote a 23 page story, the hero of which was a young Navajo man who had stumbled across a bag of money—I think some thieves had stashed it. The story followed him as he was pursued by both the authorities and the original thieves. I didn’t know any Navajo names (I was an eight year old living in Orange, Connecticut), so I borrowed an exotic-sounding name I’d seen in the newspapers for my hero: Tse (borrowed from Mao Tse Tung!). Four years later, I began writing imitations of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. (I read both when I was 11 years old.) I’d wander the woods with a journal (I mean, the notebook actually said “Journal” on the cover!), and I’d scribble down my romanticized observations of nature. I still have one of those journals. Trust me, nobody is going to see it.
But I didn’t think of writing as something one devotes oneself to until my 7th grade English teacher talked about James Joyce and his notion of the literary “epiphany. ” I think she defined it as the writer “seeing into the heart of things.” I remember thinking, “I want to do that!” The same teacher also made me stay inside during recess when I didn’t complete my assignments on time (which was most of the time). As “punishment,” she’d make me memorize poems. I remember being given John Donne’s “No Man is an Island.” I thought it was the best punishment ever.
It took a while before I came to poetry myself, though. What finally brought me to writing poetry was a dirt bike accident when I was 18. I was riding alone on a tight dirt track I’d carved out of the woods. It was the first cold morning in November, 16 degrees. I slid hard into the berm on the first turn, but instead of sliding around the turn, the tires bounced off the frozen berm. The bike stopped dead and fell on my calf muscle. I pulled the bike upright, got back on, and rode home. I figured I’d torn my calf muscle (two weeks later, I went to the doctor, and he confirmed my diagnosis), so I hopped up the stairs, sat at my desk, thought, What am I going to do now?—and started writing poems.
I taught myself by reading the generation ahead of mine, so Richard Hugo, Norman Dubie, and others were my teachers at first. In 1977, I wrote a letter and sent some poems to a poet named Dick Allen, whose book I’d found in the mall book store and who taught nearby, at the University of Bridgeport. Dick loved what I’d sent him and invited me to take any course I wanted. The one that fit into my schedule was a 300 level creative writing class. At the first full class, four of my poems appeared at the end of the mimeographed handout. After he’d led lively discussions of the other work on the handout, my poems came up for discussion. Nobody raised a hand, nobody spoke. Dick let the silence continue. He passed the time fiddling with his glasses, poking through papers in his briefcase. Meanwhile, I was thinking, I’m in the wrong class, I need to give up this crazy idea of writing poems, etc. Finally, he stood up and addressed the dumbfounded class. “These poems,” he said, “are instantly publishable in any journal in America.” He went on to tell the class what he knew about me—I was a construction worker, I’d taught myself to write these poems—and the various virtues he saw in my poems, then class ended. I talked to him briefly after class, then drove the twenty minutes home in my battered 68 Buick, sobbing all the way.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write wherever I am and write longhand, on a computer, or on my iPhone. Sometimes I record on my iPhone. When I’m writing as Chuck Calabreze, I shout and growl lines and either record them or scribble them down immediately after growling them. I often drive with a notebook beside me and scribble poems (mostly without looking) across the pages. I keep a notebook beside my bed for those times I wake up having dreamt part of a poem. I can write poems no matter what’s happening around me. I’ve written poems in emails and group chats, on Facebook messenger, and in text messages.
Tell us about your writing process. As you might surmise from my previous answer, I don’t have a writing process. In fact, I don’t believe in the idea of a “creative process”; experience tells me poems and stories happen in thousands of different ways. So my approach is to stay open and alert and attentive to the wild world and to my own wildly associative brain. I write notes everywhere, let every glimpse or whimsy, every hurt or big idea, every cluster of words or silly thought, every fleeting buzz or bing into my awareness. I’m apt to drop everything and start writing. Or at the very least, text myself a title, a line, a part of a poem or story or song. I have this idea that the composition / revision divide (process?) is an artificial distinction that was produced by writing workshops. For me, it’s all composition—one fluid (okay, sometimes not so fluid) movement. I suspect that relying on a process will get you processed poems, not quite real poems the way processed “cheese food” isn’t quite cheese.
What are you currently working on? Even before I’d completed Above the Bejeweled City, I was deep into the next collection—by deep, I mean deep for a poet: I have about 30 pages. Some of these poems will appear in State of the Union, a chapbook coming from Finishing Line Press in 2022.
Who’s currently your favorite author? I am currently reading The Glass Constellation by one of my favorite poets, Arthur Sze, whose innovations, developed over fifty years of poetic practice, reveal an entire worldview.
Do you have any advice for new writers? For poets: Imagine what the perfect poem looks like for you, then spend your life trying to write it. Ignore fashion. Ignore equally failure and success.
How do our readers contact you?
My web site: jondavispoet.com
My email: email@example.com
Chuck Calabreze’s blog: voydofcourse.blogspot.com
Copper Canyon Press: https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/books/preliminary-report-by-jon-davis/
Although Sandy Sheehy was born in New York, after graduating from Vassar, she moved to Austin and lived there, then in Houston, Galveston and Albuquerque. She now divides her time between Texas and New Mexico. Sheehy and her husband, historian and University of New Mexico professor emeritus Charles McClelland, spend several months a year traveling internationally.
Sheehy has written frequently on human relationships and the natural environment. Her work has appeared in Town & Country, Forbes, House Beautiful, Self, Working Woman, and Money, among other national magazines. She is the author of Texas Big Rich (1990, William Morrow), a group portrait of the state’s financially fortunate, and Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship (2000, HarperCollins).
Sandy’s first novel, Deserts of the Heart, is a multicultural historical romance set in 1798 near Santa Fe (June 2021, White Bird Publications).
I have another book out this year: Imperiled Reef: The Fascinating, Fragile Life of a Caribbean Wonder, October 5 from the University of Florida Press, grew out of her love of scuba diving. “Drifting weightless above a coral head is the closest those of us alive today will ever come to visiting another planet,” she explains. This nonfiction book describes the natural history and ecology of the world’s second-longest barrier reef.
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes. My previously published books have been nonfiction.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write in the room my husband calls the “study.” It sounds small, but it’s the largest room in our 1940-vintage house, and it has a view of the Sandia Mountains.
Tell us about your writing process: I find I work best if I keep regular hours, getting up around 7:00 a.m., dressing, having breakfast, dealing with my email, and then writing for a couple of hours. I use the Authors Guild discussion posts as a warmup. Six days a week, I head for the pool at my health club and swim between three-quarters of a mile and a mile. On the seventh day, I meet with the other three members of my writers’ group. A couple of days ahead of time, we circulate whatever we’ve written that week so that we can discuss each other’s work at the meeting.
What are you currently working on? I’m writing a sequel to Deserts of the Heart. Set two years later (1800) in the same location, this one is a romantic murder mystery
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? You’re helping me right now, George. Fellow member Rosina Lippi (aka Sara Donati) has also been helpful. But everyone who’s actively involved in those AG discussions has taught me something.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took me a year to research and another six months or so to write. Part of that process involved writing a proposal since it was nonfiction and my agent was shopping it.
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? I’m killing one right now. As a fan of murder mysteries, I prefer the ones where the reader has a chance to get to know and like the victim before he or she is killed. Doing so makes solving the mystery more than just an intellectual exercise.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? Whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction, I always outline. I need to know where I’m going. Sometimes characters do step forward and take over the road along the way.
What kind of research do you do? For Deserts of the Heart, I visited the 18th century living history museum Rancho de las Golondrinas, “New Mexico’s Williamsburg,” the Pueblo Cultural Center, and several museums in the region. I also relied heavily on Internet sources, especially for details like clothing. For anyone who writes historical fiction, portraits posted online can be amazingly helpful.
Readers are welcome to check out my website, www.sandysheehy.com. I’d like to encourage anyone who wants to purchase my books to visit their local independent bookstore. Ordering online from Amazon or Barnes & Noble is convenient, of course, but those local shops need our support.
I am a poet.
I began seriously writing when I was seven years old. I remember making my first few lines in the diary. I convinced my paternal grandmother to buy it when we went uptown one day. This was during summer break when we, my sister and I, would stay with her for our annual visit. Beans and tortillas were all we ate, running in and out of the kitchen all day long and back outside, gulping a spoonful each time we passed the stove.
Wanting to write was a conscious choice for me at a young age. The book, Frederick the Mouse by Leo Leonni, was my early inspiration. I learned the power of words to make one whole, feel well-fed, and warm through that acclaimed children’s book. Frederick being a mouse poet, helped his family get through the coldest part of winter with his poems when their stores ran out.
Today I am the City of Madison Poet Laureate and the first Latina in this role. I served one-year as of January 2021. I have published three of my own collections of poetry and have a new one coming out soon. I have edited and co-edited books, journals, and zines, including the Spring 2019 edition of the Yellow Medicine Review. I went back in 2015, in my late forties, to get my MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I graduated in May 2017.
I also serve as the vice-chair on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission and help pick the state’s poet laureate biennially. I consider myself a literary ambassador in my role as poet laureate. Balancing my volunteerism, writing, appearances, and readings with my full-time job takes some organizing. It helps to have a partner who is an artist as well. We recently made Sundays full art days in our house.
Do you write in more than one genre? I do write in other genres, earning two Pushcart nominations, one for an essay and another for a poem. I write short stories, sci-fi and am working on a memoir right now. I took a class with IAIA alum David Tromblay in Fall 2019 and got a good start on my memoir. Poems are my favorite, though.
Tell us about your writing process: Everything for me starts in longhand. I edit on my computer. When I get stuck, I move it back to the page and write it out in longhand to figure out what went wrong in the editing process. I write in my body: hand to wrist to arm to core to heart to brain and back. I write fast on the page and have long practiced automatic writing. My pen always ahead of my brain, my conscious self. I am often surprised by what comes out on the page. The pen admits what I have been avoiding. That’s when writing gets exciting when you are a conduit of sorts and along for the ride. Sometimes lines come to me at night when I am dreaming. I do edit my poems voraciously and enjoy the rigorous process. I think this is where the real writing is now, in the editing. I find inspiration easy, but then I need to work with what I have created and sculpt it on the page until I am satisfied with form, white space, and sound. Poems take you where they want to go and are not done until you have read them in public. I read my poems aloud as I edit, but they sound different in my study than they do at a venue with actual people present. I do not consider a poem done until it has been shared orally with others. When I was a younger poet, I tried out poems at open mics to test them. Now I can record them and listen back, but it is still worthwhile to share them with others for final edits, in my opinion. Poems sound different when you read them to a live audience that one word makes a difference.I also think it is important to read other poets’ work, old and new. I like the idea of poets in conversation with each other across time and space and genre. Some of my poems are in direct response to another poet’s poem I heard them perform or something I read in print or online. I learned in graduate school that I love theory and continue to study. Listening to poets and writers read their work is a real pleasure for me. How you hear the words in your head versus when it is a public performance is enlightening. I listen to poetry readings, lectures, or conversations with writers when I cook these days or travel to visit my family in Chicago or Milwaukee.
What are you currently working on? I just received my contract from Finishing Line Press for my newest collection, My People Redux. This is the 2nd half of my master’s thesis. In Light, Always Light, also published by FLP in May 2019, was the first half. I graduated in May 2017 and spent a long year re-working my poems. In Light, Always Light, accepted in August 2018, was a finalist for their New Women’s Voices Award.
Concurrently, I am working on another collection of poetry that focuses on the history of us humans. This involves research. I am enjoying the process and taking my time. Some of these poems are published, and some are still being edited. I need to continue to push them out into the world. I was also working on my memoir in fits and starts.
In my role as the poet laureate for the City of Madison, I will be judging the annual Bus Line Poetry contest soon. I have many upcoming scheduled readings for a book I just published under my small press Art Night Books in November 2019 called, Through This Door – Wisconsin in Poems. This is a collaboration with the most recent state poet laureate, Margaret Rozga. The book took us over a year to put out and is the second time we have published a collection together. I served as co-editor for this collection in addition to being the publisher, and we have had a good response. Twice we have been on the radio, NPR stations, and I have logged many hours at the post office mailing books out across the state and country. We had to go back to the printer three times now.
I consider myself a literary ambassador as a poet laureate and this has opened up many doors for me. I want to continue to do that for other writers. We need community and support. I would not be where I am today without the networks I found all along the way. Nor, without people sharing opportunities with me and freely offering up what they know, and being generous. I believe in the power of art to heal, connect and create community. It is a record of our lives and our history. I am so happy to be on this journey at this moment in time.
Here are comments about my work by two poets I admire:
The poems of In Light, Always Light afford space for the lyric to clarify and delineate the self “… through the ravine to the seam / the V peak of the hills / where dappled light spills / between rocks and discarded beer cans.” Here Angela Vasquez presents poems that struggle to contend with family history, a history of diaspora and relation, of assertion and insistence that the reader and the poet must bring to bear the imperative of “yes, yes fight back.” The poems travel, as we do, to observe the poet in the eternal dimension where one must write, and read — “Let me sit in sadness for a spell. / I need to write this out.”
–Joan Naviyuk Kane, 2018 Guggenheim Fellow
The poems in Angie Trudell Vasquez’s In Light, Always Light honor the illuminating power of poetry, but they also speak eloquently of racial injustice and the dark “inherited grief” that is its offspring. These are poems of history, endurance, and remembrance. They vividly story the strength and survival of migrant ancestors “who built railroads / with broken backs” or shared “mole recipes on parchment.” In those relatives “passed. . .to vases of bone and ash,” Vasquez recognizes the fleeting quality of human reality. Like our forebears, we are mere “half blinks of history,” “we are magic dying.” But in this volume, Vasquez offers her ancestors colorful and enduring literary lives. “Poets,” she writes, “resist the death of a people” and “beyond death, art speaks.”
Kimberly Blaeser, author of Apprenticed to Justice, Wisconsin Poet Laureate 2015-2016
If people want to connect with me, the best way is email: firstname.lastname@example.org
My website is www.angietrudellvasquez.com, and my small press website is http://www.artnightbooks.com
The Birth of The Mona Lisa Sisters
Ten years ago, I was managing Safety and Security for Palm, Inc. A few months later, Hewlett-Packard acquired Palm in what is often referred to as a disastrous acquisition. Not long after, H-P began the layoffs. I got a weekly list of those to be laid off the following week. When the notice came for my team, I gave them the week off to start on a job hunt. A few weeks later, I learned I would be terminated the following Monday. I cleaned out my office but hung around in case there were any problems.
Then began my introduction to how rampant age-discrimination had become. After three months, it was so obvious; I started a spreadsheet. I recorded 140 applications after that. Often, I could swear the hiring company had used my resume as the requirement for the position. My mistake was being honest. I included that I was a Vietnam War Veteran. Any H/R person in the world would spot that and know I was at least sixty years old. I got one interview. I walked in, business suit, tie, and white hair. The two people I talked with were wide-eyed twenty-somethings. They were polite in their T-Shirts, torn pants, and sandals . . .for about five minutes. Then, “Thank you for coming in, George. Have a good day.”
Early 2012, I saw that the local senior center was offering a writing class. I figured it might help with a new resume—wrong. It was a fiction writing class. I was learning creative writing, and I loved it. After a month or so, the instructor passed out random pictures to each student. The assignment: “Study the image, take fifteen minutes, and describe the scene.”
I took one look at my picture, two girls looking up at the Mona Lisa, and ignored the assignment. In those fifteen minutes, I knew I would write a novel. I had notes on paper, the story in my mind, and the title. And it all came together to form the genesis for The Mona Lisa Sisters.
That began an eight-year journey.
I enrolled at Las Positas College and took writing classes. Unlike my earlier college years, it was no longer drudgery. I earned straight As. The assignments lead to multiple revisions of my novel.
In a class taught by Karin Spirn, I read about a fantastic instructor at UC Berkeley who did not have a doctorate. Instead, he held an MFA. In another class, I was introduced to the work of Native American poet Joy Harjo. She was recently appointed to a third term as the U.S. Poet Laureate. I began following her on social media. I saw that Harjo was a guest lecturer at the Institute of American Indian Arts, MFA Program. An enrolled descendant of the Karuk Tribe of California, I called IAIA and applied. Five days later, I received an acceptance notice for the Low-Residency MFA Program. IAIA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
For the next two years, my manuscript was my thesis paper, The Mona Lisa Sisters. I rewrote, revised, and learned. My mentors were terrific and have, over time, become much more to me. One area that I got dinged on was when I brought my characters to the dinner table. The settings often lacked enough detail to draw the reader into the scene. Ismet “Izzy” Prcic, roared “People don’t go to dinner and leave. They eat. What the “F” are they eating—saying?”
Mona Lisa is set in the early 1890s. So, I had much research to do before bringing food to the table. I did it—overdid it—added several thousand words. Izzy, “I don’t need to know every single effen thing they ate and how it was prepared.” I subtracted words to please him.
Each addition or subtraction required rewrites.
The program required a great deal more than working on my manuscript. I attended lectures, readings, workshops, and read and wrote critical reviews of over forty books. Two authors I had held extreme distaste for became favorites—Albert Camus and Joyce Carol Oates. Most of those forty books are full of underlining, highlighting, and writing in the margins. My mentors and I collaborated on the selection of books. Native Americans wrote at least half our choices. I was introduced to the work of such great authors as,
- Debra Magpie Earling (Bitterroot Salish) – Perma Red
- Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) – The Round House
- David Treuer (Ojibwe) – Little
- Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) – Ceremony
I met many who shared their world and writing. I met Joy Harjo and chatted over cafeteria dinner. Tommy Orange, There There, was a contemporary, as was Angela Trudell Vasquez. Angie is the Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin.
When I faced the challenge of my thesis/manuscript, one of the questions came from another, fantastic teacher and author, Pam Houston. Her first question had to do with the scenes set in . . . the dining room. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed. I know Izzy put her up to it.
This year, I finished the twenty-third revision of The Mona Lisa Sisters. Agent queries had been returned with polite rejections. I sat back, told the manuscript, “I’m starting to hate you. I’m finished.”
I reached out to Paula Chinick of Russian Hill Press and told her I was done and wanted her to publish the bloody thing. She agreed. I figured my work was done—wrong.
The cover design took months. Getting back-cover reviews became urgent. I was stuck until I recalled a talk where a young author mentioned he sent out requests to known authors and asked them to read and write reviews. “What have I got to lose?” I asked myself and sent out four requests. Three agreed to write reviews. I even had one person, out of the blue, offer to write one.
I used two. Ramona Ausubel wrote one. I love her novel No One is Here Except All of Us. The other, by playwright, editor, and UCLA instructor Victoria Zackheim. I also used a Kirkus review.
Violet (Vi) Moore came on board as the editor. She forced me to pick up the manuscript and read it line by line and make corrections before she would touch it. I’m glad she did. Over two months, we made more corrections and changes than I will ever admit.
Then the galleys came, and Paula made me do it all over again. The editor is usually done by then–nope. Vi called and ordered me to reread it. I know we missed at least one typo. One of my readers sent me a note informing me of my oversight.
Paula, Vi, and the cover design team were all very reasonable in the charges to bring the project to fruition.
Amazon released The Mona Lisa Sisters on August 14, 2020. A little over eight years after the instructor handed me a picture of two young girls looking at the Mona Lisa.
I met and have become friends with so many fine people as the result of my diving into the world of fiction writing. I have been and will forever be blessed for having started the journey when I couldn’t find a job.