Appalachia in brown eyes
By Sarah Kucharski
Smoky Mountain News
It was about 10 years ago, sometime in my mid-teens — post-driver’s license, pre-high school graduation — I first heard performance poet, writer and educator doris davenport read at Western Carolina University.
The event itself was non-descript, some late evening women’s celebration or, more likely, part of a series designed to give the illusion of nightlife on campus.
Probably the same series that provided a date spot for me and a guy named Aaron. We both walked away with door prize, glow-in-the-dark coffee mugs — and not a lot else. From what I hear he’s married now, or well on his way to it. So it goes.
But anyway — back to doris.
She read from what was, at the time, her newest book of poems voodoo chile: slight return — she has an affinity for e.e. cummings-esque capitalizations, or lack thereof. The work was a collection of ruminations at least one critic called “an arsenal of transgressive strategies — extemporaneous spelling and spacing, wit, self-parody, surprising rhymes, repetition, unpredictable line breaks — which reflect the performative nature of the poem but also guide the reader to hearing the words even on the page.”
Minus the big words, the translation is as such: she doesn’t just write poems, she becomes poems.
Growing up in northeast Georgia, davenport was a part of the unique Affrilachian culture — a term created by Frank X. Walker to describe the African American “native,” born and raised in Appalachia.
“I think it also means, for me, one who loves the area, even if she or he cannot or does not live there any longer,” davenport said. “The beauty of the area and the mountain ‘culture’ is a part of my personal belief system. I feel a deep, deep passion for all of the Southern Mountains, and only wish I could be there, live there, somewhere in Western Carolina actually, permanently.”
davenport, who will read at City Lights Bookstore at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 13, has drawn from her Affrilachian upbringing for her past two books of poetry Soque Street Poems and the just released madness like morning glories. However, where the works differ is in their degree of concentration.
“madness is all about the people in the areas where I grew up. My earlier books address a range of topics, not just my Affrilachian communities,” davenport said. “What I accomplish in madness, as well as in Soque Street Poems, is to re-create a certain time and culture, with affection, humor, and ‘poetic license.’ I preserved that culture, like a poetic anthropologist: many of the poems are factual.”
In madness like morning glories davenport reconnects with Soque Street and its Affrilachian residents in a world where magic is woven into daily life, and the living and dead commune. The book’s title comes from “Ceremony for Soque Street” which conveys the mystical nature of the community — a place where ghosts, self-propelled caskets and sensate trees are an everyday occurrence.
“I think it means something like just as morning glories are ordinary, and gloriously, quietly beautiful, so too, the ‘madness’ in these poems and in these people, is ordinary and glorious,” davenport said. “Plus, I like the alliterative rhythm of the phrase.”
Ordinary and glorious. Like our mountains, like lightning bugs, like what makes us so uniquely us, but can be so easily overlooked, dismissed as just being the way it is. It’s nothing profound. It’s just seeing the same thing we’ve seen a million times before from a different angle.
“Everything and anything can be, has been, and is, ‘subject matter’ for poetry. If new writers and poets just look around, listen and keep their eyes open to the daily wondrous, to the transcendent in the ordinary, then they too will see those subjects and possibilities,” davenport said. “For instance, I was at a filling station in Sylva one early evening and some people rushed in, all scary looking and lost. They were ‘city folk,’ trying to find Asheville. Their intensity became the subject of a poem.”
Intensity is a good word for davenport. It’s something she absorbs and evokes. Her use of words and appreciation for how those words translate into movement — both for the body and the mind — bring about more than a poet at a podium, lip servicing inked words from beige pages. Her words are interactive via the energy she uses to convey them to the responses she gets from listeners.
“I do enjoy feeling the various audiences’ responses,” davenport said. “Frequently that concern is a part of my writing. The ‘performance’ angle, for me, enhances the ‘communication’ angle. When a person in the audience smiles or laughs or grunts or has a light appear in her or his eyes, then, at that moment, I feel as if my life as a poet has achieved its purpose.”http://www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/05_05/05_11_05/art_appalachia.html