I met Kelly Davio for the first time in a hotel lobby at AWP in Minneapolis. It was that time of night where the best one can do is arrive very late (I did) and drape oneself over the nearest empty chair (me, more of a whumphing sort of collapse). Kelly was introduced to me by Yi Shun Lai, a writer, college classmate, and my former newspaper editor in her own right. They had hours of work to do yet for the Tahoma Review, so our visit was short. Kelly, as it turned out, was also from the Pacific Northwest (albeit temporarily) and so we met up again at home. She introduced me, and continues to introduce me, to amazing writers and people. Despite making Tahoma one of the strongest, new literary magazines out of the gate over the last three years, she is still one of the most exciting poets writing today. When I learned about her Unreal Woman series of poetry, I couldn’t get enough. I can’t wait to introduce Kelly and to share her work with our readers. Enjoy. —Camille Griep
1. Kelly, you’ve recently hopped over the pond to London. What is the literary community like there so far? How about editing and publishing?
The literary scene here is thriving! Not only do we have a great many wonderful writers, we also have a huge community of readers who support the authors they love. I’m used to going to poetry readings in Seattle—which is a lovely literary town in its own right—and being among maybe 20 others in a room. But in London, there are events at which I’ve been turned away by bouncers (bouncers! At poetry readings!) because the room was too packed. For other readings, I’ve had to book tickets far in advance the way I would to see a band. There’s no sense here that poetry is disconnected from the rest of cultural life, and that’s been refreshing.
I’ve also found that many of the most exciting young poets don’t pursue poetry as a career the way people in the US do; instead of everybody working as a creative writing adjunct at some university or another, in London, poets work in tech or advertising or law or fashion or any number of other fields. Perhaps that’s part of why poetry feels so relevant in England: poets are using their talents and sharing their love of the written word in a variety of different industries and communities, not just in academia.
Working as a publisher here has been a steep learning curve so far—presses sometimes compete over poets, advances are an actual possibility for poets in some cases, and it’s assumed that once you sign with a house, you’re not going to publish with anyone else. It all could not be more different from the US, where we feel—pardon the bluntness—grateful for any scrap from a publisher’s table, and move between presses quite a bit in our publication lives. It’s been nice to see that there are places in the world where poetry and poets are considered so valuable!
2. Tell us about The Tahoma Review? Like us, you have a global smattering of editors. How has that worked to your advantage/disadvantage?
Tahoma Literary Review, which has its home base in the Seattle area, has been a wonderful way to stay connected to my Northwest literary world. Joe Ponepinto, Yi Shun Lai and I just entering our third year of publication with the journal, and we’re incredibly proud that work from the journal is starting to appear in Best American Poetry, Best Gay Stories, Best Small Fictions, and so many other “bests.” We already thought our contributors were the best, but it’s nice to have other people underscore that for us.
Moving from being a West-Coast entity to a global entity has been tricky when it comes to logistics. An 8-hour time difference makes it a pain to schedule meetings, for example, and we’re limited as to how many people can attend events or conferences on the journal’s behalf. But thank goodness for Skype and Submittable and the general glory of the internet; ours is a company that couldn’t have existed even ten years ago when technology didn’t support this kind of global setup.
3. What are the most exciting patterns or trends in writing you’re seeing right now in your submissions queue or your reading in general?
It may be because I’m reading so much British poetry at the moment as part of both my editorial work and my own reading for enjoyment, but I’ve been excited to see more poets playing with form—received form or invented form—in their work. I’m not exactly a formalism enthusiast, but I love seeing the technical skill that makes gorgeous old traditions lively and exciting for a contemporary audience.
4. How do you balance your writing brain and editing brain—or are they different spaces at all?
Balance? What’s that? (Cue uncontrollable, desperate-sounding laughter.)
In all honesty, I think editing and writing are good for each other—they’re separate disciplines, but the skill sets overlap in such a way that support one another. My inability to find balance has a lot more to do with time management. It would be possible to give, say, 80 hours each week to editorial work—there’s always something ridiculously urgent and time-sensitive to work on. But I’m starting to be more protective of my time, blocking out two to three hours each morning when I’m just working on my own projects.
5. You’ve been an advocate encouraging conventions like AWP to become more accessible to disabled participants. This seems to be an issue that plagues both small and large organizations (I’ve seen this occur at smaller genre conventions, too—most recently last fall when a panelist in a wheelchair had no ramp to the speaker dais and the organizers offered to simply “lift her up there.”). What did AWP end up doing right, what did it continue to do wrong?
Can we just take a moment to contemplate the incredible lack of awareness and basic human decency of those conference organizers who offered to hoist this panelist onto the stage like a sack of potatoes? Unbelievable!
Unbelievable, but typical. It’s this sort of behavior that turned me into a kind of accidental activist when it comes to AWP. Last year, I mentioned on Twitter that I was disappointed not to have a single disability-focused panel at the 2016 convention. That same morning, I was phoned up by a member of the AWP staff and chided for saying so.
The staffer kept telling me that AWP was the “most inclusive” conference of its type, but that didn’t resonate with my experience—an experience that included being physically assaulted in the bookfair—at all! So I decided to keep being vocal. In speaking up, I learned that a lot of other people had been experiencing the same frustrations.
There were some real problems with access at the conference this year, namely facilities located so far from one another that many disabled folks had to pony up for expensive cabs just to get back and forth between their events, bathrooms up two flights of stairs in the bookfair, a lack of signage that might help reduce time spent wandering around a looking for an event (wandering aimlessly is something that those of us with mobility issues simply can’t do) … I could go on, but you get the idea.
Three positives stood out in the conference: first was the formation of the Disability Caucus, though I’d like to see AWP hire an actual disability coordinator rather than putting the burden of accessibility on conference attendees and caucus members themselves; second was the fact that AWP would not list offsite events in its materials unless events were held in ADA accessible locations; and third was the fact that AWP required panelists to create accessible handouts for people who need them in order to follow along in panel discussions (however, almost nobody followed this guideline, and sadly there seemed to be no enforcement of the policy). So we saw some baby steps, is what I’m saying. We have a long way to go in terms of this conference actually being accessible, much less inclusive.
6. How did you fall in love with poetry in the first place? Has it been a lifelong fling or a later-in-life commitment?
Cheesily enough, I fell in love with poetry when I was a teenager. I was assigned “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a class, and I couldn’t get enough of that poem; I didn’t understand a lick of it, of course, but the sounds and the rhythms cracked something open in me. I started writing seriously—and very badly—around that time. It would take me the better part of two decades of intensive writing and study to produce anything worth reading!
7. What’s up next up in your writing life?
I’m putting the finishing touches on a book proposal for a work of nonfiction at the moment, revising a poetry collection, and finally scrounging up the nerve to start querying new literary agents with a novel I’ve been working on for the past three years. I enjoy writing across the genres this way—when I hit a creative hiccup on one project, I have something else to turn my attention to.
Poetry matters for the same reason that jazz music or perfectly made sushi or modern dance or gothic architecture all matter: beauty and delight give meaning to all this breathing in and out that we do.
8. Let’s talk about the work we’re highlighting. Who is the Unreal Woman? Why do you think we all love her so much?
I’m happy to know that people love the Unreal Woman! She’s a persona that shows up a great deal in the poetry collection I’m working on—she’s part alter-ego for me, part Joy-Hulga (from Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”), part patron saint of sick chicks.
She’s a character I started writing about (or maybe through) during a period of my life when I was quite sick and getting sicker, and when I couldn’t seem to get away from “body positivity” messages everywhere I looked. There’s a lot to be said for the body positivity movement, but it’s messages can be terribly hurtful: I kept hearing that “real women” had to have curves, needed to proudly show off stretch marks from pregnancy, were healthy (rather than “skinny”), were strong, or any number of other things that were fundamentally impossible for me in such a host body as I had.
So the Unreal Woman—who is everything that “real women” aren’t—is a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous exploration of what it means socially, personally, and spiritually to be about as imperfect as it gets.
9. Easy Street’s signature question for poets is why does poetry matter? Obviously we think the answer is yes, but the reasons we’ve heard from various writers has expanded our (and hopefully our readers’) view of the matter. What are your thoughts?
I always have such a hard time with questions like this, not because I don’t think that poetry matters, but because it seems so obvious to me that all things that contribute to the richness of life matter. Poetry matters for the same reason that jazz music or perfectly made sushi or modern dance or gothic architecture all matter: beauty and delight give meaning to all this breathing in and out that we do.
10. If I were going to spend three months in a yurt in the mountains, what three books of poetry would you recommend I take?
Three books for three months? That suggests that you get a full month with each book, so they’d better stand up to long scrutiny, then. And if you’re going to be alone in a yurt, you’re going to want to order them mix-tape style, right? A little retreating from the world, a little interiority for reflection, and a little humor as you emerge back into society? I always like to recommend recent books, so I’d start you off with Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, then Hannah Notess’s The Multitude, then round things off with Amorak Huey’s Ha Ha Ha Thump.
—“Real Women Have Curves”
They fit in size-Q panty hose, we’re told.
Their volume fills the special-order bras
built wide enough about the lacey bands
to suggest a well formed plentitude
in fully lined and double-lettered cups.
Real women give birth to multitudes
of Gerber-blonde babies in a continual
swell and retraction not unlike that
of a latex balloon, so quick to snap back
to size. Real women, after all, work out.
They repeat a mantra: healthy is the new,
but forget what was old. They raise dumbbells
and celebrate themselves. They know
what would fix you, Unreal Woman, disposing
of your sharps in the bright orange canister.
They have tut-tutted you, unreal woman,
when bottled prescriptions spill forth
from your open purse. They have watched you,
unreal woman, vertiginous and clutching
for the staircase handrail or shuffle-stepping
with a limp, your slacks dangling from meatless
hips, from bony kneecaps. And under the Lasik
clarity of their vision, Unreal Woman, you
become small as they expand, claim the space
you were never meant to occupy. They start
with your hair, thinning from steroids,
and thread it out by the root. They nibble
at the keratin of your fingernails, roll skin
from your limbs like wet paper, knock
your bones together in a jaunty tune.
Seconds are all it takes to absorb you.
Real women, they eat your heart out.
The Unreal Woman has Salman Rushdie’s Dreamy Eyes
They droop—do you see? Levator muscles grow tired,
too weak to hold the lids in place. The forehead smoothes
and brows slip as though dangling a garment loose
in a striptease, a fan dance of lashes. A flash of pupil
and a half-revealed iris are the bedroomiest of all, at least
on famous men. But somehow, ptosis looks less charming
on her. Her face buckles, folding the liner she’d flicked
into a perfect cat’s eye. Her cheeks can’t hold
the weight of dark circles, and subcutaneous fat laps
onto cheekbones. In her own assessment, the Unreal Woman
resembles no one so much as Phineas Gage after TNT
drove an iron rod through his gourd, his melon,
his miraculous skull. The only marvel the Unreal Woman
ascribes to her own cranial structure is that her nose,
that knobby crag, that protuberant ledge, can still hold a pair
of outsized sunglasses. Think of Coco Chanel’s metastatic
frames, white saucers that block both sun and the speculation
of strangers. Behind the lens, she is a mystery. She is a star.
The Unreal Woman Isn’t Asking for Steak
Her ambitions aren’t that high, and besides,
she never cared all that much for sinew.
But after years of boiled, of bland, of soft,
you don’t want to know what she’d do
for a wedge of crispy iceberg or a thick
wheel of carrot. A scalloped cucumber
with waxy skin would send her into fits
of glee; she has lengthy fantasies starring
escarole. But breaking through the fiber
would require mastication, and the firing
of muscle fiber itself would want for the pop
of neurotransmission, for the hiss and fizz
in each receptor and as it fired to life: too
many variables, each one over-determined
to fail. She sips water to dull her hunger.
She’ll just have a coffee, thanks. Coughs
to cover the rumble of her stomach,
doses her mug with cream to stave off
the coming blood-sugar crash, the temple-
throbbing headache. No, she’s not
hungry. She repeats it until it feels true.
In This Exercise,
You’ll be asked to say nothing when a Real Woman
informs you that you are too thin. That despite
the body-wasting aspects of your condition,
no man will want your bag of bones clanking
on his mattress. That men require
something to hang onto. Remember:
the goal of this exercise is to remain
impassive. Most subjects are able to tolerate
this test with minimal discomfort.
It can help to feign inattention during this
portion of the examination, to be distracted
by the ring of a phone audible only to yourself.
In the next exercise, you will be asked
to appear interested in the definitive findings
a Real Woman has made regarding your
condition. Exercise scenarios may include
the salubrious qualities of freshly squeezed
juice, a diet based on the Neanderthal’s tastes,
or a regimen of vigorous squat-thrusts.
You may wish to prepare a notepad so that you
may scrawl a strategically illegible note to self—
explore options regarding miraculous healing.
Keep a wastebasket handy for note disposal.
In your final task, you will be asked to listen
to a short talk on the importance of keeping
your condition from affecting anyone else’s mood.
You are not to mention pain without an expression
of strength or resolve etched on your facial features.
You do not want, after all, a Real Woman
to be reminded of her own mortality. Your duty
is to inspire, to kindle a desire to register
for a fun run, or to wear a pastel color
in solidarity. If during the course of this lecture
you find yourself clenching nails into the clammy
pit of your hand, breathing erratically, or chipping
molars as you grind enamel from dentin,
One helpful tactic is to examine the space
directly over the speaker’s shoulder.
Find a focal point in the natural order—
count the ramified branches of trees,
consider their fractal divisions, so perfect
in their number, so organized in their apparent
distraction. Not unlike your rogue genes,
not unlike the secret branchings of your veins.
Kelly Davio is the Senior Editor of Eyewear Publishing in London, England, and she is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her first collection of poetry, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013, and she regularly publishes essays in venues like The Toast, Ravishly, The Rumpus, and others. Her column, “The Waiting Room,” is a monthly feature at Change Seven.