“Trudging Through the Universe / As A Gigantic Lonely Eyeball”: An Interview with Gion Davis by Jeremy Boyd

Gion Davis’ debut poetry collection Too Much, forthcoming September this year, won the 2021 Ghost Peach Press Prize selected by Chen Chen and has been dubbed “wild and disrespectful” by Eileen Myles. In Too Much, Davis examines the self as a “gigantic lonely eyeball” wandering through scenes of abundance and hardship, creating a self-reliant and unflinching reflection of the world around them. They touch on themes of climate change, homelessness, sexual assault, guilt, grief, as well as the joy and beauty of the world in between the heaviness.

These poems are raw and daring and open, loosening the thread used to neatly sew up the saccharine voyeurs. Though the lines are short and cling to the left align, there is hardly a static moment; the poems steadfastly latch on to the volatile bucking bulls of excitement and disappointment. But is it “too much”? No. It’s that thing that’s always in short supply in perpetuum … fun. The title reads like a sarcastic reclaimed critique from the outside, not a true assessment of their new collection.

I knew right away I wanted to interview Gion, one of the most “heart-on-fire” poets out there (to quote their partner Mike Young), and their new book, Too Much, was a pleasure to read.

Jeremy Boyd: This collection has so many great titles, but “you might have to write it nicer than real life,” stands out as perhaps a koan or mantra. What is behind this title or sentiment?

Gion Davis: I get a lot of lines from things other people say and “You might have to write it nicer than real life” was something a person I was seeing a while back said to me. As far as I remember, it was about us having the stomach flu at the same time. Of course, that experience was humiliating and bad as stomach flus always are and that person correctly realized it was something I’d put in a poem, possibly at their expense.

Being told I might write it differently than how it happened struck me as very funny because I don’t think I’ve ever written anything “nicer” than real life. If anything, I go out of my way to make real life feel as real as possible and I think that shows up in my work if you read a few lines. The idea that someone who I thought knew me pretty well would suggest I embellish the truth to distance us both from it made me think about the mental gymnastics we do to stay in love with other people and with the world which is what that poem is about.

As far as it being a koan or a mantra, I’m not sure. Can either of those be used as something you say to yourself to remind you to do the opposite of that thing? If you can, then “you might have to write it nicer than real life” is that for me.

JB: I get a sense you’re always trying to become a solitary entity in these poems, carve out some independence—how do you get rid of everything that weighs on you (to stand alone)? Is that actually a goal of yours; would you explain it differently? How often do those discarded things return? Have you found something indispensable?

GD: I think there’s a difference between carving out independence and getting rid of things that weigh on me … but I also don’t know if either of those are the goal. Maybe they seem like that in the book because I already feel like such a solitary, independent entity. I’m less becoming one and more writing as one. I feel like my role in life is to stand around watching things happen and saying “hey, did you see that?” to someone who wasn’t looking. There’s a loneliness in that, to be watching instead of participating.

It’s funny to be asked about discarding things because I think of myself more as a collector or a gatherer and my poetry is where I can put all the things I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget how it felt or what it was like, even if it was painful or impossibly hard. I feel very precious about the things that make it into the poems. If they’re in there, it’s because I didn’t want to discard them. I want to keep it all forever. And I can’t.

JB: What kind of countermeasures or resistance to the precarious conditions of life have you learned to grow and wield to protect your art-making?

GD: I feel like it’s the opposite: my art-making is something I’ve learned to wield to protect myself in the face of precarious conditions. I don’t think I resist precariousness in my life, but I do think I’ve learned to use poetry to get through it. Having something to write down has gotten me through so many things. Bad stuff, precarious conditions, whatever you want to call it, happens for no fucking reason. It’s not moralistic, it means nothing, it’s just a product of your place in the capitalism machine and bad luck. But writing it down can give those things some weight in the world, some meaning outside of being part of the cosmic lottery because they will become meaningful to someone else, divorced from your personal association with them. It also creates some distance between oneself and the situation, allows the writer some control. That isn’t to say if something happens to me, I immediately turn around and write it down and never think about it again but having a place to just put all of it is important too. And so is knowing that it might help someone else get through their own precariousness.

JB: What attracted you to the topic of accumulation (i.e. “too much”) and its fusion with personal history in your poems?

GD: I touched on this in an earlier answer but I think it’s just an inevitable consequence of being greedy. I have to write everything down to make sure the feeling of it sticks in my mind and I end up with the results of all that accumulation. But, I also think that’s just life? We’re all moving along accumulating memories and experiences, good and bad, and it does feel like too much sometimes. It goes the other direction too, like when I’ve accumulated in someone else’s life until I’m too much, or in any combination of interpersonal directions. I’ve been told I’m too much a lot, especially in the context of using my personal history in poems. Accumulation implies a weight, a burden, a fatigue, and I certainly identify with that as much as I do with the joy of abundance.

JB: Can you name a time when someone was radically kind to you?

GD: I had to think about this a lot because so many people have been kind to me in ways I haven’t expected. I don’t really go around in the world expecting kindness in general so any at all feels sort of radical to me, possibly to my own wide-eyed detriment. But, to answer the question specifically, I think the most radically kind thing anyone has ever done for me is read my work and enjoy it. It always surprises me. No one has to and yet, so many people have and continue to do it. If we define “radical kindness” as something good someone does without expecting anything back, with only the best of intentions toward the other person, I’d say picking up someone else’s work and giving it a chance is radically kind. I can get a little bogged down in my expectations of others and of the world when it comes to my work and it always helps me to return to the notion that no one is ever obliged to give your work any attention. And, if they decide to do that, they’re making that good, unfettered gesture of belief in you, your work, your presence in life.

JB: What is the connection between bereavement and romance? Is voyeurism a romantic ideal? Is love always an unstable experience?   

GD: I don’t know if love is always unstable necessarily but it is as impermanent as everything else. Even if you’re with someone your entire life, it’s going to end at some point. I have a hard time not thinking of relationships that way, like, even if things are good, I’m always thinking about how we’re going to split up the dishes when we break up, you know? It’s fucking morbid of me but nothing feels more fragile than relationships with other people and it’s difficult for me to believe in something enough to feel resilience in romance. I’m learning it, slowly. As for voyeurism, I think that comes back to the whole solitude/independence/record keeper thing. Being a poet is being a voyeur. We can’t help it.

JB: What is the connection between empathy and memory?

GD: Isn’t empathy just memory? If you empathize with someone, you’re remembering how you felt in a similar situation and offering your support through that memory. You don’t have to imagine how it felt or hypothesize. You remember how you felt, so you can get close to how they felt.

JB: Favorite US towns and cities?

GD: I love my hometown, Española, New Mexico. It’s a small town with big city problems. It’s one of the saddest, sweetest, tiredest old towns. I love New Orleans. Who doesn’t? It’s a perfect place. I love Fort Bragg, California, which is like the third marriage honeymoon of beach towns. I love Gloucester, Massachusetts which is the only place left to get a cheap lobster roll in New England. I love Elmer, New Jersey and the smell of peach orchards left to rot by the highway. I love Omaha, Nebraska which is what I think “midwest emo” actually means. I love Memphis, Tennessee and the way the river is winning. I love Rochester, New York which is like if a fist fight was a city. I love Elko, Nevada and its fever dream oasis taxidermy museum. I love anywhere that’s a shining, beautiful, bright bummer.

JB: Give us some background on the musical references and choices in this collection!

GD: Okay, we might need a whole separate interview for this question. One band that has been really influential to me and to this book specifically are The Menzingers. The line “I don’t wanna be an asshole anymore” is in the poem “Fine.” Their album After The Party came out in 2017 which was around the time I was starting to put this collection together and its huge, cascading, emotional sound is something I’ve been chasing ever since. The weight of small moments. The glory of the everyday. The tragedy of not being able to return to a memory or a period of your life.

The poem “We are both reservoirs” I wrote right after John Prine died at the beginning of the pandemic. I was listening to “Far From Me” and thinking about all the broken kinds of love he wrote about and how dumb and simplistic it makes a song like “Love is a Battlefield” seem. I feel that way about “Because The Night” too, which Bruce Springsteen wrote the chorus of and Patti Smith wrote the verses. She wrote that dramatic song while just sitting around waiting for a phone call. That’s the real love song. But I get it too. Love makes us all dramatic morons.

Looking at my manuscript, I don’t know if I should get into all the references but I did organize my book by making a playlist of songs by assigning a song to each poem and figuring out which songs went together best. This wasn’t my idea, I got it from Rachelle Toarmino who put together her book, That Ex, in the same way.

Music is a huge, huge part of my life. I’m not a musician but I mostly hang out with musicians. I’m in love with one. I listen to music almost constantly. I go to shows as much as I possibly can. Music is more perfect than poetry to me. Poetry is like the miserable little brother of music, just tagging along. Nothing makes me feel more poetic than listening to music or going to shows. Poetry is what I have to do because I don’t make music. I can’t sing or play anything so I write instead.

Jeremy Boyd is a poet based in Frederick, MD. He is the author of Split and a graduate of the MFA for Poets and Writers at the University of Baltimore. He has published poetry in Metatron, Ghost City Press, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere.

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