In “Alone in Plymouth” (Issue 9), a poem addressed to a Cape Verdean immigrant, Jarita Davis investigates the character of one of the rare Cape Verdean owners of cranberry fields in the 1930’s. In this interview, she discusses her inspiration for the piece, her research process in writing it, and the way reading fiction affects her poetry.
Jarita Davis is a poet and fiction writer with a B.A. in classics from Brown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Plainsongs, Tuesday; An Art Project, Verdad Magazine, and Cape Cod Poetry Review. Her poetry collection Return Flights is forthcoming from Tagus Press in March 2016. She lives and writes in West Falmouth, MA.
What inspired you to create this piece? I was researching Cape Verdean immigration to the United States and their involvement in the cranberry industry. I visited Ocean Spray’s “Cranberry World” which was a museum dedicated to the history and heritage of the cranberry industry. There was an exhibition about Cape Verdean pickers who often lived in temporary housing by the bogs during the harvest season. Very few Cape Verdeans bought land to harvest cranberries themselves, and I was drawn to the description of a stand-out who did just that and wondered what made him choose a different path.
What place do you think research has in poetry? Do you ever find yourself beginning a poem and then finding you need research to keep writing it? Sometimes I’ll poke around looking for material to spark or inspire a poem. I don’t always know what I’m looking for, exactly. I don’t usually have a specific question in mind that I want to answer, I just sift through information and ideas until I stumble across something that resonates because it’s interesting or unexpected or compelling. When I find something that catches my attention, I’ll use that as a launch pad and write from there. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped partway through a poem to research something and then keep writing. I might double check a spelling or place name after I’ve written a poem and am in the editing stage, but nothing I’d call real research.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? This piece was from a gradual searching. The more I wondered about Domingo, the more his presence came into focus. He became real enough that I had question after question about him and his life.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? I love novels and short stories. I think this affinity is evident in a lot of my poems because I’m drawn so strongly to a compelling narrative and to character.
Novels are probably the medium most known for narrative and character–what makes you choose poetry instead to work with those elements? You mentioned that you’re drawn to compelling narrative and characterization in your poetry. Novels are probably the medium most known for narrative and character–what makes you choose poetry instead to work with those elements?
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. I have a writing studio at home which serves as my official workspace, but I write all over the house and sometimes out in coffee shops.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I try different writing exercises as playful experiments. Sometimes it will yield starter material for a poem, and if it doesn’t, I don’t worry about it because it was just a fun experiment.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Donna Tartt’s Secret History and The Goldfinch are two great novels written by a living writer.
We asked Jarita to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
When and where were you happiest? Reading used paperbacks on a second hand sofa in Lafayette, Louisiana? Or working on my first writing portfolio in a rented room in Rome after a long work day and a cheap bowl of pasta. Or even revising a short story in a coffee shop in New Haven during a long temping stint.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Blue. Slipping.
What is your greatest extravagance? I am a knitter and buy rather expensive yarn for my projects.
Which talent would you most like to have? I’ve wished I learned to play the cello. I am drawn to the instrument and the music it produces resonates deeply with me, but I’ve never taken it up because I can’t dedicate the amount of time I think it would take to learn to play it well.
What is your current state of mind? Restless. Ready for the next adventure.
This interview was curated by Devon Halliday, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a Comparative Literature student at Brown University.