Published on June 16th, 2020 | by Jennifer Jordán Schaller


Creating Art Alongside Danger: An Interview with Carol Ann Davis, author of THE NAIL IN THE TREE

In The Nail in the Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood, author Carol Ann Davis says, “I am uncertain I can place the function of art, art-making, its practice, in the category of making-happy, given all I’ve seen and felt in the last five years, all my children have endured in the service of gaining a working understanding of the world into which they’ve been thrown.” Davis’s quote isn’t in reference to SARS-CoV-2. She is talking about the world in which her children live in Newtown, Connecticut.

By an accident of zoning, Davis’s children were not enrolled in Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people were killed in a mass shooting. Her children attended a neighboring school. Her essay collection describes her experience raising her children: before, after, and on the day of the shooting.

Throughout Davis’s book, she wrestles with questions about art, childhood, violence, and the creation of art during times of war. To give you an idea of the lyrical qualities of her prose, here is a passage that illustrates its meditative quality:

To see that one is not empty but open is the work of a lifetime. For reasons none of us have chosen, both of my boys have learned (in their own time and way) there is no shelter but their own. And I think they begin to see that the dissonance within themselves has work to do in their lives, that emptiness can become openness. And that art is here to help them. It hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick, but it’s necessary.

Carol Ann Davis is a poet, an essayist, a mother, an artist, and a professor of English at Fairfield University in Newtown, Connecticut. I had the chance to interview Davis for Mutha Magazine.

Jennifer Jordán Schaller

MUTHA: A pandemic virus, economies spiraling, patterns of daily life changing day-to-day—our current global situation isn’t the ideal environment for creating art or even for an artist to make a living. Personally, I find it hard to write, more now than ever, because I question whether what I write is important compared to SARS-CoV-2. And I wonder if anything I write today will be relevant tomorrow. What is the role of an artist in times like these, and are you currently able to create art?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: I understand the block to writing you’re describing of feeling that this experience dwarfs anything you could actually say, but that hasn’t been my own sense, partly because (I think) of where writing is situated in my life. I don’t really write in order to comment on things, or to be relevant—I mean I get that relevancy is a big part of what becomes a finished work of art, but my process of writing is entirely exploratory and sustaining of me only and privately.  I do it because it helps me with understanding myself and my immediate surroundings.  There’s an urgency to writing for me because of all I find out I must change or think more deeply about, the things my writing upwells for me from a place I wasn’t really acknowledging.  Occasionally those upwellings will have resonance for others, and those pieces find their way out in the world, but the practice of writing is more of a way of finding the contours of my world, by touch, as it were.  And so I have a need to be writing right now, as the contours have changed so dramatically, and I need the internal information my writing can offer me (about the world, about me).

I think the role of the artist in this time is to keep practicing, to keep in touch with the difficult or the uncomfortable in their work.  The work is always telling them something, and occasionally that something can be super important to others.  I don’t think the bigness of the current moment changes any of that—indeed I think the bigness and violence and difficulty of the world is always upwelling in the work of artists, reminding the world of the things that may seem irrelevant or small that are large and consequential.  Perhaps this moment makes others seek out those voices, or certain voices, more than they might’ve.

MUTHA: How do you envision people moving forward after this pandemic? How did the process of living through Sandy Hook prepare you for what our nation and the world is facing now?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: I don’t think anything exactly prepares one for anything else, or rather, the world is various enough in its traumas and the losses extreme enough that nothing seems to compare to anything else.  Sounds like a waffling kind of answer, but I will say that the experience of the shooting changed me, changed my sense of the value of human life, its delicacy and its innate dependence on the actions of others, and those changes in my outlook inform my interpretations of the ways in which public health is being practiced or weighted against other concerns in America right now. That part of the public debate seems similar to me to the debate over firearms.

And I am a person who had the experience of living in a community for, now, two devastating events.  But I think it’s our fate in life, as humans, to go through these events unprepared because what can prepare you for senseless loss?

MUTHA: The Nail in the Tree describes your personal experience, and the experience of your sons and a few playmates in this small town before and after a tragedy. You draw parallels between children growing up in lockdown culture and children exposed to war. How did you prepare yourself to talk about so much tragedy? How did you develop your perspective on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: I think that I had to find some historical context for what I was going through, and I went to those examples from war. This is something that is true of all my books and is just the way I approach writing in the long term. Writing is always for me an artifact of the immediate moment. I write to find out the articulation of a problem I’m having. That’s true all the time. At this point it’s almost a spiritual or hygiene practice. I’m not “living clean” if I’m not writing. In the context of that, if something big happens in my life, then I have to go to the desk. That’s how I ended up writing about the tragedy: because it happened.

It’s a little mysterious to me, the structure of the book, the segmentation of the essays and their order (which is not chronological). I am very intuitive with how I write. I think that when I was writing the first essay in the book [“The One I Get and Other Artifacts”], which was a National Magazine Award Finalist, I had a clear sense of what it was. I knew enough about my writing process that I was going to carry this day around in an unhelpful way until I could write it down. That’s why the first essay exists. The other essays developed through a period of time subsequent to that moment.

MUTHA: In a different interview, you said you would like to “examine in greater detail what creating this lockdown culture has done to a whole generation of children’s imaginations.”  I personally worry about my own kids and how lockdown drills affect them. The ritual of drills has frightened them more than once. But I also remember as a child having fire drills and playing violent games like cops and robbers. Do you think being exposed to violence and lockdown culture affects the way children play? In what ways do you worry that violence could shape imagination?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: I’m more worried that they lose the chance to not consider their safety. So their imaginations include a certain tension that never can really be released. Their imaginations are mapped off so that they have to consider the angle of where they could go if a shooter would enter the room they’re in. It’s no longer just something to consider in their classroom; they walk into the world thinking that way. It changes the way the child thinks about the landscape. I am defensive for children, I wonder what would they get to think if they didn’t have to think about that.

Related to this idea of children’s imagination:  I went back to what had been important to my own child landscape.  That’s the idea in the final essay, swimming being endemic to me being a person.  My kids are becoming experts on landscape as I was, a landscape that will be with both of them their whole lives. It’s not I think all things happen for a reason, and this experience forms them “for a reason.”  It’s more that watching my sons, I realized that people integrate things, and I hadn’t really remembered those parts of me that I’d integrated (like the ocean). It’s possible that’s how my children might feel about this—immersed in it, and therefore of it.

MUTHA: I really like Part Two of the book. This section immerses the reader in scene in a way that the rest of the book doesn’t, and it’s written in second person, like a letter to your younger self. The book seems to come full circle from a moment in time that changed your children’s lives, to a moment in time that changed your own.

How does being a poet influence your essay writing? And has shifting back and forth from poems to essays change the way you write poems?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: A watched pot never boils, so if you are writing in two forms, there is always somebody to love you. I think poetry writing has helped my language over the years. I think that, if anything, poetry writing helps me with the language that I use in the essays.

But how do the essays help the poems? The poems feel impervious to interference. The poems I will alway be writing, and they provide me with that constant process.  I did think, though, well, the book is coming out Saturday. Why not feed that part of myself? I’m going to write a poem on Saturday.

MUTHA: How would you describe the genre and form of these essays? Some read almost like a prose poem. They are united thematically, and some read more like prose poems or meditations.

CAROL ANN DAVIS: I guess you could call them lyrical essays or segmented essays. They have aspects of memoir, but I really think that memoir has to be more time-driven than the essay form. An essay feels like it has an idea at its heart, and it toys with that idea, whether or not a story is a part of it. A memoir has an obligation to tell a story over a period of time, which I know I incidentally end up doing [in the final essay], but I do it in the service of these overarching ideas, such as childhood and danger, the nature of childhood, and the way in which children live alongside danger.  Even there, that list of ideas, it’s a way of trying to formulate an idea—for me that’s what makes it a collection of essays and not a memoir.

MUTHA: In “The One I Get and Other Artifacts,” you said, “And this is what it is not to suffer. This is the not-suffering, happy-ending story.” I love the irony in that sentence, and the repetition of this idea, of there being a not-suffering happy-ending story. Because there is no happy ending. The book’s chapters are titled according to how they occurred in relation to the shooting—There is the before and the after and the day of—but they are not laid out chronologically. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: I had to admit that everything flowed from the first essay in which I narrate the day of the shooting. It took me a long time to do it but finally I had to put it up there in front. But then I also wanted to work with the circular way grief and trauma are experienced. You’re far away and then you’re close up again.

There’s one essay, “On Brotherhood and Crucifixion,” which takes place two years before [the shooting], and that essay takes the crucifixion as an example witnessing another person’s pain. The disciples witness Christ’s pain. It struck me that these worries—about the way in which pain is shared by siblings or witnessed by those close to one—were present before. And that sort of brought me to the subject—or hooked this essay up with the rest of the collection–of the children and violence and war. These essential themes are dormant inside me, and maybe us. I’ve been thinking a long time about how it’s an accident of birth or history when and where you parent your children. You can parent your children in war. You can lose a child to violence and it would be an accident of history.

As I started to put this collection together I realized, I have been writing about children and danger for a long time. That experience with the subject may have led me to to write about the day of the shooting in a way that disrupts the timeline. I don’t experience the beginning, middle and end, and the moral of the story is this. I paint a lot of grounding scenes, I’m grounded by setting, but they don’t fit together in a story.

So my reality is not linear, and my work reflects that.

This structure better approximates the way I experience things and the way that I believe people experience them. I don’t want to say “stories don’t tell the truth,” but I find it very difficult to be precise and also to tell a story. If I’m precise, the work in my case doesn’t tend to take a linear form.

Now, the book did actually end up with a bit of a “resolution”—something more storylike, when I wrote the second-person essay about swimming and my own childhood.  That happened because the book was delayed a little bit in production, and then during that time, I wrote the last essay, which became part two. That’s the only one that doesn’t have a time stamp on it that dates it back to the shooting.  Formally and in every way it’s very different from the rest of the essays. I don’t know what people will think of it, and how it goes with Part I. A lot of time had passed since the time of the shooting, so I had more perspective on the thematic elements, and so there is somewhat of a departure in that essay.

MUTHA: Who are your creative nonfiction influences?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: The funny thing is I was a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and when I got the nomination I looked up past nominees, and it turned out I had read every essay nominated in the last decade, like fifty essays widely published. I was doing this study of the essay for about fifteen years before I actually noticed that I was schooling myself in a form. Comparatively speaking I didn’t read as much poetry during that time, so I was clearly embarking on a tutorial. A few books this one is indebted to are Patti Smith’s early collection Woolgathering and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. And obviously I read a lot of Héléne Cixous.

MUTHA: How do you know you have an essay and not a poem? Did some of these essays start out as poems, and then grow into longer narrative forms?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: Both types of writing really present themselves formally to me. They immediately start breaking into lines when they are poems. They just really are one or the other. Also, I don’t know, I’ve joked with my nonfiction colleagues that I don’t know how they do it because when I’m writing an essay I have to write it constantly for lots of hours. It’s like a full-time job.

In contrast, writing a poem is just a visitation from this beautiful piece of language, and then the next piece of language comes from that. It’s not like writing poetry is easy. I think it’s just that I’ve reached my ten-thousand hours, and they say that at ten-thousand hours, things get a little more guided or you do it with less effort, you recognize the moves.  That’s where I am with my life with the poem.

With an essay, on the other hand, it’s very stressful. It requires crazy persistence. It demands attention until I’m done. Oddly enough, though, in terms of publishing get more traction. The percentages of acceptance are higher with essays. With poetry, every 26 submissions I make, one gets accepted. With the essays, it’s about eight in ten. I remember with “Brotherhood and Crucifixion,” one of the first essays I ever submitted, I had two simultaneous acceptances, and that doesn’t happen with poetry. I hadn’t had time to withdraw it!

One way that essays and poems are the same for me is that in both cases, you can invent the form if you want to.  The structure of your particular essay could be unique in the history of essay writing, and that can be true of a poem, too.

This is true of all that I write, I have to figure out what it’s saying and that dictates the form it takes.

MUTHA: Were all the artists you mentioned in the book abstract artists? How does abstract art influence the way you create a narrative?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: Not all were in the same school, but they seemed to be of a certain ilk. I wrote about Rothko in my last poetry collection. I’d written about de Kooning before. But Gorky is the artistic grandfather of both of those guys, he’s considered the precursor of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and I went back and looked at him in depth for the collection.

There is this anecdote about Gorky and de Kooning I love: After Gorky died, before abstract expressionism got going, de Kooning wrote this beautiful letter to I think ARTNEWS, who had listed de Kooning as an influence on Gorky, which was the opposite of the truth.  De Kooning was like the record, if anyone asks, “I come from 36 Union Square.” He named the address of Gorky’s studio. He said I didn’t influence him, he influenced me. I just find it so moving that de Kooning was protective of Gorky’s legacy, and that he was so grateful for de Kooning’s influence he said he came from there.  For me that’s almost familial.

I spent so much time on this group, the way they interacted with the world they lived in and the permissions they gave to each other. And how those permissions allowed them to flourish despite great suffering and violence in their lives (at least in Gorky’s case). They were fighting for a kind of free imagination, which ends up being a preoccupation of my book, I think.

Speaking of groups of artistic contemporaries and the ways in which communities form:  my oldest son is in winter percussion at the high school, and he and his friends were practicing for like ten hours (from morning to night) and when they walked out of school it was dark, and there was a beautiful moment when they came out and saw this big moon backlighting the clouds and they were so amazed they stopped and looked up, and for a moment they looked free. Somehow this relates to Gorky and de Kooning and where you come from, where you mark you come from.  I want my children and their friends to be free like that.

I think the abstract expressionists, that’s what they wanted. It’s not an accident that these are the artists who came back to me in my time of need. When I was needing to think about these things, they are who I was thinking of, which made me think of freedom. What you want for your kids after tragedy, is to be free, to feel free. I don’t think the [Newtown] tragedy alone has done this to children, but more generally and not just in Newtown, I worry that these children we as Americans are collectively raising don’t seem free to think anything, do anything, possibly because they don’t feel safe.

MUTHA: Beyond structure, how else did these artists, abstract artists influence your writing and process of art?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: It’s probably more like they give me a certain permission. Again, it’s about freedom.  They are free to jump and move, and so am I. On example of this kind of artistic permission from my book is Gorky and Andre Breton.  Breton sat there listening to Gorky and looking at his paintings and as Gorky talked about his childhood, Breton gave him these titles and titled all his paintings in one afternoon—these beautiful titles for these abstract paintings that are titles related to stories from Gorky’s childhood. That’s the ability to associate fast, to associate the abstract with the concrete. Agnes Martin, another artist not quite in that same group, gives me permission to create a world that has an internal integrity. I can create an internal integrity that is intentional to prepare for the accident, the not-intentional thing.  Martin’s work is like that.

As I was writing the book, I realized all the artists I was studying had been children during war, or had had a very traumatic beginning in some way. They all had had something really traumatic happen, mostly as children or young adults. AsI’m looking at these people I’m sort of trying to articulate something about how children survive. Sometimes I think people are a little simple in their formulation that art is helping people live—it does, of course, but it’s not an antidote to violence, it doesn’t by itself prevent violence.   I don’t know what the relationship of art is to violence, art exists alongside a lot of violence, and at the site of a lot of violence.  Art can be protest, of course, too.  I haven’t figured out the relationship of art to violence.

MUTHA: You are a mom and a professor and a writer. How do you make it a point to fit in writing time in between parenting and working? What does a writing day look like to you?

CAROL ANN DAVIS: My kids are not small anymore, so they don’t really need me all the time. But whatever they need, that’s what I’m doing first. They’ve gotten to the point where living with me, if they interrupt me at my desk, they know I’ll stop.  I’m happy to stop and go do something with them, they’re the point.

As for my teaching life:  I mentor writers. That’s how I contribute to the art form. And finding time for myself, as I said earlier, the essays are a challenge because they are so immersive, but where the poetry is concerned, it doesn’t take as much time. It’s explosive. If I write a poem in the morning, what else do I have to do? I did it already. It’s a great feeling to walk into my day having written a poem—and then getting other parts of my life some attention.  That’s a great day.

With motherhood, especially mothering young children, there’s definitely a balance.  There is an amazing quote from Sylvia Plath from a BBC recording, where she says most of the poems she’s about to read were written “at about four in the morning–that still, blue, almost eternal hour before the cockcrow, before the baby’s cry.” I love that.  She’s really carving time out. But at this point I’m lucky because I created a writing style that accepts interruption. I accept interruptions.

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About the Author

Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from Albuquerque. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; Sonora ReviewBrain, ChildAscentNew Mexico English Journal; and NPR’s This American Life. She also has a forthcoming essay in the next issue of Cutbank. She is working on a longer manuscript, from which she take breaks to develop chapters as stand-alone pieces (like this essay in Mutha Magazine).

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