Poet Todd Davis is using a past source of embarrassment to help others be in the know with his Brown Bag lecture.
“When I first started writing and publishing poetry, I’d be very embarrassed when I talked to other people because they’d bring up a writer and I’d have to say, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of them,’ ” Davis said.
Davis is the poet-in-residence for Week Five at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. His Brown Bag, called “The Nature of Contemporary Appalachian Poetry,” will be at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.
Eventually, Davis said, he stopped being embarrassed. While he’s still stumped from time to time when someone mentions a poet he doesn’t know, he said he’s started to see it as an opportunity to discover the work of someone new.
And now he wants to share the work of some contemporary Appalachian poets with his audience at Chautauqua.
“With these Brown Bags, I often see it as a way of introducing to an audience the work of writers that they may never have heard of,” Davis said.
Davis is the author of five collections of poetry, including his most recent release, Winterkill. He’s won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize for his poems and teaches creative writing at Penn State Altoona.
Davis said he wants to discuss contemporary Appalachian poetry because it represents a wider range of writers than people may realize initially. He said he’ll read from and discuss the work of poets such as Ron Rash, Rose McLarney, Maurice Manning, Maxine Kumin and Jane Kenyon. Davis said he hopes his audience will “maybe fall in love” with the work of one of the poets he’ll talk about.
When it comes to the descriptor “Appalachian,” it begs the question: What’s the correct pronunciation?
“Both pronunciations are correct, but it depends on which region you’re from,” Davis said.
Davis said he sees Rash, McLarney and Manning as “Appa-latch-un” poets, and Kumin and Kenyon as “Appa-lay-chun,” a distinction he’ll discuss in his lecture.
Putting these poets into a geographical context, Davis said, can help people see how these poets from “the far South” and “the far North” are influenced by a broad, sweeping and physical element of America’s landscape. He said he hopes his audience will see how the Appalachian Mountains unite these poets, but also the variety that exists in their work.
“Because I’m focusing on the natural world and these writers and this geographical location, I’m hoping that they’ll come away with a better understanding of the environmental challenges that are faced in that Appalachian region and the treasures that we have in the natural, nonhuman world in this region,” Davis said. “And then there’s the way that art, and in particular, poetry, can express the dire circumstances and degradation of that place, but also the hope and the reward of exploring the natural world through art.”
Davis said thinking about these Appalachian poets and their work can help people see the natural world in a way they normally wouldn’t.
“By paying attention through art, your relationship with the environment is transformed in a way that it’s not when you’re just strolling through the woods,” Davis said.