Interview: Allison Pitinii Davis
Midwestern Gothic staffer Allison Reck talked with poet Allison Pitinii Davis about her forthcoming collection, Line Study of a Motel Clerk, working against sentimentality, writing about the intersection of Rust Belt and Jewish cultures and more.
Allison Reck: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Allison Pitinii Davis: I was born in Youngstown, Ohio and didn’t leave the state much my first 25 years. Four generations of my family lived in the Youngstown area, and I was very lucky to grow up with my extended family. The area is home to the trucking motel and laundry that have been operated by my family for over 50 years.
AR: Your forthcoming collection, Line Study of a Motel Clerk, is focused on your experience with your father’s trucking motel in Ohio. What perspective does your collection bring to the literary depiction of the Midwest? What understanding of the Midwest do you hope your readers gain from your depiction?
APD: The Midwest is wide-ranging — Dust Bowl to Rust Belt, rural to industrial — and has been home to poets as diverse in theme and style as Gwendolyn Brooks and John Berryman. As in any region, lines can be drawn — I think of the theme of labor running through Carl Sandburg, Kenneth Patchen, James Wright, and Philip Levine. Perhaps the one trait that ties Midwesterners together more than anything is a reluctance to be grouped, and at least where I come from, a self-reliance bordering on insularity. I’m not sure Cleveland wants anything to do with Cincinnati, let alone the rest of the Midwest.
I place myself in the tradition of writing about labor. Because my book spans four generations, it follows two small family businesses along the historical trajectory of industrial boom and bust — a timeline beginning with the influx of immigrants to the Steel Belt and ending with their descendants’ reluctant migration to more viable economies.
My book expands the focus of traditional postindustrial narratives by considering the experiences of women and religious minorities and the effects of cultural erasure. I also hope my book contributes to ongoing discussions about post-industrialism, constructions of race and gender, and immigration put forth in other contemporary collections of Midwestern poetry.
While I hope my reader gains insights on these topics, a larger concern is that my ideal reader isn’t reading my work, perhaps isn’t reading poetry in general, and perhaps thinks poetry is elitist. To an extent, I agree with this reader — growing up, I was this reader. In his important 2016 LitHub essay “No One is Writing The Real West Virginia: Why Rural Lives and Literature are in Crisis,” Mathew Neil Null notes that literature is centralized on the coasts:
“The Big Five publishing houses are located within a few subway stops of each other in Manhattan; that rich island which represents 0.000887 percent of our country’s surface. This is not benign. Our literary culture has distended and warped by focusing so much power in a singular place, by crowding the gatekeepers into a small ditch of commerce. A review in the Times trumps everything else. You can’t tell me that this doesn’t affect what is, finally, bound into books, marketed, and sold. Which designates what can be said and how one says it. Why do we cede American letters to a handful of corporations that exist on a single concrete patch?”
When I write, I’m thinking about this. I’m thinking of the local writers back home who are saying things too dangerous to publish. I’m thinking about the reader back home who will read my academic bio and automatically not trust me. I’m thinking about how I can be relevant and true to this reader’s experience. I strive for local accountability. I am lucky to work with a small, decentralized, independent publisher that understands my concerns, that understands small businesses, that understands that I’m not interested in sensationalizing my hometown for better sales. I hope to have my book launch in the parking lot of my family’s trucking motel.
AR: The final stanza in one poem, “The Motel Clerk’s Son Falls in Love While Buildings Fall,” features a poignant description of a midwestern town. You describe, “…a city where everything’s over, / where mothers yell at buildings to fall / already and stop complaining.” How would you analyze the deeper meaning of this stanza and how it connects to your collection overall regarding the Midwest?
APD: The line, as well as the collection, works against sentimentality. And celebrates language and impudence: the woman’s voice challenges gravity itself to hurry it up already.
This poem is from the first section of the book, which spans from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s: the collapse of industry in Youngstown and the years immediately following. My parent’s generation. In the poem, the lovers leave work at the motel and head to a rock show downtown. It’s Saturday night, they’re in love — they can’t be bothered. The generation before them can’t be bothered because many of them are the children of immigrants. The new city they came to is falling apart and they might have to uproot themselves and all they know? What’s new.
Ending a love poem with sarcasm is something I learned from the Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern — in a love poem to his wife, he produces perhaps the most romantic line in all of poetry: “You know precisely the kind of jerk [or schlimazel] I am.”
AR: Describe your ideal environment for writing. Do you have a certain place you write, a preferred medium (i.e. paper and pencil or computer), etc.?
APD: Fifteen years ago, only pencil and paper. Now, almost always on a computer. Mornings. Not at a desk. My work revolves around the seasons — since high school, I’ve saved my work in folders labeled “Spring,” Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter.”
AR: You have described Line Study of a Motel Clerk as a collection “about losing, but losing in such a way that you end up preserving.” Can you expand a bit more on how you feel such opposite experiences can intertwine, especially in your collection?
APD: I said this in reference to my favorite poet, Charles Reznikoff. I think especially about his poem “Autobiography: Hollywood.” He’s living in California for work, and he notes that he prefers his home back in New York just as his father, no doubt, preferred his native Ukraine over New York. Both miss their homes, but in recalling their losses, Reznikoff commemorates the beloved places and reveals a bond between the generations: they long for place in the same manner, something no doubt influenced by millennia of Jews longing for Jerusalem. Loss is often communal — our families and communities teach us how to lose and how to hold on.
In my collection, I focus on what was lost across four generations of assimilation. One major loss was language — the oldest generation in my book mostly speaks Greek or Yiddish. Their children speak a mix, then my parent’s generation speak English with Greek and Yiddish markers, and then my generation can’t understand either language. I’m writing about the loss of my ancestral languages, but through writing about them, I’m preserving that line. And I’m preserving it in my own idiosyncratic, regional English. After all these years of teaching, I notice that I often use standard grammar and pronunciation even out of the classroom. I don’t recognize myself when I speak sometimes.
A significant portion of the book examines the intersections of Rust Belt culture and Jewish culture, and one thing both cultures have in common is this impulse to, at all costs, remember history and pass it down. I remember when I was about eight, and my class went to a field trip to the just-opened Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor (aka “the steel museum”), and later that week, my wonderful Hebrew school teacher, who had a number on her arm, taught us graphically about the Holocaust. Never forget Youngstown was once great! Never forget what happened to your Jewish ancestors! It was drilled in. Our job was to be receptacles for the loss, a position that, if refused, can result in tremendous guilt. I think contemporary Rust Belt writers and Jewish writers approach our responsibility with a compromise — sure, we’ll remember, but we’ll complicate the remembering with recollection of all of the topics that got swept under the rug.
AR: What draws you to poetry as opposed to other writing styles? Are there any challenges in portraying certain ideas to the reader in the limited (and structured) space of a poem?
APD: I write (and read) fiction and nonfiction as well. I didn’t grow up with much exposure to poetry, but my I come from a family of storytellers and songwriters. And Bob Dylan fanatics! We also went to synagogue — it was very powerful to sing in Hebrew and Aramaic, languages that I didn’t understand. Pure rhythm.
In composing this collection, my biggest challenge was incorporating background history into the space of the poem. I resolved this by having my characters interact with history rather than relegating it to backstory. I also struggled with organization. I ended up roughly organizing the book by generation, but originally, the organization was thematic — labor, place, assimilation, gender. I value character development in poems, and I think my final organization stresses that.
AR: In an earlier essay for The Missouri Review, you mention that you were “raised to prioritize family, labor, and heritage.” To some extent, this seems to be a categorically midwestern set of ideals. How do you feel Line Study of a Motel Clerk reflects these midwestern priorities?
APD: These priorities are reflected from the title onward — the book is about the familial line of a motel worker.
As I discussed in the question regarding literary depictions of the Midwest, I think the Midwest is too wide-ranging to narrow it down to a set of ideals — at least not a set of ideals that is historically exclusive to the Midwest. In the Rust Belt, as with other economically-depressed areas, people naturally glorify the time period when their cities were populated, jobs were plenty, and their families felt secure. Yet glorification is always problematic — one of my favorite contemporary poems is Rochelle Hurt’s “In the Century of Research,” which takes a sardonic look at Youngstown’s regional obsession with family history.
Of “work, family, and heritage,” heritage is the topic I try to complicate the most in the collection. In school, we were always creating posters about our cultural heritage. Northeast Ohio summers are full of nonstop festivals celebrating ethnic heritage. My generation grew up with a strong sense that our families were not originally from America, and I was shocked when I found out many Americans didn’t feel this way. It wasn’t until I read Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown and Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality that I got a historic explanation — in the late-19th -early 20th century Youngstown, immigrants crossed the Atlantic to work in the steel mills and black workers came north during the Great Migration. With this influx of workers, mill owners needed strategies to maintain control. One way they did this was by segregating mill work by ethnicity and race to discourage immigrant workers from learning English. This was important because a common language would encourage the formation of unions across ethnic and racial lines. Groups couldn’t talk to each other and remained suspicious of each other, so neighborhoods also divided down ethnic and racial lines. In addition, generations of a family often lived together out of economic necessity and tradition — for example, my mother grew up sharing a room with her grandmother from Greece. So I think assimilation slowed down because 1) assimilation was discouraged from the top down as a way of controlling workers by divide-and-rule, and 2) new immigrants were poor and stuck together in order to survive. One lasting result of industrial culture is that I was raised to be very Greek American and Jewish.
A political message in my book is directed against Americans who care about their immigrant ancestors but now support anti-immigration policies. A message is also directed against people who don’t support the civil rights of people of color yet bitch about how their own ancestors were discriminated against or not considered “white.” So many people have and are fighting for racial and economic justice in Youngstown — they’re my heroes, and I hope my book contributes to their legacy.
AR: How do you begin your writing process and where do you find inspiration in the event of writer’s block? Do you have any particular advice for aspiring authors?
APD: The best writing advice I ever got was from a Paris Review interview with Philip Levine: “I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass.”
His interview collections Don’t Ask and So Ask are invaluable to me — his outrage and humor. I was introduced to his work by his student and my teacher, Kathy Fagan Grandinetti.
More advice for aspiring authors: don’t feel like the only way to be a writer is to get an MFA. Or enter expensive poetry contests or attend expensive conferences. Getting an MFA is great, but there are so many wonderful, affordable community and online writing groups. Back home, Lit Youngstown, Pig Iron Press, Wick Poetry Center Outreach, and others are giving writers a place to share their work. Affordable, local, accessible, non-academic writing groups and publishers are vital for the health of American writing.
AR: What’s next for you?
APD: I just finished a novella, and I’m working on my second collection of poetry. Both are set in the Youngstown area and focus on women workers. The novella is narrated by a woman who works in a factory in the late 1970s and suddenly has to make a decision that might bring her happiness but hurt her family. I promised my mom I’d try to write a funny book, but this one unfortunately wasn’t it. The poems are about a group of opinionated girls who work at a Dairy Queen and are obsessed with an elusive Youngstown meteorologist. It’s a little sci-fi and way more lyric and voice-driven than the poems in the forthcoming book.
I’ve been warned that if I keep writing about the Youngstown area I’ll become a “regionalist,” but northeast Ohio is a universe. I could write about it my entire life and still not say all there is to say about it.
Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of the chapbook Poppy Seeds (KSU Press, 2013) and the forthcoming collection Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017). She received an MFA from Ohio State and fellowships from the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her poem “The Heart of It All + A Free Beer” was selected for Best American Poetry 2016.