JUSTIN DAVIS | The ? Remains & Other Poems
A few good words with Justin
BVS: "Damn Son, Where'd You Find This?" makes exciting plays with the text on the page--echoing, shouting, cross-talk--and reminds me of Douglas Kearney's work. Can you talk a little bit about what you hoped to communicate with this form?
JD: When I wrote this one, I was thinking a lot about my favorite mixtapes from the 2000s and early 2010s and some of the DJs who hosted them: DJ Drama, DJ Skee, DJ Whoo Kid, and Trap-A-Holics. The DJ tags on those tapes always added this energy and chaos to the sounds of those tapes—they fill in these tiny gaps between the rappers' lines, overlap with their voices, and cut or move whole sections of songs—and I liked the idea of trying to bottle some of that energy in my own work. So the poem ended up with these competing voices and competing perspectives, which made it feel as crowded as my thoughts were when I wrote it.
I'm glad you mention Douglas Kearney, too, as he's one of my favorite poets working right now. I love how his poems are packed with political subtext through his aesthetic choices—a big influence on me, for sure.
BVS: I know that you're a poet and a cultural field shifter--how do you see your role as an artist intersect with your role as a labor organizer? Where do your politics plug into your poetry?
JD: I feel really strongly that my art isn't a political practice in and of itself, but I hope that my art and my political practice can complement each other. My poems have always been a way of working through questions that I don’t feel fully equipped to answer yet. They help me work through the messy process of fighting back in a country that runs on our deaths. And without organizing, I can’t do any of that. Organizing grounds me and my writing; it always reminds me who my political commitments are for: my family and community. I want a better world for them, and for all of us.
I also think it's important to say that the literary poetry scene (as I've experienced it, anyway) often obscures our relationship to political practice. So many writers are going through MFA programs where we're underpaid and denied benefits while we keep our departments functioning. We're going to universities that are helping gentrify and surveil their neighborhoods. We’re working for nonprofits and presses that are partnering with major corporations or repressive state institutions. So get out of the classroom and onto the street when you can. Talk to your fellow writers about how much you get paid, how you're being treated at work, and where the money for your writing is coming from. Fight for transformative, material change with the people around you—especially when they’re not in the academy, especially when you’re not writing about it.
BVS: What poet are you most excited about right now? Whose work feels extra juicy?
JD: It's so hard to choose just one! Lately, I’ve been really inspired by folks like Darius Simpson, Joselia Rebekah Hughes, Tarik Dobbs, Fargo Tbakhi, Zefyr Lisowski, and Ava Hofmann. And I gotta shout out Jo’Van O’Neal, Khaya Osborne, Prince Bush, Mauricio Novoa, Daphne DiFazio, and Ellie Black. They’re putting out incredible work right now and they deserve all the flowers.
Justin Davis is a writer and labor organizer. His poems have appeared in places like Breakwater Review, Anomaly, wildness, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Apogee Journal. He’s published essays with Scalawag, Science for the People, and Labor Notes. He's been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.