interview by: Britt Billmeyer-Finn
Ell Davis is a writer & artist from Columbus, Ohio. They help to produce small editions of chapbooks as part of Daisy Mayhem Books.
At Home Library Archival Residency is a residency program brought to you by Threshold Academy, a future bookstore and current alternative education space based in Northampton, MA. The At Home Library Archival Residency invites writers into the home of Threshold founders Britt Billmeyer-Finn and Zoe Tuck to utilize their library of texts, which includes many books, chapbooks and ephemera. What is a “text” is open for interpretation by the residents. Ell Davis is the inaugural human resident. Her residency began on June 16th 2019 and ended on July 7th 2019. During this time Ell spent 4 hours every Sunday in house working on her archival project and checked out various texts along the way to come and go between home spaces. The bulk of the interview took place on Aug 2nd 2019. It was completed many months later, April/May 2020 during the pandemic because sometimes things take a long time to finish.
BBF: Just to set the scene a little, we are sitting outside at Maple Farm Foods in Hadley, western MA, it feels like one of the most western “Massachusettsian” sites to have an interview about poetry, process and craft. It’s a lovely overgrown spot with silos in the distance or whatever those are, I’m not a farmer and there is an occasional whiff of cow poo
BBF: Can you tell me a little bit about your origin story with poetry, what led you to it, to that form of art making?
image above: front cover of Ell Davis's Dream Catalog
ED: When I was a little child, I used to have this tiny, tiny book. It was pink and really tiny like an inch big. I wrote little songs and poems in it. And stories. When I got older I started keeping a journal and I haven’t really stopped. Writing in a journal has given a lot of structure to my life. It is a way that I like to spend time & it is helpful, it helps me to lock into experience and to the passage of time . Most of the other writing I do feels like an extension/transformation of my journals to make them suitable for other eyes— a process that I mostly discovered while I was in liberal arts college aka “fancy school.”
BBF: It sounds like your path toward poetry/writing started as a private thing. There is something very private in becoming oneself, I suppose, the private sphere offers a sort of experimentation and safety…
ED: yea, it’s a different thing when you are writing something that might be poetry but is a private act, when it becomes public, it becomes a thing instead of an act, someone tells you it is poetry. That’s something I’ve struggled with— believing that something is a poem. (as opposed to an action or a habit, or yeah, a journal, or some notes.)
BBF: I feel like there is a complex connection coming up here between this idea of fanciness, becoming a poet and institutional space…
ED: Right, yes it feels complicated to articulate succinctly or unknot it all. Just personally, I think until I went to college I had an idea of poetry community as something boring that happens in big cities, or otherwise only a kind of emo livejournal & fanfic internet thing, like something only kids did, which makes sense, because I grew up in the middle of nowhere midwest in the 90s-2000s. Either that or I thought of poetry as something super old, which I know is really common! Full disclosure, I totally had a livejournal on which I wrote weird poetry and fanfic and it was a really happy and interesting important thing, but I guess-- I think going to liberal arts school, my educational privilege, and the people and places I’ve learned about or been able to access because of it, have been totally and completely instrumental in my process of coming to understand some other ways poetry can be, and in my becoming comfortable reading poetry books, meeting poets, and creating my own poetry process. I’m definitely not saying it has to happen like that, or even that it’s super comfortable or ideal. I have some distrust when navigating the institution, and the classroom-as-“public,” at the same time that I am indebted to it, especially since I’m in a funded MFA right now. But, it’s just what happened for me! So I have this association between becoming a poet with my own move to the east coast for expensive school where all these established artists teach, and the thrill and exorbitance of it all, and being this awkward, sensitive little weirdo & accidentally sitting next to Robert Kelly when I was at the first reading I ever went to in my life ever, and seeing him glace down at me through his big white fairy tale wizard eyebrows like “who are you?” And of course all the debt.
BBF: Can you tell me about poetry/art making life here in western MA?
ED: It is abundant. It has been so easy to find the kind of resources and community I want on the East Coast. I’m a kid in a candy shop. I’m in writer school, which is a big part of it, in an MFA program. It’s kind of a struggle right now to separate my art stuff from school stuff. & find a way for writing/art to still be this magic, secret, amazing, world. & a struggle to find the way I do want writing to appear publicly for me— I’ve decided classes don’t feel like the right way, and maybe never did, though I’m indebted & acknowledge the intense privilege I have that has allowed me to use them as a springboard to something else.
Inaugural Human Resident
BBF: Also, you were the inaugural human resident…
BBF: What was it like for you to participate in the creation of or the beginning stages of what this residency is…I mean one of the foundational principles of this residency is that each resident gets to participate in the making of its parameters, communication style,
purpose and then of course make a thing
pictured Above: Archival Residency Ledger
ED: It was so fun to just read other people’s books, and the at home library gives a view through a certain window of the alternate universe of the Bay. In the past, I read a lot of and about poetry written in San Francisco from the 50s and 60s and it was really interesting to look at that community and its ancestors through a more contemporary or recent past. That, in addition to looking at the actual poems themselves and this landscape of ideas that opens out and being with that. And in terms of being the first resident, it kinda just felt like a party and a sneaky time.
BBF: (laughter) I like that it is a “sneaky party”
ED: (laughter) like a little cracked door by the kitchen, so hungry for words. And finding beautiful things that I think will continue to be special to me that I may not have ever encountered. I think it is amazing how poetry spreads around how it moves through chapbooks and then dies. I just got this really special time with the life of these poems. And then the question of how to use them while also allowing it to sort of organically happen.
BBF:The residency you did here and the living room reading series Zoe and I run, The But Also is very much connected to our time in the Bay and how we did community there. In the Bay, there is a pervasive sense of anti-institutional and anti-state rhetoric and activism and one way that manifests is creating poetry sites in non-institutional spaces, which is based on a long history of activism and queer spaces. This resonated so deeply for Zoe and I as part of our time in the Bay and sense of becoming the humans and poets we are that our home continues to be a really central part of how we create community and work, these sneaky parties, these archives of the moment. So this residency is this new way for us to use the home and what/who is in it.
ED: I have spent a lot of time in DIY/punk/ whatever scenes in my life & I love things when homes get to be many things! It feels natural and generative to me! And full of possibility.
BBF: Any punk life anecdotes that feel relevant to share here?
ED: I guess in a past time of my life, I lived in a show house with some really nice people. I wasn’t grown up enough to understand the full extent of what a place like that meant and could do while I was there-- but the experience remains to be really inspirational to me and to my understanding of possibilities for anti-institutional / anti-capitalist-tinged play & domesticity. (Also: how resources and [radical] information can move.)
I’m curious about what it was like for you, how filling the house with art and thinking/reading, and then filling it with residency doing visitors changes the house and the life in the house?
BBF: It’s lovely, and awkward and fun. I think in part it is a praxis on friendship and intimacy and then the tension of a home as an object/subject. The house object is the place we live in. And there is so much to living. The residency is an invitation to do living. Less abstractly its an archival experiment, to create reading lists, and excavate histories and create an archive within the archive. It’s really exciting to see the book piles that you make, and the quotes that you write down in the archive ledger and the ways we figure out communication, and chat after the residency hours are up and share snacks and imagine future projects and feel shy. It’s all a part of the project.
BBF: Can I ask about your residency project? What did you make? What was your process like?
ED: The first few weeks were just me reading and developing connections with the books. Also, I am working on this epic poem, so I was keeping my eye out for all the long poems. Stealing lines, working on my own poetry in the background.
some of the texts used in archival project: there are boxes and there is wanting, Tessa Micaela Landreau-Grasmuck/Clap For Me, Paola Capó-García and The Animal is in the World like Water in Water, Leslie Scalapino & Kiki Smith
some of the texts used in the archival project: Poetry State Forest, Bernadette Mayer/ Debts & Lessons, Lynn Xu/Ursula or University, Stephanie Young/RABBIT BUTOH, BUNNY BUTOH, Bhanu Kapil
ED: At some point, it occurred to me to start cataloguing the archive, because there are a lot of amazing books! And to list them and see who is actually there. That’s the archivist in me & the autodidact, that knows the value of a carefully assembled list.
But it became this multilayered project when it started to blend with the research that I’ve been doing on my family’s religious history, and this magic-y, non-Christo centric version of Catholicism they practice... am I answering the question still?
BBF: oh yes…and let’s not worry too much about the question…
ED: I started thinking about La Smorfia Napoletana, this dream index and divination tool.. I wondered if I could create a catalog that worked a little like that; which both listed titles and could map out at least some elements of the subconscious of the library, the landscape of images and vocabulary and ideas that I was wading into.
It’s been interesting to see what language repeats in the texts that I pulled and what is absent. For instance, there is no food! It is really hard to find food.
BBF: Are there any other words that stood out to you?
ED: There are a lot of mothers repeated.
BBF: I wonder if you have a hypothesis about why that word mother?
ED: Oh, hmmm…I dunno but it makes me wonder about the vernacular of poetry and the words that are allowed entry…like food doesn't really get entry a lot and when it does it feels really amazing, like if you’ve read Junk by Tommy Pico there are a lot of good food words. Across the board, stars came up a lot, animals were very present, specific flowers but rarely the word flower, I was really looking for the word vegetable but never found it. My process was that I would take one of the books I had read or felt drawn to and open it to a page number and just use words from that page. So it was kind of random -- and it might have something to do with the books I chose to pick up, obviously.
BBF: Have you since written a poem with the word vegetable in there?
ED No, but I should!
pictured above: vegetable poem, When We Met by Ell Davis
Multiple art forms
BBF: I want to maybe just ask you about your art practices, who inspires you, you’re a poet but you are many things and a multifaceted artist so I wonder if you can tell me about the things you create?
ED: It’s interesting because other artforms don’t feel as private to me as writing. I used to play a lot of music. I haven’t been doing much of that lately but when I do make music it’s instrumental, wordless. Generally the things that I do outside of writing are things that could involve words but don’t. I was making ambient music for a minute and I think that got really popular around 2015/6 in a certain crowd — can you guess why— & I love that stuff but am re-evaluating for a minute, and thinking about what that trend is about and my participation in it, and what kind of equipment I want to work with and how. In the meantime I’m making paper, with no words on it…out of old cloth and stuff. And little books; notebooks, and other people’s books, and trying to learn how to make them beautiful.
BBF: That’s so interesting to me, the wordless making that is created out of perhaps the wordiness or failures of language. Can I take a look at the project in its current form?
ED: The failure of language is an interesting thing to bring in… I believe in language so much and I love its games, or maybe I should say I believe in languages plural, like their collective power, but it does disappoint me all the time. And the possibility of exhausting yourself by thinking in language disappoints me too.
With the non-writing art forms there is something glittery and special— it keeps me sharp I think and feeling alive in a way that writing doesn’t.
I hope people use the chapbook from this residency to call upon their dead friends to give them dreams that guide them towards the things that are good for them. I personally really believe in dreams as messages and in people that you love caring for you after they are gone! But, whether or not people share that— I hope it means something.
BBF: Thank you so much Ell for all of your offerings today and being Threshold Academy’s very first resident of the At Home Library Archival Residency. You are a star!
Dream Catalog available for purchase: email firstname.lastname@example.org or
Venmo $5 to @daisymahem