Saturday, September 15, 2007
An interview with poet Cortney Davis (2007)
An Interview with Cortney Davis
by Mar Walker
Cortney Davis, a well-known poet, a nurse practitioner with two full-length collections of poetry, an NEA Poetry Fellowship, and two Connecticut Commission on the Arts poetry grants to her credit will be the featured reader for WNPS on Sept 30. (2007) When you write what is your process? "I have to have a whole day off. I have to clear everything out of the way, the grocery shopping done, no outstanding chores. I have to be able to wander around, read some poetry, read something. If I have an idea, I have been wondering about, I begin to write and as I write it takes the form of a poem or an essay. I am not prolific writer. I am a long-distance writer. I can write from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Once I start I can write for hours. I get lost in and keep going. It’s hard to find the time. I have kids and grand kids and all the chores anyone would have. I live like everyone else. I try to grab these writing times when I can." How does she know when a poem is finished? "Because it has a certain wholeness to it You just feel it is done. A painter looks at his painting and sees that not another drop of paint is needed. Some are never done. Donald Hall says when a poem is finished there is a click at the end, like the lid on a box and you can’t change anything. I am a prodigous reviser and I revise and revise and revise. I want clean and crisp use, unusal language, but not inaccessible. I am an opptimist. The glass is half full. There is so much suffering and so much beauty and grace all outpouring to humanity in the world. It’s hard not to be optimistic." =================================================================
The following is an article which appeared on February 8, 2007 in the Redding Pilot, a weekly newspaper.
Cortney Davis Nurse-practitioner: a poet's essay read on NPR
by mar walker
Cortney Davis of Granite Ridge Road, who has lived in Redding for 18 years, was the featured essayist this past Monday on "This I Believe," a segment on National Public Radio's (NPR) All Things Considered, a program with millions of listeners. Her essay was heard locally on WSHU (91.1 FM). It was chosen from some 18,000 submissions sent in from all around the country. Ms. Davis is a nurse-practitioner at a woman's health clinic in Danbury and had previously spent years working in other medical capacities, as a head nurse in a cancer unit and as an operating room technician. She is also a well-known poet with two full-length collections of poetry ( Details of the Flesh and Leopold's Maneuvers), an NEA Poetry Fellowship, and two Connecticut Commission on the Arts poetry grants to her credit. Ms. Davis said that most of the time, prevailing social attitudes prevent people from fully experiencing their grief. "Our society says, .Move on, '" she said. One day at work, Ms. Davis said a woman patient had come in for an obstetrical visit. "On examination it was found the baby had died. She began to mourn and cry and moan out loud," Ms. Davis said. This patient's utterly unselfconscious grieving made her think, she said. "In other cultures, they tear their clothing, cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes. They have visible reminders they are mourning. Here in the United States, we tend to suppress that ... I believe in grief. I was given a subject to write about ... It was that woman grieving that gave me the subject," she said. As a nurse, Ms. Davis said she is often a witness to people's grief, and also to their suffering. "So often if someone is dying, I don't have the power to stop that death. I do have the power to support and to be deeply aware of their suffering. To some extent, I do that also in my writing," Ms. Davis said. Growing up, she said, a nursing career was not one she had even considered. "I never wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to be a veterinarian or an artist or a writer, anything but a nurse," she said. "My whole growing up was oriented at creative pastimes. I painted, took art class, dancing class, belonged to art club and drama club. I was an art major at Gettysburg College. I went to college two years and got married. "In those days (Ms. Davis is a youthful 61), marriage was the goal of all young women. I stopped going to school, had two young children," she said. But divorce interrupted that plan. "I had to get a job and I became a nurse's aide because it had on-the-job training, and uniforms were provided. The hospital was right around the corner. I worked like a dog. I worked hard," Ms. Davis said. "The very first night on the job, wearing my brand-new pinstripe uniform ... the very first room I went into, the man was dead ... I looked at him and something was not right. I sat down next to him and put my hand on his arm and it was cool, not cold, but cool." He had died, and Ms. Davis said for people in the medical field, the first death they encounter is often a turning point that either drives them away or keeps them in the profession. "I sat there and thought this is the place where life and death happen and I am being given the responsibility to be a witness to this." "Little by little I began to enjoy caring for people intimately, talking to them to comfort them, bathing them, all the maternal things nurses do," she said. After a while, she was asked if she would take surgical technician training. Once again it was on-the-job training with a pay boost. "With the ignorance of youth, I didn't even think about what it meant to work in the OR. I just signed up," she said. After training, she worked as an operating room technician at Norwalk Hospital. "As a nurses aide, I had worked with the outside of patients. In the OR, I worked with the insides of people. There isn't a more poetic place than inside the body. To see the works of the body is just astounding," she said. However, she was not yet writing about her work. "I was a struggling single mom with two kids trying to make a living. I didn't think of myself as a writer," Ms. Davis said. After a while, another invitation to change came to her. "In the OR, one of the doctors said, .You are really good at this. You should be a nurse.' I said .Yes.' I just blew with the wind," she said, laughing. Subsequently, Ms. Davis attended the Norwalk Community College nursing program. While in school, she went back to working as a nurse's aide on the evening shift. She also shared an apartment and baby-sitting costs with another single mother. When she graduated, Ms. Davis worked first at St. Joseph's in Stamford (which no longer exists), and then moved to critical care at Danbury Hospital and to the position of head nurse of the oncology unit, which is the cancer unit, she said. It was there that all of her experiences came together and she began to write to deal with what she saw. "I was taking care of patients so sick and many who were dying. I didn't know what to do with all the emotions and I started writing poems about my work. If you really pay attention and you are working with people who are suffering, it goes deep, far beyond the superficial feelings of pity," she observed. "When you are caring for someone who is suffering, to be able to be present when s omeone else is so close to the elemental nature of humanity when people are suffering, you see they are stripped bare - everything is taken away when you are suffering. I found poetry was the only container that was strong enough to hold that kind of emotion." After a while, another invitation for change appeared. "So then, a group of physicians asked if I wanted to go back to school to be a nurse-practitioner. In my usual thoughtful fashion, I said, .Sure.' After they left, I had to ask what that was," she said. A nurse-practitioner is a registered nurse with advanced training in diagnosis and treatment who can write prescriptions, similar to a physician's assistant, Ms. Davis explained. "Whatever opportunity comes my way, I seem to go with it. My guardian angel was watching. They sent me to school, paid for my time and school with the understanding I would work for them." She attended the nurse-practitioner program at Cornell. At the time she graduated, there were only 4,000 nursepractitioners in the United States, she said. "Once again, I was feeling as if all of my previous experience has helped me tremendously. Now I am seeing the walking wounded, people who are up and walking about, but have acute or chronic illnesses," she said. "Now their lifestyle and life situation comes into play with their physical condition. We talk about their jobs, their hopes and dreams," she said "I am seeing them in a different dimension than when they are suffering in the oncology unit ... I could see all the pieces of a person's health and illness story - all writing is about story," she said. Ms. Davis said her work influences her writing and her writing influences her work. "When I am writing, I am paying attention to image and metaphor, deep meaning below the surface meaning and to narrative ... I think because I pay attention to deep meaning ... I try to pay attention to what they (patients) are not telling, which can be the most important of all," she said. Ms. Davis joins a long list of essayists to be featured on "This I Believe." Past columnists include John McCain, Gloria Steinem, Tony Hawk, David Copperfield, Bill Gates, and Colin Powell. Her essay will be available to read or listen to at www.npr.org/thisibelieve, an archive of the broadcast essays. She will also be reading and teaching writing at two upcoming workshops. On May 5 2007 , from 1 to 4, she will be reading her poetry and teaching a workshop, "Writing the Personal Lyric Poem," at the Freshwater Poetry Festival, Asnuntuck Community College, 170 Elm St., Enfield, CT06082. For information or reservations, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. This summer, (2007) Ms. Davis will be teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. The weeklong session, from July 8 to July 14, is called "Writing the Medical Experience." For information go to www.sarahlawrence.edu. More information on Ms. Davis and her writing may be found on her Web site, cortneydavis.com.