David Cavanagh’s most recent book of poems is Cycling in Plato’s Cave, from Fomite Press, 2014. Earlier books include Falling Body and The Middleman, both from Salmon Poetry of Ireland. A fourth book, Straddle, is due out from Salmon in 2015. David’s poems have also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. A dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., he lives in Burlington, Vermont, where he writes along with teaching and advising part-time at Johnson State College. David’s website is: http://dcavanagh.net
Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe the community of writers in Burlington, Vermont?
David Cavanagh: There are so many writers here, and so many different kinds, that it’s hard to characterize the community in any simple way. It’s a very lively, eclectic, and loose community of poets, novelists, memoir writers, journalists, and playwrights. There are readings on a weekly basis and new books coming out regularly. Burlington is a progressive, small city. Some of its writers grew up here. Many have come from New York City and Boston, but also from other parts of the U.S. and the world. I myself grew up in Canada and came here seeking a lively creative community, and I certainly found one.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember the time when you wanted to be a writer?
David Cavanagh: From about the age of 18 or 19, when I started reading poetry in a serious way. William Blake, W.B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot made a huge impact on me. I wanted to write a poem as good as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Soon I was reading Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, many others.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel you have any weakness as a writer?
David Cavanagh: Tons of them. Too many to mention here! Also, weaknesses are not only weaknesses: they’re challenges, and in facing them, they can become a source of energy in the writing. Maybe you want more richness of imagery in your work. So you start looking more carefully at things, trying to be more specific, and after a while the language gets lifted.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do lots of research when you’re on a piece of writing?
David Cavanagh: It depends on the piece.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think reading or performing poetry adds to the importance of a poet?
David Cavanagh: It depends on what you mean by “importance of a poet.” Public readings and performance do help make poets more popular. But much more important than that, they are a great way of expanding the audience for poetry. Many people who don’t read a lot of poetry have trouble appreciating poetry when they read it on the page. When they hear it read aloud, they often “get it.” I wish more people would read poems aloud to themselves at home.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any idea about the importance of the musician to the poet?
David Cavanagh: The music in poetry is supremely important! The sound of poetry is one of the main things that distinguishes it from other writing. The sound of a poem goes straight to the heart of a reader. Are musicians important to the poet? It depends. I love a lot of music. I’ve had the pleasure of working with musicians – reading poems along with jazz in the group, PoJazz, or along with an Irish band, Wind That Shakes the Barley. Sometimes the combination falls flat, but sometimes the coming together of poems and music creates a new kind of magic.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a bit about your books, “Falling Body” and “The Middleman”?
David Cavanagh: The Middleman was my first book. It contains a variety of poems, but the overall theme is that life is a balancing act, a tightrope walk, that we need to explore all sides of issues, and that refusing to accept one extreme or another is not a weakness but a middle position of tension and strength.
Falling Body focuses on the links between our inner and outer worlds, our private and public selves, our present and our past, our losses and small triumphs. Several of the poems also talk about the importance and difficulty of paying attention — how challenging that is in our world, where we often live in a constant state of distraction that can prevent us from any serious understanding or action.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think teachers make better writers?
David Cavanagh: No, not necessarily.
Geosi Gyasi: Did your obsession for cycling influenced your most recent book, “Cycling in Plato’s Cave”?
David Cavanagh: Yes, cycling is at the heart of the book. I’ve been riding bicycles regularly since I was a little boy in Montreal. In the past 15 years, I’ve become obsessed with bike riding as a way of keeping in shape, as a stress reducer (a lot cheaper than therapy), as a form of meditation, as environmentally sound, as a very practical means of transportation, and just a lot of fun. I wrote a few poems about cycling and realized that it could be a way of getting at some concerns that are important to me. The book grew from there.
A bicycle is a beautiful thing. It has a classic design that hasn’t changed much in more than a hundred years. It gives people a simple, efficient way of getting around and a personal connection with their surroundings; it encourages a thoughtful response to the world. My book tries to explore these issues with a light touch, without getting preachy.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you arrive at an idea for a poem?
David Cavanagh: I don’t really arrive at an idea for a poem. It comes to me, if I’m lucky, or grows slowly out of me – and as I write this sentence it doesn’t feel like a good description at all for what is really a complex, even mysterious process. I try to work at poems almost every day. Sometimes an image comes to mind and becomes the basis for a poem. Sometimes a bit of remembered conversation, or something I’ve seen, triggers a poem. There is no one way, and I never know until I’m well into a piece, and sometimes not until well after the piece has been drafted, if it has the potential to be a poem.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think writers should have specific mission to fulfill within the society?
David Cavanagh: It’s a very good and complicated question. Writers have a mission to do the best writing that they can – the most honest, best crafted, and most engaging writing that they can do. They have a responsibility, first of all, to the work and to their own vision. They have a responsibility within society just as any human being does, but I don’t think they must feel obligated to take an explicit political or social stance, for example, in their writing. If they do, and it happens naturally as part of their most authentic work, great. Of course, all writing is political and social at some level, so any good writer contributes to society by adding a drop of honesty and clear vision to the pool of public awareness.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most important review you’ve ever received from a reader?
David Cavanagh: Oh, well, that would be the one where the reader just loved the poems and said everyone should read them! Just kidding. Seriously, I think of two different “reviews,” which were really comments by two poets whose opinions I respect very much. One said that I had become one of the “touchstone poets” in his life. The other liked a particular set of poems but thought some of them could go deeper. Both reviews have spurred me on.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe your daily working habits?
David Cavanagh: I write nearly every morning for a couple of hours, though I’m not at the desk with my head down the whole time. I’m reading, I’m writing, I’m getting a cup of coffee, I’m writing some more. In the afternoons, I work at my part-time job at a college. In the evening I read some more.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any book(s) that have inspired you over the years?
David Cavanagh: I try to read a lot and widely, so I would say that the collective reading that I have done inspires me. It’s difficult to pinpoint any particular books. The work of Adrienne Rich, William Butler Yeats, William Blake, Wallace Stevens, Alice Notley, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Don McKay, my great friend Greg Delanty, my partner Sharon Webster, and many others have inspired and influenced me.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think there is more to writing than putting pen to paper or the mere typing on the computer screen?
David Cavanagh: To write good poems requires bringing all of yourself, all your concentration, all your energy, all your life, past and present, to the work of getting down a few authentic words. It’s a crazy business, and it’s the most wonderful work imaginable.