St. Petersburg through a poet’s eyes

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Carol Davis in St. Petersburg in front of a building across from the Hermitage. The area is called Palace Square. Her latest collection of work, "Into the Arms of Pushkin, Poems of St. Petersburg," details daily Russian life during a 10-year period.

Prize-winning poetry writer Carol Davis will read selections of her work from her new collection, “Into the Arms of Pushkin, Poems of St. Petersburg,” at Malibu’s Diesel, A Bookstore Sept. 30.

By Carla Fischer / Special to Malibu Times

Carol Davis was first a dancer when she fell in love with Russian literature in college, and, at 25 years old, after finishing her master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures, she realized that poetry was what she wanted to do.

“I studied with Carolyn Kizer who instilled a confidence that ‘launched me’,” Davis said. (Carolyn Kizer is the founding editor of “Poetry Northwest” and is known for her feminist poetry.)

Davis’ launch has come full circle with her new collection of poems, “Into the Arms of Pushkin, Poems of St. Petersburg,” for which she won the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.

“It was totally unexpected when I won,” Davis said.

Sponsored by the Truman State University Press, Davis’ winning poetry was selected from more than 500 manuscripts. Davis received $2,000 and publication of her book that spans a 10-year period (1996-2006). The book’s cover is a metaphor for an open window, with views of Russian life covering that period.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Davis moved to Europe with her family in the ’50s, while her father worked for the Marshall Plan (the 1947 European economic aid policy outlined by then Secretary of State George C. Marshall). Davis attended grade school partially in England, and eventually her family resettled in the States in the early ’60s.

After discovering her passion for poetry, Davis then studied with author and critic Margaret Atwood and had help from mentors.

“My favorite poet is Brigit Pegeen Kelly,” Davis said, “who read my manuscript and helped me decide the order of the poems. She said to look at the musicality of the poems instead of chronologically.”

A two-time Fulbright scholar, Davis received her first grant in 1996 that took herself and her three young children to St. Petersburg, and the streets that Alexander Pushkin (considered the founder of Russian poetry and language) once wandered.

While there, she taught at the Petersburg Jewish University. “I was the first American there, teaching things nobody had ever taught before. I taught modern English literature in English and one course badly in Russian, with a lot of help,” Davis said.

Although she had spent time in Europe when younger, Davis felt she was “considered a foreigner and struggled with loneliness, language barriers and cultural differences.”

“Friendship in Russia is different than in America,” Davis said. “They take it seriously, having and depending on old friendships.”

She has lived in Russia five different periods since her first trip there and during the past 10 years, she’s made lasting friendships.

“I wasn’t a rich ex-pat. I lived much more of a Russian life,” Davis said.

Daily Russian life, especially food and water, or lack thereof, inspired more than a few of her poems.

“You can drink the water in Moscow but not in St. Petersburg because it has giardia in it,” Davis said, laughing. “A lot of poems in the book have to do with boiling the water and waiting for it to boil. Now it’s very easy to buy bottled water everywhere.”

Other poems focus on the wonderful bread and bakeries on every corner, “although now all the little bakeries are closing because it’s becoming more homogenized,” Davis said.

The limited varieties of fresh vegetables available inspired her poem “Dreaming of Vegetables”:

As the days shortened and the sun/faded to a puddle of dirty snow, my dreams/shifted to color./A salad of tomatoes, yellow peppers,/romaine torn like rags and radicchio,/streaked purple spilling over a glass bowl…

The T.S. Eliot Prize Judge Alberto Rios, commenting on Davis’ work, said: “Showing us what this particular life in Russia feels like makes it our world, even when the speaker struggles to draw meaning from confusion or frustration. In one poem, the speaker tells of laying out the language of the next day on the back of the chair, quite as if it were clothing. We grasp this moment with depth, startled to make the connection between language and clothing. These are great moments in their small detail, abstractions given recognizable form.”

Davis received a second Fulbright grant in 2005 to the same country and city, which, Davis said, is “very unusual.” This time she taught American literature at the St. Petersburg State University.

“It’s lovely being a poet in Russia,” Davis said. “It’s considered a profession and no one questions what you do.”

Davis is the author of two chapbooks, “The Violin Teacher” and “Letters from Prague,” and a bilingual collection, “It’s Time to Talk About…” Her work has appeared in journals, anthologies, read on NPR radio and Radio Russia. She currently teaches creative writing and English at Santa Monica College.

Davis will read excerpts from “Into the Arms of Pushkin” Sept, 30 at Diesel, A Bookstore, 3 p.m. Diesel is located at 3890 Cross Creek Rd. More information can be obtained by calling 310.456.996.