Portland poet Leah Noble Davidson

on April 4, 2015
Photo by Mercy McNab

Photo by Mercy McNab

In a recent online list of recommended reading for the Cambridge Writers Workshop, Leah Noble Davidson’s book Poetic Scientifica was placed between Leo Tolstoy’s Family Happiness and Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires. Her book was one of the best selling small press books at Powell’s in 2013 and deserves to be in the discussion with the classic minds. We all have our own way of saying something, and while it may hold great meaning to us, it is often lost on others. Many a poetry reading can feel like this. Leah picks apart the linguistics of complicated matters like sexual abuse and breakups in a fascinating way. She is proof that the right and left hemispheres of the brain can work quite well together. We sat in the tiny corner nook of Caffe D’Arte and explored the science of her poetry, Marilyn Monroe as a pattern, and what’s she has in store for us.

ELEVEN: Can you explain the title of your last book?

Leah Noble Davidson: What happened first was the concept of the book. About a year before I wrote the book, I was at a party with a big group of poets. So it’s at the end of the night, and I’m talking to my friend Brian, and it was one of those moments where you’re like, “You know what I want?” what I wanted was a poetry book for all of my favorite writers, where they go through my favorite poems and give me a definition for each of the words that they’re using because I don’t always know where they’re coming from and it drives me insane! All I’m seeing is a framework for me to see myself every time I’m looking at their poetry. And my friend said “Ok you have a year. You write that book, or I will.” And I was like, okay, yeah yeah. And then a few months later, he really got on my back about it, and was serious. So I started writing the book. I think Poetic Scientifica came from the idea that… so scientifica isn’t really a word, right? It’s like this poetic version of this pseudo-science understanding of the way that we understand idiolects, and how the words that we say are just sounds that represent a meaning. So I make a random sound, and you have to flip through your own mental dictionary, and all of the definitions you have are based on the experiences you have had with that word. So for instance I can say “cat” and you may think of an orange furry thing running along the top of a fence. And I might think of a stripper friend sliding around on a pole. It’s interesting that poets have these plays on words… you don’t always catch it because you don’t have the same experience. So I wanted to play with that idea.

11: You talk a lot about Marilyn Monroe in Poetic Scientifica, what’s the significance?

LND: Marilyn for me is… there’s the person, and there’s the construct. To me Marilyn is very much a construct of a lot of people coming together to build this dream of an idea of a thing. There’s all of the designers who created all of her clothing. There’s so much there. Even the front of the book. There’s Marilyn [pointing to the pattern that makes up the cover image] in a real fancy dress. The whole thing is covered in Marilyn, but you just can’t see it. it’s just all chopped up and replicated.

11: Are you working on anything new?

LND: Yeah it’s all about doors. So I put this one [Poetic Scientifica], and it was an experiment. So the feedback that I got was that people would say “I liked the poems, but you didn’t need the gimmick.” And it wasn’t a gimmick, the quote unquote gimmick built the poems. What I didn’t hear was the connection–nobody walked up to me and said “That first poem totally means something more to me now.” Why is that? How can I play with that experience? What do I do next to build and experience? I thought maybe I went wide and not deep. So instead of just touching the surface of all of these other poems, what if I picked one word and played with that through the entire book? And I just build over and over and over, in all of these different ways. So I had to pick a word. I didn’t have a favorite word, I just wanted to do an old one that I can work on for a year, and be okay with. So I picked door, because it was such an old word, it’s dynamic. I spent a lot of time talking to people about it, and it was like this play… people would say, “Of course, you’re going to write about The Doors.”

11: That’s funny the first thing I thought of was Huxley–The Doors of Perception, which they supposedly named themselves after.

LND: Right! And before Huxley was Blake. Now I know that whole thing, and how they all had a penchant for hallucinogens. And someone would suggest that I wrote about Janus, the god of doors, and that’s where we get January from. The beginning and end of things. Someone else suggested I write about the way you forget something every time you walk through a door. Of course you’re going to write about thresholds, how there is a deeper meaning to knocking, and why we have to be polite. Why is that? Of course you’re going to write about locks and closed doors, and people who do things behind closed doors. It became bigger than I ever imagined. I was very lucky. Door wasn’t something I chose because it had meaning to me. And I have all of this meaning now.

11: How do you feel about reading your work publicly?

LND: It’s funny, I feel that reading your poetry… it’s unnerving. It’s almost this gift and this contract. It’s the price you have to pay to commune with other really talented people. So if I didn’t read my poetry on stage, there’s a chance that many people wouldn’t read my poetry. Because when you do a reading it’s like a free sample. On top of that, I got to meet a lot of people who put a lot of work into it. That’s not to say, like when I read at Powell’s there was a moment right before I was on my way where I stopped at my own door and was like “I can’t go.” Because I was just really anxious. Usually I don’t get anxious if it’s just at a bar. If it’s at a bar, I just have a couple of drinks, and it’s low lighting, and I assume everyone else is drinking, so they‘re not going to judge me. But I can’t do that at a library because everyone is going to be sober and so will I, so this is scary now.

11: How would you sum up your poetry?

LND: Actually I once had a conversation with Emily Kendall Frye and I told her one day that her poetry was like a piece of parchment paper, where there were all these little holes poked in it, and people were playing with little lights in the background, and you could see the little lights popping through the holes. You don’t really see it coming, and it kind of just flashes through and you get this flicker. It’s like “What was that?” and then it’s gone. And it’s just soft. I’d say my poetry is like an origami bird sitting on the top of a lot of water and there’s a string tied to a really heavy weight down at the bottom. »

– Scott McHale



It was the crisp clack way her shiny red pumps

made contact with the hardest surfaces that she

loved the most.


Before pretty Marilyn in blonde nudes with painted cheeks for Time or Sinatra,

normal Norma stood alone and perfect behind clumsy glasses and a smile.

I wonder if Joe ever knew her.

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