“I never understood the idea of finding your voice,” says Jon Davis, “because I found so many.” This is from the man most famous for his readings as Chuck Calabreze, the raspy-voiced ex-biker who loves cargo pants, bandannas, sunglasses at night, and reading poems on why everyone at a poetry reading is only waiting for the last poem””so they can escape. But what caused this breaking of personalities, pushing the limits of traditional poetry?
The answer is in Davis’ approach to perpetual learning, in his suspicion of institutions, in the story that led him to the Institute of American Indian Arts. His idea of writer as the satirical wit, keen musician, and ultimately baffled member of the human race. For Davis, the writer is different from everyone else only in his use of language, and his impulse to question.
It’s ironic and a bit funny that Davis is now chair of the creative writing program at IAIA, in a position of leadership at an educational institution when he started out as a bad student. Davis grew up in the small town of Orange, Conn.,””although he is quick to make the distinction that he didn’t live in the town exactly, but in a small house at the end of a “funky cul-de-sac” in the lower-class outskirts of town. Living in a troubled family, Davis grew up on welfare, fleeing his alcoholic father, and missing his mother, who was institutionalized after a mental breakdown when Davis was young.
School wasn’t Davis’ strong suit””he loved reading and learning, but he couldn’t trust the institution. After high school Davis worked odd jobs to make ends meet and support his siblings ”“ construction, masonry, and sewer cleaning. Only years later did he did he go to college and pursue a writing career.
Davis, 58, came to the IAIA 21 years ago. Over that time, he has seen the school change from a two-year school to a four-year college, and seen the campus change from “asbestos filled barracks” in the town of Santa Fe, to portables on the College of Santa Fe (“the low point” of IA’s history, as he calls it) to the new permanent campus south of town complete with bold modern architecture and a green cafeteria.
He also has seen the students change at IAIA since the early 90s.
“They’re a lot more open to ideas, and they know a lot more when they come here,” Davis says. Twenty years ago, native students were more isolated, both geographically and ideologically, he notes. “Some were suspicious of information, fearing it would displace some of their own traditions””maybe some of it does, I don’t know,” Davis adds. Part of the change could be due to the Internet, he says.
Whatever the reasons, IAIA has changed, and Davis feels the school is producing some of the strongest writers ever. This year, eight creative writing students will graduate “practically our whole program,” Davis says with a smile.
But with the strong faculty and a history of producing writers who go on to publish books””such as poets Sherwin Bitsui (Navajo) and Orlando White (Navajo), and fiction writer Eddie Chuculate (Creek/Cherokee)””Davis is confident in the program’s future.
Davis is himself a teacher who draws students to creative writing. Known for his enthusiasm that carries over into classroom discussion, Davis is an advocate of “teaching from the inside,” or writers teaching writing.
Most recently Davis spent the summer writing flash fiction””stories of 1,000 words or less””in preparation for a class he teaches this fall.
“I like to experience what I’m teaching,” Davis says, sitting in a coffee shop in midtown Santa Fe. “I’m a relentless eavesdropper. If I go to a restaurant like this I want to eavesdrop.” He points to a large man engrossed in conversation with a woman a few tables over, “For example, I love that guy’s gestures over there; I wanted to do them. I like to do gestures and feel what it’s like to be that person.”
Known mostly for his poetry””Davis has three books of it””he’s been writing more fiction recently.
“It shifts the way I approach the world,” he says; fiction pushes him to listen to conversation and look for social cues and nuance. (“By the way, sewer cleaning is a good job for a fiction writer,” he says. “You’re in peoples houses in the most intimate way.”) This is different than the poet’s approach. With a wry smile, Davis says: “Poetry is a kind of antisocial activity, very inward. Consequently if you’re at a party, hang out with the fiction writer.” He lets out one of his easy chuckles, “Poets talk about sensations they’ve had, music they’ve listened to. Whereas fiction writers might go so far as to ask how you are.”
At IAIA Davis is the most at home. Davis admits that as a gangly, 6’2” white man with thinning hair (speaking of gestures, Davis will often run a hand over his head””mostly bald on top now, cut short on the sides””and, laughing, lean back in his chair when he’s made a joke or hears one from someone else) he didn’t fit in right away with the IAIA community. But the place has easily become home. He identifies with the students, with their suspicion of institutions, and coming from welfare and alcoholism, Davis identifies with students who feel like outsiders as well. “It just feels really natural after 21 years,” he says.
And as for the heteronyms””Davis has written as more than 15 different people””it’s quieted down. “It’s only Chuck and me now,” he says with a sigh. Davis loves humor, connects with Native Americans there, too. And Chuck, whether he tries to or not, gets people laughing””at themselves, at institutions, at life. “Satire is the revenge of the powerless,” he says with a smile.
And if you were wondering, as chair of IAIA’s creative writing program, Davis has big plans, the main of which is The Cruise.
“It’s a two-year program where we’ll rent a cruiseship and go around the world. By the end of it, everyone will have a novel.” Davis’ grins, runs a hand over his head and leans back in his chair.