By Franklin Abbott
Theresa Davis, like many young women in middle school, kept a private diary. Not until her freshman year at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia did she perform one of her poems for an audience. Seeing a notice for women to sign up for the college pageant that would choose its Miss Georgia contestant, Davis, one of a few blacks in recently integrated rural college, made inquiry about the pageant. She was politely discouraged and told she couldn’t afford to participate. Davis made her own dress for $17 and performed a piece she wrote about death as a protest that went “horribly awry.”
Writing did not return to Davis as a passion until her father, poet and musician Charles Jikki Riley, urged her as he lay dying to find her voice. Davis had grown up in a world of poetry and protest. Her mother is the poet and social activist Alice Lovelace. Lovelace formed a poetry troupe called Madaso (mother, daughter, son), to record a tribute album to honor Riley afer his death. Davis was the daughter and her brother, performance poet Hasan, was the son. They recorded two albums together, “This is Your Family” and “The Uncivil War.”
Davis says her writing has changed significantly since that time, “I no longer sound like I swallowed the rhyming dictionary.” Though her word play changed, her political writing became more personal and more radical. She read her new poems for strangers for the first time at Decatur’s Java Monkey Speaks where she was introduced as Alice Lovelace’s daughter. Java Monkey host Kodac Harrison was so impressed he asked Davis to do a feature performance. Since then she has become a master of the art of spoken word poetry.
Davis says, “not a week goes by when I am not at an open mic.” She and Karen Garrabrant co-host an open mic for women at Charis Books & More in Little Five Points called Cliterati. From her work with Cliterati and Java Monkey, she and Karen G founded the Art Amok Slam Team. She attended her first national slam in Albuquerque in 2006 and was “blown away, humbled and inspired” by the gifted performance poets she met and heard. “You have three minutes to tell a complete story that will resonate with the judges,” she says. “You have to learn to be more concise and you have to be willing to be vulnerable.” She went on to win the 2011 Women of the World Poetry Slam.
Davis met Bryan Borland when they both keynoted for the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival one stormy night at the Decatur Library. Borland had just started his Sibling Rivalry Press and after hearing Davis, he was smitten. “I really want to publish your work,” he told Davis whose keynote was a melange of poetry and musings about poetry. She thought he was kidding. He persisted and she demurred not quite believing her work was literary. Borland won her over and her first book of poems, “After This We Go Dark,” was widely acclaimed and was honored by the American Library Association. Borland wanted a second book and Davis rose to his request with less trepidation. Davis’ second book, “Drowned: A Mermaid’s Manifesto,” reprises her mix of humor and poignancy, her very queer and black to the bone knowing about the perils, perplexities and joi de vivre of living.
To celebrate the publication of “Drowned,” a special event will be held at 7 Stages in Little Five Points on Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. called “Poems & Pasties,” featuring Def Jam poet Jon Goode, singer/songwriter Ken J. Martin, members of the Art Amok and Java Monkey poetry slam teams and burlesque artists from Syrens of the South and the Candybox Review.
The wheel of fortune comes around again for Davis when Kodac Harrison passes the baton to her on Nov. 20 at Java Monkey Speaks. Harrison is retiring as host after 16 years and Davis will take over hosting the ope mic and reading series every Sunday night.
Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist and consultant, writer and community organizer.