Local writer, poet and University of Illinois graduate and faculty member Steve Davenport has a new book of poetry on the scene: "Overpass."
This gritty collection is perfect for readers who are familiar with the Illinois floodplain (across the Mississippi River from St. Louis) and will recognize names mentioned in the poems, from East St. Louis to Alton, from Miles Davis to Robert Wadlow. Even Cahokia Mounds and Sauget get a mention.
" 'Overpass' is my trouble song to and about my home turf, American Bottom," Davenport said. "At the center of that song is Overpass Girl, a metastatic breast cancer victim whose presence makes the region's various forms of damage — environmental, economic, racial, cultural, historical, psychological, familial, you name it — personal because her condition is terminal."
So, it's not a happy book or one that necessarily ends well, but it's a book that will make you think, full of poems that you can discuss with others who love poetry, too.
Overpass Girl, the main character throughout this collection, is a real person Davenport knew from childhood, who shared her Stage 4 breast cancer story with him about six years ago. He said he wrote two of the poems as far back as 2007 and finished the last one recently.
"In bearing witness, I write things Overpass Girl wants to say, has said to me, and wants to read, things that ring true for her and others who are dealt cancer's bad hand," he said. "My book is not for someone who's likely to get depressed or for someone who's looking for a heroic tale of survival against all odds."
There are already books like that, he said.
Davenport has written this story in other forms, but he chose to have it published as a collection of poetry because he likes "the economy of the form." Many poems in the book are written in the same form, but readers also will find a villanelle and cinquain, actually cinq cinquain, too.
His publisher, Misty Publications, only publishes one book a year (although this year it is planning to publish two, according to Davenport), and Misty chose Davenport's work as its one book.
"My first book of poems won a competition. A few of the poems in 'Overpass' were published in a literary magazine called Arsenic Lobster," Davenport said. "The publisher-editor (also poet), Susan Yount, wanted to move into book publishing. We talked, made a deal. ... That's a good feeling."
Many people are scared of poetry — writing or reading it, and Davenport realizes this is often from a bad experience as a student. But "poems can't bite people or take their money or give them cancer or make it go away," he said. "If read aloud, they can play like songs that ring true. Poems won't change a tire, but they might change you, and you might need or want changing."
Davenport lives in Urbana with his wife and four daughters. He moved here in 1984 to complete a doctoral degree in American literature. His current position at the UI is associate director of the creative writing program.
"Uncontainable Noise," published in 2006, was his first book of poetry, and he has also been published in numerous literary magazines, including a short story that received a special mention in the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology.
His essay, "Murder on Gasoline Lake," published first in Black Warrior Review (and later packaged as a New American Press chapbook), is listed as notable in "Best American Essays 2007." He is currently involved in songwriting with Champaign-Urbana legend Bruce "Bruiser" Rummenie, and they have a CD of seven songs titled "This Noise in My Blood," also available on iTunes.
"Overpass" is available on Amazon, but Davenport said it is cheaper to buy it straight from the publisher by going to arseniclobster.magere.com/1misty.html.
"Overpass" is not an easy read, and it's not intended to be. It might make you uncomfortable, and it might make you want to find out more about fighting cancer, the American Bottom and people in general. That response is nothing but good and one that Davenport hopes for.
Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (http://margodill.com/blog/). Formerly of East Central Illinois, she lives in St. Louis with her family.