HIGH PROFILE: Poet thrives on full life

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Thomas Street in downtown Charleston, a structure that often has inspired her work, offers a backdrop for poet Carol Ann Davis.

How apt.

It is only fitting that the title of Carol Ann Davis' new poetry collection, "Atlas Hour," is drawn from one of the pieces she refers to as the "hourly poems," suggestive of the idea that every hour contains multitudes.

If you have as much on your plate -- and on your shoulders -- as this writer, editor, educator and mother, hours better contain multitudes.

Yet Davis shrugs.

"I'm not the first one to work and have two kids."

Poet, community activist, poetry editor of the literary magazine Crazyhorse and director of the creative writing program at the College of Charleston, Davis' days are full to the brim. And she thrives on it.

Publishing poetry, often a herculean task, is challenge enough. Many consider the very attempt a leap of faith.

Davis has a different take.

"I think communicating is that leap. There's an isolation we all experience that is the natural human condition. And language is this thing we do together. We agree to the meanings of these words and make the huge assumption that the other person understands what we say or has the bravery to try to understand.

"For me, it's the writing, not the publishing, that's so scary. I'm not certain what I'm going to find out."

We have liftoff

Davis grew up in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., the youngest of seven children (five boys, two girls). Her father was a rocket scientist (literally) with NASA, her mother a homemaker. She studied journalism at Vassar College, editing the school paper and working as a stringer for The New York Times before deciding to major in poetry. She graduated in 1992 with a degree in English literature.

Next stop: the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where Davis earned her MFA in poe-try writing in 1996 and met her husband-to-be, poet Garrett Doherty, now managing edi- tor of Crazyhorse, which is associated with the College of

Charleston.

She toiled in bookstores for a while, taught briefly as a young writer-in-residence at Randolph-Macon Woman's College and was an adjunct instructor in the Boston area before receiving the Rose Fellowship (1999), a postgraduate artistic fellowship from Vassar that enabled Davis to focus on her poetry. She became an assistant professor at the College of Charleston in the fall of 2000, advancing to associate professor in 2006.

Davis, whose work has appeared in an array of literary magazines, has served as editor of Crazyhorse since 2001, working with Paul Allen and Bret Lott.

Her inaugural book, "Psalm" (Tupelo Press, 2007) was runner-up for the Dorset Prize and one of two runners-up for the Levis Reading Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University.

The blank slate

The themes of her new collection are elastic, though there are distinct threads. Apart from the "hourly" poems, "Atlas Hour" embraces the lives and works of painters Jan Vermeer, Mark Rothko, Fra Angelico and Gerhard Richter as well as other inspirations, not least Davis' sons, Luke and Willem.

"I'm a person who does not set out to explore any particular subjects," she says. "I'm really just sitting down and having a creative 'blankness,' or openness, that leads to whatever it leads to. It's when a book comes together that you begin to see the pattern. My first book had a narrative arc; this one does not. In this collection, I lean toward art poems."

"Atlas Hour," marked by the unorthodox physical structure of its poems, is less an exercise of different literary muscles than a point in a continuum, Davis says.

"When you grow as a writer, you do master some things, but that can create new formal problems. My first book was elegies for my father and begins the work of looking at these artists. So thematically there's a real continuance. From a craft point of view and a worldview, I like to think things have progressed in my work. A continuance, yes, but I would also love it if it's a jump, a leap forward. Some poems in the new book feel personally risky to me. This is a good thing.

"It is so difficult to write poetry. Most poems fail, even published ones."

But in Davis' realm, the power of literature can't be allowed to fail.

In 2004, she and S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth established the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts, which "nurtures and supports the literary arts" in the state.

"Our important programs are the Burke High School Poets in the Schools Program, key partnerships with the Charleston County Library offering free writing workshops, and the fostering of literary events and festivals such as Capital BookFest, for which we were a major sponsor. I am proud of that work. I like that part of my life."

The recipient of an individual artist grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (2007) and a South Carolina Artist Fellowship in 2003, Davis also chairs The College Reads! Book selection committee, which has brought such writers as Tim O'Brien and Greg Mortenson to the college in recent years.

Concentration, in every sense of the word, seems her stock-in-trade. That, and using her hours to the full. How else to explain such accomplishment?

"We have everything we need inside of one hour," she says. "Every hour has an atlas of things it in, and, hopefully, my new book contains an atlas of riches we all can partake of by opening it."