Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Poet Tom Davis: ‘I was a horrible profligate … I really love being Catholic’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 24, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Tom I. Davis (right) is a teacher and a published poet. He also has had a life to rival the pre-conversion years of a St. Augustine of Hippo. Tom has yet to write his Confessions, but if he ever wants to he’ll not lack for material. “I was a profligate for many years,” he says with a wry grimace, “a horrible profligate.”
Born March 25, 1934, in Milan, Wash, an unincorporated community near the town of Elk, Tom grew up in Grandview, in the Yakima Valley. He has a brother and a sister, and his parents were both atheists during Tom’s growing-up years. His father was the school superintendent, and his mother taught high school English. “All four of my grandparents were atheists, more or less,” Tom said.
After high school, Tom attended what was then Washington State College, in Pullman, on a boxing scholarship. He spent three years in Pullman including, at one point, a semester off after he flunked out. His boxing career ended, however, when he received a serious concussion at the hands of an opponent named Gordy Gladson. “One of the poems in my book describes how I woke up doing my Sociology about three hours later.”
Before long, Tom moved to Seattle and the University of Washington. “It was great,” he says, “it was in the ’50s, and Seattle was dead. The beatnik thing happened, and the Blue Moon Tavern was the place to be. I went in there one time, and Richard Hugo and James Wright, these famous poets, were sitting there in their sport coats. I remember looking at them and thinking ‘Wow! This is really something; look at the poets!’ Soon after that the place just boomed, and it became this thriving Bohemian setting.”
After a year or so in Seattle, Tom took a job in a school in Molson, in Okanogan County, Wash., where they needed a teacher at the last minute. “My father got me an emergency teaching certificate,” he said.
In 1960, the University of Washington awarded Tom Davis a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Drama. He got a job teaching in Mount Vernon, Wash. Just before he left for Mount Vernon, he got married for the first of four times. “Then I went to Western Washington University and got a master’s degree in English, with a creative writing thesis,” he says. “From the time I was just a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I read Huckleberry Finn about seven times; I actually built some rafts. I was really influenced by literature. My parents were both readers, so I read a lot. I wanted to be a novelist more than a poet. But when I was at WSU, (poet) W.H. Auden came to read, and it was like this mystical experience to me.”
To summarize a long, rather convoluted, often sad and painful story, Tom’s life took many twists and turns. At various times, and in no particular order here, he: worked for the U.S. Forest Service; divorced and remarried; fathered children; as a civilian, he taught classes on U.S. Navy ships; jumped into the ’60s drug culture; taught at Big Bend Community College; worked at Western Washington University helping people get an education who had been receiving state assistance; worked as an actor in Memphis, Tenn.; “partied” wherever he went; taught at Central Washington University; lived “on the land” for seven years on Guemes Island, across from Anacortes, Wash.; worked in a shipyard repairing fishing boats; taught for a year in an alternative high school in Oak Harbor, Wash.; and worked at Washington Natural Gas Company, in Seattle.
About this last item, Tom Davis says that the work he did there resulted in serious lung damage. “I’ve always felt that it was the hand of God that was on me, in a way, because it did slow me way down; in a way, it rescued me.”
While living on Guemes Island, Tom Davis became friends with Ted, “a big guy, six foot five,” he recalls, “and he had been an armed robber in the Midwest. Ted was put in Statesville Prison, in Illinois. The warden called Ted in and said, ‘Your mother is going to get a letter saying you were shot while trying to escape.’ Then they put him in solitary confinement for two weeks, with a Bible. He was converted. That totally saved his life. And he was the guy who led me to Jesus on Guemes Island.”
Ted told Tom to “pray.” But, Tom explains, “I didn’t know how to pray. I got a job cooking on a boat to Alaska, and I was gone for five months. I said the Lord’s Prayer over, and over, and over, because I’m afraid of water, and this was an old wooden scow about 110 feet long. I said the Lord’s Prayer over, and over, and over, and over.”
When he returned to Guemes Island, an old woman Tom knew invited him to go with her to her church, a Church of God congregation. “And I did,” Tom says, “and people were invited to come up in front. The preacher was a guy who had been doing it since he was about 18, and he was about 70 at the time. So I did, I went up in front and got down on my knees, and these men came and put their hands on my head and my back, and I got baptized, and as far as I was concerned I got saved. My life changed. This was about 1978, and I was 44 years old.”
At every opportunity, Tom Davis visited various churches, going to one church or another nearly every Sunday.
Later, living in Seattle, by sheer accident Tom Davis encountered a woman named Alexandra whom he had known and had “spiritual conversations” with while living on Guemes Island. “There she was,” Tom recalls, “and it was like some kind of miracle, really. She had become a massage therapist, and she had a little boy, who is now my stepson, and later, after I finished a teaching job in Susanville, in northern California, Alexandra and I got married.”
The two moved to Spokane in 1984, originally because Tom wanted to visit a friend who was a convert to Catholicism. Once in Spokane, however, Tom started going to Plymouth Congregational Church, impressed by the minister at the time, Don Gilmore.
“I went to his church for quite a while,” Tom says. “Alexandra grew up as a Mennonite in Eugene, Ore. She was a Hospice nurse for about eight years, and during that time she wanted to become a Catholic, and I felt that a husband and wife should be involved in the same religious belief, so I converted to being a Catholic, and that was about 10 years ago. We went to Sacred Heart Parish (Spokane), and that’s where we became Catholics.”
Tom earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 1986. “Then,” he goes on, “about three years ago all kinds of old injuries started bothering me again, and ultimately I collapsed. I fell apart. All of the sadness that I created in other people’s lives came to me like this incredible bundle of regret. It was like God was speaking to me saying, ‘You’re going to be 70, and you’d better clear this up.’ I had avoided it. So intentionally I haven’t written anything in about a year. I don’t want to write anymore out of a negative, cynical perspective, which a lot of people of my generation tend to have. I don’t want to write that way anymore. When I write I want it to be worthy of what I really believe.”
These days, Tom Davis teaches poetry two days a week at Penrith Farms, a program for troubled teens and young adults north of Spokane, near Newport, Wash.
Among Catholic poets, Tom says that he has been heavily influenced by the 19th century English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the 20th century American Trappist, Thomas Merton. “I have a relationship with Jesus, I do, I really do,” Tom says, “and when I write poetry I want to augment that relationship. I don’t want to write (explicitly) religious poems, but I want to write poems that come out of that spirit, that spirit of acceptance, and love, and understanding, and compassion.”
For a long time, Tom has attended Mass at St. Aloysius Parish. “I really love being Catholic,” he says, “and I love the ritual of the Mass. Everybody just comes to church, and they’re there with their little babies. To me, it’s wonderful that children are there. To me, hearing babies crying in church is heart-warming.
“I think that, in a way, I like being (at Mass) better than anybody else there, because for me it’s so refreshing. It’s not old hat, at all. I love to receive Communion. In a way, that’s what I love more than anything. I don’t think the Catholic thing is presented as an intellectual thing at all. The surroundings are beautiful. The wonder of the sculpture, and the respect that’s given to it.”
Because he is a poet, in the final shake-down Tom Davis is most himself, and most enlightening, on all kinds of topics, including his own life, when he dons his poet’s cap. In his slim volume, The Little Spokane, you won’t find the kind of poems you might peruse in Reader’s Digest or Modern Maturity, so sensitive readers, be cautioned. Spokane poet, teacher, and reviewer Dennis Held says of Davis’s book: “The Little Spokane is a great book, full of life, in all its losses and consolations. Tom Davis is a writer of fierce, unflinching clarity, and what he sees he transforms … the lives of the down-and-out, in and around the city; and his own life, his past, observed with intelligence and honesty and precision.”
(Tom I. Davis’ poetry collection, The Little Spokane, is available by calling toll free 800-802-6657.)