Poet of the People

Austin Davis, a third-year creative writing major at ASU, is the author of two collections of poetry – The World Isn’t the Size of Our Neighborhood Anymore (Weasel Press, 2020) and Celestial Night Light (Ghost City Press, 2020). When he’s not composing, Austin runs AZ Hugs For the Houseless, an unsheltered outreach program sponsored by Arizona Jews For Justice. While delivering everything from hot meals to art supplies, Austin not only forges meaningful friendships with the people that he serves, he writes poems that celebrate the lives of the unsheltered individuals who occupy “the zone” in Phoenix and beyond.

WOD: So when/how did you become interested in poetry?
Austin: I started writing when I was very young. I was obsessed with how the writers I was reading could make me feel such intense emotions by just putting words on a page. I saw writing as a sort of magic, and I still think writing is magic. As I got older, I started to write every day as a way to express what I was feeling in my day-to-day life.

Writing a poem feels like I’m both giving and receiving a hug. I struggle with OCD and anxiety and writing really helps me process and work through what I’m going through. I often feel like I need to ring out all the bad thoughts from my brain like a dirty sponge, and writing does that for me.

WOD: And when did service become an integral part of your life?
Austin: I fully realized I wanted to commit my life to service after having conversations with those on the streets. It opened my eyes to the hardships those experiencing homelessness face each day, and I learned that there’s no greater purpose than showing your smile, giving a hug, being a shoulder to cry on. Most people who are unsheltered have been affected by unforeseen circumstances, and most people in our country are only a few bad days away from possibly having to experience this.

Eddie Chavez Calderon also dramatically helped me realize I wanted to commit my life to service. Eddie is the campaign organizer for Arizona Jews For Justice (AJJ), an incredible mentor, and one of my best friends. I started volunteering with Eddie when he and AJJ were aiding asylum seekers around 2 years ago. From there, Eddie offered me an internship, taught me how to be a successful leader, and I began to lead my own project, AZ Hugs For the Houseless.

WOD: How does the time you spend with unsheltered individuals shape you as a poet?
Austin: I spend a lot of my time with the unsheltered, whether that’s providing aid in some way, or just hanging out and being a friend. The time I spend on the streets has taught me to be more empathetic and to think more about how my actions can cause the most positive impact. I’ve witnessed the beauties of humanity, along with the hardships, and I feel the most human I ever have. I believe everyone has the capacity to become a more empathetic human, and this possibility is like a seed sitting idle in the dirt. The experiences I’ve had feel like water to these seeds, if that makes sense. I hope to be able to pick these flowers and hand them to someone else, as new ones grow.

WOD: How might your passions – community service and poetry – converge in the future?
Austin: One of my biggest goals in life is to converge art and activism in a way that can deeply affect people. I want to continue my work with those on the streets until I’m unable to walk. And I know I’ll be writing poetry until I die. I recently completed a chapbook of new poems based on what I’ve experienced with my unsheltered friends. Each poem is based off of a specific experience I had with someone on the streets. The goal with these poems is to use my passion for writing to tear down the stigma around homelessness in our society and to show people that those on the streets are human, valuable, necessary, and worthy of happiness, just like everyone else.

WOD: Lastly, how has Phoenix – or maybe the people/artists of Phoenix – influenced you as a poet?
Austin: I think that I’m the poet and person I am today because of all the incredible teachers I’ve had over the years. In high school, Daniel Pike was my creative writing teacher at ASU Prep and he taught me to be as vulnerable as possible in my writing, and to never stop experimenting with form, language, and the written word. In the city, I would constantly attend open mics, poetry slams, and readings and they really shaped my view of poetry as this contemporary artform that can still affect people in dramatic and important ways. Poetry makes us feel held, heard, loved, and less alone in all the moments when we need it most. I just hope to leave something behind in this world that can hug someone across miles, years, life and death.