Faculty Feature: Professor Jenny Davis

Writing with “Arterial Ink”: Inhabiting the Space Between Boundaries in Poetry, Academia

Jenny Davis speaking into a microphone
Dr. Davis at Indigenous Peoples' Day event

When Professor Jenny L. Davis says her enchantment with language started at a very early age, she means it.

“I don't know if I came out of the womb loving it, but I might have, because I really have always loved language,” she said with a laugh.  A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, Davis is an associate professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she is also director of the American Indian Studies Program. She is affiliated with the Gender and Women's Studies department and previously served as Chancellor’s Fellow of Indigenous Research & Ethics.

As a child, she filled notebooks with favorite poems and eclectic bits of writing. In middle school and high school, she was drawn to mythology, storytelling, and poetry. She reveled in Shakespeare’s playful prose and soaked up the poetry of Native poets Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, and N. Scott Momaday, among others. She ultimately earned degrees in English, Spanish, and linguistics, thriving in spaces where multiple cultures and meanings intersect.

Book cover of Trickster Academy, featuring illustrations of three animals in academic regalia

Davis’s love of language is evident in her latest book, the poetry collection Trickster Academy. The works call upon her observations and experiences within the academy, deftly moving between familiar topics and spaces (e.g., land acknowledgements, the classroom and its dynamics) in a disarming voice that is at times darkly humorous.

“I would say it's a Native thing in general—humor as a survival strategy and the ability to laugh and have dark humor about things that there would be no other response to,” she said. “I also think it makes it a little easier to talk about things that are incredibly difficult.”

Davis explained that while language is central to all cultures and peoples, historically, Native languages were targeted for extermination—preventing Indigenous cultural and community identity from being passed down generationally. “The ways we talk about ourselves, the ways we talk to each other, those are absolutely key to who we are,” she said. “Language is threaded throughout everything, connecting a lot of different aspects of our communities and culture. And it’s also a way of repairing and recognizing our ability to hold on to those cultural practices over a long period of time.”

Undoing Disciplinary Divisions

Davis has held numerous fellowships and served in spaces where disciplinary lines are both valued and seen as necessarily malleable. She is a past Humanities Research Institute (HRI) faculty fellow, currently chairs HRI’s Mellon-funded Interseminars Initiative, and has been a key collaborator with the Humanities Without Walls consortium for several years.

“I tend to see things not as boundaried as they are often presented by the academy and the university, because I think the conversations across them are actually pretty plentiful and interesting,” she said. Likewise, she views her academic research and creative work as overlapping endeavors.

“Research goes into the poetry, but the lived experience in my poetry also deeply informs research,” she said. “I'm often trying to think about things from multiple angles, and the different forms allow me to see them differently. I think, in a really concrete way, the creative writing, especially poetry, makes my nonfiction writing better.”

Davis's 2018 book Talking Indian: Identity and Language Revitalization in the Chickasaw Renaissance reflects that merging of the academic and the personal. The work is an ethnography of language revitalization that also documents her participatory role in the research, including accounts of traveling with her grandfather throughout Oklahoma’s Chickasaw communities.

“Academic nonfiction tends to create distance between the author and what's being talked about, and between the affective experiences and relationships to it. Poetry is the exact opposite. Poetry cracks open the rib cage and makes you write with that arterial ink.” –Jenny L. Davis

With a new appointment as co-chair of the recently launched Center for Indigenous Science, Davis is eager to bring her many spheres of knowledge and interests to the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. “In Indigenous science, things like the passing down of knowledge we have about the world through oral histories, through animal stories, through songs, is just as rigorous and important and central as something that shows up in a scientific journal article,” she said. “One of the really core aspects of Indigenous science is that it not only doesn't recognize those divisions, but it's very interested in upending and undoing them.” Undoing is a fitting word choice here, as Davis is also involved in coordinating the events for HRI's 2022–23 research theme “Un/Doing.”

So what's next? Among her future goals is to develop a graphic novel. “I'm interested in continuing to do projects that are personally exciting to me,” she said, “and that I think push at boundaries that are taken for granted.”

Published 1/27/23