by Jada Ford  ·  March 30, 2023

Professor and poet Chad Davidson did not know he would collect a series of essays about Italy, but what turned out to be a simple break from poetry resulted in his 2022 essay collection: Terra Cognita: Dispatches from an Over-Traveled ItalyTerra Cognita is as honest as a memoir and as enchanting as a poem. In an interview with Five Points, the prolific author not only discusses the consequences of heavy tourism in Italy but also the heart of his own travel and family attachments.

Each essay is named after a city in Italy and is followed by a title that ties together the essay’s theme. “Teulada: Not Taking Pictures” was first published by Five Points in Volume 16.1. Davidson notes, “I had no idea that it would become an essay, much less part of some collection devoted to Italy.” However, once accepted by Five Points, Davidson continued to write and publish essays inspired by his frequent travels to Italy and the personal moments in his life that influenced each trip. “What is in your mind mostly,” Davidson says, “what constitutes your constant library, that’s what finds itself into the work.”

Davidson has directed the University of West Georgia’s Italy program since 2013. As a result, he acknowledges that Bolgona, Sploleto, and Rome are “more familiar” than places in the United States. With each visit, he finds it harder to leave Italy and hopes that one day, he will simply stay.

In your title, you call Italy “over-traveled.” How does this impact the beauty? For example, you note in “Assisi: The Imperfect” how your students “mimic and giggle” at the church guards urging people with the command of “Silenzio.”

It’s obvious that Italy remains high on travel itineraries and dreams. Does it render the country more difficult to see? In a way, I think so. We are inundated by images of the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, gondolas in Venice. We might even become a bit used to them, such that when we finally arrive at those locations, they might seem, well, less than what we had in mind. This is of course because we already had in mind a series of images crafted for us by film, the internet, and everywhere else. This is essentially what the book is interested in: trying to capture some of the Italy behind the Italy we think we know. 

One aspect that I admire about this non-fiction collection is that you are able to both reflect on your memories and deem them appropriate for sharing even if they reveal a less “poetic” side of your travels. For example, you observe the desire for authenticity and are careful to observe that it is “easy […] to imbue Italy with fictitious authenticity, to load it with our desire for some mossy nostalgia (whatever we imagine as better than our present).” How does your history with this country inform your desire not to romanticize it, if you are indeed able to avoid it?

I have been fortunate to travel to Italy for more than half of my life now, and I have always wrestled with the dichotomy you mentioned regarding “the authentic.” My friends and I have a joke: if a restaurant claims to be “authentic” Mexican food (or Italian or Indian or whatever), then, almost by default, it can’t be. If the packaging on a loaf of bread at the grocery store says that it’s “artisan,” it’s not. The simple fact of naming it so, of claiming authenticity (or artisan or anything else like that), in my mind, runs anathema to the idea of authenticity. If you have to say it, it isn’t.

Of course, authenticity—even the brand I am talking about, the kind that doesn’t name itself, etc.—can also be manufactured, and Italians, it seems to me, have had lots of practice at providing just what tourists come for. It’s tricky business, for sure, and I am pretty quick to offer caveats for myself. I am no ultimate authority on the subject, but I do enjoy wrestling with the notion of authenticity, particularly my own experiences with it and desires for it. 

Your loving gestures to your mother throughout your book are moving. You talk about collecting photos and state that you are “commemorating” or “eulogizing.” Did you intend for your love for your mother to permeate the book? Has the book been a way to heal or at least respect your loss?

Very much so, to all of what you say. I had tried to capture some of my grief for her in poems before, but I appreciated the more expansive canvas an essay provides. Did I know she would keep returning in some of the essays? Absolutely not. These essays grew independently of one another (with at times huge swaths of time separating them), and I scarcely thought of how they might all come together. Again, we do not choose our obsessions; they choose us. 

I’m not sure writing these essays helped me process the grief, but, you know, they took up time I might have otherwise sat around feeling sorry for myself. I like to think my mother would appreciate that. 

Your ruminations about pictures are thought-provoking, especially concerning how pictures can inspire jealousy in the people who might never be able to photograph what we see and how we are able to relive our life in photographs—if we can remember the moment, as you discuss later in the book. I would like to connect this to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, specifically when you quote Polo: “I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it.” Do you have a similar fear regarding Italy as a whole and how to preserve it, if not with pictures?

I do not fear much about Italy or my fascination with the country. It’s become much more than just a place I travel to, and I do not intend the work I do there. I have friends now, all over the country. I have a family (Mina and Dino in Bologna) who are, now that my parents are both gone, the closest I have to a mother and father. (In fact, I am traveling there to see them in a few weeks; Dino turns eighty soon.) 

As for Calvino, well, that little book is beguiling. People ask me all the time why that particular book and if I knew it would be such a touchstone in the collection. Again, I had no idea what I was really doing for a long time. When I finally started thinking about all these essays as perhaps a book, I realized that those unifying texts (Calvino and Percy mostly, along with Homer) were already there. It’s simply that I am obsessed with those writers and cannot seem to not write about them. That’s the dirty little secret: we don’t choose our obsessions; they choose us. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Jada Renee Ford is a poet and writer specializing in heartbreak. She’s fascinated by the South and the experience of Black girls in small towns. She is the creator and editor of the collaborative zine HOT PROPAGANDA, which uplifts southern and diverse perspectives, and she has recently appeared in Passages North. As an MFA Student at Georgia State University, she is always sleepy, but you can find more evidence of her being awake here: She is an Assistant Editor at Five Points.