“Poetry is a Form of Love.” Austin Davis on Bridging Art and Activism with AZ Hugs for the Houseless
In Conversation with Drew Hawkins, Host of the Micro Podcast
I started Micro right at the end of 2020, and pieces like Austin Davis’ “The World Will End Tonight” are why I did it. One side effect of the pandemic forcing me inside was I started reading more and more work, especially pieces shared on Twitter. Most of what I came across and really enjoyed were on the short side—poems, flash fiction, microfiction. I love the enormity that can be condensed into such finite space. Entire worlds rendered in a paragraph or a few lines. Great short pieces feel like neutron stars.
I vividly remember my experience when I first read this piece from Austin Davis. From the first line to the last, it’s immediate and wrenching. I thought: this is the kind of show I want to have. One that features short work with powerful voices. I was also inspired by the work that Davis does outside of his poetry with the unhoused community in Arizona, relentlessly advocating for them, volunteering at shelters, and working to destigmatize and call for more resources for houseless people.
As chance would have it, this piece would go on to inspire an entire collection from Davis called Lotus and the Apocalypse. As a journalist who also writes fiction, I’m fascinated by the intersection of art and social justice. Davis embodies the idea, putting poetry into motion with his work.
Drew Hawkins: You’re the founder of AZ Hugs for the Houseless. Can you talk about what the program does and what drove you to start it?
Austin Davis: With AZ Hugs for the Houseless, our main goal is to show those experiencing homelessness that they’re loved, respected, and cared about. In short, my goal is to be a friend to people. AZ Hugs for the Houseless is a project of Arizona Jews for Justice; we started the program in March 2020. I think of AZ Hugs as a movement of love.
We started this project to show people that they’re not alone on the streets. Loneliness is the silent killer of people experiencing homelessness, and I’ve had many people tell me that they didn’t kill themselves because they knew they had someone who cared about them.
Each week we hold a feed and resource fair where we serve our family a five-course meal, along with a variety of essential resources. Our motto is “Sundays are for the family,” and we aim to create a space where people can feel safe, have fun, and take a breath, no matter what they’re going through.
We also have a special requests list every week where I ask folks not only what they need, but what they want as well. People all over the country order these items from our website, ship them to us, and we deliver them to our friends! Sometimes it’s a musical instrument, sometimes it’s a favorite book, but the goal with that project is to always make someone smile and feel loved. People tell me all the time how much they look forward to the special request item that’s coming their way.
I give every person I meet my personal phone number. People call me every day if they are in danger, if they have an emergency, or if they just need a friend to talk to. We help people get their medications, coordinate with the right services, and give people rides to rehab, shelters, to see family, to the hospital, and more. I spend a lot of time each week just kicking it with people in their tents, catching up and hanging out. The folks we serve are my family, and I care about them with such a deep passion.
Drew Hawkins: How does your work with unhoused people inform or inspire your poetry? Or is it the other way around—does your poetry take you out into the community to work with people in need?
Austin Davis: Poetry isn’t just an art, it’s also a way of life. Poetry is caring for one another. Poetry is togetherness. Poetry is connection. To me, poetry is at the heart of my philosophy about life, and it drives me to devote my time to trying to show those in need that they have someone looking out for them.
I think my work on the streets has definitely changed my perspective on humanity and the world as well. I’ve seen people die. I’ve seen some truly terrible things. Things I have nightmares about. But I’ve also seen so many people at their most vulnerable and honest. I’ve witnessed love. I’ve been driven to tears from the beautifully kind things I’ve seen people experiencing homelessness do.
Homies have defended me from violence, written me poems and songs, hugged me on bad days, made me feel at home with them. At the heart of it, I’ve learned how vastly complicated being a human is, and I feel a deeper understanding of the importance of taking care of each other.
Drew Hawkins: You put out the jazz poetry album Street Sorrows with Joe Allie. Can you talk about how that came about and how it fits into your other work?
Austin Davis: Oh man, Street Sorrows was so fun to create! I began to write poetry about what I was experiencing on the streets as a way to process it all. At times it felt overwhelming, but writing about the difficult nights helped me better understand these situations and experiences. I believe that poetry is a form of love, and a few folks had even asked me to write poems about what they were going through. When I was writing those poems, I had no clue it would become a collaborative album.
I was set to perform on this amazing show called Desert Spotlight. I told them how much I love jazz, and I asked if it might be possible to perform with a local jazz musician. That’s how I met Joe! We became fast friends, and when we performed live together, it felt so electric and natural. We improvised and jammed during our show on Desert Spotlight, and I felt like I was reading off of how Joe was playing and Joe was playing to the flow of my words. It was an amazing night.
After the show, we smoked a bit with the homies and hung out for a while and someone suggested that we record our performance together. I asked Joe if he’d be down to record an EP about homelessness and he was all in. We linked up with the incredible Brent James, who produced the record. We recorded it all in one night at Joe’s place!
With this project, my goal was to bridge art and activism in an effort to try to break down the stigmas around homelessness in America by showing people that those on the streets are human, and just as deserving of respect and kindness as you or me. I think that poetry can be such a beautiful tool for bringing people together and enacting social change, and that belief has been at the heart of my writing for as long as I can remember.
Drew Hawkins: Your work often involves difficult themes: depression, death, addiction, the end of the world, etc. How does your poetry help you grapple with these heavy ideas that so often weigh people down?
Austin Davis: We all experience the hard parts of life that we don’t like to talk about. And I think we should talk about them. My goal with my new book, Lotus & the Apocalypse, is to create connection through catharsis.
Lotus & the Apocalypse is a poetry novella that tells the story of the last day on Earth as Lotus tries to figure out what the point of life is before it’s too late. The poems in this book deal with addiction, mental illness, loss, and more. When I wrote this book, I felt like I’d been climbing this mountain with my mental health. I knew that if I just kept climbing I’d find a place to rest, but I felt so exhausted that I kind of just let go.
I was self medicating, and really just not taking care of myself. Writing these poems is what helped me reach my hand out, grab a rock, and keep climbing. Being a human can be scary, uncertain, and so difficult at times. But I think that with poetry and art, we can show each other that we’re not alone in whatever we’re going through.
Throughout history, the lotus flower has been this symbol for purity. I believe that the purest form of purity is being completely honest with ourselves and the people around us about our vulnerabilities, fears, and shortcomings so that we can grow and heal individually, and so that we can also grow and heal together as a community.
Drew Hawkins: Do you find commonality with your own mental health struggles and folks you work with on the street? Does it help you connect with people?
Austin Davis: Definitely. I live with OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, and depression. Many of my friends on the streets also live with mental illnesses and mental health issues, and although I often don’t know exactly how someone is feeling and they don’t know exactly how I’m feeling, we can find peace, empathy, and understanding by being open with each other about our struggles. It helps in so many ways that we often don’t realize to simply have a friend, someone you can trust to catch you when you’re falling and can see the ground approaching.
Drew Hawkins: You mentioned that your poem “The World Will End Tonight” ended up becoming the crux of Lotus & the Apocalypse. Did you intend to write a book based on the piece?
Austin Davis: I wrote “The World Will End Tonight” early in the pandemic on a very scary night for me. I was living with my girlfriend, my parents, and my younger brother and sister at the time. I got really sick and had all the big COVID symptoms. Throughout the pandemic I was on the streets nearly every day, providing people with essential resources in a time when many services had temporarily shut down or changed. It was scary at times because I really had no clue what would happen.
Since I was on the streets so much, that meant I was exposed to a lot of people. That night I had a panic attack because I was convinced I had handed everyone I loved a death sentence. My anxiety often pulls at a real fear or logical worry and multiplies it until it’s huge and overwhelming.
Coupled with that, I’d been on a downfall for a little while and my mental health was reaching new lows. That all led to these intense feelings of guilt, remorse, confusion, and pain about trying to do what you think is right but still ending up hurting those you love. I wrote “The World Will End Tonight” in ten minutes without editing it at all. That’s probably the only poem of mine that took a single draft to finish.
I didn’t intend to write Lotus around that poem, but it kind of just happened. The more poems I wrote, the more I began to see threads connect with each other and a story started to form. With Lotus & the Apocalypse, I wrote the heart of the book first and then built the body around it.
Drew Hawkins: If there’s one thing you hope people take away from your work, whether it’s your poetry or your work with unhoused people, what would it be?
Austin Davis: After Lotus & the Apocalypse was released, I went on a national tour. We called it the Tour from the Apocalypse. At my shows, some people told me that the poems had helped them call someone they loved, or stay sober, or get help for their mental health. Sometimes a few folks would come up to me after the shows and tell me what they were going through. It was truly beautiful. It felt really human.
There was one time at a show where I yelled to the crowd, “I don’t know about you, but it’s been kinda rough for me for a while. Make some noise if you’ve been a little fucked up these last few years!” Everyone went wild. That moment showed me at a new magnitude how tired so many people are, how hard it’s been for so many, and how vital it is for us to spread love in whatever ways we can.
If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from my work, it would be that whatever you do during your time on Earth, do it with love and kindness. Life is too short to not love the people you love with all you’ve got. When it gets rough, take it one day at a time. You’ll make it to somewhere where you can rest soon. Keep going. Keep trying. Keep loving. Peace.
Micro is edited and curated by Dylan Evers and produced and hosted by Drew Hawkins. Theme song is by Matt Ordes. Follow the show on Twitter at @podcastmicro.
Austin Davis is a poet and activist. He is the founder AZ Hugs For the Houseless and the author of Lotus & the Apocalypse, among other books.
Drew Hawkins is a writer and journalist in New Orleans. He’s the producer and host of Micro, a podcast for short but powerful writing. You can find his work in The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Scalawag Magazine, and the proverbial elsewhere.