Welcome to our continuing blog series here on Poetry Fridays, Dodge Poet Spotlight. We are turning the focus over to the individuals who make our programming what it is in the schools, with teachers in Spring & Fountain, and on the ground at the Dodge Poetry Festival — the Dodge Poets.
Each week, a Dodge Poet answers some questions about themselves and provides a selected poem of their own work. We hope that this will be a way for you to get to know the Dodge Poets a little better, and you can get an idea of why we love working with them so much.
We are first featuring leaders of our Spring & Fountain sessions.
Without further ado, today’s Dodge Poet is J.C. Todd.
What are you reading?
Mary Morris, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Penguin, 1988.
Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin. MacMillan, 2011. (An account drawn from the diary of a journalist living in Berlin during the Russian occupation near the end of World War II, a clear-eyed look at brutality, resourcefulness and strange bedfellows)
Jean Valentine, A Door in the Mountain. Wesleyan UP, 2004.
Anything I can find on the internet about the American Woodcock whose aerial mating display I hope to see and hear this month.
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write poetry?
If the anecdotes of my Aunt Karen are true, I discovered poetry before I remember discovering poetry, reciting “The Owl and the Pussycat,” when I was about 2. Wish I had that memory for whole poems now. But my engagement with poetry has been more of a migration than a discovery: I just keep moving, looking for food. What I do remember from childhood is listening to my mother read sonnets and songs by Shakespeare and Herrick. Later, I read Thomas Gray and other graveyard poets, but it wasn’t until discovering a collection of Sandburg in the town library that I got serious about fooling around with writing poems myself, lurching from Sandburg into Whitman, Amy Lowell, Hopkins, Donne, Homer as translated by Richmond Lattimore (courtesy of my high school Latin teacher, Miss Harvey), and then the Imagists—Aldington and H. D. and through them, Pound. Not the order it’s taught in now, but H. D. Imagiste threw open the door of possibility for me. I didn’t read contemporary poetry until the late 1970’s— Rich, James Wright, Forché, early Olds. Since then, constant foraging.
Richard Hugo said we’ve written every poem we ever loved. He was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.” What great poem are you proud of having written?
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Music When Soft Voices Die.” I‘m not sure it’s a great poem, but I have a soft spot for it. There are two book-length poems I am not foolhardy enough to say I am proud of writing. One is Pablo Neruda’s Alturas de Macchu Picchu which planted its seed in me when, like many poetas turistas, I read it aloud in mangled Spanish at the highest point of the Machu Picchu ruins. Another is H.D. ‘s Triology, which over-wrote for me both the romance of war and the Romantics’ dalliance with ruins as palimpsest for the sorrow-beauty of the past. In clear-eyed, clear-eared poems, that are elegant and spare, H. D. reveals the “right relationship” between destruction and creativity, despair and merciful grace.
What is your favorite place to read?
In front of a book.
(Editor’s Note: Ok, you win on that one, J.C.!)
What are your favorite writing tools? Paper or computer? Are there special brands, papers, pens, etc. that are important to you?
Mechanical pencils with 0.5 lead and a padded finger grip; yellow legal pads or narrow moleskin notebooks without lines (underline for emphasis)! I used to write only in hardcover marbled school notebooks, preferring the Roaring Spring brand for the chutzpah of its name. They fit in a fanny pack I used wear on day hikes and provided a dry seat when the ground was damp. But I’ve since switched to the small moleskins that fit in a shirt pocket. Especially with the slightly pebbled grain of the moleskin’s paper, the pencil lead creates a slight friction or drag that slows the mind slightly. And writing by hand is drawing, making marks. The rhythm of the mark-making correlates to the rhythm of the voice of the mind.
The computer, however, has gradually become an important part of my writing process. Initially, I began working on computer to prepare manuscripts because of the ease of correcting persistent typos and misspellings. But I’ve come to understand the greater value of percussion to revision. Any keyboard is a percussive instrument. Transcribing a poem from marks to characters admits to possibilities that the drawing hand cannot imagine. So now, I usually begin in pencil with a few and sometimes many versions with cross-outs and changes, but later move the draft to the computer, drumming it out, then printing it. Revisions in pencil on the print version, then the poem copied out by hand. Back to the keyboard. You get the idea. When I get stuck, I shift from drawing to drumming, drumming to drawing.
Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
At every reading, I want that reading to be my favorite. Instead of a favorite, I’ll tell of two notable ones.
Reading to an audience of one, my daughter as she sat in her car seat, swinging her legs, trying mightly to kick off her shoes. The poem a sung lyric, invented on the spot with the refrain, “New shoes, they take away the blues.”
Reading to an audience estimated to be between 7 and 10 thousand at the first anniversary commemoration of the meltdown of the Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Facility, 10 miles downriver from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I lived. A call went out for local poets. I’d written a poem protesting the facility, “Tupperware Salt Shakers and Inflatible Dolls,” so I volunteered. I had no idea of the international coverage of the event or the size of the audience assembling for the four hours I waited backstage for my cue. I was just one of the locals who filled the time between the impressive anti-nuclear advocate, Dr. Helen Caldicott, and singers Linda Ronstadt and Pete Seeger. I read the title and the crowd went wild. The first line and wild again. I could see I’d better give them space at the end of each line or they’d never hear a word of it. They were coming down from Dr. Caldicott and Linda and warming up for Pete. When I came off-stage, Pete said, “That’s a good one,” and signed the poem. A reporter from the New York Times was waiting to verify my name and the title. He wanted permission to quote a line, but he didn’t use it. The next day I heard that a 10 second clip had appeared on the evening news in Tokyo. I still wonder how they translated Tupperware.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1892
oil on canvas
Flowers spiking and fanning
like hyperbolic crests and tails
alert as stuffed birds
two hats, permanently startled
If only a wilting sea rose
were tucked into their artifice
to counter their stilted argument
with seagrass combing sky
So much motion unrests the eye
from the matter of silk-flowered hats
of spindle-back chairs and a single
umbrella poked like a pylon
into a dune that shifts shape and location
too slowly to paint
One girl gazes out to where
horizon would settle if it were still
The other, a bud of clover
buttoned into her collar
is filling in the seascape
with the face of her friend
J. C. Todd