The Quiet Maverick: An Interview With J. C. Todd
On a morning in early March when the air still held winter’s bite, I visited poet J. C. Todd in her Philadelphia townhouse. She graciously welcomed me into her cozy eighteenth-century drawing room. With its fireplace and well-used rocking chairs, it seemed the perfect place to curl up with a good book.
Her speech was deliberate, her voice soft. She broke into laughter often, brushing a lock of her distinctive platinum-white hair from her forehead as she answered my questions.
Which poet has most influenced you over the years?
Shakespeare most influenced me; he was the first poet I tuned my ear to. My mother had a Palgrave’s Anthology, a late nineteenth-century collection of poetry, edited — you could say sanitized — to standards of Victorian morality. In the evening before my father came home, my mother would read me Shakespeare’s sonnets, Herrick’s pastorals, the elegies and laments of Gray, Lamb, and other English graveyard poets. Sitting on the couch with her, there was an intimacy connected to the rhyme, to the iambic pentameter that had a profound impact on me — it was so ingrained, so organic. I didn’t think about being a poet or even about poetry, but listening to her was the basis of everything to come. My ear and her voice — my first lessons in how the ear gives shape to the mind.
Would you describe your process of writing poetry? Do you have a daily routine?
I write a few times a week, an hour or two at a time, usually on the third floor where the street noise is less strident. If I have a free weekend or few weeks or a few months when I am not working for money, I’ll try to hide away somewhere anonymously or take a residency at an arts colony. For the past four or five years, I’ve been going to the Baltics. Then I have a rigorous routine: write when I get up, often working first on something new, something I hope will become a poem, then moving to revisions and reading and occasional napping. I like to take a late afternoon walk, revise, or look over the work, then have dinner with friends or other artists. After dinner at colonies there are often collegial activities — readings, studio talks. At night, I’m back in my room revising several pieces, slipping back and forth between them until three or so in the morning. Just before dawn, or before sleep, whichever comes first, I’ll choose a couple of pieces at different stages of development. The pieces will have holes or knots that have not been unraveled. I’ll read them aloud, the idea being that the undermind will undermine whatever conventions are in the way of solving the poem.
Denise Levertov, whose work has had a pronounced effect on me, has a poem, the title poem of Overland to the Islands, that begins “Let’s go-much as that dog goes,/intently haphazard…” That describes my method — I want to go as that dog goes. I want to follow my nose, “’every step an arrival’” (the final line of Levertov’s poem).
What is your inspiration?
Lucille Clifton has said that poems are about questions. If you have an answer, write an essay. Inspiration begins with a question, a friction, a disjunction. Walking helps when I’m looking for inspiration. It rouses my senses. And when I’m stuck or lose the scent of the poem, oddly enough a nap helps. I stopped feeling guilty about the naps after reading the liner notes for the Kronos Quartet’s Dark Wings: the composer admitted resolving composition problems by napping. When he woke, he knew what would come next. Being solitary, walking, napping, they’re about disconnecting, about turning away from willed thoughts to listen into the poem. I also turn to images — visual images. Encyclopedias, art books, museums, roof lines. Visual stimulation. It stirs the word pool, the pool of associations.
Despite my attachment to sound, my poems don’t usually begin in sound. Often there might be words — the words feel like hints — but the poem begins as a flickering film or a lantern show in my head. Sylvia Plath wrote of the glimpse in which “a poem takes place.” And I write in pencil for the drag of graphite on paper, a haptic anchor to the image flicker and the language it sparks. The computer — the rhythm of typing and the print on the screen — becomes useful on a second or third draft.
Are there subjects or ideas you return to or themes you explore?
I see the body as an expressive instrument and the human as an expression of an aspect of nature, not its commander. I’m interested in domestic interiors and by that I don’t mean housekeeping. I mean intimacies between people and between people and the spaces they inhabit, the things they make. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in Poetics of Space, remarks on spaces that contain compressed time — cubbyholes, stairwells, attics, cellars, and so forth. You could say I get inspiration from corners.
I don’t think of myself as a political poet, but I believe Grace Paley’s response when she was asked if she was a political poet: “Honey, language is politics!” My language — a North American version of English — has been used to colonize and control, to commodify and sentimentalize. Just as Winston Churchill predicted in the 1930s, or maybe in the late ’20s, it has become a language of global dominion. Language, that “knife all blade” (as the Brazilian poet, Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, wrote). It can eviscerate or open into, bury or unearth, so I want to use it consciously, aware of its deadly uses, aware of roots and nuances and resonances. Maybe I am political! But my curiosity is about upheaval and submersion. How what’s buried under convention and institutional ways of seeing/not-seeing pushes up, and how what pushes up is truer.
Nightshade is a collection of about a dozen of your poems published in 1995. In these poems we learn that you had a twin sister who died at birth. What emerges is the picture of a family, your birth family, struggling to deal with this shocking event. Your poems are so poignant — their effect often lies in what you don’t say. The pages seem haunted by the specter of your lost sibling. You chose to write these poems in the voice of your mother. Why did you do that? What impact has that process had on you and your life?
Nightshade is a novella-in-poems. There’s a great deal of fiction to it. The speaker is psychologically twinned to her dead sister. I don’t have a twin sister but I do have a sister who died a few hours after her birth. I was seven. For many years I felt that I was my sister’s keeper, the one who had to mark her presence, to hold a space for her.
I witnessed my parents’ silent suffering, that child was never spoken of. I have no idea where she’s buried. She was an absence in the family, one of those dark spaces Bachelard regards as wells of feeling. The silence was deep — her loss could not be located in speech; her death was shameful.
Near the turn of the year 1987, the group of poems broke out of me over three days, full poems but not fully realized. A few weeks earlier reading Rilke’s letters to his lover Liliane, I’d been struck with his description of an old trunk covered with misleading bolts and levers but opened by a single key whose keyhole is concealed by “a leather tongue which only responds to some secret pressure.” Then for Christmas, my daughter had given me Beloved. For two days I read and dozed. When I finished the novel, I went up to the dormer room and wrote the Nightshade poems in a frenzy, out of control. The mother, dead daughter, and living daughter of Beloved were the secret pressure that unlocked decades of silence. It took a few years to see how to work with the poems without tampering with their purity. In initial drafts the mother’s voice told the poems in first person; she was the speaker. Eventually I realized it was dishonest to use the first person because the one through whom the poems pass is the child who lived. I redrafted the poems in close third person in the mother’s voice — that alliance felt honest, the mother’s voice passing through the daughter, then I wrote new framing poems in the voice of the woman whom the living child had become. That gave the sequence its proper proportion. When I was ordering the poems, another voice rose up, the dead child’s, the sister’s, collecting or recollecting her birth. She wasn’t absent anymore; she was inhabiting her death. The title of that poem locates her: “from beyond”.
In Nightshade you wrote: “I keep tending/the light-furled/bud of their loss/its delicate/night-blooming aroma/ its bitter, narcotic root.” Did you feel, in some way, responsible for this tragedy?
I was the living daughter. My responsibility was to live and be a good child. I don’t mean well behaved but a child who knew her job. I had lived. I’d better be worth it. I’d better be worth the life I have. And, yes, I did feel responsible. My father had asked me to name my sister. Had I given the wrong name? If I’d given the right name, would she have lived?
Did your parents ever read these poems?
My mother didn’t; she had passed away. She had read my juvenile poems. But my father kept a copy of Nightshade on his shelf. Poetry worried him; it has no utility. It has a deep purpose but not a use. It’s not about progress, not about mercantile life. I’m pretty sure the book went unopened. He did come to two of my readings.
You don’t hesitate to tackle the big subjects of life. You look death in the face; you deal unflinchingly with grief; you depict cannibalism in “Returning You To Me”; you celebrate menopause in “Wild Laurel”. You have also written a poem called “Pissing” which is about your husband. It is very loving but quite explicit. Another of your poems is entitled “Men Kissing”. It seems to me you take risks with your poetry. Do you see that as part of your role as poet?
“Pissing” is an argument that spirit and flesh are inseparable. The intimate you is the lover’s pronoun and, among the mystics, the pronoun the human uses to address the god. The subject isn’t my husband, but the husband, although I’ve noticed that women check out my husband if he’s present when the poem is read.
When I was in college, Carol Kyle, a professor, said, “Hawthorne asked, ‘Can the human heart grow?’” I was nineteen and I remember the weather that day. Icy clear — like the question, it cut through smog. Yes, that’s my question, I thought. She gave it voice. If there’s risk in poetry, it’s to keep the heart growing. But a risk-taker? No, I don’t see that as my role as a poet. My role as a poet is to shape the language to the truth of my perception. I don’t think there is objective reality: the perceiver, the act of perception alters the stream of reality. If I can see on a huge scale — some of my poems are on that scale: up on a cliff or looking from the vantage of outer space — even that scale will be non-objective, altered by my seeing. How can language approach the enormity of life and not be crushed by it? And not shrink life or limit it to the order of the known? These questions are propellants. Language doesn’t know; it approaches knowing.
To return to the question, poetry is not about risk-taking, although I have to take risks to say what I’m seeing. Robert Hass has said that writing often involves transgression. I want to push the language as far as I can figure out how to push it. To flex it beyond the strictures of grammar and the structures of received thought. For this, I turn to the music of language — music carries what can’t be said. In this way, the poem is a score for the voice or the ear of the mind.
In your poem “Green” you write “…What’s green will unravel/ the cinch of isolation, grief or loss,/green of a promise, like a kiss or a cell/ linking with cell, then spinning off, green as when/ current surrenders bluest wave to shoal.” Nature plays a very large role in your poetry. What does that connection mean to you?
I’m of Nature; humans are of Nature. If we disconnect from it, we stop existing. Nature gives glimpses into spirit, into the animate, the spark that ignites each life form. In “Green,” I was playing with a woodland soundscape that distracts the ear much as dapple distracts the eye, making it difficult to distinguish one thing from another — grief from promise, for instance.
You have spent many years traveling to foreign countries. You have participated in poetry festivals in Lithuania and you have visited Latvia. You have spent time in Mexico and in Ecuador with Ivón Gordon Vailakis whose work you have translated from Spanish to English. How has this traveling influenced your worldview and how has the work of translating others’ poetry informed your own?
When I was a kid my favorite book was the encyclopedia. My spot was the bottom step of the staircase, between the TV and the bookcase where the twenty volumes were shelved. I would turn the pages until an illustration snagged me, then read the text around it. It was a 1920s Encyclopedia Britannica with black and white illustrations, miniscule print — it must have been an 8-point font — and tissue-thin pages that rustled like taffeta. I wondered if the paper was parchment — I had heard parchment was made from animal skin — and imagined that I was reading the back of a great beast that I rode into the world. That was my first experience with travel and translation, the encyclopedia translating the world it carried me through.
The desire to experience other places — that dislocation from the familiar that sharpens senses and awareness — had been building up and building up, but life hadn’t opened to travel until I was in my forties. Then it was Mexico, Peru, twice. The textures of English were heightened when surrounded by languages other than English. And the sonic textures of other languages came forward, the shushiness of Mayan, for instance. Not understanding but listening to its sound; not translating, but hearing new sound patterns, letting them enter me.
Most of the travel has been connected with poetry: Ecuador, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany, Sweden. Either I’ve been invited to read at festivals or to lecture and give workshops or to be in residence at arts colonies. In Sweden, as a scholar at The Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators, I wrapped up a long project editing (with translator Margita Gailitis), an online anthology of contemporary Latvian poetry in translation that appeared in The Drunken Boat.
How did you decide to go to Ecuador?
I received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowship for poetry. It forced me to ask, “What is the best thing I can do for my writing?” I thought, I’m at the age that poets start repeating themselves, when they’ve used their own style and language so adroitly it’s become a habit. How can I break the habit? So I thought, I can relearn Spanish, get the language back in my mouth again. I asked Connie Garcia Barrio, a novelist and professor of Spanish at West Chester University, to be my tutor. She suggested I attend the Academia del Español in Quito. So I went there and studied Spanish one-on-one for five weeks, eight hours a day, with a sixth week to visit the Galapagos.
Living in Spanish, I had to abandon my desire to be seen as intelligent. I lived with an extended family; the husband and daughter spoke English but the wife, her mother, and the cousins did not. A niece, Carolina, was about four years old. Her parents asked me to teach her a little English so in the evening I would share a few words or a song in English. Then Carolina would teach me a few words and a song in Spanish. Carolina was a good teacher; she corrected all my Spanish. That was my language level, four years old.
Being in Spanish changed the structure of perception and thought. English is a front-drive language. The verb is usually right up front near the subject, hauling the rest of the sentence behind. English verb tenses aren’t as flexible as Spanish. There is not much variation in the conditionals and subjunctives, but in Spanish the subjunctive has a variety of specific uses which communicate, it seems to me, a subtlety of thought and action moving through time and through circumstance. It’s a richer and more complex subjunctive than English offers. Spanish verbs: they address time expansively and more discreetly, and they are more muscular and flexible than English verbs. They permit the mind a more suggestive assemblage of experience and thought. In Ecuador, Spanish loosened the grip of the structure of English.
Did you work with the Lithuanian poet you translated?
I like working with the poet, the transaction, the cooperative venture. To that end I have translated a group of poems of a Lithuanian actress/poet, Birute Mar. I don’t know Lithuanian, so I worked with trots prepared by Birute and her friend who is fluent in English and with Lithuanian grammar books and Lithuanian-English and English-Lithuanian dictionaries. Lithuanian is a complex language; it and Latvian are the closest living languages to Sanskrit. It has numerous cases, I think twelve conjugations, floating accents. The spelling of words changes so radically across declensions or conjugations, it can be difficult to find the correct root in the dictionary. Fortunately, the trots were good; I could email Birute with questions. The translations were published in Poetinis Druskininkų Ruduo 2005, an anthology of poems from the annual Fall Festival in Druskininki, Lithuania. Although I’d been a featured poet twice at that festival, it was the first time as a translator.
You also translated the Ecuadorian poet Ivón Gordon Vailakis’s work. Tell me about that experience.
We met in Quito. She was there for the debut of her third book, Colibríes en el exilio (Hummingbirds in Exile), the collection we later co-translated. She’s Ecuadorian by birth, lives and teaches in California, but publishes in Quito. With Ivón’s poems I worked alone with Ecuadorian dictionaries, encyclopedias and grammar books, and her own translations. They were good but they didn’t work enough with the possibilities of American English. That’s why she asked me to translate.
You wrote, “The knot that is literary translation: to unravel it is to lose the design; to be unable to unravel it is to lose the complexity of association.” In translating, how do you stay true to the essential movement of the poem, true to the voice of the poet?
Translating is transactional — crossing languages — and contemplative. In Ivón’s Spanish originals, I looked at single words, their etymological and associative roots; I looked at syntax of the phrase, the sentence, and syntax as a structural element of the language, at the same time as I looked at the situation of the poem, the poet’s intention. The question is always whether the crossover to English remains true to the core of the original, to the expressive intent and motion. Always a balancing act. Colibríes is in three sections. After my work on each section, she and I worked together, fine-tuning the English word by word, line by line, assessing pacing, rhythm, musical elements, image, tone. We wrestled with the dilemma of sound preferences. In Spanish, Ivón tends toward hard or crisp consonant sounds, whereas my translations tend to softer sounds. To keep her voice going I had to be conscious of using hard Anglo Saxon consonants to maintain rhythm.
How has teaching poetry contributed to your life and influenced your own poetry?
To teach well you have to approach the subject as if for the first time, to feel its freshness. Not unlike poetry. Not unlike life. You have to lean into it.
Wendy Fulton Steginsky is the author of The Tide of Bermuda’s Light (Aldrich Press, 2014) and Let This Be Enough (Aldrich Press, 2016). She attributes her love for poetry to growing up on the shores of Bermuda where the sea’s rhythms seeped into her bones and stayed. Her work has been published in two volumes of Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, Bermuda Reading and Writing Festival Companion 2014, courtesy of Read*Write*Bermuda Books and the Buechner Society of Bermuda, And The Questions Are Enough, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, US 1 Worksheets, online at tongues of the ocean, Wild River Review and featured in an exhibition, Making Magic: Beauty in Word and Image at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (November 2012 through March 2013). Currently she resides happily in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.