An Interview with Pushcart Prize nominee and Lummox of the Year 2000, Todd Moore. Todd's book The Corpse is Dreaming was published in 2000 by Lummox Press. It's part of his epic poem Dillinger (14,000 lines and counting), based on the life of ganster John Dillinger. It originally appeared in the Lummox Journal in 1997 and again in 2000.
"I want to write a poem that will make the top of your head roll into your soup."
(Editor's note: I recently met Todd for the first time when I drove out to ABQ - Albuquerque, NM - in April. Interested readers might want to order copies of his latest books through Lummox. They are The Corpse is Dreaming -- $6 including postage, & Bombed in New Mexico -- $6 including postage. Or you can read about my trip in On/Off the Beaten Path -- $6.)
RD: By way of background, how did you get started? Was there a single point/event that inspired you to take up your craft, or was it a slow process?
TM: It was both slow and fast. I knew from the time that I was twelve that I was going to be a writer. Or, lets nail this thing a little closer. I knew at twelve I was a writer. I just didn't quite know what order to put the words in then. The thing was my father was a failed novelist and an alcoholic. He'd failed because he was a great storyteller but when it came to getting the words down on the page he froze up, got all formal and careful and proper. But when he was drinking and telling stories it was pure poetry. And, I wanted that gift. I wanted to be that articulate, drunk or sober.
Anyway, that was the fast part. The slow part had to do with finding out just who in the hell I was. I probably had a better idea when I was living with my folks in that skid row hotel. That's when I knew I was a street thief and good at it and a hustler and good at that and a scam artist and any number of other things. Then, I got a chance to go to college and I suddenly realized I was strictly low class white trash and some people helped to polish up the rough edges and I got a degree in English. That was late fifties early sixties. And, I acquired a little culture which is dangerous and after that I stumbled around as a public school teacher for maybe eight or nine years still trying to figure out I was.
I thought I was going to be a novelist. I thought I was going to grab the world by the balls and squeeze. But that never happened. The Hemingway position was filled. So was Faulkner and Borges and Kafka and Steinbeck. And at the end of ten years some invisible arm had pushed me to the wall and I heard this voice growling into me ear, "You miserable son of a bitch, you have to be something." The last thing left to try, seriously, was poetry. I thought to myself, okay, what I'm left with is to see if I can write one good poem. One good poem was all I wanted. And I didn't want any fancy words in it. I didn't want words like love, or hate, or hope, or god or any of those words having to do with ideas. I was maxed out on ideas. I was maxed out on literature with a capital L. I wanted something tangible, something as real as sweat and beer. I wanted to put sweat and beer in a poem and kick the aesthetics out. Of course, Bukowski had already put a shitload of beer in his poems but I knew my stuff wasn't going to be anything like his. It occurred to me then that the more I stripped a poem down, the more I could rev it up. Power, absolute power in language was what I was after. Writing like that is like walking around with a hard-on.
By this time I was around thirty three. Late for getting into poetry by most standards. And, I was teaching high school and writing at night and sending poems out to little magazines. Finally, I knew who the hell I was and the words somehow started to do what I wanted them to and I was filled with a peculiar kind of energy that almost seemed to jump off my fingertips. I was writing poems directly off an old black steel Royal. Bukowski called it his typer, his machine gun. And I knew the feeling then and still do.
I wasn't happy unless I could hear those keys clacking off that roller. It was my baby, my red hot mama, my numero uno ass kicker. That was fifteen years before I got a computer and even then I thought I was fast. Fast on the draw. I could get a poem quick as an eye blink, scratch it down on the back of an envelope, get home, and maybe do a couple more revisions and bang, it was done. Or, I'd just sit down at the Royal, wham, get a poem and it would fly right out of me. I've never liked the idea of taking a week or month or a year to write a poem. That's for pussies. That's for people who can't think. Gimme high octane stuff, I want the velocity in language cranked to warp drive or nothing at all. Okay, so it's gonna maybe be a twenty or thirty line poem, then let 'er rip. It's got to feel like the normal flow of conversation with the stakes ante'd to the tenth power. Otherwise, it's just a piece of shit, a limp dick.
RD: Your poems seem to be rooted in a strong, gritty, western style. Is this the result of living in New Mexico or is there more to it than that?
TM: A lot more. The style goes back to the mid 70's when I was back in Illinois and stripping every excess word out of a poem I could find. I was tired of reading poems that hovered around and described something. I was tired of reading poems about Chekov and Heidegger and Li Po's hemorrhoids, and silence in the snowy whatever. I wanted to write a poem that moved like a movie with no pansy-assesd explanations. Robert DeNiro in TAXI DRIVER staring into the chasm of that mirror. I wanted to be able to create a moment in a poem that teetered on rage and panic. I wanted to put myself into the middle of the action and become the action. I don't think anybody had ever done that. At least in this country. Not even Bukowski. He was a great poem talker and he could talk a reader in and out and around all of his problems and adventures. And he could deliver some damn fine surprises. But he couldn't rein himself in. He couldn't pare it all down to the image of a bullet hole in a forehead and a fly trying to crawl into it. That's what I was after. Something immediate. And, I still am.
RD: Since your "day job" may be unrelated to your craft, do you find that it's easier or harder to seize the moment when creativity strikes? Do you have a special time set aside? Do you make note of your ideas or do they just spring full blown onto the typer (like Bukowski used to do it)?
TM: In '93 I got out of teaching at the age of 55. I actually escaped, mostly intact. So, now my day job, the real work is writing. When I was teaching, I'd get up a little earlier in the morning because it seemed the poems came easier then. And, there were times when I grabbed odd moments at work and scrawled poems on pieces of scratch paper. I've always been lucky, because I write fast. It just seems as though most of my poems come almost of a piece.
RD: In your capacity as an artist, you have probably had the opportunity to meet a lot of other artists; do you encourage the 'good' ones and, if so, how do you encourage them?
TM: I've always tried to be as open as I can to younger writers. If I see a book of poetry that hits me just right, I may offer to review it. I also try to get the word out that "so and so" has a chapbook or a book of poetry worth looking at. I'm also as accessible as anyone, probably more so. I almost always answer people who write me.
RD: Has the 'poetry scene' changed since you started, and, if so, how?
TM: In 1970, when I was just starting out, Bukowski was writing POST OFFICE, Lyn Lifshin had maybe published two or three chapbooks, Kerouac had been dead a year, Ezra Pound was still alive and the small press was a jungle of ditto'd mags. It was still the era of war protesting, dropping out, Kent State, finding yourself. Since then, computers and cheap copiers alone have altered the small press scene. In 1970 you went to a poetry reading and scored something and got high or drunk or whatever. Today you go to a reading and get high off the caffeine in your espresso. That doesn't mean you can't score something or still get drunk. It just means that the scene seems a whole lot tamer.
And publishing has changed radically. The big publishers and the big bookstores have pretty much got it all sewn up. It's almost like show biz. It's the book biz. If you're a small press publisher -- unless you have some real clout you're probably not going to get your books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble or Borders. The key is distribution. It always has been, but now it's even more critical.
RD: This small press revolution is allowing everyone with access to a computer to put out chapbooks and call it poetry or fiction or whatever. Some are good, some are bad, most are just mediocre. I think it diminishes the art of the POEM, but I'm not sure that it's bad or not. The American taste for poetry has sure changed as a result, though, and sometimes I wonder if it's not harder for the non-academic poet/non-mainstream writer to be heard through the commercial din. I suppose that's partly why I do this [put out the Lummox Journal]... What do you see as the future of the medium?
TM: It's partly why we all do this. First of all, when arts funding in this country is dictated to by people who are a step away from wearing KKK robes and pointy hats -- then it sucks and sucks bad. What we need is some kind of built-in automatic funding that can't be touched by fascists -- the money should be simply always there. Because the arts are as necessary as national defense. Without the arts we would have no national psyche whatsoever. Artists, no matter who they are, should be left alone to create whatever it is that they create. But it isn't like that. What does happen is that people who can no longer put up with the witch hunting bullshit simply fund what they do out of their pockets. I did that for years with a press called road/house. I think a lot of writers in the small press do it.
And as far as I'm concerned the small press is the last best place to find good writing. Yes, I agree, there is tons and tons of crap getting cranked out. But, there are enough good writers in the small press to make all that wading through the shit worthwhile.
The American taste for poetry -- is there one? I'd like to believe there is but for years it was barely noticeable. Slam poetry and Rap may have done something to change this. But most slam poetry is a twenty or thirty something howling his rage and believing it's poetry. And Rap sells and sells big but I wouldn't bother to read it. No slam poet I know of could out write or out perform Bukowski. He just simply was a natural. No Rap singer I know of could write with the power of Quincy Troupe. The good thing to come out of these trends is that spoken word or whatever you want to call it is getting some real attention.
RD: What advice can you give to artists today to help them improve their craft?
TM: The first thing you have to do is learn to concentrate and focus, focus, focus. And you have to listen. And you have to nail the seat of your pants or panties to the chair and you have to be willing to fight with all of your demons to lay the word down. And it has to be the word that makes the line, the line that makes the poem. And once you're able to do that, then you have to learn to be a witness. If you want to be a writer, you can't look away.
RD: Aside from the academic-sponsored or "corporate" artist, do you think that it's possible to actually make a living as an artist? Or is it, by necessity, an avocation?
TM: Some painters and some novelists make money from their work. Bukowski and Ginsberg made money. They were exceptions. In the twenty seven years that I've been writing I haven't made enough to cover my postage. And, I've given away more books than I sold simply to get them out there and into the hands of people who I hoped would read them. So, does that make it an avocation? Hell no. Avocations don't drive you to write or drive you crazy. And poetry has away of doing that to me. But make a living as an artist? What it comes down to for me is I want my work to stand for something. I want to write a poem that will make the top of your head roll into your soup.
RD: Who do you draw inspiration from these days? Got any high adventure planned?
TM: The kinds of writers and poets who inspire me are the ones who make the big statements and who practically sacrifice their lives to do it. For the first half of the twentieth century, I'd have to say Hemingway is someone I respect. I learned more from him about technique than I got from most poets.
More recently, Bukowski would have to be another. He really wasn't a stylistic influence, but his example was something else. He was a lone wolf, a maverick.
And, last of all, Paul Metcalf, who at the age of 80 is finally getting some well deserved recognition. Not many of us can hang in there that long.
Among my own contemporaries, I have many good friends, and I know many good poets and writers, but there are virtually none who inspire me. When Bukowski was alive and well and writing, it always felt like he was the competition. He probably didn't think that at the time, but it was okay because it gave me something to shoot for. Now that he's gone, the kind of poem that I do, the style that I do it in, I practically have the field all to myself.
As for high adventure, I haven't got anything planned, but I'm always open. Hell, I'm even open to low adventure as opposed to none at all.