For National Poetry Month, here’s an interview with Todd Dillard, whose new collection Ways We Vanish is a timely exploration of grief. Dillard’s poem “Father-Daughter Hands” was published by Cease, Cows in 2018. Read it here.
For more of Dillard’s poetry, check out his collection. His voice is smart, his imagery precise, and his work cuts deep into the human heart. Purchase a copy today: Ways We Vanish
Dillard recently shared his thoughts with Cease, Cows.
Chuck Augello: Why did you choose Ways We Vanish as the title of the collection? The book contains a poem titled “Ways Things Vanish,” but the switch from “things” to “we” feels significant.
Todd Dillard: I was struggling with a title for the manuscript—all of the titles I selected ended up narrowing the scope of the book, and I wanted something broader, something more inclusive. A friend suggested I pull a title from a line or a poem, and honed in specifically on the poem “Ways Things Vanish.” But it’s not a book about things! It’s a book about grief, the way we metabolize it, the way it metabolizes us. The book also is inverse to the trajectory of “Ways Things Vanish,” which uses things to ultimately move toward a boy dying, whereas my book engages with people and environments and grief, and treats it as a kind of accrual, shows how grief is a way we disappear into our thing-stuffed living. So I changed “Things” to “We.”
CA: Tell us a bit about “Father-Daughter Hands,” which was published by Cease, Cows. How did you come to write this?
TD: My wife was pregnant with our daughter, and a bunch of asshole men would shout stuff at her all of the time. Men in cars yelling GO HOME STAY HOME or in grocery stores sternly telling her YOU SHOULDN’T BE IN PUBLIC or many other worse things. And then strangers, usually women, would approach her and try to touch her belly and then explicate whether she was having a boy or a girl by how she looked. 99% of this happened when I wasn’t around; I was furious and helpless, these damn weirdos were invading my wife’s body and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I tried to write a poem about this, but it didn’t work, the stakes were my wife’s, I was shellacking her experiences with my anxiety. My friend Niina Pollari then suggested I try to write as if people were doing this to me, and that’s where something clicked. Being a father means people expect you to enjoy violence—the violence of raising a boy, of cowing him to your rules, or the violence of inflicting your will on your daughter’s body, keeping her “safe” from the “nasty boys” around her. Once I centered the poem on my body, my feelings, and the expectations people felt comfortable hoisting onto me, it was just a matter of mining the stupid shit people have said to me about being a father and shaping it into a poem.
CA: One of the strongest poems is “Family Plot,” which opens with the striking image of bees feeding on a woman’s tears. What does this poem intend to say?
TD: I don’t want to be prescriptive in talking about my poems and their intentions, so I’m going to be a little opaque here. I was drawn to this story because the article I read about this is split into talking about a woman who was cleaning her families’ graves and then felt some discomfort in her eye, and then the “miraculous” discovery of four sweat bees in her eye and the doctor who removed them. I would say the living the woman does, the ritual of her cleaning graves, is the miracle here. “The work that living takes, it proliferates / faster than weeds can beard a grave.”
CA: “Summer Camp at the Edge of the World” is another personal favorite. What were you hoping to do with this poem?
TD: I was hoping to take the idea of friendship bracelets and expand them into a thing that keeps us from being swallowed by the abyss. I think it works. I think the poem also touches on how we all want to die just a little, but safely, and preferably loved.
CA: You have some wonderfully evocative titles. Reading the Table of Contents is like reading another unique poem. How do you approach titling your pieces?
TD: Each piece is different. Some titles are just the theses of the poems, or the context you need to slip into the poem, but which is in of itself worthless as verse. Sometimes the titles are prestidigitation—“The Rabbits,” for example, isn’t about rabbits, but just like the Boos in Super Mario games, it’s by looking at something else that the void comes closer, sneaks up on us. Some involve a lot of handwringing and trusting my gut—“The Family Plot” is a good example of that. The pun is useful I think. But I worry still it might be too jokey. All other titles I could think of for it were either too didactic or too similar to clickbait.
CA: Tell us a bit about your process. How do you approach writing a poem?
TD: Usually I have a cursory idea of what I want, and I jot it down in my notes app. I then add more notes, and usually after a few days, I have enough to begin drafting a poem. Often this leads to bad poems, or a single poem barnacled with a bunch of worthless lines or lines meant for other poems. What sometimes happens is that I cut all the excess stuff and hone in on the thing the poem is trying to say, and then I write from there. Many of the poems in this collection were three-quarters written and then waited, moored in my works-in-progress document, as I distanced myself from them and let an ending germinate. But to say I have a single process would be wrong. Usually I have a thought or a question, a way I want to answer it, and then I say THAT’S TOO EASY and find the images behind the answer. I don’t want the mouth of the thing. I want the ribs, the guts, the lungs.
CA: In Ways We Vanish, I sensed an affinity with the work of Nick Flynn. Who are some of the poets whose work influenced or inspired you?
TD: Well Nick is definitely one of them, as he was my thesis advisor at the University of Houston. Jericho Brown, Claudia Rankine, Sabrina Orah Mark, Tom Lux, Marie Howe, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone, Charles Simic, Russel Edson, Kevin Young, Amorak Huey, Maggie Smith, James Tate are others. There are also excellent poets online who share a broad range of work—Devin Kelly, Chelsea Dingman, and Hannah VanderHart to name a few.
CA: These are harrowing times. What role do you think poetry serves in the current moment?
TD: None! I don’t believe poetry is some noble thing. Or rather, it can be a noble thing, and certainly there are readers who very ardently believe in the nobleness and the power of poetry. But this is only one way to appreciate poetry. What role does a pomegranate play in the current moment? Driven snow? Finger painting? Yesterday I scattered breadcrumbs on the roof for the crows in my neighborhood to come eat. Why? It seemed like a good idea at the time. And t-shirts—what role do they play? They keep us warm, they make us look good, or they’re comfortable, or Hulk Hogan rips them off in a wrestling ring, or they become flags, or they’re ammunition in special cannons aimed at crowds watching sports games. One time I ripped up a t-shirt to make rags to polish a giant sword! Poetry has more possibilities than this, why narrow it to one thing?
CA: There’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write poetry?
TD: In my notes app there’s a reference to this story about Thales, the supposed “father of philosophy.” He was so fiercely contemplating the sky he wasn’t watching where he was going and fell into a well. Right beneath that there’s a reference to this time I was volunteering in a nonprofit kitchen and I more or less sliced the tip of my finger off while chopping some vegetables. The chef bandaged me up, informed me I’d probably need stitches, then gave me a new knife and sent me back to work. Why have this anecdote and this memory become linked in my mind? What possibility is there to explore? I don’t know! But I want to know! So I’ll explore it. This urge to explore hasn’t impeded any other part of my life. I’m rich with time to spend. I might as well spend it peering into the keyhole of my mind and seeing what shapes move there.
Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review.