by Athena Kildegaard
J.C. Todd is the author of What Space This Body (Wind Publications, 2008) as well as two chapbooks: Nightshade and Entering Pisces (Pine Press, 1995 and 1985, respectively). She’s finishing a new manuscript of poems, War Zone, that she discusses in the conversation below. Todd has received fellowships and grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Leeway Foundation, and the Latvian Cultural Capital Fund. Other honors include an International Artist Exchange Award from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a scholarship to the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators.
Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her poems and translations have been anthologized in What’s Your Exit? (2010), Poetinus Druskininku Ruduo (2002, 2004, 2005), Poezijos Pavasaris (2001), and SHADE (2004). As a contributing editor for The Drunken Boat, she edited translation features on contemporary poetry from Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia, and she has been a guest poetry editor for the Bucks County Review (Summer, 2005).
Athena Kildegaard: How did you come to writing poetry?
J.C. Todd: I came to poetry twice, first by listening to my mother read aloud from Palgrave’s Anthology, often in the winter when we were waiting for my father to come home from work. She preferred Herrick, Shakespeare’s sonnets and the Graveyard poets, especially Thomas Gray. She and my aunt also encouraged me to memorize poems. They say that “The Owl and the Pussycat” was my first. As soon as I could spell, I wrote verse and continued to write it, on and off, into college. Then I stopped. In my thirties, I returned to poetry because I had nowhere else to go. Making art, in my case poems, created a space to live, a space where I was present in my living.
JCT: I’m not a photographer. I do look closely at what’s around me, guided by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s observation: “what you look hard at, looks hard at you.”
AK: Does writing about the body get easier or more difficult as you get older?
JCT: H.D. asked, “Where does the body come in?” [This quote is the epigraph for What Space This Body.] For me, it is the foundation of writing, perhaps because my own writing is sensory-based and the body is the sense-center. You might ask, what of the imagination, but I do not see a separation between the senses and imagination. One flows into the other. Writing from the body has led to writing about the body. Rather than easier or more difficult, my writing has moved into it as I’ve aged. Thirty years ago legs, breasts, faces, hands—the visible body was more prominent in my poems; now it’s the internal systems: organs, circulation, the brain and stages of fetal development.
AK: How has your translation work influenced your own writing?
JCT: Learning Spanish refreshed my relationship with English at a point when I worried that the language of the poems was not inhabiting the moments they rendered. In my fifties, I went to Quito, Ecuador, for a 6-week intensive course in Spanish, a language I had learned and lost. Working with the syntax and sound structures of Spanish tuned my ear away from English so when I returned to my native language, it surprised me. Perceptions of time seemed more expressive in Spanish verb tenses, for instance, which pushed me to expand the possibilities of expressing time in English verbs. To speak Spanish, I had to make physical changes as well, shaping my tongue, lips, and mouth to its sound sequences and rhythms. Returning home, I found my tongue was a bit clumsy with English; it wasn’t always sure how to shape diphthongs or find the rhythm of persistent iambs.
While in Quito, I met the Ecuadorian-American poet, Ivón Gordon Vailakis (now Ivón Gordon). After I returned to the States, we co-translated her collection Colibríes en el exilio, (Butterflies in Exile.) I worked to convey the rhythms and the sensibilities of her Ecuadorian Spanish into the English translations. Having lived in Spanish, even for a brief six weeks, made it possible to coexist in two languages as I translated although I was an immigrant in one and a native in the other. I wrote about this experience in “Full and Empty: The Contradiction of Translation,” an essay that appeared in The Wild River Review.
AK: You wrote, “I learned to write by writing”—how did you do that?
JCT: For me this happens in two ways. First, as I write each poem, I am learning how to write it. Of course, no poem is composed in a vacuum: writing other poems as well as reading, listening and speaking prepare me to write this poem. These are the means by which I or any poet comes to their art and craft. But by composing the poem—in the mind, in the mouth and on the page, then reading the poem aloud to feel its shape in my mouth and in the air as it is being shaped on the page, I am learning how to write that poem. Denise Levertov writes that the poem is a score for the voice, a score from which the poet conducts the poem. Through writing, then reading aloud, this score of language finds its shape, cadence and rhythms, its harmonies or dissonances of image, duration and tone, and the poet conducts it into a poem. What I must do is listen into the poem, follow it as it is scripted onto the page. As trail guides to composing in this way, I’ve used Levertov’s poem, “Overland to the Islands.” Something inside me is responding to something outside and I am following the line of tension.
As I release the poem onto the page, the act of writing becomes an act of transmission. I am pressing the poem through me so I can receive it. I don’t know who else will receive it or how it will change in their minds and ears, but as the poem makes its path, pressing out of me, it leaves a trace for me to follow, a way for me to learn how to follow it, to begin to anticipate how it might go and to listen, then write toward its next step. Each word or phrase shows what the next one must be. In this way writing the poem is learning how to write the poem by placing one foot in front of the other—but that’s not an entirely useful pun. Instead I’m placing one sound after another, for it seems to me that sound is the emotional cue and marker. Yet sound alone leads to song, and my poems are also acts of language, so I am laying down the sense-sound measure that makes the path of the poem.
In the second sense of learning to write by writing, that is simply the way of making. Each poem I read or write informs a poem that will be written after it. It leaves traces that a later poem picks up and takes further or turns differently or refuses. When I write, often I don’t notice these traces although I sometimes pick them up as echoes in revisions or when I give a reading.
AK: Your War Zone project sounds amazing. Can you tell us anything about it? Why now?
JCT: I was born into war and resistance in Brooklyn, NY in 1943 when, in continental Europe, Resistance groups mounted uprisings in ghettoes, concentration camps, forced-labor factories, prisons. The poems of this current project explore small- and large-scale containments and outbursts: fetal life, birth, German lineage and family dynamics, war, resistance. They question how the Surround of War permeates human life, how humans and their language bear its trace into all we touch, so that we consciously or unwittingly carry forward war’s inhumanities. If language bears the trace of war, how can that be revealed and perhaps shaken loose?
These poems confront my practice as a pacifist, living and writing with what Levertov called an “imagination for peace.” A subset of resistance is the tradition of war poems that unmask consequences to the soldier. My linked sonnet sequence, “War Zone,” takes up this form of resistance. It complicates and contemporizes the tradition of war poems: the central figure is a physician trained to heal and a female officer. In a radical, yet wholly contemporary shift in the tradition, the She is a soldier, not a Penelope, a soldier’s beloved left behind. The sequence also complicates the lyric sonnet tradition with stories told with fictional techniques—close third person point of view, internal narration. Each poem is a micro-fiction shaped as a sonnet.
You ask, why now? But war is always now.
More personally, the poems began as poems begin—with disjunction, but an odd conjunction triggered the collection—travel to the Baltics and Germany and my son’s deployment to Iraq. In Europe, the work of writers and artists revealed everyday deprivations and depravities during war and occupation. My son revealed deprivations, confusions and “constructed truths” of the occupier. Between 2003-2012, a son, daughter-in-law and grandson were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For context for their daily lives, I read military blogs for four years, which provided content and verisimilitude for the “War Zone” sonnet sequence. Simultaneously, I read literature of Occupations: memoirs such as A Woman in Berlin, the translated excerpts from the diary of a Latvian commander conscripted by the Germans during the Warsaw siege, Holocaust and Righteous Gentile testimonies, Käthe Kollwitz’s diaries and letters, and translations of Belševica, Skujenieks, Blozé, Swir, and other Eastern European poets who lived through WWII and the occupations that preceded and followed it. From 2001-5, I compiled and edited 2 mini-anthologies on contemporary Lithuanian (2002) and Latvian (2005) poetry in translation for The Drunken Boat.
I could study war, but through my children, war entered my kitchen, sat in me as I wrote, shoulder to shoulder with my pacifism. My family returned home alive, such good fortune, and yet each of us is living with war inside us now. Cesar Vallejo writes, “What escapes into you, don’t hide it.” Now that the collection is close to complete, I am giving readings and beginning to send poems out for publication. Supported by a 2014 Pew Fellowship in the Arts, I’m working to complete the manuscript and begin submitting it within a year.