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Tod Marshall: A contemporary poet and his work

Visiting Writers Series, Installment #3—November 4, 7:30pm

It is Thursday evening, November 4, 2010, and the skies are clear with that definitive chill in the air that indicates it is fall in Pullman.  WSU faculty and students gather into Kimbrough 101 to listen to a reading given by Tod Marshall, the last visiting writer of the fall semester to participate in the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series.

Tod Marshall is the author of two books of poetry, including Dare Say (University of Georgia Press 2002) and The Tangled Line (Canarium Books 2009). These two books are filled with unique poems bearing titles such as “Describe KFC to Icarus,” “No Nightingales in Kansas” and “St. Jude and the Tomatoes.”  He has also published a book of interviews that he did with contemporary poets—Range of the Possible (EWU Press 2002)—as well as an anthology of poems by these same contemporary poets, which he edited—Range of Voices (EWU Press 2005). Tod received his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in 1996 and currently resides in Spokane, Washington, where he is an English teacher at Gonzaga University.

Tod gives an hour long reading from his books, interspersed with some insight into the background and inspiration behind his writing.  He finishes the evening by reading from some newer poetry that he is currently working on.  Afterwards, I meet briefly with this local poet to get some insight into the creativity behind his writing.


Angela: Do you purposely go out into the world to experience unique things, or do you just let things happen to you? Where does the majority of your subject matter come from?

Tod Marshall

Tod Marshall

Tod: Well, I don’t think that I do anything exotic in order to go find poems out there in the world.  I think if you looked at my life on the outside you’d [see] kind of a boring life.  But I think it’s important not to turn down new experiences.  There’s that Eleanor Roosevelt quotation: “Try something every day that you’re afraid of,” or something like that.  So, I think that that’s important just to remind us that we’re alive, and to keep us fully alive. A lot of my poems come out of[a] combination of the normal things that I do and reading and things that I read about.  I steal things that I read about and blend them together so it’s all a blender that mixes those things, and hopefully comes up with something interesting.

Angela: In your book The Tangled Line (2009), you did a lot of juxtaposing of really bizarre things that don’t seem to go together [“divorce and martinis,” “custody and omelets,” “fly fishing and Marie Antoinette”].  Why did you decide to do that exactly?

Tod: The first reason I decided to do it is because I had just finished my first book and I was kind of stuck getting going on new poems, so I did it as an exercise.  I’m going to give myself this template that I’ve got to write poems within—“describe something to something else” [as in, “Describe divorce to Martinis”].  Eventually, after lots and lots of failed attempts—probably fifteen, twenty poems that just never really went anywhere— I started to find commonalities and threads. In the course of that book they describe a historical book.  I also think that description can be a form of containment—if we’re trying to describe something, we’re trying to get control of it.  Life doesn’t usually let us do that, so there’s [an] artificial control in [the] section of the book that has to do with Daedalus the maker. [He is] the grand artificer wanting to get control over all these circumstances that are really beyond his control.  There are lots of riffs there on different types of violence—from the violence of our country at war to the violence that happens in a custody fight over a kid.  You try to find ways to control your life when it’s out of control, and one of them is through coming up with a template.

Angela: How has teaching English given you insight or affected your writing, as far as being inspired by it? How has it changed your writing life?

From Dare Say (2002)

from “Metaphysic, with Applebee’s”

I say more.
If you see a man stopped in traffic, tears streaming
down his face, what will it take
to make you believe that he and you, all those I’s
and its, the ugly and glorious things
we build and buy, think and feel, sell and hug and throw away
are light? Believe that even we,
creatures that cause such scarring pain,
beautiful jumbles of skin and bone, fumbled
intentions and the enduring silk of dreams,
are light?

Tod: You know, I really love my students, and I get a lot of energy from them and their interaction with poems and stories.  [It’s a] great job—you can’t beat that part of it. I hate academia.  I hate committee meetings and administration stuff, and that part of my job is almost like poison to writing, because it often kills the exuberance and high energy that I think you have to have and…

Angela: The creativity?

Tod: Yeah, the creativity, the vivacious joy for the world gets killed out of you by the academic stuff.  But teaching and talking about literature with 18 to 22-year olds is about as great a job as I can imagine; as exciting as possible.  I get a lot of sustenance from that, so it’s pluses and minuses.

Angela: You talked about how you had published a collection of interviews with contemporary poets.  What was something new or interesting that you learned from that experience?

Tod: I always point to that book as my best education as a writer.  I conducted those interviews between 1991 and 2001, and my first book of poetry was accepted by a publisher in 2002. I finished grad school in writing back in 1992, but the book stuff didn’t happen until [everything] that I learned from those talks got assimilated.  I learned a lot from them.  Probably one of the best lessons I learned was that openness to a variety of different poetries.  Recognizing that the partisanship and the champion[ing] of one type of poem through another leads to a dead end, in my opinion.  I think that you’ve got to be open to incredibly experimental poetry [and] incredibly conservative narrative poetry, and find what you can learn from all those different types of writing.

Angela: You talked about some poems that were not published yet.  Do you have plans in the near future to publish another book?

Tod: The great thing about Canarium Press is [that the] University of Michigan has sponsored them for a long stretch here and they’ve kind of taken me on as one of their writers, so when I finish another book…

Angela: You’re guaranteed [that it will be published]?

Tangled Line, by Tod MarshallTod: [Yes].  But the editors are very fastidious.  [For example in] my last book, The Tangled Line, the original manuscript had forty-six poems, and my editor said “no” and cut nine, or maybe ten, I can’t remember how many ended up being in there, but she was adamant—“they don’t fit, they’re not as good, gotta go.” So, my next book will happen, but it might not be exactly as I envision it.

Angela: As long as it happens!

Tod: I’m hoping…my goal with them is 2012, 2013. I’m pretty slow.

Angela: So what does the [term]“contemporary poet” mean to you? How would you define that personally? The poets that you interviewed were described as contemporary poets.

Tod: They’re alive!

Angela: So you consider yourself one too?

Tod: A lot of people would say that you don’t have to be alive to be a contemporary poet.  That someone like James Wright is a contemporary poet, or Richard Hugo, people that have died in the last twenty years or so.  So there’s a lot of flux on that definition, but everyone in the book that I did was born between 1941 and 1959. What I was looking at in that book was a generation of writers that was born before Vietnam but came to consciousness after WWII, even though they were born right there at the beginning of it.  They’re reacting against the generation of writers that followed the huge monsters, T.S. Elliot, William Carlos Williams, the big modernists, and I think they were shaped in particular ways.  “Living poet,” I think is a useful definition.

From The Tangled Line (2009)

from “Daedalus Retires”

Evel Knievel’s last stunt:
jump the Mississippi near the Desoto Bridge
on a souped-up motorcycle from which,
halfway across, he’ll leap into the sky
and rise higher on waxy wings and chicken feathers
to swoop down into adoration in Arkansas.
He recruits Daedalus as technical advisor
(ignoring the hesitant letters of recommendation),
researches Desoto’s brutal march
from Florida to Mississippi
(inspiring conquest),
visits the balcony where Martin got shot
(a fellow revolutionary),
and hangs out at the Pyramid
surrounded by reporters and fans
where he asks, “Why did pyramids
go out of style?” The Mississippi is a mile wide.

Angela: [In] your book Dare Say (2002), there was a distinct theme of art. I noticed as I was looking through it a lot of references to artists and pieces of art.  What made you choose to incorporate that into your writing?

Tod: I don’t know if I chose it.  Did you get to hear Donald Revell when he came here?

Angela: Yes.

Tod: He’s got this essay called “The Moving Sidewalk” and I think in some interviews he’s talked about his entry into the world of the intellectual and art and whatnot, and his feelings about that.  I think that I share some of those. I think that academic credentials in the academic world, one part of that is that they give you the “secret decoder ring” that makes you the smart person. You have the three letters after your name, and all that.  There was an attraction for me to that because I was a first generation college student. My dad’s a high school drop-out. No one ever thought of going to college in the family.

I felt like I needed to prove myself, and what easier way to prove yourself than to show [that] I know a little bit about Bach, I know a little bit about Botticelli, I know a little bit about Kandinsky. In terms of some kind of psychoanalytic reading of it, I think there was a lot of insecurity that was getting worked [out].  Where that book arrives at is recognizing that maybe those finely crafted works aren’t where poetry finds its best inspiration.  Walt Whitman, looking everywhere from the cosmos above to beetles rolling balls of dung, that’s kind of more where I’m interested in looking.  I love finely made pieces of art—I teach all those works—but for my own work, [the] kind of broken, bruised and screwed up world around us is more engaging now.

Angela: Thank you very much! It was nice to meet you.