An Interview with Jeff Dodd

John Taylor is an R&S editorial assistant and recent Whitworth grad. He interviewed contributor Jeff Dodd.

John Taylor : You’ve said that much of your poetry is obsession poetry, namely your Horoscope poems and your Nakagawa poems. What do you mean by obsession poems?

Jeff Dodd: I think I’m interested in the obsessive mind, which is different than being obsessed with different things. I’m interested in how the mind works when it becomes captivated by something, and so what ends up happening for me is I find a certain focal point for that energy and then I write into it.

The Nakagawa poems are all premised on somebody’s wife having been given a record found at a garage sale. The reality is I found this record at a garage sale and the guy had signed his name on it, the original owner. His name was Russell Nakagawa. The record was really beat up. So I started thinking about the way somebody might take that. To have an original Abbey Road is really nice, but to have one that you can only play four songs from is somewhat less nice.

Then I started thinking about the kind of petty conflicts and slights that grow and fester — the way we internalize things. I started imagining this character whose life obsession became Russell Nakagawa. A guy who became so obsessed with the fact that this guy was careless with a vinyl album that it began to infest his own life. There’s one poem that talks about father/son relationships. There are these efforts on the part of the speaker to grow past it, to grow past conflict, but they all become these self-serving approaches to the addressee.

If I’m being honest with you, these obsession poems grow out of me being curious about the reasons my mom — this is going to be a big stretch, but bear with me — the reasons my mom is one of those really calloused grudge holders. It’s like the cliche how hating somebody is more detrimental to the person who holds the grudge. I imagined this character who became obsessed with Russell Nakagawa and wanted to play it out as much as possible.

JT: How many Nakagawa poems do you have at this point?

JD: Ones that I would consider almost complete: about a dozen. But then I’ve got twenty or thirty more starts.

JT: Are the poems published in Rock & Sling 8.1 representative of the arc you perceive in the collection?

JD: I think they are. I intend for them to be read together, and I think they benefit from the dialogic experience of reading them together. I don’t think of them as immediately sequential. They are representative of a broader evolution than they technically represent. There are other poems that fit in between that talk about other issues and address other angles of anger and coping. They are all the speaker’s coping strategy for this perceived slight.

JT: In our Rock & Sling 8.1 meetings, we talked about the Nakagawa poems quite a bit. It took the editorial staff longer to enter into those poems because their form and framework is so different than what we’re used to. Thom said that they were the most Christian poems that we published in the issue. How would you respond to that? Do you see them as Christian poems?

JD: Simply, yes — I do think they’re Christian poems. The basic tenet of the faith is the essential dignity of every other person. That may be a foundational principal of Christian faith, but it’s also the one that we tend to struggle with most.

One of the reasons I selected this batch as a grouping is because they show the arc of somebody who really struggles through a process of coming to grips with this person he’s never even met who has his own life issues and who essentially doesn’t deserve the ire or anger from the speaker. There’s a moment in the last one where there is this spectacularly ridiculous suggestion that they go on a tour and talk about the evolution of their relationship and how they reconciled.

As I was working through that section, I was thinking most about this idea of reconciliation and how we experience as individuals reconciliation to God the Father but also these profound ways we come up short in living out that reconciliation with others. Even when we’re convinced that we’re doing it, it’s usually very self serving. At the end of the last poem in the cycle, the speaker says, “We could inspire legions with our image of true reconciliation and resolve…We could travel the South or West, sharing our story like itinerants of grace. Think of it: you in Grandpa’s suit, humbly confessing your trespasses against the Beatles’ foundational album cover. I could enter from the left in rags, a smoldering pine bough in my right, and absolve you once and forever.” It’s this idea of the two characters going on a reconciliation tour, but the speaker is going to continue to make jabs and slight accusations about the trespass. I think that’s the way even really well-adjusted believers still struggle. It’s reflective of my experience with the faith.

JT: Do you consider yourself a Christian poet? Or that faith is one thing among many that informs your poetry?

JD: Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Nature and the Aim of Fiction”? There’s a section near the end where she says that for a good writer, “moral sense must coincide with dramatic sense.” For me it’s the same. I’m interested in telling a good story or constructing what I think is an effective poetic experience. The moral sense is going to come out of that because the way I see drama enacted in the world is through a moral lens, but the dramatic experience is what compels the reader. I don’t thing that the religious or the Christian or theology motivates the poetic; I think the poetic brings a kind of moral sense simply because of who I am. Some people, maybe a lot of people, would look at those poems, and they’re going to see a corrupted moral sense. They’re not going to see something that reflects a sort of long-range biblical image of the world. But then we have a different conversation.

JT: At a recent reading, you said that nerves never go away beforehand. My nerves come from the inability to understand why my work would be worth the attention of everyone in the room for a period of time. I worry that it’s just not worthwhile. Is it the same for you? Or do nerves come from elsewhere?

JD: It’s partly that. It’s been a long-term problem for me. I spent my entire freshman year of college completely silent in all of my classes. I was terrified. I was allowed, for whatever reason, to enroll in a 400 level British seminar; the teacher, whom I dearly love, said, “I designed this class to be oppressive but not impossible.” I was an 18-year-old kid with a weak background in literature, and I was terrified. I realized there was very little I could say to invigorate class, but I knew that I could learn a lot from listening. So I justified being non-participatory in my education for a full year out of those fear motives.

The summer I had the opportunity, I went to the Texas State Capitol and lied to their personell director at the tour office and told her I could speak fluent German and would be happy to give tours in both German and English if she needed. I had taken a semester and half of German at the point; I couldn’t talk my way out of a paper sack. But she bought it. So that was the first direct effort I made to be comfortable in front of large groups of people. It worked to an extent.

I think the way you articulated it resonates with me a lot. Why would people even begin to believe that I have anything to say that could enlighten or edify them? The theological angle is somewhat analogical. If I don’t believe than anyone else has anything to gain from me, that probably says a lot about who I think I am — who I think I am in the context of who God says I am. If God says I am an adopted son, but I refuse to believe that, there’s a tension that I have to struggle with. They’re not the same thing, but they’re similar in a lot of ways. At that reading, I’m sure everyone just saw it as nerves and some self-deprecation, but when I stood up and saw all those people I just automatically shut down. All those things I intended to say came out like a mouthful of marbles.

It has been an ongoing process. When I first started teaching, for about four years, I would go vomit before the first day of the semester. It’s an issue. When you figure it out, let me know. If you find a good clinical psychologist, I’d love to schedule an appointment.

JT: In terms of teaching, what is the most important aspect of poetry? Is there something that you always begin with in your classes?

JD: Image. And it’s not just image because William Carlos Williams told us it had to be. What I’ve found is that students, even students who are relatively advanced, want to give me a poem that functions as a thesis delivery device. Here’s what I believe about the world and here’s how I’m going to package it in a way that’s acceptable to you or that will increase the likelihood that you will agree with my thesis. I usually just give them back with a big line through them or something that will be provocative so that we can start a conversation. We start with image because that’s the way we experience the world. We talk about aesthetic experiences and we forget that the opposite of that is an anesthetic experience. We do not want a desensitized version of life but a hypersensitive one. If they can give me a compelling set of images that get me into a creative space, then they can take me anywhere they want.

JT: Do you find that teaching inhibits your writing or encourages it?

JD: As far as available time goes, it’s clearly a hindrance. But the things I experience as a teacher invigorate the way I see the world. It’s a positive experience in that reward. Teaching always encourages me to think about how the reader, and usually for me a young reader, is apt to think about the world. And I think it’s useful to think about how our readers experience our work. It’s not critical, and I don’t tailor my work to a young reader or else those Nakagawa poems would look a hell of a lot different. It is useful, though, to see the ways people engage with poetry, to see the trepidations that they have. I am forced to constantly reevaluate the content and material of my class, so that forces me to read more widely and deeply. If I’m to answer a question a student has about a poem, I’m going to need to have a certain type of relationship with that poem.

JT: Do you have a poet that appears often in your classes?

JD: Yes, Dorrianne Laux and John Hodgen. Richard Hugo. Flannery O’Connor. There’s a few of them that show up often. I think that John Hodgen always teaches me something new about sound and about what the language can do at its most basic level. I admire his work deeply for that. In Dorrianne’s poetry, it’s the structural cohesion.  The way her poems move down the page is striking.

JT: Are you working on a book or any kind of collection right now?

JD: Well when I wrote my thesis, Nance Van Winkel, who is a very insightful reader, said, “Well I really like all these poems, but there’s not a coherent sensibility to the collection.” And she was right, of course, because the poems are from all over the place. Unfortunately I think it’s still true about my work. Because I allow my mind to wander so much and I become obsessed with these mini interests and fascinations, it does make it very different to put something together that’s cohesive. Over the last several years as I’ve started to look back at all the individual poems I have, I start thinking that I should be able to come up with something. No matter how many times I paste them on the wall I realize there is still nothing there. I think what’s more likely at this point is a series of chapbooks or something.

JT: Have you even been able to write poems to fill the gaps you see when pasting your poems to the wall?

JD: They all turn out terrible. I believe there is a ligature to all that work that causes it to hold together in my mind, but I have not yet figure out how to express that page to page. As much as anything, it has to do with my inability to wrap my head around my own work, which is a little terrifying.

The “Let It Bean” art, above, is from Laughing Squid.

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