Under Pressure: Todd Dillard

Ways We Vanish, Todd Dillard

Todd Dillard‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Fairy Tale Review, Booth, The Boiler Journal, Electric Literature, and The Adroit Journal. His debut full-length collection of poetry Ways We Vanish. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter, and works as a writer and editor for a hospital. 

Here, Todd Dillard discusses literary cities, baking bread, tension, and the best writing advice her received from Jericho Brown.


Bina Ruchi Perino: Where do you get your title inspiration from?

Todd Dillard: One of the poems in the collection is titled “Ways Things Vanish”, and deals with a son dying and mother calling his name. Ways We Vanish is kind of like an inversion of that—the book is about people, which is why the “we” is there, but also the book deals with my mother’s passing, in some ways it’s like a son calling his mother’s name.

BRP: How much impact did your surroundings have on the imagery and setting of your collection?

TD: My attention to setting is twofold: first, I want to ensure the things happening in the poem–the sensory details–are actualized by the text. The poems in this collection are perhaps less cerebral that the work of other poets, and this is linked to my second answer: I need the physical world described in the poems to be very real, or appear to be very real, because I need the reader to be present and also surprised when something impossible happens. Many of the poems are fabulist or speculative in that way: simple, sensory settings or scenes, into which something alien or impossible descends. Were the poems less focused on scene and setting and the senses, there would be too much confusion, I think, when the weird arrives. It’s kind of like how going outside your comfort zone first requires you to know/identify/describe your comfort zone. 

My background is pretty split between the suburbs of Houston, the country of Texas, and the cities of New York and Philadelphia, which is why the poems are split across rural and urban settings. Ultimately though, what I want to do is establish something familiar for the reader, to invite them in to a safe space before I take them somewhere new. (I hope!) 

BRP: When working on a project, do you give yourself deadlines? What does that time management/organization look like?

TD: I tend to avoid deadlines. I’m aware they exist! But it’s sort of like being aware solar powered cars exist. They seem nice and useful, but I take the bus.

This is different than my time management, which is fairly rigid with regards to writing: wake up at 6:15am, read the last thing I wrote, read and edit on the bus/subway from 6:45am to 7:15am, read and edit and write during my lunchbreak (11:45-12:30 or so), read and edit and write on my commute home (4:00-4:45), edit when I can after my kid goes to bed or while I’m at the gym (7:30ish-8:30ish), edit right before bed (11:30), then start all over. Every weekday is like this. I don’t always edit or write during those times, and I try to read instead if that’s the case. I mostly take weekends off; that’s for family.

The result is a lot of bad poems or poems that need a lot of reworking! But there are some good ones too.

BRP: Who/what is currently inspiring you, art-wise?

TD: It’s so interesting you say “art-wise”! Because I’m reading a case study of the Russian neuroscientist A.R. Luria, and it’s not artful at all, and yet it’s artful in many unexpected ways. The study deals with the fractured memory and perception of a veteran who had a bullet lodged in his brain.

I’m also reading Aase Berg’s poetry collection With Deer, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson. It’s weird and interesting and at times horrifying and always several orbits outside of my comfort zone. I maybe get about 70% of what’s going on, so it feels like a verse version of a mirror maze in a creepy fun house. It’s exhilarating!

I’ve also started reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I haven’t read it in over a decade, so I just feel due for a revisit. Also… I try to keep at least one excellent novel or story collection in the rotation of stuff I read at all times. A good novel is a safe harbor to me.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

TD: Jericho Brown was a PhD student at the University of Houston when I was in undergrad, and I had the very good fortune of being in one of this poetry workshops. (He was brilliant then, he’s brilliant now, truly he’s one of our best!) And it’s funny, I’ve had so many great writing professors and connected with so many great writers in my life, but it’s his advice that’s stuck with me the most: JUST SAY IT. Because so often, I think, poets have this impulse toward the beautiful and pretty, to playing dress up with nouns by wrapping them in metaphors and adjectives and ribbons and lace. But that can interfere with the thingness of the thing. If it’s worth writing about, let it be itself! If it’s worth saying plainly, say it plainly!

BRP: What is your favorite literary city and what makes that community special?  

TD: I think I am going to say Houston here, though it’s a pretty even split between Houston, New York City, and Philadelphia. There’s a lot of nostalgia attached to Houston, since it’s where I grew up—I remember going to Notsuoh’s and Helios (previously The Mausoleum) for slams and open mics as a teenager. Then there’s the community around Gulf Coast and University of Houston, with their reading series, and First Fridays over by the Rothko Chapel. Of course there’s still Brazos Bookstore. And for years I worked in the Alabama Theatre Book Stop, which has sadly closed down and turned into a Trader Joe’s or something. There’s a lot of thriving writing culture and creativity in Houston, especially in the Montrose area, and I was really lucky to be a suburban kid who had access to such amazing art and writing. Favorite eateries and bars: Late Night Pies, House of Pies, Niko Niko’s, Poison Girl, The Ginger Man, Whataburger.

BRP: Besides writing, what else would you say you do you have a passion for making? What parallels do you see between it and writing?

TD: I love making bread! Poetry is bread! It has such a small smattering of ingredients, but with the right craft and the right practice you get this amazing, soul-filling meal. There are at least as many kinds of poems as there are types of bread.

I also used to play clarinet, up through college. Music is a big part of my life—I’m not playing clarinet these days, but I still play guitar almost every day, and I sing to my daughter every day. My love for music appears as more than prosody in my poems. I love the use of register, of resonance and differing patterns of rhythm and speech, sure, but I also love the emotional and imaginative landscapes lyrics explore, and try that in my poems. I mean, have you ever read the lyrics of a Bush song? If that’s not permission to write whatever the hell you want, I don’t know what is.

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate or feel are important to your writing?

TD: I read at least one poem of mine before bed and when I wake up. This is in part to keep myself engaged with my work, but also because the person I am when I write before bed is not necessarily who I am when I wake up. I like to think there’s an ongoing, tripartite collaboration there, between my morning, my day, and my night selves.

Other stuff… it’s hard to say. Do I consider being a dad and raising my kid and being a partner to my wife a ritual? No. But it has the semblance of ritual, there are patterns there, and there’s comfort in patterns and routines, especially as these routines are what permit me to find time to write.

I also shine my boots a lot. This might be weird, but I have two pair of beautiful boots that I try to take care of. Something about plunking down and cleaning boots, stripping them of wax, cleaning, polishing, building those sealant layers back up… it feels ritualistic, holy. There’s a way to do it right, and you have to study and practice until you get it right. My boots literally carry me to all the places I need to go, so this care, this sense of practice feels important to me. There’s a good chance I’m going to go home tonight and give them a once-over just because of this question!

BRP: What is your process when drafting? Do you use a journal or draft in other ways?

I put notes in my Notes app, transfer them to my Notes software on my PC, rework them there, paste them and email them to my beta readers or paste them into a Google Doc and send my beta readers screenshots, tinker some more based on feedback, save the final versions in my Google Docs file and copy from that file into a Word document when I’m ready to submit or print a packet of poems out to edit by hand. The numerous applications are useful to me, seeing my poem in many variations I find very helpful when editing.

BRP: If you had to describe Ways We Vanish in only three words, which would they be and why?

TD: I’m going to resist the urge to send some sort of image-based lyricism and say: “And then I—” 

One of the tensions of the book, I think, is that it’s a collection in motion, it’s origin story and life story and afterlife story and once upon a time and happily ever after and backyard Ragnarok—and this is in tension specifically with how the book, is, by nature of being a book, contained. It tells a story, yes, but that story stretches into robots on Mars, magic, ghosts, fatherhood, grief, and beyond. It (hopefully!) shows that one thing comes after the next, and even if the sequence of things doesn’t immediately become a story, the trajectory of all things in one’s life becomes its own story. I was a son. And then I was survivor. And then I was a wreck. And then I was haunted. And then I was loved. And then I was a father. “And then I—”

Order Ways We Vanish here!