The Damage Done: An Interview with J.C. Todd by Curtis Smith

J.C. Todd’s recent books are Beyond Repair (2021), selected for an Able Muse Press Book Award, and The Damages of Morning (Moonstone Press 2018), an Eric Hoffer Award micro-press finalist. Winner of the Rita Dove Poetry Prize and twice a finalist for Poetry Society of America annual awards, she has received fellowships from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Leeway Foundation and from residency programs, including the Bemis Center, Hambidge Center, Ragdale, Ucross, and the Virginia Center for the Arts and its international artist exchange program, and has been a resident at the Baltic Center for Writers and Translators. JC’s poems have been published in Beloit Poetry Journal, Gargoyle, Mezzo Cammin, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review and other journals. She has taught poetry at Bryn Mawr College and the Rosemont MFA Program and now leads independent workshops, teaches with the Rosemont Writers’ Studio, and is a Geraldine R. Dodge poet. JC’s poems have been published in Beloit Poetry Journal, Gargoyle, Mezzo Cammin, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review and other journals. She has taught poetry at Bryn Mawr College and the Rosemont MFA Program and now leads independent workshops, teaches with the Rosemont Writers’ Studio, and is a Geraldine R. Dodge poet. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Beyond Repair and its award from Able Muse. Can you tell us about the process that landed your work there?

J.C. Todd: I feel incredibly fortunate that the book was published by Able Muse, a small press with high standards in its manuscript selection and editing and an efficient production process. It was a pleasure to work with the publisher, Alex Pepple, and the press. Submitting to this press seemed like a long shot; it is known for publishing contemporary metrical poetry in received form, made fresh with innovations and variations. My work is more influenced by free verse prosody; however, the poems in Beyond Repair employ a number of formal elements: the sections are introduced with epigrams in the fashion of translations of the Roman poet Martial, some of the poems are built on syllabic lines, others on trimeter or tetrameter lines, and one section (“FUBAR’d) is a sequence of sonnets, admittedly hybrids in that they are told as flash fictions, but they do follow the metrical, end rhyme, and stanzaic conventions of Petrarchan sonnets. I thought the manuscript might have a chance here, even though its subject matter is not typical for the press. I was surprised when the judge chose it as second place in the annual book contest and the press offered a contract. Surprised and thrilled. It was published as a special selection of the 2019 Able Muse Book Contest.

CS: I read and loved The Damages of Morning, your previous collection, last year. There’s some overlap between that book and this one. Do you view these themes and these pieces as an extension of Damages? If so, what drew you back to this landscape?

JCT: Before I respond to your question, I want to thank you for your interview about The Damages of Morning, and let you know that it reverberated in my late edits on this new book. As for the landscape of war and its traumas, my attention and imagination have lived there since 2001. I wasn’t drawn back; I was going deeper. Rather than one book being an extension of the other, the poems emerged from a long study of war and slowly aligned into two books. I was working on both simultaneously for almost a decade, and the text of The Damages of Morning, a chapbook published in 2018, has now been folded into the full-length text of Beyond Repair in order to locate its taproot—my engagement with war—in the war I was born into, World War II. Although both books share broad themes and tensions such as safety versus danger, feast versus famine, and birth versus death, many poems in Beyond Repair hone in on contemporary tensions endemic to the last twenty years of conflict in the Middle East. From an outsider vantage, I sought routes for my empathy to enter the experience of living in a war zone. I did this through immersive reading, studying art of the Arab Spring uprisings, and viewing live arts and video installations of migrant and refugee narratives.

 CS: These pieces all deal with the human toll of war. I wonder if you can unwind this and take us back to a moment when you first knew you wanted to write about this? I know my last book was triggered by the crisis in Syria—and while I was aware of the toll of war and the plight of civilians and refugees, those images reawakened those feelings of how horrible it all is. Was there such an incident in your recent past—or have these ideas been simmering for a long time?

JCT: The awareness of war has been life-long, but grappling with it is more recent. As it is for everyone alive now, there was war in the year I was born. In Lessons of History, Will and Ariell Durant estimate there have been 268 years without war scattered over the past 3,421 years. In the 53 years since their book’s publication in 1968, not one year has been free of war. It may not be an urgent topic or even on our minds, but war is a constant background, a sub-strata rumble in our lives.

When I was a child, it was an intermittent topic of conversation between my parents and across my extended family, a strand in the mix of the usual topics: war, baseball, weather, the men’s jobs, family stories, anecdotes about us kids. It briefly became my preoccupation in the early 1950’s when my older cousins, Jimmy, Jim, Vic, and Larry, were deployed to Korea. I would watch the evening news, hoping to see them on TV as heroes, never imagining them killing or killed. I was insulated from war’s traumas and aftermaths, in part because my cousins came home alive, as had uncles who had fought in the World Wars, in part because the battles were not fought in the country where I lived, and finally because the family had lost contact with European kin. The view of war put forth at home and in school and church—a view I didn’t question as a child—was in the Christian tradition of a Just War, a terrible necessity that advances civilization and protects vulnerable lives. Poems examining these years when I was both surrounded by war and protected from it appear in the section “The wars you bring to light/ Leave their dark in you.”

Your question has led me to wonder: when did awareness of the trauma of war begin to haunt me? When did I realize I was implicated in its violence and destruction? I think there were three pivotal experiences, and the two most recent led to Beyond Repair. During the late sixties, there was a pivotal summer when high school students I had taught came home from Vietnam in body bags. At the same time the media was featuring daily death counts and live-action photos and newsreels of battles and casualties. This is when I first understood that the deaths of my students, which I mourned, and the deaths of soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, which I was beginning to mourn, were financed by taxes levied on my teacher’s salary. To call any war ‘Just’ became implausible: I was implicated. I couldn’t and still can’t designate my taxes for education, health, public transport, family leave, social justice, or the arts instead of for defense; I have to find other ways to resist. Writing has become one of them.

The second pivotal experience came in 2001 when I was invited to read in an international poetry festival in Lithuania. In the capital, Vilnius, and the countryside, I saw and heard of the devastations of the two World Wars, the Polish, German, and Russian invasions, and the later deprivations of the Soviet years. There I began to draft the poems that appear in the section “You are borne into war/ By the war you are born into.” Intended as a reckoning with the illusions of my childhood exposure to war, they led me to explore how war structures language and perception. Through the poems, I had begun an investigation; I didn’t realize it would become a chapbook and then a section in this full-length book, Beyond Repair. I’ve discussed this with more detail in my previous interview with you.

The third pivotal experience, the one that triggered many of the poems in this book, led to an immersion in art, literature, history, and recent events in the Middle East. Between 2002 and 2012, a  son, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson were deployed as U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three returned home alive, with the war alive in them. During deployment and afterward, they were mostly silent about their war zone experiences. To have a sense of contact with them and a context for their daily lives, I began to read blogs posted by U.S. soldiers serving in the Middle East, as well as news and investigative articles, then went on to read poetry and fiction by civilians and combatants living in war zones, then films, art installations. From one blog, I learned the nickname for the Air Force base where my daughter-in-law was stationed—”Mortaritaville,” given because it was constantly shelled.  As a kind of charm to bring her home safely, I wrote a sonnet imagining how she might feel after returning home. That sonnet developed into a hybrid crown of sonnets/flash fictions, whose central figure is a physician serving in Iraq. Its title, “FUBAR’d,” is military slang for f***’d up beyond all recognition or repair. After this first poem, the rest of the Middle East poems followed slowly, the focus moving from the traumas of the invader, to the post-traumatic stress of the veteran, to the ongoing suffering of the inhabitants living under siege.

CS: And speaking of Syria, we see that landscape here—and Iraq and then we spin back further into the past—into Europe and Asia. Did you write these poems in geographic clusters—imagining one place/time then staying there for a while as you imagined these lives?

JCT: It’s true that sections cluster around geography as an organizing element. As a consequence of its overriding goal of cultural conquest and colonization, war determines who controls the material and monetary resources, and, in that way, it is always place-based. There are two kinds of place in Beyond Repair: warfront (Syria, Iraq, Europe during World War II) and homefront (Long Island immediately after World War II and contemporary U.S. towns, which happen to be Harrisburg and Philadelphia but could be any town or city in America).

But place is only one strand of the DNA of this book. The other is war as experienced by ordinary women, not captive nobles such as Andromache or stay-at-home wives like Penelope; the core of the poems and their stories involves war’s effect on the daily lives of unnamed women. The poems bear witness as a kind of social history, a fragmented diaristic record given in images that detail the awful, ordinary traumas of war: the daily disintegration of the social contract that protects access to food, shelter, and medicine and that supports common practices of birthing, child rearing, maintaining a family and home.

 CS: It feels like a lot of these pieces hinge on the experience—and importance—of the witness. A few  years back, I went down the historical rabbit hole of PTSD—and I got that same vibe here—the knowing that a battle might only take a few minutes but the scars are ours forever. I’m wondering if your perception of PTS changed over the course of writing these poems—and if so, how?

JCT: I can speak to the PTS of the observer, which does not equate to the PTS of those who directly experience war. The precarity of life, the threat of danger, violence, and death, are constants in these poems, in the voices that speak them, in the human lives that inhabit them, and I was engaging these threats constantly through research and writing. Although I had been a participant in events that sparked a few of these poems, for most of the events, I was a first- or second-hand observer. As a writer, however, I must be a witness to all of the trauma, even that which I had directly experienced and am now witnessing by remembering. I learned to be empathetic rather than reactive to the harm intrinsic in the factual and emotional content.  A key dilemma was how to approach the poems while maintaining a loving connection to family members waging war, empathy for civilians caught in the crossfire, and my own resistance to war. What stance would accommodate this triad of concerns? Writing with a split consciousness, in which I bear witness to war and then interrogate my position and complicity as a witness, was not a solution for me. Nor was an overt stance of protest, although two poems, “Cover Shot” and “Dark of the Moon,” expose what the poet Dilruba Ahmed has described as “the deep rift between outsider perception and the harsh realities of life under fire.” Over time, my approach developed into a meditative observation of a small fact or moment of war, taking it in and letting it inhabit me until I visualized a place or scene that developed around it and a character who appeared there. I would write from that character’s point of view, occasionally as a persona poem or, more frequently, from a close third person point of view. One poem, “Particles,” enacts the witness absorbing the violence through a story told by a survivor experiencing PTS. Another, “A Bed in al Rahjan,” enacts the PTS of the witness unable to absorb the violence they have experienced.

CS: Can you talk a bit about your routine? How much planning you do—and when in process does form come to you (or is form dictated from the beginning)?

JCT: My intention is always to give each poem what it needs to go into the world as whole as I can make it. For these poems, I prepared through research but planned very little before writing, discovering the poems through drafting and revision instead. Form and other craft elements emerged in the process of shaping the poem into a thing palpable enough for a reader to receive. Once there was a promising draft, I worked with tone, balancing the emotional register of the voice or character with my empathy and horror. Rather than protest or judgment, my resistance to war appeared through choices in diction and image. As I gathered the poems, reordering and revising them into this book, I would suss them out, asking what angle of perception might allow the reader to enter the poem as a responsive witness? And what angle of perception might allow the moment to enter the reader so they could experience it, even briefly, before drawing back into their own different, perhaps safer, life. When I say reader, I don’t have an ideal reader in mind, but simply someone to share with, someone who will receive the poem. The challenge is to find a way to open the poem to the reader without manipulating or distorting the moment. And to sustain the poem’s authority and authenticity, which can waver with the slightest veering off of language or intention.

 CS: Do you think we as artists have a responsibility to explore these issues? Or is that more of an individual choice?

JCT: I don’t think it’s possible to act as an artist without acting as a human, so the responsibility lies with the person, and each one of use chooses their issues. It’s important to set the intention of your actions and choices as an artist, to take responsibility for what and how you choose to explore. To this end, responsibility can be a restraint that gives shape to your art, but it also can be a release, enlarging perception, illuminating what had been unseen.  One of my intentions is to expand awareness in a way that benefits or at least does not harm the human community, understanding that I cannot know how that will play out in the future. I can imagine but can’t predict the Butterfly effect of my art. The poems of Beyond Repair are intentional explorations in how an admittedly privileged speaker (the poet, me) empathizes with human suffering beyond her lived experience, how she absorbs it, and how she makes space for others to empathize too. The first poem, “In Whom the Dying Does Not End,” establishes the speaker’s stance, the position from which she begins to speak: she is so intensely physically and psychologically engaged with her own situation of pregnancy that she is unaware of events in the larger world: “It happened in Hama / while I gestated, TV off, / newspapers unread”. Only when she gives birth does she wake to a larger world: “I woke, / delivered by her birth / into what I’d missed / the world where she would live.” This image of giving birth is a figure for the action of the book, in which a relatively privileged speaker learns to respond with empathy to the bewildering violence and suffering of civilians and invading armies in the contemporary Middle East and Europe of the 1940’s. Her radical empathy reinvents her, gives her a new, more nuanced sensibility and voice that is porous to the lives, the suffering of others. Underpinning this story is the problem of telling it through a language and culture that has been structured by war and oppression. How to strip away the fog of war and misappropriation in order to see and speak clearly? This is the crux of bearing witness.

CS: What’s next?

JCT: For the past few years, I’ve been caught up in responding ekphrastically to the life and art of the German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz; we discussed this in our previous interview. Recently, I find myself looking back to relations with my mother, father, and other loves, and, as part of that, exploring the slippage of time, how one time stretches or opens into another, and how voice and sensibility transits between past times, into the present and future. One poem, “Be in Front of All Parting,” looks back on a moment when I could not look forward. There are a handful of poems. I’m not sure where they’re going. John Cage said a work “. . . is always experimental (unknown in advance).”

You can listen to a poem from Beyond Repair on “Art Scene at WVIA,” the Wilkes-Barre NPR affiliate hosted by Erika Funke.

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020. 

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