Patrick Gaughan talks to poet Chris Toll about poetry and collage: “My poems are like a pyramid you climb backwards.”
I first encountered Chris Toll through friends in the burgeoning Maryland publishing scene. Somehow two copies of The Disinformation Phase made their way to my apartment this summer. One lived on the kitchen table, the other on the bathroom sink. That’s how Chris would want it. He intends his poems to welcome readers, to extend handshakes, to be gateways to truth. Yet even after speaking extensively with Chris, he remains as enigmatic as his work, as though he was never a child, simply plucked from an elliptical myth, as though he rode the backs of “Voices in the wind” and fell, plopping him on I-83 in Baltimore, a full grown man from the stars. Upon concluding our interview, Chris Toll told me, “It would have been nice to discuss my childhood out in the midwest where I ran away from home and became a rodeo clown, and my best friend was a slightly older boy named Bobby Zimmerman.”
Patrick Gaughan In The Disinformation Phase, you playfully translate purported lost works of poet icons such as Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath, framing these poems with sci-fi time-traveling back stories. What was the seed of these scenarios? Would you classify these poems as a parody of canonization or more akin to Jack Spicer’s After Lorca model, a collaboration with the dead?
Chris Toll I almost always begin with a line that pops into my head—lines given to me by the Voices in the wind (I go to a psychic sometimes and I asked her about the Voices in the wind and she said the lines were really coming from my Higher Self—that’s fine—I like Voices in the wind better). So that’s how I begin. I pick poets to “translate” who are important in the construction of my imagination. There is absolutely no parody—isn’t parody the lowest form of rumor?
Poet Jena Osman on the influence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and the modes of looking in her poetry.
Last month, at the Poetry/Performance symposium at Amherst College, Jena Osman was scheduled to perform a poem/lecture called Public Figures which ruminates on public sculpture in Philadelphia. The preceding lecture, “The Unbearable Politeness of Poetry Readings,” painted a dismal portrait of the current state of the live poetry reading. As the Q&A began, Jena chimed in from the audience, asking if the presenter had seen Susan Howe read, or Kamau Braithwaite read, and rattled off a rolodex of memorable readers and poets who blend mediums to create an engaging live experience. Following a short intermission, she took the stage, and proved her point. Public Figures, begun in 2003, originally presented as a slide lecture in 2006, and released in book form by Wesleyan this fall, melds poetry with history, found material with observational humor, lecture with political activism, and whets these disparate elements to arrowhead sharpness. On December 15, she read at PeopleHerd’s Readings at Milk&Roses, and we spoke in the days leading up to the event.
Patrick Gaughan The book features a second vocabulary running across the bottom of the page like a news ticker, which reads as radio communications by soldiers during field operations. These fractured conversations function as a constant hum of muffled war under your excursions in Philadelphia, and eventually competes and merges with the body of the text, a hum we can no longer ignore. This aspect is absent from the original lecture, so how did the typographical demonstration of this idea come about?
Jena Osman When I started to adapt the piece for the page, I found that part of the liveliness of an informal presentation suddenly got very still. I couldn’t include most of the news photos and photos I had taken of people on the street because of space concerns and permissions issues. The piece started to feel linear and stodgy, and I wanted something to add dimensionality and complicate the ideas further. I kept thinking about modes of looking, and at the time I was obsessing over the mechanics of drone warfare. It still seems so unbelievable to me that someone can sit at a screen and “play” war like a video game, even though concepts of warring and gaming have always been intermixed. So that voice running along the bottom of the pages functioned as a stand-in for the remote pilot looking at infrared aerial images on his screen and then aiming and killing with a series of keystrokes. The text is transcribed from YouTube videos—missions where there is video of night combat being narrated by remote pilots conducting the action. Since I had to let go of the news imagery I was using in the previous version of the piece, this transcription is what puts present-day soldiers in proximity to the historical depictions of war heroes.