Poet in the Mirror: Todd Dillard
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Todd Dillard—author of the new Ways We Vanish (from Okay Donkey Mag)—shares the joy of being solicited for your debut by a brand new press, the struggle of life after getting The Thing (a book published), and a great bit of advice: “Frontload the best poems in the beginning.”
On Rejection & Revision
Todd Dillard: I began submitting full-length manuscripts to contests, albeit with a limited budget so not *that* many, at the end of 2017 or so. I received form rejections enough times that I had given up on the manuscript entirely. Then Okay Donkey reached out to previous contributors to see if anyone had a manuscript ready. It was free to send them something, so I thought, what the hell. I swapped out some old poems for newer ones and sent them an early version of the manuscript, which they accepted, though I needed to add more pages to it. The final version is about 30% different than what I sent, most notably in that it’s much longer. I wouldn’t have a book if Okay Donkey hadn’t started a press. I’m not sure I’d even be submitting a manuscript to contests.
On Becoming “Professional”
I knew I wanted to get an MFA and then a PhD in poetry in high school 20 years ago. (Which I guess is when the “professional” part technically began.) Then I completed my MFA in 2008 and the Recession hit, and the idea of plunging myself into a 5-year PhD program and a ton of debt sounded horrible. By then, too, I’d heard so many horror stories about teaching/adjuncting that I abandoned the thought of becoming a writing professor entirely. This was about 2009, and it was really rough for a while. My dream has always been to be a creative writing professor, and losing that… it was rough. For a few years I tried writing novels and poems and failed at that too. Then around 2016 I reconnected with my old MFA roommates Rohin Guha and Niina Pollari, and both were publishing brilliant work in cool online journals, and I thought I’d give writing another go. I started off in spec markets, landing a couple poems in Asimov’s (a dream come true!) and Strange Horizon, and then moved over to literary markets, getting an essay in Electric Literature and publishing some humorous pieces in McSweeney’s before focusing mostly on poetry with some flash fiction sprinkled in. So everything was slow and awful and pointless and confusing for almost 10 years. Then things happened really, really fast.
On the Surprising Moments of Ways We Vanish
You know, getting a book published is The Thing, right? For me at least, I thought I’d get this book published, and I would feel this immense satisfaction and be able to relax for a bit. First off: there’s no relaxing when you get a book. You have to hustle for the book. You have to navigate promoting it—but not too much!—and networking and interviews and people asking for free copies and the book tour and the book release and your first review on Goodreads being three stars from someone you don’t remember blocking on Twitter (who promised a more in-depth review that never came!) and so much more. So you’re doing all this, but you also have a writing practice to maintain and protect. You have a family, a job, responsibilities—a whole life separate from the book. So all of that was incredibly surprising and I’m still figuring it out. But I would have to say 2020 is the most surprising thing about getting my first book. I mean, who could’ve predicted 2020 would be like this? This year is the worst. (Please, if you’re reading this, have sympathy on our 2020 debuts!)
If I feel depleted, creatively or otherwise, it’s probably because I’ve been drinking more than usual, eating more sugar, sleeping less, and not reading as much as I should or could. So to re-energize, I just try to be healthier, and I go back to the writers who always delight and/or surprise me. Thankfully there are a lot of them—Jericho Brown, Amorak Huey, Elisa Gabbert, Emma Bolden, Ruth Stone, Jack Gilbert, Nicole Sealey, Paige Lewis, Mary Ruefle, Marie Howe, Linda Gregg, Tom Lux, Lucille Clifton, Tomas Transtromer, Charles Simic, Rita Dove, Natalie Shapero, Franz Wright, Louise Glück, Claudia Emerson, Jane Hirschfield, Ada Limón, Li-Young Lee, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Ilya Kaminski, Patricia Smith… lots more. And yes, the pandemic really disrupted my usual process, which involved an hour and a half of commuting every day, during which I would read, write, or edit, plus additional writing on lunch breaks and in the evenings. Working from home now with a toddler to take care of full-time means I don’t often get extended periods of time to focus on any one thing in particular. Lately my poems have been much shorter. Sometimes I return to a stanza and have no idea what I was trying to say. I’m reading about 80% less these days. For the first three months I couldn’t even read prose! So yes, the pandemic has been very disruptive.
On What a Poet’s Family Finds Surprising
Writing, mostly, isn’t writing. My non-writer friends have their perspective on writers influenced by movies and media—they maybe see it as someone in a dark room, in front of a wooden desk with a typewriter or a blank journal, and above a window unleashes a firehose of light. And I know when I was a younger writer I thought I had to force myself to sit in a chair and eke something out—and in a way that was true, I needed to find my way to my writing practice. But now I see writing more as a way of observing the world, which doesn’t involve putting pen to paper or fingertips to laptop or whatever. It’s this that I think separates writers—perhaps all artists—from non-artists, this way of looking at your surroundings, your past, your interior and seeing more than just landscape, background, baggage, trauma. In this way, too, writing isn’t some magical thing—it’s work, it’s internalizing a lot of things, processing them, then strategically putting them on the page (“best words, best order”). I don’t buy into epiphanies and muses and inspiration; sometimes things happen that way, but not usually, and not reliably enough to call it a process. You have to dig, pester, question, meditate, process. Also I think confusion and failure are integral to being a poet. I have so many questions about everything! A few days ago I saw an article about a woman who makes sculptures of herself out of butter and then donates them to food pantries. Why! I think non-writers might stop at “wow that’s weird,” but I find myself asking—what would I do if I was given a foot made out of butter??? For me, confusion is a poem’s nascency.
Some Advice for Emerging Poets
Don’t overthink the manuscript assembly. Frontload the best poems in the beginning, then some in the end, and add the rest in the middle. Your manuscript is going to change immensely if it gets accepted, why bleed over the ephemeral? Find a good group of beta readers, ones who’ll tell you what works and what doesn’t work—beta readers who only offer praise are doing you a disservice. Be mindful of your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Contrary to the starving artist cliché, suffering is not good for writing. Read wildly, fall down YouTube holes, be weirder in your writing than you’re letting yourself be. So many poems start with stanzas intended to “get into” the poem and end with stanzas to “exit” the poem; most of the time you can cut these and get a better poem. Read lit and craft books. Learn new skills. Become a reader for a literary journal. Look at your bookshelf demographically—if you find most of the authors and poets are old white men you are missing out on some brilliant writers and should fix that ASAP. Identify the tricks you use in poems, your strengths as a writer, and then identify when you use those tricks and strengths to avoid digging deeper into a poem. The Big Things—Beauty, Truth, Love—write about these in small ways. Giving someone an apple can be profound too.
On the “How do I know a poem is done?” Mindset
So one of the ways to be creatively observant—and therefor write your best—is to stop and look at why you’re asking the questions you’re asking. Often, whether or not a poem is done is beside the point. And this question, in particular, is often asked in a way where “done” means “publishable.” But a lot of undercooked poems get published! And a poem isn’t necessarily “done” once it is published! Most of the poems in my book were published previously, and most of the poems in my book had at the least some slight changes before the book went to print. There’s also a weird—and I think disruptive—economy applied to “done,” where “done” seems to hold more value than an unfinished poem… but I promise you, some of the best poems you will write you’ll never see as fully done. And that’s OK! So get rid of this idea of “done.” Ask instead: “Have I taken this poem as far as I can take it?” And if you have and you still aren’t satisfied, perhaps it’s not a question of whether or not the poem is done, but whether you’re the version of yourself who can take this poem the farthest it can be taken. You have to give yourself the chance to process and metabolize what the poem is reaching for, what it’s trying to approximate and/or accomplish. There’s that practice of “putting a poem into a drawer” to return to it later—usually, I hear, so you can approach it with fresh eyes. But that isn’t the only reason. Giving yourself time and space to write, to try approaches, to shed the pursuit of “done-ness”—all of this is a kindness. Develop a writing practice that is steeped in being kind to yourself.
Todd Dillard’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Best New Poets, McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies, Electric Literature, Nimrod, Superstition Review, and Split Lip Magazine. His work was selected as a finalist for the 2018 “Best Small Fictions” anthology, and has been nominated numerous times for the “Best of the Net” and the Pushcart anthologies. He is a recipient of the Birdwhistle Poetry Prize. His debut collection “Ways We Vanish” came out in 2020 from Okay Donkey Press.