I first spoke with Todd Boss during the spring/summer of 2010, around the time his first full-length collection, YELLOWROCKET (2008, Norton) was about to come out in paperback. Previously, I’d come upon an article he’d written in Poets & Writers (“The Audio Revolution: How to Amplify Your Poems,” Sept/Oct 2009) where Todd shared his thoughts on poetry as a spoken/auditory experience. (Unfortunately, this article is no longer available online, or else I’d link to it here.)
I enjoyed the humor and musicality Todd infused into his work, in addition to his thoughts on the spoken aspect of poetry, not to mention his willingness to self-promote and live life as a “working poet.” Needless to say, I was stoked to talk with him. And, for any number of reasons, his interview fell into a hole I’ve come to refer to as “the lost interview series”, and took two years to make it to the site. BUT – it’s here, and I’m grateful to be sharing Todd’s words below.
Special thanks to friend and fellow poet Mirand Parker for her excellent transcription work.
DJ: I’d like to ask you about the idea of “being available” as a poet and as a professional, and what it all means to you. Just from what I found on the web, you’re definitely taking a very open and different approach than what I see a lot of professional poets take. What does it mean for you to be “out there?”
TB: That’s a really good question. I think it has multiple components. I think part of it is not being risk adverse, being what the opposite of risk adverse is—risk available?
One time I had a lousy job on the fourth floor of an office building. Everyday I’d go by the third floor and look out to this cool looking office through the window glass where people were having fun. I liked the atmosphere of the place, which was called something or other Communications. I was like, “Well, I can communicate, so maybe that’s the place for me.”
One day they were out to lunch and I slipped my resume under the door. It happened to be at the same moment when they were taking a co-worker out for a farewell lunch. I was putting myself out there. I was taking a risk. I wasn’t waiting for the job to be posted. I was saying this looks cool and I want to be here. There wasn’t much risk in slipping my resume under the door, so this might not be the right example of that component, but maybe that illustrates something else.
DJ: It seems like you have a sort of lightness toward the ability to say “Why not?” vs. just sitting back on your heels and waiting.
TB: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think it had a little something to do with visualization. Like being able to say, “Here’s what I want to do. I want to work with a composer.” Well then, put that out there. If you want to do commissions and have people pay you money to work on private projects, then get into people’s minds by putting that out there. Maybe that sounds like some kind of Seven Habits for Highly Effective People kind of thing, and maybe it is one, I don’t know.
DJ: I live in Portland, so I’m more than familiar with the language you’re using. So, did you get the job?
TB: I did get the job, and just about every job I’ve ever had has come to me through something like that. If I lived on the West Coast, I might say something like “the universe takes care of people.” Maybe I’m a little too Midwestern to go there, but I do think you make your own luck.
DJ: That’s how a Minnesotan would say it?
TB: Maybe so.
DJ: Tell me about your commissioned work, which you promote on your site. When did the idea strike you as viable, or something that was similar to, “What if I started commissioning my poetry the same way people commission art?”
TB: I was working full time at the Playwright Center, in Minneapolis. I was the development director there, so my job was to raise money for the organization, write all the grants, marketing, etc. I noticed that playwrights were getting commissions. We started a program where we would actually auction them off at our fundraisers. People would get a short, short play commissioned for fun, usually something silly. I noticed how much fun it was for the writers and for the commissioners, and how much more engaged commissioners became in the work of their writers.
I thought, why not engage the art directly with the consumer of the art, the reader, in a way that obligates them to one another? I just hung the shingle out on my website. That interface was one of the first things I built. I think within about 17 days after I launched my website, I got an email from a woman in Berkeley who wanted to commission a poem, asking me how much it would be and what it would entail. Because I already worked at the Playwright Center, I already had a contract agreement that we had used for playwrights, so I was able to walk her through what the expectations would be. She was comfortable with it, signed on, and we embarked.
Since then, I’ve done six or seven commissioned projects, ranging from sort of small projects to the most recent where I wrote a poem for the mother of five children. I had to interview all five children, who were scattered in different parts of the country…trying to write a tribute to someone I’ve never met through five people I’ve never met.
In the end, I think it puts poetry into the service of my community, into the service of people. It illustrates to those people what poetry is capable of doing. They may know it already since they’re coming to me, so they’re clearly aware of poetry’s power. It’s interesting to me that poetry can do things for people that no other therapy, no other medicine, no other religion can do. Bringing closure to situations, healing relationships, celebrating really powerful people in their lives—I haven’t even tapped the range of possibilities. That thrills me that poetry has a direct role to play that’s bigger than just being a great art form.
DJ: Do you think that is an opinion that is shared by many poets?
TB: I sure would suspect so. I feel like that’s probably why we’re writing anyway. To heal the world, to open the world, to bring power and excitement to the world in different ways. I think that’s why we’re all writing. We just don’t have a client who needs it specifically for some reason. We hope that the reader will find it. It’s kind of like we’re doing this already, we’re just doing it from the other end of the pipeline.
DJ: So this is almost allowing you to come directly into contact with those people who may be seeking it out.
TB: It’s an interesting thing because you meet the reader before the poem. That’s really unusual, I think, in any art form. What I always try to explain to people who commission me is that ultimately the poem is mine. They can go through the work of helping me create it, and they can pay for being able to use it the way they want to use it, but ultimately, no matter much I learn about their lives, or whatever it is they want me to write about, I can only write from what I know. I can only bring my gloss on it. It’s interesting, because a commissioned poem is destined to simultaneously thrill and disappoint.
My first experiences with commissions taught me some of this stuff, and I am still learning the nuances. The poem they get back doesn’t sound like them talking to me over the telephone. It doesn’t sound like their thoughts of their loved one. It doesn’t sound like what they had in their heads. It may have an image that came completely out of my own experience, and may have metaphors that aren’t theirs. So, there’s something jarring about seeing your ideas and thoughts in someone else’s poem. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. That’s why they come to me.
I’m a little bit like a shaman in that I tell them what their dream means, or I give them the deeper meaning of the things they’re telling me about. It’s not necessarily going to jive right away with what they think it means. Speaking from a completely selfish standpoint, these commissions help me think about the things I might write about anyway.
DJ: How do you charge?
TB: It depends on how much research and legwork is required. It’s pretty modest, but it’s significant enough that people have walked away from the idea. I’m very flexible with the costs.
DJ: I’m sure you earn about $2 an hour once it’s all said and done.
TB: Probably less. But you know, the work that it inspires—that’s the thing. At the end of this, the commissioner thinks I come out with one poem and I present them with one poem, but in truth, there’s pre-writing, all kinds of ideas, sketches, drafts and stuff they never see. In terms of it being a great creative workout for me, it pays all kinds of creative dividends.
If poetry is partly about seeing things from a different perspective, changing your perspective and trying to see something in a new way, then what could you want better than to have a client relationship with someone who is telling you their most intimate thoughts about something so that you can totally, hopefully, see it from their perspective. It’s a really amazing workout.
DJ: You mentioned how commissioned work will simultaneously disappoint and excite. What’s the disappointment about?
TB: There are lots of different ways a poem can disappoint. One way a poem can disappoint a client has to do with the fact that people aren’t always ready to hear their ideas in metaphor, or hear their ideas reduced or expanded with the use of an image that wasn’t theirs. These can be seen almost as authorial intrusions into their consciousness, and they’re not ready for that.
There are also practical things. The first commission I did turned out to be a birthday present a woman was giving to a lifelong friend. She wanted it to be a surprise for her, so we worked in secret, and it probably ranged over about nine months and three or four hour-long phone conversations. When it was done, it brought tears to the eyes of the commissioner, the person who paid and worked with me on it. When she turned around to give it to the beloved, it backfired. And the backfire happened for a number of reasons. One was that the poem came loaded with very personal, private information. The recipient felt betrayed at the fact her friend had shared this information with a third party. Who would have ever foreseen that situation?
DJ: What about times when the commissioner has to yield creative control, knowing that in the end, though the memories and images belong to them, they’ll come through in your voice?
TB: Some of it is intuitive. I’ve had really good luck and really good experiences with everyone who has commissioned a poem from me. At the same time, and maybe it’s creative self-doubt, I feel a little uncertain as to whether my imposition serves them well. It’s a risky thing. In several cases, I’ve written for folks who were on the brink of death. Not only are these tribute poems, but they’re also farewells.
DJ: You mentioned earlier that you’ve never been averse to taking risks. What do you think the potential is for a poet to really get out there and connect with as many people, in as many ways, as possible? When you try to balance the scales between time allotted to sitting down with the craft, and time allotted to promoting and trying something new, how do things balance out for you?
TB: There are times when I curse myself for how deep I’ve gotten into collaborative projects and other things I have to promote. No doubt about that. For the last few years, I was working full time and I would curse that too. I think there’s a degree to which we will curse anything that isn’t the art, but we have to do those things. It’s just the way it goes. I think the more public you become, the more you have a responsibility to that public, and to tending to that public presence in some way—unless it scares the shit out of you, which I can respect. If you want to be a public poet, it can be a funny thing. Just sending your work to a magazine is an act of publicity, and yet, wanting publicity is somehow frowned upon as selling out or something. I don’t think we can have it both ways. I see it as an occupation and I’m willing to take the inartistic work along with the artistic work.
DJ: Did you ever think that you would step away from full-time employment and just focus on your own life as a solo artist?
TB: I did. When the first book deal came through with Norton, I told the folks at the Playwright Center that I wanted to go half time or part time and we tried to work that out, but in the end, I ended up leaving. Up until the last few years, I’ve been running solo. I’m just trying to do my own thing. I’ve gotten a few grants and just enough paying gigs. I’m not making a living with my poetry, by any means. I did have to step away from my sort of full-time job because the book deal was too big. If it had happened with a university press or something smaller, I probably would have been able to take it in stride. This was too public too soon, and I had to take measures to get it out.
DJ: You also do a great job of making your poems available via audio on your website. Do you have any interest in putting out an album of poetry?
TB: I do. When I sold the book to Norton, one of our first conversations was about whether we could include a CD with the book. Norton has done that in the past. We didn’t do it with the first book, which would have been sort of my ultimate dream come true. I’ll keep pushing for that with each book I do.
When I do a reading a lot of my audiences ask me if I have a CD, and I think they would be interested in buying a CD sometimes before buying a book, which is interesting to me.
DJ: What do you think it that prompts people to buy a CD before a book?
TB: So much of what we are doing in poetry is music. People relate to that. I also think it might be that people are pressed for time, and they want to be able to take things in their cars with them or to the gym. Not that I make great workout music.
DJ: Do you think poets overlook the audio and performing aspect of their work?
TB: I have strong feelings about that. I think the truth of the matter is that the literary arts are the storytelling arts. Poetry’s heritage is in storytelling and song. That impulse slowly diverged over time. When the printing press came along, it changed everything. I think the printing press turned poetry from an oral art into a printed art.
Music is on the other side. It has maintained the performing and musical aspect. Theatre also maintains that original impulse. I think what we have now are these different pockets of the same impulse that are governed by experts. Experts only know what they’re expert at. I think we have an expert community of expert poets who are very good, but are too expert at creating this printed art form. They would do well to remember their roots. They would do well to reclaim the primary impulse.
DJ: People can be spellbound by the words and the music, but also by the individual performer. A lot of poets in performances seem so focused on the words that they tend to overlook the fact that people want to see them as well. Do you get this sense?
TB: I do, and I think it’s a tricky subject. When I perform, I think audiences respond to me and to the work. Whether I can prescribe that for other poets, I’m not sure. What works for me may not work for other poets.