From Lullaby to Requiem, Ona Gritz in Conversation with J. C. Todd
This interview took place during the launch of Beyond Repair,
hosted by Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 26, 2021.
J. C. Todd: I’d like to welcome Ona Gritz, poet, essayist, memoirist, who will conduct a Q & A. Ona’s books include Geode, which is a Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award finalist, and the essay collection Present Imperfect, which is now out from Poets Wear Prada. Her work has appeared widely. Recent honors include notable mentions in Best American Essays and a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Wordview Press 2020 project. Welcome, Ona.
Ona Gritz: Thank you, J. C. I’m so happy to be part of a conversation about this remarkable book, Beyond Repair. So I have a few questions for you, and I’ll start by talking about the poem that you started the book with, “In Whom the Dying Does Not End,” which I feel gives us the perfect entry point for this collection because it contains both the personal and the political, the self and the wider world. It lets the reader know from the start that these cannot be separated, that they are one. This is a book filled with both birth and death. We meet the poet in pregnancy. Images of mothering and birth are infused throughout this book that is, simultaneously of course, about war and violence. To borrow the words that close the collection itself, “It takes us from a lullaby to a requiem.” It is a book of close witness and deep empathy. In writing these poems, you embody suffering, essentially becoming your subjects on the page. You inhabit their lives in their most devastating moments. So my question is whether you see a connection between mothering and such direct empathy, a connection between mothering and the kind of porousness it takes to write these kinds of poems.
JCT: Oh, porousness. I love that word. I think you’re onto something here, Ona. I want to say that porousness was my stance writing the poems in Beyond Repair; I was absorbed into the subjects. And porousness was my state as a mother, that absorption. Fatherhood is incredibly porous, too. I mean, you’re always awash in your children. But for me, pregnancy, and I was in my late thirties then, did tenderize me. It made me understand that I could be a vessel that carried something. I know my daughter wasn’t a thing, but that was sort of the experience, that every little thing I did could be, should be, an act of caring. After she was born–and I have two sons by adoption and was quite porous when they were young, but that was a different circumstance–I had not expected the feeling of openness and pleasure, the joy that parenting would bring through birthing. But hard as you try, you can’t really protect your children from everything. Things come at them that you can’t or don’t know how to stop, things that you don’t even know are coming until you see the results. And so in this sense, although I think motherhood is not a war zone, the instability and the unsettling and the uncertainty are not dissimilar; it’s just that my porousness occurred in a rather protective situation. I had a paycheck. I had a house. I had food. Hey, I had a refrigerator, a gas stove, sometimes, a car or a bus pass. I could get around. There weren’t craters and landmines at my doorstep; the dead weren’t being dumped from taxis, you know, in my yard. I think that in writing this book, I had to be honest and honor my own privilege, then try to see what, from that situation, I could absorb and then speak of. Does that respond to what you’re asking?
“But, I want to say that many of the people, the characters in these poems, did not choose to immerse themselves in war. War immersed them. I went willingly. Many people suffered the aftermaths of persistent confusion, all the problems with post-traumatic stress. My deployment was always the homefront. It was the base where I studied war. No one was shooting at me.”J. C. Todd, in conversation with Ona Gritz
OG: Absolutely. Can you read “In the head it is dark”?
JCT: This is a short poem on page 43, if you’re following. “In the head it is dark”
In the head it is dark
where not a-hunch
a standoff where she
mouth filled with dirt
From Beyond Repair
Copyright © J. C. Todd, 2021
Reprinted with permission from Able Muse Press
OG: “A standoff where she cancels I.” This poem is in a section about PTSD, about how war lives on in the veteran, even after she’s home. The first poems here are in second person, inviting the reader to become the subject, live her life, feel her experiences. Then we step back slightly and the poems are in third, but we’re still so close, feeling what this protagonist feels. And suddenly, midway through the poem “Particles” in this section, there is an I, an I who is addressing a daughter. We can read her as the mother of the veteran, the mother in the first poem in the collection, or as every mother in the sense that all those who suffer belong to us and are our children. Can you speak to this and to your choice of person within the various poems in the book?
JCT: In English, person is gendered when it has to do with humans and other animals, so that complicates its usage. In the first three sections, as you said, third person is really predominant. It takes different forms. There’s the third-person witness in the poems about the Middle East, except in “Leaving Aleppo” when the migrant steps forward to speak in first person. The speaker establishes the stance through tone in these poems. The second section are hybrids, flash fiction sonnets. These poems are in the close third person of an Air Force physician. They’re seen through the consciousness of a central character. The third section focuses on post-traumatic stress: the grammatical and psychological separation of the first, second, and third person breaks down. So the situation of post-traumatic stress syndrome–and I won’t use the word disorder–really, it’s an attempt by the person to reorder a disordered universe. If you call it a syndrome, you’re offering the hope of change. Syndrome is something that moves, and so there’s possibility of change, of some kind of change of status, of things not being so bad. I think that’s more hopeful. If you think of it as a syndrome, you leave space for movement and change. When one disassociates from oneself, she, that one over there, displaces I, the subjectivity of I, and then the sense of self fractures. We all know this; the poems are trying to embody and enact it.
Listen to J. C. Todd read “Particles” from our 2020 fall issue.
JCT: In “Particles,” the first person is used quite differently. The poem begins in third person, someone not the speaker is revealing bits of an incident, all fragments–shoulders, sand, entering a compound. They don’t come together, they’re in pieces. But then, in the third stanza, the speaker steps forward in first person to reveal her response to hearing these fragments and to listening to the story, and this is how she comes forward. (We don’t know it’s a she, it could be a male, too.) “…how can I not see/ blood in the cloud stream of sunset?” So listening to the story has completely changed the experience of sunset. And then the relationship is revealed, this person is listening to their daughter and realizing what every parent realizes–I cannot protect her. But the I is not just the parent speaker. It’s a moment where the reader is offered an opportunity to become empathetic to this blessing/curse of a daughter who returns home from war alive with the war alive in her. So I’m hoping the book is a motivation for the reader to become more empathetic with the realities of all kinds of violent oppression, in this book, in war, in its many forms. An opportunity for people to become empathetic with this suffering as a motivation to resist war more consciously. This is Denise Levertov, I learned this from her, particularly in her books up until the early eighties, maybe the very late seventies, where her poems are filled with this invitation to consciousness. And then she transitions; her poems become more ecstatic, and she is really looking at the awareness of the soul and how the soul lives in the body. But it was her early work that really had a big effect on this book. In the fourth section, when the speaker comes forward and reveals herself, we see how war lodges in her consciousness. Maybe we see how it lodges in our own consciousness. And in our language. These poems are about me, truly, they are, although, you know, they are poems, they’re not autobiography. So, they are probably true to experience, perceived experience, more so than to lived experience. I intend for this section to establish a kind of authority, to authenticate my relationship to the subject.
OG: I want to talk about that section a little more in a moment, but, first, I want to stay in this section and talk about “Disarm,” which is about an unhomed veteran on the streets of Philadelphia. And when I recognized those streets, I felt like you were reminding us of something important, which is that home is also a homefront. And then we come back to our physician veteran and, as she’s stitching up a child in the poem “Flashback to the Morning After,” she notes that contagion could enter her. She has been taken over by her patients, by the lives she’s witnessed, which makes me wonder about the poet. You’ve immersed yourself in war and in suffering, in the writing of this book. And I wonder if it entered you in the way that it does your characters.
“Yet, even with the war in the air, these poems provide a breather for the reader. The war is elsewhere. Though of course we know that for this poet, there is no such thing as elsewhere. But what’s growing in these poems of relative peace and privilege is a poet of empathy and of remembrance.”Ona Gritz, in conversation with J. C. Todd
JC: Well, I was immersed in war. I thought of myself as a war resister during the Vietnam War, and like Pete Seeger, I vowed, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” But then my own children were in war. I have a son who did two tours in Iraq. He ran supply lines, which are completely exposed. He had a small–I don’t even know what the right word is, but platoon is too big a word–a small unit and he had to protect them. My daughter-in-law served at Balad Air Force Base on medical catastrophe flights, so she was flying traumatically wounded patients to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Sometimes they would fly over Kabul or other places where they could have been shot down. Then my grandson couldn’t wait to get to be a Marine in Afghanistan. It was his good luck, although he hated it, that he couldn’t be a rifleman because there was something fragile about his jaw that might’ve shattered with that constant firing. I was so glad. Of course, none of them told stories, nobody talked. When my daughter-in-law came home, she said little bits. My son hadn’t talked to me about it until about 10 years after he was there. My grandson doesn’t talk about it, but he showed me some ways he would take down people, some kind of martial arts, but he never pointed a gun at me. Because they wouldn’t say anything, I had to have a context. I started to read military blogs while they were deployed, and at the same time, I had in my window a flag with a blue star on it, which meant I had children deployed in conflict zones and they were alive. If my son had died, I would have displayed a flag with a gold star. See the value judgment in there from blue to gold? Knowing this, that I could have been a gold star mother, really motivated me to write these poems. But, I want to say that many of the people, the characters in these poems, did not choose to immerse themselves in war. War immersed them. I went willingly. Many people suffered the aftermaths of persistent confusion, all the problems with post-traumatic stress. My deployment was always the homefront. It was the base where I studied war. No one was shooting at me. I didn’t have to walk two blocks to the toilet trailer to pee. I didn’t have to carry my weapon to pee. You can see there’s a big difference. I chose to take suffering into me, kind of as a practice of attention. A kind of Buddhist sitting practice in which I looked calmly at war to see what it could teach me. I did have a weapon and it was language. It was the only thing I had, that and the restrictions of form. Craft. You know, it saves you, because it distracts you from the brutality. You have to live up to the craft. Things escape from you that way. I felt things I had hidden escape from me, thoughts I didn’t know I had. And I wrote as a form of self-protection, to release the things I was feeling into the atmosphere, to speak out into the atmosphere. So writing as a witness gave me a process for healing, and I hope it’s a process, an invitation, for other people to heal.
OG: You introduced the next section with a two-line beautiful poem.
The wars you bring to light
Leave their dark in you
From Beyond Repair
Copyright © J. C. Todd, 2021
Reprinted with permission from Able Muse Press
And now that the book is completed, I wonder if that’s true for you. And if, if there was an emotional cost to the writing of this book and what ways you found to nurture yourself and when necessary to step away?
JC: Well, I don’t think there was an emotional cost, but there were certainly emotional reverberations. As in an earthquake or any kind of persistent earth shifting, they led me places. There was an internal current I lived with, and I still live with it as a result of writing the poems, a kind of coming to know what I had to know to write them. I will say that I’ve always felt destabilized. I think we’re all destabilized. Things come at us all the time; as I was writing I was realizing that, waking up to it, that there’s an ever-changing danger and threat, always. It’s not that I’m anxious about them–sometimes I am–but it’s that they’re there. I couldn’t innure myself and actually write these poems. I had to stay with the sense of threat. But I could step away, and I did, often. As a result, it took me 20 years to write this book.
OG: Let’s go back to that personal section, the one that you claim as closest to memoir. In addition to being the most personal, it’s also domestic. And, when we meet the I of the opening, when we meet her in childhood, in fact, we meet her when she’s still in utero. And you say “war is the seed bed,” and I hear that as it’s the seed bed for this soon-to-be-born poet who will then, over a course of 20 years, birth these poems. Yet, even with the war in the air, these poems provide a breather for the reader. The war is elsewhere. Though of course we know that for this poet, there is no such thing as elsewhere. But what’s growing in these poems of relative peace and privilege is a poet of empathy and of remembrance. In “Sonogram,” the speaker is about to become a mother. And it’s on the exam table that she remembers being a seventh grade girl in the moment when she first really took in the suffering of others. And I believe that closes the section, but the poem that then opens the next section, “Reading With Students About Death Camps,” we meet the teacher that she becomes. Or I feel I know that that’s who she becomes. And part of the reason I know that is because of its placement in the book. That the same girl who teaches others witness and empathy is that child. Teacher teaches students. Poet teaches reader. And what I’m doing here is marveling at the shape of this book, the conversation between the poems. These poems, it feels to me, can’t be in any order other than the one that you’ve found for them. Earlier, Anne Kaier said that you were writing, I believe she used the term, real poems. And I will say that this is a real book. It’s a collection of poems, but it’s not, you know, ‘I have enough poems, therefore, let me see what I can create out of them.’ It’s a book. It builds and it ebbs. And I’m wondering at what point in the process you knew the shape of this book? When did you understand it as a whole?
“It mesmerized me, but it spoke to the war of oppression in which men oppress women. And that is not the war that this book examines. The poem turned the reader’s attention in the wrong direction and it came early. So it was a bad time to digress. It was a red herring, but this was not a detective story.”J. C. Todd, in conversation with Ona Gritz
JCT: I write poems. I’m not like Denise Levertov, who, after her first book, decided she would never write poems again. She would always write a book of poems. She would begin with a project and she would write the book. Well, I can’t do that. The first poems I wrote that are in this book, I began in notes and drafts in 2001. The book was published in 2021. And it wasn’t until maybe 2015 or 2016 that I saw how to make a book of these poems. At that point, I was wrestling with the issue of appropriation, how could my appropriation not be inappropriate? We’re always taking in other people’s stories, but how could the book resist being inappropriate? How could it be authentic? I found that the intention as a witness within poems was my road to maintaining authentic speech. It was around 2015 or ’14 that I actually was able to articulate that or see it clearly. I had gotten lucky and received a Pew Fellowship, and as a result, I was able to teach only one semester a year. So that gave head space and time to sit with these poems, to read deeply, and to think how they could coalesce into a book. At the same time, I was collaborating with MaryAnn Miller. Conceptualizing two artist books with her, FUBAR and On Foot/By Hand, increased my sensitivity to the etymologies of violence. Looking at violence visually expanded my sense of its etymology. I was thinking a lot about the intrusion of violence in the most commonplace expressions. Around 2013, my students started to use the word impactful. They got that from the media and the bombings. I’m not an etymologist, but I do feel that’s one of the roots of our current use of the word. I began at this point to write new poems, using my awareness of the violence in language, and wanted these poems to speak to the earlier poems. Then the structure became clear. I could see the knit. I could see the order of the poems, somewhat. I could write the epigrams that introduce and link each section. It became a book. A book-book. You said that to me, when we were talking, playing off of Billy Collins’ term drink-drink in a poem. Well, it became a book-book, an organic whole. After Able Muse offered the contract, the onset of COVID gave me the isolation to refine, refine, refine. And then I got the gift of the final poem in the book, “In Bruges.” It’s about the city in Belgium, but Bruges, bruise, they’re close. This became a coda to the opening poem, “In Whom the Dying Does Not End,” and the book synced itself into a whole.
Listen to J. C. Todd read “In Whom the Dying Does Not End”
OG: The poem “Earth” is a personification poem; Earth herself is the speaker. And as such, it’s really different from everything else in the book, and yet it absolutely belongs. And I think the thread is what I would call your radical empathy, your ability to enter the suffering of others, including the suffering of our planet. So I was wondering if you could speak to that for a moment.
JCT: Earth served a function; before it was part of a book, it was part of a sequence of poems called “The Damages of Morning.” There are five poems and the first four are personas. It placed the Persephone-Demeter myth in Warsaw during the siege, when the Germans invaded in 1939. So there’s Persephone, the girl. There’s the commander, Hades. There’s the mother, Demeter. And then there’s Earth, who had to speak because, after all, that is the source of the mother’s power. That’s how Earth got into the sequence. Earth observes, “They have time. I have duration/ and mass…// My motion not a quest for power/ or longevity, theirs is, thus// their brevity.” So this is Earth’s smack down of the human race. At the same time, my own personal vision or internal vision of Earth and its persistence gave me hope. Maybe the species will die out or evolve into some unfathomable other that we wouldn’t see as an extension of the human, but Earth will survive, at least till the sun implodes. And I felt satisfied by that understanding that the Earth will be here. It will outlive us. That was a great balm to me. I don’t understand why.
So, poetry was a weapon and a comfort. A weapon and a shield.J. C. Todd, in conversation with Ona Gritz
OG: I think it has something to do with that empathy we’ve been talking about. Are there poems in this collection that surprised you by insisting they be a part of it? And are there others that you thought might belong, but ultimately didn’t fit?
JCT: I think the poem we were just discussing, “In the head it is dark,” was the last poem that came into the book. It came in after I tacked, or tacked isn’t the right word, after I’d integrated “In Bruges” into the book. I wrote ”In the head it is dark” around 2015, responding to a catalog of the work of the German painter, Uli Zwerenz. It was a one-off. I meant it to praise him. It wasn’t intended for any book ever. But when I was working on the PTS section, there was a structural imbalance; I was shuffling the poems and I couldn’t solve it. Then I remembered this poem. It was already written. I brought it in and, in figuring out where to place it, other poems began to move around. Voila, the section got balanced. So I’m really happy that this poem, which I wrote to praise a friend, found a completely different life in this book, and such a functional life. I love usefulness.
OG: And I love when our work proves to be smarter than we are.
JCT: You asked about poems that had to be removed. There were a handful, maybe a little more than a handful, that had to come out, but one removal was like an amputation. It was titled “Lahore Ornamental,” and I love its rhymes, the hidden rhymes and the repetitions in it. It mesmerized me but it spoke to the war of oppression in which men oppress women. And that is not the war that this book examines. The poem turned the reader’s attention in the wrong direction and it came early in the book, So it was a bad time to digress. It was a red herring, but this was not a detective story. It had to go. Vernita Hall, one of my students but now a colleague, Vernita said that my scalpel was sharp. I had to apply the scalpel—excision instead of revision. That hurt.
OG: Well, I feel lucky that when it left this book, it entered Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (South Jersey Cultural & History Center at Stockton University, 2021).
JCT: It did. So it’s in this wonderful collection of resistance poems, Welcome to the Resistance, that Ona and her colleague Taylor Carmen Savath have edited and published through Stockton University.
OG: You’re in it, Anne Kaier is in it, and Vernita Hall. And, as Larry Robin mentioned, we’ll be reading from it next week. But back to you, J. C. Another poem I want to spend a moment with is “Bud,” which shows us in a whole new way the broken heart of the speaker, both in the sense of grief for the world and in the sense of being broken open. Even in describing something of beauty, images of war break through. And you and I have already talked about the origin of this poem, which will tell us a lot about the origin of the book itself, so I was hoping you would share that.
JCT: Thank you. In 2001, Kerry Shawn Keys, a dear friend and my very first publisher, was living in Lithuania, where he still lives in Vilnius. He arranged or invited me to come and be one of the international poets in the poetry festival held every spring. This was 2001. Lithuania was about 10 years out of Soviet control. They had staged a revolution, one that the U.S. would not support. The Soviet Union was crumbling. The Soviets stepped back. Independence was declared in the spring of 1991, and sometime later, the U.S. acknowledged Lithuania as a state. So this 10th anniversary was a time of celebration, and the festival organizers loaded all of us with our translators, and many Lithuanian poets as well, onto little buses, big vans maybe, and we went all over the country, touring and reading. Very few people understood English. Russian was a primary language when the Russians were there. It was forbidden to speak Lithuanian in public. So that’s very important because during the revolution, poets were leaders of the opposition, the resistance. Not only did they carry weapons and fight, but they also wrote poems and read them, and people read them or memorized them and stood in town squares reciting these poems in Lithuanian, a forbidden language. Eventually it got to the point—I hope I’m telling this right—that the head of the Soviet police in Vilnius sort of threw his hands up and said, “What are we going to do? Arrest a whole nation?” So, poetry was a weapon and a comfort.
OG: I was thinking a weapon and a shield.
JCT: Weapon and a shield for the revolution and for 10 or so years after. Although the second time I was in Lithuania—I went a few times—Kornelijus Platelis, who’s a phenomenal Lithuanian poet, said, “I think we’re more interested in buying shoes now than we are in buying books and poetry.” The resistance and the desire for freedom were now becoming absorbed into a status quo, which is, of course, what a nation wants. Anyway, while I was touring around, one of the places we stopped was in a town whose name I don’t recall, but it had been a factory town. When the Soviets left, they took key pieces of equipment so that the factories’ machines were all dysfunctional. The Soviets had been there long enough that at least two generations had lost the ability to farm crops that could feed them. They were farming a uni-crop—I think it was beets—and they were working in factories. So when the Soviets left, the town lost its ability to provide for itself. Ten years later, they were beginning to learn to farm again, and they were beginning small industries. We read in a 1950s auditorium, Soviet, filled with people who understood no English, no French, no German, none of the other languages that the poets were speaking, but we were all translated. At the end of the reading, four women came up to me: a grandmother, a mother, her daughter—also a mother, and a small child about three or four years old, all women. They handed me armloads of lilacs, and the scent, you know, enveloped us. We were all breathing the same air; even though we couldn’t understand each other, we could see each other’s faces, and I felt their lives. Of course, I didn’t know what their lives were, but I felt connected to them. That really was the impulse for “Bud,” which is all about scent told in the language of war, and also the impetus for the book. But I didn’t know that there was a book at that point.
Listen to J. C. Todd read her poem “Bud”
OG: The book was in bud. So you’ve evoked Denise Levertov a few times, and as I was reading your book, I felt a deep connection to the poems of Caroline Forché, and also the early poems of Sharon Olds–the ones that are based on photographs of war. And I’m wondering who you were reading as you worked on the book and who, besides Denise Levertov, you consider your influences.
JCT: It’s so interesting. I’m always reading poetry, but the books that I was going to during this period were non-fiction and they were focused on Europe during the first and second world wars and the interwar periods, looking at the societal effects of war on daily life. For the Middle East, I was reading the news, but also more serious articles like in The Atlantic or Rolling Stone or The New Yorker. And then there were two books on Syria that really focused me. One was by Wendy Pearlman. We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. It was based on her 20 years of interviews with Syrian exiles. Anyone interested in the life of an exile, read We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled; it’s a transformative book.
OG: Beautiful title.
JCT: Yes, it’s a quote from one of the people living in exile said to her in Arabic, but she wrote the book in English. And then there was a second book that caught me by surprise. I was with MaryAnn (Miller) at Narberth Bookshop, when I saw this book just lying on a table. Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War was a translation also, from the Italian journalist, Francesca Borri. At the same time, Bryn Mawr Colege had an art exhibit, and so I began to turn to art. There were two curators, Christiane Gruber and Nama Khalil, of the exhibit, Creative Dissent: Arts of the Arab World Uprisings, that had a profound effect on me. Other art that I was reading that influenced me was by Candice Breitz and Tania El Khoury. And the migrant encampment, or the enactment of a migrant encampment, that Doctors Without Borders set on the lawn of the Independence Mall, next to the Constitution Center in Philadelphia–that was profoundly influential. Now I’ll talk about poems, but I wanted to lay that out. I really did try to immerse myself, live in this for years. Carolyn Forsché’s The Country Between Us is absolutely foundational, probably to all my writing. I was pregnant when I read it, so I was totally porous. She came to Harrisburg to read. I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t even speak to her, but that book is in me, and as foundational, I think its influence is pervasive rather than specific. A grad student could probably explain how it was specific, but for me, it just was there. Who else? Oh, May Swenson, also foundational. Her cool, astonishingly clear observations and the immaculate economy of her language as it imprints an image. I love her work. Hopefully the poem “Earth” has a little bit of her playful wit in it, but I’m not too sure if other ones in this book do. Let’s see, Yusef Komunyakaa. Neon Vernacular, Dien Cai Dau, Warhorses. These three particularly influenced me, his experiences serving in Vietnam. And then, for single books of poetry, Dunya Mikhail, who is an Iraqi exile. Saddam Hussein had put her on the kill list, the enemies list, when she was a very young woman, maybe 20, and she had to flee the country. She came to The States eventually where she still lives outside of Detroit. She teaches. Her first book, written in Arabic, was translated. It’s called The War Works Hard. I think it was published in 2004 or 5. It’s astonishing. You should read it. And then another one, the British poet Alice Oswald, an extraordinary lyricist and classicist. She wrote a collection, Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad, in which she re-imagined and lamented the soldiers whose names are only noted in The Iliad. No story, merely named. I was taken by how she brought them to life through image, through song, and she never valorized them the way The Iliad, and all or most war writing valorizes. That’s what I can think of now.
OG: Brian Turner? Is he in that mix?
JCT: Brian is, for Here, Bullet. Marvelous, marvelous book. And also the film, The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. That film came from one of his poems. Brian is writing from a different point of view than I am. This is not to criticize, but to make a distinction, he was a soldier. Was there. And that’s his perspective. So his empathy draws on different sources.
OG: What’s next for you both as a writer and as a teacher?
JCT: Well, I’m kind of in the doldrums as a writer. I’m trying to get this book promoted, but that’s no excuse. I’m writing a group of poems responding to the life and the work of the German Expressionist, Käthe Kollwitz, whose work I love. I’ve been to Germany a couple of times, in the archives, looking at her drawings and prints and proofs that will never see the light of day. They’re not signed, most of them are studies. I thought I had a book, but it’s not a book yet, so I’m sort of kicking that around. I am teaching again. I’m going to do a six week workshop for the Rosemont Writers Studios, open to anyone, called The Resonant Poem, which is what I have been working on–how to make the poems resonant. I want to look at that a little more closely in this workshop. And also, Peter Murphy’s annual Prose and Poetry Getaway, which takes place down at the shore, New Jersey, every Martin Luther King weekend. I’ll be teaching a three-day workshop there. So I think that’s it. 1This interview took place during the launch of Beyond Repair, hosted by Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 26, 2021.
OG: So a couple of opportunities to spend more time with you.
JCT: I’d like that. Join me. I want to thank you so much. It’s an honor for these probing questions, for the few moments of terror you offered me when you asked a few of them. And to thank Dilruba Ahmed, Heather H. Thomas, and Anne Kaier and MaryAnn Miller, and you, Ona, for taking this journey, of being together for this launch. This supportive friendship has meant a great deal to me in my life and as a writer. So I want to thank you all very much. And Larry Robin, to you for publishing The Damages of Morning, and then for hosting this launch. I appreciate you so much, and all you do for the community. I should thank my publisher, Alex Pepple. He’s an extraordinarily deep, deep reader of poems. Thanks to all of you for showing up. This was a kind of long, well, maybe long isn’t the right word, thorough, deep dive into the book. I hope it informed you as readers, people, writers. Thank you all so very much.
Ona Gritz’s new collection of essays, Present Imperfect, is available from Poets Wear Prada. Her other books include Geode, a Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award finalist, and On the Whole: a Story of Mothering and Disability. A longtime columnist at Literary Mama, Ona’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, River Teeth, The Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, Catamaran Literary Reader, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Recent honors include two Notable mentions in Best American Essays, a Best Life Story in Salon, and a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020 project.
J. C. Todd’s recent books are Beyond Repair (2021), a special selection for the 2019 Able Muse Press Poetry Book Award, and The Damages of Morning (Moonstone Press 2018), an Eric Hoffer Award 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, the Leeway Foundation, and residency programs. Her poems have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Mezzo Cammin, The Night Heron Barks, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals.