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An Interview with Todd Boss

2011 September 6
by Wren

Timothy and Wren have a shared infatuation with the poet Todd Boss. Wren ran into his work through the letterpress Red Dragonfly Press, who published a collaborative chapbook of poems between Boss and Katrina Vandenberg called On Marriage. Boss visited a poetry class Timothy took in 2009, shortly after Boss’ collection Yellowrocket was published. Both have been seeing his name pop up in the press lately, for Motionpoems and more. After swapping books back and forth, and searching for answers to their questions, Timothy and Wren decided heck, why not talk to the man himself? And so they did.

Wren & Timothy: Can you explain what a Motionpoem is?

Todd Boss: A motionpoem is a film adaptation of a poem. The poem isn’t written for the film, and the film doesn’t influence the writing of the poem, so it’s not a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. Rather, a motionpoem is what happens when a video artist is invited to use a poem as the script for a short film. Motionpoems is the name of the whole enterprise, and it’s co-directed by me and Angella Kassube, a designer / animator / producer I literally bumped into at a reading at Nina’s Café in Saint Paul, where I run a reading series. Three years later, we’re a nonprofit initiative with 300 donors and some amazing partners.

W&T: Aside from the website, where can Motionpoems be seen?

TB: Motionpoems are available on YouTube and on our channel at New poems (produced in partnership with Scribner’s annual Best American Poetry anthology) will be available on a subscription basis beginning in November. You can subscribe at any of the sites mentioned above. Motionpoems are also being shown at international film festivals and in art-house cinemas (as shorts before the feature). We’ll have a DVD for sale in the fall too.

W&T: Poetry can be solitary work. Motionpoems, your chapbook On Marriage with Katrina Vandenberg, and “Verse and Converse” are very collaborative. How do you balance collaboration with solitary writing?

TB: It’s a problem. I’m a collaboration junkie. I love working with other artists. My newest project is a verse retelling of Knut Hamsun’s 1895 novella PAN, which will be set to music as an evening-length performance piece for piano and voice by Andy Vores.

I’m not sure how to answer this question. Maybe collaborative work is a kind of release from the solitary work of poetry making. Or maybe I’m using collaborative work as a way of avoiding the hard solitary stuff. Or maybe I’m just someone who can’t help but get involved with people and communities. Who knows, maybe my poetry suffers for that. At some point, it’s not about you, it has to be about others, and your community. I’m not too worried; I trust there is a mutual benefit to me on some level.

W&T: In what ways has your writing process evolved since beginning Motionpoems?

TB: I don’t think it has evolved because of Motionpoems, but it is evolving nevertheless. I’m not sure how, though. It’s kind of subterranean, tectonic. There are tensions everywhere, and I never know what’s going to give. I’ll let the critics and readers identify evolutions. My job is just to be there when the tremors start.

W&T: How did Motionpoems connect with the Best American Poetry Anthology? Are there future collaborations in the works?

TB: I was in Best American Poetry last year, so I got a sense of how they worked, what their timelines were, and who to contact. We sent a 3-page letter to Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman, proposing what a partnership might look like. And he responded favorably, so we sent him a letter of agreement, and suddenly we had access to the poems and the poets.

As for future collaborations, I hope we get to work with Best American Poetry again. We also have lots of conversations going with other major publishers about doing something like this for them.

W&T: How did you get connected with Red Dragonfly Press? Have you been involved with letterpress before or since?

TB: I love the book arts, it’s a deep fascination. I actually own a letterpress. (Gotta get that thing going again.) When I collaborated with Katrina Vandenberg, she mentioned Red Dragonfly, and she turned out to be right, it was a perfect fit for our little 10-poem project, On Marriage. When On Marriage was on the presses, I actually took my kids for a tour of the shop I was so excited. Red Dragonfly’s master printer, Scott King, let my kids turn out prints of their names. It was cool.

W&T: How do you think poetry changes with the medium (or vice versa), both in video, letterpress, or other mediums?

TB: I have this pet theory that print ruined poetry. Poetry was an oral and performance art form until movable type came along and confined it to the page and turned it into a “literature.” So in many ways I think film can reintroduce audiences to the complex joys of poetry in that oral / performance tradition.

On the flip side, film changes the experience of poetry, and not always in a good way. Any adaptation is also an interpretation. Some of our films interpret their poems broadly, some narrowly and inventively, but each one admittedly limits a reader’s imaginative experience of the poem in question. Something dies there, but something is born too: a window is thrown open upon one reader’s (the video artist’s) reading of the poem, and so each film is a rare chance to see through that window.

W&T: What was the biggest impact that growing up in a rural setting had on your poetry?

TB: Silence. I had acres of silence in which to develop an inner life.

W&T: How did the idea for your poetry series “Verse and Converse” come about?

TB: I think Robert Bly had just been named poet laureate of Minnesota. I was a regular at a café in Saint Paul called Nina’s, it was a place I’d go and write for hours. I got to thinking: Why should only nations and states have poets laureate? Why not a city block or a neighborhood café? So I asked Nina’s manager, this spunky chick named June, if I could be Nina’s poet laureate. She was like, “What’s that?” and I said, “I dunno,” and she said, “Okay, sure.” Then I e-mailed all my friends and asked them what I should do in my new role. In poured tons of ideas. I settled on a reading series, but I’ve suspended it three years later, and I’m cooking up something new for Nina’s now.

Nina’s has great chili, by the way. That’s important to know.

W&T: What’s the future for Motionpoems? What’s next for you?

TB: Motionpoems has big things ahead of it, including a partnership with the American Library Association. As for me, I’m awaiting the release of my second collection, PITCH, from W. W. Norton in February. And I’m working on a new project: thirty-five 35-word poems about the collapse of the 35W Bridge.

*Like what you’ve read? Stay tuned for What We’re Reading this Thursday – Timothy and Wren continue this obsession by reviewing two poetry collections by Todd Boss!

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