Timothy Dodd: Life & Death & Poetry

Timothy B. Dodd is from Mink Shoals, WV. His poetry has appeared in Big River Poetry Review, The William and Mary Review, FloodwallThe Mayo Review, and elsewhere. He is currently in the MFA program at the University of Texas El Paso. Readers are always welcome to contact Tim for any reason at timofeev@hotmail.com, or follow/friend him on Facebook—under “Timmy Dodd,” you’ll see the horseshoe crab again—where he sometimes post links to his published stories and poems. 

His poem Life and Death on Venice Street appears in the 2015 edition of the Roanoke Review, a part of the first series of prose and poetry to be published on the Review's new on-line site. Stephanie Spector speaks with Tim below.

So, first things first. What exactly are you doing in your picture?

Ha! Well, it’s a little trick for anyone, such as me, who isn’t so photogenic: side yourself next to a primordial creature of the ocean deep! (laugh) 

In fact, this is on the Delaware coast, holding a lovely horseshoe crab---one of our most ancient animals. They have a very unique and mysterious mating ritual, but unfortunately, after they come out of the water to spawn, they get stuck in rocks and crevices and can’t make it back to the ocean. So they need a friend who will pick them up by their shells and return them to the water. I shouldn’t be holding the little fellow by the tail like that…but just once for a good photo. I’ve got a lot of mileage out of that photo….good grief, it’s even my facebook avatar…  

But better than that I suppose, there’s also something in this photo that connects to Life and Death on Venice Street---as it’s a poem that seeks to blur the dichotomy between life and death, and rebirth as well. Not to mention the “unique and mysterious mating ritual...”

What do you like best about Life and Death on Venice Street?

To be honest, I’m still trying to learn to like this poem! But what first comes to mind is the sense of life from death that’s in it. I am from West Virginia, Bible Belt territory, and my father is/was a fundamentalist minister, so death was very persistent for me as I grew up. I had to hit Kierkegaard by age 13-14. (laugh) It actually took me a while to realize, back to the traveling thing again, that life is equally omnipresent and that one feeds the other---like in a relationship I think, isn’t it? We’re now trained to see life and death as polarity---and through the lens of our egos and wills, see death as a dirty and rotten card.  But whether in physics, in nature, in heavy metal music, heck, even in love and romance, there is always the fire of life behind death.  And yet, the fire of life can’t work without death---they’re good friends actually, despite the pain and chaos of transformation. 

So this poem tries to pursue that reality …those crazy opportunities we have to pursue life, grab it from out of death’s shadows….if we’ll put aside our vulnerabilities for a moment. It’s also a bit of a dialogue with Thomas Mann’s novella, as well as the notion that no matter one’s situation/station in life, (i.e. at what stage of “death” you believe you’re in, in all its forms) there is life beating. We find life, pulsating life, in all sorts of strange places and moments….if our minds are attuned to it, I think. 

I tried to tease this out through the images and symbols, and make both a part of the fabric of the narrator I came up with---“C’est moi,” essentially, as Flaubert said about his own Emma Bovary. Not literally, of course: among other things, I can’t speak Hungarian, etc. Wish I could…

Your poems are richly layered with themes of place. In Life and Death on Venice Street, you mention Iceland, Myrtle Beach, and Nova Scotia—even the title is locational. In other poems, you reference Africa, Mexico, etc. To what do you attribute that characteristic?

My fiction writing at this time is about 85% based on Appalachian themes, settings, and issues, but in poetry it’s the opposite---all over the place. And that comes from not only my obsession with world literature, but also independent travel. Traveling is/was my first love---before writing. It has always been my dance: the freedom, a curiosity about the world, getting back to an older time and place, letting one’s guard down to find an honest friendship and love for life---and I think that’s all probably included in this poem too I suppose. 

My first trip abroad happened when I was 17---a scholarship I won to study in Egypt for a month. I had to work my behind off just to get parental permission. But even that very first bus ride from the airport to downtown Cairo is something that will live with me forever. I’ve never forgotten it---and the images and experiences thereafter, in so many beautiful, heart-melting places in the world, probably saved my life in a sense. At least it kept me singing until I was ready to write. Just shaking the hand of a fellow who plays the mbira… or a farmer who gives you a ride on his tractor so you can see some old Urartian script on a rock in the middle of nowhere….well, I get starry-eyed. 

“The native land of a good soul is the whole earth,” says Democritus. When I travel, I find a lot to believe in---so it comes out in my writing.  

What do you think is the key to writing an effective narrative poem?

Actually, the narrative quality in Life and Death on Venice Street is fairly uncommon for me. Most of my poetry is far less fluid, is “expressionistic” and has less of a story streak in it. I mean, the story will often be there, but it’s under the surface and much more difficult for a reader to follow it in any sort of linear, narrative way. Still, like most poetry that attracts me, narrative or not, I want to hear the voice, a searching voice, and the images to carry it through. I think there are some twists and some humor and some layers in the narration to this poem as well---at least I hope so. And it’s my intention that all these add propulsion and tension to the narrative.

What’s the most helpful thing you’ve learned at the MFA program at El Paso so far? Have you faced any challenging obstacles?

I sing praises for my MFA program at UTEP. I entered it a bit skeptical of all MFA programs, but without a doubt I found the right place for me, and I am taking things slowly there, savoring it and digesting as much knowledge as I can. It’s an imaginative program with a diverse group of writers, and has a refreshing Latino and international flavor to it. Students and professors are very supportive of each other, and I think it all starts at the top with our fantastic program leader, writer/professor Daniel Chacon….who in turn starts the program right off with mythic imagination, which is music to my ears: archetype, symbol, image, Borges, Hans Christian Andersen, humor---I’m still waiting on his Kafka class. (smile) But I’m a happy guy with the folks at UTEP for sure.  It’s a perfect fit for me, as though I’ve found a little home in the weeds or something. I’ve learned as much from fellow students/writers as I have the instructors; the entire program has been a godsend, and both my poetry and prose have benefited. 

Do you have any writing habits or rituals?

Oh yeah! The basic one: whatever impresses me, whatever reaches my heart or my funny bone---make sure I get it down on paper. No matter if I have to get up out of bed, put Dio on pause, carry little pieces of paper in my pockets, stop on the sidewalk to jot something down---whatever, just get it down on paper before it disappears! It doesn’t matter if it’s “real” or imagined---all the same to me. I had to get out of bed 4 times in one night last month because there was a girl named Gabriela sitting at my computer. Well, I knew who she was and what it was all about, so I listened, got up, scribbled some things down on paper in the dark, and then went back to bed…until she reappeared three more times. (laughs) But otherwise it could be the sky tomorrow morning, something I hear on the bus, another author, snippets of conversation, an Olmec head. If it moves me, I feel it’s a part of my voice and it’s something I can build on. So I get it down on paper immediately---no matter how rudimentary and no matter how long it sits before I come back to it. Eventually, I’ll visit it and revisit it until something starts to sing. If I’m fortunate, as was the case with my story Gabriela, I won’t have to wait long and the story or poem just spills out naturally.  All this can be something of a 24-hour exercise, but it’s not anything like work or a task for me. It’s the way my mind and eye sorts through the day now, open to beautiful things, thanks to writing. Then it even has trouble shutting down at night sometimes….