Patrick Gaughan talks to poet Chris Toll about poetry and collage: “My poems are like a pyramid you climb backwards.”
I first encountered Chris Toll through friends in the burgeoning Maryland publishing scene. Somehow two copies of The Disinformation Phase made their way to my apartment this summer. One lived on the kitchen table, the other on the bathroom sink. That’s how Chris would want it. He intends his poems to welcome readers, to extend handshakes, to be gateways to truth. Yet even after speaking extensively with Chris, he remains as enigmatic as his work, as though he was never a child, simply plucked from an elliptical myth, as though he rode the backs of “Voices in the wind” and fell, plopping him on I-83 in Baltimore, a full grown man from the stars. Upon concluding our interview, Chris Toll told me, “It would have been nice to discuss my childhood out in the midwest where I ran away from home and became a rodeo clown, and my best friend was a slightly older boy named Bobby Zimmerman.”
Patrick Gaughan In The Disinformation Phase, you playfully translate purported lost works of poet icons such as Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath, framing these poems with sci-fi time-traveling back stories. What was the seed of these scenarios? Would you classify these poems as a parody of canonization or more akin to Jack Spicer’s After Lorca model, a collaboration with the dead?
Chris Toll I almost always begin with a line that pops into my head—lines given to me by the Voices in the wind (I go to a psychic sometimes, and I asked her about the Voices in the wind and she said the lines were really coming from my Higher Self—that’s fine—I like Voices in the wind better). So that’s how I begin. I pick poets to “translate” who are important in the construction of my imagination. There is absolutely no parody—isn’t parody the lowest form of rumor?
PG So you adhere to Jack Spicer’s notion of dictation, that the poet is a vessel through which Martians or “Voices in the wind” speak? In his Vancouver Lectures, Spicer outlines the idea that these voices interact with the “furniture” in the poet’s head, whether it be a book on linguistics or a baseball game, and speak through this furniture and into the poem. Is that similar to your process?
CT Yes, very much so! In large part, I am taking dictation. Who is dictating—the dead? angels? demons? my Higher Self? I don’t know—I just receive “material.” It doesn’t matter who the “who” is—what matters is that the “who” is Outside. I’m not quite sure about the "furniture"—I have Holy Icons—images that always bring me joy and wonder: a slim and gorgeous Cardigan Girl, a coke-addled priest at a country crossroads, a desperate detective with a raygun in her hand, a vampire hitman in the Batcave right before dawn, a rabbi stepping out of a time machine with a cutlass in his hand. So I take lines from the Voices in the wind, I add some Holy Icons, and I might add some lines from one of my older poems (if I can’t steal from myself, who can I steal from?). Then I rearrange the lines, and I have the first draft of a poem.
PG This sounds like collage, and you’re also a collage-maker, designing the cover of your book. The nouns in your poetry often feel like cut-outs glued to the page, as in these lines from “Bless This Glance Around”:
I mend a snowstorm
and it loses an orchestra
and “The Chord Is My Shepherd”:
My library is dancing
with a skyscraper.
How similar are your approaches to poetry and collage?
CT The goal of collage and poetry is the same—to make Mystery live in this rational world. In my poems, I am always after a Grand Truth—I heard a Grand Truth passed this way a while ago and I write a poem and I hope my poem is clever enough and brave enough and beautiful enough to catch the Grand Truth when it passes this way again. Those particular lines were inspired by my "spam poems.”
PG What are spam poems?
CT Poems where every word in the poem comes from the block of words added at the end of a spam message to fool spam filters. What I learned from writing these poems is that utterance is elastic. Give me any noun and any verb and any adjective and any noun, and I’ll give you a line of poetry. The idea is to add a room to Mystery’s mansion. The problem with this world is that everything makes sense.
PG You seem intrigued in your work by words within words and it becomes a major motif in the book. Your poems ask: “Why is a Bud in Buddha?” and “Why is try in Poetry?” What emotional resonance do you find in posing these questions?
CT To me, it is God’s secret language and once you see the secret language, the secret language is everywhere. These lines are like a Station of the Cross you can kneel at before you go on to the next harrowing of hell. Why is easy in queasy?
PG Throughout the book, you’re consistent with line breaks, always end-stopping your lines, returning to the left margin for prepositional phrases. For instance, in your poem, “Binary World Blues,” the words at the left margin are all articles, prepositions, and pronouns, while all the lines end in nouns.
A priest melts crucifixes
in a crucible on his stove.
He pours the molten silver
into molds to make bullets.
His revolver lies on top of a Holy Bible.
How do you decide where to break a line?
CT I do concern myself with how my poems “look.” I try to fashion them so their shape will comfort the reader. I write in short lines until the middle of the poem and then I write longer lines toward the end. My poems are like a pyramid you climb backwards—where are you going?—well, I think we’re all going to heaven—and heaven is a motel room just off the interstate and Jesus lives there and He is a transvestite in a cashmere twinset and a leather skirt.
PG There’s another God reference. In “Why is Go in God?” you ask, “What am I being saved for?” and you mention saints and Mary and Jesus. Would you equate poems to prayers? Are you invoking an alternative deity?
CT I believe there is only one God, and this God is everywhere. God imbues this keyboard I type on. God is me and God is you.
PG So this is God interviewing God.
CT Exactly! God is every person; there is no person God is not. So am I saying that the most horrific serial killer is also God? Yes, I am. But how can that be? Aha! Now we are knock, knock, knocking on Mystery’s door. I don’t know what will happen when that door is opened—all I know is if we knock long enough, Someone will answer. I may never see this Someone. But I most assuredly can add a room to the new wing being constructed—just now—for Mystery’s mansion. I can do that with all my heart. And when Mystery’s mansion is big enough, we will have a New World.
Patrick Gaughan’s work has appeared in PEN America, PeopleHerd, The Brooklyn Rail, and BOMB. He has received scholarships from Fabrica and Juniper. He lives in Brooklyn, where he curates Readings at Milk&Roses.