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Editor’s note: I originally asked Todd to write a brief description of how he came to write his epic poem, Dillinger, which he has added at least several sections to.  The idea was to use it to pitch Dillinger to a bigger press, so Todd can get a wider exposure – which I sincerely believe he deserves.  But what he sent me was so much to the theme of the journal, that it made more sense to publish it [2000].  Todd’s just stuck with the Lummox Press for a while longer. 



BLOOD AND BONE by Todd Moore


There was a time when I thought I'd be done with Dillinger, the man and the poem. But it isn't so easy to get him out of my head. And, just when he came into my head I can't say. Sometime in 1973 I think I'd been reading some of Olson's MAXIMUS and all of Mcgrath's LETTER and it seemed to me with all of the energy building inside me that I was going to write a long poem too. I knew that the way some people know they're going to write a novel. The way that Faulkner must have known about the novels he had inside him. And Hemingway. And Fitzgerald.


Only with me it wasn't novels. It was these big lines starting to rev UP inside my head. Short poems were okay and easy and I could do them in just a few minutes but for a long time I'd somehow known that a great long poem is the equivalent of a great novel. So, I started thinking of a subject. Most poets use themselves as the main characters. That kind of thing went all the way back to Wordsworth and THE PRELUDE. And Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS. "Song of Myself" is the heart of it all. And. I wanted to write something that took a lot of breath and something that went way into the dark heart of it all.


The last thing I wanted to do was copy THE WASTE LAND. Or Berryman's DREAM SONGS. Those poems were unique, uncopyable. And, MAXIMUS is powerful in places but the main character is so vaguely drawn. I wanted a character who was absolutely unmistakable. In every thing he did. I also wanted him to be an outlaw. But not Jesse James. He'd been done so many times. Or Billy the Kid. Michael Ondaatje had done him to perfection in THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID. The book is a kind of hybrid half poem half novel.


Of course, there was Dillinger. I'm not exactly sure what it was that reminded me of him. I'd heard of him first from my father. who also liked outlaws. And. I lived in the part of Illinois that Dillinger had driven through on his way to rob banks in Iowa or to hide out in Chicago. Why not Dillinger? It was like he was waving from his getaway car.


So, I got my hands on John Toland's DILLINGER DAYS and Robert Cromie's DILLINGER DEAD OR ALIVE. And, I started to read about Dillinger the way some people read about ancestors. The more I read about him the more I felt the man growing, taking shape in the house. After awhile, it almost felt like he was alive and breathing and staying in the spare bedroom. He became that real.


The first year or two that I tried writing Dillinger poems, the efforts were terrible failures because I was doing it as a poet. a kind of Robert Lowell type. And, the poet, the feeling of being the poet suffocated Dillinger. In 1976 the door blew open and Dillinger stood there. The complete man, voice and all. That's when I wrote THE NAME IS DILLINGER. And. that's when I realized I hadn't been listening. The whole time I'd been doing the talking. Now. it was Dillinger's turn. And. he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it.  My job was to listen and get it all down the best way I could.


It's funny, looking back now. Because all I had to do then was to relax and let the energy come to me. It's a strange thing to say. What energy? How do you do that? It's the question most beginning poets ask. How do you know what to write down? How do you know which way the line should go and where to break it?


The whole thing comes down to this. You don't know anything. But you trust in the strong sense of not knowing. For me. DILLINGER exists in several different ways. First of all. it’s the image of a man. Or maybe a mask. I don't know but then I don't really have to know it all because in some peculiar way it ---the mask and man know me. They can find me.


Second, DILLINGER exists as a huge field of energy. Something that is both fireball and black hole. And. I'm not necessarily talking about Olson's theory of field here. I'm simply talking about the energy that wells up inside which is the unknown part of the poem. And, the fact of the poem. The fact that it exists as a complex of voices. The fact that I can feel the energy of the poem pulsing, vibrating, breathing, talking both to itself and to me. The fact that the poem exists and has a life of its own.


And, I can just about tell when a little piece of that energy will break off and start to drift toward me. And, I can almost always see it coming. Or, to put it another way, I can see it coming in a kind of dream state and I can almost certainly feel it coming. I'll start to get some lines and I'll start to hear the hum of a voice. Maybe it'll be Dillinger himself or some other character howling to be born. And, the words will turn into lines and then I'm sitting in front of the computer trying to get down just what is coming to me. The poem can be just that strong.


Each time I go through that experience, it's something that is almost trance like even though I am awake. It's like dreaming with the eyes wide open. And, when the feeling comes intensely, it has to be put down on paper intensely. Because the strength of the poem is equal to its intensity. And, its intensity has everything to do with the velocity of voice and dream.


I may have dreamed DILLINGER in the beginning, but now the man and poem exist along a grid of blood and bone.



Cover from The Corpse is Dreaming
Promo announcement



My obsession with outlaws began nearly thirty years ago when I started to write DILLINGER. Just exactly what the attraction was and is hasn't always been easy to explain. I suppose the most obvious explanation is that I grew up around a lot of small time criminals. People who routinely stole things for a living. Guys who resorted to violence more easily than to talking. Life at the Clifton Hotel meant staying right at the edge of the edge. Trapped in a dead end existence.


That's one explanation. An alternative possibility has to do with the fact that I spent many an afternoon and evening at the movies watching Humphrey Bogart. Richard Widmark. George Raft. Edward G. Robinson. and Jimmy Cagney practice bank robbery. mayhem. and murder and making it look just this side of wonderful. And. keep in mind. I was a street kid with not much of a past, a cramped two room apartment to live in where the floors were rotting and the walls had holes big enough for the rats to squeeze through, and a future that held no great expectations. So. when I saw Bogart or Cagney or Raft shoot a bank president who had just taken some poor bastard’s farm, I was ready to cheer.


But that was me and that was then and this is now and it doesn’t account for an obsession that still holds strong almost fifty years later. The other part of the equation is that I decided to write poetry. Or, maybe I should say I decided to rewrite myself through poetry. Because that's part of the process. You have to rewrite yourself so that you can fit into the poem.


So, when I came to poetry, I was still wearing part of my outlaw self. The funny thing about poetry is that it consists of a surface and an interior. The surface is what is celebrated now almost mindlessly every April. This is the cue for the Robert Pinskys and Bill Moyers of the country to stand at a couple of thousand mikes and drone on about the power of the word and Whitman and Shakespeare and ain't it grand and go lets really read this shit guys and for another couple thousand mediocre to fair to really lousy poets to get up and white knuckle it through poems forty 1ines too long and a mile wide about mom the joy of writing falling head over heels and the goddam moon. So much for the surface and making nice and cleaning poetry up so that Aunt Ethyl and Uncle Roger can sit through a reading of Billy Eugene's novel in verse entitled DREAMING OF THE TASTE OF Z and not be outraged or have the overpowering urge to scratch balls or doze.


And, the interior of poetry. That's another planet altogether. And has nothing to do with poetry theory which is really nothing more than poetry narcissism and intellectual masturbation. Show me a theory that created a poem or better yet show me a theory more important than a poem. It doesn't exist and never did. Writing poetry theory is for those people who can't write poetry.


The interior of poetry is the country where the dreams are where the demons live. Only the better poets get there. Only the superior poets even have a clue as to what I' m talking about. If you want to write poems that matter, this is the country you eventually have to get to. This is the country of the free floating nightmare. This is the country where each dream is a republic known only to itself. Ten thousand years ago a man wiping animal blood off a stone knife knew it better than the best of us know it today. And, that’s because we've tried to tame the poem. We've cleaned it up wiped its ass and blown its nose. We’ve crafted the wildness out of it. We've scrubbed the blood off shaved its whiskers its armpit hair its crotch hair we've either hidden or removed its pecker and its cunt we've extracted its fangs so that now when it bites all it can do is suck without giving much tongue.


We've even reached the point where the language of poetry is the enemy. Language is no longer passionate communication but rather something more like a barrage of mathematical sets rigged to stand for art objects a fractal barrage that isn't supposed to tell you a goddam thing. And, when you have nothing passionate to say, what better way is there to hide behind than a wall of language? Where is the best hiding place for the self than inside the word. Or in the silent white spaces between words. There, the self is best camouflaged with whiteness because it's mostly scrubbed clean of race and gender. Whiteness piled and stacked on top of more whiteness. The best retreat of the self is in and through the word.


The interior of poetry is where you find the self. And. you discover it in the drifting wreckage of nightmares the debris of images surviving the hundred thousand lost great epics of the universe. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and became a kind of outlaw. He also became a hero. Today. in order to be both an outlaw poet and a hero, you need to travel into the interior of poetry and steal the raw psychic stuff swirling around you. The stuff filled with the energy and electricity of the body and the brain and the blood and the soul. You need to steal it you need to bring it back you need to somehow find a way to turn that energy those fragmented images and that debris into a poem that you can read and reread and never get tired of. Because isn't that what poetry is? The stuff of words that never wears out no matter how many times you read it?


When I was a kid I used to go to the movies over and over ,just to see certain scenes and hear the way the actors spoke the words. Bogart at the end of THE: MALTESE FALCON telling Mary Astor why he was a private eye. Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT telling Rod Steiger what it felt like to be a loser. And, Spencer Tracey saying almost anything in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. I didn't realise it then but I was living from movie to movie, just for the poetry. And, of course, there isn't supposed to be any poetry in the movies or in kicking a can or throwing a curve ball or skipping a flat stone across a river or doing eighty down a back country road. There isn't supposed to be any poetry in doing anything physical until an outlaw poet comes along and makes doing those things okay and hearing about them feel so real that the hairs on the back of your neck tingle and stand straight up. If the outlaw poet is guilty of anything it is of preserving what it means to feel human. And, of robbing the First National Bank of what's left of the goddam American Dream.




These two essays were published in the Lummox Journal in the year 2000.

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