WAYS WE VANISH, Todd Dillard’s debut poetry collection, navigates the grief following the loss of a loved one, while also starting a new life and becoming a parent. It peels back the layers of everyday living to reveal the impossible landscape flourishing underneath—one fraught with sorrow, want, and pain, but also filled with hope, joy, and flight.
Poetry readers Dina Strasser and Eunha Choi spoke with Todd over email.
Longleaf Review: One question that is central to the book and to poetry in general is what is grief? I suppose that we can vanish when consumed by too much grief, or vanish to escape or hide from grief. Could you tell us more about the book’s title in relation to grief as a central theme?
Todd Dillard: First off—thank you for this opportunity! I’m a big fan of Longleaf, was ecstatic when my poems “Cryptophasia” and “The Engineer” were accepted here, and am deeply thankful for the chance to chat with you about my book. Y’all are fantastic!
To me, the initial measure for grief is absence. Someone or something is here, and then they’re not, and the process of metabolizing this absence begins, and that is a very cursory way to look at grief. I wanted to start Ways We Vanish with this very straightforward question about grief in the first line as a way to acknowledge this idea of vanishing and grief, and then immediately (on the same line!) turn it on its head. “What is grief? Tiny bells” the first poem opens, which opens up the door on the theme of the book: that grief is absence, yes, but grief is also additive, and what it adds is impossibility—that a loved one who remains very much alive within one’s interior ceases to be alive in the external world, and you can disappear trying to navigate the way this absence flourishes inside you while clashing with the world around you.
LR: The title of the book is also echoed in one of the poems, with a twist: “Ways Things Vanish” versus Ways We Vanish. What was the direction of influence there—which title inspired the other and why? How are they related in your mind?
TD: I struggled with a title for years! Originally I was going to call it “low fantasy” as a play on the “high fantasy” genre, with its dragons and wizards and spell-infused rings. With “low fantasy” I wanted to suggest smaller, more intimate impossibilities… but it ultimately didn’t work; not all the impossibilities here are small, and not every poem is fantastical. I was going to also title the collection “Every Story Is an Origin Story” because I love that title, and the poems are very narrative-driven, but again the poem in the collection that shares that title doesn’t encompass the whole collection the way I wanted it to. At this point the collection was assembled and submitted, and I had another title which is way too embarrassing to admit here, which my editors gently pointed out and suggested I should change upon accepting the manuscript. I then began combing through the poems (along with my beta reader Ben Kline) looking for something—a line, an image, whatever—and he suggested using the title from the poem “Ways Things Vanish,” and when considering it I thought: but this is a collection about people! How about Ways We Vanish instead? Which clicked immediately, and was a HUGE help in putting the final touches on the manuscript—suddenly I could see poems that weren’t working with this theme of absence that needed to go, and poems I’d cut previously that were rightly clamoring to be added back in. “Ways Things Vanish” and Ways We Vanish in a way mirror each other—in the poem, a litany of how objects can disappear/vanish pivots, the “turn” is that a boy can vanish too, and then the “after-turn” is this sense that the boy’s mother can also vanish, calling for him. The collection is of a similar movement, but in an opposite direction—a boy (the young narrator) grows up, lives, grieves, and vanishes into a whole life, into the many things that make up a life. Grief is a method of living, so in a way I’m disappearing into my mother’s absence too.
LR: A diversity of subjects appears in the poems. The you of the first poem is followed by a collective we and later a more distant he. The book is populated by different persons whose secrets and mundane interests receive detailed depiction. How do you choose the subjects of your poems, and in poetry how do you think a we or you supplement the more lyrical I?
TD: I first misread this question and thought “subjects” referred to “things the poems are about,” to which I say the vast majority of my poems are about stuff that’s happened to me, dreams/nightmares I’ve had, things I’ve misread or misheard, or very weird things I read in the news or about nature. I scavenge, I cannibalize myself, my experience daily. It’s after I find this subject that I choose the “I” or the “you” or the “we” in my poems, which I really see just as a vehicle for communication. “I” is useful because the “I” is a good liar, can be ethereal or factual or judgmental in observation, can make leaps and jumps in ways that would be jarring for a “you” or “we.” It’s also excellent at seeping into a reader, sharing briefly a resonance with a reader that the “you” and the “we” specifically resist.
The “you” is the most cinematic of the pronouns—it moves like a director’s camera, and the “you” obeys the poem’s directives like an actor. The imperatives in “you” poems can be usefully jarring, can invite the reader to follow along, or can also establish this useful revulsion, this sense of “but that’s not me!” the reader feels, which adds edges, anxiety to the experience of reading a poem. “You” is the pronoun most closely associated to that feeling you get when watching a film where someone falls and you too feel, just for a second, like you’re falling. I also think “you” is incredibly useful when negotiating the fantastical—it abbreviates the easing into the impossible that fantastical poems are often tasked with, because “you” is fraught with immediacy, there’s no time to question. As a result of all of this, “you” is a powerful and not subtle vehicle/device, and I try to use it sparingly.
“We” I think is the most capable of irony—the “we” you mention in my book, for example, is idiomatic: “We are the stories people tell about us” it says, but in a subsection called “Half-Truth.” (This “we” is later revised with a “but” too, from another character’s perspective!) This operates differently than the “we” of the title, which can be read as inclusive of readers and non-readers, or can be read as inclusive just of the characters (of which there are many) in the book. This doubling nature of “we” is also very useful, whereas the “I” is pitched in observation, and the “you” is pitched in action, the “we” is huge and tiny all at once. Wherever there’s a “we” there’s also a secret, a buried body, something that’s being hidden or overlooked.
LR: “I never thought there was a gift / to be made of nothing, until I became a father / and had to give it every day,” you write in “My daughter asks for a sugar cube before bed…” In these poems, talking about being a father seems to be one of the most potent ways you explore the interstices between having or being “something” and having or being “nothing.” Can you say more about this?
TD: When she was a few days old, my daughter had a temperature spike, had to be hospitalized, had a spinal tap, and had to spend a day in the ER and then in an inpatient room being monitored. She’s fine now, but the immediacy with which the world bared its teeth at my baby girl astounded me. It made me reassess how I look at the world, which, in turn, especially in being a father and trying my best to introduce the world to my daughter, made me see the world is something of profound beauty too. Being a father has been a gift in a multitude of ways, but one of the main ones is that it made see how much of the world I had been taking for granted. I also didn’t know what I would be like, being a father. Having a mom who was addicted to prescription pills and a dad who traveled all the time really left me with a disjointed sense of what a family is. So, there’s that, being a dad and also being a husband gave me a world I didn’t know existed, made me into someone I didn’t know I could be. The other side of this is that shortly after becoming a father I started writing poems again. I hadn’t given up on writing exactly in the intervening years between graduating from Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program (2008) to the year my daughter was born (2015), but lit mag poetry was not where my focus had been, and I wasn’t reading or serious pursuing publication in literary journals during that time. (I am by no means suggesting publishing stuff is an “everything,” I just want to point out in the years since my daughter has born, something has shifted, my world has expanded in many wonderful ways.)
LR: There is a plurality of voices in your poems. “No Vacancy,” for example, invokes the mother’s voice with actual quotes and soon enough the poem presents the poetic I speaking through and with and for and from the mother. In what ways do you think poems can uniquely embody voices?
TD: This is such a big question! Poems employ voices in tons of ways—there are the various modes of narrators and tenses, there’s what the narrator witnesses, there’s excerpting, there are erasures, there are multi-voiced poems which can intersect each other, resist each other, join together like little loquacious Voltrons, there are bifurcated poems where an invisible line halves the poem, so each half can be read independently or can be read as a whole… poetry is, I think, the most unique genre to employ voice. The voice in “No Vacancy” is one of witnessing and remembering, it makes an artifact of a memory, but also acknowledges that a witness is never whole in their witnessing. (Lying, misremembering, fracturing—these are all useful and powerful ways to wield voice.)
LR: What is the voice of the natural world in your poems? Some form of nature or the outdoors shows up on almost every page.
TD: The world is ending! It’s trying to tell us! And we are too busy asking: Is this a metaphor?
Which is to say: the voice of nature in my poems is loud, and it’s urgent, because we live inside of it, we are dying inside of it, and I want to speak it because it’s too often forgotten. Perhaps this is a hyperawareness stemming from what I said before about my daughter—the world has teeth, has desires and sorrows and pain and anger too, and I try to represent nature in my poems as being intertwined with the narratives because I think that’s how we live.
I also think this attention to nature, which is also an attention to detail—I won’t say “fierce,” but it’s what I was going for—is emblematic of grief. Going to a fish market after a funeral is a much more vivid experience than going on a Tuesday. Grief heightens what we see and the seeing of what we see. I don’t think I could write a book about grief without it also being about nature too.
LR: The book is flooded with details, small and large. With memories, such as in “Good Company.” There is so much attention to concrete, specific information that the poems and their characters resist the possibility of vanishing. There seems to be a rich contradiction here. Could you tell us more about how mundane details can define the specific aspects of our selves while also making us disappear in them?
TD: C.D. Wright says: “The goal is not to make a story but to experience the whole mess.” Absence is defined as much as by what’s vanished as by what remains. Who’s to say that when someone disappears in a room they haven’t become the room? Grief is a way to live, and living is itself a whole mess. I wanted a multitude and acuity of detail because it’s in the details where we disappear, where we live, where we die. I think often of my mother’s laugh—loud, unrepentant, uninhibited. I’ll never hear it again. I hear it all the time.
LR: Awhile back you tweeted about a (professor? colleague?) who expressed the opinion that the poems you wrote that drew inspiration from non-traditional places (video games, for example, or the Ohio EPA Training Manual) were de facto of lesser quality. (please correct me if I got this wrong—I remember it because I was horrified). How does this impulse towards subjects that are not traditionally “poetic” show up here?
TD: I’ve definitely had this experience but can’t remember the tweet! (I tweet a lot!!!) I want to answer by first saying that writers give the worst writing advice. Or, rather, they give the best advice for themselves, but don’t always think about how what works for them may not work for others, and may actually harm the work and practices of others. (An exception here is Elisa Gabbert, whose Blunt Instrument columns are incredibly thoughtful and have influenced some of the poems in my book.) I would hesitate to trust any writer who doles out advice like what they say is scripture. Same for people who dole out advice based on other advice they’ve read that they’ve internalized like scripture. All writing advice is eventually bad writing advice.
My book has lots of nontraditional stuff: monsters and puberty, St. Augustine and the Macarena, a dancing robot that breaks down… In essence, I write about whatever I want, and when I write what I aim for is the center of a thing, honest and simple language, and to see how I can make this simple thing bloom into something larger than itself. I’m guilty sometimes of trying to make “legitimate” what may seem like a “low” subject for a poem by cushioning it with high-falutin’ language, but it always ends in a disaster, a waste of time until I revise toward honesty and clarity.
I also really love employing fantasy and fabulism in my poems. I think there’s a subset of more traditionally “literary” folks who are eager to legitimize fantasy as magical realism or fabulist narratives, and I want to write against that impulse. Sometimes fantasy is just itself, it isn’t drawing from pre-conceived notions of magical realism or fables. In my book, lovers turn into horses, and this is much about ache and eroticism as it is about lust and foreboding. A snake turns into an air balloon, which a shadow hijacks. Ghosts share cigarettes, drink hot chocolate, a seagull builds a beach out of severed hands, and so on. This goes back to what I was saying about how grief means existing in an impossible world. As globalism expands, as barriers dissolve and new ones are erected, we need a poetry that’s interested in crossing new barriers, we need new modes of “literary.” I try to write with this in mind.
LR: There is a great deal of storytelling in your poems. Do your poems begin with a story you want to tell, or a character, or an image, or a line? What would be their typical origin story, and what is your practice to make them grow?
TD: It really depends! Sometimes I wake up with a line, and this opens a door in my head, and I’m off like a Supermarket Sweep contestant barreling toward hams. Sometimes I have a line and let it stew in my Notes app for a few days, weeks, and I add other notes around it, and it’s like a fungal bloom, expanding, becoming larger and more itself. Sometimes I jot a line down while half asleep and the next day I’m left with something worthless like (this is a real example): “Thud, thud, the story goes.”
The poems I want to write that stem from stories I want to tell tend to take much longer to write because I have a whole idea in my head, but this whole idea tends to be absent an entry point. It’s a room with no door. These I tend to decorate it with isolated potential lines, and then sweep away what works and see what’s left over, and then start over from there. These are the kind of poems I write that fail the most, I think because they are the most like a short story, and I inevitably end up focusing more on the story than the immediacy of the language and the rhythm of the narrative. Often I need to fail writing the poem first just to get the story down, then weeks or months later I return and I finally see where I need to begin.
As for growing these ideas… I just am in Google Docs a lot. On the subway, the bus, on the couch at home, in bed, right before I fall asleep, right as I wake up. I am always going back to the work, hours a day, spread out over the day. I’ll cut, I’ll revise, I’ll add, I’ll send panicked emails to my beta readers… the point is that I just keep coming back for more work. When I can. (I try to be mindful of burnout!)
LR: Would you say there is a chronological through line, or a uniting narrative arc, throughout the collection? To begin with “Every Story is an Origin Story” and finish with “Burial”—it seems to me almost as if the poems map themselves onto the span of a human life.
TD: Yes! The book is split in two halves: one where the mother character is alive and then dies, and a second half after the death, where the narrator ventures into adulthood, grief, fatherhood, an ailing father. This mirrors my own life in a from-the-top, macro perspective. But when I initially organized the manuscript, the poems were almost timestamped, going from boyhood to the end in a sequential order that was not working, not interesting, seemed more like reportage than poetry. I also separated the odd poems from the more confessional poems, so it was like a book of three chapbooks: boyhood/mom + weird stuff + adulthood/fatherhood. Obviously this didn’t work—it lacked “mess,” it was trying to perform like what a book ought to be, when really I needed the weird poems braided together with the confessional ones, I needed my daughter to be in the beginning, I needed the vast nothing in my poem “The Rabbits” at the end. So yes—there’s a chronological through line in the book, but it’s discarded when necessary. The map of human life isn’t a line, and I wanted to show that here. Life can look like a phone call coming from your chest, a door in the middle of the woods, a moon that, for a time, sings, and then is never heard again.