Monday, August 1, 2011

It Has to Live in The Air :: A Conversation with Baltimore’s Own Chris Toll

“The more trash, the better,” he said.

I agreed.

We both had some vague notion of a Baltimorean aesthetic in mind.  We both lacked any aptitude for digital photography.  We had come there, though,—to the littered Station North alleyway—to communicate as best we could.
It was, admittedly, a rocky start.  Our photographer had dropped out last-minute, leaving my jittery, untrained eye to capture the essence of Chris Toll, a man who I quite honestly had no idea how to talk to.  It was quickly becoming clear that the Chris Toll with whom I had become acquainted through my week-long intake of The Disinformation Phase, that strong-voiced, verbally decisive work of certain apocalypse, was locked away deep inside the man who now stood arms-folded in front of me, unapologetically tangible and soft-spoken.  A “recovering catholic,” as he would later put it.  I was utterly unprepared.

This is not to say that I hadn’t spent the previous week versing myself on all things Chris Toll; I, along with my friend and fellow editor Justin Sanders, had systematically devoured the Baltimore-native’s poetry in that stereotypical post-graduate manner.  We showed up to the interview complete with thematic insights, biographical inquiries, and possible inconsistencies in the work, all of which were intended to give the poet enough room to embellish, as one might expect a poet to do.  The problem: Chris Toll is more than “a poet.”  He is a vessel of the “higher self.”

I’d heard this sort of philosophy before, and I admittedly reacted to it with a hefty dose of reactionary skepticism.  Personally, I don’t buy into any divine (or external for that matter) intervention when it comes to a poet and his work—we are the only ones who get in our way.  So, I jumped right into the accusations.

“Right,” I said, “but there’s a lot of you in The Disinformation Phase,” citing the speaker’s repetitive use of the possessive.  There are two examples in the first poem alone: “My cathedral/ blows its brains out…My slaughterhouse/ mixes a martini for the moon.” 

He paused before delineating his approach: “The ‘I’ is invisible.  You can read this whole book and learn nothing about me.  The ‘I’ is you.”  His response, it seemed, was a convoluted poem in itself. 

Feeling as though we’d reached some sort of dead end, I shifted the focus to a more concrete discussion of the poetic devices at play in the collection.  Less controversial.  Safer, I thought.

“Do you pay attention to form,” I asked him.  This, I hoped, would elicit a more involved response.  Aside from writing poetry, Toll also works within the bodily—as he describes it—arena of collage art (see the cover of The Disinformation Phase for an example). 

“I do a lot of fourteen-line poems,” he replied.  “I have this thing about numbered lines.  I like even-numbered lines.  It’s a good answer to nothing.”

Okay.  So he was interested in answers.
“Do all of your poems ask questions,” I asked.

He thought about that for a minute, stared down at his beer.  “I always want my poems to be a voyage of discovery,” he explained.  “I get one line and then I just see what comes in.  I use wordplay as a way to go from one spot to another, but they almost always end in questions.  There is no answer; the question is everything.”

At this point, we couldn’t have agreed more.  I was confused; all of my carefully accumulated knowledge about Toll’s poetry had just been dismantled.  What I had painstakingly dissected and identified as a definitive stance on the impending collapse of a post-cultural America (albeit through the eyes of an ambivalent speaker), was turning out to be a random heap of questions that could care less about being answered. 

I wanted an answer: “The Disinformation Phase feels as if it’s searching for a connection between a reckless past and an indifferent future.  The present just seems to teeter …Do you have faith in the present?”

Again, he took a minute to stare down at his beer.  “This is the 21st century,” he said.  “There is hope for salvation.  There’s a lot of confusion, too.  I welcome confusion.  Confusion is good.”

I was a dumbstruck attorney in what had been a strange trial of my own self-absorbed search for objective meaning in the poetry of a stranger.  I wasn’t sure who had really been on the stand, or what conclusions—if any—could be drawn from the evidence presented, but I knew I had to rest my case.  We had reached the point of “no further questions.” 

Our pen and paper put away, the recording devices powered down, Justin and I made small talk with Chris while we finished our drinks.  We mostly compared notes on the pleasures and frustrations of running a reading series (he co-curates the traveling Benevolent Armchair series, which—currently in its third season—migrates between Baltimore and York, PA).

Eventually, I ran out of conversational steam.  My mind was elsewhere, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to piece this interview into something definitive and relevant.  I thought it a good time to head out. 

As I gathered up the empty glasses, Chris was wrapping up a final thought.  “You know, to me a poem isn’t finished until it’s spoken aloud in front of a stranger.”  He pulled me from clearing the table, with a certain urgency.

“Write this down,” he said.  “Poems live in the air.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a stranger…and I’m not a spoken word poet…but poems live in the air.”

Looking back, I like to think that he was throwing me a bone.  

        -By Jon Gavazzi

For more info, and to get a copy of Chris Toll's new book click here or here.