Todd Boss: A Generous New Voice in American Poetry

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Daniel Corrigan

Todd Boss is something of a rarity–a poet whose work reaches beyond the increasingly impenetrable walls of contemporary verse and generously welcomes readers into its fragile, beautiful world.  The poems in his debut book Yellowrocket unfold with a quiet elegance born of spare, deeply considered language. 

The book has garnered its author a wealth of positive attention, including rave reviews in the Christian Science Monitor and Charleston Post Courier. Boss won the Emily Clark Balch Prize in the Virginia Quarterly Review, which named Yellowrocket one of the ten best poetry books of the year.

But Boss’ vision extends beyond the limitations of the printed word.  Through innovative collaborations with artists outside his chosen medium, he is challenging what poetry is and what it can do.  A quick tour through his website reveals a poet engaged in a range of different creative projects. 

“Todd invites composers and singer-songwriters to base original music on any of his published poetry,” the website states.  Indeed, for Boss sound is an essential component to writing, which he views as a three-dimensional process.

“I think of poems as pieces of music, or a work of architecture,” he says. “The poem is a space that you’re inviting someone into for a time.  I think a lot about how to build it, how they feel when they’re there, and how they will exit.”   

This kind of accessibility is important to Boss. 

“My work is built for engagement with a non-poetry reader,” he explains. “Of course, I want everyone to read it.  But so much of what’s out there, I don’t even like.  When I sit down to write a poem, I think, ‘What would I want to read?'”

In Yellowrocket he has constructed a physical and emotional space that feels at once familiar and disquieting.  His landscapes include a farm, a family, and a marriage, seemingly ordinary subjects, yet in his hands they are infused with urgent resonance.  The result is poetry which transcends specificity of character and place in the truths it embodies. 

Its opening poem, “Ruin”, illustrates the continuous dance between humans and impending loss. “Ruin is a strong theme in the book,” Boss says, “the ruining of a landscape, a marriage…I think Ruin would’ve been a better title [for the book], actually.”

Anxiety around the passage of time also runs through the poems.  Many of them seem concerned with a mindfulness that humans have abandoned in modern life.

Boss seems to be making the most of his time.  His many current projects include collaborations with photographers around images of his grandfather’s farm, various poetry commissions, and collaborations with animators.  All exhibit Boss’ firm belief in contributing to the broader artistic dialogue. 

“I think I’m motivated by my driving envy of other art forms,” he laughs. “Poetry has been behind the eight ball in so many ways.  We’ve been operating in a pre-World War II mindset in terms of how our work is made and shared.  I’m envious of the ease by which music is distributed, the ease by which it’s consumed, and the viral nature of its fan base.” 

Consequently, Boss has recorded a number of his poems as audio files for sharing.  He also firmly believes in the art of self-promotion.  At the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), he took part in a panel titled “Shameless Promotion: Get Your Book to the Reader.”   

“A study was done of highly intelligent, creative people, revealing that they’re suspicious of marketing themselves,” he says, “because it might suggest they’re not geniuses.  It might mean they’re not good enough. There’s nothing shameful about self-promotion. You’ve been given a gift, and it’s your responsibility to share it.”

To that end, he and his fellow panelists have put together a blog called Squad 365 that addresses self-marketing for writers.

But in spite of his many creative and promotional projects, for Boss the poem remains central.

“A poem creates a kind of private holy grotto or grove or cathedral or public square,” he explains, “in which the ear of God seems opened and solicited, even for readers who may not believe in God.  Poems are letters to the infinite, complaints to the cosmos, psalms of confusion and adoration.”

Through his work, Boss welcomes into this holy space anyone willing to enter.        

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