Todd Fredson is the author of two poetry collections, Century Worm (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2018) and The Crucifix-Blocks (Tebot Bach, 2012), which won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. He has made French to English translations of Ivorian poet Tanella Boni’s collection, The future has an appointment with the dawn (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), as well as two books by Ivorian poet Josué Guébo, Think of Lampedusa (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) and My country, tonight (Action Books, 2016). Fredson was a 2015-16 Fulbright Fellow to the Ivory Coast and a 2018 NEA Translation Fellow.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Savannah Yates. Of the process she said, “Todd Fredson’s thought and care towards his craft is ever-present in Century Worm. His commentary here is further testament to that. It was such a pleasure getting to know his work.” In this interview, Todd Fredson discusses his time in Côte d’Ivoire, the ethics of being a witness, and representing cultural difference fairly and with respect.
Superstition Review: In your poetry collection, Century Worm, you beautifully encapsulate memories of your time in Côte d’Ivoire, taking on an observer role of the physical environment as well as everyday life and political struggles. At the same time, you delve into your own personal histories. How do these two histories inevitably become entwined, and how is poetry equipped to navigate them both?
Todd Fredson: As I wrote the poems in Century Worm I was thinking about the dailiness of integration. There’s the cultural shift of moving to a new country, learning new languages, all that. But that’s a series of discrete encounters, really, of moment-by-moment, mostly unremarkable considerations: Where to get food, how to get water, kerosene, where to buy a mattress, how to get around other than by foot, how to negotiate a price—what to do when driver ants invade! I was joining an 800 person village that I always call “my” village, Zraluo—though I will always only ever be a visitor. I was, though, basically, joining a new neighborhood.
Thinking about these days, remembering snippets here, a time there, I was ten to fifteen years away, and I’d started a family. The dailiness of life with a new family offers a similar displacement, a constant series of small urgencies. How to change diapers, where to find medical care, what to do when a kid gets a pea stuck up his nose, how to get insurance, how to transition a social life. Both adjustments can be confusing, frustrating, full of doubt.
I remember thinking at one point, after being in Côte d’Ivoire for a few months, that I was like a baby with an adult’s consciousness. I was learning to speak—like, I had a bunch of memories from another life, but nothing about who I was—none of my personal history—had any relevance. I was just a random, misplaced white guy, an American (for those who knew), who struggled to communicate, and, for a long time, I was simply defined by whatever action I took. Who I was depended on what I did at each moment.
That time in West Africa was so fixed as a center of attention and devotion and was being displaced by my new center of attention and devotion, my family. Those lives could not help but overlap and entangle.
Thinking about the routine of integration is an ethics exercise. The ethics of encountering “otherness” is often, in Century Worm, stated in cultural terms—the speaker as an interloper, a guest, a capitalist refugee(?), a funder, a symbol of exploitation, a haunt. But this idea of how far is too far, when does intimacy become intrusion, when is it forced—these are concerns for any relationship. Lovers, family, friends, strangers—what degree of intimacy is appropriate? When am I fabricating familiarity rather than living with difference? When am I avoiding the work of finding ways to be alongside the unfamiliar—comfortably or uncomfortably, but, at least, in good faith?
To your question about how poetry might be equipped to navigate the intertwining of the lives, I think poetry is basically defined by its exploration of language sensitivities. In order to make an ethical accounting, so that I was not exoticizing, romanticizing, or being nostalgic, I felt a responsibility to hem in my imagination. I also intended to hem in the reader’s. I felt uncomfortable leaving room for the reader to imagine much more than what I provided because the Western imaginary for anything anywhere in Africa is radically insufficient. The images broadcast, when used by Western agencies, are not intended to report any truth about African lives. I didn’t want to contribute to or capitalize on that kind of poverty porn or idealized rustic poverty. This required a stringent management of tone and connotations. It required a flat language, with few lyric outbursts. Poetry let me micromanage. The book was claustrophobic for me. And, hopefully, it is to the reader, because that experience of being forced to wait is true to the experience at hand—of feeling trapped, of having to be uncomfortable, of developing patience, of having to find a way to get along (with myself as much as anything).
I prioritized fair representation over audience titillation, which may not be as marketable, which may say something about our aesthetic preferences. The book is like many foreign films, which often have a much slower pace than Hollywood films, and I think, as I’m watching, American audiences wouldn’t have the patience for this.
SR: I found there to be a natural flow from poem to poem—a flow that hinted at a chronology, as if this collection were navigating a journal of events. What was your process of organizing these poems?
TF: That flow was certainly part of my attempt at managing the reader’s perception, of eliminating some of the white space between poems or turns of the page.
I’m glad it feels natural.
And, as I say that I tried to avoid audience titillation, then I should explain that I tried to build dramatic effect in more conceptual ways. Rather than through wild imagery or high torque pivots or exotic diction or exquisitely sculpted lines, say, within the poems themselves—these things that draw attention to the artifice, the work of creating the poem itself, and that are often hallmarks of lyric poetry—I tried to draw energy from the poem’s conceit, its purpose, what was at stake. And often the purposes of the poems are highlighted by how the poems are sequenced, by their position in relation to one another.
As the repeated titles and titles that are fragments of neighboring titles indicate, the poems sort of talk across to one another, like a wall of graffiti sometimes does. I think of the poems as scenes or scenarios, and often a set of poems will organize a scenario. The last “Waiting in Zraluo” sequence, which is six poems, is, in fact, a rogue sestina. The repetitions and returns set up the feeling of false advances or circling, of, again, being made to wait.
I wanted to write scenes in order to render different aspects of these integration attempts. Affective landscapes that portray an interiority, epistolary notes, documentarian moments, direct address, storytelling—the lyric release here is not in the poems themselves but in the ranging modes of representation.
I tried to encircle the subject, to situate the speaker without channeling the experiences exclusively through the eyes of the speaker (for that reason, while this book could also be called nonfiction, I would not say it is memoir). The speaker is not formed or stable, but is instead dissolved within the atmosphere, the surroundings, through the encounters.
Our gaze tends to trace our own history, but this speaker should be, rather than asserting himself, absenting himself.
The speaker is in this position where his ethical participation requires removing himself, or, at least, creating space. My understanding of the situation, here in the West African context, is itself the benefit of mobility provided to me by being an educated white, male American with the safety to engage in volunteer service abroad. So, how to be an ally to populations who have been under assault by colonization when you yourself are operating out of the privileges and benefits of a colonizer society—hmm.
There is a paradox involved with dispossessing oneself of privilege but not responsibility. How to phase oneself out without being passive, how to promote that behavior, that action, without celebration, how to be actively silent—it’s perplexing. The disillusionment, the self-annihilation, even, can be lonely and terrifying. There’s a process of feeling ashamed, of grieving, of conceding, of remaking.
Diana Taylor, in The Archive and The Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, demonstrates how Western and colonial and inquisition politics have sought to stage encounters, to market colonial fantasies—performances rendered in order to be witnessed and recorded—in order to legitimate transfers of possession and to manufacture consent. Bodies perform in order to “prove” an account. She argues for the advantage of looking at scenarios, which she differentiates from the conventional narrative structure. In her definition of scenario, the subject is still in a frame, but has the space to maneuver without being specifically scripted. This means space for forces and voices beyond the author’s, room for the unspoken, for other participants, for witnesses, and for experts (which can, in fact, include the audience). In this way, that subject structuring the account, the “self,” is not inherently the primary referent. In the end, perhaps, this narrator is also the listener.
This is one reason why tonally the narration in Century Worm is flat or, even, ambivalent—to leave room for this ambition of continuing as a listener.
When I say that I wanted to write scenes in order to render different aspects of these attempts at integration, and that the speakerly self is intended to dissolve within the context of these scenes, I mean that I am trying to enact the kind of performance that Taylor is describing.
The chronology you are indicating is the author, finally, assuming total agency and organizing these scenarios. There is, chronologically, an arc of unfolding socio-political events in Côte d’Ivoire, which provides the reader with necessary narrative anchors. There’s also the schisming of the speaker as he bi-locates, establishing an emotional residency “elsewhere.”
This was my thought process as I was organizing the poems.
SR: Sticking with this—how you shaped the book—your unique uses of prepositions in this collection gave the imagery an emotional tension and immersive effect. For example, “Rain stomps the distance back to its single edge” and “Sorrow, strangely has thrown me relentlessly into loves.” The depth of the speaker’s eye reveals relationships wrought with tension and powerlessness. Could you discuss the speaker’s experience of these relationships?
TF: Well, conceding that I am the speaker, I had just exited a youth possessed by the haunts of the Vietnam-American War. There is this repetition on the male side of my family, of finding oneself on the ground in America’s foreign wars—my grandfather in WWII, my father in Vietnam, and then, without intending to, I was present as a G-8 war, which is an indirect American war, a proxy war, was starting. I entered Côte d’Ivoire four months after the military had taken over. Then there was an assassination, a disputed presidential election, ethnic violence. The French evacuated most of their citizens. The violence was both about me and not about me. I was threatened, I could escape. People I came to be dear friends with could not escape. Or they did, and became displaced in West Africa, stateless. A place I loved and love was being torn apart. I could only help myself. But helping, anyway, is messy. My friend Mary Kay Zeeb says, we get our helping all over each other.
I think you have given a precise characterization of any meaningful relationship: wrought with tension and powerlessness. The speaker is lucky to have and have had meaningful relationships.
SR: I find that the title poem, “Century Worm,” illuminates some of the core themes of this collection. Can you discuss what your speaker describes as the “splinter of witness”? What is the tension you’re grappling with between heroism and tragedy?
TF: The idea of moral authority. The strange capital we get for showing our wounds. I was thinking of my father, a veteran who both suffers from his war experience (rated by the VA at 100% disabled for PTSD), and who, as a Vietnam veteran, is (now, and this wasn’t the case for most of his life) celebrated in our national narrative. Though, in real terms, as far as the government supporting his veteran-ship, his position is that the government is just waiting for him to die, hoping to be rid of survivors before they break through their silence and shame and start talking about their wars. But, as far as our national narrative goes, he is regarded as a victim, and then his shame, his culpability, for having contributed to the violence that wounded him, elicits an additional sympathy.
I’m not trying to belittle his or any veteran’s experience. My youth was consumed with concern for his well-being—whether he would be coming home, whether he would kill himself. On the individual level, this is tragic. On a national level, where narratives of heroism are kindled and abstract, it is gratuitous.
Obtaining moral authority for being a victim in an act of violence that we ourselves have perpetrated, and then, even, being celebrated for acknowledging our wrong-doing, our misguided intent—that seems like a synopsis of white American history, of white fragility.
I think sometimes we create this dynamic in “witness” poems. I was paranoid about producing those kinds of poems of stand-apart, observer witnessing—front porch wine poems, my beloved and I have called them—where voyeurism is passed off as empathy. That lyric “I” who watches, for example, someone experiencing homelessness and then takes a flight of imagination, imagines that person’s life and hardships, but then returns to life a safe distance away. So, this poem, “Century Worm,” is a self-critique. (“The penitent colonizer,” ironically slanted, could be a literal translation for the title.) This was me evaluating my life in Côte d’Ivoire through this lens. I’d had an immersive experience, one of participation, but after which I did just that—I returned to the safety of another life. This other life has been, to be sure, unceasingly altered. I remember being back in the states and at a wedding. I was talking to a guy I’d worked for—an excavator, and he’d been in the Air Force in Thailand loading bombers during the Vietnam-American War. After about fifteen minutes of talking he diagnosed me: poverty and violence has radicalized you. True. But one thing I always want to emphasize is the joy, the deep love and affection and laughter that I experienced in “my” village and as I traveled in West Africa. Life in the village, rural life, was circumscribed by the broader economic enclosure, to be sure, but also the intensity of living, of honoring life and death, of being vulnerable to weather conditions and to dysentery and the like, this keeps one—kept me—present, alert, in mindful relation, grateful, even. It is an expanse of feeling, a kind of affective freedom, that I think a lot of Americans don’t get to feel. Our imaginations and personal energies are so typically concentrated on a particular mode of productivity.
SR: Could you explain the titling of Century Worm? Where does this phrase come from, and how is it connected to the epigraph of the collection’s title poem?
TF: That phrase came along with the poem that it titles and sort of volunteered itself as that poem was written. As you’ve noted, that poem illuminates some of the book’s guiding principles. I also just thought it sounded cool.
Thematically, the title, Century Worm, indicates a going underground, a deep retreat, burial, even—there is a re-digesting, a re-narrativizing of the colonial century, the century of American Empire, of capitalism’s global assault, from a site of impact and exclusion, as opposed to the point of view of being the American beneficiary.
The title also provides an aesthetic foreshadowing—modestly enigmatic, elliptical. The language is focused, particular. It suggests that you’ll have to allow for accumulation, for the full picture to emerge, for an effect to take shape.
The epigraph for the title poem is a conversational note, a comment that Norman Dubie made one time: “Courting gets consumed in the violence which becomes mathematical.” This statement is concerned with how approaches to intimacy depend on a dance of parry and retreat. The actual purpose is sometimes lost in the pursuit of good form. If I say that we are often trying to approach ourselves, will I have trespassed on your patience?
SR: This is your second book of poetry. You published your first, The Crucifix-Blocks, in 2012. What has changed in your approach to your craft since then? What constraints, formal or otherwise, did you find that writing Century Worm put on you as a poet?
TF: I think that what continues to evolve for me as a writer is the scale at which I think of a project. So, this became a kind of book-length project, a single piece—I hadn’t thought of The Crucifix-Blocks that way as I was writing the poems. A lot of this has to do with the translation work I’ve done with West African poets. Western genre distinctions are often inadequate in that locale. And all my evolution always has to do with living with Sarah Vap.
The real constraint with this collection, like I said, was not letting my imagination go. To indulge language or to stage fantastic escapes when the subject is ethnic violence, a violence in which I am implicated, would be reprehensible. My mind really wanted to slip out of a lot of those memories, to find other things to talk about—scenic details or verbal flourishes—but, I hope I balanced restraint and representation fairly.
As a specific example, I recall wrestling with the word “shuffling,” which in the context of African and African-American history and blackness includes a connotation of being manacled and in chains. There were two moments when, action-wise, this was the appropriate verb. A boy with his underwear at his ankles. A woman who had tightened her pagne-wrap and was approaching me. Writing for an American audience, the connotations would have been misrepresentative. I didn’t want to distract readers with references to that history. It’s almost inevitably there in any transatlantic gaze, anyway, especially in the direction of America to West Africa, but this book is focused on a contemporary structural oppression and violence that takes place in an African context.
In this vein, cultural adaptation was hard to bring into the poetry—to explain a culture while you also write the poem (instead of being able to just write the poem). But anyone writing into and from beyond the center of a literary market has encountered that problem of writing to a literary market that has been structured by whiteness and white experiences here in the US. And, elsewhere, gaining a popular audience means writing into English (or translatability) and Euro-American sensibilities. One of the writers that I translate, Tanella Boni, discusses it as the “unequal distribution of the senses,” as a regulation of “fringe literature.”
SR: What does your writing space look like?
TF: Wherever I am sitting, or slouching—usually somewhere not right next to my kids, in whatever space feels like it has good mojo. Which is usually somewhere freshly abandoned by my kids.