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Outside of Exchange: an Interview w/Jonathon Todd

NOTE: Please see this recent announcement about changes to the press's current fund-raising, directing more money to relief in Gaza in addition to what we raise for the Community Action Relief Project (CARP).

On October 12th, Dead Mall Press began accepting pre-orders for Jonathon Todd's new chapbook, Shift Drinks.The tenth release from DMP, this collection presents Philadelphia’s streets, kitchens, bus stops, hospitals, museums, and apartments through a vivid poetic consciousness. The poems surprise, reveal, and disorient while staying grounded in the poet's distinct feeling and perception. This is anarchist poetry of improvisation, of dreaming the future while caught by alienation, addiction, and the nullities of wage labor. On every page, the stakes are clear: it's the people, poetry, and the commons against the managed self and the violent rule of ownership.

Recently, Jon and I had a chance to discuss the book a bit over email, and you can read our conversation below.

* * *

DMP: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Jon! To begin, could you tell us a bit about your background & experience as a writer?

JT: Sure! First thanks so much for the questions, and for everything this press does! I grew up in a small town called Blakeslee in North East, PA, and spent most of my younger years kind of confused about my place in the world. Later on, I started gravitating towards creativity, and also sort of questioning things in general in that teenage act of rebellion sort of way. That germ of confusion and curiosity just led me to read a lot, especially my last few years living there, and then at 18 I moved to Philly. Once here, I kept writing and performing music but started to see them separately in a way. I liked the idea of writing alone and started dreading more and more poetry trying to figure out the beginning of a voice. I started going to open mics and reading poems, and experimenting with different ways of writing (though mainly rip offs of the beats to be uncomfortably honest).

I took a few classes in college, couldn’t stomach it, quit, and started working different jobs. I continued to write and started letting my experiences of both the frustrations of these jobs and the general awe at circumstances sort of seep into my writing. A good friend and amazing poet and I started talking about this, and he was the one who suggested to write that rage, that confusion about wanting to create and being forced to do it on cigarette breaks and in bar basements. This started to fuse more and more in different ways. I guess I’ve just continued to read and be curious, while also becoming more focused on the general feeling from a place of “what's going on” to a more concentrated idea of trying to understand this from a materialist standpoint.

DMP: So how did Shift Drinks come about? What was the process of writing it like?

JT: Shift Drinks came about in bits and pieces. Some of the poems are a bit older and focus on my own recovery (I've been in recovery for 6 years from alcohol use). The recovery poems were very focused on my relationship to substances, particularly having to sell my time for money in the restaurant industry, and how this affected both my substance use and recovery. I felt often like my excessive drinking was, on the one hand, a way of coping with the long hours, and additionally it was just was a part of the culture of working in the catering industry. But it had started as a way to sort of tap into creativity and to let go of my own social anxiety (mainly built around uncertainty about my place in the world, and additionally, being hard of hearing and missing out on conversations and glances).

The Shift Drink poems, however, came about during the 2020 uprisings, as a kind of back and forth between the previous poems' somewhat individual focus, and how that could/can relate to a more collective sense. This led to a kind of self-dialog between the sort of internal struggles and branching them out, making it clear that they are not this isolated thing, that recovery and uprisings are not exclusive in the sense that a large part of substance use is often a balm for the anxiety and fear of late capitalism. I wanted to try to blend these things as well as observations about the collective feelings around everything that has been going on.

DMP: What is one of your favorite poems in the book and why? How do you see it relating to the other poems here?

JT: I’m definitely a fan of the poem "Art," mainly because it blends a lot of these themes together, and because I was fortunate enough to read it at an amazing event for Prolit at the Wooden Shoe. I remember writing this poem in the cab of a truck working a long shift, and just sort of fusing ideas together about my own rage at work, a lot of memories around my early life in the city, and trying to move forward in a way from that, particularly in relation to seeing drinking as inseparable from writing.

DMP: Who are some of the poets whose work has been important to you? What do you think they have given your own work?

JT: I feel like this changes all the time but also stays the same. Sean Bonney, Katerina Gogou, Bob Kaufman, Diane Di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Etheridge Knight, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Wendy Trevino, as well as so many Philly poets that it would take forever to list. I’m also influenced by other art forms, ideas of anarchist theorists, psychoanalysis, buddhism, and so on.

DMP: What do you hope that readers take away from reading this book? What kind of energy and/or vision do you hope it puts into the world of its readers?

JT: I hope people read it and get pissed at their boss, and then talk to other people. Also, I’m skeptical that my poems are going to enact some kind of grand takeaway, but I guess mainly to think about themselves and others as occupying a collective space, recognizing that a lot of this spectacle is, well, a spectacle. And If I could wish for one slightly saccharine thing, it’s that what’s radical about art isn’t some grand proclamation it makes, but the ability to see our potential outside of capitalism, that is, the act of making things outside of exchange, and maybe a chance to see that expand out to other things. Where art can be useful is in the bigger project of imagining different ways of living, that’s what I hope for for anyone making anything.

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Jonathon Todd is a poet, musician, Buddhist, anarchist and generally confused individual. His poems attempt to find moments between and within labor, fusing ideas about emptiness, collectivity, and absurdity. His work has been featured in Prolit and Protean Magazine among others.

Shift Drinks is available for pre-order now and will ship in early November. And when you buy a book from Dead Mall Press, you are doing much more than just purchasing a product! With each sale, $6 goes to Corey, and $3 goes to the Community Action Relief Project (CARP) of Philadelphia. The remaining $3 will be given to Medical Aid for Palestinians, an amount I will then personally match that amount for a total donation of $6.

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