Machine Guns and Metaphors: Outlaw Poet Todd Moore Remembered

Todd Moore was a consummate ‘outsider’ Midwest writer whose tough vernacular prose combined the language of dime-store noir paperbacks, Beatnik free forms, and a roving sense of cinematography, turning the American heartland into an mysterious, deadly, and epic space in the manner of Homer-meets-Jim Thompson. Smart-as-hell but never preening or pretentious, he identified with a long line of outlaw poets, from Arthur Rimbaud to Charles Bukowski.

As a poetry reader, he exuded soft-spoken patience, like a spider, but his narratives wielded vigor and virulence that upset cafe crowds expecting bucolic tales of love. His fascination with the gunslinger John Dillinger is legendary, leading Moore to spend decades writing what is likely the longest American poem in history. Moore mentored me, a thorny young poet in the rust belt, when I attended college the first few years. He died right before I published Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation (University Press of Mississippi, June 2011) my first book, which I partly dedicated to him.

Luckily, his son Theron, now responsible for his father’s tremendous archives, tracked me down. Below we discuss his father’s history.

Your dad is considered an icon of the Outlaw Poet generation and genre. How would you describe this literary movement, and did your Dad feel hemmed in by that noir, tough guy stance at all?

The easiest way to describe outlaw poetry is to equate it to punk rock: three chords, played fast and aggressive and fuck you to the mainstream, which in this case is classical or academic writing; in fact, it goes against everything academia stands for. My father’s particular style has been described as “film noir” or “noir writing”, but “outlaw” is how you interpret it, how you wanna do it. Writer Tony Moffeit has a real southwestern flavor to his outlaw style; my father’s writing tended to be violent and sometimes sexual, oftentimes telling a complete story replete with characters in maybe 20 lines.

Outlaw poetry is tough, unflinching, raw, and very much “in your face”. It doesn’t pull punches, and its accessible to anyone. You don’t need a degree or be part of a writing program somewhere, you feel it, you write it, you do it. Make it hurt, make people flinch, break some teeth.

As for my father being hemmed in, he never felt that way. He embraced it fully, wore it proudly as a badge of honor. He wrote from the heart and soul because he lived that life for real.

I recently edited a book of his poetry and essays titled, Gangsters, Harlots & Thieves: Down and Out at the Hotel Clifton, which is basically a biography of his life as a kid growing up in a burned out, skid row hotel in Freeport, Illinois, surrounded by gangsters, hookers, bootleggers, thieves, told in his voice through his writing. All true. The outlaw spirit was ingrained in him as a kid and basically emerged in his writing. It wasn’t planned, it just happened when he put pen to paper, it just came out that way.

Supposedly, one of your Dad’s last works, The Riddle of the Wooden Gun, was finished after he accidently came upon Cormac McCarthy during lunch in New Mexico. I always imagined your Dad’s work as novelistic. How did narrative stories shape his style?

Typically my father wrote from an observational point of view and he could tell you a short story in 20 lines or less, characters, dialog, everything. When he began writing Dillinger he began exploring the mindset, the psychological aspects of Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, etc., to give you insight into how and what they were thinking, their personal perspectives as well as opening a window in which we the reader, could look inside at their emotions, almost into their very souls and this forced him to develop his narrative style of poetry so he convey this to the reader.

It wasn’t enough for him to tell a story. He wanted you to actually hear their stories firsthand, from the characters themselves, which really has never been done to this extent — this degree before — from a lit perspective.

Your own family history is pockmarked by edginess — from your great-great grandfather’s dubious role in the Civil War to your grandfather’s relationship to Al Capone. In this sense, your father was born with a poetic history tattooed on him. Growing up, did he immerse you in this heritage?

You get family history imprinted on you throughout your childhood just because it tends to work out that way when you find out about your family roots, hear relatives swapping stories, etc. and that’s how it happened with me. My dad’s side of the family has an outlaw streak in them. I mean, we’re not criminals, but we have it in our blood. We can feel it, it’s there…

This streak has gotten me in trouble with the cops before, on numerous occasions, and often times I have to work to suppress it, so I don’t fuck up. I have a family to care for, and I can’t be careless like I’ve been in the past.

Your father saw Public Enemies at least three times, immersing in all the context and details, and his own longtime literary pursuit of Dillinger is astounding. I believe his multi-volumed Dillinger series is the longest poem written by an American, after Ezra Pound’s Cantos. How did he maintain that passion and focus, and did the movie capture your dad’s inner-view of Dillinger?

Let me first address his epic body of work re: Dillinger. I’ve resurrected my father’s longtime small press, Road/House-Saint Vitus Press, and I’ll be publishing all of his prose, poetry, essays through it for the next upteen years with all the work he left behind – 25 boxes of loose leaf paper, all poetry, all essays, everything you can imagine, and a lot of stuff that hasn’t been seen in the last 30-40 years if that.

His long form poem or poetry series, however you want to look at it, entitled Dillinger is about 5,000 pages long, and that’s a conservative estimate at this point. I’ll be not only publishing it in its entirety, but I’m going to make it a bit more fresh and a bit more dynamic by coupling interviews with writers, etc., who were privy to the inner workings of this poem that my father talked to, sought advice from, etc., personal perspectives and remembrances from family members and much more.

That’s in the works right now but won’t see the light of day for a long time as I have two-three other books I need to publish first. I want to get the smaller books out before I tackle Dillinger, which will take up nearly all of my time.

As for his passion and focus — that came from within him, it was just a natural thing he was born with. His passion for poetry was equally as intense as his passion for his family and life in general. It was all encompassing to the point to where he would often get lost in it and we’d have to kind of prod him back into “reality” again, so to say. Poetry and writing was an art form that he worshiped and crafted all at the same time. He was hardcore about it because he held it so sacred and would often get pissed off or offended by writers who treated it casually or nonchalantly. That was a high sin to him.

And regarding the movie, Public Enemies, he loved it. Saw it at the theater multiple times, bought the DVD, really, really dug it. Johnny Depp was a favorite actor of his and my dad felt like Depp got “it”, that he really tapped into the essence of Dillinger himself.

Although your Dad taught public school for his career, he consider himself as a counter-academic: we both tended to disdain much academic poetry and sympathized with singer-songwriters, beatniks, and modern spoken-word artists. In some ways, did that rebellion both propel, and somewhat, hurt him as well, in terms of reaching a different audience?

Oh yeah, it did. He stood by his guns. He wouldn’t change his outlook, soften his stance or tone down the outlaw thing to appeal to mainstream America, although that’s where he really wanted to be accepted not necessarily for commercial or financial success, although he would’ve liked to have been a full time paid writer, but he wanted outlaw poetry and poetry in general to be accepted and not shunned like it had been.

For the longest time, poetry has had a negative stigma attached to it that precludes mainstream USA, from embracing it or appreciating it like it should be, and that bothered my father big time right up until the day he died.

He hated the fact that hack writers could find agents and get books published and get paid by writing two dimensional, cheeseball shit that mainstream America bought and consumed in bulk whereas something like Dillinger might not be seen outside of the small press. And it wasn’t just his work, it was what his peers were creating, as well. He would see cutting edge, unique impressive work getting ignored because it had the label “Poetry” attached to it, and it was a knife to his heart.

That’s something that I’m trying to undo with my version of Road/House-Saint Vitus publishing, to make poetry not only accessible to people but something they want to read, as well.