Todd Moore, Cinematic Poet on the Outlaws' Trail
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Cinematic Poet on the Outlaws' Trail
Bill Nevins talks with writer Todd Moore

Todd Moore

Todd Moore had just returned home to Albuquerque from a book-signing and reading tour of southern California, and he was still unwinding from the road. At age 71, Moore (born in 1937) confides, such travels can be exhilarating, but they are strenuous as well. He was glad to be relaxing on a warm July afternoon in the way he enjoys most, with free-ranging conversation laced with anecdotal recollections and tactful name- checks.

"It was pretty surprising, what you might call a sign," says Moore, chatting over a rueben sandwich with fried pickles in O'Niell's Pub. "I was at the Flying Star on Juan Tabo about a year ago, enjoying the view of the Sandias and trying to get my writing started for the day, but I was sort of blocked, not sure where to begin."

Moore continues, "Then I recognized the well dressed man sitting at a table just across from me with another man in a suit, sipping coffee and signing a stack of papers. I'd seen his picture in a movie magazine, when the film of No Country for Old Men came out. It was Cormac McCarthy-I'm sure of it!"

The famously reclusive New Mexico novelist could well have been lunching at Flying Star, perhaps signing movie contract papers for the forthcoming film version of his best seller The Road, Moore and this reporter agreed.

"I didn't go over and speak to him, much as I wanted to," confides Moore, who shows me his dog-eared copy of McCarthy's wild west fiction classic Blood Meridian, "Because it's well known he hates for that to happen. I just looked down at my notepad and started writing. And writing . . . and writing!" Holding up a copy of his own recently published book length poem, The Riddle of the Wooden Gun (Lummox Press, 2009), Moore smiles and declares, "I finished this latest book right then and there. I think Cormac McCarthy became my muse that day, and he doesn't even know it!"

Whether speculative tall tale, or factual report, this famous- author- sighting- inspiration anecdote makes for a good story, perhaps even the stuff of legend. That's how Todd Moore sees the world-- as myth and legend-- and that's how he describes it in his concisely- worded but often epic-length poem-cycles. And it is no accident that Moore's favorite living writer is Cormac McCarthy, a novelist famed for his cinematic style, careful use of language, painstaking historical research and violent subject matter.

That also would be a fitting description of Todd Moore's own literary output. Though he's a retired school teacher, Moore's literary persona is neither socially conformist nor pedantic. It could be described as decidedly edgy, in Moore's own words, "outlaw"-the language choices are often salty enough to fit a gunslinger or an old tar. Moore is to contemporary poetry what McCarthy is to fiction. Both write in cinematic styles, and both carry on the time- honored American outlaw-myth tradition that is so often associated with classic tough-guy film makers like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and with all those Humphrey Bogart noir classics .

Todd Moore's own self-related biography and family history, as told to me and detailed in his many published interviews and on his own Saint Vitus Press website-blog, contains not a small dose of myth-worthy facts or tempting speculations.

"My great grandfather walked around with a pair of Navy Colts on his hips and a tomahawk in his belt," Moore proudly informs this reporter, explaining that the weapons were necessary to defend against angry relatives and former neighbors whose homes Moore's great granddad may have burnt down while alternately serving with Quantrill's Confederate guerrillas and the Federal 7th Cavalry. "He was a dangerous man," Moore concludes, and one whose loyalties were at best "practical".

Moore's own childhood, in urban Illinois settings near Chicago, was hardly stress-free or pampered. "My dad knew Al Capone," Moore recalls, "And he was an alcoholic himself, pretty rough with his kids. We lived in skid row slums most of the time. Dad was a great story teller but he never got around to writing them down."

Though Moore's dad may not have recorded his own stories, Moore, who went to college on a teachers' scholarship and began writing early on, carries on the family story tradition, lacing his recollections with detailed digressions about the notorious figures of Depression- era Midwest America. "Capone invented the soup kitchen," he declares, "before the government did anything, and he kept right on feeding people into the Depression years."

It's that touching, romantic take on the admittedly larcenous and often murderous criminal celebrities of by-gone days that gives Moore's narrative poems, and his personal outlook, their decidedly sentimental flavor, for all his admiration of hard-boiled writers like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. Early Thirties bank robber John Dillinger, the subject of several of Todd Moore's books of verse, including Dillinger and The Riddle of the Wooden Gun, had a soft heart for the working poor and women and a reluctance to kill anyone, even police, at least according to Moore. "It's only documented that he personally killed one person, a cop who was firing at him, and even that was clearly self-defense. Dillinger felt sorry about the killing afterwards, and said so," declares Moore.

This conscientious, affectionate yet machine-gun toting legend that was John Dillinger is very much like the one portrayed by Johnny Depp in the recently released, Michael Mann-directed movie Public Enemies. Depp's Dillinger refuses to steal the pocket money of bank clerks, only raiding the vaults, and he only shoots a withering glance at one of the FBI agents firing lethal bullets at him outside Chicago's Biograph movie house. "He could have shot that cop," says Moore, clearly relishing the memory of Depp's characterization, "but he only gave him the evil eye - that's all that was needed."

Moore is unreserved in his praise of Public Enemies, admitting that he's already seen it three times and plans to go again soon. "It's one of those movies with so many details in the background and in the quickly-flashed scenes that you just want to go through it again and again," he says, noting that the almost subliminally planted references to both Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and to Ethiopian anti-Italian resistance leader Emperor Haile Selassie I add to the film's historical contextuality and make it really fun to watch.

This reporter's lunch interview with Todd Moore stretched out into an all-afternoon yarn-spin and wide-ranging literary chat. Moore had much to say on his favored topics of the quality-dampening conformity of academia and its grant-favored or tenured poets. And he eloquently outlined his own concept of the counter-academic literary alternative offered by self-styled "outlaw poets" such as himself, Santa Fe's poet/songwriter Kell Robertson and, according to Moore, even the "poetic outlaw" novelist Cormac McCarthy, a famously anti-academic author himself.

The afternoon sped by very fast, and we had to part only to be home for dinner at our respective homes. I would love to report every tale told and every opinion offered by Todd Moore, but I think leaving my readers to go to Moore's poems and, perhaps, to attend one of his fabled readings, is a better plan. - Bill Nevins

Read an excerpt from "The Riddle of the Wooden Gun"

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