TODD COLBY is the author of four books of poetry: Ripsnort, Cush, Riot in the Charm Factory: New and Selected Writings, and Tremble & Shine, all published by Soft Skull Press, and the editor of Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology. He is a visual artist and performer, and was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat. Here is his Soundcloud. He was kind enough to let me interview him via email over the last several weeks.
HUNT: In an introduction to an interview that appeared on Bookslut, Daniel Nester described you as a 'third- or fourth-generation New York School poet.' What do you think about categorization/canonization? Will there be more schools of poetry/writing?
COLBY: Schools, canons and categorizations are tidy tricks the academy uses to break things down into semester-size chunks. It's easier to test categories than just presenting an unstructured syllabus (which is how most of us read in real life, most of the time anyway). So, categorization is kind of necessary and it's something we all do with people we meet, with things we see, feel and experience. To categorize is human, it doesn't make it right, it just is. There's no way around it, but it is important to be conscious of it and find ways to push on the boundaries a bit so they're not so restrictive. Anyway, I like all generations of the New York School, some of them are very good friends.
HUNT: What relationship does running have to writing? Is writing a book similar to training for an Ironman Triathlon?
COLBY: Running to me is really all about rhythm once you get to a certain level of fitness. It's about finding a groove and grooving out for hours at a time. For me, writing is about a certain rhythm or cadence and finding it so the words sort of just roll out in a pleasant, structurally sound way. But that can only be found with years of constant practice and even then, like running, there are bad spells. Breath. Pacing. Patience. Humility. Fortitude. You have to have these five things in order to run or write well, otherwise you blow up, bonk and don't finish what you started and that's no fun for anyone.
HUNT: Do you eat cake at the end of a triathlon? Personally, I like to drink a coke after a long race and eat mac n' cheese.
COLBY: I like to eat enormous fruit salads after long runs and a giant peanut butter and raw honey sandwich washed down by ice cold milk. Nothing better, though mac and cheese sounds good right now on this wet winter night!
HUNT: What if you were forced to make all of your poems into songs for an Ironman training playlist?
COLBY: I could do that easily. I already sort of have. Hundreds of times.
HUNT: Do you have a child/children? If you do, would you want him/her/they/them to be poets?
COLBY: I don't have any children. I absolutely adore children though. A lot of my friends are having children now, so I'm around them a lot. Often times I'd rather sit and draw and talk with a group of children at a party than talk with adults. I'd love my child to be a poet or an astronaut or a water colorist or a hair stylist. Whatever, I'd really just want she/he to feel free and alive and open to the world with all its ridiculous beauty and stunning pain. Openness, and not giving into being a goddamn cynic is the key I'd want them to have in their front pocket.
HUNT: What would this child's name be?
COLBY: I think I'd name my daughter Djuna and my son Jackson.
HUNT: And how would you educate it?
COLBY: I'd educate my child like any parent: with all I could muster.
HUNT: If not, how would you make a child out of words?
HUNT: How did you start writing, and why? Were you very young? And do some of your early (adolescent, teen-age) writings survive?
COLBY: I started writing by writing on the bottom of my nightstand when I was about 8. I'd leave little messages like the name of my teacher, my favorite color, my best friend's name, my birthday, etc. Random concrete facts. Then I moved onto writing on top of the water heater in the basement and leaving folded up notes in the closet and in the drop ceiling of a basement with more descriptions of my life for some other "future boy" that would hopefully find the notes and be able to bare witness to my life somehow. I had this idea that the person who found the notes would read what I'd left behind and understand me in a way no one else living around me could at that point. We moved a lot when I was young, so it was also a way to leave behind evidence that I'd been someplace. When I was around 13 or so I had the revelation that writing on paper would be an easier way to write things down and they'd be more portable. But I do marvel at the ingenuity of my 8 year old self writing on these pieces of furniture and hot water heaters. I mean, it's really kind of profound now looking back at it. I hope some of those notes are still waiting for the right "future boy" to find and have some sort of profound moment that I left behind. If you're reading this in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia on Knollview Court, O'Hara Drive or Flat Shoals Road, or in Ottumwa, Iowa on Indian Trail Road, go look in the closet now, there's something waiting for you.
HUNT: I like the idea of the purposeful leaving of evidence. Did your parents know? Or did you show anyone, friends perhaps, when you were eight or nine or eleven, and were there reactions?
COLBY: My parents knew later, when we moved from a place in Iowa and the people who bought the house called my dad and said "we found all these notes in the ceiling...what should we do with them?" My dad got them back and gave them to me, it was sweet but kind of embarrassing. But there are so many others that might not have ever been found. That is very intriguing to me.
HUNT: Do you consider yourself a full-time artist? Do you 'work' outside the arts? Would your 14-year-old-self recognize your present-self and what would he say to you? I have a peculiar relationship with my 14-year-old self. We're completely different people in a way that will never be comprehensible. And it makes me feel weird. Do you ever feel weird?
COLBY: I am a full-time artist. Even with a day job. I can't turn it off. I work outside the arts to support my art habit, like most poets I know. Being an artist for me is really about looking at the world with my antennae up all the time, so I'm never bored or thinking "this is outside of my real life as an artist." It's just all one big amorphous heap of throbbing art all the time for me, even in the midst of some serious job shit, I'm still an artist looking for an angle. My 14 year old self would look at me and be very happy about the current me, that's one thing I'm sure of. Yeah, I feel weird about every other moment, but I've gotten used to it.
HUNT: What do you believe poems should do, if anything?
COLBY: I believe poems should just be intense energy fields H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) talks about this idea in Notes on Thoughts and Vision. The idea that poems are chunks of energy and the people that get them or the poems that we get are the ones we have the right receiving mechanisms for. H.D. believed that even if just one or two people had the right receiving mechanism attuned to one another then they could change the world. I like that idea, as romantic as it sounds.
HUNT: Do you listen to music when you write/make art/etc...? If so, what in particular?
COLBY: I do listen to music when I write, not all the time, but when I do it can't have words in it. Brian Eno is pleasant to write to, and Bach. Tonight I was listening to Lucky Dragons and scribbling, that was nice. For the last week or so in the morning I've been listening to readings on http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/ and writing while I listen to other poets read, most notably John Godfrey. I like how the language he uses filters its way into my consciousness and sort of steers my vocabulary around in a very pleasant way.
HUNT: I just read the first poem on your blog and I spent some time considering this: "I'm winning so much lately / that it hurts my arms." Somehow this reminds of "heroes eat soup like anyone else". What do you think? When you google Jack Spicer a lot of the top hits refer to a cartoon character.
COLBY: Heroes do eat soup like anyone else. I think the line from my poem resonates in some way with that. I love Jack Spicer. I've spent a lot of time with his books just going crazy for his imagination.
HUNT: What are three or four poems that you had the 'right receiving mechanism' for? And why or how? Sometimes I think of this as reprogramming. I like to find sets of words that reprogram me in some way. Do you think this is a similar conception?
COLBY: Well, among the moderns (and off the top of my head as I sit in the Los Angeles airport) : "A Blessing in Disguise" by John Ashbery. "Stanzas in Meditation" by Gertrude Stein. "Having a Coke With You" by Frank O'Hara. "I Remember" by Joe Brainard. I believe all of these poems/works had sets of words that spoke to me in some way that "reprogrammed" or cleared my vision in some way that allowed me to look at things like I'd never looked before.
HUNT: Any new projects I (we, all people) should be looking out for? Anything you're fantastically excited about?
COLBY: An old product that is new for me are empty kleenex boxes. I have been cutting them up after I'm done with them and using some of the designs on them as backdrops for my new collages. In other news: I'm really excited about the new film "Gerhard Richter Painting" which is one of the most honest and moving documentaries of an artist working and living that I've ever seen It's really something quite awesome to see.