Patrick Norris with Todd Colby

Todd Colby
Todd Colby

Patrick Norris: A lot of your old band’s music carries a lot of poetic correlatives. The lyrical and melodic coloring of Drunken Boat’s Accidents and Balloon Song could fit perfectly into Splash State. Do you tend to look at all your work along these analogous lines?

Todd Colby: If you mean analogous to being lyrical and melodic, yes. That’s at the core of all good poetry. While I did write the lyrics to those songs a long time ago, and Splash State is current, there is a thread that runs through my work that could very well be traced to those songs, and before them the poems I wrote in my teens. An ex-girlfriend of mine gave me some old notebooks of mine from when I was 19, and while some of the poems were definitely written by a 19-year old, many of them had that DNA of my current poems, I just refined it over the years. That’s the pleasure of writing over a number of years and leaving a paper trail: you can see your progress, or things you were trying to work out as a younger writer. I feel very affectionate towards my 19-year old self. He was a good guy at heart, even when he was fucking shit up.

PN: Russel Edson said:”My job as a writer is mainly to edit the creative rush. The dream brain is the creative engine…” Some of your poems “The Boy And The Girl” (from Riot in the Charm Factory), and “The Clothing of My Death” particularly remind me of Edson. Can you tell me a bit about your process when you sit down to write these types of poems?

TC: I don’t know Russel Edson’s writing well enough to comment too much on the comparison. I do know that he writes very clearly and concisely, even when he’s writing about something fairly outrageous and fantastic. That I like. For me, Ron Padgett is a bigger touchstone for that sort of writing. He’s so clear and sometimes even sentimental, but he lures you in with his fabulous, subdued tone, that sounds more like a smart conversation than a poem. Also Henri Michaux and Max Jacob, kind of invented that style of writing.

PN: In your poem “The Ship” you have people that “listen back to the tapes of what they just talked about; so they’re always catching up with what they just said.” Did you laugh outrageously when you wrote this?

TC: I crack myself a lot. Probably more than I should.

PN: Did you have any idea for the direction you wanted Splash State to take while writing it?

TC: Splash State is the culmination of about 8 years of writing. I wrote that while going through a lot of different phases of my life. A divorce, falling in and out of love, getting older, and various other sundry life things. When it came time to put the book together, I had to go through over 300 poems! I picked the ones I thought stuck together in a unified way. Some were written as recently as 6 months ago, and others were from 2006, but there was a connection, so I put them in the folder that would become Splash State.

PN: A lot of your poem’s speakers seem to be floating in some sublime pseudo-hell, alternately abusing and being abused by industry. Do any of these personalities find what they are looking for?

TC: There is a bit of hell in the book. But the situations always sort themselves out. I enjoy uncomfortable situations in life, especially if they don’t involve me. Anyway, no one ever finds what they’re looking for. It’s the search. And the poems inspect that to some degree. Or if you “find it” you end up testing and seeing how hefty the thing you’ve found really is.

PN: Both Splash State and Flushing Meadows read much quicker than your 2004 collection of poems Tremble and Shine. In fact, none of your other work reads quite like it. What was happening in your writing there?

TC: I was intent on writing as clearly and concisely as possible in both Splash State and Flushing Meadows. I had some things to say in poems and I wanted them to communicate in a way anyone could read. The complexity and tension is in the themes and the juxtapositions. Desire, death, love, loss, and joy. And of course, some twists that anyone would expect from a book of poems by me. Tremble & Shine was whole different monster. I was working in a dance theater with a computer in front of me and I figured a way to write while at work. Most of that was either written at work or sent back and forth via email and edited that way from work to home and back again. It’s a little more full of piss and vinegar than Splash State.

PN: You once mentioned you were looking to publish a collection of poems entitled Night Fritters. What became of that?

TC: I still have that unpublished manuscript. It’s a whole book of poems, 60 in all. 3 stanzas, 5 lines each stanza. I kept a little black notebook next to my bed and wrote in it only at night before bed or if I woke up in the middle of the night. The one stipulation I made for myself was I always had to write in the aforementioned form. It took over 8 years to do!

PN: What impact did Drunken Boat’s end have on you? Did you ever venture again into that territory or had you made your mind up to pursue poetry after the band’s dissolution?

TC: Drunken Boat was my life for a few years. When it ended, I was sad. It didn’t just end, it kind of just all petered out. That was sadder. After all the passion, the joy, the rage, the fevers of what have you, it all just sort of ended with a whimper. I’ve made music since then but I still always long to write a suite of songs with Steve Gross (the Drunken Boat guitarist). I always loved playing with him. And my brother, the original drummer on our first record.

PN: What restrictions/liberties have you learned to place on yourself over the years as both a performer and poet?

TC: I like being presented with restrictions, they give me something to bang against. Craft can be restrictive, as can shouting too much. I think finding a balance is key. I mean, writing is hard enough without all the drama. I look to some of the greats poets of our time: John Ashbery, James Schuyler,  Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, (and many more) they all went through enormous changes, their writing is always evolving, wild even, but its also pure and tempered. That’s mastery.

PN: You briefly attended and left graduate school. Can you speak a bit about that? Did you ever feel the need to “professionalize” your poetry or conform to a prescribed standard?

TC: I wanted to move to New York after I graduated from Iowa. Anne Waldman told me that John Ashbery was teaching at Brooklyn College, which I guess everyone knew but me. Anyway, I got in and was so excited. When I went there to register for classes before the fall semester started they told me John got a McArthur grant and he wouldn’t be coming back. I studied with Ann Lauterbach for a semester and then I decided to call it quits. I was going to (free back then)  workshops at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s. Great teachers like Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, and so many others. I was part of a community there that felt right. So I stuck around! I’ve taught there over the years, curated the Wednesday night reading series there, and now I serve on the board of directors at St. Mark’s. So yes, The Poetry Project eclipsed grad school for me.

PN: When you first began writing, how did you look at yourself in relation to the poetic community around you?

TC: I didn’t know any writers when I started writing at 14. I thought something was wrong with me because I felt so compelled to write poetry. It was also kind of the height of puberty when everything is churning and steamrolling. There was one poet in my high school who wore a t-shirt that said “Poets do it Write” on the front of shirt in heat transfer letters. It was cheese. I didn’t want to be that. Then came people like Jim Carroll, Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein, Amiri Baraka, Captain Beefheart, and Rimbaud. They were so far removed from that guy’s t-shirt.

PN: Are there any sustaining thoughts that help you continue writing when you feel doubtful?

TC: That’s a good question. With all the events that have been happening in the world with rapid-fire degrees of horror, or outrage, or just being overwhelmed by the magnitude and velocity of it all. That has made me feel doubtful about a lot of things. But I always write whether doubtful or not. If I didn’t write then I would just be a slug festering on the patio under a pile of salt. Writing is just something that I love doing and that’s that.

Todd Colby attended the University of Iowa, where he and fellow students started the band Drunken Boat in the 1980s. He moved to New York City to attend graduate school at Brooklyn College before Drunken Boat began touring and releasing CDs. His first poetry collection, Ripsnort, was published in 1994, followed by Cush (1995), Riot in the Charm Factory (1999), and Tremble & Shine (2004). The New York School poets, punk rock, spoken-word poetry, John Ashbery, and the modernists, including William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, all influenced his poetry.

Colby is on the board of directors of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where he teaches workshops. He has collaborated with artists Marianne Vitale and David Lantow and edited the anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (2000). A veteran of triathlons, Colby wrote a poem a day about the 2012 Tour de France for Bicycling magazine online.

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