April 2005

Daniel Nester


An Interview with Todd Colby

Todd Colby has lived several lives: from punk rock frontman, to performance artist provocateur, to bad boy, genre-bending, soon-to-be novelist. Riot In The Charm Factory, Colby’s 1999 new and selected poems, placed brackets around his years as one of the original authors in the Soft Skull Press stable. (Full disclosure: I am a Soft Skull author, too, and regrettably did not meet Colby until pretty much the night I became a fellow author.) Before the suppressed Bush biography Fortunate Son took the then–Lower East Side publisher into the indie big leagues, Colby was part of its list of twine-bound chapbooks. His caps lock manifestos from that period recall Rimbaud -- from which his band, Drunken Boat, was named, but more on that later -- and the double-tracked performance pieces of John Giorno. He also wrote, like, page poems. As poet-critic Jordan Davis put it recently, Colby was one of the few poets who “maintained dual citizenship” with both bookishly anti-academic St. Mark’s Poetry Project coterie and spoken word and equally anti-academic Nuyorican Poets’ Café posse. And he was a rock star among both.

Tremble and Shine, his latest collection, also from Soft Skull Press, marks yet another Colby incarnation: the fully fledged, third- or fourth-generation New York School poet. The poems are perhaps more quiet, more “bridled and refined,” as he says here, than those works Colby brought to life at those legendary red-faced readings from the 90s. But this does not mean that Colby is any less eccentric or off-kilter. If anything, his poems have become more direct, gestured addresses to the reader. And more insane. Here’s the end of a poem from Tremble and Shine, "Know This."

I could be making the grade, pulling
my weight, being a real bread winner,
and having a good attitude about it all, while I rock—
not holding your arms behind your back
so you don't hurt yourself. How do you think I'd
feel if you hurt yourself while I was out rocking?
Do you think I'd be able to continue being a man who rocks?
When I think of you I have to become someone else just so
I can speak to you about the things that rock.
I look at that picture and I'm still rocking.

They say poets don’t aspire to be prophets anymore. But Colby is nothing if not a prophet. Or some sort of chosen one. I’ve come to think this over the past couple years in two ways. First, just hanging out with him on the few readings I’ve done with him over the past couple years, you pick up an energy from Todd that can only be described as controlled insanity. You want to join the Colby Cult, whatever that is, after seeing him improv sing to karaoke for which he has never heard the song. The second is seeing how he dealt with the tragedy of a fire that razed a 30-house block in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and left he and his wife not only homeless, but possession-less as well. All of Bookslut.com’s questions seem to ask the same one: Is there a Todd Colby Multivitamin, and if so, where can one sign up to get a life’s supply?

OK, hard question first. How has the horrible events of the fire affected your writing and outlook? I was at the fundraiser for you at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I knew you had all these poets who loved you and your poems. But there also was Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes fame, actor Justin Thereox (Mulholland Drive, Six Feet Under). Even the freaking Soy Bomb guy showed up (performance artist Michael Portnoy, who danced onstage during Bob Dylan’s performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards).

[Laughs.] Well, they’re all dear friends, and I love them.

It was a real revival meeting. How have things been since then? Do you have any poems that address or relate to your life in your new, fire-proof brick home?

I'd have to say my outlook has changed in phases. Initially I was just shocked and overwhelmed by the magnitude of our losses. A lot of my books, journals, recordings and various mementos were lost as well as a lot of Elizabeth's [Elizabeth Zechel, Colby’s wife] paintings and photographs and all of our clothing and furniture. As artists, it's what we most hope to leave behind as our legacy, it's our one chance at immortality, so to speak.

So to then suddenly see firemen in the room you once wrote in, busting out windows, spraying water all over, and flames shooting out of the roof of every building on the block, just hit a fundamental chord in me that hadn't been struck before: Nothing lasts, it's all going to turn to dust and slop someday, so you just have to do what you have to do, and you have to do it as well as you can, and that's all you have control over. I still mourn for what was lost in that apartment, but at the same time I feel connected with my wife and friends in ways I'd never been before. Everything is just so tender and breakable and it can all disappear so suddenly. That sort of realization every once in awhile really brings you into the moment.

As for the fire's effect on my writing, I'd have to say that other than during the first several months after the fire when I sat down every morning for two hours and wrote down memories of the fire and that apartment, I haven't really given it much room to intrude upon my poetry or writing, until just now. I mean, I still have bad anxious dreams revolving around that day, or I'll be in a bookstore, see a book and think "I used to have that." But basically I feel that I've moved on with some very valuable lessons in tow.

Let’s go back a bit. Tell me more about the band you were in, Drunken Boat.

It was a little something we cooked up in Iowa. My brother was the original drummer, along with two guys I met in an acting class I took at the University of Iowa. We'd sit around and dabble in various intoxicants and play on pots and pans and acoustic guitars, while I'd sing into a tiny handheld tape recorder. We all loved the Velvet Underground, Minutemen, Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü, so it came out of this very DIY attitude that was the stimulus for a lot of music coming out then. I moved to New York City to go to grad school -- Brooklyn College, I dropped out after one semester -- and they followed me the next year and we started really being a band.

We eventually signed a record deal, toured a lot, had four CDs come out, and were even the New York Times’ critical darlings for a couple years. But then it all imploded with the record label going under, with members of the band moving away or starting families, and all that stuff that is very familiar to anyone whose ever been in a band. A blueprint trajectory. We had a lot of fun though being these kids from Iowa taking New York by storm. Nyuck nyuck.

What's your take on the punk these days?

Is there such a thing as punk these days? The closest I get to that is with Slipknot, a band that horrifies my wife, which gives me the same thrill as Kiss did when I would play that around my parents as a teenager.

What other bands or artists float your boat nowadays?

Lately, Joanna Newsom's new CD The Milk-Eyed Mender has been in heavy rotation, along with Devendra Banhart's last two CDs. Mellow, freaky, and otherworldly beautiful stuff coming from both of them. Their lyrics are really poems disguised as lyrics. As far as art goes, I am my wife, Elizabeth Zechel's, biggest fan. She did the cover to Tremble and Shine. Her paintings and drawings are a real gift to live around on a day-to-day basis. She always surprises and inspires me with her visions.

OK, poetry questions. When do you think a poem is finished?

When it's unfolded, spread out and neat and clean, and yet there's still some kink or wrinkle that agitates me in that throat-tightening way, that's when it's halfway done. It's really finished when my wife reads it aloud to me and she doesn't stumble over the phrasing or lose her way in the kinks on her way back to me with the poem in her lungs.

When do you think a poem has begun?

Oh, when I get a tight feeling in my throat, a ticklish feeling all over my body, a rapid pulse, etc. It's very similar to being horny, actually. More often, though, it's simply a word, phrase or tone of voice that will suddenly land on my brain and stick there until I launch it onto the page. I also keep many notebooks in which I jot down these stray phrases and make use of later like little nudgings when I get the urge to write the "POEM."

Tomaz Salamun once told me when he feels a poem finish, he smells manna. Is there a spiritual connection to your work, a presence of God?

I love those moments while reading back over a poem I've just written and suddenly this wash of warmth comes over me and I feel almost giddy, like new love makes you feel. But I've learned not to trust those feelings of infatuation with a poem because there's no real depth there and those states are usually followed by the biggest let downs. I find the deepest part of my spiritual connection with the poem occurs more often than not in the process of simply sitting down at my desk and giving myself to the page without any expectations or intentions. That's where the Gods lurk, in that flow of absolute freedom. Before Satan comes in and reminds me I'm a piece of shit.

Speaking of Satan... just kidding... I know that John Ashbery is, as you said to me once, the one poet you keep returning to.

Well, ever since my senior year of high school I've always received a jolt of energy from Ashbery. I still read him whenever I need a little boost or I feel like I've lost some sort of focus in my own writing. It has to be that in those beautifully crafted and odd sentences that make up his poems he's also managed to inject something mysterious and energy-giving, for the people that have the proper receptors. I sound like H.D. here.

Has your list of favorite poets evolved over the years?

Of late I've been drawn to a lot of the prose writers (but with a poetic sensibility) who are nestled on that crest of a new form, like Ben Marcus, Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, Matthew Derby, and George Saunders. I think this stems out of my earlier fixation with the (dead) French poets Henri Michaux, Max Jacob and Francis Ponge, each of whom invented little worlds-within-worlds that were air-tight and virtually inconceivable, but at the same time absolutely believable and comprehensible. Oddly enough, my list of favorites as an adult has never changed that radically. I mean, I've always read William Carlos Wiliams, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and all the high modernists, and still remain mostly unconcerned with recent movements for various reasons. Maybe it’s fatigue?

Who are your favorite living poets?

Of my living contemporaries, I'd have to say Jennifer Knox and Brenda Coultas both tickle my brain in very profound ways.

I think it’s just as important to honor the classical as well as the visceral. And that’s what I’ve loved about your work. I also think most poets do not do this. Do you agree?

I think that's precisely why I lost interest in the whole slam scene. I mean, once you get past the community-building that it certainly did do, and the sense of populism that it definitely embodied, it lost it's momentum for me because many of its parishioners didn't have a real sense of the traditions that all this was coming from. I think it's essential that poets know where they are coming from and have a real knowledge of their art, just like I want a plumber to know how the pipes work. And that's not elitist -- that's essential to doing anything well. Also it became much more about being a "poetry star on MTV" than being an integral part of something bigger than any individual. I know Bob Holman and Miguel Algerin are certainly well-versed and steeped in a deep tradition and celebrate it, and try mighty hard to make others also aware of it. Bob in particular offered me guidance at some critical points in my development as a poet. But ultimately, for me at least, it's like that Pound/Confucian thing about the unwobbling pivot and having a center that it all revolves around. It didn't have that so it all started wobbling for me. In spite of all that, I still like going to slams now and then just to see what my fellow poets are up to.

That range of poets and influences of yours has always amazed me, from afar and up close, because, when I look at a poem like, say -- randomly paging through Riot in the Charm Factory -- okay, "Boys Town" -- here we have an all-caps poem with just about all curse words -- and it's just “FUCKING” great. Can you talk about how the performative aspect of these poems influence your work on the page or vice versa? And how does this show up years later in Tremble and Shine?

Well, remember that during this "slam period" I was also singing with a punk band and that experience was just so visceral compared to simply reading my poems which was an entirely different affair.

One day I just decided to bring the same energy and rage to a reading that I would bring to CBGBs and it worked. This was in '89-'90 and it freaked some people out, but it worked. John Giorno was a great liberator for me during this period, especially after seeing [Ron Mann’s 1982 poetry documentary] Poetry In Motion. His energy and craft and repetition -- á la Gertrude Stein and many punk lyrics -- just instantly appealed to me. Then Andy Kaufman came into play and I realized that I could tone it down and still make a mess, only a more finely crafted and mind-fucking one. I think there are elements of this energy and enthusiasm that still run through my work, only now it's a bit more bridled and refined, but it's still there, believe me.

Poetry in Motion, I always say to people, is the reason I’m a poet. After reading Yeats and Keats and Eliot in college, I finally saw these living poets not only relating to rock and roll, but being it. Do you feel the same way?

Holy cow. I saw Poetry in Motion during the summer of '82 when I was basically a kid attending the Kerouac Conference at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. I went alone and was jumping around in my seat like a punk at a rock show during that film. I mean, I literally ran out of the theater afterwards so excited that I buzzed around Boulder for hours, thinking someday I'm going to make my mark in the poetry world just like the people in that film. What I'll always love about Allen Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman and Jim Carroll is that they had/have that deep knowledge, in the classical sense of the word, of their art form and yet also this very immediate and visceral application of that knowledge and those ancient traditions into our own contemporary world.

Yes, Poetry in Motion certainly cleared a path for me that I'm still following to this day.

I have this almost psychotic desire to meet all of the people from that movie in the flesh, to get their autograph, touch them -- do you remember The Four Horsemen, the four people who made sound poems, hollering and drooling and moaning?

Yes! In the movie I remember mostly that chuckle one of the big bearded guy gives at the end of all the shouting. A knowing glance and chuckle -- that just about sums it all up for me.

I’ve always thought of putting together a project like that.

I would like to be one of the people in it with you.