The first time I saw Todd Colby read, he more-like whispered a poem about stealing a co-worker’s Fresh Samantha’s from the refrigerator, and drinking it while hiding in a bathroom stall. A fellow-fan of the dramatic monologue, the speakers in his poems are gentle folk, but you’re always aware they can go—probably have gone—to the dark side. But their dark seems so dark (only alluded to by its conspicuous absence), God only knows if there's a road leading back. So they struggle to do right, despite being born part-wrong, and ascend from the mire of the ego. Salon called him, "Rimbaud crossed with Johnny Rotten,”—i.e. when old school was downtown. The former front man for art-punk band Drunken Boat, he is the author of four books of poems, most recently Tremble & Shine by Soft Skull Press. Currently he serves on the board of directors at The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church where he also leads poetry workshops.
JK: You’re the main character in a detective novel. Go.
TC: I work undercover in an athletic shoe store, and go by the name of Champ Dewclaw. My method of transportation is the turbulence I create other's lives. My side-kick’s Sandy Mitchell, a lady boy with a penchant for caramels. My nemesis is a chef at a fine restaurant on Smith Street who’s funneling in artificial fur and distilling it into his patented "Thunder Sauce" which he slathers on poached salmon and feeds to the locals which gives them hallucinations so vivid that they lose all concern for the uninsured.
JK: If you weren't a poet, what would you be?
TC: An actor.
JK: I have a theory that disillusioned actors become poets so they can write their own lines.
TC: It directly involves words and deeds, and good acting is about trickery. I like tricksters. In my limited experience with acting—I made my living as one briefly—there’s the same satisfaction in writing poetry that makes people squirm. Antonin Artaud started out as an actor. But there's too much bullshit in it.
JK: When you were a kid, who were your favorite actors?
TC: In 7th grade, I thought I was a rich tapestry of Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman.
JK: Oh, but you still ARE a rich tapestry of Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman! Your writing is exactly like that.
TC: I like my humor spiced with a little horror. It makes everything feel shaky and great. I use the word "squirming" only because it's important to feel icky while you're laughing otherwise it's just laughing and not nearly as rich or complex. My mom taught me at a very early age that one can be both funny and enormously frightening at the very same time. Thanks mom!
JK: Do you think poetry is a medium in which humor is a good mix with horror?
TC: Well, not vampires, but that creepy "Is he serious or what?" tickles and stings. I also love poems with pure music and heartfelt intent—I've even written a few—but I also like a little cayenne on my beans. If you don't fuck a little shit up now and again you might as well slather yourself in vanilla sauce, lay down in a beige tent, and be done.
JK: I've had poets tell me that good poems cannot be funny.
TC: I honestly don't think I've ever sat down and tried to write a funny or entertaining poem. I’ve written poems with a friend in mind, knowing that they'd "get" it. By keeping the humor personal, it makes it richer in the public sphere. Frank O'Hara's "Personism" or the poems of Spicer, Zukofsky, Mayer, Williams, Notley Olson, Niedecker, or Berrigan—all of them incorporated personal details that strike some poets as not important enough for a poem because they weren’t "poetic" enough.
JK: When did you figure that out?
TC: I was 19 in Ted Berrigan's workshop at Naropa. In my notebook he wrote, “Take it easy on yourself, be funny if you want to, write down your dreams, be silly, don't get too hung up on being a sad, serious poet—the world has enough of those."
JK: Wow, it was a direct order. He must've liked you. Just say anything you want now, apropos of nothing.
TC: There has never been a romantic movement among mathematicians.
JK: Burroughs had his Orgone Accumulator. If you had an invention, what would be and what would it do?
TC: Actually Wilhelm Reich invented the Orgone Accumulator, Burroughs just used it. I would like to invent a machine that makes mathematicians romantic.
JK: A Russian surrealist with Tourette’s paints a portrait of you.
TC: A saucy and angular portrait featuring a smudged red star and some lacy Mayakovsky blouse over my shoulder. Khlebnikov can be seen on the mantle behind my head and some dishes with blue painting on them depicting my death in front of a firing squad. I appear calm in the portrait, but I might be drunk. I feel drunk in the portrait. The phone rings and I leave for St. Petersburg. The portrait looks no less empty without me in it.
JK: What are the biggest differences between your first and second book?
TC: With my first book, Ripsnort, I was more worried about its reception by some idealized reader/editor that didn't, in fact, exist. By the second, Cush, I let that sort of worry and third eye drift away.
JK: Who’s your idealized reader/editor?
TC: It's not an actual person who I can describe. It's more like a blob of a voice that’s charming and gracious one moment, then demeaning and abruptly dismissive the next. It’s just the superego in hyper-overdrive, but damn it if doesn't sound a lot like my mom.
JK: Mine’s Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Tell me about the new manuscript.
TC: It’s chock-full of poems, written in the mode of great poems. Many of them have appeared on my blog. My wife thinks it's one of my best collections. She reads them to me at night and they sound beautiful coming from her mouth. I don't have an official title yet, but I'm bouncing some options around in my head.
HELLO ANYONE READING THIS: YOU CAN HELP TODD BY SUGGESTING A TITLE FOR HIS NEW BOOK IN THE COMMENT FIELD!!
JK: What about your triathlon efforts?
TC: This summer, I'll be competing in my 5th Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid. It consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run—all in one day. I really enjoy the training. The time I spend on the bike is pure bliss. I ride to Nyack and Bear Mountain, and do many loops of Prospect Park. It's my time to meditate and compose poems. I've met some great people in the sport. To them, I'm not crazy for doing Ironman races, but for writing poems.
JK: A pentathlon includes shooting and horseback riding, no? If you could add two "activities" to a triathlon to create a Toddathalon, what would they be?
TC: A Toddathalon would include Cake Eating followed by Taking a Nap.
JK: Have you ever peed blood afterwards? I’ve heard that happens.
TC: No, I've never peed blood. But I have dry-heaved chunks of Powerbars and Gatorade.
JK: Dry-heaving will def be an event in the Knoxathalon.
You are a Marvel comic book character. Hero or villain?
TC: I'm a hero in a Marc Jacobs ensemble sans the cape. My boots have a sheen to them that suggest I'm belligerent, but I'm not. The boots are emotional sabotage for all those who long to be close to them in their free time. I don't practice yoga or dance too strenuously for fear of my heart which is slightly enlarged from empathetic feelings for those in pain. I have hay every morning. Nights I am calm because my feelings are never hurt and I never go back over conversations that I've had earlier in the day as I'm about to fall asleep because I know every interaction I have during the day is completely absent of malice or ill-will.
JK: Who's your arch enemy?
TC: My enemy isn't a person, it's an idea: puppies. Anything too cute makes my teeth hurt.