JPC: Remember when we met? I talked to you after seeing you read
and told you I had enjoyed it. You asked me what I was reading and
then asked me why I wasn’t reading Alice Notley.
TC: You seemed like a perfect Notley candidate. I was happy you’d come
over and said you’d liked my reading and saw that you had that spark
that told me you were up for a little mindful play. What followed
after that was a steady stream of the most intense and thoughtful
emails I’d ever received. We instantly jumped into a really deep
series of emails about poetry and poetics. Soon after that I invited
you to see Richard Maxwell’s play “People Without History.” I was glad
you liked the play because it was the second time I’d seen it and I
was totally obsessed with it.
JPC: The Maxwell play was definitely interesting. I’m glad I went. I
remember that I felt a bit unsettled because the seats were cramped
and also because I didn’t know if we were on a date or not. I think
the emailing was huge– that was where our friendship really took
root. That creative play ended up being very important to me and, I
think, to my work. I just looked back over our emails– I see that
there’s one thread that started March 30, 2009 and ended April 6, 2009
that has 99 emails in it. Do you remember what your first thoughts were about
how the collaboration was going?
TC: I remember the emails were like little collaborative interview
poems, almost. It wasn’t a huge leap from that to the actual act of
“the collaboration.” When those started in a more formal way I
remember it felt like playing chess with someone who had the same
sensibility and skills but was different enough to keep it interesting and
entertaining. I’ve always liked collaborations, but most of them have
been with visual artists, actors or musicians, so when we started I
threw in the trickster element and always tried to subvert or alter
the momentum or direction of the poem enough that it would veer
into unexpected places. You did (and do) the same thing, I think. I
just know that when I send off my line that follows your line I wait
with a sort of amused and bated breath. When your response arrives in
my email inbox I get all excited trying to add a counter line that
both complements and complicates the flow. I hope that makes
sense. In many ways our collaborations are like little improv dances.
We know the steps, the patterns etc and we’re both kind of flying by
the seat of our pants over a mutually created poetic landscape. Like
getting on a plane not knowing the destination. But then every time I
sit down to write I have the feeling it’s just nice to share it with
someone who just so happens to be a skilled and delightful traveling
companion. I’m mixing metaphors here, oh well.
JPC: I like the way bits of biography and lived detail made their way
into the poems, as well as made-up, absurd or surreal details (and how
the “real” and the imagined blend into each other). It’s like a time
capsule of shared consciousness, if that isn’t too over the top. I
also like how we very quickly developed a collaborative “voice,”
despite and also because of those evasive moves where we try to throw
each other off. And, yes, collaboration is something I love.
Collaborating always reminds me what it means to be a poet/artist
person. I read Ron Padgett’s memoir about Joe Brainard this past spring,
and I love how their friendship and the community they made helped them
both value art and its role in a life, even as it helped them avoid
letting it become too precious or rarified. Our collaborations did
that for me, helped me both see myself as an artist and see art as
something playful, something that was part of my everyday living.
TC: Yes! I can look at certain lines I wrote in our many
collaborations and can remember sneaking away at work to reply to your
last line or sitting in a room with a friend saying “just a minute,
I’m replying to a poem.” Those memories of composing these
collaborations are still so vivid. I’ve always admired the
Brainard/Padgett/Berrigan collaborations. They are just so perfect.
Another touchstone is John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s collaborative
novel A Nest of Ninnies that reads so seamlessly, it’s like one person
wrote it. That sort of clarity and precision in a collaboration is
certainly what I’ve aspired to in these poems, and I dare say we’ve
achieved it more often than not.
JPC: Yes, I remember coming out of the subway and checking to see if
you’d written anything on a poem, and then stopping on the sidewalk to
write more on my phone. It’s interesting to imagine us in different
settings in different parts of the city, adding to each poem. Also,
skimming back over this just now, I did the thing I sometimes do with
the poems– forgot for a second who wrote what. I like those
slippages of identity that happen. Fun! Any final words for the kids out there?
TC: It all goes by so painfully fast. Don’t waste time. Collaborate
with someone soon. Oh, and eat your veggies.
About the Authors
Todd Colby has published four books of poetry: Ripsnort, Cush, Riot in the Charm Factory: New and Selected Writings, and Tremble & Shine, all published by Soft Skull Press. Flushing Meadows, his most recent chapbook, was published by Scary Topiary Press. He was also the editor of thepoetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press). Colby’s poems have been read on NPR for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Colby serves on the Board of Directors for The Poetry Project, where he teaches poetry workshops. He also serves on the Editorial Board of LungFull! Magazine and is a contributing editor for Cousin Corrine’s Reminder. Colby has given readings at The Poetry Project, The Rubin Museum, New York University, The New School for Social Research, Brooklyn Public Library, Cornell University, The Kingston Writers Conference, The Whitney Museum of American Art, PS 122, and more. He posts new work on gleefarm.blogspot.com.
Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of How We Were Strangers (forthcoming from Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (forthcoming from Noctuary Press). Her chapbooks are Mesmer (Dancing Girl Press, 2010) and Crown (forthcoming from Ravenna Press, winner of the Cathlamet Prize). Joanna holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Temple University and an MFA in Poetry from New England College. She can be found at joannapenncooper.blogspot.com.