We’ve been fans of Todd Colby for a long time. He’s one of the most creative people we know. He’s always making something: art, poetry, mayhem. So when we saw that his new book, Time for History, is out, we picked his fertile brain.
The Book Doctors: Why the heck did you decide to become an artist, of all things?
Todd Colby: The alternative is just, well, boring. Why not live in a state that allows me to pay attention to the world a little closer and then celebrate or mourn the delicious and repulsive state we’re all in?
TBD: For as long as I can remember, it seems people have been talking about the demise of art. And yet, we seem to be in a moment right now where poetry is flourishing. Why do you think that is?
TC: When the going gets tough, like right now, people need a lot more than the latest news cycle whopper to inspire themselves, at least the people I like to be around. They need some depth, something that lasts, or makes them laugh or cry or recognize their own lives in a new light. Movies can do that, music certainly, but poetry has that special distillation of language, rhythm, and meaning that is reassuring and makes me more mindful when it’s really working right.
TBD: How has your career as a poet influenced your career as a visual artist?
TC: They’ve always worked hand in hand for me. In fact, I feel little distinction between the two and shift from being a poet to a visual artist with great ease. I mean both arteries of expression come from the same “Todd,” and that goes for my musical excursions with my old band, Drunken Boat. At the same time, different things that I need to express require different modes. It’s really nice to have options. I feel lucky that way. I will say that when I’m painting or making any kind of art, time moves in very odd chunks. Hours will go by and suddenly I’ll realize it’s dark out or that I haven’t peed for a very long time. That sort of concentration in almost any form is just beautiful.
TBD: What was the inspiration for your new book?
TC: I was doing an artist’s residency on Governors Island provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council during the winter and spring of 2015. A friend had given me a huge stack of antique linen postcards as a gift. I brought them with me to the island thinking I could do something with them. One day while strolling around Governors Island I thought, “There are no monuments to poets here!” So, I began altering the postcards by writing captions in oil markers over them. I made a lot of postcard monuments to Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and many more. I still feel compelled to make them. It is enormously satisfying to rename monuments that celebrate poets and writers I love.
TBD: How would you describe the art you’re doing in this book?
TC: Time for History is an expansion of the themes I explored on Governors Island. There is some political and social commentary that comes through in a few of the pieces that I made after Trump was elected. And oddly, there’s a narrative that emerges as one goes through the book in sequence.
TBD: How did you go about getting this particular book published?
TC: My dear old friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marianne Vitale approached me with the idea of putting a selection of the hundreds of postcards I’ve made into a book. We’ve done collaborative books together over the years, so she knew what I was capable of, believed in me and the project and helped get the whole thing moving along. She introduced me to a book designer she works with, Nicolas Borel. He designs with a very keen eye and understanding of a book as object and then he subverts that expectation and expands the notion of what a book is, and what it can be. He was a joy to work with.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?
TC: I love Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. They both lived in NYC, and had close ties to the Poetry Project (where I also serve on the board of directors) and they both collaborated with a number of poets I respect and admire, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, and so many more. I also love the painters Amy Sillman. Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, and Sue Williams; all of them are very different from one another, but they are all fierce, agitated, funny, precise, and driven. All of these artists occupy distinct thrones in the palace of my artistic loves.
TBD: Do you think working in a bookstore has influenced you as someone who does art and puts it into a book?
TC: Yes. As the manager and programmer here at 192 Books, I have been able to meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and creative people. People who I’ve admired so greatly over the years come into the store and talk about their art and their lives. Interacting with them, asking them questions, and getting to know them has been a real life changer for me.
TBD: Do you make something every day?
TC: I do. I try to make or write something a few times a day, even while I’m at work.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for artists?
TC: Keep doing it. It’s important that whatever you want to do gets done. Don’t fall into line. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do because that is just a giant bummer for you and everyone else.
Todd Colby is the author of six books of poetry, most recently of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014) and Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). He was the editor of the poetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and serves on the board of the Poetry Project. He was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat.
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In every profession there are people who have a profound effect on whatever is being created, but who go unsung not just by the outside world, but often by the people around them. In publishing, copyeditors are very often at the top of the list of those who don’t get noticed, or credit for their painstaking and incredibly valuable contributions.
For our first three books, we never got to meet our copyeditors. Nor did we think much about them. They did a nice polish on our books, but our editors didn’t even tell us their names. In the shuffle of getting a book published, we forgot to ask and not one of these good and talented people made it into any of our acknowledgments. This all changed when Workman bought Putting Your Passion into Print (FYI, this was the former title for The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published). Enter Lynn Strong, copywriter extraordinaire and one of the crown jewels of Workman.
Workman, for so many reasons, is unlike any other publisher out there. One of these reasons is that their copyeditors are VIPs. And Lynn was the queen of the copyeditors. When we were told that Lynn would copyedit our book, it was like being told that Meryl Streep would be playing you in the movie version of your life. And the best thing is that the lead-up was nothing compared to what was delivered. Lynn didn’t just polish our book, she transformed it. And she didn’t copyedit it once, but three times! Twice for our first edition and once more for our second edition. Sentences that we had struggled over draft after draft were transformed from awkward to elegant. Information was moved around to form just the perfect flow. And every misquoted fact, misspelling, and piece of misinformation was corrected by a mind that could clearly beat us at Trivial Pursuit even if we played two against one. On top of all this, she got us. She got our voice. And she managed to not only capture our idiosyncratic style, but to make it better.
We had gratitude pouring out of us and we wanted to thank Lynn in person. But we were told that she was a very shy person who preferred to stay inside her office than to hobnob with the authors whose books she was gracing with her red pencil. Finally, a copyeditor who gets the glory due her, but she doesn’t even want it! She was like the Lone Ranger, who rounds up the bad guys, saves the town, then rides off into the sunset without even waiting for a thank you. But we are pushy people. And, finally, one day while in the Workman offices, we did manage to meet Lynn.
Lynn was a notorious smoker, and her deep raspy voice was true to her habit. She was also every bit the introvert we had been told she was. But she was also warm and lovely. She told us how much she enjoyed working on our book and you could tell she was the kind of person who wouldn’t bullshit you. We left that day feeling like we really had a good book because Lynn had told us so.
Last week, Lynn passed away. For those who worked with her or were graced by her red pencil, her loss was deeply felt. Her loss also made us take a moment to think about the people around us who don’t get the proper appreciation and gratitude.
Lynn, thank you for helping us to become better writers and to realize our dream of creating an essential guide to how to get published. We think of you every time we read our book…