Colby Cotton

Interviewed by Michael Sirois

Your poem “Neighbor,” confronts the great American suburb. A kind of success or resistance emerges from the speaker’s inability to adapt to this lifestyle, yet you also convey a sense of this speaker wanting to be a part of this suburban world, even if only a small part. Can you speak to this tension within the poem? Was there a balance beam you walked on during its composition in order to avoid being overly cynical?

In graduate school I lived in the upstairs apartment of what was once a beautiful home. Next door was a family of three. Since well before I arrived the family had been remodeling their barn-style house. In the front yard there was a pear tree, and a bucket below. There was a bulldog named Bumble that trotted around the yard, and a daughter who rode her tricycle past to the quiet intersection, and back. I watched as piles of new roofing arrived, and men scaled the gables, and crews painted the shudders blue, then yellow. I spent my two years watching a beautiful home become more beautiful.

Once school ended, I was turned down for a lecturer position in the English department, and adjunct positions, and couldn’t even get a coffee shop to call me back. I ran out of what little money I had, and it became clear that I would lose my apartment. I stood at my window one day, with tabs for jobs open on the screen of my computer, and I watched them all walk into the yard. I looked at myself, and I was jealous. And so I sat down, and found myself writing towards that envy. It’s true what you’re seeing in the poem, that the speaker would like to be a part of the suburban world, to feel comfort, but there’s something the speaker can’t quite figure, something seems to keep them at arms-length.

The job, then, was to find a way of elevating the landscape, the lexicon of the suburb, and have that match the beauty the speaker sees, without turning that voice into a tortured caricature—to balance the neighbor’s world against the speaker’s personal unknown. The cynicism was avoided because at the time I wrote it I was able to find so much inherent beauty in the place, and so when the descriptions came, they were genuine. I spent so long believing that the artist’s life is somehow nobler than that of others, and it’s simply not. It can be quite humiliating, and to me, pretty humbling.

Canisteo Invocation” presents a rural working-class environment as your speaker’s place of origin. Can you speak to any obstacles or difficulties you run into when presenting this kind of setting? In what ways do labor and class come into play within your work? How do you handle juxtaposing home versus where you find yourself now?

I grew up poor, living in a trailer off a dirt road in a small town named Adrian that has a population of about 60, and would later move down the road to Canisteo, NY, a population of a few thousand. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and it took me seven years to finish, for a lot of reasons. My grandfather worked on the Erie railroad until they shut it down, and he was forced to retire. Most of my family does factory work or is on disability. I come from the rust belt region, and my work wrestles with the poverty and landscape of the area, and if it isn’t explicit in a given poem of mine you stumble across, then there’s generally something of that past and that landscape that surfaces.

What’s always been troubling to me when I write about this environment is my own reaction, my own feelings toward my home, my background. I’ve been told over and over to write about this experience, and I resisted it for a long time because I had spent so many years distancing myself from my past, and was, frankly, embarrassed by it, and still am in many ways. Growing up I didn’t know if I’d ever leave. It seemed I was going to work at a factory, and if I got lucky, I’d teach high school around there. I look at other poets who write beautifully about their landscape, and I’ve always wanted to do so, but I find myself in opposition to mine.

I think, ultimately, the problem of writing about labor and class is how easily fetishized it is. How easily it can be boiled down to a gruff experience, some nuts and bolts—to present the working class in a way that seems holy, noble, or pastoral. I think an obstacle for me has been the opposite: to transcend an environment I fear, to find something universal in it, something human, and sometimes I’m not successful. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever truly am, but this was my reality, and I can’t change that. I have to say what happened. For me, this is what’s honest. What allows me to put black on white. “You write about the life that’s vividest,” as Mark Jarman wrote.

It’s been a lot easier to write about my past since moving to Greensboro. Being here has created an emotional distance that has helped access the parts of my past that are the most charged, and has helped own the landscape of my poetry: to name the river I swam in, the road my car passed down.

When I first starting getting poems looked at in graduate school I’d often hear, “I can’t tell if this poem is occurring in a physical or psychological landscape,” and it was meant as criticism, but to me that’s what poetry is all about—allowing the landscape to be embodied, and shaped by emotion. Landscape recalled is psychological landscape. It doesn’t exist as it did, and whatever you’re applying to that space as a writer is not purely physical. I’m always trying to have one toe in this reality, and a toe in another.

“Speaking to the Dead” is by far the most abstract of the five poems appearing in this issue. Would you mind talking about how the conception of this poem came about? And more broadly, how do you know when it will be fruitful to pursue a topic or an idea in your work?  

My manuscript-in-progress centers around a series of elegies written for my friend who took his own life. When I found out that he had died it was well before I started writing seriously, and I kept a notebook in which I’d sometimes write letters to him in. Nothing I said was especially profound. It was just innocuous little things that I had seen that day, what he had missed that particular morning, and for a while I had journals full of these observations. It took me seven years to write a coherent poem addressed to him, and when those dried up, I was resolved to have him speak again. I had found that in these elegies, so much had fallen on the living, and they’re so concerned with how he went, and where he is, and where I will one day go. In first writing the poem I was resolved to let him speak, but I couldn’t get past two images without the whole thing breaking down. But each time I’d give it a go, I would come back at the end of the hour with these snippets that seemed to have a charge, and so I tried to be more direct with him, to attempt conversation, and this is where the questions came from.

I can never know if a topic or idea is fruitful to pursue. Like most, I simply begin with an image, or a bit of line, and I try to generate a little heat off it, and I do my best to let the sound guide me. I prescribe to the idea that the poem is smarter than I am, and I do my best to listen to what it wants to do, rather than impose an idea, and sometimes, as is the case with this poem, it wanted to do something odd, so I let it be. James Dickey once said, “The most important ability a poet can have is the capacity to commit himself to his own inventions.” I try to leave myself open to possibility as much as I can.

Who are you reading now? Who are you excited to read next?

In front of me right now are Claude Before Time and Space by Claudia Emerson, Henri Cole’s Middle Earth, and Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis.

I’m so excited to read Sarah Rose Nordgren’s newest, Darwin’s Mother, Dissolve by Sherwin Bitsui, Miriam Bird Greenberg’s In the Volcano’s Mouth, and I’m really looking forward to American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes.

For fiction, I’m re-reading Tinkers by Paul Harding, and William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Who were your early literary influences? Have they stuck with you over the years? Whom do you return to the most?

My earliest influences were Mark Strand, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Ai, Virginia Woolf, H.D.,Wallace Stevens, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell.

The two of that group I return to most often are Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Mark Strand. Books that I read, and reread, are Blizzard of One by Strand, Paradise, Indiana by Bruce Snider, Blue Yodel by Ansel Elkins, Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa, When my Brother was an Aztec by Natialie Diaz, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard by Franz Wright, and Satan Says by Sharon Olds.

From a bit of cyber sleuthing I see you’ll begin a Stegner Fellowship starting in the fall of 2018. (Congratulations!) Are there any larger writing projects you are hoping to tackle over those two years? What are you most excited to pursue during your time there?

Thanks so much! While I’m there I’ll finish my first book, and I’m not thinking much beyond that right now. I’m taking it all a poem at a time at the moment. I’m most excited to not only finish the book, but to simply have the eyes and ears of the faculty and fellows. I’ve come a long way since I started writing, but I still have a lot yet to learn, and I’m eager to do so out there.