In Off the Coast’s interview series, we correspond with a writer about their latest book. This issue, we wrote to Colin Dodds.
Colin Dodds’s latest book is Spokes of an Uneven Wheel out last October from Main Street Rag. He grew up in Massachusetts and lived in California briefly, before finishing his education in New York City. Since then, he’s made his living as a journalist, editor, copywriter and video producer. His poems, short stories and essays have appeared in more than three hundred publications, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology. He has also directed a short film and built a twelve-foot-high pyramid out of PVC pipe, plywood and zip ties. One time, he rode his bicycle a hundred miles in a day. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter. You can find more of his work here.
A.E. Talbot: Spokes of an Uneven Wheel is your third book of poetry. How do you see this book in conversation with your earlier work?
Colin Dodds: You could call it my third book. But that depends on how you count it.
I had The Last Man on the Moon and The Blue Blueprint with Medium Rare Publishing in ‘02 and ‘04. Then I self-published Heaven Unbuilt in ‘11, mostly because I was worried those poems might blow away on the wind otherwise. Heaven Unbuilt is actually assembled from what were seven individual collections edited down. There’s another book, called That Happy Captive that was named a finalist for both the Trio House Press Louise Bogan Award and the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award. But it was never published. Ultimately, most of the the poems in Heaven Unbuilt and That Happy Captive—more than 500 of them—were published in just over 300 publications.
So that’s the bibliography. As for Spokes of an Uneven Wheel, it picks up a lot of the threads in those earlier works, develops them, while opening new questions. It’s an angrier book, with more of a polemical flavor to the poems in it. But it’s also a more hopeful collection.
A.T.: Off the Coast published some of your Spill-O poems. How did that character come about?
C.D.: Spill-O has been a consistent presence in my poetic work since 2001. I had experimented with persona poems, and included one in The Last Man on the Moon, where a kind of proto-Spill-O character named “Crispy” comes into play to handle the hairy pairing of grandiosity and self-destruction.
Crispy and Spill-O came into being because some things are hard to talk about. A poet feels things, does things, thinks things. If the poet says “I,” then the poet takes personal, social, and even political responsibility, and also confers some of that responsibility onto the reader. Responsibility corrupts. “I” has a way of making both parties cautious, defensive, especially when the stakes are high and the subject matter at hand requires irresponsibility. If the poet says “you,” it’s a big risk, and can result in very strong identification or outright repudiation by the reader or listener. Saying “we” is smarmy, dishonest or both, though I’m sure I’ve done it.
But when you and I talk about “that guy over there,” then the gloves come off. Suddenly we can be honest. More than that, our dishonesty takes on the sensational character of what we really feel. We can have fun at his expense.
The name Spill-O came about one night out. I seem to remember the night, actually. I was young, 24 or so, and working as a reporter. I carried around reporters’ notebooks in my back pocket to write while out on the town. Back then, I drank a lot, talked a lot, and gesticulated with great emphasis and rapidity while I talked. The ladies did not love it as much as you might think. Another result was that I spilled a lot of drinks.
That night, I was at the now-defunct Abbey, in Williamsburg, sitting at the bar, when I spilled what must have been my third beer of the night. I wasn’t even that drunk, so it was more funny than anything that I kept spilling these beers. I took out my notebook and wrote “Spill-O, they called him.” It seemed right. Living in New York, trying to be cool, or at least competent; trying to triumph, or at least survive; trying to create a small amount of beauty, or at least not completely disgrace myself. But it seemed I was messing up all over the place, saying and doing all these regrettable things, just spilling everywhere.
A switch to the third person creates a lot of freedom. “That other guy, over there” allows freedom from accuracy, freedom from the mawkish coercion that comes with confessing, the raw braggadocio of frat-party war story, or the “let’s all bow our heads” vibe of a recovery narrative. The poet can tell the story they choose, and take from it what they wish. That’s why Spill-O persists.
A.T.: Of the poets who have persona poems, whose work has influenced yours the most?
C.D.: John Berryman was big for me when I was young. I liked his Dream Songs, and Henry, though I haven’t gone back to them in a while. Oddly, what killed him for me was reading his biography.
But I liked how loose the Dream Songs are. I liked how he could judge and even condemn his alter ego so lightly, and move on like nothing happened, at least in the poems. In a lot of ways he showed me the possibilities that a persona could open up.
A.T. Are you still writing Spill-O poems?
C.D. I’m working on a batch now. There are always actions, feelings and ideas better explored by—and attributed to—that guy over there.
A.T. It seems fairly common for writers to write move between poetry and nonfiction, but less so between those genres and film. Do you think the visual and dialogue-driven nature of film has informed your other writing?
C.D. I’m a writer. I’ve written video games. I’ve written prospectus documents for investors. I’ve written parenting essays. I’ve written everything except my name on the back of a big check.
But screenwriting was a big education for me. It wasn’t so much in the dialogue, though. I’d written plays in college, and there’s a lot of dialogue in my novels. The difference in screenwriting had more to do with two factors - the physicality of it all, and the need to motivate the viewer to know what happens next.
In a good movie, everyone’s inner life - their fears, hopes and desires - has to play out in a visual way. In a book, there can be tens of thousands of words that could never even appear in a film, except through a ham-handed voiceover, or which gets boiled down to the shot of the character staring out the window of a moving car. But a good film requires that even the most subtle epiphany be acted out in a way everyone can see.
At the same time, the movie needs to quickly either inflict sympathetic damage that the viewer needs to heal through the narrative, or or to raise a question they need to answer. A script has very few words to do this. It’s a demanding genre, and there’s so much blank space on those script pages that it’s hard for a writer to hide.
Screenwriters get glory for razor-sharp dialogue. But their best and hardest work comes in contriving new ways to make the internal and invisible into something visible and relatable.
A.T.: Despite never wanting to answer this question, I’ll ask it of you: do you have a new project in the works yet?
C.D. I just finished a novel a few months ago, and I’m still knocking on doors with that. Mostly though, I’m closing in on the later edits of a new book of poems, which I hope to finish by the end of summer. I’m also co-directing, co-shooting, and acting in a short film that I wrote. Lastly, I’ve been working with a bunch of very talented actual actors and narrators to produce audiobooks of my novels. An audiobook version of What Smiled at Him just came out last week, and I hope it will give that misunderstood book another chance at life.
A.T. What’s your favorite under-appreciated book?
C.D.: Corpse & Mirror by John Yau is pretty great, and I never seem to see it around.
* * * *
Four poems from Colin Dodds
(The Spill-O Plot)
The limestone heights that promised
glory and consequence in a glance
gave way to stacks of assets without significance
All the good letters wasted in dumb words
Ahead of a time that never came
Spill-O plotted, scrimped and saved in strange arenas
to slice open the gut of the sun, and loose
the torrent of blood yolk
I want to hear a masterpiece
at my tribunal, he said
The scared child
doesn’t want to be safe or loved when he grows up
He wants to be the nightmare
(Spill-O’s Afternoon in the Parted Sea)
Humidity mumbles, sneaky heat
Bums crumble, donut vendors turn their backs
No one comes head on but one blur-eyed young man
patched in mismatched scabs at the cart
that sells chicken for a pittance, but not free
He calls Spill-O rich, again and again
then chases after a matching lady charging
down the sidewalk headlong, every direction wrong
demanding good vibes
Park Avenue like a parted sea
Yellow cabs of Pharaoh’s army stalled and honking
Traffic and sympathy mingle
in a garbage-fogged interview
for a job no one could desire
A prophet-bearded bum brushes
past the vindictive glare of a fashion model
in a brotherhood of man no man can be comfortable with
The hotdog man has nightmares too
whittled with curses in a small midtown courtyard
mercifully zoned and carelessly built
among corporate headquarters and hindquarters
in the let’s-get-this-over-with afternoon
Familiar events and characters
creep back to their original positions
and muggy, kaleidoscopic reincarnation
boils like a tidal wave above the foliage
of criminals, geniuses, underground dragon wranglers
to reveal a face
that no booze will blot, no holy text reinterpret,
nor forced march into strangeness overturn
Spill-O knows that face
and its lowest inhabitable name
—unpronounceable only for as long
as he possesses the strength
(Spill-O on the Great Screw)
The forest fire’s almost out
when Spill-O’s rental car gets there
Emergency Services reopens the highway a lane at a time
The sunset speeds a tightening screw
so gentle memories of green, young, wild love
distil and invert to dim-lit signs for chain stores
and dire warnings about tire chains
Not drunk or young enough
to keep the days from fastening
Spill-O discovers himself screwed into the world
so that each minor triumph and dewy desire
steals a little more wiggle
All his time is a crying baby—hungry, half-coherent
more alive than he can often muster to meet
Every made-up transgression and sought-after nightmare
is a pale tourist compared to what strolls
down the street plain and unbidden
In the valley, women wander past, talking
mountaintops, countertops and violas
No psalms for his qualms, the staff of Hermes
on the side of a parked ambulance
catches Spill-O’s eye
The threads of that screw are serpents
and the screw
(Spill-O, The Galaxier)
Intergalactic negotiations continue
under cover of pitch-dark dullness
Eight million grunting consciousnesses
accelerate the spaceship town
where Spill-O rents his patch of mercy
to 22,000 years per day
The all-consuming blind spot at the distant center
murmurs like a bad heart
that it too is just another disguise
You kids forgot the force field,
says a curb-jumping bus, a drunk stranger, a bill in the mail
a voice in the heavens
Seeking shelter in a movie
a cute swarm of lights
envelops the horizon and skins the earth
Spill-O runs down the escalator
As the surface of the planet melts
he staggers bleary to the bathroom
appreciating the incredible quaint comforts
of even the most ham-handed incarnation
submitting to the thrall of a screen memory
stitching together Higgs bosons
on a Singer sewing machine
to conceal his nakedness