Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Sometimes Her Arms Bend Back

I could never solve the mystery of you,
so we dance, whisper our secrets,
stop motion tango.
We linger in a black and white and red
purgatory, weighted down by velvet,
where a little man snaps out our future.
Maybe we are both dead, maybe
twenty-five years is really just a blink,
fades like the taste of my favorite gum.
Your hair is dark, mine is gray,
we never met before tonight, but
you look like her,
so I make your arms bend back,
pull you against me and we dance,
carve my name under your nails.
It's happening again, a sharp jazz note,
talk backwards, girl...speak my language.
Let's rock.

– Collin Kelley

From the Twin Peaks-inspired anthology, A Slice of Cherry Pie (The Private Press, edited by Ivy Alvarez). Twin Peaks premiered 25 years ago tonight. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Social media, bullying and poetry critique

The business of words keeps me awake...
Last night, Georgia Center for the Book kindly selected my poem, "Saving Anne Sexton," to lead off its Poem-A-Day project to mark National Poetry Month. Shortly after it was posted on Facebook, a number of readers took offense to the poem. The comments were strongly worded, but polite. I explained that my intent was to praise Sexton, not victimize her. I apologized for any offense, my metaphors not landing and contemplated having the poem removed.

Then I saw the critique by Kia Alice Groom and Sonya Vatomsky – the two commenters on Facebook who were opposed to the language I used in the poem – posted at their online literary magazine, Quaint. That led to my discovery of their personal comments on Twitter. Both Groom and Vatomsky were dabbling in what is known as "subtweeting," one of the methods used by cyber-bullies. Rather than include my Twitter name in their comments to address me directly, they were doing so among their followers. I found it cowardly to personally attack me and not have the courage to include me in their actual bullying. That's when I decided to withdraw my apology and informed Georgia Center for the Book to keep the poem on Facebook.

The subtweets labeled me as a "broet," (I would love to know what that term means, since it obviously wasn't a compliment) a "misogynist," a "stupid idiot" and gleeful postings about "taking me down" and "tag teaming a stupid broet." This kind of language undermines any kind of valuable critique offered by Groom and Vatomsky at Quaint or my willingness to engage with them. Their social media comments prove that this was an exercise in cyber-bullying gussied up as critique. They close down discussion or debate by using language that is meant to demean and silence the artist. More on that in a moment.

Both Groom and Vatomsky said they did not know my work or me – I was just going to be the next privileged cis white male who needed to be taken down a peg or two. Ironically, they overlooked their own white privilege while claiming ownership and possession not only of Sexton's body of work, but her physical body as well. Their colonization of Sexton is far more patronizing, dehumanizing and silencing of the woman they claim is a "dead girl" victim of misogyny. Referring to Sexton as a girl, infantilizing her to make her part of their coterie, removes her power as an artist and woman. As they have similarly accused the poem, Vatomsky and Groom graft their own words, actions and thoughts onto Sexton also robbing her of her agency.

Perhaps the most damning tweet was in response to poet Emily Van Duyne: "Well, it's clear you don't get his metaphor. Probably no white man should ever speak again. That would fix this." Groom's response: "True." The wish to silence an artist – no matter their gender, race, orientation, faith – speaks volumes. It's a dangerous mindset and flies in the face of Vatomsky and Groom's argument. When another poet, Hannah Stephenson, objected to Groom and Vatomsky's language, they were both quick to claim their comments weren't personal. All evidence to the contrary.

Yes, the poem is open for interpretation, but Vatomsky and Groom go much further. The parsing of every line and metaphor in search of misogyny is one thing, but the duo's appropriation of the poem to play out some twisted necrophilia on Sexton is quite another.

The most disgusting part of the critique is the bizarre, sexualized imagery created by Vatomsky and Groom of exhuming Sexton's corpse. The use of the words “pristine” and “tight covers” seems particularly problematic, but are just further examples of a deliberate misreading of the poem. Both those words belong to the book selling trade, especially used and antiquarian books. Pristine is defined as a book in original condition, unchanged in any way. Tight covers are used to describe a book that's binding has not loosened to the point that pages will fall out. I plead guilty to the love of rare books and its nomenclature. Even the image of Sexton autographing the book is declared too intimate and the further sexualization of a dead woman. This section of the post goes beyond critique and into grotesque, craven autopsy. My "saving" Sexton was little more than an effort to "fuck, save and dismember" her, according to Groom.

The poem also, according to the assessment, tries to rob Sexton of her agency to commit suicide. If I were a time traveller, would I try to prevent Sexton from killing herself? Yes. Just as I would try to prevent someone – anyone – else from doing the same. The mind-boggler here is that general care and concern, according to Groom and Vatomsky, are just further examples of a man dehumanizing and humiliating a woman. According to Groom, suicide intervention shows a "lack of regard for women, and particularly for women poets." I wonder if the same holds true for my wanting to keep John Berryman and Paul Celan alive for a few more years?

If this is contemporary criticism and I'm out of touch with it, I will happily stay out of touch forever. This incident has also taught me a lesson that a personal experience doesn't always translate and that some people will interpret your experience to match their own solipsism.

As a gay man from blue-collar rural Georgia who is often dismissed from certain literary circles because he is not an academic, I am well aware of how demoralizing marginalization is – perhaps this is why my work so often attempts to give voice where there has been none. I will continue to give that voice, and precisely because of this kerfluffle I will continue to do so loudly. Thank you for reading this.

Update:  More thoughts on this in my conversation with poet Reb Livingston at Queen Mob's Teahouse at this link.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

National Poetry Month

I am thrilled and honored to be one of 23 poets featured on banners hanging along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, CA for National Poetry Month. To say I'm among greatness is an understatement: Rafael Campo, Marilyn Chin, Cheryl Clarke, Toi Derricotte, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, Teka-Lark Fleming, Amy Gerstler, Eloise Klein Healy, Marie Howe, Michael Klein, Dorianne Laux, W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Steven Reigns, Luis J. Rodriguez, Mike Sonksen, David Trinidad, Quincy Troupe and Terry Wolverton. That's incredible company to be hanging with along Santa Monica Boulevard! The poets were selected for the Lamppost Poet Project created by Steven Reigns, WeHo's inaugural City Poet. I'll be heading to LA later this month for a special reading to celebrate the Lamppost project on Saturday, April 25, 4 p.m. at the West Hollywood Library. You can find out more at this link.

While I'm in LA, I'll be a guest on radio station KPFK 90.7 FM with Steven Reigns on Monday, April 27, at 7 p.m. talking about the Lamppost project and my reading with Steven at The Ugly Mug on April 29  down in Orange, CA.

Also be sure to join me and Deborah Ager on Sunday, April 5, at 9 p.m. EST for the #poetparty on Twitter. Our special guest will be award-winning poet John Poch. Just follow the hashtag and join the conversation.

And below is a recording of my poem "In Tavistock Square" that Flycatcher published last year and kindly nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

West Hollywood Lamppost Poets Project

West Hollywood City Poet Steven Reigns
I am thrilled to announce that I am one of 23 poets chosen for the West Hollywood Lamppost Poet Project. My face and a line of my poetry will appear on a banner along Santa Monica Boulevard during National Poetry Month in April. The project was conceived by Steven Reigns, who was recently inaugurated as West Hollywood's first City Poet. It's a brilliant way to get poetry in front of the thousands of people who drive, walk and bike along Santa Monica Boulevard on a daily basis.

A special reading to celebrate the project will be held on April 25 at 4 p.m. at the West Hollywood Library, 625 N. San Vicente Boulevard. I'll be reading with fellow lamppost poets Teka-Lark Fleming, Amy Gerstler, Eloise Klein Healy, Michael Klein, Terry Wolverton and Steven. The full list of poets who will be featured on the lampposts will be revealed soon!

Find out more about the reading at this link.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

From the air

this continent is a jigsaw puzzle,
full of shapes and patterns –
perfect squares of farmland
and alien crop circles.

And from space
the cities are cathedrals of light –
points of navigation to guide us
when the road is hidden in darkness.

Up here, no one questions
your patriotism, your beliefs,
who you have chosen to love –
those are earthbound concerns.

Get up, off the ground, take wing
or you’ll never see the whole –
the patchwork nation we truly are
held together by invisible string.

A quilt is only as sturdy as the fabric
and the seamster’s precise fingers –
the needle pulled high and taut
before plunging back into layers.

Don’t be afraid to prick your finger
and always prick up your ears
when others try to define your freedom –
my darlings, there will always be blood.

Written on the occasion of the 17th annual Blended Heritage celebration at the Fayette County Public Library. The theme of this year's event was Patchwork Nation.

Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional

Welcome to Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional, the website for poet, novelist, playwright and journalist Collin Kelley.