Collin Kelley is the author of three poetry collections and his first novel, Conquer Venus, comes out next month. He blogs regularly at Modern Confessional and was nice enough to answer some questions about the process, the internet, and identity politics.
I know you love American Idol so, to start things off, how would you introduce yourself to Paula Abdul?
Can I have some of whatever you’re drinking from that cup at the judge’s table?
Your poem “Credentials” begins: “I sit at a table with four famous poets / but only one acknowledges my presence.” Do you think that opening speaks to the way a lot of people, Americans in particular, feel about poetry?
I think the majority of Americans could give a damn about poetry. Some might be able to name Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, but most Americans couldn’t name a contemporary poet to save their lives. A few times a year, some think piece on the death of poetry appears in a mainstream magazine or newspaper, which pushes it further away from the mainstream, meanwhile the poets live in a bubble full of egos, jockeying for position and a glut of writing programs. I don’t think poetry will ever rise to literary prominence in America again unless poets can step outside the po’biz circle jerk and reconnect to the populace. There’s a perception that you can’t be a “real” poet unless you’ve got an MFA, hold a teaching position or have collections published by a handful of “worthy” houses. Jorie Graham calls for more difficult, impenetrable work while Ted Kooser is vilified for being too “accessible.” Luckily, there are poets and small/micro presses trying to leapfrog this bullshit, but it’s an uphill battle. I’m thinking of the bubble as a giant snow globe where all the flakes have settled to the bottom. It needs a good shake.
You’ve published three poetry collections & a spoken word album, and you have a novel, Conquering Venus, coming out later this Summer. How was the experience of writing a novel different from your past projects? In particular, how did you manage to transition from a form as concise as poetry to something as expansive as a novel?
Sometimes I think of Conquering Venus as a long narrative poem. The main character is a poet, so his work appears in the novel and I tried to find a rhythm in the sentences, scenes and dialogue. The novel has a dream-like quality and heightened sense of language and place that I think many readers will recognize as poetry. I had tried a number of times to write a novel, but I could barely eek out a short story, much less a novel. I tend to write short, so allowing myself to think bigger, write long, flowing sentences was liberating.
If I read one more blog post or essay about how the Internet is sucking away writing time, I’m taking hostages. It’s called time management, folks. If you want to sit on Facebook all night playing Mafia Wars or telling us what your “twitascope” for the day is, be my guest, but please stop bitching and moaning about it. If writers haven’t figured out that the future of writing is on the Internet, they need buy a vowel and solve the puzzle. The exposure available online is limitless. There’s an opportunity to bring thousands – maybe millions – to your work, and I’m guessing that before the end of my life, the majority of people will be reading books on devices like Kindle or iPhones. There needs to be a sea change about what we hold sacred as tangible. I love to hold a book in my hand, but I’m also aware that the kids coming up today are not as nostalgic. They want convenience and choice. What’s to be lost as we move literature into the digital world? Money, of course. There’s a debate right now between Amazon and publishing houses about the prices for Kindle downloads. You pay $20-plus dollars for the physical book or download it instantly for $10. The authors – no surprise – get screwed in the deal, so here needs to be some kind of parity on sales and royalties. Again, it comes down to tangibility.
I’m always interested in the process of creating a poem. Everyone has a different approach. How do poems come together for you? Do you have a routine?
A poem is usually inspired by a phrase that pops into my head, or maybe even a couple of lines. Lately, dreams and films inspire my poems. I don’t have a routine. The idea of getting up at 4 a.m. every morning and making yourself write poetry sounds like torture to me, yet I know a number of writers who do this. I have no routine. Sometimes the lines or phrases percolate in my head for a few days before I finally sit down to write. I’m working almost exclusively on the computer now. The last two or three poems I’ve written, I started during my lunch hour and I emailed the drafts to myself.
What would you say are some of the recurring themes in your work? What idea seems to keep rising to the surface?
Lost love, lost time, adultery, closet cases, pop culture from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the disappointment of superheroes.
Did a particular writer or piece of literature get you to start writing in the first place?
Anne Sexton, Stan Rice, Sharon Olds and Margaret Atwood are my poetry godparents. Their work made me want to write my own poetry. For fiction, it’s Jeanette Winterson, Don Delillo, Toni Morrison and John Irving who have inspired that side of my writing life. I love that they tell these big, sprawling stories and suck you completely into different reality. I hope that’s what I’ve done with Conquering Venus.
What writers have you been reading lately? And who should we be reading?
Despite the fact that I’ve been writing mostly fiction lately, I’ve been reading mostly poetry. Cecilia Woloch, Brent Goodman, Sara Maclay and Karen Head are musts.
Finally, what does it mean to be a gay man who writes poetry?
There’s been a hot debate on many web sites and blogs about “gay poets” that I have refused to become embroiled in. I don’t consider myself a “gay poet.” I don’t write “gay poetry or “gay fiction.” This discussion is well past its sell-by date, in my opinion. I write poetry and fiction. Period. Being a gay man informs the work, but my poetry often has nothing to do with homosexuality. There are gay characters in Conquering Venus, but there are also strong heterosexual ones, too. I don’t want categorize myself to make it convenient for labeling me as a writer. I am passionate about civil, human and LGBT rights. Eight years under Bush and Co. brought out my activist side, and now politics are a regular topic on my blog. My chapbook, After the Poison, is all political poetry written post 9/11. Being a gay man who writes poetry in 2009 is an opportunity to reach a bigger audience, to ignite debate, to be subversive to, hopefully, change minds