America’s Promise: Community College of Philadelphia at 50

The premiere blog of all things Philly––publishes my take on the challenges as CCP looks ahead to another fifty years. Read by clicking on this link.

“As CCP looks to the future, changes are afoot. The college has a nationally recognized Reentry Support Project that has helped over 500 students with criminal records meet academic goals. It provides a growing number of study abroad opportunities, and classroom designs are currently being overhauled in a push to make the college’s facilities world class. To attract new foreign students, CCP hopes to build student housing and retail space…”

[Source: Wikimedia Commons]

[Picture source: Wikimedia Commons]




Poetry Means Making: The Empathy Machine

A Process Essay

EmpathyPartTwo24BeeAnArtistGameNEW 001


In working on “The Empathy Machine”, a visual essay on poetics recently published by Cleaver Magazine, I wrote and drew part 1 in the summer of 2015, and finished part 2 on the kitchen table over a snowy January weekend. Part two was much longer than part 1, which had CleaverFaceIssue-13-Front-500-px-1been subtitled A Visual Narrative on the Poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith. Part 2 expanded on those musings into something that took the form of an ars poetica. (You can read part 2 here.) For a long time, the ideas had been stewing in my imagination and coming to life in my sketchpad. But there comes a point when you have to pull it all together, even if that means doing so with tools as simple as glue sticks, a watercolor set, and some Faber Castell artist pens.


IMG_4877What appeared as part 1 in issue #11 of Cleaver started off as a series of New Yorker-style cartoons calling out poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s for his insensitivity in turning the autopsy report of Michael Brown into a performance piece. I was angry. I was MAD. I cmadouldn’t understand how the “material” Goldsmith was performing and the poetry I was writing could all supposedly fall into the same genre. Other people were outraged, too, and when Vanessa Place, Michael Derrick Hudson, and Sherman Alexie entered the equation it all built to a critical mass. (It didn’t hurt that Goldsmith, with his penchant for wild suits and his long beard, was a fun figure to draw.) The anger and energy I felt proved to be a vehicle for me to look outward and inward, a way to ask myself questions to guide me in terms of future art-making, whether that be in words or pictures (or the two combined). Karen Rile, Editor-in-Chief, and Raymond Rorke, Art Editor, would prove invaluable to me along the way in terms of critical feedback.

Goldsmith cartoon-McQuain-draft 1



As new ideas came to me, I found that working in a  “New Yorker” style wasn’t going to cut it. The project was opening up into an essay, stretching its shoulders, wanting more space.

My thoughts tend to bounce around in a ricochet, one idea playing off another. I decided my method needed to be old school (literally “cut and paste”) as well as very personal: a journal style to match my journey. I’m a huge fan of cartoonist Lynda Barry, and I’ve followed her work for years, even reviewing some of her early comic strip collections. Using legal pads — which Barry did in What It Is, her fantastic meditation on image-making — proved extremely liberating. Cheap paper gave me a freedom with the material aspect of the project. More color began to enter the drawings as I dug out the paints and Prismacolor pencils I had accumulated over the years. Why hadn’t I been using them? What had I been saving them for? For this?

Over Christmas, through a New Year’s Day plagued with a head cold, and well into a January snowstorm, I made steady progress toward the end of the project. My partner and I did not eat at the kitchen table for weeks.

As I was working on the project, David Bowie died. I loved Bowie, a grand statesman of the ’80s British Invasion that I loved, and so much more. Bowie became another of the visual homages that the narrative called for. Others included Keith Haring’s pop art from the 1980s, haringPulloutwhich seemed to be everywhere back when I was coming out (and is long overdue for a resurgence in popularity). Another inspiration was the current  plight of the honeybee in the face of colony collapse disorder. The list goes on: GaMonsterPullOutnesh and Cthulhu and Superman; Calvin & Hobbes cartoons; the art of activist Rini Templeton, whose brilliant drawings I happily discovered by way of Christopher Soto’s poetry book, Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press). Templeton’s image suggested connectivity and transformation to me, and were ripe to combine with the image of a mermaid, a sometimes-symbol of the trans community as well as a symbol of the connection between humankind and nature. Other allusions included The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, which I smermaidPulloutaw once in the Michener collection at the Honolulu Museum in Hawai’i. Most importantly, I relied on a sketchbook filled with faces of the inspirational people I met during the summer of 2015 at the Crosstalk, Color, Composition conference, the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. To those  amazing people and their inspiring words, I am grateful. I am changed.

In terms of negative inspirations, I’ve been bothered by this era’s bad habit of people anonymously attacking one another through social media channels when they disagree, and how if anyone critiques that practice he or she is quickly accused of toGoldsmithPulloutne-policing or censorship. I understand that anonymity is an appealing veil when one fears for personal safety, but we also diminish our nobility on occasions when we don’t fight fair. If you ask me, there is enough micro-aggression going around these days that it all very quickly adds up to full-sized aggression. Such tactics should be used with caution. That might sound funny coming from someone who has taken a number of shots at Goldsmith and Place, but I also believe in the power of satire as a vehicle for critique and an instrument for social change. Certainly there are voices that get too often heard, and certainly we need new platforms to raise up those voices needing better representation. Yet every time I see a dialogue opportunity get crushed, I hear the creak of more minds closing.


Poetry is essentially about making. It’s a messy process, and one often feels pulled in different directions at once, torn by competing ideologies.

What did I learn about image making? Poems and visual art rely on images, and these images are not always seen with our eyes but with our mind. Ezra Pound described an image as an “interpretative metaphor” or “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”.  I think sometimes images can be sounds. Or smells. Or things we touch or things that touch us. These images take us on a journey that at times feels circular and difficult, an uneasy game–but that path is not without purpose. 
EmpathyProcessOn a practical level, I found it useful to lay my pages out on the floor in order to get a sense of narrative flow and design. l was reminded how easily paper crinkles when watercolor is added, and that sometimes you need to make your better half gently iron pages the way Carson the butler irons the Earl of Grantham’s newspaper on Downton Abbey. I learned that there are probably better glue sticks out there than the ones Staples sells, and that there is great  joy to be found in the smudge-proof nib of a good Faber Castell drawing pen.

I learned that even with ironing it is best to have heavy books on hand to continue flattening your pages prior to scanning. I combined the weight of an atlas, Chip Kidd’s Batman Collected, and a collection of nude studies by photographer George Platt Lynes for a little extra frisson.

In my work, I’ve often felt pulled in many directions at once, that my different art-making impulses compete with each other. This has often left me frustrated. In teasing out the reasons why I think art-making should be viewed as an empathy machine, I learned that what I’ve feared can also be a strength. That the mistakes of others can teach us almost as much as the mistakes we make on our own. I’ve learned that hybrid, ekphrastic constructs bring great satisfaction. Along the way, I developed an Empathy Credo to guide my future making. It might not be the same approach as yours, and my own credo might change and evolve over time. Most of all, this project reminded me that poetry—and all art—is in the making, that the key to overcoming obstacles can be found in the words “try” and “do”.

Now I need to go get busy. What about you?

How Do We Pollinate Identity? The Empathy Machine, Part 2

MonsterPullOutGanesh, Cthulhu, Keats and honeybees! Sherman Alexie, Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and the Muppets!  What can this strange mash-up teach us about the pitfalls and triumphs of poetry and art-making? Part two of my comix essay, The Empathy Machine, is out now. Click here! It’s a hybrid graphic narrative I’ve worked on for Cleaver Magazine, a meditation on art-making, poetics, identity and appropriation. There’s even a board game you can play. You can read last fall’s part 1 of the project at the link below if you missed it (the Cleaver editors nominated it to Best American Essays!)
Make sure to link to the cartoon version. Cleaver published a text version as well for the visually impaired and for search engines that can’t (yet?) read comix.

Every Sentence Is a Question

For my teacher friends, the last half of this article poses some interesting methods on developing flow in student paragraphs.

The Incompetent Writer

Me, teaching
If you teach Composition, or a general essay-writing class, perhaps you worry that your students don’t always make clear, easy to follow arguments.

Perhaps they hand in essays that often — to put it bluntly — don’t make sense. Their papers may display some interesting ideas; the students may appear to have worked hard and done some real research. Yet when you read those papers, sentence by sentence, you have to stop and scratch your head before you understand the logic of what they are trying to say.

If this is the case, read on: this post is for you.

This is the sixth post in the series: How I Teach College-Level Writing.

The previous posts are here:

  1. The Intro
  2. The Theories
  3. The Diagnosis
  4. Why I Teach Cool
  5. The Essay, The Problem

(Thank you to everyone who has read the posts so far!)

Now, I’d like to…

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The Spray-painted Underbelly of Undulating Umbrellas: Bigotry and Complicity underneath the Glitter of the Mummers

Generally, I’m all for the working class and a big fan of folk festivals, but the Philadelphia Mummers get a black eye this year. On one hand, the newly added Philadelphia brigade allowed Latinos and drag queens and others to join the festivities. On the other hand, a few established groups are mocking the trans community and women and otherwise showing their general unenlightenment. The Mummers can do better, and in this WordPress essay Jeff Markovitz explains how.

Jeffrey S. Markovitz

It has been thus far well documented how much an abomination much of the Mummers parade has become for Philadelphia and the United States as a whole.  The abject, unapologetic, and pathetic display of racism, misogyny, and homo/transphobia illustrated by many New Year’s Associations are threatening to the very fabric of our democratic society.  Every year, we—as Philadelphians—have to be embarrassed by the hordes of draconian “tradition” who bum rush the PHL 17 cameras, undulating umbrellas bobbing like the booze in bellies, while their children learn how to hate.

To be clear, I’ve never liked the Mummers.  Maybe that one time I had a friend who lived on Two Street and we watched Penske box trucks blaring “Who Let the Dogs Out” (ten years after that was cool) while face-painted celebrants threw Pabst tallboys to everyone in the crowd (including kids) and the police just stood there smirking.  Maybe, at…

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Shelter In Place

#ShelterInPlace #GunViolence #CampusShooting
Earlier during the fall 2015 term, my students and I were in lockdown at the college where I teach due to a suspected gunman. The multiple mass shootings endured by the country recently have me revisiting what it felt like that day. This essay originally appeared in Think Tank at (Oct. 15, 2015) and later in The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday paper.

Think Tank: At CCP, students and teacher endure lockdown

“Shelter in place,” came the texts and the robocalls on Oct. 6 when I was teaching my morning English class. Someone with a gun had been reported on campus.


Our inadvertent class mascot. He (she?) seems to be doing okay.

I didn’t know that at first. The guard who first stopped by my door to tell me to keep my students in place seemed subdued. He made no mention of a gun, and from his demeanor I imagined whatever was happening might just as easily be a medical emergency. I’ve had students have seizures in class; I know it’s important to keep people out of the way when help is needed.

Our class had about a half-hour left. I wanted to keep rolling. Run-ons and comma splices don’t teach themselves.

I called on a young woman in back by the window, a student whose attention I usually have to reel in. “I can’t concentrate,” she told me. “There’s all these helicopters outside!” I glanced out our second-floor window but couldn’t see for the trees.

That’s when text messages started arriving on my students’ phones via our campus alert system. A few also received messages from concerned family members who were watching what was happening on TV. It was through these outside sources that we learned of a possible gunman. I felt out of the loop.

Luckily, I teach in a smart classroom. I logged on to a local news station and we watched the drama live-stream via computer projector. My students were getting anxious, and I wanted them quiet and focused. I shuttered the blinds. I turned off the lights. I told them they could stand by the wall where they couldn’t be seen from the door. Most did. At some point two SWAT officers with rifles came by and did a head check but told us nothing.

Our lockdown came a day after the FBI and ATF warned of a threat at “an unspecified university near Philadelphia.” That threat was posted on 4chan, an anonymous Internet board also used for lesser malfeasances — like uploading celebrity nude photos. More dire was the recent news of shootings in Oregon at Umpqua Community College, which left nine people and the gunman dead — and there would be two more shootings later that week, at Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University.

For many of my students, guns are a regular part of their lives. I’ve read countless personal narratives of how gun violence affects them: the drive-by casualties, the friends jailed. A beloved cousin who was shot on the sidewalk as a former student watched helplessly from her front steps.

“Can’t you lock the door?” asked the young woman who sits in back. She was in a tight cluster of her peers now.

“The door doesn’t lock,” I told her, feeling helpless.

“Can’t we barricade it?”

I’d already checked. “The door opens into the hall,” I said. “We can’t barricade it from inside.”

In my head I was wryly thinking #ThingsTheyNeverTaughtYouInGradSchool.

I urged my students again to be quiet, to stay away from the door and windows. But crowd-controlling anxious freshmen is like herding cats. I finally received official word about the emergency via a campus robocall to my cellphone a few minutes before 11 a.m.

We waited in our classroom roughly an hour and a half more. I spent that time talking to my students and fielding email messages. One student in my afternoon class wrote: “Is today’s class canceled because of the gunman? I just want to be sure before I don’t show up.” On our projector, my students and I watched a handcuffed suspect being led out of another building. Finally, amid complaints of bursting bladders, I watched my students go.

The class I teach on Tuesdays combines composition with reading across academic disciplines. It’s also a course in acquiring college survival skills. Students are trained in comprehension and learning strategies. We talk about theories of metacognition and how the brain processes and stores data, all in hopes my students apply more effective practices to their studies.

In an age when our very thoughts are increasingly winnowed into hashtags and tweets, I struggle to get my students to become deep thinkers capable of focused, sustained inquiry. I try to keep their attention off cellphones and onto the task at hand. But clearly social media has its place in classroom safety.

Later I learned colleagues in other classrooms had begun text-message chains, comparing notes about what was going on. In conversations since, some instructors say they’d like to see metal detectors at every door. Others groan at the thought of reminding our students there’s one less place they can feel secure.

On Thursday, when my students and I next met, we discussed what happened. We’d read that no gun had been found, that charges had been dropped. The scare seemed to have bonded them.

Our college’s new president held open forums the day after the incident to discuss security. I followed suit, asking my students what they would like to see happen. Already the college is beefing up security, which includes checking IDs at building entryways all day as opposed to after 5 p.m. and on Saturdays, which was the previous standard.

“We need guards with actual guns,” one young man suggested.

Temple and Penn have armed police, I told him, but in all my years at the college I couldn’t recall seeing an armed security guard. “Hiring better security costs money,” I said. “A third of our budget is supposed to come from the city, another third from the state — but that hasn’t been the case. Tuition has to make up the rest. How do we pay for it?”

The young man shrugged. Someone again suggested metal detectors, but others said that would only bottleneck entryways. A couple suggested searching bags and backpacks. It became clear to me that what millennials are willing to concede is different than what I am as a Generation Xer.

To be clear, I am not an institutional spokesperson. I’ll look to the wisdom of my college’s administration about how best to revise policies as threats change in the 21st century. But as a taxpayer and citizen, I want my students to feel secure. One way to help offset budget deficiencies from the city and state might be to dedicate local or state police to cover college security.

Eventually another commotion outside the window caught my students’ attention. Great, I thought. Another interruption.

But it was only a hyperactive squirrel, busy building its winter nest. For a moment, I wondered whether I should call physical plant to see if they could knock the distraction away.

Or should I let the squirrel shelter in place?

Winter’s coming. I hope it stays.


The Community College of Philadelphia was on lockdown on Oct. 6 after a report of a man entering a building with a gun. Philadelphia police later said a suspect was taken into custody but no gun was recovered.

Kelly McQuain is a poet who teaches English and communication arts at Community College of Philadelphia.


Are Santa and Sinterklaas the same character?

Last year I was part of a Facebook discussion thread where JH Cové, a Dutch anthropologist, took to task someone who equated the two: He wrote, “The Dutch Sinterklaas, or Sint Nicolaas, has nothing to do with Christmas. It is celebrated on Dec. 5th [the20141228-192559-69959348.jpg eve of St. Nicholas’s Feast Day], after which he goes back to Spain, and Christmas preparations can begin all over Holland. He’s got his own songs, his own history (from Myra, Turkey, correct), and, these days, is rivaled by Santa Claus (or Father Christmas or Papa Noel). I’m sure there are anthropologists that find connections somewhere—and there is a resemblance in the fact that they both use chimneys (who came up with that first?), even though in Holland Santa Claus doesn’t!—but take it from this Dutch anthropologist, they’re very different.”


A lot of strong Dutch pride there. My take? Santa and Sinterklaas both share the same Catholic saint as their inspiration, and Santa derives from the Dutch version via the Dutch immigrants arriving in the New York area in the 1600/1700s. Without Sinterklaas, and perhaps without Father Christmas from England, there would be no modern Santa, since he is essentially a mash-up of the two. It’s true, Sinterklaas and Santa have markedly different personalities in the way they are portrayed. I think of them as cousins, or brothers in the Yuletide spirit.

Someone else in the conversation brought up the Dutch customs surrounding the black men mentioned in the David Sedaris story “Six to Eight Black Men” (from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim). Those characters are Sinterklaas’s Zwarte Piet companions, and they sometimes play a role similar to Santa’s elves. At other times, as in the Sedaris story, they play a “bad cop” role to Sinterklaas’s good cop. Like Krampus, the Zwarte Piet characters are sometimes said to carry bad children off. In the Sedaris essay, that’s back to Spain, where Sinterklaas is said to live. Unlike his cousin, Santa, who lives at the North Pole. I’d say Sinterklaas has the better deal there.

Getty images.

Most of the time the Zwarte Piet companions play the role of cheerful assistants, but they are not without controversy (for evidence, see the article below from a 2014 issue of The Economist).. As the Dutch become more racially diverse,  people are beginning to question the use of black-face as a means for white people to portray the diminutive imp, whose roots lie in the history of the Moors conquest of Europe. Some people now make up new stories (the black is ash from chimney soot) while others have turned to using  face paint in a variety of colors–red, blue, green etc, making the new Piets as colorful as a bag of Skittles.


For more info on KRAMPUS, the star of a new horror film this year, check out this post. It tells how folks in Philadelphia are celebrating with an array of European characters and traditions.

For more on holiday folklore, join the Krampuslauf Philly Folklore group at

ALSO, if you live near Philadelphia and wish to take part in this year’s fun Alpine Christmas tradition, check out the Krampuslauf Parade of Spirits website.
Event: Krampuslauf Philadelphia 2015
Sat. Dec. 12, 3 pm. Parade is usually at dusk.
Venue: Liberty Lands Park
913-961 N 3rd St, Philadelphia, US