Thank you, City Paper

Years ago The Philadelphia City Paper published my poem “Annabelle” and my story “Burial Game” as winners of their annual poetry and story contest. I won in the poetry category one year and the fiction category the next. That paper showed me some writerly love when I really needed it. I’m sorry to learn this week that City Paper will be ceasing print operations as of October 8th and that their online presence will be folded into, previously their chief competitor. I wrote for both papers over the years. I’m sorry to see the alternative weeklies disappearing.


Be Worried: Dangerous Poetics

What do Oscar Wilde, Horace, CA Conrad, Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Ted Hash-Berryman and Alfred E. Newman all have in common? Cleaver Magazine is featuring my visual essay on MOMA poet Kenneth Goldsmith and the strange state of American poetics as a back-to-school essay in their new issue. Read The Empathy Machine here and get the low-down.

A direct link to the art and text is here. Find out what makes me MAD.

Best. Syllabus. Ever.


I love Lynda Barry, and as I prepare my syllabi for the fall semester, it’s a delight to revisit her work and use it as a way to make me rethink my own teaching methods.

Originally posted on BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog:

tumblr_ngzqkl2VPm1t3i99fo4_1280In a recent residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts (great place, check it out!), our workshop leader had us do a daily exercise from cartoonist Lynda Barry: Divide the paper into four sections, label them Did, Saw, Heard and leave one open for a picture. In each quadrant, note down things we did, saw, and heard – and draw a picture.

It’s an exercise in observation, it’s fun, it’s a good free-write to get started on the page, and after about day three I stopped worrying about the quality of my drawing.

The exercise comes from Lynda Barry’s actual syllabus for her class at the University of Wisconsin, a nonfiction-driven cartooning class. And Barry’s whole syllabus, in more or less the form in which she issued it to her students, is also available as a book. Check out some selections from Syllabus over at Open Culture –…

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From Hippos to KISS albums to Yanni: The Best Hobby Collections of the Alameda County Fair! View my collection!

You won’t believe what you’ll learn in #7.–it’s HUGE!!!
#collections #AlamedaCountyFair #ACFair

#1 Collect a soft drink!

One of the best pavilions at the Alameda Co. Fair is the HOBBIES pavilion, where you can get ribbons for artfully displaying the stuff you collect. Notice the judicious use of quotation marks in the detailed description by the Pepsi memorabilia collector here. Is “Antiques Dealer” really just a euphemism for mom being a “hoarder”? I think so!

#2 Collect a decade!

Hobbies can be anything, but they are the most fun when they involve STUFF. Not sports. Who wants to sweat? Going to yard sales to get STUFF is so much better! Hooray for STUFF! Let’s call this collection “The ’80s!!!” I had all this stuff. Do you think this collector is gay? I do!!! Yay for the Thompson Twins and ’80s hair! Yay for the Psychedelic Furs and teenage melancholia!

#3 Collect things that don’t really go together!

Hobbies are great!!! Especially when they involve Yanni! Let’s put up a display booth of New Age shitty music and some weird things to balance it all out, like a Wicked playbill. Yay for hobbies! Yay for non-traditional thinking!

#4 Collect rock and roll memorabilia–a no-brainer!

Let’s collect KISS! Are they Knights In Satan’s Service or are they just a bunch of so-so musicians with kick-ass makeup and amazing marketing skills? When you get famous you should diversify, right? So notice the bottle of KISS wine on the far right. Do you think they stomped the grapes with their platform boots? KISS THIS! But don’t drink it! Save it for your collection! Tasty!

#5 Collect Smokey the Bear!

As a child, I had a Smokey the Bear doll, so I am predisposed to liking this collection quite a bit. Plus Smokey has emerged as an unexpected emblem of gay subculture! Bears are great! Smokey also helps prevent forest fires! Some people might want to burn this collection, but not this aficionado! I hope he has a Smokey suit he can wear to the Furries Con in San Jose. Yay for Smokey! Fun fact: Smokey really existed! There is a comic book to prove it. But sadly the real Smokey was not nearly so anthropomorphic as the one on TV. (Don’t expect a good bio-pic. A lot of plot points similar to Bambie. #TriggerWarning) Love Smokey anyway! Mmmm! Fur! Stroke it! Be nice!

#6 Collect an Amazon superhero!

Who wouldn’t want to collect Wonder Woman? (Boys, probably. At least straight boys.) A Wonder Woman collection is probably not going to go over well with the fellas on the football team, but who cares? Grab your magic lasso and make them tell the truth! EVERYONE loves Wonder Woman! Little girls in the 1970s spun in front of their TVs trying to turn into her. This little boy did too. MS. Magazine put her on their cover! She’s a freaking icon! How more wonderful does it GET?

#7 Collect Hippos!

Hobbies are informative! And you know what? Hippos ARE HUGE! This girl doesn’t lie. I would give hobby #17 a blue ribbon for artfulness and attention to basic facts. Plus, it’s always a strategic idea, once you’ve made the basic case for your argument, to leave your audience with a new lingering question. Like, “Where’s Rhino?” I wanna know! Don’t you? Let’s hear it for HUGE!

#8 Collect semi-perishable foodstuff!

You know what? If you can’t think of anything else to collect, COLLECT SUGAR! Who knew sugar could be so beautiful? This hobby is a real steal, and it encourages you to get out of the house more and into restaurants! Grandma can help! Just make her bring her pocketbook! Steal, steal, steal! Sugar, sugar, sugar! It’s almost poetry! (This collection can also help start a new one: ANTS!)

Don’t let Alameda County, CA, have all the fun! You TOO can start a collection. Some collections I’d like to see next year:

Stuff I Stole from Church
Parts of Bugs
Broken Hummels
Belly Button Lint Portraiture
Things That Are Invisible (like Wonder Woman’s plane! And ideas!)

There’s always so much more! What do YOU want to collect? (Tell me below). Open your eyes! Fill a display case! Consider joining a group like 4-H to help legitimize your collecting habits. Make a list of yard sales. Get started now! Remember, the more the merrier. Nothing is too insignificant. Egg cups, erasers, old gum in interesting shapes. Hobbies are the folk art of the common man! Let your collection help you fly your freak flag!
(Hey, who wants to help me start collecting actual freak flags?)

Kelly McQuain, June 19, 2015

Crosstalk–What can a canceled Berkeley Poetry Conference learn from San Francisco’s theater scene?

…or, You Won’t Believe What She Reveals About Clickbait at the End!

En route to the Lambda Literary Retreat in LA, it was only thirty bucks more to add an open-jaw ticket through San Francisco, and when you have friends willing to host you a side trip is a no-brainer. Especially since the Berkeley Poetry Conference was slated for this week, a commemoration of the 1965 Berkeley conference fifty years ago that featured Allen Ginsburg, Jack Spicer, et al.


But then add one controversial experimental poet (Vanessa Place), subtract three-quarters of the other speakers, who pulled out in protest, and what you have is a big mess of pain and political correctness blowing up in your face. Regardless of your take on the related issues, what’s been happening at Berkeley is a sure sign that the poetry world is in a state of flux and change equally as pressing to what occurred a half century ago. Conference kaput!

But then last week, thanks to the hard work of a handful of Berkeley organizers, a phoenix rose from the ashes: Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A[n all new! all different!] Berkeley Poetry Conference.

A Brief Pause for Sound Bites (and Thought Bites) Heard Today at Crosstalk
(in no particular order)

“Armed Cell” “economic crisis”
“it’s a question of competing archives”
“colonization theory” “colonize” “decolonize”
“what is the human condition?”
“I felt policed as a young poet”
“I don’t need someone to say to me I have meta-concerns and concerns”
(–a blighted redwood being chainsawed; a blighted redwood falling alongside the creek that runs through campus–)
“I feel like there are bodies all over the floor”
“it’s like you’re a theory translator!”
“poetry offers the space to be nimble”
–are we _really_ post-crisis?–
“everyone has a spam poem–even Ron Silliman”
“what do we lose when the impulse to take on the socio-political overwhelms the poem as creative artifact?”
“I felt profoundly devastated, and I was rescued by you all”

Today I went to Brian Ang’s Post-Crisis Poetics workshop, as well as to the wrap-up discussion covering the last four days. Picture a circle of wooden chairs in stately Wheeler Hall, poets of all stripes and ages sitting around as if in group therapy (and perhaps it was). Laura, a professor from Sierra Nevada College, would later describe it to me as akin to “the Quaker meetings [she] grew up with.”

Coming from Philly, I find the comparison quite apt.

In the formal discussions there was a lot of jargon and academic gobbledygook tossed around–people being very, very careful not to offend. I got the sense that the organizers were still stinging from last month’s protests and that the participants were treading carefully (and quite politely) in their comments.

The role of social justice in poetics is an important and timely consideration. Yet I couldn’t help thinking it’s not an easy thing to discuss, especially in an age when we have to look over our shoulders to make sure some anonymous #HashtagWarrior isn’t stabbing us in the back.

That’s not to say the conference wasn’t valuable. For me, the value came mostly in the little moments, the more-intimate discussions with strangers at lunch when people’s guard came down and they spoke to communicate rather than to lecture or publicly perform. (Like the Australian grad student who told me about her LA research project. Or the Filipino guy from Oakland who joked about his misgivings identifying as a poet. These were moments of real connection.) Later too there were moving confessionals in the official wrap-up. These brought sympathetic nods (and tears) to many.

My time at the conference was brief but valuable. As one woman said, conferences like these can provide the “leap between the local and the global”. An irony, then, is that those of us traveling from outside of Berkeley to attend the conference (Philly, LA, Nevada–even Sydney) had such trouble getting details about what was happening until last week. One organizer confessed that this “conference 2.0” purposefully stayed off social media in planning and disseminating the updates out of fear of potential protests. Which begs the question: how do you create a “global” coalition when you’re not a part of the Berkeley phone tree?

I guess that’s a question for another conference. I don’t know if any of the initial protesters came, or if what sprang up in the original conference’s place would have pleased them. I can say I was very much impressed by the good intentions of the organizers, as well as the spirit and statements of the participants. These people are my tribe, no matter their race, their age, their gender or nationality. No matter if they are actually strangers.

And yet I worry. If we continue to fight so stridently amongst ourselves, to pick each other apart through social media, then maybe the machinery of the one percent has already defeated us. Their socio-economic machinery, their war-industrial machinery. In my dark hours I imagine a cabal of one percenters herding us, with our iPads and cell phones and endless media channels, into an ADD stupor of distraction. If we fight among ourselves, how do we fight them? Are the very tools that empower us fundamental to our undoing?

#HashtagWarrior: Kristina Wong?


Which makes me want to mention last night’s totally-unrelated-except-in-a-zeitgeist-sort-of-way premier performance of Kristina Wong’s “Wong Street Journal” here in San Francisco. Wong, a performance artist based in LA, hits on some of these very topics: how do we fight for social justice from our armchairs and our iPads? She has much to say about privilege and ‪first-world #‎HashtagWarriors‬ who vie for social change so long as it adds to their tally of “likes” and “retweets”.

She also skewers Western notions of race.

The show centers largely on three weeks Wong spent in what she initially calls “the country of Africa”. She was actually sent to Uganda to help a charitable organization micro-fund business opportunities for local women. Bizarrely, however, she ends up getting roped into managing the career of an aspiring Ugandan rapper. From the moment she steps off the plane, Wong’s identification as a person of color gets turned on its head. As she tells

“I had been told to expect that I’d be a Mzungu (or ‘white person’) over there, but I didn’t realize how white I would feel. There are several incidents that I humorously recount in the show about what ‘white guilt’ made me succumb to.”

Though a bit uneven, Wong’s show asks some very provocative questions: How real are our values in an age where we capitalize on them as clickbait? It’s as true a question for performance artists as it is for poets.


Which brings me to tonight… and another show. This time at the Strand Theater, a newly rehabbed bright spot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. (When your host is an arts and entertainment writer, you truly luck out with free tickets). “Love and Information” by Caryl Churchill is the American Conservatory Theater’s inaugural production in their new home. The play is a series of vignettes centering on love and (dis)connection in the Information Age.

Each segment functions almost like a visual tweet, a short textual and synaptic burst, non-lineal but connected in a layered way. In one, a pair of young girls compete over who knows the most facts about their shared celebrity crush. In another, first-date talk goes deliciously wrong as a researcher describes slicing chicken brains into slides to study how memories form. In another, ontological issues are debated between a true-believer and an atheist.

Throughout the show information is shared both interpersonally (secrets divulged; suspicions confirmed) and through numerous technological devices (cell phones, laptops). A giant media screen hovers above the stage to periodically interact with live actors, who are racially diverse and play a multitude of roles. Segments accrue meaning by lapping against each other like waves.

Churchill’s writing is elliptical. Characters finish each other’s sentences; what is left out of an exchange is often more important what what is put in. In the playbill, a sample of the script is provided. There are no character names, no stage directions. On the page, “Love and Information” reads like a prose poem or an interior monologue between opposing parts of one’s brain. On stage, under the deft, inventive direction of Casey Stangl, it’s a kinetic mashup of human wants and desires, a careful contemplation of how technology assists and impedes our efforts to make connection, often at the same time.

It’s the kind of play I’d like my poet friends to see.

In a time of online petitions and protests against poets and ideas we do not like, Wong and Churchill remind us with humor and invention that sometimes the best social critiques are the ones made manifest in art. Theirs is the kind of socially-engaged art-making today’s poets ought to be doing. No doubt today’s best poets already are.



Did you hear about those Two Girls in West Philly…?

My #FiveDayPoetryChallenge is coming to a close with a brand-spanking new poem newly out in the new summer issue of Philadelphia Stories. “Two Girls in West Philly Spray Their Hair into Beehives”. #PhiladelphiaStories #GoFundMe

This poem is an ode to summertime, love, hotdogs and my home city. It has always made me want to get out the sketch book, so I dashed this off this morning to accompany it, just for kicks. Maybe I’ll take a go at it with my new watercolor pencils, but it’s time for a walk in the sunshine. Jet lag kept me from getting the poem posted yesterday. I’m in California now visiting a friend on my way to the Lambda Literary Retreat. A big THANK YOU to all who have donated to my tax-free fundraising campaign! I have passed the 25% mark and am arrowing toward the 50% mark. Friday is the last day the conference organizers allow me to keep the page open. Donors can get goodies like a sketch or other artsy one-of-a-kinds, and my hope is to send more off to people than just the ones currently listed on the donor page.

If you haven’t heard, I am trying to raise about a third of my tuition and board fees for the retreat, which, combined with airfare, is substantial. Any tax-free donations that come in will get the added bonus of telepathic good karma vibes meditated your way, and perhaps some extra special goodies.

If you’d like to gain some good artistic karma, please consider making a tax-deductible donation via the Donor Page to help me or one of the other writers who has yet to meet his or her goal. Friday is the last day the organizers are allowing me to accept donations, so if you are on the fence, jump.
Sponsored by the Lambda Literary Foundation.…/KellyMcQuain/
Much gratitude to the people who have donated so far!

Semi-random tags:
‪#‎Poetry‬ ‪#‎GoFundMe‬ ‪#‎LambdaLiterary‬ ‬ ‪#‎congratulations‬ ‪#‎happybirthday‬ to art ‪#‎PoetryTag‬ ‪#‎karma‬ #ILoveArt #PhillyPoetryDay