#writersresist January 15 is the date for Philadelphia Writers Resist: United for Liberty. The event is part of PEN America’s country-wide mobilization to let the Trump administration know that we writers will not back down or backtrack when it comes to human rights and civil liberties. I’ll be reading alongside many Philly friends from works that speak to empathy and justice. Nathaniel Popkin, one of the organizers, writes, “We chose the word united because this event is meant to bring us together as a literary community with abundant shared interests. We are poets, novelists, filmmakers, artists, publishers, readers, promoters, journalists, essayists, narrative non-fiction and experimental writers, editors, scholars, and translators, all to say, loudly, that we will stand for the freedoms written right here.”
Read poet Shelley Puhak’s essay at the Columbia Journal.
Is it any surprise then, that after passing from one iron cage to another, passing from one blue-serge inspector to another, my great-grandmother was detained for further inspection?
A Process Essay
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 been 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.
What 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 couldn’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.
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, which 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: Ganesh 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 saw 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 tone-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.
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.
On 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?
I met editor Larry Smith a few years back at a reading through a mutual friend. He’s the inspiration for the Jason Biggs’ character in Orange is the New Black. By day, he edits anthologies like Six-Word Memoirs, a series of bon mots perfect for bathroom breaks and other other moments of anguished boredom. My #sixwordadvice is published in the new @sixwords book… THE BEST ADVICE IN SIX WORDS… but it’s been so long since I wrote it I’ll have to read the book to find out what I said! Tweet @sixwords or reply below with YOUR best advice in #sixwords
Reserve your copy now http://smarturl.it/amazon-sixwords
“A perfect book for holiday gifts” — #bestadviceinsix available for pre-order http://smarturl.it/bn-sixwords
I’m stealing this idea from Philebrity editor Joey Sweeney. What are the things you are looking forward to between now and Labor Day 2015? Here’s Mine. Now it’s your turn! #SummerToDoList #summer2015
What I’m Looking Forward to Doing the Summer of 2015
–meeting my friend Steph (along with all out other peeps) to show her the pleasure of happy hour drinks at Harbor Park.
–water gun battles.
–corn, potatoes, shrimp and sausage boiled in Old Bay.
–actually calling at least one old friend a week to catch up and stoke the embers of the good times we’ve shared.
–drinking wine and watching movies in the park.
–checking out the El Bar and hearing friends’ old stories about getting chased and beaten up on that block and boy has this neighborhood changed…
—-hanging out at the Lambda Literary Writing Retreat and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. (https://kellymcquain.wordpress.com/2015/05/17/lambda-literary-fellows-need-your-help/)
–reading for pleasure (hammocks preferred).
–planting something and watching it grow.
–wearing sandals every day.
–aw, hell. Going barefoot.
–helping my high school pal Ric hang his solo art show on the Chesapeake Bay.
–taking pleasure in my friends’ successes.
–jazz cocktails on M Restaurant’s patio.
–t-ball and playground trips with my adorable nephews, and pool trips sans their water wings. Checking in with all the other nieces and nephews, too.
–getting someone to go tubing with me in New Hope, or canoeing in the pine barrens…
–drawing, painting, getting messy and having fun.
–talking to someone older who might be able to give me a little wisdom for what’s ahead.
–wearing breathable seersucker shirts and shorts.
–jumping in a fountain and pretend I’m on Friends.
–visiting Mom at her WV home… and seeing what latest critter has tried to get inside her house (in the last year, it’s been a mother bear with her cubs, two blacksnakes, and myriad deer. Only an enterprising groundhog has actually made it all the way into the living room)
–eating my way through Philly’s festivals. (Italian Market Festival? Check. Greek Festival? You’re up next)
–sudden thunderstorms where the temperature drops fifteen degrees in twenty minutes.
–peeling off wet clothes with someone I love.
–beach trips to Jersey, Delaware, and beyond, I hope.
–discovering the Drink of Summer (Paloma? Dark ‘n Stormy? Mojito? Some new invention?)
–writing, writing, writing. Finishing things, finishing things, and not beating myself up when I don’t finish everything.
–making a summer Playlist with the help of my music guru (he owns nearly six thousand CDs and they are all alphabetized! I know, I know. What’s a CD?)
–easy desserts of John’s Water Ice (lemon) with a shot of limocello (add strawberries for additional fancy-pants points.)
–hard cheese drizzled with honey infused by chocolate and habaneros (thank you, Mr. Artisanal Beekeeper at the Italian Market).
–seeing two summer blockbusters back-to-back on the big screen. Maybe even three!
–celebrating Walt Whitman’s birthday with some great out-of-town writers as part of the “Five for Philly” reading at Giovanni’s Room. https://www.facebook.com/events/836983619708969/
–shooting the shit with my neighbor in his yard.
–taking part in some exciting secret projects with various literary journals.
–and so much more!
Lambda Literary Fellows need your help! And I am one of them. It’s been a great year for publishing poems, and recently I received the good news I was named a Lambda Literary Fellow, where I will get to study with poet Kazim Ali at the University of Southern California in June.
The opportunity comes with a steep price tag of around an estimated $2650 for tuition, fees, board and travel costs to Los Angeles (such as airfare & shuttles). I am trying to raise about a third of that money to help offset my out-of-pocket cost. If your rent is due, if times are tight, by all means pay yourself first and forget this message. But if things are a little easier in your life and 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. While many Fellows have already met their goals, others haven’t made a dent in it. $1? 5? No amount is too little, and it’s easy to make a secure online payment. You can also help by buying a copy of my poetry book, Velvet Rodeo, this spring at one of the many readings I have in the Philadelphia area or by ordering one from me directly ($8+shipping=$10). Just shoot me a message if you like at kellymcquain.writer [at]gmail.com. I hate asking for help, and no worries if you can’t do so. In fact, many of my online writing communities have already helped just by offering ongoing support, which truly means a lot. If not for such communities, I would not have maintained the momentum to keep sending work out and to apply for competitive opportunities like the Lambda Literary Retreat.
In related good news, I was also recently accepted as a Tennessee Williams Scholar to the prestigious Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee for July 2015. The scholarship helps cover that those costs, but I’m still saving for airfare and board for that too. But mostly what I’m sweating at the moment are the Lambda costs. Please consider helping out a writer this summer even if it is not me. Buy books, pass the hat, and help keep the beauty of words coming for somebody.
I’m working my ass off this summer publishing new poems, doing illustrations for journals, and even writing a chapter in a round-robin murder mystery that’s a fundraiser for a great literary magazine I’m happy to support (more on this fun project later). An anthology I was published in—The Queer South–is up for a Lambda Literary Award on June 1st. More new publications in anthologies like Rabbit Ears: TV Poems and journals like Eleven Eleven and Knockout are on the way. 2015 is shaping up to be the best writing summer of my life! I love a lot of different art forms and sometimes feel pulled in a thousand directions, but I’m proving that it can all work if you keep your nose to the grindstone. I hope your summer is equally productive, too.
Thanks for listening.
–Kelly McQuain, May 2015. Philadelphia.
You can find out more about Lambda Literary here: http://lambdaliterary.donorpages.com/WritersRetreat2015/KellyMcQuain/
A list of all Donor Pages and a list of my fellow Fellows, with their bios. at the links here: The full list of all Donor Pages is here: http://lambdaliterary.donorpages.com/WritersRetreat2015/ (Click on “Show all fundraisers for this event”)