Some good news! My first full-length poetry collection has been accepted by Texas Review Press (see the first link in the comments). My book was chosen for their Southern Breakthrough Series, a contest that seeks new works from a different southern state each year. My collection, titled Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers, was chosen to represent WV, my home state. The title refers to something bucks do to harden their antlers in anticipation of the fighting come mating season. This is my first full-length book, a longstanding dream of mine! The book will debut in February 2023. My thanks to TRP, all the editors who first published these poems, and especially the editors at Kestrel, A Journal of Literature and Art, where the title poem first appeared (thanks Donna Long, @Elizabeth Savage, Suzanne Heagy). #poetry
Nov. 15, 2019
My art project on Walt Whitman, “A Whitman Sampler” is now on display at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s exhibition, Voyages by Road and Sea: Philadelphia Perspectives on Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. The artwork is now installed in the West Gallery at the Parkway Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, located on the Ben Franklin Parkway. This project is a collaboration of the Free Library and the Rosenbach Center and features historical context on the authors as well as newly commissioned artwork related to the works of Melville and Whitman.
That’s where I come in. The Library commissioned artwork from me that consists of a box similar to an advent calendar. Each box contains pictures and text that correspond with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Part puzzle, part Whitman fortune-telling device, the box is designed as an interactive tool to help readers engage with the Great Gray Bard in a new and compelling way. In the spring I will be participating in an event where I take the box out of its display case to show off its possibilities. Time and date to be announced.
Special thanks to the team that created the exhibition: graphic designer Nathanael Roesch, writer/editor Clare Fentress, registrar Jobi Zink, FLP Deputy Director Andrew Nurkin, the Rosenbach’s Alexander Ames, and co-curator Professor Ed Whitley. In the coming year, a series of related events and programs in support of the exhibition will be held. Watch for details!
Update: On the back of the sampler there is an illustration of Walt for the 21st century, departing as air, waiting for us along life’s path in the grass beneath our soles/souls:
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
—Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Did you ever play that game Lifeboat, where you have one lifeboat and you have to decide who gets to jump into it? You know, priest vs. pregnant mother vs. sailor vs. rich banker vs. yadda, yadda, yadda?
There’s a similar thing called the trolley problem in situational ethics. Well, MIT is working on a database to help self-driving cars play their own version of the who-to-save game. It makes one wonder how we’ll program (teach?) all sorts of machines we will come to rely on, and how those machines in turn will have to program (teach?) ethics to that which they create. On and on… Our ethical codes are handed down to us via our myths and stories, philosophies and laws, traditions and taboos. However, the idealism they aspire toward is often left unexercised in everyday practice. Will AI face that same conundrum? In the article on the project at The Economist we learn that, sadly, cats don’t so well in this process. Not sure about kittens.
Hitchcock made a movie called Lifeboat based on a script by John Steinbeck and featuring the lovely Tallaullah Bankhead. Maybe we need a new version of Lifeboat now that we have ruined the planet. A movie featuring the Terminator, C3PO, The Jetsons’ Rosie, a Dalek and the Lost in Space robot. Maybe they should decide if we humans are worthy of shooting into the stars.
#LetsConnectPhilly #Art #PhillyArtDepot
Update! Recently I wrote about the Let’s Connect! art show at Philadelphia’s famed Barnes Collection. My hipster postman mixed-media painting, “Mind, Heart, Soul” placed among the top 20 artworks out of over 310 paintings at the show. I was especially happy to see my friend Tim Barton also make the cut with his stellar wooden folk box. As a result, this coming year the other artists and I have been asked to work with the Barnes on a series of talks and lectures geared toward the public and fellow artists. It’s a very special piece to me, and I hope it will find a good home with you. (You can read more in this former post that includes my Artist Statement., which talks about how Van Gogh’s work served as inspiration.)
On this blog I’ve mostly posted about my work as a writer, but it’s true I also do a lot of artwork, which I’m hoping to post more about in the future. Below is my current Artist’s Bio, in case you are curious. My artwork ranges from comics and cartoons to watercolors, acrylic and the occasional oil painting. I often mix media and like to embed details and back-stories within my visual work, things that a viewer has to look twice to discover and that leave a person wanting to know more. For instance, if you look close you can tell Mr. Postman is a major Eagles fan, but perhaps not the most attentive deliveryman. I take the occasional commission and book cover project, but most works start from a strong visual idea and spool out from there, with hopes they find a buyer in the future.
About the Artist
Kelly McQuain is an artist and poet who combines words and pictures in poems, essays, book covers, comics, and large-scale canvases. His collection, Velvet Rodeo, won the Bloom Poetry Prize, and his work appears in numerous journals. He has twice held Fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Recent projects include a series of Poetry Portraits that have appeared on the cover of Fjords Review. The painting series was inspired by Barnes artist Charles Demuth, whose watercolor poster portraits of famous contemporaries included the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and William Carlos Williams. When he’s not painting, McQuain teaches creative writing, literature, and film studies at Community College of Philadelphia.
Writer friends! CCP peeps! Community College of Philadelphia has several cool workshops and readings open to the public this week, and I especially recommend Viet Đinh‘s event on his Penn/Faulkner Award-finalist novel, After Disasters. (Full sched. with times and locations at https://www.myccp.online/2018-poets-writers-festival)
Dear Writer Friends–I’m not going to #AWP2018, but if you are, and if you’re going to Ybor City for an event, make sure to walk a couple blocks toward the train tracks and visit Al’s Bar-B-Que. It’s messy & great, and they serve big-ass beers! I went there with my dad a year or two before he passed away, and it’s such a nice memory. I try to get there when I visit my brother in Tampa. The Ybor neighborhood is worth a stroll, and has an interesting history as a hub of Cuban cigar manufacturing.
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?
The Hot Hands of Summer: New Paintings by Ric McCauley
Opening Reception July 16, 2016 Gallery 209, Cape Charles, VA
Gallery 209 welcomes new work by painter Ric McCauley following his near sell-out show of May 2015. Whales and sea life make return appearances, as does the artist’s sly, understated commentary on the way the natural world is affected by technology. After Hurricane Sandy, surely no one in Cape Charles can underestimate the impact Mother Nature has on humans. McCauley looks at such things from the animal world’s point of view, as in his acrylic painting “Forgotten Floods”, in which an elephant makes an escape by boat. Other paintings question mankind’s impact on nature, such as “Autocorrect”, which depicts a whale turning into metal to ward off human hunters.
Mostly McCauley’ work is full of joy and humor. His is a world where dogs are as likely to be found on telephone lines as birds are… and usually those dogs are Labrador retrievers. McCauley and his partner have owned two such dogs. Their current pet, Ellie, models for several of these paintings. Most notably is “Ground Control to Major Tom”, which reworks recently departed musician David Bowie’s 1969 song “Space Oddity” into a lament between a satellite and a blond canine wearing a cone collar that doubles as a radio dish. When Ellie is not modeling, she can be found rolling in the castoff paint covering her master’s drop cloth. McCauley employs a splatter and scrubbing technique for many of his backgrounds and textures, and sometimes the price for such work is a yellow Lab with a blue tail.
In Cape Charles, you just might spot McCauley painting in his back yard. He typically starts a canvas by first layering broad washes of acrylic color down on canvases that sometimes reach 4 feet by 6 feet. He scrubs at the surface or sprays it with water to remove excess paint and achieve texture, a process that allows random images to emerge and helps him intuit the detail work that comes next as he brings each painting to its final resolution.
McCauley’s current show consists of fourteen large-scale new works as well as a small suite of miniature paintings. His whales, jellyfish and other sea life ground him as a thoroughly Eastern Shore artist, and his large-scale painting “Midnight on Mason” is an homage to the home he’s found here.
McCauley grew up in rural West Virginia, and the traces of his early country living–exploring wildlife, growing his own food in the family garden–can be found in the foxes and plants that sneak into his other paintings. He graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland with a BA in Fine Arts in 1993. There he studied printmaking, photography, and oil and acrylic painting. Recently McCauley recently won Best in Show at the St. Mary’s alumni exhibition (Boyden Gallery, 2014). His work is part of several private collections and his commercial clients include the Cape Charles Hotel. Recently his art was featured in Sports Business Daily’s write-up on Billy Casper Golf, whose Reston, VA, corporate office features one of McCauley’s buffalo paintings.
To contact the Artist: RicMcCauley [at] yahoo.com
or contact Gallery 209 (ask for Sandy) 209 Mason Ave, Cape Charles, VA 23310 (757) 331-2433
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?
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 [the 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.
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. http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21635517-worsening-clash-over-tradition-and-racial-sensitivities-blacked-up
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 https://www.facebook.com/groups/966987013330153/edit/
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
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
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
…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 BlogHer.com:
“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.
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!