Interview with Colin Kelley

First Tuesday Review

For some excellent explications of the poems and collection as a whole, you can read reviews at Arts Atlanta and Subtletea. Naming Constellations has a review that reveals how Render can be instructive for developing poets. Below are my thoughts after reading.

Photography is the metaphor of Collin Kelley’s newest book of poetry, Render. The book is organized by the major aspects of the art—reticulation, aperture, blowup, resolution—and the poems within are framed by two pieces “A Broken Frame” and “Render.” The metaphor works well not only for the structure it provides but also because the poems themselves are their own snapshots. These pictures of Kelley’s memories capture his childhood, with all the questions of sexuality and family dysfunctionality that came with it.

But almost as vividly portrayed is the background of Kelley’s poems, the time, place, and culture in which he grew up. The poems are littered with popular culture references and sepia-hued imagery. Take as one prominent example “The Freedom Train.” References to the Bionic Woman, Farrah Fawcett, and Gone with the Wind occur within the first stanza alone. Others, such as “Three Mile Island,” reflect national events that remain in public memory. And then there are some that reveal Kelley’s personal history almost solely, “After Adultery” being one such piece. But to separate the poems by these categories—national icons and personal memory—is reductive because what really makes the poems so intriguing is that all these references are happening at once in the same poem.

Not having grown up during this time myself, I felt a little like a niece listening to childhood stories from an uncle. But also, at times, I felt a little out of my depth—a quality, I think, that is as it should be. These poems did what all writing should: made real to me a world that I could never know. This is not to say that I found nothing in the poems in Render that I could relate to. The most universal quality to the collection is the reflection on childhood, an event everyone has encountered, and childhood—mostly my own, but also what is depicted in Render—is what I found myself thinking about long after I finished reading.

An additional pleasure I had in reading this collection was in reencountering some pieces that I have heard before. Visiting the pieces on the page has exposed to me new allusions and poetic devices that I missed from only hearing them previously. At the same time, having listened to Kelley read, I can imbed that knowledge of voice and cadence in my own reading. Fortunately, Kelley has recorded several pieces from Render, so if you’re interested in making your own spoken word to page comparison, you can.

 

We were lucky enough to catch Collin for a short Q&A. Read on for his responses.

 

What author/poet(s) would you say have most influenced your writing?

There are so many, but at the very top would be Anne SextonMargaret AtwoodDon DeLilloWalt WhitmanAlice WalkerJeanette Winterson, and Stan Rice. They’ve been my touchstones since I began writing seriously back in the ’80s.

If you could meet any poet (author), current or past, who would it be? (And why?)

Anne Sexton. I discovered her work in 1986 while I was in high school, and although I’ve read every poem she’s ever written, I can still pick up one of her collections, and the words make me vibrate. She switches on whatever genetic disposition I was born with to be a poet. She’s still a controversial figure because of the confessional nature of her writing, her mental illness, and the abuse she inflicted upon her family, but she is an absolute genius. I think a boozy dinner with lots of vodka and ciggies would be a great way to spend an evening.

What does your usual writing process look like? Initial draft/edits/revisions?

For poetry, I will find a few words–or a phrase or a title will pop into my head–and I might let that marinate in brain for weeks until I’m ready to put it on paper. I’ll write a complete first draft, and then put it away for a few days and come back and redraft. I’m one of those poets who believes a poem is never finished. There are poems in Render that I would still love to revise.

For fiction, I’m a bit more focused. When I’m working on a novel, I try to write two nights a week from about 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. and then spend four or five hours on [it on] a Saturday or Sunday. I tend to write forward–meaning I don’t come back and rewrite or tinker until I have a complete first draft of the manuscript. Although, on my new novel–the third book in The Venus Trilogy–I did go back and remove an entire subplot about halfway through because it was bogging down the story.

Specifically regarding Render, what did compiling this collection look like? Were you aware that you kept returning to a photography motif? Did you make any edits based on your decision to group the poems together with this theme in mind?

The manuscript that eventually became Render had been sitting in a drawer for years. I had submitted it to a few contests and open readings under another title and with many different poems. The book never quite seemed to gel, so I put it away and focused on fiction. In the summer of 2010, I went to the UK to guest lecture at Worcester College at Oxford University and had the chance to go down to London and see the Sally Mann photography retrospective. I realized while I was walking through the gallery that Mann’s work, which I love, and my poetry had a strange symmetry and synchronicity. I came home and wrote the poem “Render,” and the idea of the collection being a type of pop culture photo album clicked into place. It hadn’t dawned on me that so many of my poems refer to photos and have imagery based on “snapshots” of my life growing up in the South.  I tossed out a lot of work from the original manuscript and stopped overthinking the arc of the collection and put [the poems] in a quasi-chronological order. I also knew that I wanted the collection to be lean, so I forced myself to remove poems that I loved but that weren’t working in the manuscript. There’s a tendency by poets to try to cram in everything, especially if it’s been previously published. I have quite a few “orphan” poems that would have fit into Render, but they will probably find their way into a future collection.

What, if any, types of writing exercises do you like to use?

I’m always on the hunt for a good writing prompt. One that I did earlier this year was an exercise to take a famous film or literary character and write a persona poem in their voice. The idea was to either extend their story or to voice things left unsaid in the movie or book. I got the idea from reading about the old silent film The Wind starring Lillian Gish. In the original cut, she killed herself, but the movie producers thought it was too dark. So they tacked on a happy ending although it didn’t really fit. In my poem, her character, Letty, commits suicide. I also do this little exercise where I try to create poems out of the subject lines from all the spam email I receive. Most of it is X-rated.

The basis of each issue for Imitation & Allusion is pairing an author and poet for other writers to, well, imitate or allude to in their pieces for the magazine. If you could pick an author (poet) to be paired with in one of our issues, who would it be? Or, what author/poet duo do you think would make an interesting pairing?

This might be cheating a bit, but I would have to say fellow Atlanta poet Karen Head. We occasionally do a gig together called “Call and Response” where we have someone in the audience flip a coin to see who begins the reading. Then, we read our poems round-robin style, selecting poems on the fly to find common themes, moods, and imagery. We never plan ahead, so it’s all very off the cuff. We bring all our books and notebooks of work in progress, just in case. Karen is a Georgia native, too, and we have a lot of the same pop culture references, so our work meshes well together.

What other books or projects are you currently working on?

I’m in the middle of writing the third book in The Venus Trilogy, which began with Conquering Venus and Remain In Light. I’ve also got a poetry chapbook, which is 95 percent complete and will hopefully be out in 2015. Beyond that, I have plans for a short-story collection and a memoir about my time in London.

 

Thanks, Collin! We’ll be looking out for more of your work.

You can keep up with Collin at his websiteFacebook pageTwitter, and Tumblr!

 

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