A brand-new video adventure, APIARY MIXTAPE is an intimate look into Philly’s teeming literary families. Writers invite us in to the places they find inspiration; we record their poems, stories, and thoughts on craft and community.
Follow us from living rooms to swingsets, riverbanks to rooftops. We’re on a quest to record Philly and the words it carries in its dusty concrete bones.
This week: Poet Kelly McQuain takes us to the 9th St. Italian Market, the oldest and largest working open-air market in the United States.
I have a clockwork heart.
It’s held in place by feather wings.
Its levers are green leaves,
blue diamonds are its pins.
Purple petals are its gear teeth,
red caterpillars make it turn—
this my clockwork heart,
the only thing I own.
I lubricate it with rain clouds
when it needs a little wet.
Light bulbs on scissor-springs
make it glow from within.
There are times it falls apart
and I reassemble it with care:
a puzzle, a dreamscape,
a memory, a dare.
I have a clockwork heart.
Open my chest and look around.
I have a clockwork heart.
I hope it never
An Interview with Kelly McQuain
by Alina Pleskova
You have mentioned that “Clockwork Heart” was written in response to Apiary artist Vicky Aquino’s call for poems inspired by the paintings in her show. Do you often experiment with ekphrastic poetry, or was this a first for you?
KM: I’ve experimented with ekphrasis before, and once worked as a visual artist myself, penciling comics back in the ‘90s before assuming a professorship at Community College of Philadelphia. I see a strong kinship between visual and literary arts.
When I paint myself, I largely do watercolors, which work differently than oils. In watercolor there’s a technique called a wet-on-wet wash, which means you soak the rag paper with water and apply wet color to it before it dries. There’s a sort of tie-dye effect that rises up, a Rorschach test. if you will. Shapes suggest themselves to you, and you work with your brush to pull them forth. Some poems emerge like that. I start out with words, a phrase, or I’ll take found text and try to pull something from it, see where it goes.
That’s one method for writing poetry. Ekphrasis, however, is a more deliberate response to an existing artwork as opposed to pulling something from nothing. Vicky Aquino’s piece was a bit compelling because there was such an air of whimsy about it. I was in Edinburgh, on a day the locals would describe as dreich–a word meaning gloomy, rainy, miserable. I needed an exercise to refresh and energize me. Her picture, and the call for poems to accompany her collection, seemed the perfect antidote to that rainy day. As whimsical as her picture is, I think a bit of Edinburgh rain made it’s way into the poem, too.
I imagine some people would call this a “light” poem. I like to explore surrealism on occasion, and sometimes I see the world through a Tim Burton-esque prism. I describe works stemming from this impulse as “magic lyricism”. My hope is that people detect a certain sadness and longing beneath the seeming lightness of “Clockwork Heart”.
Are there any writing-related tenets that you particularly emphasize to your students at CCP?
KM: Consider the benefits of form. Experiment! Think about the sound of your poem, but avoid obvious rhymes in favor of slant rhyme or internal rhyme. Forego rhyme altogether in favor of other unifying devices like anaphora, repetition, alliteration or assonance. Read your poems aloud.
I see many contemporary academic poets eschewing the sonics of a poem in favor of showing off how smart they are with big, ten dollar words or Language-y ideas that suck the soul from their poems. A lot of rants end up emerging, or stand-up comedy routines. Those can be fun, but there comes a point where it’s too much of a good thing. Sometimes non sequitur stream of consciousness gushes forth like a broken faucet you want to shut off. Attention to sound and structure can often redeem such things, reign in excess, marry form to content. Some academic poets forget that a poem is a sensuous thing, and to experience sensuousness you need an “I” in there, either directly or indirectly. A discernible “I” is missing in much overly schooled poetry. I believe even the experience of an idea is a sensuous opportunity. Poems are our prayers to the universe. They have to have soul.
Rhyme is an example of something many academic poets have conceded. They’ve abandoned it to spoken word poets or rappers–a mistake, I think. You see this in the literary journals, many of which will say “no rhymed poetry” in their guidelines for submission. Rhyme shouldn’t be outlawed. It should surprise a reader.
Many of my students come to poetry through spoken word or hip-hop aesthetics, and I don’t want to dampen that enthusiasm or belittle the amazing talent I sometimes see in their ability to perform work. Often that work comes up short on the page, however. A lot of spoken word poets forget that a poem has to more than sound good; it has to present an idea in a new, vigorous way. I want them to push themselves by experimenting in form, word choice and idea–to take the best that the “academic” poets have to teach them and to run with it in their own way.
A test I personally often use is whether a poem will work on both the page and the stage. There is much that performance poets can learn from academic poets and vice versa. It saddens me that the two camps are so firmly entrenched and largely unwilling to cross-pollinate. I’m lucky to have writer friends who see the value in appreciating diverse styles. If there’s one message I want to get across to my students, it’s to learn from everything. Don’t pigeonhole yourself or surround yourself with too many people who think, write or make art exactly like you.
Can you tell us a bit about any projects, literary or otherwise, that you’re currently working on or planning?
At the moment, I’m gearing up for the fall 2012 term at Community College of Philadelphia, where I teach in our Certificate Program in Creative Writing. I’m also excited to have nine poems coming out in spring 2013 in Assaracus, a gay literary journal published by Sibling Rivalry Press in Arkansas. I’m working on turning those poems into a chapbook or book, along with some additional ones scheduled for publication soon in Bloom, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Noctua Review and elsewhere. This summer I also started writing a series of occasional columns on the city and its people for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Finally, I’m looking forward to a new first this fall: officiating at a whiskey-bar wedding of a writer friend and his fiancée. I’m very honored that they asked me to lead the ceremony. Wish me luck, and wish them even more!
KELLY MCQUAIN‘s poems were recently featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and on National Public Radio as part of Poetry Month. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea Station, Stone Highway Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Press 1, American Writing, Black Heart Magazine, Transient, Certain Circuits, Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review and Icarus: the Magazine of Gay Speculative Fiction. His short stories have been anthologized in over a dozen publications, including Obsessed, Skin & Ink, Rebel Yell 2, Best American Erotica, and the Lambda Literary Award-winning Men on Men 2000. He is a former contributing editor at The Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly and Art & Understanding (A&U). His awards include a Best of the Net nomination, two writing fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and first prize in The Philadelphia City Paper Writing Awards in both Poetry and Fiction. He serves on the “One Book, One Philadelphia” Selection Committee in Philadelphia and works as a professor of English. Learn more at www.kellymcquain.wordpress.com.