Kelly McQuain

imageVelvet Rodeo (Bloom Books, 2014)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing? 

The books I want to list are ones I’ve only discovered this past year through readings for Velvet Rodeo–so it’s a little early to call them influences, but they are certainly worthy reads. Angele Ellis (Spared) and Bob Walicki (A Room Full of Trees) are two Pittsburgh poets I very much enjoyed reading this summer.

As a Philly poet, I have to give a shout out to fellow Philadelphian Laura Spagnoli’s Dazzledent Days, which is smart and warm and funny. Also, one of my former students, Brian Heston, just published a hardboiled portrait of Northeast Philly called Latchkey Kids, newly out from Finishing Line Press (and his first full-length book just won the Main Street Rag prize!). Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s Toward Euphoria from Seven Kitchens Press showcases a number of technical marvels in the way he braids two or three voices into a single poem. Anyone attuned to innovative language and images would enjoy these chapbooks.

I’ll also mention that chapbooks in Philly aren’t just for poets, but for story writers, too. The Head & the Hand, a small press based out of the city’s Fishtown neighborhood, publishes chapbooks they sell in repurposed vending machines in coffee shops! One of them is Jeff Markovitz’s For Olivia, a terrific story about a dying poet and the wife who finds his final manuscript after he passes. I found it Faulkner-esque in both its style and denouement.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing? 

That I like diverse and surprising voices. That people who sink their teeth into the truth are the ones I’m going to stick around to read.

What’s your chapbook about? 

A reviewer at Burlesque Press wrote that Velvet Rodeo is about “the wild bull of time,” which I think is pretty accurate since many of the poems juxtapose the past with the present. Another reviewer at Cleaver Magazine commented on the book’s “internal and slant rhyme as sly musical choices rather than traditional end rhyme or stanzaic patterns”—so sound, too, is a driving force in the chapbook. I wanted to challenge the reigning poetic aesthetics that seem, in my opinion, to have largely forfeited the tools of rhythm and rhyme to hip-hop, rap and so-called “performance poetry” (doesn’t all poetry have to perform, even if the performance is a silent one on the page?). Perhaps my poetry is slightly influenced by the music my college students listen to. Bill Lavender, of Lavender Ink, once told me at a reading that my work was akin to white-boy hip-hop. I don’t know if that’s how I’d describe it, and my poems have certainly evolved since that reading back in the summer of 2011, but yes, there are sonics at play. As well as a myriad of other influences in my work. In general, I think I work from the impulse to put old tools to new purposes.

The poems in Velvet Rodeo are largely set in West Virginia, where I grew up, and in places I have traveled, like Mexico. A sense of longing and outsiderism permeates the book. My gay sexuality is not shied away from, but I think it’s superseded by a focus on familial male relationships–father and son, brother and brother, grandfather and grandson. Surprisingly, reviewers haven’t noticed this as much. I’m in my 40s, so these poems also reflect a sense of looking back–of assessing, at mid-life, what you are a part of and what you stand apart from.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it? 

I often draft a poem, lose it in a pile of not-quite-yets, and then rediscover it at a later moment when I am actually able to finish it. “A Man in the Station Bar Makes Me Miss My Train” and “Alien Boy” are among the oldest. “Alien Boy” was probably the poem I finished first, in July of 2011 when I was sharing a rental in Edinburgh with poet Shelley Puhak (Stalin in Aruba) and memoirist/poet Sonja Livingston (Ghostbread).

We were there for a post-graduate writers conference through the University of New Orleans, where we all had done our MFAs through their low-residency program. Those ladies are amazing writers, so look out for them! I had primarily published in prose before that summer, and for a variety of reasons I was at a critical juncture in my writing life just then. That juncture had been building for awhile, leading me to rediscover poetry some months before. I felt like I had to elbow my way back to it. I still feel like I do. Fortunately, the good energy and example of Sonja and Shelley during the summer of 2011 helped things crystallize. I am grateful to them, for their friendship and insight. The drive to finish this chapbook began that wonderful summer.

How did you decide on arrangement and title of your chapbook? 

Ginsberg describes an “eyeball kick” he got from viewing the paintings of Cezanne, and he translated this effect into poetry by combining two words that otherwise would not be associated–if not true opposites, then ideas that starkly contrast one another. His example was “Hydrogen Jukebox,” which later became the title for an opera he wrote with Philip Glass. With this in mind, I took a word from the first poem in the collection, “Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers,” with the very last word from the final poem, “Mechanical Bull”—and that’s how the title Velvet Rodeo was born. In between, I arranged poems that drew their arc from things I have learned through time, which meant poems related to boyhood tended to come first, and poems about adult journeys tended to come later. “Scrape the Velvet…” was a good doorway into the collection, setting the tone and themes (the natural world, gay sexuality, artistic aspirations). That first poem appeared in the journal Kestrel, which nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. I thought it was important to start the chapbook with a poem that possessed a little mystery and a lot of good karma.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both? 

I submitted a differently titled chapbook with several of these poems to a few contests. I think it was a finalist in one or two. The revised version, under the new title, won the Bloom poetry chapbook contest, selected by poet C. Dale Young. That was a welcome surprise! A few weeks before the chapbook arrived from the publisher, I met C. Dale for the first time at AWP-Seattle. I was instantly struck by his kind spirit. Not only a fine poet, he’s also an editor, a teacher, and a medical doctor, so to know that my little red book caught the eye of someone with such a wide worldview was a particular boon.

Bloom Books, I should mention, is the book publishing arm of Bloom, a literary journal out of Los Angeles. It’s edited by Charles Flowers, Wesley Gibson, Micah Lexier and poet Aaron Smith. Joan Larkin, Mark Doty and Dorothy Allison are among their journal’s advisory board–writers I much admire.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook? 

Charles Flowers, the editor I worked with, sent me a link to an artist’s paintings to consider. They were lovely, but not the right fit. The chapbook is 6″ x 6″ square, so I wanted a way to make it stand out, and at that size a complicated painting or detailed photograph wouldn’t cut it. I had an image in my head of red, red, red. I used to work as a comic book artist in the ’90s drawing superhero comics, so I had a modest background in art and design. I ended up doing the pen and watercolor image for the cover myself, as well as suggesting the two typefaces for the title.

Charles was extremely easy to work with. One of the poems had really wide lines, and he worked hard to make the text fit the page without being too small to comfortably read.

The nice thing about doing the cover art for the book is it got me back into painting, and now I meet with an old friend in the summer to paint at his house at the beach. I also recently did the line art for the cover of a 2014 poetry anthology, Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (Minor Arcana Press). So Velvet Rodeo helped me rediscover a number of passions.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?  

I’m not after a rarified audience, but rather one that’s more expansive, more Whitman-esque. My ideal audience is someone who will read a poem aloud, let it sink into their ears as well as their eyes. I’m happy when people who don’t otherwise read poetry tell me they get something from my work. I come from a working class background and I want to see poetry reach the kind of people I grew up with. I’m not interested in writing only to the academic elite, yet I think it’s possible to write poetry that will speak to both groups. Poetry that seems complicated for its own sake, or poetry that takes as its thesis the non-meaning of the world, generally doesn’t excite me. How many times can you make that argument? Non-meaning makes its own case around us every day of our lives. If a book sounds like it was written by a robot, I probably won’t like it. The same too with poetry that is so elliptical that it stews in vagueness and imprecision. In the poems I like best, intellect steers the impulse but emotion drives it. I get excited about poetry centering on careful observation and an attempt at communion between kindred or conflicted spirits. Sometimes those spirits exist in the same body.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook? 

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have Velvet Rodeo receive a number of strong reviews. Poetry books don’t get much attention, and I’ve been told for a chapbook it’s even more difficult. Early on, I compiled a list of possible reviewers and my publisher sent review copies to them. I sent a digital copy to a few more, including something called the Rainbow Awards, where Velvet Rodeo just received 2nd place in the Best GLBT Poetry category and was named 5th in the overall Best Gay Book Award, where it was competing against full-length books in multiple genres. It is nice to know I struck a chord with people who don’t typically read poetry.

Once Velvet Rodeo actually came out, I did several readings in New York, New Orleans and Philadelphia (where I now live). I’m eager to do more, especially if someone can pay travel expenses–and with over twenty years of teaching experience, I know how to run a fun and productive workshop (which is to say if you are interested, please let me know).

One bit of advice I’d give is don’t be shy about letting the journals and magazines where you’ve published know about your chapbook. They might review it or help you announce the good news. My experience is that they view such accomplishments as a validation of their support of you.

Also, take advantage of social media to help you find your tribe. I started a WordPress blog that feeds into Tumblr, Twitter and my Facebook page. Keep it simple; don’t get sucked into social media too much, which can easily happen. Remember the important thing is to keep writing your real work.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

Every time I take the Meyers-Briggs personality test I come up with the Idealist. Which explains why I am constantly disappointed when people and institutions do not live up to my ideal! Learning this helped me scale my expectations. I wish someone had told me early on that artists are not ideal people, that they are prone to the same foibles and sins as anyone else (you’d think reading great works of literature would have taught me this, but no, I’ve always suffered from a tendency to romanticize my heroes). I’ve especially tended to put poets on a pedestal, seeing them as truth-tellers or secular shamans–perhaps it’s because listening to them at readings reminds me of listening to scripture in church as a child. What is the Book of Psalms if not a collection of poems? What I’ve learned is that no one is ideal. Someone may tell the truth once, he or she may tell it mostly, but few if any people tell the truth always. Be alive to that and know you can still learn from it.

Another piece of wisdom I’ve arrived at is to stay busy. The demon of self-doubt most often weighs you down when you are not being productive. You may not always see a return on every investment of time, but if you aren’t writing and sending out work you’ll definitely not hear opportunity knocking.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a full-length collection as well as grouping some smaller suites of poems into what may end up as one or more additional new chapbooks. I’ve been working on some poems that retell fairy tales or glisten like little spells, so I think a theme is starting to emerge with that. Another batch continues to focus on poems about travel, but also deals with gay relationships and the country’s changing attitude toward gay marriage.

I tend to work on a lot of varied topics at once and only later do I begin to assess and cultivate a theme. I find poetry projects intimidating, so I let themes rise to the surface and then I start to fill in any gaps or answer the new questions that turn up.

What is your writing practice or process?  

I write a lot of first drafts in the Notes app on an iPad using a bluetooth keyboard. It’s highly portable. When I handwrite, I like legal pads. They’re cheap and less intimidating than a beautiful moleskin journal. First drafts, for me, are always messy, and usually revolve around a few good lines that will serve as magnets for other ideas later. It’s also about accumulating a word bank (I call it “word soup”). This consists of ideas, lines, and images that I slowly cook together. At some point I print out what’s on the iPad, annotate it, rewrite it on a legal pad and start to feed it all back into a computer as a Word file. Lather, rinse, repeat. When I’m getting close, I might show the poem to someone I trust. Not someone who will tell me what I want to hear, but someone who will tell me what I need to hear. Some poems come fast, but most require a lot of tying together and yanking apart, again and again.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?  

Often, to get started, I’ll set out a bait goat, a word that I brainstorm on to see what other words it attracts, or words that bear some semblance to the original through slant rhyme or what I call dyslexic (anagrammatic) rhyme: mite, item, time, emit. Or, atom/ATM. I’d been playing with this strategy for awhile, and then finally gave it a name when I read “Bait Goat” by Kay Ryan. The results don’t always end up in a final poem, but the technique can often serve as a divining rod, leading me to connections I might not otherwise see. As Ryan’s poem cautions, you also need to reign in the impulse before it goes too far. Sometimes writing a poem is like the old adage about getting dressed up for a night out on the town: Put on all your jewelry, but take off one piece before heading out the door.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

I’d offer the advice I’d give any poet. Don’t write like everyone else. Resist imitation, but study technique. Read more, and read widely. Examine mundane text (recipes, ad copy, horoscopes) and shake them up. Look to history to invigorate the future. Word placement on the page is important, too. A line of poetry doesn’t have to be all on the same line–and that’s liberating. Consider how the look of the poem can govern its oral delivery in the way that meter and rhyme once largely did. Try to master a technique so as to earn the right to tear it apart in a new and exciting way.

In terms of the people you will meet, question cults of celebrity and be wary of writers who seem only to want sycophants. They will never be true mentors to you. (This is poetry, not rock and roll.) Reward generosity. Look for true friends and mentors and value them. Share their successes and guard your heart against the occasional petty jealousy.

Remember, too, that many publications have a rigid aesthetic that it takes a while to hammer through, especially if you’re attempting to go against the grain and do something stylistically or thematically new. Some places you will never gain access to simply because tastes vary; others because the gatekeepers mainly publish big names and an in-crowd you are not part of. To hell with that. Value more highly people and publications who showcase strong new voices (young or old) well before they’re the next hot thing–that tells you something of their priorities. Your tribe will find you.

This also brings up the bandwagon phenomenon. Recently I saw an editor state he sometimes published work he didn’t actually like, work by rising stars or established names. He had his rationale–a shaky one, I thought. To me, it sounded like he had hopped on the bandwagon, endorsing work in which he saw little merit. He became another member of the crowd watching the Emperor parade by in his non-existent new clothes.

My takeaway? You need not endorse what everyone else is excited about, but neither should you be so closed off as to miss an opportunity to learn something from an unexpected source. I certainly have my poetic preferences, but I try to check myself when it comes to being overly prescriptive about what poetry should or should not do. We  don’t need to shut more doors on ourselves.  At the same time, I think we live in a culture where sincerity is undervalued, where what’s trending is prioritized over what is eternal. I, for one, don’t want to add any more snark or bile to the mix. I say, if you are going to be a writer, share with your readers the secret means you use to survive this wide world–in all its great difficulty and beauty.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?


Kelly McQuain is the author of Velvet Rodeo, winner of Bloom Books’ poetry chapbook prize. His poem “Camping as Boys in the Cow Field” was selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts as the winner of Redivider magazine’s AWP poetry contest. McQuain has twice held fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and has published work recently in The Pinch, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Assaracus, Kestrel, Mead, and Chelsea Station, among other journals. He also has work in numerous anthologies, including Rabbit Ears: TV Poems, Drawn to Marvel, The Queer South, and Men on Men. He teaches at Community College of Philadelphia.

Visit him at


Alien Boy

In San Miguel, two iced tequilas in, my friend
tells me her infant brother died only days after birth.

The announcements were mailed out
despite complications, It’s a boy trumping fear,

as if hope could ward off an incubator stay
or the vast array of tubes and devices all working

to manage an ailing boy’s
breath and blood. My friend’s parents rarely spoke

of her brother. Years later, she searched
old medical records to find out what happened.

She sketches me a worry of days:
endless tests proctored, sad looks from nurses,

hushed words of doctors who finally explained
to her parents that among their boy’s many problems,

a genital deformity: micro-penis.
Should he live, a choice: flood him with hormones

and raise him a girl, or…?
Or let nature take him as nature nearly had. Should he live?

Their choice? The dice? A nudge?
My friend couldn’t say for sure. Who among us could

tell which fear finally exhausts us?
My friend’s brother starved from a tube taken out

or perhaps his lungs failed first. Exactitude
is no more recorded than our parents’ private words,

choices that might savage an alien boy’s
flesh and blood. Any wonder the marriage failed?

Each time a cell divides is a new chance
for the world to go wrong. I’m lucky not to have had to draw

such large lines between loves.
The sun is going down in our Mexican town.

Our drinks are a watery, diluted gold.
I reach to take my friend’s hand, think better, and lift my glass instead.

(“Alien Boy” originally appeared in Bloom)


One thought on “Kelly McQuain

  1. Pingback: Speaking of Marvels: Chapbook Reviews | Kelly McQuain

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