Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Examining Vanessa Place: Genius, opportunist, ignorant or next-level trolling?

So much has been written across the literary blogosphere and social media about the Vanessa Place controversy since my last post on May 17 that I can't possibly link them all here. Go ahead and Google her name and you'll spend the better part of day trying to digest it all. However, I will link you to Atticus Review, which has just published a series of essays on Place.

Of particular interest to me was Jay Sizemore's essay defending Place and her appropriation of the Gone With the Wind text. Jay writes that those who signed the petition to have Place removed from the AWP panel selection subcommittee should be "ashamed of themselves." I signed the petition. I am not ashamed.

I signed the petition not out of coercion or "groupthink," but because Vanessa Place has lost her credibility to fairly adjudicate or make selections for an organization that claims diversity as part of its mission. It goes beyond racism – real or perceived – but is about her ability to be subjective, especially after a large number of writers who have denounced her failed art project are sure to be on panel applications under review for next year's conference in Los Angeles.

I don't believe Vanessa Place is racist. I do, however, believe she is a tone-deaf, ignorant, opportunist. And thanks to Jay's essay and another bit of Place appropriation that happened today, I've come to the conclusion that she is also next-level trolling the poetry world for her own self-promotion. Someone pointed out that Place appropriated, without attribution, a Facebook post from poet Adam Fitzgerald, who announced he had a poem chosen for The New Yorker. Most of the people "liking" and responding to her post believed she had a poem chosen for publication. What could possibly be the point of that? Maybe her art is just trolling to see how much of a reaction she can get. My response: don't feed the trolls.

You can tell from interviews and other posts that Place is one of those who believes all publicity is good publicity, so she's flying with it. Jay claims in his essay that Place is smarter than us, yet she has been unable – or maybe just unwilling – to articulate her appropriation of racist images and text in an attempt to make us see our internalized racism. Her explanation that tweeting out the entirety of Gone With the Wind is an attempt get the estate of Margaret Mitchell to file a lawsuit against her – forcing the estate to claim the racist text – was not only late, but ridiculous. The Mitchell estate will never rise to the bait and since Place is also a lawyer, she knows better.

Maybe Place's zeal to mirror back racism has blinded her to her own white privilege. Maybe she sees herself as an ally, but she's critically misunderstood the mood of the nation, especially writers of color. Frankly, they don't want to hear black voices coming from the mouths of white women (or men, if you're Kenneth Goldsmith – another conceptual poet working to get some extra ink by reading the autopsy report of Michael Brown). Neither do I.  There are plenty of opportunities for white poets to write and engage about race – appropriating a person of color's voice to do so is not the answer.

I've seen a few tweets and Facebook posts about trying to get a petition going to have Place banned from speaking at universities. For the record, I will not support that effort and will stand against it no matter how offensive or opportunistic I find Place's work. If there are students and professors who want her to come and speak, she should be allowed to do so. Having Place removed from a committee where she has tainted her credibility to be subjective is one thing; trying to have her voice banned from college campuses is something else. Let Place go to the campuses to defend and debate her work with students who are interested in doing so. I'd like to sit in on one of those to see if she actually can.

I was debating with Jay about his essay on Facebook earlier this evening. During one of his responses, he called Place "quite intelligent." My reponse:  If by intelligence you mean attention-seeking, button-pushing troll then, yes, she's a goddamn genius. Until a couple of weeks ago, most of us had never even heard of Vanessa Place or only read a smattering of her published work. Place has plenty of supporters, her profile in the poetry community is off the scale – good or bad – and more people are reading her work than ever before.

Judging from the tweets on her second Twitter account and the things she's posted on Facebook, it's never been a better time to be Vanessa Place. And maybe we've all been suckers for indulging her.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Vanessa Place, Mongrel Coalition and notes on coercion

A petition is being circulated to have conceptual poet Vanessa Place removed from the committee selecting panels for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in LA next year.

I was only vaguely aware of Place's work until this past week, but knew her writing was racially charged and controversial. I examined her videos and Twitter account – where she has been tweeting excerpts from Mammy and where the n-word is used in Gone With the Wind – and decided to sign the petition.

I fully believe in her right to make art – even if it is grotesquely offensive – but I am less certain if she should be selecting panels for an organization which claims to strive toward diversity (that's a whole other post, probably). Art has consequences, especially if it is tone-deaf and culturally appropriative. When your "artist's statement" makes no sense, don't expect your racist words and imagery to make sense to the public at large.

On the other hand, the divisive tone and scare tactics by the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (especially on their Twitter account) is unconscionable. Threatening other writers (including those of color) with censure – to "disappear" them – if they don't denounce Place and sign the petition is another technique to bully and silence. There is no attempt at dialogue, debate or to have any kind of nuanced conversation. Belittling, harassing and mocking writers you claim to be in alliance with is counterproductive and, frankly, makes you look like a bunch of assholes. Sadly, it reminds me of the caps-locked rants from conservative whack jobs and right wing religious loons who scream into the void about marriage equality, for example, being the downfall of civilization.

Credit goes to the Mongrel Coalition for bringing the Vanessa Place issue to the forefront and for their justifiable anger. It's too bad they can't take that rage and hone it to a fine knife rather than wielding it like a truncheon. Eliminating white supremacy, which is part of MCAG's mission, is a no-brainer; threatening to silence those who don't agree with your method of doing so – or dare to make an alternative suggestion – makes you an oppressor. Eliminating racism is the end goal, so let's continue to work toward it without alienating those who are also striving for that goal.

Examine Vanessa Place's work and make your own decision rather than being coerced. Don't let someone else make it for you.

Update: AWP tweeted just after 9:30 p.m. that Vanessa Place has been removed from the panel selection committee and a full statement will be released tomorrow.

Update 2: AWP's "statement" is as tone-deaf as Vanessa Place's work. Including links to two white guys explaining Place's work and expressing concern about the "ill-will" against AWP is sure to cause more backlash. You can read it at this link.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fundraiser for "Leaving Paris" book tour begins

With Leaving Paris complete, I'm thinking ahead to 2016 and the book tour. If you would like to help me fund this tour, the Sibling Rivalry Press Foundation is accepting tax-deductible donations on my behalf. You can click this link to make your donation.

My goal is $3,000 to help offset gas, hotels, food, airfare, etc. Even $1 will help. I'm really excited for everyone to read the new novel and meet new people on the road. Feel free to pass this link on to anyone who might want to support the endeavor. Thank you in advance!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Back to LA

WeHo Lamppost Poet Reading
(Photo by Joshua Barash)
I just got back from a hectic and exciting week in Los Angeles. It was a week full of poetry, catching up with friends, good food, a little shopping and treating myself to a nice hotel.

Let's start with the hotel. Ever since I was a kid, I had wanted to stay at the Westin Bonaventure in Downtown. I first saw it on the old sitcom It's A Living, about waitresses working in the top floor restaurants, and later in movies like True Lies, Forget Paris, In the Line of Fire and Strange Days. Its iconic cylindrical towers, glass elevators and lobby fountains are both futuristic and retro at the same time. A little wish-fulfillment never hurt anyone, so I booked a room on the 25th floor for two nights. It was totally worth it.

My view from the 25th floor at the Bonaventure.
I had a spectacular view of Downtown from my room and all of the city from the revolving lounge. For the first time ever, I treated myself to room service (the flourless chocolate torte was heaven) and even had a little time to write in the lobby lounge overlooking the bubbling fountains. 

Sadly, I could only afford a couple of nights, but friend and fellow poet Cecilia Woloch opened up her fab little apartment in Mid-Wilshire for the rest of my stay. She's got the comfiest couch in LA. 

My first event was the West Hollywood Lamppost Poet Reading at the WeHo Library on April 25. It was a gorgeous space and I was thrilled to share the podium with Michael Klein, Amy Gerstler, Teka-Lark Fleming, Eloise Klein Healy, Terry Wolverton and organizer/WeHo City Poet Steven Reigns. There were more than 100 in the audience – a great number for a cool, rainy Saturday afternoon in LA. And it was surreal to see my face on a banner along busy Santa Monica Boulevard to mark National Poetry Month. 

My finds at Amoeba Records on Sunset Blvd.
Sunday was fairly lazy, but Cecilia and I met up with her friend and author Heather Lyle for dinner at an LA institution – El Cholo on Western Avenue. Incredible margaritas, enchiladas and company. We talked for hours and closed the place down.

On Monday, I headed over to Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard. I had a mile-long list of vinyl and CDs that I wanted. Before I knew it, I had a shopping basket full of stuff. I put most of it back except for the 180-gram vinyl reissue of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and the expanded re-release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne. Those were my must-haves and I have them. 

Steven Reigns picked me up and we headed for dinner at In-n-Out in North Hollywood, because I can't leave LA without a Double Double and fries. So damn good! Then we headed over to the KPFK studios for our interview on the IMRU Radio Magazine show. Steven interviewed me about my poetry and fiction, I read a couple of poems and there were laughs with the other DJs about my love of pop culture. You can listen to the show at this link (just scroll down to the April 27 episode).

Filming the Leaving Paris video with Vanessa Daou.
Tuesday afternoon was set aside for what was a secret project, but the cat is now out of the bag. My friend and musician Vanessa Daou has written a song called "Leaving Paris," which is based on my books in The Venus Trilogy. The song, a collaboration with brokenkites, will be featured on her new album and will be released as a single in the autumn. There will be a digital booklet available for download with the song featuring sample chapters from Leaving Paris. There will also be a music video. Yep, you heard me – a music video. Vanessa and I spent Tuesday afternoon filming the first part and we are thrilled with the footage. The second part will be filmed in Paris at the end of summer. If you had told me that I would be directing a music video for one of my longtime inspirations, I would have said you were crazy. This collaboration with Vanessa has been amazing and I am eternally grateful for her friendship and support. We can't wait for you to see this video!

I was still on floating on a cloud from the video shoot as I went to meet friend and fellow author Kate Evans and her husband Dave for dinner. We decided on a little place called West End on Westwood Avenue and it was delicious. Great martinis, sliders and "dirt" fries (beer battered and rolled in garlic, herbs and olive oil), not to mention catching up with Kate after so many years. She and Dave have become "nomads," traveling and exploring all over the world. They had just come from driving up the Baja California peninsula and were headed to Jazz Fest in New Orleans. 

Leaving Los Angeles
Wednesday was my final full day in LA. I met up with Steven again and we drove down to the city of Orange in Orange County for our feature at The Ugly Mug. This was my fourth feature at The Mug, and hosts Ben Trigg and Steve Ramirez are sweethearts for having me back whenever I can get to the West Coast. It was a lively reading and open mic (Cecilia even drove down to read a few poems), and remains one of my favorite places to read poetry.

And then it was Thursday and time to fly home. I'm still a bit jet lagged, but already planning my next trip to LA. It just so happens that the AWP conference is there in 2016, so with a book to promote and any excuse for a visit, I'll be back in the City of Angels in no time.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Sometimes Her Arms Bend Back

I could never solve the mystery of you,
so we dance, whisper our secrets,
stop motion tango.
We linger in a black and white and red
purgatory, weighted down by velvet,
where a little man snaps out our future.
Maybe we are both dead, maybe
twenty-five years is really just a blink,
fades like the taste of my favorite gum.
Your hair is dark, mine is gray,
we never met before tonight, but
you look like her,
so I make your arms bend back,
pull you against me and we dance,
carve my name under your nails.
It's happening again, a sharp jazz note,
talk backwards, girl...speak my language.
Let's rock.

– Collin Kelley

From the Twin Peaks-inspired anthology, A Slice of Cherry Pie (The Private Press, edited by Ivy Alvarez). Twin Peaks premiered 25 years ago tonight. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Social media, bullying and poetry critique

The business of words keeps me awake...
Last night, Georgia Center for the Book kindly selected my poem, "Saving Anne Sexton," to lead off its Poem-A-Day project to mark National Poetry Month. Shortly after it was posted on Facebook, a number of readers took offense to the poem. The comments were strongly worded, but polite. I explained that my intent was to praise Sexton, not victimize her. I apologized for any offense, my metaphors not landing and contemplated having the poem removed.

Then I saw the critique by Kia Alice Groom and Sonya Vatomsky – the two commenters on Facebook who were opposed to the language I used in the poem – posted at their online literary magazine, Quaint. That led to my discovery of their personal comments on Twitter. Both Groom and Vatomsky were dabbling in what is known as "subtweeting," one of the methods used by cyber-bullies. Rather than include my Twitter name in their comments to address me directly, they were doing so among their followers. I found it cowardly to personally attack me and not have the courage to include me in their actual bullying. That's when I decided to withdraw my apology and informed Georgia Center for the Book to keep the poem on Facebook.

The subtweets labeled me as a "broet," (I would love to know what that term means, since it obviously wasn't a compliment) a "misogynist," a "stupid idiot" and gleeful postings about "taking me down" and "tag teaming a stupid broet." This kind of language undermines any kind of valuable critique offered by Groom and Vatomsky at Quaint or my willingness to engage with them. Their social media comments prove that this was an exercise in cyber-bullying gussied up as critique. They close down discussion or debate by using language that is meant to demean and silence the artist. More on that in a moment.

Both Groom and Vatomsky said they did not know my work or me – I was just going to be the next privileged cis white male who needed to be taken down a peg or two. Ironically, they overlooked their own white privilege while claiming ownership and possession not only of Sexton's body of work, but her physical body as well. Their colonization of Sexton is far more patronizing, dehumanizing and silencing of the woman they claim is a "dead girl" victim of misogyny. Referring to Sexton as a girl, infantilizing her to make her part of their coterie, removes her power as an artist and woman. As they have similarly accused the poem, Vatomsky and Groom graft their own words, actions and thoughts onto Sexton also robbing her of her agency.

Perhaps the most damning tweet was in response to poet Emily Van Duyne: "Well, it's clear you don't get his metaphor. Probably no white man should ever speak again. That would fix this." Groom's response: "True." The wish to silence an artist – no matter their gender, race, orientation, faith – speaks volumes. It's a dangerous mindset and flies in the face of Vatomsky and Groom's argument. When another poet, Hannah Stephenson, objected to Groom and Vatomsky's language, they were both quick to claim their comments weren't personal. All evidence to the contrary.

Yes, the poem is open for interpretation, but Vatomsky and Groom go much further. The parsing of every line and metaphor in search of misogyny is one thing, but the duo's appropriation of the poem to play out some twisted necrophilia on Sexton is quite another.

The most disgusting part of the critique is the bizarre, sexualized imagery created by Vatomsky and Groom of exhuming Sexton's corpse. The use of the words “pristine” and “tight covers” seems particularly problematic, but are just further examples of a deliberate misreading of the poem. Both those words belong to the book selling trade, especially used and antiquarian books. Pristine is defined as a book in original condition, unchanged in any way. Tight covers are used to describe a book that's binding has not loosened to the point that pages will fall out. I plead guilty to the love of rare books and its nomenclature. Even the image of Sexton autographing the book is declared too intimate and the further sexualization of a dead woman. This section of the post goes beyond critique and into grotesque, craven autopsy. My "saving" Sexton was little more than an effort to "fuck, save and dismember" her, according to Groom.

The poem also, according to the assessment, tries to rob Sexton of her agency to commit suicide. If I were a time traveller, would I try to prevent Sexton from killing herself? Yes. Just as I would try to prevent someone – anyone – else from doing the same. The mind-boggler here is that general care and concern, according to Groom and Vatomsky, are just further examples of a man dehumanizing and humiliating a woman. According to Groom, suicide intervention shows a "lack of regard for women, and particularly for women poets." I wonder if the same holds true for my wanting to keep John Berryman and Paul Celan alive for a few more years?

If this is contemporary criticism and I'm out of touch with it, I will happily stay out of touch forever. This incident has also taught me a lesson that a personal experience doesn't always translate and that some people will interpret your experience to match their own solipsism.

As a gay man from blue-collar rural Georgia who is often dismissed from certain literary circles because he is not an academic, I am well aware of how demoralizing marginalization is – perhaps this is why my work so often attempts to give voice where there has been none. I will continue to give that voice, and precisely because of this kerfluffle I will continue to do so loudly. Thank you for reading this.

Update:  More thoughts on this in my conversation with poet Reb Livingston at Queen Mob's Teahouse at this link.

Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional

Welcome to Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional, the website for poet, novelist, playwright and journalist Collin Kelley.