The launch of from A Book of Poems on Beauty, the winner of Gazing Grain’s 2014 chapbook contest, was held on a September Saturday during the Fall for the Book Festival in Fairfax, Virginia. The day was unseasonably chilly, with murky gray skies, wind, and persistent drizzles. The reading and launch, however, were a great way to warm up. Both contest winner Anne Lesley Selcer and contest runner-up Kevin McLellan read from their work and ignited my appreciation for their imagery, rhythms, and poetic daring.
Tall with jet black hair stark against a magenta shirt, Anne Lesley Selcer brought a commanding presence fitting for her crackling poems. The cadence of her poems was sharp and often list-like, with statements coming like bursts of lightning. “Creped skin, pipe smoked, citadel./Trampled leaves, black dirt, winding path./ I dress this way because I want to,” wrote Selcer. Many of her poems directly addressed women’s empowerment through wearing what they want or taking on controversial roles. In one poem, she took on the voice of porn star Sasha Gray, stating crisply, “I was not sexually abused. I am not on drugs. The acts I perform are always consensual./ I am a woman who strongly believes in what she does.” Selcer’s voice is as confident as her word choice; her vision of feminine empowerment rang fresh and honest. But vulnerability also crept into her reading in an emotionally fulfilling way. My favorite of her poems began, “When I was the beautiful girl/ the fireflies signified:” Easy answers aren’t given here, nor is the implication that the poet is no longer “the beautiful girl” resolved. Those of us in the audience were left with impressions of flickering and burning, but also of torches shining brightly, confident and empowered.
Runner-up Kevin McLellan filled the reading with infectious warmth. Blue eyes sparkling, he jauntily greeted the audience and snapped a picture for his mother. McLellan’s poems were energetic but often heart-wrenching in their juxtaposition of natural images with harsh words. “My body will need/ to surrender. Like spills/ around the connifers,” McLellan wrote in Tributary, which is forthcoming from Barrow Street Press. He also read from his broadside, published by Gazing Grain, titled “Confessions of a Single Housewife Who is Also a Gay Man.” The title suggests possible contradictions, possible dualities, possible splits. But the lines themselves suggest wholeness. Pain and awareness are united together in honest realism: “I cook with family in mind and food becomes complicated/ because I am both hungry and not hungry.”
Showing off their distinct perspectives on gender, beauty, and expectation, Selcer and McLellan’s fiery lyricism made the launch not only a terrific way to spend a rainy afternoon but a chance to discover two exciting poets. The launch demonstrated that both poets offer valuable contributions to the feminist literary community as well as to Gazing Grain’s growing repertoire.