Kate Partridge: What role does poetry have in feminist dialogue? How do you see your work as a writer participating in feminist dialogue?
Kevin McLellan: Considering the history—the demographics of publishers and the demographics of published poets — and considering that poems are artifacts, underrepresented populations have a responsibility to not only themselves, but also to future generations and generations past, to publish representative work. Considering this, poetry can be a platform for this very conversation, or rather these conversations.
Physically, I identify as male. Sexually, I identify as gay. Emotionally, I identify as more female than male. So it is through this collective assemblage, this queer lens, that I experience and view the world, and believe that I participate in feminist dialogue, albeit unconventionally.
KP: The title of this manuscript, “Before the Door,” speaks to the questions of boundary, intimacy, and observation that appear throughout the poems. The speaker is often taken in by an overheard moment or undetected observation—as in “Intersectional” and “Half”—in ways that speak to the proximity and constant visibility that seem specific to urban spaces. How do the urban and the act of observation affect your work?
KM: Your observations about my poetry are remarkably astute, Kate!
So, I was born and raised in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley. I found refuge in the quiet, in the natural world, yet as a gay man would need to leave this rural world out of necessity, out of survival. I cannot unlearn this rural sensibility. It is connected to my senses.
I live in Cambridge now, and have found a somewhat comfortable way to exist here. This translates to having a decent job, living alone in an apartment that feels like home, and wonderful friends, but the unpredictable insistence of the city — car alarms, sirens, early a.m. street voices, loud neighbors — infringes upon my quiet time at home, challenges this rural sensibility.
Perhaps I associate these interruptions with (other kinds of) interruptions from my childhood. You see: my father, a hard laborer, worked many nightshift hours. He often slept during the day. Of course, I wanted his love and attention, yet as a somewhat timid and sensitive child I didn’t know how to navigate his uncertain and unfixed disposition. He sometimes was unable to sleep during the day.
My mother was overprotective. I believe that I resisted this, and sometimes her, despite my utmost love for her.
So I was apprehensive, at best, to take up space as a child. I didn’t identify with most other children, and consequently found myself more and more often in the role of silent witness. Sometimes I remained silent. Sometimes I didn’t remain silent. Perhaps at this crossroads of silence and noise, or rather noise about silence and silence about noise, is how poetry found me? And so began the hemorrhaging? And the white field?
By the way, not being seen and not being heard are both triggers for me as an adult. Perhaps this is why I continue to write?
KP: The erotic is certainly at the forefront in this manuscript, whether the speaker is observing bodies, expressing desire, or producing language that mimics sex acts. This often manifests itself in surprising ways, for example in the line “my saliva is far away from his heart.” What is the relationship, for you, between the body and language? How do sexuality and gender enter the equation?
KM: I associate implicitness with feminine and explicitness with masculine. Is it possible that I make these associations because this gender division is personified as such? Yet it feels more natural for me as a man, a gay man, to write implicit poems. I tend to feel sheepish about, and reluctant with, being explicit, which is not to say that I am uncomfortable with being a man. Furthermore, I believe that I have more of a private, or implicit, sensibility with language and sex, yet even still, and every so often, an explicit poem surfaces, as if nude or even naked.
So this strain of poems, this strain of poems that comprise Before the Door, from an otherwise implicit writer, stray from what is more natural or comfortable, which is not to say uncomfortable. Let’s say queer.
KP: Questions of the direction of desire, both by the speaker and other entities, are central to these poems. Sometimes this is present, again, through the act of watching, or in unexpected ways like the speaker’s direct address of the audience: “It’s because of you reader/ why I haven’t asked, do you wanna fuck?” What are your thoughts on writing about desire and the gaze so that readers experience both the intimate and public nature of both in an engaging way?
KM: Desire could be considered public because we all experience feelings and wants, albeit idiosyncratic ones which therefore also makes them (desires) intimate.
When I became cognizant of my own desires, I was already acting upon them. It was as if desire controlled me even if I wasn’t acting upon them. Once poetry found me, I began to write about them.
Language could be considered public because we share language, yet we each have our own unique relationship with language, thus language is also intimate.
Once I found myself imprisoned by desire, desire a seemingly endless loop, it was as if I also found myself living within this question, “Is it possible that through prolonged temptation, feeling desire without directly involving another, one can attain some kind of freedom?” I believe that living through this question— out of a period of prolonged and chosen abstinence, out of loneliness, and then eventually out of desire for desire —brought me closer to understanding desire by keeping it at arm’s length, and how the projection “It’s because of you reader/why I haven’t asked, do you wanna fuck?” came into being.
KP: Two of my favorite poems, “Confessions of a Single Housewife Who is Also a Gay Man” and “Listening to the Be Good Tanyas on Grassy Hill Radio” work in part through a disarming sincerity in their exploration of loneliness. The speaker’s conceptions of both solitude and desire, as well as the frank portrayal of the little dramas of love and being in one’s own home, are truly delightful—not only invested in these universal questions of what it means to grow old without a partner, but also in picking the right treat to please one’s potential lover. How do you see sincerity and confession working in your poems?
KM: I believe that a transparent confession, being honest and vulnerable, has a good chance of surviving, and transferring to the reader. Yet I am more comfortable writing confessional poems that also temporarily disarm an “armed-I” speaker by folding in others (a birthing friend in “Confessions of a Single Housewife Who is Also a Gay Man” and the use of a you in “Listening to the Good Be Tanyas on Grassy Hill Radio) even if for just a moment. Please don’t get me wrong here: an “armed-I” speaker most certainly has a place in poetry.
KP: Could you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by the “armed-I” and your motivations for circumventing it in some circumstances?
KM: To retain a full on self-interested first person throughout a poem without any diversion is what I mean by an “armed-I” speaker. The risk is enormous! I believe that poems that take on this risk have a greater potential to not transcend, collapse like an ostentatious self-absorbed house. Yet sometimes the poetry can happen within the falling.
Or perhaps I am a fledgling?
Because I have fallen so many times without the result of poetry happening, for now I need just a little circumnavigation — you know what I mean? — to take some of the pressure off.
KP: This book contains a great deal of formal variety, from prose poems to long sequences. I particularly like how the sequences like “Concerning Honey” turn the constantly-present theme of observation onto the self in a form that includes notes, little impressions, and records of the day’s activities (diet, pets, the Post Office). What formal choices and constraints influenced your writing?
KM: “Concerning Honey” is like a collage. Seemingly, there is orderliness to the individual parts by use of containment from the sections and the unifying five lines per section. However, the identifiable and covert themes return, spill over to subsequent sections, thus allowing for disorderliness. Also, disorderly is the unpredictable narrator and content. So this combination of disorder and order creates a certain kind of unease, a bipolar tension, if you will.
I suppose that I am drawn to writing and reading free verse poems that unconventionally rely upon some kind of formality even if the formality itself isn’t forthright, yet trust that I would benefit from challenging myself by writing poems like “Quicksand and Sinkholes” that abandon formality and constraint all together. Yet I suppose the page itself could be considered a constraint, right?
KP: Who or what are some of your influences as a writer? Which writers do you admire, and why?
KM: Sylvia Plath and James Schuyler for their emotional intelligence and intelligent emotionality.
Paul Celan for his “reality-wounded and reality-seeking” commitment to language.
Hans Faverey and Maurice Blanchot for their paradoxical interrogations, philosophical experiments, philosophical interrogations, and paradoxical experiments.
Jorie Graham for her courage and intellectual vigor with innovation, and consequently longing. She writes, “The longing is to be pure. What you get is to be changed.”
KP: You have a full-length collection, Tributary, coming out with Barrow Street—congratulations! Can you tell us about this and other upcoming projects?
KM: This Tributary is under the skin, carries the microscopic threat of pandemic, channels the accompanying psychological and emotional burdens, streams throughout the body of an anxious speaker who attempts to keep it contained, or rather suppressed, yet sometimes “you” and “he” are employed for a shift in perspective, yet it runs back into itself, back to the speaker; all the while this Tributary also holds a scattering of tributes which act as relief from the hypothesis, poems as offerings, to acknowledge certain influential writers and a student, some of them with us and some of them not with us, each one, the people and the poems unique, yet also from the same wellspring.
I am currently writing poems for a project titled You. All of these poems address either a general or a specific you, yet the you could also be a self-reflexive speaker. Most of these You poems are unified by form: alternating single line stanzas and couplets. All of these poems are unified by unconventional punctuation—slashes, backslashes, question marks—thus having an interruptive and/or jarring effect, yet some of them make use of the hyphen to create hybrid words.
Some of these poems are narratives and some of them are experiments, which is not to say that they are experimental.
I am also co-curator, along with Carrie Bennett and Judi Silverman, of phantom phantom, an experimental cross-genre performance series. phantom phantom will premiere this spring in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Kevin McLellan is the author of Tributary (Barrow Street, 2015), and the chapbooks Shoes on a wire (Split Oak, 2015) runner-up for the 2012 Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry and Round Trip (Seven Kitchens, 2010), a collaborative series of poems with numerous women poets. He has recent or forthcoming poems in journals including: American Letters & Commentary, Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review Online, Spoon River Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review, wicked alice, Witness, and numerous others. Kevin lives in Cambridge, MA.