A Conversation with Collin Kelley
On April 1 the Georgia Center for the Book posted Collin Kelley’s poem, “Saving Anne Sexton” on its Facebook page. Some readers took issue with the idea that Anne Sexton needed to be “saved” and accused the poem of appropriating women’s bodies, sexualizing a dead woman, promoting violence against women and in general being misogynistic.
Within a couple hours an essay entitled “Saving “Saving Anne Sexton”: In Which Dead Women are Used as Props (Again)” appeared at Quaint Magazine written by Sonya Vatomsky and Kia Groom expounding on these criticisms.
The next day Collin Kelley responded on his blog to both the Quaint essay and further discussions on Twitter. He took issue with their identifying him as a “broet” and calling him a “misogynist” and a “stupid idiot” saying these were bullying tactics attempting to silence him as an artist. He went on to say that they were appropriating the poem “to play out some twisted necrophilia on Sexton.”
After reading both essays and some of the Twitter discussion I contacted Collin and he agreed to further discuss this matter with me.
RL: Much of Sonya Vatomsky’s & Kia Groom’s critique of “Saving Anne Sexton” seemed to be based on your identity. How much of a role do you think a writer’s identity should play into a reading or critique of a text? This is a question that I grapple with and haven’t come to a definitive answer. This instance brought up another aspect that I hadn’t given much thought: identity based on whose perception? I’m your friend and have known you for years. My jaw dropped when I read you referred to as a “broet” — I can’t even imagine how that label was applied except out of sheer ignorance of you and your writing. To me, this was the most questionable part of the critque. If a writer is using identity as the basis of her critique, what do you think her responsibility is to inform herself of the subject’s identity? Should she use the identity that the subject self-identifies as or is she free to come up with her own?
CK: Both Kia Groom and Sonya Vatomsky readily admitted they knew nothing about my work or me. They were responding to the “Saving Anne Sexton” poem in isolation without having read any of my other poetry. I have no problem with that. A poem should stand or fall on its own merit without a body of work to back it up. The fact that I was called an “entitled broet” (a term also being used in the cyber-bullying on Twitter) in the first line of the critique clued me in immediately that neither of them had explored beyond their immediate reaction. Reaction is not critical response. I think about an hour elapsed from the time the poem was published until the critique appeared at Quaint. While they were furiously typing, they were also engaging in subtweeting about “tag teaming the stupid broet.” To be frank, I don’t think Groom or Vatomsky were interested in my identity. Now that they’ve discovered that I’m gay, they’ve tried to walk back some of the comments, but I remain a privileged white male. Any homophobia that I might have experienced – physically or verbally – was negated because of my gender.
RL: You’re hardly the first person to write a fanboy/girl poem to Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Fill-in-the-blank Poet. Obviously the reading that Vatomsky & Groom inferred is not what you intended, but can we agree that once something is published and out there, the author’s intent takes a back seat to how it’s received by the reader? If you can put aside the personal attacks and dismissals in the critique, can you understand or at least see where their reading of the poem is coming from?
CK: Groom and Vatomsky wanted to couch the poem in a narrative about violence against women, “dead girl poetry,” and misogyny. In their opinion, there was no other interpretation of the poem. Yes, the language could be considered offensive by some readers. Any and all writing is going to be found offensive by someone. Dorothy Parker hated Winnie-the-Pooh. The goal of my work is not to police or protect other people’s feelings and sensibilities. It’s written to provoke, challenge and entertain. I have had my work critiqued harshly on many occasions – both in writing and to my face. I’ve grown a thick skin to that and can differentiate between professional critique and personal attack. Groom and Vatomsky appropriated the poem to fit a narrative while personally attacking me at the same time. If the response had been, “Collin, I find that language misogynistic,” then engaged me in dialogue, this would have been a much more productive experience. Instead, there was a deliberate misreading of a poem to fit an agenda, which is why I was particularly disgusted by the necrophilia images that Groom and Vatomsky created themselves. Their zeal to sexualize Sexton’s corpse, which I apparently want to exhume and fuck, would be hilarious if it wasn’t just disturbing. In my opinion, this goes far beyond critiquing writer intent.
RL: Do you believe some writers have more claim over certain writers (or subjects) than others? There seems to be a bit of a pissing contest over who is appropriating Anne Sexton more. Both sides accuse one another of dehumanizing and silencing Sexton. I’m trying to come up with a personal framework regarding when is it appropriate for someone to write what about someone or something and in what ways. Every thought that comes into my mind is very tribal and territorial. I can’t settle on an answer for myself. Do you have some sort of framework that you follow when writing, or reading for that matter?
CK: I write about who and what I want to write about. I don’t police my muse. When we start questioning what is “appropriate” to write about then we are limiting ourselves as writers. There is a growing effort to silence writers and artists rather than have real dialogue or debate over their work and language. I got a real sense of this thanks to the Twitter exchange going on between Groom and Vatomsky and those trying to engage them in dialogue about my poem. Any male who tried to engage was told their opinion held no currency. They were told to shut up, fuck off and go away. Women who didn’t buy into the misogyny narrative were also dismissed because they weren’t on board with the agenda. This closing down of discussion and debate to silence other’s opinions and art is dangerous. I’m not going to play that game or self-monitor my art and neither should anyone else.
RL: On Twitter and on Facebook there has been sort of a pile-on of criticism regarding both your poem and you personally. Some seemingly quite gleeful in “taking you down.” Anyone who’s spent time on social media has seen examples of this phenomena and many of us, to some degree, have participated in it at one time or another, myself included. Now that you’ve been the focus of such an experience, do you think it will change how or what you write about? Are there more Anne Sexton poems in your future? Will you be more careful with what you publish and share with readers? Has this experience in any way influenced you to “STFU” or “maybe disappear from lit altogether”?
CK: Anyone who has read beyond “Saving Anne Sexton” will know that a good portion of my work is about women. Pam Grier, Jeanne Moreau, Kate Bush, Margot Kidder, The Virgin Mary and Wonder Woman have all found their way into my work. They are my inspiration. I’ve been working on a series of poems about female characters in film, especially those who were in silent films or had small, but memorable roles. So far, I’ve written about Lillian Gish’s character in the classic silent The Wind, Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus, the drunk secretary from 9 to 5, a woman from the old disaster flick Earthquake and Suzanne Pleshette’s schoolteacher from The Birds. A couple of them have already been published and I’m polishing the others. How they will be received remains to be seen. I have no plans to shut up, disappear, go fuck myself or stop writing about what moves and intrigues me. And, yes, there most likely will be another Anne Sexton poem.
Collin Kelley is the author of the American Library Association-honored poetry collection Render and The Venus Trilogy of novels – Conquering Venus, Remain In Light and the forthcoming Leaving Paris – all from Sibling Rivalry Press. His poetry, essays, interviews, reviews and fiction have appeared in magazines and journals around the world.