London Calling: A Conversation with Collin Kelley

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  • February 7, 2019

Atlanta-based poet and novelist Collin Kelley’s third full-length collection, Midnight in a Perfect World, threads us into a journey of navigating the hungers of love and desire.  Borrowing its title from DJ Shadow’s trip-hop masterpiece, the collection is filled with longing—for connection and for geography—against the backdrop of America and London. Along the way we are privy to pop culture references and alternate realties—think Kate Bush as high priestess, Kylie Minogue working in a drive-thru, and an unsettling return to the world of Twin Peaks—that show Kelley’s mastery in appreciation of cinema, television, and music.  Compelled by a sense of hunger, Kelley raises questions regarding the fulfillment of desire, of both feeding and starving a longing that propels us into a broader narrative.  Witty, cut with humor, and chock fill of lines that stick and stay, Midnight in a Perfect World invites us into a dreamscape that makes departure almost irresistible.

–Julie E. Bloemeke

 

Midnight in a Perfect Worldis presented in two sections—Urge for Going and This is Not America.  How did you determine the titles for each section? Can you speak to how you divided and ordered the poems?

The collection began as a chapbook of poems centered strictly on London, so there were no sections at all. After my publisher, Bryan Borland at Sibling Rivalry Press, read the manuscript, he encouraged me to add more poems. I had posted a draft of the poem “Feast” on my blog and social media and he was like, “That poem has to be in the book.” If that was going to be the case, it had to be the first poem and, suddenly, the book took on a very different tone. So, I started thinking that maybe there was a full collection here. The line in “Feast” that I borrowed from John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshirethat “sorrow floats” made me think about the intersection of wanderlust and grief and how we think a change of scenery can heal us. Sometimes it does, but mostly trouble follows. It has no boundaries and requires no passport. I realized I had other poems that leant themselves to this same narrative arc. “Urge for Going” is one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, and it speaks to the restless desire to be elsewhere. Joni inspired another poem (“Night Ride Home”) in the collection, so the title for the section seemed natural. The second section, “This Is Not America,” comes from the David Bowie/Pat Metheny Group song. These are the poems that focus on London and the UK, and the title—for me— speaks to the truth that while the UK is an English-speaking country, it’s completely foreign. There’s a totally different energy, especially in London, that draws me back again and again. London is my favorite place on Earth, and I fled there often in the wake of grief and sorrow, but what I was leaving behind in America eventually found me there.

 

Many of your poems speak to a dreamscape or a conjured moment in an illusion of reality, a pattern that also defines your trilogy of novels—Conquering Venus, Remain in Light, and Leaving Paris—but here I am thinking specifically of “Another Monica Bellucci Dream,” “Kate Bush Appears on Night Flight, 1981,” “In the afterlife my father is a London cab driver,” and “I Should Be So Lucky,” where Kylie Minogue works in a fast-food drive-thru. Can you discuss how these poems came to be? Were they kicked off by dreams? By the impetus to write about certain people in unexpected situations?

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, which— in my mind—is pop culture ground zero. The music, films, books, people, and moments were ripe for poetry and I found myself returning to those influences because they are a common denominator, collective touchstones, entry points for readers into my work. I do have very vivid, involved and bizarre dreams. I often feel like I’m inhabiting other peoples’ lives in my dream, having out-of-body experiences or traveling while I’m in my sleep. Mixing dreams and pop culture into the poems gives me that same sense of familiarity and foreign— sort of like when I’m in London. “I Should Be So Lucky” was a dream. I woke up and wrote it down. Like so many of our dreams, it seems completely realistic and normal when it’s happening. Kylie Minogue is working a drive-thru window in the English countryside and is also a mystic. Sure, why not. Then you wake up to reality and wonder how you could not question the strange situation you’ve just been in. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to recall the majority of my dreams in detail. They are great fuel for my work.

 

Let’s talk about your references to hunger.  I am thinking of a number of poems here.  In “Night Ride Home” you quote Joni Mitchell, “What do I do here with this hunger…” In “Bitch” you write “Randal’s kisses were hungrier,” In “Strange Weather” there’s “At least your kisses seem realistic/hungry from distance”, in “Revenant” you mention “our extravagant, unquenchable appetites.”  How do you see hunger in terms of longing and desire? Is it inextricably linked with sex? Travel?  Writing?

In a word: Yes. I am ravenous for sex, travel, writing and life in general most of the time. I can’t get enough of those experiences and when I’m in a drought, it feels like gnawing hunger pains to me. In the specific poems you mentioned, there is a common theme and that is long-distance and/or clandestine relationships. I wasn’t getting the sex I wanted from the people I wanted it from and even when I finally did it wasn’t enough. There’s always that little voice in my head saying, get all you can because you’ll be leaving in a few days and won’t see them again for weeks or months. So even when you’re getting your desires met and appetite quenched, there’s always the knowledge that you’ll be hungry again soon. I went through a two-or-three-year period where I was in long-distance relationships back-to-back and I was starved for sex. Never again!

It is also telling that the opening and middle poems in the book explore hunger too, but from a point of rawness in or about the body. In “Feast,” the first poem of the book, you write,  “I am going to bring you home/ sit in the dark and eat you raw/all over again” and in “Another Monica Bellucci Dream,” you have this line: “I scrub my flesh until I am a pale version of my former self…I go to bed hungry, chewing the inside of my cheek/until I taste blood.”  In both cases there is a reference to the stripping of self, a need to fill, and to cut down to bareness.  Can you explore that with us?

I am an unabashed and unapologetic confessional poet. I wear that title proudly. I don’t give a shit if it’s in or out of fashion. I am an Anne Sexton stan. Her work taught me to just let it all hang out and strip myself down—mentally and physically—and to not be afraid to explore what’s bubbling underneath the surface: get face-to-face with those deeper emotions; roll around in the mud and get dirty with them. I think I’ve grown more fearless as a writer in the last ten years or so, especially when it comes to writing about sex, relationships, and calling people out. I realize my poetry isn’t for everyone; maybe it’s too raw, sexual or crude for some tastes, but I am not going to censor or edit my emotions to fit the current trend or to get in a literary journal. I am well past the “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t say that” stage of my life as a poet. I push myself in every poem to say what others might consider unsayable. I have removed that filter completely from my writing.

Speaking of “Another Monica Bellucci Dream,” Blue Fifth Review recently nominated this poem for the Pushcart Prize. How did Twin Peaksinform this work? 

Twin Peaksis a masterpiece. From its original two-series run on ABC back in the early 90s to the Fire Walk With Mefilm to the recent revival series on Showtime. David Lynch and Mark Frost are insane and genius. Nothing I have ever watched has delighted and unsettled me more than Twin Peaks. It fills me with the most delicious dread, and I have watched it over and over. It’s a neverending onion where you just keep peeling back the layers, hoping to get some resolution even as you know there will never be any. Twin Peaksis, literally, touching the void. The “Monica Bellucci” poem is a riff on Lynch’s character FBI Director Gordon Cole in the revival series. He recounts a dream to his fellow agents where he meets Bellucci in a Paris café and there is a flashback to the scene in Fire Walk With Methat featured David Bowie as a missing agent who suddenly reappears. So there’s another nod to Bowie, who I just absolutely adored and still can’t quite come to grips with the fact that he’s no longer with us. Anyway, that sequence filled me with so much anxiety and awe that when Blue Fifth Revieweditor Sam Rasnake approached me about contributing something to the Twin Peaksissue of the journal, I knew immediately I would have to conjure up my own Monica Bellucci dream and dedicate it to Bowie and Lynch. Instead of Paris, the speaker meets Bellucci at a London pub, so it became this twisted and ominous segue out of America and into the UK. She says, “There’s fire where you’re going.” And she is so right.

 

Photography and Sally Mann played a significant role in your previous collection, Render. Music and films are the connective tissue that tie this collection together. How do they inform your work and what is your thought process when you choose a poem or collection title?

I like to pay homage to the music and films I love because they are my passion. I have hundreds and hundreds of vinyl records, CD’s and cassette tapes. Some people need silence when they are writing, but I want music. It helps set the mood for what I’m writing. Films do the same. My first collection, Better To Travel, was taken from the Swing Out Sister album, while the Slow To Burnchapbook comes from Vanessa Daou’s brilliant record. The new collection is named after the DJ Shadow song from his debut album Entroducing…That song—a jazzy, trip-hop mélange created with loops and samples—remains one of my favorite pieces of music. I knew from the moment I first heard it while browsing through Tower Records in London in 1996 that I would one day title a book after it. Many of the poems in the collection such as “20thCentury Boy,” “Strange Weather” and “Night Ride Home” get their names from songs. Again, it’s part of mining pop culture, but also grounding the poem in a specific time and place. I created “Midnight in a Perfect World: A Poetry Playlist” on Spotify for this collection and encourage people to find it and listen as they read. The music offers context and soundtrack to the poems.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Dukker,” where a Romani woman serves as soothsayer; striking a perfect chord of chill when she sees the unseen.  I think too, of “Atonement” where Christopher returns, after death, in the line, “But today, you come back as the sound of rain and fill me up like/a bucket until I brim.” Over the years, we’ve had many discussions about synchronicity and its thematic importance in your novels; how does it play a role in Midnight in a Perfect World?

I am firm believer in Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, which, basically, is the idea that there are “meaningful coincidences.” Things are said or events unfold that can’t possibly be connected, yet somehow they are. I love the mystery of that; the mashup of the knowable and unknowable. Maybe that’s why I love Twin Peaksso much. For me, synchronicity is about the connections that strangers have with each other and with places. When people meet by chance or accident and there is, shockingly, some unexpected commonality or connection that should not exist. Or when you inexplicably feel drawn to a place you’ve never been before and you have an experience, whether it’s an encounter with a stranger or that weird déjà vu of feeling like you’ve been there before. Maybe it was a previous life. I’m a firm believer in past lives. I do feel drawn to places I’ve never been. London was one, Paris was another. Currently, it’s Australia. I want to travel into the Outback and meet the Aboriginal people there. There are no words for these odd sensations in English, but the Germans have “fernweh” and the Welsh have “hiraeth,” both of which loosely translate into a homesickness for a place you’ve never been. It’s another kind of hunger craving. Something or someone is calling to you and you just have to be bold enough to light out for the unknown territories to find it.

Would you say there are any revenge poems in this collection? Why or why not?

I guess you could read poems like “Bitch” or “Strange Weather” or “Things to do in Denver when you’d rather be dead” as revenge poems, but I think of them as more of coming to terms with ghosts. Yes, I name names and air grievances, but, as the saying goes, there are two sides to every story and these are my side. It’s my version of events. And, again, I return to my rule of writing without a censor or filter.

 

We’ve both stayed at the Tavistock Hotel in Tavistock Square, inspiration for the poem of the same title, and also site of Virginia Woolf’s former home. As you write, “I am sleeping in the corner of your ghost house, Virginia.”  What other secret artist haunts do you wish to write about or let readers in on?

The Tavistock Hotel isn’t fancy, but it’s comfortable, got a great bar and one of the best full English breakfasts in town. I’ve gotten a lot of writing done there, so I like to believe that Woolf is urging me on. I’m a Woolf stan, too. The place I’m absolutely fascinated with right now is late filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman’s home, Prospect Cottage, at Dungeness. It’s an old fisherman’s cottage on the barren and windswept coast of the English Channel in Kent. I’m working on a series of poems about Jarman and his films like The Last of England, Jubilee, Edward IIand Blue. My next collection is mostly set in Los Angeles, with plenty of film iconography. A central part of the collection will be looking back at the artists we have lost to AIDS.

 

In his book Why Poetry?Matthew Zapruder writes, “It could be said the relationship of poems to what we intuit but can never fully say makes them like prayer, that unending effort to bring someone closer to the divine, without pretending the divine could ever be fully known or understood.”  Prayer and incantation play a significant part in this collection, from the poem “Incantation” to “Ritual,” where a rosary and the stations of the cross are referenced as part of a reawakening through a sexual encounter. What is it about repetition, a calling to something else or something higher that appeals to you? Is this another kind of hunger?

Fanatics and bigots have been allowed to hijack organized religion. I have no use for any of that. When I was younger, I was fascinated by witchcraft, but now my beliefs lean toward Tibetan Buddhism, but I don’t practice. I’m fascinated by religion but prefer to keep my distance. I was lucky that my parents didn’t force religion on me, but allowed me to choose my own path—or non-path. In my poetry, I like to subvert religious ceremony and iconography. The imagery in “Ritual,” where a crucifix dangling from a rosary is witness to intense sexual encounters, deliberately pushes buttons. There’s a slow reveal to what’s happening in that poem, and there is always someone in the audience whose delight turns to horror as they realize what’s happening. I do love the repetition, the incantation, of spells and prayers. They lend themselves beautifully to poetry as Zapruder suggests. And, again, it’s another example of not censoring or worrying about who might be offended by my work. I think we’re all hungry to know what comes after death. I think I’ve had a glimpse of it thanks to my Dad and I write about that in “In the afterlife my father is a London cab driver.” I think of him in the bardo—the  liminal space between death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism—where he is acting as a guide to help the living and the dead on to the next stages of their lives. It was a beautiful, life-affirming moment my dad offered to me. I was never really afraid of death, but now I feel like I have more understanding and I see it as the next great adventure. I’m not planning on dying anytime soon, but I’m ready to embark when the time comes. To be content with that is incredibly liberating.

(This interview was conducted by Julie E. Bloemeke. Collin Kelley’s photo was taken by Colin Potts.)

 

 

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