Kelly McQuain: Pure Poetry

Kelly McQuain

I was touched by a quote from the poem, “Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers” written by this week’s Portrait, Kelly McQuain:

“But where to learn / of this authentic self? / Not on this hill, not in that house. / Something calls you somewhere else.”

McQuain is a man of words and a multitude of talents. He’s a writer, artist and college professor whose work has appeared as comics, book covers, illustrations and fine art. McQuain’s poems have been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer, on National Public Radio’s Tell Me More as part of National Poetry Month, and in journals including Bloom, Philadelphia Stories, Painted Bride Quarterly, Stone Highway Review, American Writing, and Black Heart Magazine. He has been named a Lambda Literary Fellow, a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has received numerous nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets and Best of the Net. He has twice won writing fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and he now serves on Philadelphia’s “One Book, One Philadelphia” selection committee. 

Currently a professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia, he formerly worked as an illustrator of superhero comics. He also takes time to write the occasional column on city life for The Philadelphia Inquirer. And just last week, his book “Scrape the Velvet From Your Antlers” was named one of the ‘Best books to read this Summer’ by Philadelphia Magazine.

I understand that you’re originally from West Virginia.

Yes, I moved to Philadelphia for college, thinking that I would go to art school, but I ended up becoming an English major and then getting a few graduate degrees. I now teach at Community College here in Philadelphia.

Take me back to old Virginny and tell me about growing up there. 

I grew up in a small town, Elkins, which is at the base of the Eastern panhandle. Coal mining and timber were some of the local industries. Despite the poverty and lack of opportunities often found in Appalachia, our town still had a sense of identity. My family was fairly typical, four kids, two parents. My mother was a public school teacher and my father was an auctioneer. He passed away in 1999.

Two jobs that required one to be a little extroverted.

I guess so. My mother is definitely an extrovert. She will talk to anyone, which is a good quality that she’s passed down to her kids in that we were never afraid to go up and say hello to someone and get to know them. My father was a little more reserved in terms of personality. I write a lot about both of them in “Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers”. There’s one poem called “Creation Myth” which is about them meeting and the artistic dreams of my father. He was a good artist and had a sign painting business for several years after he got out of the military. He’d always dreamed of going to Greenwich Village and living the artist’s life but was not able to. I think he’d be happy that I am now able to see the world and write and paint about it. 

What were you like as a kid?

I was the artsy kid who would be asked to draw the posters for the school dance and other programs, even though I would never actually go to the events. I was a closeted gay kid coming of age in the 1980’s when AIDS was in the newspaper every day with Ronald Regan making jokes about it, and by the time I got to high school I had gone from a fairly extroverted youngster to a private, introspective kid with my guard up at all times. Though I did well in school, I was the daydreamer always looking out the window in class. 

Do you remember the first book you fell in love with?

That’s too hard to say, but a favorite of mine that I was just talking about with my students is the Arthurian tale “The Once and Future King.” I think the musical “Camelot” is based on it, and the Disney film “The Sword and the Stone.” Besides being a riveting tale — it’s full of magic and spells and intrigue — the most impressive part to me is when the king tells the knights, “‘Might makes right’ is no longer, from now on we will champion “Might for right” meaning that they should use their strength and power for good. I always thought that was such a noble idea. It’s how power should be, but unfortunately it’s rarely lived up to, especially with institutional structures. 

What was your favorite toy?

For sure it was my Batman and Robin action figures. I remember the Christmas when I got a real Batmobile for them; I was so happy that I no longer had to fight crime driving them around in a Kleenex box!

What school did you go to when you came here?

I went to Temple. I did a year here and then went to Scotland for a year as an exchange student, before coming back and finishing. After graduating, I stayed at Temple to get a graduate degree and several years later I got an additional graduate degree at the University of New Orleans.

What got you into poetry?

We had a gifted program at my school. I was taking AP classes in English, and those teachers used all sorts of literature to engage us. Even though we were a small town, there was a lot of emphasis on the arts. In high school, there was a summer writing program led by a creative writer named Devon McNamara. There was some sort of government grant for the arts that worked with artists to keep kids busy during the summer. So that got me into poetry, though I mostly wrote fiction. 

I published a lot of stuff in books like, “Best American Erotica,” and “Best Gay Erotica,” including a story I had about Batman and Robin that drew the ire of DC comics! A lot of my stories were set in Appalachia and about growing up gay there, semi-autobiographical works. Though I have to say, often people think that every poem or story is the writer confessing their life story, and though there are certainly some of them in my works, that’s not always the case. I tell my students the beauty of fiction and poetry is that you can lie in a story, you can make stuff up, you can tell the truth, whatever you want and that gives you a certain freedom to invent alternatives to real life events. For example, I have a story about a waitress who is trying to get out of a domestic violence situation. Fiction allows you to assume different identities. 

I noticed that two of your book titles reference velvet. What’s the deal?

Well, as they prepare for mating season, young bucks get this velvet-like growth on their antlers which they scrape off against trees to sharpen the antlers in order to charge other bucks. It’s a sort of coming-of-age ritual. The title of the earlier book, “Velvet Rodeo” comes from one of the poems where the idea was about associating two things that were very different. A wild ride with the comfort of velvet. 

When did you come out?

I felt like I had to escape Virginia first. Coming out is not really a flick the light switch kind of thing. You don’t press a button or turn a key and it’s done. It’s a long process that you have to do over and over. I came out to a much older friend in Elkins, and then when I got to Temple there was a gay student union and an active bar scene. I was under 21, but back then they didn’t always check ID’s. The first bar I went into was Equus, on Halloween night in 1986 or 1987, and I knew right then seeing all the drag queens and gay and lesbian people in costumes that I had found my ship and I was going to sail it. I became somewhat of PhillyBilly, half Philadelphian, half hillbilly, but not quite fitting into either place. It’s that outsiderism that’s fueled my work. And now I’m an openly gay man, I’ve been with a partner for over 30 years and he’s become enmeshed in my family, and I have too, with our nieces, nephews, everyone.  

How has the role of teacher changed since you started?

It seems like I’m seeing more anxiety with students these days. It’s made me sensitive to the fact that I need to be tuned in to not just what goes on in the classroom and what I’m teaching, but what they’re dealing with on the outside. A world full of misinformation and mental health challenges and so many other things they contend with. It might be that a friend or classmate was killed as a result of Philly gun violence, it could be dealing with homelessness, all things that affect them in class. So my role has been expanded to not just teach the course, but to help them navigate towards appropriate resources in order to help them try to achieve the education they need and deserve.

What are your impressions of the world for LGBTQ+ kids today?

It’s a lot different. It seems like there are more micro-communities. We had more of a common culture and we were all kind of united, for better or worse, but now that culture is somewhat subdivided, which is good because whatever freak flag you stand under, you can fly it as proudly as you want and find your tribe. But the downside is that it can also become a bad thing if you lose sight of the big picture and what unites us all. I worry about that because it can be a way for the other side to try to divide and conquer, so we have to be diligent about supporting each other no matter what category we fall in.  

I know that you and I share a love for all things Dolly Parton!

Yes, I referred to her as a Hillbilly Valkyrie in one of my poems. She’s like a singing “Glinda the Good Witch.” She comes down into the world and lights it up with her magic. She’s also a HUGE supporter of literature and gives away many, many books to children. I just find her amazingly funny, and this is going to be controversial to say, but I like her version of “I Will Always Love You” better than Whitney’s! 

I love the story behind the song. And yes, I read that she gives out 2 million books a month, across five continents! 

Amazing! I just find her a source for good. Growing up in Appalachia there was a lot of homophobia and it can make you feel bad about your culture and removed from it, and someone like Dolly Parton makes you feel better. I don’t think she’s ever said a bad word about anybody. She unites people, through her altruism and her music.

I understand that you have an exciting exhibit of your artwork later this year. 

Yes, I’ve shown at William Way and City Hall and various spots around town, and for years I’ve been showing my artwork at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital as part of Art Abilities, an annual show for people with disabilities. One of the things that I’ve had to come out about in adulthood is the fact that I have a neurological disability that causes a lot of pain, fatigue and makes it hard for me to type and write, which you have to do a lot of as an English professor. This year they selected me as the featured artist for the show in November. Something that’s really cool is that they display the artwork around the hospital and then use it as a part of therapy for the patients. I love the idea of art as a healing tool. I see that with my students, whether it’s painting or poetry, it can be a release, something cathartic for them. 

Where do you do your best work?

I like to paint in my garden, I have lots of flowers and one pesky squirrel who keeps trying to dig them up.

What do you think about this current book banning nonsense?

Anytime people are trying to keep information out of people’s hands, you really have to question their motives. I think it’s a way for conservative candidates to get publicity, but the books will remain. People who want to get their hands on a book will find a way to get it. You can order it on the internet, there are other ways. There will always be people to help you and that information will get through. 

I think the problem is that if you’re not exposed to it, say in a school library, you might not know what you need. 

That’s a fair point. I remember I would go to the library in school and I would look up anything I could about homosexuality. I’d look at the Hite Report, stuff about Kinsey, I would even check out the “Book of Lists.” Do you remember that? There would be a list of ‘13 famous homosexuals.’ [Laughing] “Walt Whitman? Great!” I would try to memorize that list, or I’d read about “12 leaders who had very large members.” They had all sorts of crazy things. So yeah, libraries were a refuge, and it is a shame that people are chipping away at them. Because they should be a refuge, whether it’s to understand the feelings you’re having or just a safe space if you’re getting beat up on the playground, a place where you can read a book and maybe find a friend. 

Something random that I just thought of is the fact that the layout of poetry on the page is often an integral part of the experience. How does the digital world affect that? 

Yes, the placement of some poems can make a difference. I sometimes group an idea together, or I’ll use white space or a line break for certain kinds of pauses. It can be painterly. But a lot of the poems online just align to the left because of the digital format. It’s very difficult for poets anymore to publish the kinds of work where it floats all over the page. If I’m sending to a print publisher, I have more flexibility to be creative, but if it’s an online journal, it has to be very simple because people use so many devices, phone, tablets, laptops, that it has to be in a form that works for all of them. 

Favorite family tradition?

When I was growing up we did a Pollyanna each year. You’d pull somebody’s name and have to make that person a homemade gift. So in addition to regular presents, you’d get a homemade gift and sometimes they were funny, sometimes they were serious, sometimes useful, often not. It was a nice tradition. 

Do you have a favorite quote? 

I love Oscar Wilde quotes, especially the one “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”