Review of “Colin is Changing His Name”

This collection by John Andrews (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) is part mystery, part relatable biography, and it does that thing that poets are supposed to do – it tells the truth. The truth in this case is an explanation of growing into oneself (and into queerness) amid situational violence, abuse, and oppression. It’s also a collection about place and family, about relationships and seasons.

Who is Colin?

For me Colin is a gay male or queer person and the name itself often stands in to represent terms like “gay” or faggot. The concept came from the fact that my husband is named John too; don’t worry, he goes by Randy, thank god.  I have a friend from my MFA and PhD program named Colin and he’ll try to tell you it is him as a joke, but trust me, it isn’t. Another friend pointed out that I wrote one of the “gayest” books they’ve read that doesn’t have the word “gay” in it.

Right on. I didn’t even notice that you never used the word “gay” because the poems were so, well, gay. <3

One powerful line is in “Colin on I-35”: “There are only so many cattle / that fit into a truck, / only so much weight that can be // dragged off to slaughter.” At what point in your life did people’s judgment and hate stop dragging you down?

You know, I think it always is still kind of there looming in the background, but for the most part I’ve let it go. I came out during undergrad so I felt like a lot of people knew me as one person and then suddenly another. When I moved to Texas for grad school though I was just out and all my new friends and colleagues just knew me as me which is really were I felt like I let go of caring what people think. For me though I think the hardest thing is coming out to yourself. At some point, you have to admit to yourself who you are even knowing the social consequences that will follow. That’s really what I hope the book communicates to people; its hard to come to terms with who you are as person when the world tells you that person is wrong.

Many parts of this collection discuss various family members; in one poem, Colin’s step-dad “says tell me you are not Colin!” How do you reconcile familial disapproval with your own creativity, desires, and values?

I am lucky to have a family that is very supportive of me and my work, but I know way too many people who’ve experienced terrible scenes like that.

Unfortunately I’m one of them. 🙁

Back to the book: the second “Colin is Changing His Name” poem deals with the complexities of navigating a gay identity and relationship in an unaccepting environment. How are queer relationships affected by the social pressures to abstain from PDA and public romance, including “I love you’s”?

It’s really an issue of safety. I grew up in rural Arkansas where that was always a fear of mine, and it’s sadly been casting a shadow over me to this day. Just last year my husband and I got married and we were extremely nervous to even go to the court house together in Stillwater, OK where we live. Its suppose to be a happy moment, right? But we kept thinking about Kim Davis and how simply asking for license might turn into a battle instead of being excited. Nothing bad happened at all and the clerk’s were extremely friendly, even offering suggestions of putting down straw or pet shavings in our back yard to keep the mud down during our wedding since it had been raining all week. We felt dumb for being afraid up to that moment and sad that the world made it possible to feel that way during what should have been all joy.

This collection came out last year. What’s next for you?

andrewsauthorbookRight now, I am working on a second book centered around the idea of simultaneously building and destroying a house. It seems like a lot of poets are thinking about the “end times” lately, for obvious reasons, and I’ve been caught up in that mode a bit but from the perspective of a literal and imagined house. The first place my husband and I lived together was sold by our landlord 6 months into living there and the new owners paid us to leave so they could tear it down and build a giant house to rent to undergrads. It was kind of heartbreaking because we loved that little house and had to watch them tear it down. That image with everything going on has been sticking with me since they tore it down in 2016.

Wow, that’s heartbreaking. Awesome news about the next book though. I look forward to reading it!

“Touched”: a graceful, vulnerable chapbook

Luther Hughes was my mentor in a summer workshop with The Speakeasy Project, and upon becoming familiar with his work, I was drawn to the preciseness of his language and his attention to detail and emotion, and how place occupies both an imaginary and a physical realm. All these elements of Luther’s which I admire are present in Touched, his first chapbook, released this year by Sibling Rivalry Press. <3

Probably the highest praise I can offer of Touched is that, in its intimate, painful dwelling on violence and sex, it enabled me to write about my own assaults for the first time. What power and what grace Luther writes with. What vulnerability. These poems connected with something in me that I had intentionally distanced myself from for months. For that, I am so, so grateful. And for that, I wholeheartedly recommend reading this collection, even if you don’t think you have any traumas to work through; Luther’s writing will move you, and, after all, isn’t that why we read?

Into poems of relationship, loss, and healing, he weaves Biblical language, stark landscapes, and bedrooms that seem familiar even if the details are different. Perhaps one of the most meaningful lines to me is this: “if only he’d stop / resisting, the poor bird would still be alive.” In what ways does abuse kill us? Cage parts of us? In what ways does physical death, particularly the deaths of unarmed, nonviolent black boys, cut into us? How does loving your abuser complicate the abuse? The recovery? Luther explores these and simliar themes in his 13 poems, explaining how violence and assault open us “like a zipper / stuck / on its threads…”

I interviewed Luther about this collection a few weeks ago.

Could you talk about grief? What does your grieving process look like? How does poetry – including poems such as “Trayvon” and “Alternate Ending with Weeping” – fit in?

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It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately in the past few days because I’ve been trying to (re)write this poem about my dog’s death that happened about 13 years ago. I’ve been trying to write this poem for maybe five years now. And it’s weird because this is the only poem that I haven’t been able to write. Eventually, poems give themselves up to me, or, as someone once said, I’ve found my way in. But, this poem about my dog’s death evades me to the point of self-doubt. And this is what happens every time I try to write this poem.

This time around, I was tempted when I was walking to work, and I read a sign that said, “This house harvests rainwater.” And suddenly, I was grieving my dog, Beethoven. This is how I think of grief. I don’t believe anyone is ever done grieving. I think grief comes when you least expect it.

And for that matter, I don’t have a process. When I am impacted by death, like I was by Travyon Martin’s death, it’s overwhelming. It’s all I can think about. When Trayvon died and the audio from that night was released, I was obsessed. I wanted to know what happened and how. I listened to the clips over and over and over. People were confused about who was screaming and I wanted to be sure their confusion was justified. I just had to know. Although, I’ve written poems about death, those poems were about discovery and lineage. This was the start of my obsession with death and how I encounter it.

The poem, “Alternate Ending with Weeping,” isn’t about grief but about memory and how, like grief, it comes at the most random moment. More so, I think, this poem addresses recovery and acceptance than grief.

How does surviving abuse change us? Is “surviving” even the right word? Is there a way for the violence to be a catalyst for growth? Or is the “after” always shadowed by the abuse?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer this question. And I’m not sure how to answer it because I’m not sure what “surviving abuse” actually means. Is it a question of physicality, mental state, or spiritual rendering? I don’t know.

Me neither. I’m still uncomfortable calling myself a survivor because the truth is, I don’t feel like I survived anything. I feel like I endured it or lived through it, but it affected me deeply, and I think “survive” is too strong a word for the me that was left after I encountered my abuse. 

The best way for me to consider this question is to think about Lucille Clifton’s poem, “mercy.” And this poem has been haunting for several months now. But in this poem, the speaker announces her gratitude for the level abuse that happens and then ends with saying how mad they are about what happened. For all purposes, it’s a pretty straightforward poem. But I bring this poem up because, yes, the speaker survived the abuse because they are recalling what happened. But they obviously didn’t “survive” mentally because they are still affected by it as they’re reflecting.

Exactly.

Okay, so how does surviving abuse change us? I’m not sure. And, yes, the question is: “is surviving the right word?”

I don’t see, at least I don’t think, violence as a catalyst for growth. That’s almost like saying we only grow when harmed. That’s not true. I know there’s that saying from Mulan: “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all.” Okay, sure. Yes. But, am I only beautiful because I was abused? No, right? If I wasn’t abused would I be less beautiful than I am now? No. But, what I think this quote is saying, in so many words, is that everyone goes through something or has been harmed in some way, and this, our experiences, is what makes us rare, special.

To answer the last part of your question: I don’t pin the “after” against the “abuse.” To me, that’s weird. I was abused. I am still alive. Both are always present.

What’s next for you? What other projects are blooming?

Phew. What is next for me? I’m writing my ass off. I’m exhaustively working on my first full-length. I’m currently a columnist for Frontier Poetry, where I’m addressing different topics and questions using poetry. And I’m writing fiction. Not a lot of it, but characters have been coming to me in my dreams, so I’m jotting down and letting them ferment until I can get them to the page.

How exciting! I can’t wait to read more of your work, particularly that full-length collection. Hopefully I’m not speaking just for myself when I say that after Touched, it will be highly anticipated.


If you would like to purchase Touched (or put in a request for your library to snag it!), it’s available for $12 from Sibling Rivalry Press.


Feature image credit: Nicholas Nichols

 

Stephen S. Mills on marriage, identity, & patriotism

Stephen S. Mills has received many awards and accolades for his poetry and art, and rightfully so. His poetry is powerful and honest; it explores multiple sides of identity, politics, and relationships and left me feeling and thinking a lot of new emotions and thoughts. A History of the Unmarried and He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices are available for purchase from Sibling Rivalry Press, and he has a forthcoming collection scheduled for publication from SRP next year. And, he’s been such a joy to interview!

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What’s been on your mind lately? What are you currently writing and thinking about?

The simple answer is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been working on a poetry collection about her since January. Jackson’s work is fascinating to explore and has some interesting parallels to our current world. She was writing during a period of unrest (the 1940s-1960s) and she often examined the personal anxieties of living in that changing world. Those are things I’m thinking a lot about in this moment in our lifetime when the country seems on the brink of disaster or great change. She’s also very drawn to the outsider within the community and how society continues to enforce norms even norms that hurt the people enforcing them. All of this feels pretty relevant to our moment in time, so this project is moving in a lot of different directions: a close look at her life and work as well as my own life in this time and place.

What’s your favorite place to write in?

I’m not overly attached to place in terms of where I write. But I mostly prefer silence. I have a hard time writing around other people, so I don’t work much in public spaces unless I’m just editing or jotting down ideas. I mostly work at home when I’m alone with my two dogs. I also really like to read work aloud, so it’s best to be in a private space for that.

How did you begin writing and reading poetry? What is the impact poetry has since had on you?

I wanted to be a writer from the time I can remember and began writing at a very young age. I mostly wrote fiction as a kid and then slowly found my way toward poetry by high school. In college, it really solidified for me that I was a poet (though I have written some fiction and creative non-fiction). It helped a lot to have encouraging professors who helped me discover my voice as a poet and also taught me how to better read and explore poetry by others. I love poetry because I find it to be the most freeing form of writing. You can do so much in a poem that isn’t really allowed in other forms of writing. It has impacted how I view and experience the world. I often see how things are connected by exploring them in poetry.

I love your ekphrastic pieces. Could you talk about what art does for you and art’s place in society?

The visual arts have often been a place of inspiration for me and a lot of my ekphrastic pieces explore our relationship to art and how we view those pieces (often in a museum setting). I was an art minor in college, so I’ve formally studied art but have also explored it on my own. I love museums and have lived in New York for the last five years, so my access to art is vast here, which I love and appreciate. A lot of my work explores the relationship between various arts forms: visual art, film, television, and written works. I like seeing the interconnections between pieces and putting them together within a poem. The arts as a whole allows people windows into other worlds and experiences they might not have had or be able to have. For that, it is extremely beneficial.

I, too, am queer and married; I’m pansexual and polyamorous and live in a low-income, racially diverse neighborhood, yet I married a straight, white, cis man. But none of that “contradicts” itself. Being attracted to women doesn’t mean I have to be in a relationship with a woman to still be queer, ya know? 

We’re recently married, having just celebrated our one year anniversary this fall. I’m beginning to navigate the paths of individual identity remaining intact while being in an incredibly satisfying and healthy marriage. I’m also being sensitive to the privileges that come with passing.

Could you discuss your lines: “what does it mean to be married / yet remain queer?” What is the loveliness of marriage for you? Do you ever feel like you compromised “being queer” or is there more to being queer than pride culture acknowledges?

The goal of my second book A History of the Unmarried, which contains those lines, was to explore the notion of marriage within a queer context. The fight for marriage equality really took off right as I entered a relationship that I’m still in (we just celebrated 14 years together).

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That fight was running parallel to my own experience of navigating and defining a relationship that fit me. Over the years, I became increasingly interested in what a queer or gay marriage looks like. In the end, I’m not sure marriage should have the place it does legally speaking in our country, but the fact is it does, so those protections are important to couples of all kinds.

So for me, I’m interested in how marriage can look from different angles and that being a queer person and getting married doesn’t necessarily have to mean following a heteronormative path (though many may accuse you of doing so). I write very freely about the fact that my husband and I have a sexually open relationship and I’m interested in exploring that in my work because I see so few writers doing that in significant ways. We are in a culture right now that really loves to pinpoint and label things, but I’m more interested in the gray spaces–the hard to define spots.

I agree. People are complex, and we regularly defy stereotypes, so while labels can be helpful, they can also be limiting. 

“Election Night: November 2008” was a really powerful poem. I personally despise patriotism, as I think it drives mental wedges between Americans and “the rest of the world”; it convinces U.S. citizens (I should note, mainly white citizens of all three classes) of their superiority. So: how is patriotism affecting our culture currently? How can we step back from our egos and remember our humanity? 

It’s funny to think of that poem now in the current situation we are in. That poem explores the hopeful election of Obama, but also an uneasiness about the idea of trusting government or feeling patriotic as a queer person. I’ve never felt the patriotism that so many around me have so freely expressed throughout my life, and I think a lot of that comes from living as a gay person and often feeling like an outsider. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and didn’t know any other out gay people until I went to college. This outsider perspective has made me more skeptical of things than other people might be. I’ve also always had a great love for travel and experiencing other places, which I think, to answer your question, is one of the best ways to step back and remember our humanity. When you never leave your bubble, you have little understanding of the reality of the world we live in.


Thanks again to Stephen for conducting this interview with me! Check out his new work in Queen Mobs and follow his new book release and other news via his website.

Photo credit: Sibling Rivalry Press