Today I went to the high school where I used to teach Spanish, only this time it was to lead a poetry workshop for a former colleague’s AP Literature class.
To show the students an example of a chapbook, I brought the latest one I’ve read, Collin Kelley’s After the Poison (Finishing Line Press, 2008). It’s a cool looking volume, with a black and white photo of a hand, a ring on the thumb, holding a glass bottle with raised letters spelling the word poison, resting on a bed of clover. An intriguing cover to excite the curiosity of young minds, especially if one considers that the word poison is referring to the dire political situations around the globe, and may even suggest that US policies have been responsible for spreading some of that poison.
We didn’t have time to read any of the poems together, although I noticed one boy decided to skip a writing prompt to read a couple of pages. That’s OK, reading Kelley’s work would be just the lesson an eighteen-year old would want to take up the pen, or to take action.
The poems start with Siege, exploring the death of Ronald Reagan and his legacy of homophobia, then onto War for Oil (Darfur, Africa), the tsunami in Banda Aceh, then back to the US with Confidentiality, about the lies the American public was told to lead us into the Iraq War.
The poems are overtly political, but infused with the sensibility of a narrator who has lived a day or two in an urban setting, knows the language of the people, and is not fooled by anyone. These poems aren’t rants or grievances, they are the personal observations of a blue singer who reads the New York Times and listens to world news, all while keeping a bead on the pulse of the street.
What keeps me going back these poems is the passion of the language, the force of the emotions. Yes, as political poems they chronicle a definite period in global history, but they move beyond the topical to portray a narrator who cares deeply about the world and the suffering he sees. Compassion is timeless.
Kelley has recently started a Youtube channel where you can hear and watch him read from After the Poison. Click on “Kelley @Cornelia Street Cafe”. A warning is in order–listening to Collin Kelley might cause you to get involved in local politics!
Kelley is also a political activist. He blogs about politics and poetry at Modern Confessional and twitter. In fact, during the presidential debates and the election Kelley was updating his reactions live on twitter. His latest efforts have involved protesting the implementation of Proposition 8, which would ban gay marriage in California, a state which has already seen the marriage of 18, 000 same-sex couples.
Collin Kelley is not a poet to write a poem and let the others do the work. The passion evident in his writing is also demonstrated in his acts.