Interview with Novelist Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley

Award-winning poet, playwright, journalist, and blogger, Collin Kelley is a writer who rises above labels. And now, with the release Conquering Venus by Vanilla Heart Publishing (August 2009), Kelley has added novelist to his list of titles.

Conquering Venus is a tour de force, a breathtaking tapestry of time, space, character, and events. Like Kelley himself, the novel defies labels. It is a psychological novel and a thriller, a love story and a coming of age tale. And although the plot is fast-paced, shifting back and forth in time and in location, the language is sensual and elegant, reflecting Kelley’s skills as a poet.

I’m thrilled to be hosting one of the e-stops on the Conquering Venus Virtual Tour. To celebrate the event, I’ve asked Kelley a few questions about aspects of the novel that hold particular interest for me.

Conquering Venus tackles some very serious social issues, particularly concerning young gay men. Has the climate changed in the US since 1995, the year the story takes place?

The ‘90s were a decade of hope with Bill Clinton in the White House and evolving attitudes toward GLBT people. That decade saw a monumental push toward gay rights and a refusal to go back in the closet. Businesses like Xerox began implementing policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and the visibility of GLBT people was off the chart.

After 12 years of tyranny under Reagan and Bush Sr., being gay or bi-sexual had an almost “cool factor” going, and there seemed to be more freedom to explore your sexuality without repercussions. We went back to the dark ages under Bush Jr., which stunted the forward motion for awhile, but I think what happened in the ‘90s paved the way for what we’re seeing now: gay marriage, full civil rights, adoption, etc.

It always feels like two steps forward, one-step back, especially in the last couple of years. The evolution of the Internet has revealed just how much ignorance, bigotry and hate there is, most of it fostered by right wing Christians, who are – pardon the pun – hell bent on shoving their religion down this country’s throat.

The character of David in Conquering Venus represents that awakening in the ‘90s, but also the uncertainty. Does he have the courage to explore his burgeoning sexuality or will he repress because his Christian parents will disown him? On the other hand, Martin is out and proud, despite the tragedies in his life, and refuses to let society dictate his moral values.

One of the themes I found in Conquering Venus is the exploration of different kinds of love, from physical attraction to love that lasts the ages, and how we fall in love with the essence of the person, not merely the outward expression of the body. Would you say a few words about this aspect of the novel?

The relationship between Martin and Irène is, in my opinion, the greatest part of the story. They are platonic soul mates, who have been together in past lives and will forever be linked despite their age difference. Irène is a combination friend/mother/sister for Martin – the ideal woman for a man who is not interested in women. No matter who Martin or Irene wind up with romantically, their bond will never be broken – tested maybe, but not broken.

The relationship between Martin and Diane is a little different. She had an unrequited crush on Martin, so there will always be an unspoken tension between them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t always going to be friends, but it’s more complicated and temperamental. I have friendships like that in my life, so I was writing from experience.

The scenes in Conquering Venus are very cinematic, the street scenes of Paris stunning and vivid. I’ve only been to Paris once, many years ago, but your descriptions made me feel as though I had an intimate knowledge of the city. From reading your blog, Modern Confessional, your poems, and your recent essay about the French actress Jeanne Moreau in My Diva: 65 Gay Men On the Women Who Inspire Them (University of Wisconsin Press), I know you have a longstanding interest in film. How has your love of film shaped your writing style?

Conquering Venus’ first incarnation was in screenplay form, so that has definitely carried over into the novel. I’m drawn to the films by Wim Wenders, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Sally Potter and David Lynch, because they tell these epic, sprawling and sometimes confounding stories. They don’t wrap up their endings in nice little bows or send their characters down expected paths. I look for that in literature, too. Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison and John Irving write in that same cinemascope, so I drew a lot of inspiration from them.

Are there any plans to bring Conquering Venus to the Silver Screen?

It’s available if there’s any directors or producers out there looking for a big budget art film. It is a trilogy, so it could be the next Harry Potter or Twilight saga. There’s even a little magical realism thrown in and I imagine the cast would be pretty sexy, too.

Speaking of film, if you were to cast the role of Martin, which actor do you think would make a good fit?

I have no idea. I’ve cast Diane, David and Irène in my head, but Martin is the toughest call. River Phoenix would have captured him beautifully I think, but alas… .

There’s a strong dream element in Conquering Venus that speaks to me as a reader. How do dreams influence what you write?

Dreams have always been a catalyst for my writing. Some of the sequences in the novel and many of my poems have been drawn directly from dreams. I have these vivid, Technicolor dreams that are often so realistic that when I wake up, I’m not sure which is the dream world. I’ve met complete strangers in my dreams, people that have no association with people I know in waking life. Sometimes, I feel like I go elsewhere in my dreams, almost like I’m living a double life. I keep expecting Morpheus from The Matrix to show up and ask me to choose the red or blue pill.

Will we see the characters Martin, David, Irène, and Diane in future novels?

Conquering Venus is the first book in a trilogy, so all four will return at some point in the next two books, although when, how and why will probably throw some folks for a loop. It’s even surprised me a bit. These characters are totally writing their own story now; I’m just transcribing it.


To read more about Collin Kelley and keep up with news about his novel, visit his new site, Conquering Venus: a novel by Collin Kelley.

Here’s a list of future stops on the Conquering Venus virtual tour:

Flux Capacitor (Maggie May Ethridge)
The Peach Tart (Deborah Bailey)
SheelerBirth (Jackie Sheeler’s YouTube channel)
Being and Writing (Kate Evans)
Poet Mom (January O’Neil)
Xanga (Chelle Codero

Here’s the trailer, with lovely images from Paris.

Launch of Conquering Venus a Huge Success

Last night I attended the launch of Collin Kelley’s novel, Conquering Venus. (Vanilla Heart Press, 2009). The event took place at Outwrite Books in Atlanta, a perfect setting for the reading because of the intimate arrangement of the seating, the streamer and balloon art installation, and the store crammed with books. Collin read the prologue and the first chapter, keeping us entranced the entire time. He reads with a lot of expression, undoubtedly because of his long experience as a poet. It was a treat to hear his interpretation of the characters – the dialogue is snappy, witty, and irreverent, especially the exchanged between Martin, the protagonist, and Diane, his middle-aged friend.

Afterwards Collin answered questions about how much of the novel is true, what his writing habits are, whether or not there will be more poems in the sequels he is currently writing, and if writing the novel has interfered with his poetry writing. If you’re curious about the answers to these questions, go to one of his many scheduled readings. There will also be a virtual tour in September for those of you who live outside the US.

To read more about Collin Kelley’s novel, visit the blog for Conquering Venus. There’s a video trailer and a preview selection from the novel.

On a personal note, at the reading I saw several poets and writers I’ve met through Collin Kelley: Karen Head, Rupert Fike, Cleo Creech, Megan Volpert, and others. I also had the chance to meet in person the lovely Lisa Allender, whom I had known only through facebook and her blog, Lisa Allender Writes.

Lisa and I spoke with Karen Head about her experience on The Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. We were both impressed with her poise under fire, and her direction of the event. Stay tuned for an article in Time about Karen’s international twitter poetry writing.

It was gratifying to be in a room of writers and readers who so obviously adored the reading. Through his art and his charm, Collin Kelley has the gift of gathering like-minded people together.

Collin Kelley's Conquering Venus

Can you hear it? It’s the satisfying pop of champagne corks around the world as readers find their pre-ordered copies of Conquering Venus (Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2009) on their doorsteps. It’s the fabulous debut novel from award winning poet and playwright Collin Kelley.

Stay tuned for his virtual book tour, which will be making a stop at Balanced on the Edge. Congratulations to Collin Kelley for this stunning new work of art.

Walt Whitman and Burst!

On Saturday evening my husband and I went to a Vietnamese restaurant in Midtown, drank a few beers and ate crispy tofu (that was me, he had calamari), and then went on to a reading of Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. I’m so grateful my husband came along with me, because he rarely attends poetry-related events. He had a good time, in spite of missing the basketball playoffs.

Poet and novelist Collin Kelley, the third reader of the evening, timed us – it took two hours and 45 minutes to read the entire 52 sections. And honestly, I didn’t notice time passing at all. It was breathtaking to listen to all the different interpretations of Whitman’s words. We were a wide sweep of humanity, reflecting the broad scope of the poem. Some of the readers were professional actors or spoken-word performers, such as Alice Lovelace and Theresa Davis. Professor and poet Karen Head was there, poet and artist Cleo Creech, Amy Pence, Tania Rochelle, and many others. It was quite an honor and a true pleasure to be included.

Poet Rupert Fike was the organizer and host of the reading, a charming prince of a man. He wore a black beret and a black shirt trimmed with a rust-colored Native American pattern, looking very much the poet that he is. The walls were lined with the stunning black and white photos now featured at Composition Gallery. I’m going to return to the gallery another time when the room isn’t so full to get a better look at the works.


I’m standing in front, wearing cerise slacks. Karen Head is next to me, in a robin’s egg blue blouse. Cleo Creech is kneeling next to Alice Lovelace, who is wearing a green dress, Amy Pence is to Cleo’s left, and Collin is wearing a black T-shirt, standing behind Cleo. Rupert Fike is in the very back, his face hidden. You can just spot the tip of his beret. Robert Wood, whose poems have been in the first two issue of ouroboros and are forthcoming in the third, is in the back too. He has white hair and a white beard, looking like Whitman himself.


I just received word that three of my poems are now online at Burst! Here’s a direct link to the poems, which are titled Degrees of Separation, Dr. Marano’s Therapy, and Sacred Fig Rites. Thanks to editor Lisa Nickerson for publishing my work.

Here’s a list of the other poets who are included in this issue, issue 5:

David Garrett-Arnold, John Gray, BC Jewett, Michael Brownstein, Stuart Payne ,Joseph Trombatore, Rob Gannon, Jeremi Handrinos, David Robertson, Catherine Zickgraf, RC Miller.

Walt Whitman's 190th Birthday Celebration

Poetry Atlanta is hosting a marathon reading of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself this Saturday night, and I’m going to be one of the readers, thanks to poet Rupert Fike, who organized us. The reading will take place at composition gallery, which I’ve never visited. I’m looking forward to a double dose of art – poetry and photography. Collin Kelley and Karen Head will be reading, and many other well-known Atlanta poets, a real treat for me, and an honor too, since I’m a poetry scrub.

Of course I take my assignment seriously, and have been reading Song of Myself aloud, trying to let the whole of it soak into my skin. There are 52 sections. I will be reading sections 35 and 36, a kind of story within a story, as the speaker relates a naval battle in the voice of his great grandfather.

What strikes me about Walt Whitman is how enlightened his words are, and how ahead of his times he was, or maybe I shoud say out of time. He had a view that physicists are only now beginning to understand, of the interrelatedness of the universe. Song of Myself, in the very singing of it, is a song to all creation. It’s an attempt to sing the world, and it comes pretty darn close.

Whitman’s language is at once familiar and curious to me. I’ve made a wordle of the words that struck my fancy last night.


OCHO#24 Twitter edition now live

On May 11 Collin Kelley wrote a post, Poets on Twitter , a response to a listing of writers on Twitter that failed to include poets. On May 11 over 4000 readers came to Collin’s site to check out his list, and those of us on it found our followers growing from double to triple digits. A flurry of activity and fun, and proof of the power of social networking sites. I’m a believer.

On May 12 publisher, poet, and visual artist Didi Menendez, together with Collin Kelley as guest editor, announced a call for submission for OCHO#24, Twitter poets edition.

And now it’s not even June, and we have a new, live issue. I’m happy to say my poem is included, on page 35. Thanks, Collin and Didi, for galvanizing this focus on Twitter poets, and for including my poem, ‘Antidepressants, Second Generation.’ (which is a bop, a form I learned from going to Cherryl Floyd-Miller’s reading, hosted by Collin Kelley!)

Deb Scott also has a poem in this issue, as does Ivy Alvarez, and many others. You can find the complete list of contributors on Collin’s post, Twitter Issue of OCHO online now!

A New Trailer for Conquering Venus

Collin Kelley has just released a new trailer for his forthcoming novel, Conquering Venus. Go have a look, it’s sure to rev your reading engines.

I love video poems, and that’s what Collin’s producer has created. The soundtrack, which wonderfully recreates the mood of the novel, is by Vanessa Daou, from her new album, Joe Sent Me. Vanessa Daou’s work is mentioned in the novel, so having her song as the soundtrack for the video makes for a fitting connection.


Vanessa Daou’s new album, Joe Sent Me, is exactly what I want to listen to now. I’ve been keeping the CD in my car while I drive around town, and I even played it for my yoga class the other day. They melted.

Daou’s vocals are pure silk, and the jazz riffs underneath are the wind that rustles the lyrics. It’s heaven. Her work shows the heights that can be reached when the artist takes risks – it’s contemporary, fresh, original. Go listen. And go read too. Collin Kelley’s interview with Vanessa Daou is on page 28 of the current issue of ouroboros review. A huge thank you to both artists for being a part of our fledgling magazine.


I just finished reading Marie Howe’s book, What the Living Do (WW Norton, 1997) a collection of poems that explores Howe’s relationship with her brother, her father, her lover, and the loss of these men.

Since I have been immersed in all things Spanish for the last twenty-five years, I’ve been playing catch up on a lot of contemporary poetry in English. I have Jillypoet to thank for turning me on to Marie Howe. Each poem in this collection cracked my heart open. A deep bow of thanks to Howe for knowing the best way to share the core of her emotional life, her loves, her losses, her joy, and intimate moments.


A friend has lent me Red April (Pantheon, 2009, translated into English by Edith Grossman), a murder mystery and political thriller by Santiago Roncagliolo. In case the genre puts you off, you should know that Roncagliolo is a gifted satirist and minute observer of culture.

The novel is set in contemporary Peru, in the provincial city of Ayacucho, where restaurants serve cuy (guinea pig)and farm workers punch each other until they draw blood in certain country festivals. The protagonist is a perfect anti-hero for the post modern era – a district attorney who has created a shrine to his diseased mother in his childhood home.

I’m reading it in Spanish (Abril Rojo, Punto de Lectura, 2007) and loving every minute of it. Since I left my teaching job I haven’t been speaking as much Spanish, so this is a fun foray back into South American literature, a surreal world even at it’s most mundane.

A Sneak Peek at Conquering Venus

Sunday night I settled in with a great read – the prologue and the first chapter of Collin Kelley’s debut novel, Conquering Venus (Vanilla Heart Books). The narrative hooks the reader from the first sentence and doesn’t let go, weaving in and out of the past and the present. Scenes shift from the US to Europe, and from waking life to recurring dreams. There is a mysterious symbol, sexual tension, the beauty of youth, and the salty wisdom of a middle-aged school teacher (who’s not as conventional as her colleagues). The dialog is fast-paced and witty, providing dramatic relief from protagonist Martin Page’s grief over his past loss. All this in the first 22 pages of the novel. I can’t wait to read the rest… .

Collin Kelley introduces Cherryl Floyd-Miller at Wordsmith

The Atlanta poetry scene has a gift, and his name is Collin Kelley. Actually, Collin is a treasured friend to poets and writers all over the globe, from England to France (setting of his soon to be released novel, Conquering Venus, Vanilla Heart Publishing), to many parts of the United States.

I first contacted Collin after reading his work in MiPoesias’ The Oldest Profession. Wowed by his poems included in that issue, I shyly asked him if he would be willing to contribute a poem or two to the first issue of ouroboros, and not only did he do just that, he also spread the word about the magazine to some of the best poets in Atlanta. Jo and I will be forever grateful to Collin.

Since this past summer, I’ve found out about all kinds of poetry readings and events that Collin organizes and promotes in our city. The latest was a fabulous reading by Cherryl Floyd-Miller, who shared poems from her new collection, Exquisite Heats, Salt Publishing, 2008.

Floyd-Miller gave an entertaining, moving reading of a wide variety of poems, including villanelles, prose poems, and a new form called the Bop. After the reading she took questions from the audience, explaining her outlook on poetic form. She said that she studies the works of the poets who have come before her, and has learned the forms, but reserves the right to break the rules to allow her own voice to come through. It was validating to hear her words, because she gave voice to some of my own ideas about learning from the writers who have come before me, and about rule breaking.

Floyd-Miller spoke about the integral role music plays in her life and her work, and how it stems from her father’s gift for gospel singing. She also explained how she developed the art of listening from the Gullah language of the US southeastern coastal area where she grew up as a child. Her poems flow with a melodic, tongue rolling energy that casts a spell over the listener. She makes it seem effortless, and reads in a natural, spontaneous manner – she explained that music is such a basic part of her life that the rhythms have infused themselves into her writing.

Floyd-Miller acknowledged her long-standing friendship with Collin Kelley, stating he had been one of the first to read the manuscript of Exquisite Heats, and how happy she was to launch her new collection in Atlanta, with Kelley as the host.

If you want to find out about the next poetry event in metro Atlanta, make sure you check out Collin’s blog. In the meantime, maybe you’d like to write a bop? Floyd-Miller has used lines from songs as the refrain in her bops, a detail which she shared with us at the reading. I think I’m going to try one myself. Any song suggestions?