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by Collin Kelley
In the summer of 2010, I had the amazing opportunity to guest lecture at Worcester College at Oxford University in the United Kingdom as part Georgia Tech’s Study Abroad Program. On my off day, I went with fellow teachers Karen Head and Colin Potts to see the Sally Mann exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London.
It was a retrospective of Mann’s most famous work: the controversial photographs of her children, the haunted Civil War battlefields and the corpses deteriorating at the “body farm” at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville. Although I had seen many of the photographs before, something about seeing them in such large scale in the hushed rooms of that gallery revealed something about my own art. It was, literally, like a flashbulb going off in my mind.
Like Mann, I am a Southerner. The people and landscapes of her photography are mine, too. Standing in that gallery 4,000 miles from my home in Atlanta, I realized that the poems I had been writing for the past decade shared startling similarities to these photographs. When I returned to the states and began sifting through the work, I realized that each poem was a photograph – snapshots of my past growing up in the South. There were visits to battlefields, candy cigarettes, a trip to Knoxville, adultery, sex, death and a forgotten name check of Sally Mann on a fateful trip to Helen Keller’s childhood home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
The poems in Render had been in search of an arc, a sequence, a framework to hang upon for years and they finally found it in an unlikely place. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that two Southerners happened to be in London at the same time, but I don’t believe in coincidences. While I was putting this manuscript together, I learned something else about Mann that most people don’t know – she’s also a poet. For me, that’s synchronicity.
The construction of Render is an homage to Mann – from the cover image taken by Colin Potts (another great bit of synchronicity) to the title poem dedicated to her indelible images. But a love of Mann or photography is not required to gain entry into these poems. If you grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s, there are references to great movies, music and events that shaped us growing up. Familial discord, sexual experimentation, love lost and found – that’s all here, too.
As Daniel Nathan Terry says in his wonderful blurb for Render: These poems are the photographs we never intend to take but somehow always find, years later, tucked into the shoebox of memory, fully developed in the darkness we so carefully keep.
My hope, as with all my work, is that you will see a bit of yourself in these poems. Go on. Open the box.