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Kansas City's Calvin Arsenia uses music and now a new book to 'build a full picture' of self-acceptance

Singer, composer and harpist Calvin Arsenia explores the past and the present in a new book of poetry and prose.
Courtesy of the artist
Singer, composer and harpist Calvin Arsenia explores the past and the present in a new book of poetry and prose.

Calvin Arsenia’s new book of poetry and prose, "every good boy does fine," describes his evangelical Christian upbringing and coming to terms with being queer.

Kansas City-based singer, composer and harpist Calvin Arsenia is a striking presence on stage. He is 6 feet 6 inches tall and decked out in high fashion. But it’s taken some time for him to reach this level of self-confidence, as he acknowledged in his new book, "every good boy does fine."

In writing the book, Arsenia said he gathered anything he’d “written or scribbled down” because he “wanted to build a full picture.”

"I was thinking about what is the biggest shift of my life and what is the biggest change that I've gone through," he said. "And it really has been my emergence into and out of Christianity."

In 2020, Arsenia and his high school best friend, Justin Randall, launched a podcast called "We Were Christian Kids." They shared stories in more than 30 episodes about what it’s like to be “somebody who was queer coming out of the church.”

Listener response, he said, encouraged him to seek a broader audience.

“So the way that I set up the book was about my early upbringing being in the [evangelical Christian] church — kind of the awkwardness of being in it and then the awkwardness of leaving it,” he said.

"And then the awkwardness of trying to date. And what sexuality looks like when you're having to do that a little bit later than maybe most of your peers, and then to find finally a good relationship.”

"Every Good Boy Does Fine: Poetry and Prose" by Calvin Arsenia was published on October 5.

Family research informed some of his writing. Time at home during the coronavirus pandemic allowed an opportunity to dig into his family tree and documents online. And, Arsenia said this research also served as a response to the murder of George Floyd.

“And I was looking for, as I always do, I was looking for beauty,” he said. “What is the silver lining? And so I spent a lot of time looking for beauty in the history of my family.”

He added, “And I was very fortunate to be able to have a history to look back on."

In the poem, “Alice,” Arsenia writes:

“I was 28/ the first time I saw the face/ of my/ great/ great/ great grandmother/ Alice - / a centenarian/ who was born a slave/ and died a free woman ...”

The title of the book, "every good boy does fine," is a memory device for the notes written along the lines of the treble clef.

Childhood music notes

Music played a role in Arsenia's life starting at an early age. He remembers he was a four-year-old when he first heard a harpist perform, and he joined choirs during elementary school.

“My church wasn’t really a gospel church, I went to pretty much suburban white churches,” he said. “However, what it did teach me was a lot about folk music and about acoustic guitars ... and jam circles and drum circles and worship nights that would go on for hours and hours and hours. So it really built up a stamina for music for me.”

Arsenia’s break with the church came after a stint in Scotland working as a missionary. He described making the decision in a poem called “Higher Ground."

“...I read all of your words and I prayed and I fasted/You neglected to heal me of this fatal attraction/I asked You over and over to make this queer straight/Your lack of action has sealed in this fate/You are the one who said, ‘Truth will set free,’/so this marks the end of me hating me.”

As Arsenia puts it, he’s still on a journey. But these days, he’s connecting to “the energy of a crowd of people, or a very sincere connection between two people having a conversation.”

“There is something magical and unspeakable that happens when humans interact in this, in a vulnerable space,” he said. “And I think that that happens both in the church and outside of the church.”

He added, “And I have given my life over to the work of connecting individuals through storytelling and vulnerability. It just doesn't have the shame factor anymore.”

Laura Spencer is staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and a former arts reporter at KCUR.
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