An Interview with Poet and Artist Jeanette Powers
By Chase Dimock
The problem with writing an introduction to Jeanette Powers’ work is that by nature, an introduction presumes that you can define your subject and contain it in a rough overview. It also presents the reader with the assurance that you have prepared them for what you’re about to subject them to. I’m not sure I can wholly achieve that because Powers’ art is consciously transgressive of definition and containment. Powers’ poetry explores identity and the language with which we express it, not by defining it in a way that pins down or immobilizes, but by pushing at the seams of what these words can hold.
Powers identifies as a hillbilly, but stresses how this identity can be reclaimed as subversive, queer, and ecologically progressive. And yet, for all this rebellion against expectations, their writing is never isolating or cold. There are so many deeply personal stories and intricate descriptions of their relationships with nature, family, and one’s self that it’s easy to connect individually with Powers’ work. To simultaneously challenge and intimately connect with a reader is the toughest, yet most powerful move a poet can make. In short, Jeanette Powers is heckin’ rare.
Chase Dimock: What first drew me to your work was how you locate expressions of queerness and gender non-conformity within the nature and culture of the midwest. As someone who has lived on both coasts and the midwest, I feel that the coasts tend to overlook how the midwest cultivates uniquely queer communities and identities. How do you feel that living in the midwest has shaped how you articulate queerness in your poetry?
Jeanette Powers: I’ve never lived on the coasts, so I can’t speak to the real differences between the queer communities, but I can definitely say that I find a lot of interest on the coasts and abroad in specifically the Midwestern and MW queer experience. People sometimes are shocked to find out about large and thriving queer communities in the Bible Belt, people want to know how we are surviving in MAGA America, and they are very interested in how our communities thrive.
I am born and raised in Kansas City, both sides of the state line, so Kansas and Missouri. I’m a Pure D Midwesterner and that experience shapes the paradigm from which my ethics and art both arise. I am a poor, “white trash”, river rat, polite to a fault, redneck hillbilly; farm loving, meat-eating, off-leash dog having, bonfire building, corn eating, hot plate cookin, truck loving, camouflage wearing radical. I want to de-stigmatize some of those traditionally derogatory words I used there. For me, being a hillbilly is directly related to the subversive attitudes I have: an idea of living “off-the-grid”, a belief in the value of our indigenous cultures, an anti-authoritarian ethic, a deep value of the land and resources. I reclaim being poor white trash as being something beautiful and an agent for change. In some ways, class struggle and connection to nature supersede my queerness even, and I think my heartland upbringing are part of why.
So from that perspective, queerness is an underlying fact and lens through which my connection to the rest of America happens to occur. My art is less about being a non-binary, pansexual queer human than it is about loving nature, discovering the inherent self, abhorring oppression, seeking equity, and striving for healing or reconciliation. In that way, my location becomes less visible because folks all over the world share those values. But the Ozarks, the prairie, rivers and state fairs are the context from which all the metaphor arises. And being a hella queer who lives for performance art, challenging the status quo, and being a deeply intellectual human is all in there, too.
I do question sometimes if the queerness being an underlying rather than leading component is a reflex of preserving my safety. I pass as straight, cis as long as I restrict my language, and that is powerful here in the Midwest, where hate crimes against queer folk are common. Many of our families reject us, discrimination is still happening. These thoughts have caused me to lead with the queerness more often, and to shake the chains which hold all non-passing queer folks in danger. That is using my privilege as a tool for change rather than as a mechanism to keep just me safe.
Chase Dimock: To go a little deeper in exploring where your poetry comes from, I’d like to bring up the role family plays in your work. Your new book, Dandylion Riot is filled with childhood memories of your grandparents, aunts, and other family members. You also have a tendency to connect your memories of family with objects: a yellow rotary phone with your grandparents in “Hearts Break All the Time,” a stuffed monkey with your aunt in “The Mon Chi Chi,” and a Buddha statue with your grandfather in “The Laughing Buddha.” How do these portraits of your family fit into the objectives of your art that you talked about in your previous answer? Why do certain associations with people and objects stick with you as you depict them?
Jeanette Powers: It is interesting how much my family plays into my poetry, when in reality I don’t have much of a relationship with them. Except for my son (and bonus kid, and an aunt and cousin, and my sister), who I actually write about very seldom. I guess I’m tracing back the lineage of my emotional being, trying to reconcile what one is taught and how that shapes one against what one wants to be, or maybe really is. It’s part excavation, part commemoration, part study. It’s all very interesting to me and does tell the story of the culture I was raised in, which of course shapes the person I am today. In some ways, I’m dismantling the cognitive dissonance that I’ve experienced trying to reconcile the love with the trauma. And I hope I do that respectfully. I know my family is upset with me talking about the darker aspects of our family culture, but I’m committed to not being silent about what made me, I don’t feel that helps anyone. And maybe, some other folks will feel the solidarity and in some way that will help them feel less isolated, or consider their (and my!) own problematic, learned coping mechanisms.
Those specific examples you bring up speak so much to the life of poor, emotionally unavailable, working class white people. Well, everyone had rotary phones once, so maybe not that example so much, but that memory is so powerful because it’s the only time I ever heard my grandfather say I love you to my grandmother. Ours was not a physically (or verbally) loving family. In fact, I’d say I grew up in a atmosphere of neglect. So what makes the phone so powerful is hearing that affirmation. I am very affirmation seeking, really, a natural born optimist and creature of love.
Much of my early work is about the negative, trauma informed memories and objects, but Dandylion Riot begins an exploration of the other moments, too. The Buddha opens a door to acknowledging the racism of my family. I’m in a space where I believe strongly in adding that element to my art, not to shame me or my family, but simply because it’s true. I hope the love of my grandfather shows through still, I think many of us struggle with reconciling our family’s problematic views and behaviors with our love and appreciation for them. The Mon Chi Chi was an object which felt unattainable as a child, much too expensive, and the monkey is a device to illuminate how my aunt was never stopped from eating sugar, an object to orbit a wider story around. As an adult I look back and realize the price that consumerism and denial had on my aunt, potentially anyway. It’s also a call to why her adopted kids were abandoned by my family after she died. The same way I’m abandoned? I’m not recording precise history here, I’m recreating vast emotions that span decades and working to encapsulate them in a moment.
Chase Dimock: Nature blooms all over your poetry, on both the macro level of landscapes and topography, and the micro level of flowers, leaves, and cells. I’m fascinated by how you develop the relationship of a human body to a body in nature in poems like “Water is a Woman,” where water’s ability to evaporate, overflow, and reform become metaphors for the experience of a woman. Within that image of the woman’s body as water, you populate algae, amoebas, and an entire ecosystem. What draws so many of your poems toward the connection between yourself and the micro and macro levels of experience in nature? What do you learn about yourself and hope to express to your readers with these natural meditations?
Jeanette Powers: I mentioned earlier the “neglect” from folks growing up, what replaced that space in my life was what I like to call being feral. I surrendered myself entirely to nature when I was a child, the woods, the animals, stars, storms, creeks; you couldn’t get clothes on me. There’s a photo of me with the cousins on Easter Sunday, they are all pigtails and baskets and smiles and I’m in nothing but a pair of ratty white undies, bird’s nest hair, plain old dirty and pretending to be a dog. Nature has always been a vital part of my life, I mean, that’s almost the wrong words … the wild and I are inseparable.
I guess I’m drawn to the macro and micro universe details because they are outside thinking, they are facts, they are busy being. If I can find alignments between natural truth and emotional truth, that feels very powerful to me. It reminds me I am one with the universe, I am not isolated. Those things seem trivial and cliche whenever I write them out, but the feeling is something I wish and pray for every person to experience. Peace is hard to come by, but for me, I have it. Sometimes. I have it when I’m staring into the sun, when I’m in the water, when the Prothonotary Warbler dives from the sycamore’s highest branches to grab a minnow, holding a toad, sitting with a snake, listening to the coyotes chuckle. It’s literally endless, I could sit here forever regaling about the time I saw the first leaf of Autumn fall, or an iris in November (twice now!), the time a Bald Eagle sat next to me, the ice floes in January 2017 on the Missouri River. Sometimes I feel like this connection makes me an alien to the modern indie poet world. They don’t generally relate to playing with wasps. I’m super fortunate to have a separate community of anarchists and river rats, though, who totally get it. They have a quite different response to my work than most audiences I read for.
Sometimes I try to write less about nature, to choose a different metaphor, but they are all so powerful to me, especially in “Water is a Woman”, that I just as often let them breathe and live. I like the idea of considering some of my work natural meditations, I’m a major fan of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, which is the ultimate book of that genre. I have a non-fiction novel written exploring the Ozarks and Tuscany called Prayers for the Modern Atheist. I’m not super interested in coercing folks to go back to nature, but I would like them to remember it, to possibly experience it again or for the first time. If they do that through my work, rad. Come swim the river with me!
Chase Dimock: In addition to your poetry, you also work with visual and performance art. How do the ideas you explore in your writing like identity and nature play into your visual and performance art? Do you feel that there are aspects that you can better express through visuals than poetry, and vice versa?
Jeanette Powers: I definitely feel that different emotions or concepts are better expressed through varied mediums. Although I generally label myself as poet first, that’s more of a reflection of how much effort I’ve put into that world than it is an accurate reflection of who I am as an artist. I experiment in many mediums: visual art, performance, performance art, poetry, video, essay, fiction, bookmaking (one-of-a-kind books rather than publishing), and I even view my social media presence as it’s own form of art. The reverence of nature mostly comes out in the poetry, but the deep investigations of selfhood come out more in the novels, the tension between audience and artist comes out in performance, pure emotion comes out visually, and critique of society comes out in essay. I do see the poetry as leading my voice through most of those forms, there is a lilt, musicality and temperament that guides me and maybe I’m naturally poetic.
I have an art show coming up where the pieces are all on the topics of repression and dissociation, these are eight foot high two-sided paintings in mixed media created on reclaimed paper surfaces which are taped/sewn/glued together in seemingly haphazard ways. The works will be installed in a circle in the center of the gallery with a seat and a small table in the middle. On the table are three of my one-of-a-kind books: one exploring womanhood, one death, and one existential crisis. The private space created in the very public space of a gallery gives the viewers an enclosed and quiet area to explore these ideas which we normal would hide from the world. It also hides the viewer from the world, they are bodily repressed, if you will, from the moving and active space of the gallery. They cannot be seen by the crowds and if one enters the space while another is inhabiting it, there will be that feeling of invasion. As we often feel invaded when someone sees our shadow side, or sides. This installation piece represents the full-sensory experience I’m interested in creating as one merges the myriad forms of art into a larger work of art.
In some ways, as I look on the trajectory of my art, it heads towards these kind of multi-dimensional installations. I like to spend a lot of time on an idea, to really delve into it and then to connect it to the world. The audience is almost always on my mind. They are an integral part of the art. Most of my past performance art pieces were what I call “shared space” pieces, which is to say existing in public, and not in an art gallery. Like Running with Scissors, for instance. This is because the audience is literally part of the art to me. I’m known for giving particularly engaging poetry readings, and though that does come naturally for me, I work at improving and advancing that because the audience’s response is integral to the poem. A poem may exist on the page, but when I put it vocally into the world, the medium becomes the ear of the listener.
Chase Dimock: Speaking of your public performances, I know that 2020 is going to be busy for you as you’re going on tour in support of your book and taking part in some artist residencies and programs. First of all, tell us more about some of the upcoming highlights of your 2020. What do you hope to achieve with your tour and how do you think it will affect your writing and art? How might travel and being on the road find its way into your future work?
Jeanette Powers: There is no question that a big motivation for traveling this extensively is due to how much amazing material an adventure like this will generate: the beautiful natural spaces, the amazing communities, the stories of so many people from all walks of life. I’m not going into it with an idea of what I will create, but rather just focusing on being present and experiencing it all with no agenda. Just joy and connection. I have come to see just what gold community is, and see now how it is the most powerful force for good, I see the generosity of the people of the world, and am so excited to dedicate myself to that service of building and connecting communities. Without a doubt, this tour will be the seeds of many years of upcoming work. What lovely surprises are in store for us!
Dandylion Riot is the name of the 2020 tour, it starts in Iceland, tours the states and ends up at the end of the year in Oaxaca, Mexico! I’m touring on my two new books, Dandylion Riot (poetry!) and Victimless Crime, which is my first published novel and a real roller coaster. The feedback so far has been super good and I hope folks check it out. I have poetry readings lined up all across the country (and room for more if anyone would like to have me feature) and I have all sorts of cool communal living experiences in the works, too. I begin with the Artist in Residency here in Iceland, I’ll be staying at a commune in the Ozarks, in National Forests under the stars, a queer commune in Tennessee, and I’m working on a five week Zen Buddhist training experience, too. Plus more that I discover along the way. I also will be participating in Marge Piercy’s workshop in June, that is like a lifelong dream! In concert with this, I started a patreon, a blog and a podcast which is all really exciting. Folks can visit my website to find links to all that cool content, they are a way of sharing the tour’s experiences and also a way for me to talk about how important it is to think about what we really want out of our futures, ethics and lives. I’m into encouraging people to live their best dreams and to believe that real change is possible. And to show that it’s happening already!
Chase Dimock: From the description of your 2020 tour and plans, it’s clear that you value collaborating with other writers and artists and that being a part of a literary/artistic community is vital to your work. Which writers and artists have you particularly enjoyed working with and how have they impacted your writing and art? Additionally, whose work do you think deserves as wider audience? Any recommendations for further readings?
Jeanette Powers: Community is the real golden ticket. It’s not getting famous or big lit mags picking up your poems or winning the infamous chapbook prize; it is meeting and working with people, it is the stories you share and create together that really matter. I get to work with amazing poets on Stubborn Mule Press, that’s it’s own beautiful experiment and process. I’ve worked with Daniel and Marg Crocker on their books, Mike James and Macey Webb, the Schumejda book was incredible. The 2020 authors are going to be a real treat for folks, I have a new book that is so gay, so surreal, and so unbelievably potent by a KC poet named Mitchell King that I could just fall apart to be publishing it. Each of these folks inspires me in my own work, and getting in deep on the editing of a book is maybe the most intimate experience outside of a bedroom I’ve had. I’m so moved by the work I publish, to continue to be vulnerable, funny, queer, honest and to celebrate my own voice in the way I adore each of theirs.
Beyond the press, working with Jason Ryberg has been transformative in my life, he’s the reason I publish at all and one of my absolute best friends. My brother, truly. We challenge and critique each other and constantly argue about just about everything. It’s great, very wholesome. Working with Hugh Merrill, a professor at Kansas City Art Institute and internationally renowned printmaker, artist and social practice pioneer has helped my career more than any other single thing. He has been around so long he can just give great advice about any pickle. We worked together on the installation I described earlier about repression and shadow sides and we work together on his Whiteout project, which is an exploration of white privilege, fragility and action in today’s world. Sharon Eiker is a woman that has mentored me from the time I was a wee enby, and my novel is dedicated to her. The novel includes everything she’s every taught me, so that knowledge can get passed on to the world. Noah Albee is a queer activist in KC and I work with them on Wrestle Yr Friends by stage managing the events in 2019. I’m gonna miss WYF so much while I’m on tour! I’ve met so many great folks, and Noah is a magician with bringing folks together and supporting important causes. They are definitely someone the world is going to hear a lot from.
Each of these folks challenge ideas, my own and society’s. Each of them are unafraid to start and continue discomforting dialogues. These are the kind of people I seek and want to be around because this is how a person grows. It’s no good to be surrounded by yes-men, good old boys or cronies; there is no way to advance artistically in that space. I want to be more than I can imagine, and to do that, I need folks around me: fearless, brave, undaunted and heckin rare folks! Folks who aren’t afraid to be different, and to speak their hearts.
As to poets to be sure to follow, the top of my list is always Nadia Arioli Wolnisty and Michelle R. Smith. Just read everything these two are writing, you will be happy. Stubborn Mule has a new Smith book coming out this year, “The Vagina Analogues”. It’s incredible, I’m giddy to be publishing it and working with Michelle. Mostly, I just say read. Read everyone and all the time. Read the Lit Mags, read the big ones, read the little ones. Be obsessed. It’s fun. And if it’s not fun, why are you doing it? If it’s not fun, stop and go do something that is fun for you. This has been fun! Thank you, Chase for taking time to talk with me!
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, New Mexico Review, Faultline, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, Flyway, and San Pedro River Review among others. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.
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