Poetry Soundbite: A Reading and Interview with Agnes Vojta

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Agnes Vojta author photo 2

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Welcome to AIOTB Magazine’s fifth Poetry Soundbite, an on-going series of poetry readings and interviews. For this edition, we welcome Agnes Vojta, a poet who grew up in Germany and now lives in Rolla, Missouri where she teaches physics at Missouri S&T and hikes the Ozarks. She is the author of Porous Land (Spartan Press, 2019) and The Eden of Perhaps (Spartan Press, 2020), and her poems have appeared in a variety of magazines.

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More By Agnes Vojta:

Legend

Sisyphus Calls It Quits

Flotsam

John Brantingham: Five Poems About the Santa Ana Winds

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Still for a While

We get a Santa Ana
and wake to streets
full of branches
and trash and a palm tree

that’s crashed down
through the wrought iron fence
around the city yard.
Today, the air is still

for a while, but the winds
always come back,
or they have so far.
The train tracks are

covered in tumbleweeds.
This air that has come down
from the highland deserts
smells clean.

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News of the Weather

The first weather report I get
is when the airport shifts
its flight pattern directly over us,
and I know the winds are coming.
The breaks in our conversation
as the engines pass above
soon become natural and unnoticed
unless one of us points them out.
The eucalyptus across the train tracks
looks shaggy today. I wonder
what it will look like tomorrow.

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Just Us

The flags on top of the tax service
and immigration building are torn
to feathers by the Santa Ana winds,
and that feels like a metaphor

for something, but I’m not sure what.
The winds have always felt
more symbol than real to me.
They’re so dry they suck

the water right out of you.
We can see for miles across
the normally smoggy sky, and at night
we get stars. All of these things

might mean something like someone
is out there telling us something
with great clarity that I could see
except that I am limited to being just who I am.

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Baldy Winds

After the winds
have died down
here in the valley,
they are still rising
a mist of snow
blowing it off the top
of Mt. Baldy,
which I can see
headed straight up
Euclid Avenue.
It’s still early
on a Sunday morning,
and I’m the only one
out in the world
made clean
by the Santa Anas.
The dawn has no transition
through filtered air.
One moment it’s night,
and the next it’s full day.

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The New Neighbors

When the Santa Ana picks up,
some long haul truckers
pull off the freeways
and park in the neighborhood.

We can see their cabs
in the pale blue lights
of their computers
as they wait out the winds.

When we walk the dog
down the street in the evening,
we invade their space.
This is now their backyard.

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About the Author, John Brantingham: I was the first poet laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and my work has been featured in hundreds of magazines and in Writer’s Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. I have eleven books of poetry and fiction including my latest fiction collection Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). I teach at Mt. San Antonio College.

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Image Credit: Impressions of Southern California by Chase Dimock

Poetry Soundbite: A Reading and Interview with Kory Wells

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Welcome to AIOTB Magazine’s third Poetry Soundbite, an on-going series of poetry readings and interviews. For this edition, we welcome Kory Wells, the author of Sugar Fix, poetry from Terrapin Books. A former software developer now focused on her longtime side gig in creative writing, Kory nurtures connection and community through her advocacy for the arts, democracy, afternoon naps, and other good causes. A recent two-term poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, she is founder and manager of a reading and open mic series and a mentor with the low-residency program MTSU Write. Kory’s poetry has been featured on The Slowdown podcast by former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, and her writing appears in James Dickey Review, Ruminate, Stirring, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and elsewhere. korywells.com

 

Below the video, you can find links to some of the poems on AIOTB Magazine

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The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgement

When the Watched Pot Boils

Untold Story

Poetry Soundbite: A Reading and Interview with Bunkong Tuon

 

 

Welcome to AIOTB Magazine’s second Poetry Soundbite, an on-going series of poetry readings and interviews. For this edition, we welcome Bunkong Tuon, a Cambodian-American writer and critic. He is the author of GruelAnd So I Was Blessed (both published by NYQ Books), The Doctor Will Fix It (Shabda Press), and Dead Tongue (a chapbook with Joanna C. Valente, Yes Poetry). He teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He tweets @BunkongTuon

Below the video, you can find links to the poems from Tuon’s reading.

 

 

From Bunkong Tuon’s reading:

“Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA”

“Snow Day”

“Tightrope Dancer”

“Women’s March in Albany”

“My Mother on Her Deathbed”

Poetry Soundbite: An Interview and Reading with Mike James

 

 

Welcome to AIOTB Magazine’s first Poetry Soundbite, an on-going series of poetry readings and interviews. For our inaugural Poetry Soundbite, we welcome Mike James, author of over a dozen books of poetry, including the soon to be released Leftover Distances, from Luchador Press. Below the video, you can find the text of the poems from James’ reading.

 

 

 

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“Falling as We Go” and “Drunk Butterflies near the Missouri River” previously appeared in The Rye Whiskey Review.

 

About the Author: Mike James has published widely in places such as Plainsongs, Laurel Poetry Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Gargoyle, and Tar River Poetry. His poetry collections include: Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), and My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle.) He has served as an associate editor of The Kentucky Review, of Autumn House Press, and of The Good Works Review, as well as the publisher of the now defunct Yellow Pepper Press. He currently serves as an associate editor of the prose poem journal Unbroken. His 18th collection, Leftover Distances, is forthcoming from Luchador Press. A multiple Pushcart nominee, Mike has read and lectured at festivals and universities throughout the country He is strong supporter of cats, literacy, coffee, white wine, top hats, crows, and free range poetics. He is an opponent of plaid, rigidity, salads, and quiet parakeets. He currently makes his home right outside Nashville.

Chase Dimock: “Imitation Unicorns”

 

 

 

Imitation Unicorns
– For Nellie

When I first held you
I watched Unicorns prance
in soft fleecy pink across
your onesie as your dreaming
breathing belly rose in and out
lifting them off into the infinite
pastel possibilities of infancy.

I wondered when you’ll start
sorting your fairy tale menagerie
into fact and fiction, when Z
will still be for Zebra, but U
will have to settle for Urchin
or the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl
the Unlined Giant Chafer Beetle
the Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant
or any number of animals
defined by what they lack.

Will you still marvel at
the Unadorned Rock Wallaby
despite his lack of adornment?

Will you still respect
the Unarmored Threespine Stickleback
despite her vulnerability?

Will you accept substitutes?

The fencing Narwhal
swashbuckling the Baltic
more weaponized than majestic

The Hornbill who flies like pegasus
but shrieks, fighting for figs in the trees

When Marco Polo first laid eyes
on a Rhinoceros in the land of Basma
he wrote, Unicorns are
           altogether different from what we fancied.

He bemoaned, Unicorns are
……..not in the least like that which our stories tell of.
           They delight much to abide in mire and mud.
           Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon.
I hope you never use myth as your measure.

When you gaze at the Unicorn trotting through
the frosted cupcake mountains on your Lisa Frank
Trapper Keeper, know that fantasy is a projection
of our inner colors, on a world both grey, and yet
so brilliant, we can’t see all the light in the spectrum.

And most of all, humor your uncle
when he pulls a mule to your birthday party,
straps a rainbow painted corn cob to its head.
When you ride old Wilbur into a sunset that stops
at the fence in your backyard, know he did the best
Unicorn impersonation his old bones could carry.

 

Imitation Unicorns appears in Sentinel Species, now available from Stubborn Mule Press on most online bookstores.

 

 

About the Author: Chase Dimock lives among mountain lions and coyotes in an undisclosed location between Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. He serves as the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine and makes his living teaching literature and writing at College of the Canyons. His poetry has been published in Waccamaw, Hot Metal Bridge, Faultline, Roanoke Review, New Mexico Review, and Flyway among others. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship in World Literature and LGBT Studies has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, Modern American Poetry, The Lambda Literary Review, and several edited anthologies. For more, visit chasedimock.com

 

Image Credit: from “Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus libri” (1657) Image Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

The Eden of Perhaps: An Interview Between Poet Agnes Vojta and Chase Dimock

 

 

 

The Eden of Perhaps: An Interview

Between Agnes Vojta and Chase Dimock

 

 

The genius of Agnes Vojta’s poetry is in its simplicity. In just a few neatly composed short stanzas, she can contain entire ecosystems of thought. Never overstated or garish, her work bears the influence of her background as a physicist.The poems have their own neatly defined gravity; poems in motion stay in motion. She can sketch a mountainscape in the Ozarks with the same topographical precision as the folds and crevasses in the human mind.

I want to call her poetry objective, but the depth and rush of human feeling in her lines makes that word misleading. It’s more that her work is authentic, like you’re reading a 1 to 1 ratio of her perspective translated into stanzas. After a few pages, you feel like you really know Agnes Vojta, not because she is easy to interpret, but because you can feel each word is her exact truth.

 

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Chase Dimock: Your title, The Eden of Perhaps, recalls the Garden of Eden, a mythological moment in mankind’s history of existing peacefully in an unspoiled natural world. There is an abundance of nature poems throughout your collection, and I know from your facebook you’re an avid hiker and student of nature. What do you hope to express about your relationship with nature in your poems? Do you go on hikes looking to find subjects for your poetry and/or the peace of mind to reflect poetically on nature?

Agnes Vojta: I have been hiking for decades and need it for my physical and mental health. Even in times of greatest stress, one day of the weekend is sacred and I must spend it in the woods. Hiking is also a spiritual practice for me, my way of meditating. On an easy trail, you can let the thoughts wander and percolate; difficult terrain requires intense concentration that forces you to be completely in the moment in a way few other experiences do. Getting away from the chatter of civilization and connecting with nature grounds me and puts everything into perspective. The forest, the rivers, and the mountains speak a deep truth that surpasses what we try to grasp intellectually, and when I can hear those voices, I feel balanced, connected, and at peace.

When I write about nature, sometimes I simply want to share these feelings and my sense of wonder; I wish everybody could experience what I do. But I don’t write to get people to go out into the woods – for that purpose, I run a hiking website and facebook page. Nature often gives me the metaphor that expresses what I cannot otherwise put into words, teaches me lessons that extend into other areas of life, and mirrors my interior landscape. In my first collection Porous Land, a seasonal arc of nature poems reflects an internal journey from loss to acceptance. Nature has to be experienced directly, not through abstract linear thinking. So one might say, trying to put these experiences into words is paradoxical, but the words are not there to explain and analyze – they try to recapture an impression, a feeling that then creates understanding that goes beyond words.

I do not set out on my hikes with the intention to write or look for poetic subjects, but I often get ideas for phrases and poems, and I carry a little notebook. It is always a surprise what I will find, and in which way nature weaves into my thoughts and feelings. The key is to remain open and receptive. Conversely, writing has affected the way I see. After my emigration from Germany, I was unable to write poetry for ten years, and when I resumed writing, I found myself observing more closely and being more attentive – being a poet has enriched my hiking experience.

 

 

Chase Dimock: The “Eden” in your title also recalls mythology. Some of your poems contain allusions to classical mythology, including the muses, Sisyphus, and Persephone whose pomegranate spreads its seeds across your book cover. You also invoke fairy tales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. What is it about these enduring tales and archetypes that draws you in as a poet? What do you hope to add to these stories and characters with your poems?

Agnes Vojta: I grew up an avid reader in a house filled with books; Grimm’s fairy tales and Greek and Norse mythology were the stories of my childhood. Invoking those tales taps into the powerful symbolism of the mythological figures: Sisyphus epitomizes human struggle; Ariadne’s thread evokes the navigation of a labyrinth with a monster lurking at the center.

Grimm’s fairy tales abound with archaic gender stereotypes. I enjoyed subverting the story of helpless Sleeping Beauty and, instead of letting her wake from the prince’s kiss, giving her agency: she awakes on her own and chooses to defy expected gender roles. I let Rapunzel cut off her hair, the symbol of her femininity and her most defining characteristic; she is no longer willing to play her old role. Awakening, rebellion, and the questioning of dichotomies and gendered expectations are recurring themes in my collection.

On an underlying layer, both poems that reference Sisyphus allude to Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus which deals with humans’ search for meaning in the face of an absurd world, a topic deeply connected to the themes I was wrestling with.

Continue reading “The Eden of Perhaps: An Interview Between Poet Agnes Vojta and Chase Dimock”

Chase Dimock reviews “The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae” By Sean Karns

 

Chase Dimock reviews

The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae

By Sean Karns

 

Many times, I have sat next to a random, drunk stranger at a bar, and he used the chance meeting to stammer and slur his words through his life’s story, the dizzying heights and crushing defeats. He has used my expressionless face as a sounding board for his ill-defined philosophies, raging impotently at foes he never really explained, pining for lost joys whose sweetness I couldn’t smell over his beer breath. He has seen a reflection of a younger self in my eyes, and tried to warn himself about the agonies of the future in which he lives.

Many times, that random drunk stranger at the bar was me. 

Maybe it’s because the bourbon has washed away all the specific contents of these tavern confessions, but I don’t remember any of them coming close to the philosophical depth and poetic craft of Sean Karns’ new book, The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae. 

The premise of this chapbook is simple. A retired magician meets an nameless stand-in for the reader at a bar and in 25 pages, we hear the rise and fall of a magician addicted to and debilitated by his craft and the audience’s adoration of his spectacle. The longform poem is set up like a dramatic play, though the only other character who speaks and breaks up the magician’s monologue is a nameless narrator who addresses you, the reader, to provide exposition. Yet, the narrator does not just describe the scene and plot; he also tells you how you feel and react while listening to the magician:

You impatiently shift in your barstool
And stare at your hands and pick at your nails.
You have no clear exit strategy

Perhaps I am in the minority here, but this voice of a narrator explaining my own actions to myself replicates my experience of drinking and remaining silent as others prattle on.

Karns’ chapbook follows a tradition of random encounters with monologuing, philosophical drunks in literature. As I read the magician’s story, I thought about Crime and Punishment and The Fall. Raskolnikov listens to the drunken laments of barflies who squandered their family’s savings and reputation as Dostoevsky explores what he called “the present question of drunkeness.” In The Fall Camus places the reader in an Amsterdam bar. You are the unlikely recipient of the confession of a once prominent and respected defense attorney whose fall from grace came from the paralyzing realization he did not authentically believe in the values he championed in court.

Karns’ Magician is somewhere between the drunken oblivion of Mameladov and the weary introspection of Clemence. Like both Dostoevsky and Camus, Karns’ perspective is existential. All the world’s a stage, and that is where the crisis of authenticity opens the void, or as the Magician explains, a wound:

When you’re a spectacle, you can’t be something else.
There are consequences for acknowledging

There is an absence. I didn’t want to be
A lonely spectacle…how’re we spectacles,

You ask? Why so dismissive? The Wound will
Let you know what you are or aren’t.

We’re formed by a collection of the Wound’s 
Memories, and through these memories,

We become a spectacle, a viewing pleasure
For others, especially for the Wound.

Here, I feel as though I am under the gaze of Jean-Paul Sartre, thinking of how we internalize the gaze of others and become not a being in of itself, but a being for others. When how we perform for others pleases the other, we internalize that role and mistake it for an authentic self. As the magician puts it “While performing a pointless trick/ Perhaps our real selves are locked in trunks.” 

As a young queer scholar, a short passage from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness redefined my understanding of my own identity. To illustrate the problems with authenticity, Sartre presents a scenario in which a homosexual man refuses to come out to another person who believes he has the right to urge him out of the closet. The homosexual man is in a bind here. If he were to lie about homosexual desires, he would be inauthentic with his true desires. But, if he were to confess, he would would be accepting the definition and expectations of sexuality that the other man holds, which the homosexual man does not agree with. He can’t deny himself, but he also can’t validate the flawed thinking of others that would place a label and category on him that doesn’t come from himself.

Karns’ Magician presents a similar problem with authenticity and being turned into a being for others:

As a spectacle, for it was all
I knew, and I knew I’d regret it.

Hypnotize, I’d regret it. Don’t,
I’d regret it. Disappear and relocate

An audience member, I’d regret it.
Don’t I’d regret it. Unknowingly

The audience follows the spectacle
Into ocean bound trunks.

Like Sartre’s example of the closeted homosexual, you regret staying in the trunk and hiding, but you also regret pantomiming the expectations of the crowd on stage. Even celebrated figures like famous magicians become bound by the persona needed to achieve applause. I wonder if those 80s and 90s bands, well past their glory years, that you see playing county fairs every summer ever feel this way. Could you find the guy from Smash Mouth sitting next to you at the funnel cake stand, confessing that he’d rather lock himself in the mic trunk than sing “All Star” one more time?

But here’s the inherent problem with confessions that the Magician, the homosexual man in Sartre’s story, and maybe even the Smash Mouth guy knows: they are always given to someone who does not possess the power to forgive them. As the Magician says: 

And I longed for forgiveness for years
Of deception, but the Wound ignores confessions

And redemptions–the Wound requires you
To absolve your guilt, alone.

Since in this poem, the person receiving this statement is “you,” I wonder if this means that the magician knows this barroom confession is invalid since he is not alone and “you” cannot absolve his guilt, like some people assume priests can. Maybe this confession is as much a performance for an audience as any of his magic tricks.

Or, maybe this is why “you” do not speak in this poem, and why he speaks to a random stranger. Even though you’re there to hear him, he’s still alone in the bar.

 

The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae is available via Finishing Line Press

 

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 LiteratureWestern American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday MagazineThe Lambda Literary ReviewModern 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 othersFor more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More Reviews By Chase Dimock:

A Review of All Seats Fifty Cents by Stephen Roger Powers

A Review of Willingly by Marc Frazier

A Review of Your Daughter’s Country by John Dorsey

Chase Dimock: A Review of Sugar Fix By Kory Wells

 

A Review of Kory Wells’ Sugar Fix

By Chase Dimock

 

       When Kory Wells sent a submission of poetry to As It Ought To Be Magazine last Spring, I was first struck by her sense of history. In “The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgement”, Wells writes about a census taker in the 19th century whose guesses at the races of citizens become their legal racial identity inscribed in his government ledger. Today in 2020, it took a court battle to resolve the citizenship question on this year’s census. This poem is more than just a historical footnote; its reminder of how the politics of identity and who has the right to recognize it have continually defined American society. In this way, Wells follows the words of fellow southern writer William Faulkner, who famously wrote (and was even more famously quoted by President Obama) “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

       With Sugar Fix, Wells explores the never dead past of today through the personal and cultural memories of sugar. Recipes handed down from generations are clues to her family mythologies, the proustian taste of chocolate ice cream on her tongue is a confessional, the trade in sugar and sweets in the south is a material history of the racial and class tensions of reconstruction to today. It would be easy for a book of poetry centered on the metaphor of sugar to lapse into saccharine sentimentality and syrupy cutesiness, but Wells is a poet who understands the cost of pleasure and the sweat demanded of our brow before we taste the sweet. She knows the personal price of indulgence and the social cost of supplying society with its sugar fix.

       In “Still Won’t Marry” Wells takes on the persona from the traditional Appalachian song “Angeline the Baker,” envisioning her as weary of the constant propositions of trading sugar for skin:

He says a little taste of sugar will cure
my weary back, my aching shoulders, my
singed arms. Like I don’t know what that man wants.

Angeline’s side of the story is wise to the after effects of the sugar fix “The bed a pleasure too short. Babies Chores./ His wants ahead of mine.” Wells connects this folklore of indulgence in sugar and flesh to her own past in a poem whose title conveniently saves me from having to summarize its premise: “He drove a four-door Chevy, nothing sexy, but I’d been thinking of his mouth for weeks.” During a date at a Dairy Queen Drive in, Wells is fixated: Continue reading “Chase Dimock: A Review of Sugar Fix By Kory Wells”

Dandylion Riot: An Interview with Poet and Artist Jeanette Powers

 

 

Dandylion Riot:
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. 

Continue reading “Dandylion Riot: An Interview with Poet and Artist Jeanette Powers”