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.

 

***

 

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”

Revisiting 2019: Our 50 Most Popular Posts of the Year

 

Dear As It Ought To Be Magazine Readers,

As we enter the next decade, I want to thank all of the writers and readers who have made our tenth year so successful. I take enormous pride in working with so many talented and inspiring writers. Without your brilliance and generosity of spirit and intellect, none of this would be possible. It has been a great privilege to publish your work on our site, and I hope to continue featuring diverse perspectives, challenging ideas, and unique voices for years to come. As a way to look back on what we accomplished in 2019, I have complied the 50 most popular posts of the year based on internet traffic and clicks.

Thank you again to everyone who wrote for, read, and promoted AIOTB Magazine in 2019. Let the 20s roar again!

Chase Dimock
Managing Editor

 

Poetry

Jason Baldinger:

Ishrat Bashir:

Jai Hamid Bashir:

Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal:

Jeffrey Betcher:

Ace Boggess:

Daniel Crocker:

John Dorsey:

Ryan Quinn Flanagan:

Tony Gloeggler:

Nathan Graziano:

Cord Moreski:

Jeanette Powers:

Stephen Roger Powers:

Jonathan K. Rice:

Kevin Ridgeway:

Damian Rucci:

Anna Saunders:

Larry Smith:

Nick Soluri:

William Taylor Jr.:

Alice Teeter:

Tiffany Troy:

Bunkong Tuon:

Agnes Vojta:

Kory Wells:

Brian Chander Wiora:

Dameion Wagner:

 

Nonfiction

Daniel Crocker:

Nathan Graziano:

John Guzlowski:

Cody Sexton:

Carrie Thompson:

 

Reviews 

Chase Dimock:

Mike James:

 

Photo Credit: Fire Works At New Year’s Eve via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Chase Dimock: A Review of All Seats Fifty Cents, by Stephen Roger Powers

 

Although Stephen Roger Powers’ latest book All Seats Fifty Cents contains some poems that aren’t about Dolly Parton, once she enters your mind, she commands your imagination like the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. So, it’s impossible to begin this review in any other way but to marvel over Powers’ many Dolly meditations. And, it’s a good place to start because the Dolly Parton poems are a microcosm of Powers’ overall vision of the inalienable relationship between popular culture and personal identity in the American 20th and 21st centuries.

The story of Dolly Parton’s evolution as a pop icon is simultaneously Powers’ own coming of age narrative illuminated by the televised glow of Dolly’s radiant blonde. In a section titled “Burst My Bubbles,” Powers recalls the moment Dolly captured his adolescent fantasy:

I credit Dolly Parton in a bubble bath
for popping my Catholic cornfield bubble
I was hating my Sunday altar boy costume
and sore knees from all that kneeling

Like for so many other young people in the 70s and 80s, Dolly Parton’s television appearances in conservative households snuck in a vision of an alternative to the American culture of repression and limited ambition. For Powers, this is an erotic, but not objectifying awakening:

Sunday night, the 27th of September, 1987-
lather, bare shoulders, and a great big smile

Parton speaks directly to Powers from a bathtub, alluding to the promise of a world of something more glamorous and desirable than the duties of the Catholic altar boy.

While it’s doubtless that millions of adolescent boys had certain new stirrings when first seeing Dolly’s farm girl charm, luxurious appeal, and ample bosom, for Powers, this is not a story about a typical pin up object of desire. Rather, his fixation on Dolly is about how her transcendent talent and creative vision offer a lifestyle that breaks through gender and class barriers in ways few celebrities allowed in the conservative world could. In “Step It Up a Little,” Powers testifies to the appeal of Dolly’s agency, “Every man should learn to walk in stilettos as high as Dolly Parton’s.” It is refreshing to hear a straight man praise a female artist as something he aspires to be like. Dolly is a gay icon like Judy, Liza, Cher, Diana, Joan and Bette, all strong women who forged the steel of femininity. Yet, the appeal is universal, and what gay men got out of modeling themselves after these women is what straight men have long needed and have recently become more comfortable in expressing. That’s the power of Dolly Parton; she radiates universal qualities we all admire, and yet we all feel as though we have uniquely intimate relationships with her art.

 

 

Powers’ Dolly poems understand how we craft our identities through the complexities of the celebrity/fan relationship. There have been plenty of odes to heroes in the history of poetry, but not as many about the nuances of 21st century fan culture. Beyond the scope of Dolly as an idol to worship, Powers’ poems also explore how she is a lifestyle to live and a commodity to purchase. Dolly is not just a singer and celebrity; she’s also a businesswoman with her own themepark, Dollywood, where the fan can live in a world of her own design.  In “Dolly Floats,” first published here on As It Ought To Be Magazine, Powers writes a year by year chronicle of Dolly’s appearances in parades at the Dollywood theme park, accompanied by annotations about his personal life:

2015

Dreams come true when Dolly, garnished in red
with gold trim, jack-in-the-boxed from cake,
her great big yellow wig a flaming candle.

With the majestic vision of Dolly, always as much fantasy as she is human, Powers own humanity and flesh, as prone to weakness as all us other mortals, comes between him and Dolly:

2017

Antibiotics pinholed my right hip.
“If I take it easy do you think I could
go to Pigeon Forge on Friday
for Dolly’s annual parade?”
“No.”
Steroids picked my left hip.
“But you don’t understand–”
“Absolutely not.”

Powers most powerfully juxtaposes the goddess with the mere mortal in his poem “Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story.” Here, he recounts a brief encounter with Dolly in her Dollywood dreamland, known as the “sausage story.” He gives us first a mundane version in which he merely sees her walk by, and then this version “unshackled from the truth” that may be fiction, but better expresses the impact of seeing her while eating a sausage.

the greasy peppers and onions slid.
the moment the reigning queen of Nashville
graced all us fans standing around waiting
in the Dollywood devilry she gave us.
She was so sunny and funny
she hollered to her bodyguard to pour
club soda on me before the stain set.

Powers builds a connection with Parton through mythologization. We retell stories until the facts of the story transform into the meaning it holds for the teller. Powers further explores how celebrities do the same, and because their words are recorded, we can actually track this phenomena. He unpacks the story behind Jolene’s evolution from mere fan to vixen along side the multiple retellings and revisions of his sausage story:

Dolly lets her stories take
on a life of their own like this too…

Listen to Dolly tell it now–
Jolene is a fiery-headed hussy
at the bank who tried to steal
her husband one day when he cashed
a royalty check for
“I Will Always Love You.”

A celebrity is always a collaborative mythology created between the woman beneath the wig and the collective imagination of the audience. In these poems, we see Dolly as she is, and as she is imagined. Both of these Dollys are equally real.

I hope Powers will Parton me (get it???) for obsessing over Dolly in my review as much as he does in his poems. This American icon who my grandmother proudly refers to as “your grandfather’s secret girlfriend” cannot ever not be the focus of any media she graces. That said, the balance of Powers poems achieves equally brilliant insights into the relationship between pop culture and individual/family identity through considerations of other televised spectacles. In a poem about Lou Ferrigno’s feet, Powers writes:

My brother and his strawberry Kool Aid mustache
peeked out just in time to see
the hulk’s green slippers–unedited, overlooked,
unraveled illusion impossible to un-see–slap
the concrete, slow motion run away.
The Hulk wears green slippers
It wasn’t long before I learned trust
means different things to children and adults.
Even now I can’t un-see Challenger crumbling
in the sky like a clump of wet sand.

In the past few years, Hollywood seems to have kept itself afloat by repackaging 80s and 90s nostalgia to those who lived through it. Without a critical eye, or more social relevance than giving the heroes smartphones, this nostalgic regurgitation has been more of a security blanket roof over a couch cushion fort than any artistic tribute or reimagination. This is why I appreciate Powers’ pop culture poems so much. While they touch on nostalgia, they avoid the uncritical sentimentality of nostalgia that takes shots of Crystal Pepsi until you can’t hear the news about climate change anymore. Powers’ poems are not an escape from reality; rather, they detail the sad ache of nostalgia and the beauty of somehow knowing, even in one’s golden years, that the tarnish is inevitable and possibly already there. Nostalgia, as Powers engages with it, can be a powerful and informative way to trace the origins of our values and explore how we became who we are.

Everyone in a Dolly Parton concert has sausage stains and arthritic hips. Powers shows that Dolly’s presence doesn’t change this reality, but with her Backwoods Barbie persona, she knows Club Soda is a miracle potion and that the sparkle of her sequins is majestic, and on sale at Joann Fabrics.

 

All Seats Fifty Cents is available via Salmon Poetry

 

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, and San Pedro River Review among othersFor more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More by Chase Dimock: 

A Review of John Dorsey’s Your Daughter’s Country

A Review of Jumping Bridges in Technicolor by Mike James

Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker

“The Inner Life of Midwesterners Rarely Spoken: A Review of Marc Frazier’s Willingly” By Chase Dimock

 

 

The Inner Life of Midwesterners Rarely Spoken:

A Review of Marc Frazier’s Willingly

 By Chase Dimock

 

     In the poem “Iterations” Marc Frazier claims “There is no limit to the times a poet can mention the body.” Frazier’s latest book Willingly is true to his own words as nearly every poem is about inhabiting a body or the embodiment of ideas and emotions:

this body that stirs, or fails to
this barely defined shoulder
my body beside someone’s but not yet yours.

Frazier’s bodies are sites of memory, pain, desire, and the hope of transcendence through sensual connection with other bodies. These bodies are both familiar and alienating: his own body ranging from childhood to middle age, the alternately tender or cold bodies of lovers and objects of desire, and the bodies of his family members wracked with mental illness and the ravages of old age. Thus, Willingly is about how bodies are shaped by their environment, nurtured or neglected by family and community, and legible through scars:

Body, exhausted by metaphor–limited, earthbound.
Words can’t capture how it falters, breaks,
how there may be something more.

Words cannot capture a body in the sense that capturing means possessing and immobilizing it the way the possessiveness of desire sometimes wishes we could. But as a poet, Frazier’s words can depict the impressions of the body in motion, the way it ages, cowers in pain, and yearns for the touch of others.

      Frazier begins his collection with the poem “little death; dissociative identity,” which sets the tone for his subsequent explorations of identity and desire. I imagine “little death” as a reference to the French “la petite mort,” a term that refers to the after effects of an orgasm. As the majority of the poems intersperse recollections of his dysfunctional family and meditations on his sexuality from childhood to present, the idea of sex culminating in a small death frames this relationship between his identity as a gay man and his upbringing in the midwest. The pleasures of the body mean that a part of him must die: namely the lingering trauma of a childhood that shamed his queerness as a man and an artist.

      In “Synopsis” Frazier gives us exactly that: a run down of his infancy to manhood: “mother threatens to kill me during the seventh month of my life… mother is admitted for insulin and electro-shock therapies…I have to survive my father a difficult battle to win.” Living with a mentally ill mother and a stern Catholic father adds up: 

I live as a person
divided
the religious youth
and the man
cruising men
my fragile self fueled
by porn alcohol

While an upbringing does not determine one’s sexual orientation, it does heavily inform how one navigates their sexuality and what they want to get through it. By alternating poems about his family from the nostalgic to the traumatic with poems about his loves and lusts, Frazier’s poetry investigates how the wounds of the past drive us to heal through desires of the flesh. 

        All discussions of sexual desire carry the stigma of taboo in our culture, yet Frazier’s poetry is unafraid to be vulnerable and confessional. His work is especially brave because he does not merely reveal erotic desires, but also the pain of rejection, the lingering feelings of inadequacy, and the moral ambiguity of his sexual past. In two back to back poems, “Without Words” and “Sergio”, Frazier connects his difficult relationship with his mother to a failed romantic relationship. Addressing his mother, he writes: “Even now, I stiffen when you hug me,/ frozen in an infant’s body”. Through poetry, he attempts to find healing for his trauma:

Each word I write aims to uncover the damage,
to express trauma that happens before language

But a body remembers what happened.
How I want to surrender, to let you reach me:

My body’s wanting to love is not the same as loving
though wanting to be loved is the same as loving

The problem of wanting to love and be loved in a traumatized body that cannot process or receive love as the mind wants emerges as well in Frazier’s poems about sexuality. In these poems, he explores the dual nature of sex: the sensual and the carnal. I was particularly struck by some of the poems in which he positions the carnal as a reaction to the frustrations and disappointments in trying to make a sensual, romantic connection. In “Without You” he writes:

I bring bodies alive with a quarter
        Watch them laboring
Like pistons and cylinders,
        Without sound

To unlearn the beauty of you
        the pornography does best

When a body he loved slips away, he responds with a carnal possession of another, virtual body he can always control. In “Sergio” this reactionary attitude is echoed as he writes “the more I have sex, the more I get even.” It’s brave to explore this unflattering, yet all too human and universal aspect of frustrated desire. 

      Despite the strong focus on a traumatized past and painfully honest poems about the darker and stickier elements of desire, Frazier’s book still maintains a certain level of optimism in the promise of sensual connection through bodies. In these poems, he crafts some of his most beautiful images and lines. In “Architecture” he writes

I hear each cell crave to be more
my desire to be less
anchored deep in the kiln of your chest

In “Heart Tide” Frazier writes of the hope for transcendence through vulnerability:

My clear heart rests in your hand
                  beyond death’s fingers
                  It holds itself, freed of geography and time.

That line beautifully sums up the aspirations of Frazier’s book. We recover traumas through the body. We feel the pain of shame, rejection, and frustration through the body. But at moments, bodies can intertwine and transcend the damage of the past and the physical constraints of the present. There are indeed no limits to the times a poet can mention the body, and through poetry we reshape and we rethink the bodies we inhabit each time they are mentioned.

 

Willingly is available from Adelaide Books

 

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, and San Pedro River Review among othersFor more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More by Chase Dimock: 

A Review of John Dorsey’s Your Daughter’s Country

A Review of Jumping Bridges in Technicolor by Mike James

Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker

 

“When I Was A Girl Like Me: An Interview With Poet Margaret Bazzell-Crocker” By Chase Dimock

 

When I Was A Girl Like Me:

An Interview With Poet Margaret Bazzell-Crocker

By Chase Dimock

When Margaret Bazzell-Crocker told me she would be publishing her first collection of poetry in 20 years, I expected her to be revelation to anyone who picked up her book. As a good friend of hers, I knew readers would be equal parts charmed and provoked by her perspective. Her personality certainly radiates from the pages: funny, empathetic, authentic, unrepentantly unorthodox, and insightful.

What I didn’t expect was for the book to be a revelation to me. When you’ve known someone for a while, you tend to think you’ve got them figured out, even when your base assumption is that they are amazing and capable of anything. I learned a lot about Margaret: about her relationship with anger and disillusionment, how these feelings came from her upbringing and her dissatisfaction with the status of women in the world of her youth, and how the Margaret I met in her 40s is a product of decades of harnessing and channeling this into an energy that can create and nurture.

After finishing the book, I wondered if I had been daft and dense to have missed some of this in my friend. But, what I realized while interviewing Margaret is that it is through the language of poetry that so much of this experience can be expressed and heard. When I Was a Girl Like Me is the annotated guide to the life of Margaret Bazzell-Crocker. The following interview is just as much about wanting to better understand a friend as it is about wanting to share her with the world.

Chase Dimock: Your book contains a short introduction in which you address your anger. You write, “People are afraid of anger and especially women are afraid to be angry” and that you are now “comfortable” with your anger because you can “aim it with laser precision.” Why did you decide to begin by addressing your history of dealing with anger and what role does this anger play in your poetry?

Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: I think I wrote first about anger because it’s the emotion I’ve wrestled with most, and I’ve been fascinated with the idea that it seems to be especially shocking when a woman is angry. I remember feeling the same way when I got old enough for my mother to make me start wearing shirts. Why did I have to go around in shirts? None of the boys or men in our neighborhood did! Our household wasn’t really great when I was growing up and anger seemed to be the go-to feeling for all of us, although we always expressed it in gender-specific ways. The girls were allowed to sulk and the boys were allowed to hit.

I think a big, powerful moment growing up for me was when I discovered I had the power to express my anger in more definite ways, and I’m sad to say that I wasn’t, at first, very responsible with this power. I hit, I threw things, I did things I was sorry for afterwards, and I wouldn’t go through that experience again if I could help it. However, I think the message I got when I was younger, and that women continue to get now, was that a girl or woman could feel things in a corner, but they’d better not sit at the table with it. I’m not completely comfortable sitting at the table today, but I’ll do it, by God. As far as how anger affects my poetry, I think it affects some of it, of course. I hope readers will see that this collection begins with anger, but then talks about all kinds of emotions and situations. The collection gets past my anger, but still acknowledges it as a great source of power. Good and bad.

 

Chase Dimock: Let’s talk about where this anger and your attempt to harness and manage it surface in your poems. A few months ago, we published the second poem in the book, “The Art of Acquiescence,” in As It Ought to Be Magazine. In it you write:

To be a woman
in this world
is to bend and curve and slip around its corners
like a snake in the river.

You explain that a woman must “contort” herself. How do you feel this compulsory contortion and acquiescence feeds into the anger you feel? How does this connect your personal experience with the women of the world who you broadly address in the first two lines?

Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: First of all, I like the words you use about the anger in my poetry, because I think they are correct: “harness,” and, “manage.” That is what I tried so hard to do in the past whenever I felt angry. I would add another that’s in “The Art of Acquiescence” poem itself: “meet.” I did try to harness my anger because it went far into a dangerous field when I found I had the power to wield it, and as I’ve said, I regret that. But, then I found I over-corrected, because I was trying to be accommodating to everyone but me. There is still a tendency now to please everyone around me and be resentful of it. The more I matured and was around different women, the more I found their anger and resentment, even for the people they loved sometimes, matched my own. The more I still found this tendency in many of us, to turn the art of acquiescence into a line, drawn in battle. And the more determined I was to erase, or at least redefine, this line in myself. That’s why I would add the word “meet.” In the poem, the snake meets all obstacles. I love that little snake!

I hope, with this collection of poetry, readers see, not that I am finally at Hallmark Channel peace with my anger, but that I am working to remove the battle from it, to negotiate a peace-accord, maybe with myself. I have come of age, I guess, in my willingness to see it as a part of me, but no longer a defining part of me. I would never advise anyone else to do the same. My poem is my journey, and no one else’s. I wrote it because I feel my journey with anger and with other emotions that stand in the way of growth, change, or even just a happy, still life may resonate with others, too.

Continue reading ““When I Was A Girl Like Me: An Interview With Poet Margaret Bazzell-Crocker” By Chase Dimock”

“A Review of Mike James’ Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor” By Chase Dimock

 

 

In “My Wife’s Shoes,” the first poem of Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse Press), Mike James writes “some nights we turn the radio to ballroom music and I pretend to be Fred Astaire, led by Ginger Rogers for a change, and dance in high heels in reverse.” “High heels in reverse” is the essence of his book. Astaire and Rogers had to know the geometry of each other’s bodies and steps inside and out to perform their moves. A careful eye can spot the scenes where Rogers is actually leading. This is exactly what Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor achieves.

We’ve all heard the old adage about reserving judgement until we’ve walked a mile in a man’s shoes, but that always assumes a lack of empathy and the need for a radical thought experiment just to imagine outside the self. In reality, as Mike James reminds us, we are always wearing each others shoes, although sometimes we lack the insight to see them, or we keep our steps hidden. Just as the surrealists were not about random weird imagery, but about making the real experience of our psyches visible, so too does Mike James make the multiplicity of self and the malleability of the body legible in his prose poems.

Like in his previous collections, My Favorite Houseguest and First-Hand Accounts from Made Up Places, James populates some of his book with portraits of celebrities. Yet, these portraits are never about the celebrity him or herself so much as they are about the process of painting them and seeing the pigment of self in each brushstroke. In “The Films of Burt Reynolds” he begins with “not the films, but the books about the films…Someone loved Burt enough to watch each, then write descriptively.” While James writes about someone writing about Burt, he’s also writing about himself, and how his “mother said she’d marry him if he’d just stop by.” For men, Burt’s mustachioed masculinity is something we’re supposed to identify through as he “walked down the carpet with Dinah, Lauren, Sally and Loni.” Yet, when he is written about, he becomes an object of grammar. Straight, gay, or in between, all men must ask, do we want to be Burt, do we want Burt, do we want to be wanted by Burt, or is it all of the above? Continue reading ““A Review of Mike James’ Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor” By Chase Dimock”