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. 

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Jeffrey Betcher: “Golden Gate”

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts remembering the work of poet and activist Jeffrey Betcher (1960-2017)

 

Preface: Left “believing in the pack mentality of strays,” the poetry of Jeffrey Betcher speaks from the entire collective of American queer stray culture, that very lost-and-found narrative of reinvention on the docks of survival. These docks, being the green-heeled sanctuary of San Francisco from 1986-2016, these docks gave birth to an examination and liberation of meaning, as wildly honest and true-to-mirror as every queer breath weʼve danced. From this collection of Jeffrey Betcherʼs poems, “The Fucking Seasons, Selected Poems 1986 to 2016,” we hear the journeys into witness, touch the lips of knowing “love has been here. Hungry footsteps, breath released, and touch can change the land forever.” A San Franciscan born of rural Ohio, Jeffrey Betcherʼs poetry informs the landscape of nature, saying simply, “Iʼm a witness. Love has been here.”

– Toussaint St. Negritude,
Poet, bass clarinetist, composer

 

Golden Gate 

standing above the golden gate
screaming at ocean waves that 
weave beyond the mouth and 
at buried rocks’ teasing tips and 
at the sun somewhere in the 
sky as it is daytime and the fog 
is hidden in the rhythm of 
meandering scenes that rebuke 
sense, i am noticing the 
desertion of the bridge by gull 
man and machine and all 
around the city and bay the 
familiar art of ancient astronauts 
and a whisper of function 
louder than my yell from the 
center about something the 
tourists and natives forgot. 

– November 20, 1991, San Francisco

 

(C) 2017 Jeffrey L. Betcher Living Trust

 

About the Author: Jeffrey Betcher donned many hats over more than 30 years in San Francisco, yet maintained an integrity of purpose. A writer, an educator, an advocate for the prevention of violence against women and children, and a grassroots community organizer, he gained national attention as a leader in the “guerrilla gardening” movement, helping transform his crime-ridden street in the Bayview neighborhood into an urban oasis. His intimate poetry was also cultivated over the decades, exploring survival and engagement, and the labyrinth of the heart. Though he dodged the HIV bullet in the plague-torn years, a terminal bout of cancer cut his life short in 2017. In addition to his chapbook of Selected Poems (1986-2016), he completed an epic sonnet, Whistling Through, an odyssey into the cancer machine and death itself

 

More By Jeffrey Betcher:

Dear Allen Ginsberg

Billy Dew Meadow

Kezar Pavilion

 

Image Credit: Carol Highsmith “Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California” The Library of Congress

Jeffrey Betcher: “Kezar Pavilion”

 

This is the third in a series of posts remembering the work of poet and activist Jeffrey Betcher (1960-2017)

Preface: Left “believing in the pack mentality of strays,” the poetry of Jeffrey Betcher speaks from the entire collective of American queer stray culture, that very lost-and-found narrative of reinvention on the docks of survival. These docks, being the green-heeled sanctuary of San Francisco from 1986-2016, these docks gave birth to an examination and liberation of meaning, as wildly honest and true-to-mirror as every queer breath weʼve danced. From this collection of Jeffrey Betcherʼs poems, “The Fucking Seasons, Selected Poems 1986 to 2016,” we hear the journeys into witness, touch the lips of knowing “love has been here. Hungry footsteps, breath released, and touch can change the land forever.” A San Franciscan born of rural Ohio, Jeffrey Betcherʼs poetry informs the landscape of nature, saying simply, “Iʼm a witness. Love has been here.”

– Toussaint St. Negritude,
Poet, bass clarinetist, composer

 

Kezar Pavilion

Built for the ghosts of Manifest Destiny at the
Edge of everything … land … days …
Illusion … is Kezar, barnacled when divinity
Stalled and spun to begin the work of an
American Century. From redwood and spunk and
Clay with solid plans, tradesmen
Square-walled confusion, roofed the games their
Children played, plied the fray of a
Westward dream with stitches of structure, then
Clapped red haunch-shaped clouds of
Terra-cotta dust from sturdy britches.

Kick the tires on Kezar today, and
Kezar might kick back. The dizziness of
Migrants whirling to the Pacific is ecstasy
Recalled by Roller Derby Bombers, pagans
Spiraling in winter and tween-teens lobbing
Hormones at hoops. And here and there are the
Undead offspring of Jerry Garcia who
Dig what is buried beneath Kezar’s hull, then
Conjure from the sidewalk what just might rise.

-January 2014, San Francisco

 

(C) 2017 Jeffrey L. Betcher Living Trust

 

About the Author: Jeffrey Betcher donned many hats over more than 30 years in San Francisco, yet maintained an integrity of purpose. A writer, an educator, an advocate for the prevention of violence against women and children, and a grassroots community organizer, he gained national attention as a leader in the “guerrilla gardening” movement, helping transform his crime-ridden street in the Bayview neighborhood into an urban oasis. His intimate poetry was also cultivated over the decades, exploring survival and engagement, and the labyrinth of the heart. Though he dodged the HIV bullet in the plague-torn years, a terminal bout of cancer cut his life short in 2017. In addition to his chapbook of Selected Poems (1986-2016), he completed an epic sonnet, Whistling Through, an odyssey into the cancer machine and death itself

 

More By Jeffrey Betcher:

Dear Allen Ginsberg

Billy Dew Meadow

 

Image Credit: Jet Lowe “DETAIL VIEW OF CABLE IN SAN FRANCISCO ANCHORAGE – San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, Spanning San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA” (1985) The Library of Congress

“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