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: “Billy Dew Meadow”

 

 

This is the second 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

 

Billy Dew Meadow

Mountain meadow,
sonant place (and
I thought of love, of
wanting it so) that
only the locals

know. The pass: im-
passible, Barbara and
Robert, old lovers,
say. But they like us,
four wheel drive us

over the folded
earth, along the
tree-toothed grin of
grass. We laugh as
everything is young, or

time doesn’t mean much.
Named for a miner. “A
frenchman.” Ah, then
Dieu, perhaps. Billy, dear,
What is your name? What 

man amongst men were
you? And where are you
buried? With whose lock of
hair? Here’s history un
kempt. Fir shacks sagging. Mer-

ci, Billy, from friends at
play in your sweet
meadow. Jim lying
stoned in grass, and
me perched ready to

fly through men, their
names and touches and
fields and shag of
beard where a stream
presses the center of

story scorched by
prairie-fire, orange
yellow and purple
rods and golden
faces bristling with repro-

duction as dragonflies
swarm. My shadow,
standing on shadow
rock: I’m shirtless and
could be twelve or

Icarus. Expectation
winging long as
afternoon, backlit 
ass on fire! A
halo you may re-

call, dear Billy.
Above the wooded
ridge: it’s blue sky
moon, Billy. Vastly over a
century old. Still,

find my billet-
doux tomorrow, Billy,
find your meadow
tomorrow in every
shaven face.

      -July 25, 1996, Fish Camp, California

 

(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

 

Image Credit: Vincent Van Gogh “Wheat Field at Auvers with White House” (1890) Public Domain

“Cycles of Grief Go On and On” By Jeanette Powers

 

 

Cycles of Grief Go On and On

In no good world is it right
for a mother to leave behind
two young boys when she dies
or for the family to fight
over her crumbs, her car
the paint by number of a white horse
the hand-painted sculpture
of a monkey, hanging
from a real rope
the raining oil lamp
with the naked woman inside
there’s no justice
in fighting over her wedding ring
while those two boys
sit in pews praying
for their mom.

There is no kindness in giving
your queer granddaughter
a bible for graduation
after fifteen years of her
hiding behind the pulpit
knowing she can’t be baptized
into the faith of her family
and cutting off her college fund
when she’s caught red-handed
with a woman at the movie theater
then sending her out into the world
without a safety net
unable to pray without
remembering being cast away.

For the abandoned
it feels like everyone
is beating on them for their whole lives
and they are the only ones paying the price
it seems like everyone
is just getting away with so much cruelty
dressed up as the Christian thing to do
and we, abandoned through grief,
loss, through being different
find our own solace
and too often in razor blades,
another dozen bottles
always bashing our heads
in prayer against a wall
we can’t find our way out from behind.

Are we raising a generation
of hungry ghosts, sleeping
with clenched fists, ready to punch back
at first waking, unable to be given
an apology they can hear
every reason just an excuse
always believing everyone
is going to be right at our throats
the second we show our self
our rage an impacted tooth
our memory a suppurating ulcer
the only cheek turned, always our own?

 

About the Author: Jeanette Powers: poet, painter, philosopher, professional party dancer and working class, anarchist, non-binary queer. Here to be radically peaceful, they are a founding member of Kansas City’s annual small press poetry fest, FountainVerse. Powers is also the brawn behind Stubborn Mule Press. They have seven full length poetry books and have been published often online and  print journals. Find more at jeanettepowers.com and @novel_cliche

 

More By Jeanette Powers:

Reflections in the Windows of Your First Car

 

Image Credit: Karl Blossfeldt “Dipsacus laciniatus” (1928) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: NO

no


from NO
By Ocean Vuong


TORSO OF AIR

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

and gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.

Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—

waiting.



HOME WRECKER

And this is how we danced: with our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. And this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

sweeping though my hair—my hair a wildfire.
We covered our ears and your father’s tantrum turned

into heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above the fireplace.

Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god
to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not the car,

the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance

we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:

This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.



Today’s poems are from NO, published by Yes Yes Books, copyright © 2013 by Ocean Vuong. “Torso of Air” previously appeared in BODY Literature, and “Home Wrecker” previously appeared in Linebreak. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


NO: Anyone who has already sensed that “hope is a feathered thing that dies in the Lord’s mouth,” should get their hands on NO. Honest, intimate, and brimming with lyric intensity, these stunning poems come of age with a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in an attic, with a record stuck on please, with starlight on a falling bomb. Even as Vuong leads you through every pleasure a body deserves and all the ensuing grief, these poems restore you with hope, that godforsaken thing—alive, singing along to the radio, suddenly sufficient. —Traci Brimhall, Our Lady of the Ruins


Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.


Editor’s Note: I’m just going to come right out and say this: Ocean Vuong is one of the best and most important poets writing in America today. I have not been so moved as I am by Vuong’s words since I first read Li-Young Lee. This poet has changed my life. He has renewed my belief in American poetry. That it can be emotional and heartbreaking. That is can be beautiful and full of hope. That modern American poetry can—and does—matter. In my humble opinion your poetry collection is simply not complete unless it houses both Vuong’s groundbreaking chapbook, Burnings, and his newest release from Yes Yes Books, NO.

NO is a surprisingly experimental collection, yet Vuong remains dedicated to the lyric and the narrative, guiding us through its formal twists and turns through emotive language and evocative imagery. Throughout its pages the poet intimately explores themes of love, sexuality, and belonging against a backdrop of devastating loss. It is a brilliant and beautiful collection, a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As the book’s publisher did when reading through the manuscript for the first time, when Ocean Vuong says NO to you, be prepared to say “Yes Yes!”


Want to see more from Ocean Vuong?
Buy NO from Yes Yes
The Poetry Foundation
Interview in The Well & Often Reader
Ben Lerner on mentoring Ocean Vuong, Brooklyn College

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: ONLY RIDE

OnlyRide-Front

from ONLY RIDE
By Megan Volpert:


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Today’s poems are from Only Ride, published by Sibling Rivalry Press, copyright © 2014 by Megan Volpert. “You are suspended” was first published in This assignment is so gay, edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


Only Ride: If Denis Johnson had written Tuesdays with Morrie, it’d feel like Megan Volpert’s book of prose poems. Clawing its way out through this minimalist checklist of suburban malaise is an emphatically optimistic approach to growing up. These tiny essays carefully detail how to avoid becoming one’s parents, how to manage a body addled by disease, and how to keep having the best possible time in life. After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it. Volpert’s is a story of Springsteenian proportions, a gentleman’s guide to rebellion complete with iron horses and the church of rock & roll.

Megan Volpert is the author of five books on communication and popular culture, most notably about Andy Warhol. She has been teaching high school English in Atlanta for the better part of a decade, and is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. She edited the American Library Association-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, which is currently a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.

Editor’s Note: Megan Volpert’s Only Ride is a no-holds-barred journey through personal history, with sage wisdom bursting from its rough-and-tumble seams. The book is less Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and more Get a Grip and Ride Like it’s Your Only Ride. This is a book about how to live life. Suck it up and move past the childhood issues that scarred you. Don’t just cope with illness, thrive in the face of it. Live life full throttle no matter what it throws at you, because life is short and living demands fierce courage.

Throughout her journey Volpert takes personal and political stands, inspiring her readers to do the same. Sometimes you’ve just gotta smash things, because “a deep frustration that hurls pottery against the concrete floor… is not the thing to bottle up in shame.” Sometimes a teacher has a responsibility to teach more than just standard curriculum. As “the only openly queer faculty member in [a] public Southern high school,” Volpert is “fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance,” and she’ll write a student up for failing the latter.

Brimming with humor and hubris and wicked wit, the greatest gift of this book is the life lessons it relays. Stand up for what you believe in. Move past life’s bullshit and face adversity with a battle cry. Let go of the small stuff. “Many things annoy me,” Volpert confides, “but I seldom get really angry because now I just feel so lucky to be alive.” And we all should, the implication echoes. In a world where “[d]eath knocks twice: once for introductions & once to take you away,” why waste your precious life letting things get your goat? Having faced death, the poet gave her goat away; she has no goat to give. And we would all be well served to follow her example. “After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it.”

Want to see more from Megan Volpert?
Official Website
This assignment is so gay
Sibling Rivalry Press
FRONTIER PSYCHIATRIST

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD

Chris Window

SO GAY
By Christopher Crawford

How gay is it
for two men
to stroke
the same dog
at the same time.

                           What if they’re both
sitting on a sofa watching
When Harry Met Sally.

How about two men watching
the same gorgeous sunset
             from the same high ridge.

                           And if a man daydreaming
on a bus ride finds his eyes when focus returns,
             quite accidently, on the crotch
                           of the man seated opposite.

How about two men riding
a bus into a gorgeous sunset
or two gorgeous men watching
a sunset in silence. How about
two men daydreaming and stroking
a gorgeous dog and the dog makes
a strange deep sound of pleasure.

What if the men are old friends.
What if they’re brothers.
What if there’s music playing.


(Today’s poem originally appeared in Rattle, was a Pushcart Prize Nominee, and appears here today with permission from the poet.)

Christopher Crawford was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His poetry, essays and translations have appeared in magazines like The Cortland Review, Rattle, The Collagist, Agenda and elsewhere. His poems have been nominated for a couple of Pushcart prizes and he is a founding editor at B O D Y (bodyliterature.com).

Editor’s Note: We live in a day and age of extreme and imperative progress in the gay rights movement. Day by day, state by state, country by country, same-sex marriage is becoming legal and same-sex couples are fighting for—and winning—the rights they should have had all along. But the bigotry remains; the bullying, the violence. And this hatred is inextricably linked with language, with the politics inherent in language. When someone says “that’s so gay,” their intent may not be homophobic, but they are perpetuating discrimination none the less.

Today’s poem makes us consider the words we use—in our society, in our culture, in our day. What does it mean to be “so gay”? If you meditate upon the meaning of that phrase, Crawford shows us, you may discover the simple beauty of humanity.

Want to read more by and about Christopher Crawford?
The Cortland Review
Now Culture
Evergreen Review
The Collagist
Gray Sparrow