Sandra Cohen Margulius talks to poet/comedian Stephen Roger Powers about his Dolly Parton-inspired poetry.
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Stephen Roger Powers is a poet/writer who earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee back in 2006. When I met Stephen at the university years ago, he was focusing his writing primarily on writing fiction, but as time progressed found he had an uncanny talent for putting his feelings, sense of humor and muse, Dolly Parton, into the poetry genre. His second book, Hello Stephen, just came out this past spring. It follows a very successful first work, The Follower’s Tale, published in 2009.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Stephen recently to discuss his newest work, Hello Stephen, his second book to be published by the Salmon Poetry.
First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk about your upcoming book of poetry, Hello Stephen, which will be making a spring debut. As in your first book, The Followers Tale, you have a special muse, Dolly Parton, who has been quite an influence in your life, as well as your poetry. Can you discuss your fascination with Ms. Parton, when it began, and how it came to be?
My fascination with Dolly Parton began in the summer of 1987 when I was thirteen years old. I was in Tennessee with my parents and my brother. We were visiting relatives who lived near Chattanooga. My dad heard that Dollywood had opened the year before, and so he decided we should go to Pigeon Forge for a day or two, and check it out. I wasn’t particularly thrilled about it, because the idea of going to a country music theme park seemed so hokey to me. But I went through Dolly’s museum there, and I saw the replica of her coat of many colors. I read the story on the plaque on the wall about how Dolly’s mother made the coat, how Dolly was so proud of it, and how all the kids at school ended up making fun of it. Something in that spoke to me, because I always felt like I never really belonged anywhere, and at the time, as I was struggling with being a teenager with a disability at a Catholic school that didn’t really do much to give me a sense of belonging or encourage my creativity, I was looking for someone to understand me. I found that in Dolly. Here was an amazing woman who grew up poor, never fit in at school, and went on to become an international superstar, and she was so down to earth and genuine, so overwhelmingly positive, and such a terrific songwriter. I knew when I was young that I was going to be a writer someday, and the songwriting spoke to me the most. Dolly’s Trio album with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris was getting some attention that summer, so my mom bought it for me to listen to on my Walkman in the car, and I was completely blown away by it, especially Dolly’s song, “Wildflowers.” I started buying every Dolly album I could find, and that fall, she was on TV with her own variety show. The show wasn’t particularly good, but it was Dolly, and I was in heaven. Of course being in love with Dolly didn’t do much to help me fit in at school when everyone else was listening to Whitesnake, Poison, and Tiffany, but I didn’t care anymore. Eventually my admiration for Dolly translated into taking road trips to Dollywood to see her benefit concerts for the Dollywood Foundation there, and those trips translated into stories that became poems in my first book and in this new one. Creative writing teachers always say to write what you know, but I say to write what you love.
After reading this second full length work, I notice that even though the Dolly theme runs through much of it, you have chosen to give Dolly a lesser role from the previous first book. Why is that?
Mainly because I don’t want to be known as a one-trick-pony poet. Even though being known as a Dolly poet is a funny gimmick, I suspect it has, to some extent, prejudiced me in the poetry community, and made some editors and poets think that I’m not serious about what I do. I understand why they might find this Dolly muse weird, but the first book actually started out as just a short series of poems about my road trips to Dollywood to see Dolly. I didn’t intend for it to become a book, but Susan Firer, Milwaukee’s former poet laureate, told me a book of Dolly poems would be a sure success, and so I wrote a whole book. This second book is a broader collection, I think. Some poems mention Dolly. Many don’t. The ones that do mention Dolly put her more in the background of things. I consider Hello, Stephen sort of a sequel to the first book regardless. When Salmon Poetry approached me about doing a second book, I wasn’t sure whether or not it should be a Dolly-inspired book, but I talked to Sherman Alexie about it at AWP in Denver in 2010. He had just published a Dolly poem of his own, “Ode to Jolene,” in Contrary magazine, and he told me to go for it. So I did.
Even though there may be a little less Dolly, her role seems to be more like a phantom figure, or guardian angel who jumps from the background to the forefront and then back to the background. How did you decide to use her in this capacity in this newest work?
Because Dolly is sort of a phantom figure in my life. I know I make jokes about it myself, but a lot of people think I’m obsessed with Dolly, that she occupies every moment, and that’s not true at all. In the morning, I check one of the major Dolly websites for any news about her projects or her upcoming public appearances, and then I go about my day. I usually make plans to be at Dollywood when she’s there, which is about twice a year, and I try not to miss her annual homecoming parade in Pigeon Forge. Those are the moments that many of the poems in my first book grew out of. Other than that, Dolly doesn’t play a very big role in my daily life, but her influence from a young age on my outlook on things is always there in the background.
There seems to be a definite southern influence from your childhood tie to the south to the use of Dolly as your muse. Can you discuss this for the readers please?
I’ve always loved the South, and it mainly comes from having spent so much time here growing up, and from reading so much about it in the work of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I focused on the Southern Gothic when I was doing my PhD, because something about the decay and destruction in it appealed to me, and I found it so funny, especially O’Connor’s stories. Now that I live here, the South doesn’t seem anywhere near as romanticized as it did when I was just visiting or reading about it. People who don’t know much about the South, or who haven’t spent much time here, will always see the South through the lenses of stereotype, even educated or well-traveled people who should know better than to do that, but, on the other hand, there is a lot of religion here, a lot of racism, a lot of conservatism, a lot of paranoia. All of that is very real here. So is poverty. And I really wish there was more emphasis on the value of reading and education. But I listen to Northerners and academics who don’t live here make jokes about the Bible Belt and a half inch of snow shutting down Atlanta, and that makes me cringe a little inside, but it also amuses me at times to listen to some Southerners go on and on about how nobody is going to tell them to stay off the roads when it snows, or about how I need to go to church or else I won’t be saved, as if that’s what they spend every moment worrying about. All of this is just to say that the South is a more complex place than it seems, and I love complexities. Regardless, when it comes down to it, it’s the nice weather in winter that appeals to me most. And I even like the summers. Can’t beat the food either.
For those of us who have read your earlier work, The Followers Tale, this book seems to have a slightly darker undertone. Can you talk about why you went this route and what this tone allows you to do that perhaps the first book didn’t explore?
I don’t know that it was a conscious decision to go darker. You know how The Empire Strikes Back was darker than Star Wars? And how Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was darker than Raiders of the Lost Ark? It seems natural in storytelling to go darker in the second installment, doesn’t it? Well, seriously, I’ve always liked dark material. When Dolly was young, she wrote and recorded a lot of dark songs, and I’m guessing that’s because the music of the mountains is dark. It’s what she grew up hearing and singing. When I was first discovering Dolly’s vast catalog, it was the dark stuff that spoke to me first and most clearly. The songs about dead babies, dead puppies, prostitution, mental institutions, being made fun of, jumping off bridges, running away, burning the orphanage down. And that carried on in my studies of the Southern Gothic when I was a graduate student.
There are a lot of poems about loneliness and lost loves. I sense a lot of sadness and perhaps some regrets. Can you talk a bit about these poems and did you find it cathartic to write about these times in your life?
I suppose so, sure. But a lot of those poems about sadness are made up too. I don’t think I’ve gone through any more heartache than most people have, and if I have, so what? It’s just a part of life. But when you go through it you think you’re the only one in the whole world who is feeling that way, and so, yes, writing poetry does become cathartic if you write it during those times. But I don’t want people to read these poems and assume they’re autobiographical either, because they aren’t, in many cases. At the time when I wrote some of those poems, I might have been going through some depression, some uncertainty about why my life was going the way it was, some failures and failed relationships, as well as failed friendships, which often hurt more than failed relationships do, but the poems, while inspired by real feelings and real situations, became poems on their own, far removed from the real events that inspired them. Still, I sometimes have to remind friends and family who read my sadder poems and insist on taking some pity on me that the poems are, for the most part, made up, and I certainly don’t write them to invite pity, but there’s just something about poetry that makes people–usually people who don’t read much poetry–assume that it’s always autobiographical, especially when in first person. Poetry owes a lot to Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton, but readers of poetry, especially casual ones, have to stop assuming that every first-person poem is confessional if they truly want to enjoy the imaginative power of poetry. My students often say, “The speaker of the poem is the poet herself,” and that drives me nuts, because that’s a huge discredit to the imagination.
Do you consider yourself an idealist, or fool about love and life?
I’d like to think I’m an idealistic fool. Ha. Some days, I’ve deeply cynical. Other days I’m wildly optimistic. Whatever the day, I try to believe that underneath all the selfishness, dishonesty, pettiness, narcissism, prejudices, fear mongering, and apathy toward things beautiful and artistic, human beings are fundamentally good. Frankly, I doubt we have a bright future ahead of us, but if acting like an idealistic fool helps me get through today anyway, then that’s what I’ll be.
On a lighter note, I find the titles of many of your poems to be very humorous and yet some of them have little or nothing to do with the poem itself, like “Two Illegal U-Turns on the Way to Liberty Tattoo” and “If You Ask Dolly to Take Her Shoes Off in Hawaii She’ll Cross the Threshold on Tiptoes.” Can you tell us why you seem to send us on a wild goose chase with these disconnected titles?
Ha. Well, I guess I didn’t think those titles were all that disconnected from the poems, so it’s interesting you give those as examples. “Two Illegal U-Turns on the Way to Liberty Tattoo” was inspired by the night I got my Dolly Parton tattoo. The friend who was driving me to the tattoo place got pulled over for making two illegal u-turns on the way. It was funny at the time, and I just thought it would be a good title for something. The poem ends up becoming more about the tattoo process and the person who took me to get it, because at the time she and I were very close, but not long after that we had a terrible falling out, and I think I sensed it coming and knew even then how much that particular falling out would hurt. The title, to me, isn’t really all that disconnected–it’s just a moment in the narrative. “If You Ask Dolly to Take Off Her Shoes in Hawaii She’ll Cross the Threshold on Tiptoes” was written on a plane somewhere over the Pacific in the middle of the night as I was flying from Kona, Hawaii, to Los Angeles. Dolly’s variety show in the ‘80s that I mentioned before did a special episode from Hawaii, and in one scene Dolly enters someone’s house. After she’s asked to take her five-inch heels off at the door, Dolly walks into the house on tiptoes. For some reason, on that redeye flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles, probably because I was dozing and dreaming in that hallucinatory way when you can’t sleep very well, I couldn’t get that image out of my head, and so I started writing about it. Only I didn’t want the poem to be about just Dolly taking her shoes off on that show, so the line ended up as the title while the poem went in other directions. Why not have funny titles that don’t have much to do with the poem?
Regarding the humor of many of your titles, some of them are just plain weird. Your sense of humor truly comes through, both in your unusual titles and also in the body of the works themselves. Where do you come up with the ideas for these titles and how do you feel they contribute to the book as a whole?
Well, I’ve never really been a fan of what most people would consider good titles. Titles are hard for me to come up with, because I don’t like titles that are cute, or that summarize too nicely what a piece is about. I don’t like titles that package up the theme and message either. Usually my titles start as a thought, or a line that ends up not really fitting anywhere in the rest of the poem.
Many people may be surprised by the fact that you are hearing impaired, yet you have not only become a successful and popular professor of English, but you also had a somewhat unusual career as a stand-up comic for many years. How do you think your unusual situation has affected both your poetry and your life in general? Do you feel it gave you a leg up in the humor department which runs through many of your pieces?
My hearing impairment forces me to pay very close attention to language, and that helps me be a better poet. It helped me as a stand-up comic too, because I’ve always said that a stand-up routine is a performance poem. A joke is funniest when it’s told a certain way, with certain rhythms and sounds in its build-up and punch lines, and that requires very careful writing of the joke. Poetry and stand-up comedy have a lot more in common than people might think. Comics are funniest–and relate best to their audience–when their stage personas talk about the hardships in their lives, and so it seemed natural that I should do a stand-up routine about being hearing impaired. I had to work into a show somehow why I might not understand something a heckler would say. The funniest part of my show often was when a heckler said something and I pretended I couldn’t hear him.
As far as your hearing loss, do you think of it as a disability, or has it actually helped you become more sensitive to the world around you?
I rarely think about it one way or another. It just is a part of me, and I don’t know whether or not it would make any difference thinking about it one way or another. But if I had to say, I’d say that it’s a gift more than it’s a disability. Yes, it has made me more sensitive. But I think it’s given me a lot of courage too.
I personally always hated trying to figure out what the poet was trying to say in their pieces. Some of your poems are strictly narrative and the visual pictures you create are extraordinary. Yet some of the pieces, such as “Did I Tell You About the Homeless Man I Saw in Riga?”, “Steel Wool Inside Scratches My Lungs Apart,” and “The Best Month for a Hand Grenade Is July,” are quite cryptic. How should the reader approach those type of pieces? Do you think it is necessary to really know the writers intention to enjoy the word on the page, or are you more in the mind-set that the words themselves, their sounds and images should be enough for us?
I enjoy many different kinds of poetry. I think all schools of poetry have something to offer, but I do tend to prefer poems of the narrative and lyric type, because I like a good story, above all. But I also love the idea of images speaking for themselves, and I’m reminded of this every time I teach the Imagist poets. Sometimes my cryptic poems are the ones inspired by dark events and dark feelings, and I don’t know that it’s necessary to attach narrative to those experiences, so I craft images instead to convey impressions. I don’t know if that works the way I want it to–I’ll never be a William Carlos Williams or an Amy Lowell, because my image-heavy poems don’t necessarily isolate a single image, and because Williams and Lowell are just better poets than I am–but I like playing around with visuals and impressions. I don’t think a poem should ever be inaccessible, but I do think a poem can be challenging, and I think a poem can exist without “meaning” solely for the purpose of sound or image.
The order of the poems in a complete work such as this is very important for the continuity and understanding of what the poet is trying to create. Your final poem where you end up in a casket, what should this mean to us as your readers? Can you discuss this please?
The last poem in my first book is “Drive My Urn to Dollywood,” which is about scattering the speaker’s ashes at Dollywood. I thought it might be funny to close the second book with “A Fitting Finale,” which is a similar poem, only this time about closing the speaker’s casket. To me, it’s just a little joke, but I suppose you could consider this a narrative arc with death ending the cycle of poems, because most of the poems in the last section of Hello, Stephen are about death, in one way or another. When I was giving interviews for the first book, I said I wrote “Drive My Urn to Dollywood” because I was obsessed with thinking about death, and I suppose I still am. For one thing, I think humans are far too concerned about death, and are far too afraid of it. It’s just a natural part of the life cycle, and it’s unavoidable, so why do we spend so much time being afraid of it? Why can’t we treat it as a humorous subject, the way “Drive My Urn to Dollywood” and “A Fitting Finale” do? I think we could be better people without all that fear and emphasis on being “saved,” which, when you think about it, really is driven by fear. But it’s also mind boggling to me that consciousness and an entire lifetime of experience and memories are gone in just a moment, and that’s humbling because it suggests that humans, in the grand scheme of the universe, really are insignificant. I think about that every time I look at the “Pale Blue Dot” picture that Carl Sagan asked NASA to take, or that recent Curiosity picture from Mars of Earth and the moon. But you know what? Those pictures show how extraordinary the human race is as well. Of course people will ask if I believe in the afterlife, and tell me that I should, but I don’t. I can’t fathom a heaven or hell, at least not in the way religions have created them, but I do think about them a lot.
I found your second book just as thoroughly enjoyable as your first. Will there be a third in this Dolly-influenced series? What are you working on now?
Right now I’m already working on a third collection of poetry, yes. This one is inspired by classic TV shows I loved when I was a kid, as well as by Dolly’s variety show from the 1980s. Each poem is about a different show, such as Gilligan’s Island, Three’s Company, and The Incredible Hulk. I even have a poem in there about The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, and about a YouTube video of John Daker singing that went viral. A handful of poems about Dolly’s show will serve as anchors, and will be spread throughout the collection. I’m also working on two different novels and two different memoir projects, each in various stages of development. I don’t know which one will be finished first, or which one will be published next, and I may even completely rework the third collection of poetry so that it ends up being completely different. The good thing about writing is you can constantly change your plans.
So, to conclude, Stephen, is there anything else you would like to let the readers know about yourself, your book and where you are going next?
All I have left to say is, the world would be a better place if every person in it would read at least one poem every day.
It was a pleasure for me to be able to speak with you about your newest book. I wish you much success and am sure we will be seeing much more from you in the future.
Thank you! I enjoyed this chance to talk with you, so thank you.
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Stephen Roger Powers started writing poetry thirteen years ago to pass time in the middle of the night when he was too energized to sleep after coming off the stage in comedy clubs around the Midwest. He is the author of The Follower’s Tale and Hello, Stephen, both published by Salmon Poetry. He hasn’t done stand-up in a long time, but every once in a while he finds avenues for the performer he was born to be. He was an extra in Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, and he can be seen if you know just where to look.