Issue 35, Final Fringe

Interview With Stephen Roger Powers

by David Duhr 11.24.2009

The Followers TaleWhile obtaining his PhD from UW-Milwaukee, Stephen Roger Powers taught an Intro to Creative Writing class, the kind that few want to take and few want to teach. It was my first class as an undergrad, and Powers and I became fast friends—being the only two in the room who clearly wanted to be there.

That friendship carried beyond the classroom, buoyed by margaritas and MFA recommendation letters, and has continued to this day in an e-epistolary manner. In October of this year, Salmon Poetry in Ireland released Powers’ first poetry collection, The Follower’s Tale, centered around his deep and abiding fascination with Dolly Parton and her amusement park, Dollywood.

Recently I was able to catch up with Powers, and we chatted over a cup of coffee—albeit from two different coffeemakers, 500 miles apart, over email, with Powers exhausted after returning from a book tour in Ireland.

 

First question seems obvious: why Dolly Parton?

I first “discovered” Dolly in 1987. We took a family road trip to Tennessee to see some relatives, and we stopped at Dollywood. My childhood wasn’t terribly exciting because I lived in the Midwest and went to Catholic school. I loved movies like Star Wars and Jaws because they took me to more exciting places. And Dolly Parton, once I discovered her on that first trip to Dollywood, took me to more exciting places, too. She was different and she knew it. She was proud of it. And that gave me a much-needed dose of self-confidence. I was drawn to Dolly the flamboyant and glittery pop star, of course, but I was mostly drawn to how dark and creepy she also is, especially in her early songwriting. When you get past the bubble gum pop, and really dive into her songwriting, you find songs about dead babies, threesomes, and heartbroken women locked up in mental institutions. That’s the kind of stuff I was thinking about in Catholic school, only I couldn’t tell anyone about it.

 

So for you, she’s just the right amount of hokey and the right amount of sick and twisted.

Hokey is a good word. I’ve always thought Dolly knows how hokey she is sometimes, and I like how naturally and innocently she’s able to pull it off. Underneath the hokey, she can be as sick and twisted as any of the Southern Gothic greats like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, and the Southern Gothic has always appealed to me because it is the opposite of the structured order that I was subjected to growing up in a Catholic school. There was just too much mindless ritual for me in the church and in school, and so the sense of decay and things falling apart in the stories of O’Connor and in Dolly’s darker songs is something I find great, subversive pleasure in. The irony of O’Connor’s Catholicism isn’t lost on me either.

 

Catholic school clearly plays a large part in who you’ve become (although not in the way it was intended). Do you see your writing career, and moreover, your life, as a rebellion against that sense of strict order and thought control? Instead of becoming a good little Catholic, you took a different route: the long-haired poet/professor who wears Hawaiian shirts to class, the life on the road through America’s seedy underbelly via your comedy career.

I think my whole life has been a rebellion against something. I hadn’t thought of it as a rebellion against growing up Catholic, but maybe it is, considering I bring it up so much. I suppose Dolly never intended to steer me away from being a good little Catholic, but I’m glad she did.

 

You’re hearing impaired (as I assume you know), and have spent a great deal of time on stage using that impairment to comedic effect. That takes balls. Do you attribute some of those balls to Dolly and her “It’s okay to be different” persona? And how did that first translate into poetry?

I can honestly say that if it hadn’t been for Dolly, I never would have gotten up on stage to make jokes about my hearing impairment.

She shows that a good person can write dark things and it’s okay. It doesn’t mean she’s a dark, unhappy person—it just means she has a big imagination. I had the opposite experience in school. If I wrote anything dark, it meant a meeting with the principal or a phone call home, and so I stopped. I’ve always felt that was a great disservice to my creativity.

When I began to seriously write in college, I turned back toward the dark and twisted, of course. Dolly showed up in one of my early poems, because I just couldn’t write a poem about heartache or loss or death without putting Dolly in it. Getting so close to Dolly’s songs meant that those things were lessons her songs taught me before I actually experienced them for myself. So I found it difficult to separate her from those things.

That isn’t to say that all of my stuff is dark. In fact, The Follower’s Tale is funny more than it is dark.

 

Dolly wrote a blurb for the back cover of the book. Can you tell us a bit about your interactions with her?

I’ve never met Dolly, but I’ve received a few letters from her, one of which contained the blurb for the back cover. Other than those few letters, my interactions with her have only been from a distance at concerts and public appearances, most of which were at Dollywood. Every spring she is the grand marshal of a parade through Pigeon Forge, and I haven’t missed it in ten years. I have to miss the 2010 parade, however, because I’ll be in India. I’m disappointed. Anyway, I usually walk along with her float for the whole two miles or so of the parade, taking pictures, waving, and so on.

 

In the book you write two poems in Dolly’s voice. In stanzas 1-3 of “Don’t Ask, ‘Cause I’m Not Tellin’,” you have Dolly expressing that she’s flattered by your fascination for her, but then “she” writes:

 

At the same time,
what woman wouldn’t
worry about that?

 

Is this your nod to those folks out there who think you’re toeing the line between harmless fan and scary stalker?

If I was a stalker, I’d be going through her trash, not writing a book of poems about her. The book starts from a very pure place of admiration and respect for what she does. “Dolly” is simply something I love, and I believe writers should write what they love. At the same time, I’m not blind to the irony of the relationship between fan and celebrity, or between pop culture and consumer. And I’m not so blindly devoted to Dolly that I can’t make fun of her or myself a little bit.

I do see the humor and absurdity of making pilgrimages to Dollywood to see Dolly Parton, especially when I’ve seen so many fans making absolute fools of themselves trying to get her attention. My world doesn’t actually revolve around Dolly Parton. I’ve never tried to get her attention at all. I just walk along and observe and think about what could be written down for a future poem, and if I make eye contact with her and she waves, that’s good enough for me.

 

James Liddy wrote that in your poetry you “combine insight and delight in Americana with a fervent and ancient sense of worship.” Throughout this collection, Dolly and Dollywood often serve as mere backdrop to larger issues you’re exploring: love, lust, regret, nostalgia, wanderlust (which comes up again and again). Is it accurate to say that this work is an exploration of these fundamental emotions/desires through your pursuit of your own slice of Americana?

The book was a search for a slice of Americana against the backdrop of stories that are common to Americana. It just so happens that one man’s desires aren’t much different from the desires of everybody else.

Not too long ago I was reading a critic who said that the Southern Gothic is the closest thing to an American mythology that we have, and I agree. Am I calling Dolly Southern Gothic? Sure. Give “Down From Dover” or “Mountain Angel” a listen sometime. Generations from now she will be an American mythology in her own right, and it was my hope in writing the book to contribute somewhat to that.

 

Have you found that slice of Americana?

Finding it would mean no reason to write anymore. I suppose the wanderlust isn’t literally a lust for wandering, but rather a lust for searching for that slice.

 

Do you have any favorites in this collection, or do you love them all equally?

“Desert Blessing” is a favorite, even though it has no reference to Dolly at all, because it’s one of my more open, raw, and honest poems. The poem is a reminder of love for me, that it’s better to love regardless of the outcome.

I think my favorite Dolly poem in the book is the last one, “Drive My Urn to Dollywood.” I’ve always believed that death is a sacred part of life, but the human rituals in response to death (funerals, burials, etc.) make it incredibly morbid and silly, and I find the idea of burying a corpse to rot in an expensive casket ridiculous and undignified. I don’t know if there’s a heaven or not, but right now in my life I believe this life is all there is, so why not just scatter my ashes over a place where I found so much creativity so that I can help a bush or some weeds grow? In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think I’m any more important than that.

 

Can you talk about some of your influences? Whose poetry do you see most reflected in your own?

I don’t know that I have a lot of poetic influences, but I do know that the types of poems I like to write are of the narrative and lyric variety. I always wanted to be a singer/songwriter, but of course my hearing impairment doesn’t exactly make that easy, so for me writing poems is a way of writing songs, and I’m not so hearing impaired that I can’t enjoy the music of language.

I think my poems are my own, and aren’t really influenced by anybody. I know that sounds a bit pretentious. The first review that I saw of The Follower’s Tale said that the poems didn’t sound like conventional poetry, and I’m actually quite proud of that.

 

What are you working on now?

I’ve been busy working on short stories and a novel. I’ve finished a draft of a novel about a standup comic from Milwaukee. I’m almost done with a story about a boy who loves the Star Wars Holiday Special. And I take notes for poems.

 

When you performed as a comic, you did so under a pseudonym, Trevor Austen. Your novel-in-progress, which is largely autobiographical, has as its protagonist a deaf comic named Donny Deadborne. Lots of layers at work here. Is Stephen Roger Powers writing a thinly-veiled biography of Trevor Austen, or is Trevor Austen writing a thinly-veiled autobiography? Or does the distinction, if there even is one, matter?

I’ll tell you a secret about Donny Deadborne. Donny Deadborne is a stage name. I’ll let you guess what his real name is. But to answer your question, I think all writers layer at least a small part of themselves in their characters. There’s imagination, but that imagination has to start somewhere, and it starts with the writer’s experience, memories, thoughts, and feelings, and gets fictionalized from there.

 

So can we expect more Dolly poetry from you in the future, maybe a Follower’s Tale Follower?

I haven’t written any Dolly poetry since the book. I reached a point where my poems started sounding like they were coming off a factory assembly line, and so I wanted to focus on different projects to let the poetry juices refill. I’ll probably write poems about Dolly again. If I keep making trips to Dollywood, of course there will be stories to tell.

 

 

Desert Blessing

I see this calliope
hummingbird as nostalgia
for a place we’ve visited only
once and promise our whole
lives to return to.

Its wings quicken
the year. The blooming
desert around us
will soon dry up
too fast, but the
80-times-a-second
beating of those
wings will never flood
over the dams
of my deaf ears.

The bird, no bigger
than your thumb,
shakes raindrops off the pink
flowers of the ironwood
branches we stand under,
umbrella closed.

I know what
a heart sounds like.
The splashing from
the hummingbird’s wings
on your nose and forehead,
it’s the only thing
left now I need to hear—
your face, looking up,
sprinkled with this
desert’s holy water.

 

Stephen Roger Powers was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in the cornfields of nearby Sun Prairie. While working on his PhD in English he wrote a stand-up act about his hearing impairment and performed for several years in comedy clubs and casinos around the American Midwest. Today he splits his time between Milwaukee and Georgia, where he teaches at Gordon College. Living in the South has given his more recent work a Southern Gothic flavor, because his next door neighbor comes straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short story.

Order The Follower’s Tale direct from Salmon Poetry (recommended), or fuel the corpocracy by pre-ordering from certain retailers in the U.S.

 

David Duhr

David Duhr

Managing Editor

David Duhr moonlights as Fiction Editor at The Texas Observer, and is co-founder of WriteByNight. His writing has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review and others. After having lived in Milwaukee, Denver, D.C., Boston, and Florida, he has found a (maybe-) permanent home in Austin; where he’s trying to grow a beard, because that’s what Austin dudes do. David was the Fringe Fiction Editor for two years.

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