Letting the Meat Rest: A Conversation With Poet John Dorsey
By Chase Dimock
If you pick up a copy of Letting the Meat Rest, hoping to find tips for juicy pork chops, luckily, John Dorsey’s got you covered:
a pork chop sizzles in a pan
for six minutes tops
any longer & you’ll let the imagination
bleed out all over your plate
& escape into the woods
Yet, Dorsey’s subject matter extends beyond pork products. Reading Letting the Meat Rest is like rummaging through a friend’s box of old Polaroids. You want to learn more about these people and moments captured in time. Some snapshots are brief, impressionistic prints of a person frozen in a sliver of life, while others have their detailed history scrawled on the back. These vignettes present us with visions of addiction, poverty, and trauma, but also optimistic moments of youthful ambition, rebellion, and intimate friendship. No matter what Dorsey depicts, whether it’s a full portrait or a quick sketch, it’s always crafted with deep humanity
Chase Dimock: I first became acquainted with your work when a mutual friend of ours told me he was driving up to Central Missouri to pick up the Poet Laureate of Belle, MO. At that moment I learned a few things: 1. That a town named Belle, MO exists 2. That a town of less than 2,000 people in rural Missouri has a Poet Laureate, and 3. That the Poet Laureate of Belle, MO is John Dorsey. Having lived for a few years in Cape Girardeau myself, I know there are quite a few cultural gems to be found in rural Missouri. How did you become the Poet Laureate of Belle, MO and what has that experience been like? I saw one poem in Letting the Meat Rest depicting the appropriately named Dinner Belle restaurant in town, so I am curious to know how this experience in Belle has impacted your writing.
John Dorsey: Well, to make a short story long, Chase, I ended up in Belle at the end of 2015, from Wisconsin, after being awarded a residency at the Osage Arts Community and through that connection, in particular with the Executive Director Mark McClane, I started to meet more people in town, including Mayor Steve Vogt, who seeing all of the work I had done and was continuing to do, offered me the appointment as Poet Laureate, I’m actually the first Poet Laureate the town of Belle has ever had. Since my appointment we’ve opened a Non-Profit used bookstore, Barb’s Books, and I founded, and Co-Edit, with Jason Ryberg, a literary journal, the Gasconade Review, which received grant funding through the Friends of the Belle Library, from Kingsford/Clorox. As far as the impact on my work, the first full book I finished here was Being the Fire, which was 80 new poems, written in my first two months here, and published by Tangerine Press in London in Fall of 2016. Since I’ve been here I’d say I’ve written between 300-400 poems, which have gone into 6 or 7 different books or chapbooks and have written a full length feature film, Missouri Loves Company, which was produced by Paladin Knight Pictures out of New Jersey, on a budget of around $60,000, which was shot on the East Coast and here in town, and is currently being edited. In terms of my poetry, I’d say that at least half of everything since I’ve been here has to do with Belle itself, so the impact has been significant.
Chase Dimock: One of the first things I noticed about the poems in Letting the Meat Rest is the deeply personal nature of your work. Most of your poems are directly addressed to or depict specific people from your past and present. What is it about a person that makes it register to you that they would make a good subject for a poem? How do your friends react when they see themselves reflected in your work?
John Dorsey: I think we’re all interesting enough to warrant a poem or two being written about us, some of us more than others, but a lot of times it’s more about the situation than it is the person, and I just happen to know or to have met folks who have been in some extraordinary situations. That said the work is also very personal. I tend to regard myself as a portrait painter who just happens to use words instead of paint. I have to get every little thing right. I take very few narrative liberties. My work was very different prior to 2009, it was my old friend Jason Hardung who first pushed me toward writing more personal work, the kind of stuff in Letting the Meat Rest.
Chase Dimock: Let’s talk more about these portraits. Many of your poems in this collection portray an individual in a specific moment in time with only about 7-15 lines. One of my favorites is “The War on Terror and Baklava” in which you write:
the owner of the greek restaurant in town
buys lamb from new zealand every tuesday
he says that paris was just a soft target
that that sort of thing would never fly
in st. louis or ferguson
where they teach you how to fight
in the streets
One of the reasons I gravitated toward this and some of your other short portraits is because they reminded me of Richard Brautigan. Did this specific poem come from an interaction as plain and simple as what the poem’s language and form suggests? When you interact with people, what makes you think “this needs to be a poem” and how do you go about translating the interaction into poetry?
John Dorsey: First off, thanks for the Brautigan comparison, am a fan, though Richard Hugo has been a larger influence the last few years, as have Bill Knott and Cid Corman and always Ted Berrigan. As far as the poem you mentioned, in that case it did really come from straight forward conversation–that happens a lot these days. As I’ve gotten older I think I’ve become a better listener, at least I hope so. Usually a single phrase will lead to something becoming a poem or I’ll think of a title during a conversation and just build a poem around that. I’ll usually start out thinking I have the whole poem and just add to the lines as I’m writing, there isn’t a huge translation process, I don’t often edit much once I’ve finished typing the poem, what you see at that point is pretty often what you get.
Chase Dimock: In addition to your short vignettes, you also have some longer portraits about people from your past. I was particularly moved by two poems about tragic figures from your high school years: “Making Weight” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.” In both poems you explore adolescents who have had their bodies controlled and violated by abusive adults, one a wrestler who later became a drug addicted veteran, and the other a teenage girl impregnated by the shop teacher. What made you want to revisit these people from your adolescence now as a middle-aged man? Has the time that has passed, and the evolution of your writing style allowed you to better process and understand these teenagers you first knew as a teenager yourself?
John Dorsey: Well, let me just start by saying that the first poem you mentioned about the girl who was impregnated by the shop teacher, The Bride of Frankenstein was written about 5 years ago, and the second piece much more recently, early 2016. To answer your question, I did write the first piece much later in life because my work as a writer really had evolved to the point where I felt like I could do her story justice, that was really the case with both pieces, but the girl I never knew all that well, in part because of her relationship with our teacher, I think he isolated her to a certain extent, she was already shy, but that relationship seems to have kept her from really getting to know the other kids in class, it was very sad, it still makes me sad. In the case of my late friend Steve, who is the subject of Making Weight, it was his death that really made me write the poem, it wasn’t simply because I thought his story was compelling, but he was also someone I knew very well and that I loved an awful lot. The poem happened because a mutual friend went to his funeral and then called me to say that there were pictures of the three of us there by his casket that were taken in like the 7th grade, and that just really hit me like a ton of bricks, and part of that was my evolution as a writer and part of it was just being in that moment. I can remember just getting that call and after I hung up sitting there in tears for what seemed like a really long time.
Chase Dimock: Continuing on with this theme, I also noticed that many of the poems in Letting the Meat Rest are about getting older. In “Rodney was Afraid” you depict a father who delayed having a child until he was older. In “Poem for My Aunt on Her Birthday,” you begin by telling her that “at 63, you look 80, sound like darth vader if they sold menthols on the death star,” then detail a string of tragedies in her life before ending with “goddamit you were so young once.” It seems that while you have found yourself now old or mature enough to reflect on the past in a certain way, you are also finding yourself thinking about getting older and how that transforms a person. What motivates your interest in exploring aging in your work at the point in your life and career?
John Dorsey: I think I’ve always thought about getting older when it comes to my work, even before I was very old. Like a lot of young writers, I think I started out kind of consumed by thoughts of my own early death, which never came, thank god, because the work I was writing as a younger person was just not very good, maybe it’s still not very good. So now even when I write about the dead, and I do very often, I tend to explore the things I remember about them in life, but it’s also very selfish, by going back and reflecting on the lives of the people I know or have known, I’m slowly leaving a record of my own life, who and what has meant the most to me or at least stood out and that does take time. We all change over time, I’m just trying to record that, so I don’t lose the memories, I think the thing that hits me the most about getting older is that once we go– those left behind can never find that exact person ever again, just how special we are, while still just being a drop in the cosmic bucket and really I think I’m just looking for common elements that we can all connect to and aging is one of those, a pretty big one.
Chase Dimock: In the past, you and I have talked about the problem of poetry and its accessibility. Why do you believe that it is important to write poetry that is accessible to the reader? How do you maintain this accessibility in your work without limiting the depth of your ideas?
John Dorsey: I have talked an awful lot about the need for accessible language in modern poetry. It has almost become a gospel with me and I have a few reasons for that. The first being that while looking up an occasional word or two might be alright, anything more than that takes the reader out of the poem and they run the risk of losing the visceral experience that is poetry. I used to pay my rent at one point reading poetry in bars at night in between bands and as a result my work has always had an audience that might not normally listen to poetry, and honestly, I’ll take that readership any day over your average professor, because I may be the only poet that person ever hears and that’s a huge thing. Really though it’s a matter of just trying to reach everyone, or as many folks as I can force to listen to poetry.
Chase Dimock: For my final question, I want to know who and what you are reading. We’ve talked about some well-known poets like Brautigan, but who are some contemporary poets who you think deserve a wider audience?
John Dorsey: Who do I think deserves a wider audience, man, that’s a long list. Well, let’s start with the dead, Ann Menebroker, Scott Wannberg, Everette Maddox, Todd Moore, Kell Robertson, Eugene Ruggles, Gene Bloom, and the living, Rebecca Schumejda, Wendy Rainey, Ellyn Maybe, Billy Burgos, Bob Philips, Ray Patrick, Bobby Parker, Iris Berry, Daniel Crocker, Jason Baldinger, Zena Smith, R.A. Washington, D.R. Wagner, Victor Adam Clevenger, Cheryl Rice, Jason Hardung, Shawn Pavey, Dave Roskos, and Mike James. I could go on for a very long time.
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews.