Claire Hamner Matturro interviews Julie E. Bloemeke and Dustin Brookshire Editors of “Let Me Say This, A Dolly Parton Anthology”

CHM: Thank you both for taking this time to discuss your wonderful new poetry anthology, Let Me Say This, A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology (Madville Publishing 2023). The anthology contains poetry written by fifty-four contributors, including emerging and established poets. The jacket blurb notes in part that “These poems remind us to be better and to do better.”

This collection represents a delightful and rather brilliant idea you two have had here, creating in essence a biography in verse—and with other poets and authors doing most of the writing. Though of course not all the poems reflect Dolly Parton’s own biography, many do so and all of them relate to Dolly in some manner. So, please let me start with the obvious: how did all of this come to be? Dustin, in your introduction, you touch upon how the idea for this anthology first surfaced. But I wonder if you both might take a moment to explain more fully the origins of the idea and how it expanded from idea to fruition? How long did it take from idea to publication?

Dustin Brookshire

DB: We attended our first Dolly Parton concert together in 2011 during Dolly’s Better Day tour. After that, we went to Knoxville Pride, and during an evening out, found ourselves serendipitously sitting under a poster of Dolly at Club XYZ. We believe Dolly’s energy has been a guiding force and has been with us “every step of the way” ever since. And, as Julie has yet to visit Dollywood–ever!–we know there is only more to come.

As for the anthology, in 2020, I invited Julie to co-edit a special Dolly issue of Limp Wrist in honor of Dolly’s 75th birthday. As we were reviewing submissions–and before the issue was even finalized–we realized we were already working toward a book. Based on the submission volume we received for Limp Wrist, we were confident that poets would turn out enthusiastically to answer our submission call for a full-length project. Madville Publishing was at the top of our list for publishers to work with, and we were more than thrilled when Kim Davis invited us on board. We had to keep the project under wraps for over a year–which was an excruciating secret to hold on to–but we were determined to announce the news–and open submissions– officially on Dolly’s birthday in 2022.

Dolly wears so many hats; she resonates from a diversity of vantage points we could not even begin to list. Just taking a look at her list of monikers– Book Lady, Patron Saint of Tennessee–will give you an inkling. However, there has never been an exploration of Dolly through a poetry anthology, and we were stoked to see how writers would help illuminate, subvert, expand, and raise our understanding of Dolly’s impact and breadth. We also embraced the opportunity to upend Dolly clichè and make folks rethink what they thought they knew about Dolly.

Claire Matturro

CHM: You both mention attending Dolly Parton concerts in your introductions. Have you and Dolly been in touch about this anthology? If so, would you share any conversations or exchanges you might have had with her over this collection?

DB and JB:  Team Dolly is prompt, professional, generous, and exceedingly kind. (Of course, Dolly is only going to have the best on her team!) We are extremely grateful to Dolly for releasing Fran Strine’s photo for the cover of Let Me Say This, a dream beyond compare. And, we know Dolly has copies of LMST. Our dream is that Dolly will indeed show up at one of our in-person or virtual events!

CHM: Julie, you say in your introduction that selecting final poems for this collection was “one of the most challenging endeavors we [you and Dustin] have had to undertake.” Might I ask just how you first solicited submissions, how many submissions you two received, how long it took to select the ones you ultimately used, and if you and Dustin ever had disagreements over a selection?

Julie Bloemeke

JB: It was a terrific challenge; there is so much Dolly love out there, and having to narrow down which poems would best be in conversation for an anthology was a tall order. There were so many strong, innovative, and creatively vibrant poems that we had to turn down. This was often agonizing because we could see the work that went into them-–there were a few Dali/Dolly pieces that were exceptional–but in the end they did not align with the energy of the project. Dustin and I do want to emphasize this:  we hope Dolly fans that are not in LMST will continue to write and celebrate Dolly poems. Anything we all can do to amplify Dolly’s presence just does a whole lot of good in the world.

Though a tour bus load of poems came in, we ended up extending the submission deadline into summer because we were curious about how far the range of submissions could take us. This meant a revised–and highly intense and compacted–series of new deadlines for us and Madville, but we were willing to take that on in exchange for welcoming the possibility of additional Dolly poems.

We solicited submissions in both unexpected and rogue ways–an ad in Poets & Writers, sharing Dolly postcards & stickers at AWP, reaching out to Dolly fan clubs and websites, emailing state poetry associations, tagging folks on social media, verbally spreading the news at readings and poetry events. However, we also left #writedollypoems postcards in libraries, airports, coffeeshops, museums, community bulletin boards, galleries. We even asked others to share postcards in their cities. We wanted to be sure to stretch the word as far as possible.

From the beginning, Dustin and I shared a very similar vision for what this anthology could do–shine more light on Dolly, raise questions and offer expanse in our understanding of what we think we know about Dolly. Our commitment to this meant we were not only on the same page, but that we often had similar ideas at the same time, even completing each other’s sentences in discussion. However, we also embraced the spirit of challenge and held one another to doing our best work. It helps that Dustin and I are both extremely driven, sticklers for compliance, love Dolly as we do, and share a sometimes irreverent sense of humor.

Though we have discussed this in quite a few interviews, we did everything in tandem. This meant we often had phone calls for hours–going over details, reading poems aloud, discussing publicity strategy, section titles, poem ordering. We also read the entire manuscript out loud together in our final stages of editing and proofing. We could not have known going in how much our skill sets complimented one another or how much we would both teach each other in the process.

On the rare occasion where we had a disagreement about whether or not a poem should be in the anthology, we would devote a discussion to the poem. We could spend thirty minutes to an hour going over one poem; we were determined to make sure we were being as thorough as possible.

And, just like the poster in Tennessee, there were many moments of serendipity.  A favorite example is how we determined section titles. Dustin and I both knew each  heading would reflect Dolly song lyrics that spoke to the poems in that particular part of the book. Separately, we each took two sections to name but did not tell one another which song we were choosing from. We were both gobsmacked when we reconvened. It turns out I had chosen songs that Dustin would have chosen for my section, just as he had chosen songs that I would have for his–I selected Tryin’ to Find What Feels Like Home from “Travelin’ Thru,” while Dustin had picked Read Into It What You Will But See Me As I Am from “Backwoods Barbie.”

There was just so much accord between us, which can be a “rare and gentle thing” in creative projects. And I am so incredibly grateful for this, and to Dustin.

CHM: Though I am far from an expert on the life of Dolly Parton, I am a fan and one can hardly fail to absorb some of the details of her life just from living in a media-soaked culture. Still, the poems struck a chord with me, not just because these are universally well written poems, but because they seem to be biographically correct. For example, I recently read an interview with Dolly about the time she said no to Elvis Presley over publishing rights to “I Will Always Love You.” Then, as I am reading this anthology, there’s “Dolly Said ‘No’ to Elvis” by Dorianne Laux, a poetic retelling of this event. And certain details, as in your/Julie’s poem, “Dolly Would,” are very precise. You mention she “snuck / out back to press pokeberries to her lips, / line her eyes with blackened match tips.” Such specifics add warmth and ring true. Can readers trust such matters to be accurate? Julie, you mention several publications as a source of information about Dolly, but I wonder if you’d share if you two fact-checked every poem? Or was your own base of knowledge sufficient for some poems?

JB: We committed a number of hours to verifying accuracy of detail. We also made a conscious choice to have an extensive notes section as part of the anthology–it is crucial to give credit to references in the poems, but also to note elements of backstory as well. If there was a fact that we were not as familiar with, we put on our research hats and went down the rabbit hole until we could confirm. We relied on texts like Dolly’s autobiography and Dolly Parton: Songteller, My Life in Lyrics. We also listened–many times!–to  Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee’s podcast Dolly Parton’s America. We also watched a lot of YouTube videos of Dolly’s concerts, appearances, and interviews too. And, we are not strangers to Dolly fan pages (Dollymania!), NPR, and Dolly’s official social media pages.

We do want to mention an important note here: there were a few poems we did not include in the anthology because they were not cited accurately or contained factual details that could not be verified. We cannot stress enough how important it is to be rigorous in one’s documentation of sources–how could we edit an anthology offering tribute to Dolly Rebecca Parton that was factually spurious in any way?

We are especially pleased to have poems in the anthology that chronicle elements of Dolly’s life that may have been sidelined, misunderstood, misrepresented, or that changed during the anthology’s timeline. I think immediately of Donna Vorreyer’s “Dolly Refuses the Nomination” which takes us to the moment of Dolly initially not accepting the invitation to the Rock and  Roll Hall of Fame, or Steven Reigns’s “One Year Before His Death, Peter Hujar Sees Dolly Parton,” which comes to us by way of a Dolly encounter told by Fran Lebowitz.

As far as “Dolly Would” I tend to be a bit of a chronicler, so I had notes from attending both the Better Day and the Pure & Simple concerts. Dolly’s in-concert riffs and stories highly inform my work. (I think she is so underestimated in this particular tradition, incidentally.)  She takes great joy in relaying the tale of how she made do with inventive makeup–pokeberries, mercurochrome, blackened match tips–and I loved that detail so much that two of those elements made it into the final poem.

CHM: As mentioned, not all the poems are directly biographical about Dolly. For instance, Robert Gwaltney’s poem, “Butterflies” is a beautiful telling of the impact Dolly and her music have had on him. In speaking about organizing the anthology, Julie, you mention in your introduction the four parts, including the last, “Guide Me And Keep Me,” where Robert’s poem appears. This section contains poems which show “How we invite her into our homes and hearts.” Poems in this last segment emphasize how much of an impact Dolly Parton has had on so many lives. You and Dustin have both spoken of that impact on you personally in your introductions. If you can, in a few sentences, why do you think Dolly Parton affects people so much and so deeply?

JB and DB: It may be an insurmountable task to narrow this down to a few sentences but we will try. Dolly inspires people communally and individually–not just through her music, comedic timing, writing, rhetorical savvy, altruism, roots, fashion expression–but also in highly intimate and personal ways that we only begin to get a hint of in LMST. While Dolly is quick to say she’s “no angel” there is a reason that Saint is a fitting moniker–just by her presence she continually reminds us, as we say in the anthology, “to do and be better.”  In some ways, she is a gateway to the divine–teaching others tolerance and acceptance by example, eschewing hate at every turn–and all with humor no less. In this way, she offers a spiritual appeal in ways that most organized religions refuse.

We are extremely chuffed that the anthology includes about 70% women–and women for us reflects anyone who identifies with this gender expression. LMST also features poems by about 52% of LGBTQIA+ poets. Additionally, we are thrilled that the book highlights poets with a first published poem along with seasoned and award-winning poets with multiple book publications.

CHM: Dustin, your poem, “Dolly At The Fox Theater (2008)” is a lovely tribute to both Dolly and your mother. I enjoyed how you move your mother from looking into her lap to raising her hand—quite a journey inside a few stanzas. The tenderness in the last lines says so very much: “I placed my arm around my mother, / squeezed her tight, leaned my head / against hers, gave her that moment.” There is just so much going on in this poem, but one thing that caught my eye is how it shows that Dolly’s popularity transcends or crosses generational lines. You and your mother both count as fans in this poem. Which leads me to ask, in compiling the anthology and reading through the submissions, did you and Julie make any conscious decisions to have poets from different generations represented in the anthology?

DB: We hoped writers of all ages, sexual orientations, gender expressions, races, ethnicities, religious beliefs, economic status, and levels of experience would submit. We even fundraised for this project so that Madville didn’t have to charge a submission fee–thank you to our donors that made this possible!  We did not necessarily make a conscious decision to have poets from different generations represented–we wanted to focus on the quality of the work and whether or not it aligned with our vision for the anthology. (The latter often meant that we had to decline well-written and enjoyable poems.)  In fact, as we worked through the poems in Submittable, we had a covenant to not read bios until after we reached a decision of accept or decline. As we’ve gotten to know contributors through our events– by the way readers of this interview can Google Let Me Say This Anthology Linktree to stay informed about virtual and in-person events and more– we love seeing and knowing that this anthology, like Dolly fans, crosses generational lines.

 CHM: Another poem that captures the multi-generational allure and popularity of Dolly is “The Porter Wagoner Show,” by Rupert Fike. My brother and I and our mom and sometimes our grandmother used to watch Porter Wagoner when Dolly first came on in the late 1960s. Fike captures the power of her early allure in that poem with lines about how the young narrator is “suddenly interested in country music / since the Beatles did that Buck Owens song,” and “the aunts lapping it up, their world irony-free” and how Dolly “showed up to sing hymns like she meant it.” Which leads me to ask, you two seem too young to have watched Dolly Parton on the Porter Wagoner show, so I wonder if you’d mind sharing when and how you came to know her music.

DB: I was around five years old, sitting on the couch with my mother, watching what had to be a rerun of Dolly’s original TV show. I vividly recall Dolly sitting on a swing and singing “Love Is Like a Butterfly.”  Fast forward a few years later, I discovered my parents’ record collection in storage and fell in love with “9 to 5.” (I may have gotten into a little trouble because I wasn’t supposed to be going through boxes in our storage space.)  I played the 45 over and over and over, which was not appreciated by my older brother whose room was across from mine. I enjoyed Dolly songs growing up, especially those with music videos because my Granny H loved to watch country music videos– it was one of her favorite things. I may have been known to sing all the parts of “Romeo” when it’d be on the screen, and my grandmother always clapped and cheered for me. And, maybe, a young Dustin had a slight crush on Billy Ray Cyrus. My diehard Dolly fandom started my senior year of high school when Dolly’s cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine” enchanted me and sent me diving into her catalog. I reexamined and explored her music. I fell in love with the deep cuts and appreciated the popular hits in a new way. I’ve been a disciple in the church of Saint Dolly Parton ever since– I even have the Dolly prayer candles to back this statement.

JB: I can hardly recall a time where I did not know Dolly’s music; it has always been an ingrained part of existence for me. In the anthology’s introduction, I share how my Grandma Bette used to pull us grandkids into her lap and sing to us while she rocked. I found such peace in the ritual of her voice, in the act of placing my ear over her heart. I could feel the way music and words would travel through her–and by extension to me–as she smiled down on me, laughing and in pure joy. And this deep connection– this kind of soul and attentiveness–has always seemed so very Dolly to me. Also, even though my Grandma grew up in Gas City, Indiana, she had a distinctly Dolly inflection in her speech–so I like to say I knew Dolly long before I knew Dolly. But my first “true” Dolly memory was not a song but rather seeing her in 9 to 5. Her take-no-guff approach resonated with me, and from that point I was utterly hooked. As a child I loved sparkles and glitz–confession: I still do–and to me, Dolly was just about as beautiful as anyone could be. The first song of hers I remember memorizing was “The Seeker”—it remains a favorite. That surprises many people because of lyrics like “I am a bad seed that fell by the way.”  While I am not a fan of self-admonition, I have always been captivated by the song’s way of prayer and plea– “Reach out and lead me/Guide me and keep me/In the shelter of your care each day”–in this I am reminded that we are never alone. There is always presence–divine and human– if only we are willing to ask for it. And see it.

CHM: You both have agreed to donate your royalties, which is a very Dolly thing to do. Let me quote Dustin on this point from his introduction: “Julie and I are elated to share our What Would Dolly Do (WWDD) moment: each anthology purchased through Madville Publishing will raise money for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library because we’re donating our annual royalties to the organization.” Given this decision of yours and Julie’s, the anthology becomes very much a labor of love. As a fan of Dolly and a reader of poetry, I thank you both for all the hard, hard work that went into this book. And thank you again for taking the time to chat with me and Southern Literary Review.

JB and DB: Thank you so much for inviting us into this interview space and for the opportunity to amplify Dolly, poetry, and Let Me Say This!


















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