Hittin’ the road: an interview with John Dorsey
An Interview by Gary Cummiskey
John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw's Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015), Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Press, 2017). His most recent publication is a limited-edition chapbook titled Dying like Dogs, published by Tangerine Press The address is thetangerinepress.com. He is the current Poet Laureate of Belle, MO. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He may be reached at email@example.com.
When did you start writing poetry? When was your first collection published?
JD: I started writing very bad poetry about 30 years ago. My first collection, which contained much of that early work, was published in 1995 by Jesse Poet Publications, and was entitled When It's Over and Other Poems.
Who are your main influences and why?
JD: My early influences were girls who were much cooler and more well read than I was. In terms of poets, though, I would have to say Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Richard Hugo, Jack Spicer, Everette Maddox, Gregory Corso, Kell Robertson, Todd Moore, Scott Wannberg, D.R. Wagner, and Ann Menebroker. I admire them all for different reasons, but mainly because when I first read each of them they knocked the wind out of me with words and in the end helped me to find my own voice as a writer.
Do you consider yourself an outlaw poet?
JD: While I have been called one of the youngest card-carrying members of that whole movement, I'd have to say no. I mean, I do write outside academia, that's true, but if I had my way everyone would be writing poetry, I love it that much, and I don't see what's so outlaw about that, all it requires is an open heart.
In addition to full, perfect-bound collections, you have also had a number of chapbooks published, the most recent being Dying like Dogs by Tangerine Press. Do you prefer chapbooks over perfect-bound books? Do you think chapbooks have limitations? Chapbooks are not taken seriously here in South Africa.
JD: First, I love chapbooks as well and will keep doing both until the day I die. Nowadays, it seems like most of the younger poets here are just going straight to full-length collections and skipping the chapbook altogether. For me, though, they were a proofing ground, they let me figure out who I was and who exactly I was writing for, besides myself, and build an audience. Also, because they can be cheaper to produce they allow the publishers to take chances, for the book itself to become a work of art, which in my opinion is a rare thing, and rarer still with perfect-bound books, many of which are made through a print-on-demand service now. So I really think they have less limitations than perfect-bound books, they are pretty fearless in this day and age.
Dying like Dogs has been published in a limited edition of 53 copies. Some people would feel such a small number is negligible and that a book or chapbook should at least be 120 copies. What are your thoughts on that? What do you feel is the value of limited editions?
JD: I am a huge believer in limited-edition books for several reasons. First, there is the investment factor, the whole collector culture, limited editions create a sense of urgency, people say, I have to have that, and I'm a firm believer in making sure my publishers at least breakeven and these days, thankfully, they tend to do a little better than that. Let's be honest, a lot of the people who look down on limited editions couldn't sell 120 books to their grandmother, anyway. What's really important is that the books that are printed reach the right people, those who really connect with what the author has to say, whatever they happen to take away from the work. I always tell people when I read in public that if I truly reach one person each time, then I take that as a huge victory. Also, like I said above, there's the work of art factor and limited-edition books usually fall into that category.
You seem to go on the road a lot, doing readings around the US and selling books. In South Africa poetry sales are generally event-driven, rather than through bookstores. Is it the same in the US?
JD: I do travel a lot, I generally give around 100 readings a year. Sales are generally event-driven here too, though I sell a lot online as well. I wish I sold better in bookstores, though my local store tends to sell out of my work.
What importance, if any, do you place on recognition and from who?
D: I don't know, I'm still surprised every day that people pick up my work at all. The nicest form of recognition I get is a random email or letter from someone telling me they picked up a book of mine and that they enjoyed it, that's better than all of the awards I'll never win.
Could you tell us something about your work as a playwright and screenwriter?
JD: I went to college for screenwriting, and that's all I did for a while, and then poetry kind of took over my life again. Now I only do the screenwriting and the playwright thing whenever poems won't pop into my head. I've had two plays produced and just started a third, and as a screenwriter had a feature film shot last year by a friend's company that is being edited together as we speak. Also had a short film featuring my poetry made by filmmaker Carson Parish, am hoping that will be available to the public soon.
What projects are you currently busy with?
JD: Well, a lot of my work is being reprinted right now by various publishers, including my reader Appalachian Frankenstein, which was originally published by GTK Press in 2015, and was recently put back into print by Outlandish Press. I also have a small split chapbook with Scot Young due shortly on Rusty Truck Press, a small chapbook entitled Chicken Wings & Bad Decisions due on Moran Press in 2019, a full-length split book with my friend and road partner Victor Adam Clevenger, a book with my friend from England, the great Bobby Parker, and am finishing work on my New & Selected Poems.
Books by John Dorsey
Poems by John Dorsey
The Ballad of Pegleg & Double Stamp
as we drop him off at the greyhound
crazy mark says that the whole country is on fire
just outside the station
a legless vietnam vet asks a young girl
where she got her tattoos done
& i think maybe she’s a prostitute
or maybe she just looks like his daughter
or the high school sweetheart
he left on prom night
to wander into a jungle
that’s the thing about flames
you can move in any direction
& still end up
in places you never
intended to go.
The Gasconade River is a Metaphor for Your Life for Greg Edmondson
it doesn’t even have to be a river
really anything that won’t dry up
sweat pressed into a notebook
in the shape of a leaf
a girl you once loved
memories that sink like stones
only dead armadillos
are listening for fireflies & heartache
all family histories feel crooked
after a night of clumsy lovemaking
with an ocean that doesn’t want
what you have to give.
Where the Prom Queen Ends Up or Poem for Kristen
there is nobody waiting outside
the cowboy cafe & truck stop
to bring you flowers
or even offer you their coat
on a rainy afternoon
in lyman wyoming
most mornings you are
the first thing the sun sees
no matter when you punch in
& time stands still just long enough
for you to remember
how you ended up here
how this was just supposed to be a summer job
how calendars can bend the will of any ambition
how your thighs were once a temple of worship
stray dogs still sniff your ass
for that last scent of beauty
for that last slice of cherry pie
made holy by your touch
at least once a day
you are still
the most beautiful woman in the world
depending on who you ask
& if the wind kicks up just right
in any direction
you are still magic.
Gary Cummiskey is the author of several poetry chapbooks, including Don’t Stop Until Incinerated (Tearoom Books, Stockholm, 2016), I Remain Indoors (Tearoom Books, 2013) and Sky Dreaming (Graffiti Kolkata, India, 2011). In 2009 he published Who was Sinclair Beiles?, a collection of writings about the South African Beat poet, co-edited with Eva Kowalska. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, Off-ramp. He lives in Johannesburg.