If you ever doubted that Dolly Parton is truly worshipped and adored, you need to look no further than “Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology” (Madville Publishing, 2023).
What I mean is that if 54 emerging and established poets found it fit to write about Saint Dolly, the unofficial Patron Saint of Tennessee, there may be no greater seal of approval (other than, say, being a 2022 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Among the poets praising Parton in poetic form are Pulitzer Prize finalist Dorianne Laux and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Denise Duhamel, as well as the current Poet Laureate of Ohio, multiple National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship recipients, and two Lambda Literary Award recipients, among others. In fact, there are nearly 30 LGBTQ+ poets (this poet included) in the anthology. Co-editor Dustin Brookshire was generous enough to make time to answer a few questions about “Let Me Say This” shortly before the book was published.
The official “Let Me Say This” book launch is at Hagen Park Community Center on January 19, 2023.
Gregg Shapiro: What was the first Dolly Parton song you recall hearing and when was that?
Dustin Brookshire: “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” when I was five. It’s a memory that is a bit fuzzy, but I recall sitting on the couch beside my mother watching Dolly on TV – she was sitting in a swing singing the song. This had to be a rerun of Dolly’s ‘70s show, “Dolly,” because she opened each episode singing the song. Later “9 to 5” enthralled me after I discovered my parents’ 45 of the song.
GS: Did you realize, at the time, that Dolly would become a lifelong fascination?
DB: High school is when I became a devout Dolly devotee. It makes sense when I think of how I struggled with my sexuality as a Southern Baptist in a conservative small north Georgia town. Dolly’s music spoke to me, but her attitude and philosophy on life really hit deep. Here is this famous person who is deeply religious, never shies away from her love of God and Jesus, and never judges others. In fact, she always speaks out about loving others and reiterating it isn’t her place to judge anyone on this planet. Dolly was my first experience with a Christian that wasn’t hypocritical and spouting hate.
GS: Have you ever met or spoken with Dolly?
DB: Thanks to Sibling Rivalry Press, when Dolly was on her “Pure & Simple” tour, I participated in an LGBT press interview by phone. Dolly wanted to do a press tour that was specific to the LGBT community. Each person got to ask one question. We were told not to be political and to stick to the album. I told Dolly that one of my favorite songs on the album was “I’m Sixteen” and asked about the inspiration for the song. Dolly did her Dolly squeal-laugh, and I almost died. Dolly shared that she thought no one would love that song and that her sister being in love later in life inspired the song. She said they’re old, all in love, and acting like they’re 16. She even went on to say she thought it’d make a cute music video of a couple in a nursing home with flashbacks and asked what I thought of that idea.
GS: How did you know that poet Julie E. Bloemeke was the right choice to be your co-editor for “Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology”?
DB: Julie and I’ve been friends for roughly 15 years. We attended Dolly’s “Better Day” tour stop in Georgia in 2011. The second issue of “Limp Wrist,” an online poetry journal that I founded and edited, was a special issue in honor of Dolly’s 75th birthday, so I asked Julie to co-edit the special issue for a few reasons. We admire, respect, and love Dolly. Julie’s a lovely human being and an awesome poet and curating the Dolly issue of “Limp Wrist” together was a load of fun. We realized we needed to produce an anthology before we even finished the issue.
GS: You and Julie have committed to donating all annual royalties from “Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology” to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in honor of the Book Lady.
DB: Dolly has shared on multiple occasions that she is most proud that children call her the Book Lady. Committing our annual editor royalties to an organization that Dolly loves, one that does so much good in this world feels right. It is also our way to continue to pay tribute to Dolly.
GS: The anthology is separated into four sections. Did the concept of the sections come first, or did they develop organically as the anthology began to take shape?
DB: We wanted sections in the anthology when we launched the submission call; however, we didn’t know if sections would be possible. We knew that the poems would give us the answer, and they did. Each section of the anthology takes its title from a song written by Dolly. The introduction even has a section title that is from a song Dolly didn’t write, but her recording of it went to the number one spot on the charts.
GS: If I asked you to prepare a spreadsheet of the songs, would “Jolene” be the most mentioned song in the anthology? If not, what would it be?
DB: “Jolene” is popular! It even gets a mention in my poem in “Let Me Say This.” “Jolene,” “9 to 5,” “Here You Come Again,” and “I Will Always Love You” are definitely popular references in the anthology. There are a few references to other songs that aren’t known as Dolly staples but would be recognizable to diehard Dolly fans. We were particularly stoked by the uses of those lesser-known songs.
GS: One of the things that struck me about the poems in “Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology,” is that readers learn as much about Dolly Parton as they do about the poets themselves. Is that something you were aware of while assembling the anthology?
DB: Julie and I made a conscious decision not to read a poet’s bio or any comments submitted with poems until after we’d read and categorized the poem. As we read the submissions, we were very much aware that we were learning a lot about the poets. Benjamin Anthony Rhodes, a queer and trans writer, has a poem that borrows its title from a Dolly song: “It’s All Wrong, But It’s Alright.” It was one of the poems that after I read it, I called Julie and said, “Girl, let me read you this damn poem.” Rhodes’s poem gives us insight into his identity. I’ll leave it at that because if I say too much more it’ll ruin the surprise of the turn in his poem.
GS: As a gay poet yourself, can you please say something about Dolly’s relationship with the queer community?
DB: Dolly is an ally and advocate. Many of us in the queer community admire Dolly for how she is unapologetically herself, always controlling her narrative, isn’t afraid to say exactly what she’s thinking and is still pretty much universally loved these days. Dolly was the first person I encountered who identified as a Christian sharing a message that God loves all people as they are. It isn’t her place to judge anyone, and people need to leave the judgment to God. I have a very complicated relationship with religion, thanks to growing up Southern Baptist, but I love the Christianity that Dolly embraces, practices, and exudes. Sometimes, I wonder how different my life would have been if I had been raised and interacted with Dolly’s brand of Christianity. Can you imagine how different the U.S. would be if most of the people claiming to be Christians, especially the right-wingers, practiced Christianity Dolly style?
GS: How many Dolly Parton poems have you written over the years?
DB: I’ve tried to write Dolly poems over the years, but I’ve trashed everyone. I do have a poem where Dolly has a cameo — it’s called “Signs,” and is about a time when Julie and I were in a gay bar in Knoxville. We sat at a table, and Julie noticed that we were sitting under a portrait of Dolly. I don’t know how many times I said to Julie, “Oh my God, I may not have a poem in my own anthology.” One evening, after being inspired by hearing poets read in the Wild & Precious Life Series, I was determined to write a Dolly poem. I sat on my couch with a heavy pour of Costco Pinot Grigio, Dolly serenading from my playlist, and started writing “Dolly At The Fox Theater (2008).”
GS: What types of events do you have planned for the anthology?
DB: We have our official launch in Wilton Manors on Dolly’s birthday (1/19/23) and an Atlanta launch at Georgia Center for the Book on 2/2/23. A few “Let Me Say This” contributors will be submitting video recordings to be featured in Kai Coggin’s virtual Wednesday Night Poetry on 1/11/23. We also have live virtual readings planned through Hudson Valley Writers Center (2/5/23), A Hundred Pitchers of Honey (3/16/23), the Wild & Precious Life Series (4/12/23), and Spoken & Heard through Stuart’s Opera House (9/15/23). We’re also looking forward to an in-person Books & Books (in Coral Gables, Florida) event on 6/25/23. If anyone reading this wants to host a reading, don’t be shy, we’re only an email away.
GS: Do you think that you and Julie might collaborate on another anthology in the future, or have you already started that process?
DB: Dolly turns 80 in 2026. In my humble opinion, that milestone deserves to be commemorated with a book. Stay tuned for details!