In his poem “Spirit of ’76,” gay writer Gregg Shapiro refers to Dolly Parton as an “Earthbound Honky-Tonky Angel.” As editors and fellow contributors to Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology, Dustin Brookshire and Julie E. Bloemeke, in their introduction, rattle off a litany of additional honorific sobriquets for Parton, identifying her as “the great unifier, the queen of country, the Book Lady, our angel of Appalachia, and our living saint of Tennessee.”
It’s an exceptional amount of high praise to shower on any one person, but through its collected works of personal essays and poems of varying styles, the new anthology offers evidence to justify all those titles for Parton.
Renowned and revered the world over, the country music legend and superstar septuagenarian has been in the limelight for nearly six decades, ever since her debut as the scene-stealing “New Girl” on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967.
“I think she’s always had a certain appeal,” Brookshire says. While her popularity “has ebbed and flowed [decade to decade], over the last five years, in my opinion, she’s just had this renaissance.”
Miley Cyrus can take some of the credit for that renaissance, by helping to introduce Parton, her godmother, to fellow millennials through her blockbuster Disney TV show Hannah Montana. Parton said as much herself just a few weeks ago while co-hosting Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party on NBC with Cyrus. “Miley having her on Hannah Montana really opened her up to a new audience, because all those kids are adults now, and they like her,” Brookshire says.
Her renaissance has been further fueled by the 2019 hit podcast Dolly Parton’s America as well as the 2020 revelation that the country legend played an integral if heretofore unheralded role in supporting the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the film and TV series) through her production company. Not to mention other, better-known, and bigger-deal artistic pursuits and charitable endeavors.
Yet adoration for Parton in the LGBTQ community long predates all of that — and also long predates Miley Cyrus’s public coming out as queer and gender fluid in 2015.
“From day one, she’s never faltered on anything,” Brookshire says, referring to Parton’s public comments in support of her LGBTQ fans and related issues. “She sends the same message and it’s consistent: ‘Love everybody.’ ‘Everybody deserves to be loved and to be who they are.’ And, ‘We need to put more love in the world.’ And she embodies it. Everything from donating to [the development of] the Moderna vaccine, to what she did [in the wake of the 2022] fires in Tennessee, giving a certain amount of money every month for six months,” to those affected by the natural disaster in and around her hometown.
Calling himself a “Dolly super fan” as well as “a worshiper in the church of Saint Dolly Parton,” the gay Georgia native says one of his earliest memories “is sitting with my mom on the couch, and I remember Dolly [on TV] in a swing singing ‘Love is Like a Butterfly.'” Later, he remembers obsessively playing his parents’ 45-inch record of Parton’s pop classic “9 to 5.” It wasn’t until high school, though, that he “just really became enthralled with her and her message.”
He continues: “She was the first religious person I knew [who didn’t] hate people for being different. She was the first person who was just like, ‘I’m a Christian, but I don’t judge people.’ Growing up Southern Baptist in a small town in north Georgia, I never had experienced religious people that were preaching love and acceptance for everyone and saying, ‘It’s not my place to judge.’ Because all the Southern Baptists I knew were very quick to judge.”
Decades later, “she’s my inspiration for what I call my poetry job” — referring to his work as curator of the virtual-based poetry gathering Wild & Precious Life Series and as editor of the cheekily named online journal Limp Wrist, both of which he created. “She’s my inspiration that, if you want to do it, you just make it happen. Don’t let anybody tell you your ideas are too big or they won’t happen.”
Let Me Say This grew out of a special Dolly issue of Limp Wrist co-edited by Brookshire and Bloemeke and published to celebrate Dolly Parton’s 75th birthday on January 19, 2021. “We had so much fun doing the issue, even before we were finished, I was like, ‘I think we could do an anthology.” They got the greenlight from their top choice as publisher to begin work on the poetry anthology, which the Texas-based Madville Publishing released this week, on Parton’s 77th birthday.
“There are 54 poets in the anthology, and more than half of those poets identify as a member of the LGBTQI+ community, [and] 75 percent female,” says Brookshire. The anthology is an inspiring, insightful, and moving collection of poems offering personal reflections and reminiscences inspired by or about Parton. As Bloemeke puts it in her introduction, the collected poems “hold the diamond up to the light, shining facets of Dolly often overlooked or previously unconsidered,” and also show “the range of ways in which she has impacted families and fans.”
The diverse group of featured writers include Dorianne Laux, a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Beth Gylys, Brookshire’s mentor and an English professor at Georgia State University, Lambda Literary Award winner Maureen Seaton, Philadelphia-based Lambda Fellow Kelly McQuain, and the D.C.-based queer Latinx historian Dan Vera. The publication’s front cover features an official photo of Parton by Fran Strine rendered in dramatic, sparkling black and white, save for the pops of red on Parton’s long fingernails. “We are just over the moon that she released the cover photo for us,” says Brookshire.
To date, Brookshire concedes he has only interacted with “Team Dolly” — her assistants and lawyers — and not the icon herself. Parton also did not see the anthology before publication, but will soon have 20 copies to her name, sent as a special birthday gift. It seems only a matter of time before she returns the favor to express her gratitude, a prospect that fills Brookshire with an overwhelming sense of both anxiety and joy.
“When you hear that I had a heart attack, you’re going to know that she reached out,” Brookshire says.
Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Anthology is available for $20.95 in paperback or $9.99 as an eBook from Madville Publishing. Visit www.linktr.ee/letmesaythisanthology.
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