Ahead of the release of his collection Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy, Amorak Huey spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Hannah Soyer about the ways gender performance, inheritance, and the inherent political nature of writing informs his work.
Hannah Soyer: The structure of your collection and the use of humor (or lack thereof) appears connected. Can you speak about the way you structured Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy?
Amorak Huey: The section titles are intended to be the components of a joke: setup, reinforcement, misdirection, punchline. I don’t want to over-explain because authorial intent means only so much, and I don’t want my own notions about the book to limit what a reader experiences, but I did definitely want there to be a connection between the title of each section and the work happening in the poems in that section. That helped me order the collection; thinking about the poems in the opening section as setups for where our ideas about fatherhood and masculinity come from, for instance, helped me see which poems belonged there.
HS: Can you speak more about the title of your collection, both the terms “dad jokes” and “late patriarchy”? What do you hope it communicates about your book?
AH: So dad jokes are like a thing these days, right? A fondness for dumb puns and such—and I love that kind of humor, plus I’m a dad—very much the kind of dad who makes his kids groan with his jokes. But there’s something so weird and unnecessary about gendering an entire kind of humor. That’s how our culture works, though, and I hope the poems trouble that concept some as they explore where these ideas and stereotypes come from and what damage they can do. As for the second part of the title, honestly, it feels overly optimistic now. I wish I could say with certainty that we are indeed late in the patriarchy, and a few years ago when I titled the collection I sincerely, naively thought maybe we were, but here it is, 2021, and the patriarchy seems to be doing just fine, alas. I hope that the title signals something to the reader about where I’m coming from, that I’m not simply buying into or reproducing cultural constructs about gender and masculinity and identity, but challenging them. A poem isn’t a political argument, exactly, but also it kind of is.
HS: In “Pa & Michael Landon & Buddy Ebsen & Daniel Boone,” you write: “America is fond of its rootless men.” How do roots, or the effort to create roots, weave their way throughout your book?
AH: Part of this idea, for sure, is about where our beliefs about ourselves come from. Tracing the roots of our self-conceptions. For me, some of those beliefs very much come from these archetypal men and fathers from television and the movies. We are told over and over that Pa from Little House on the Prairie, he’s like what a father should be, right? Same for, like, Ward Cleaver or even Fred Flintstone. Sure, fine, but also what a narrow view of masculinity and fatherhood is being enforced. When I wrote that line I was also thinking about how these men don’t have to have roots. They provide for their families or whatever, but they do so by going out of the home. Exploring the wilderness like Daniel Boone or even just going out to the mysterious world of work like Mr. Brady. The home is a place for women and children; men are entitled to leave and come back at will. Again, the culture presents these narrow gender definitions and we’re supposed to fit into them or disappear. Adrienne Rich has a poem that I love titled “Amnesia” about this exact thing, and in some ways this entire book is just me thinking about that poem.
HS: A handful of your poems are titled after names of characters and actors from old shows—what do these signify and how do these titles contribute to the collection’s overall theme?
AH: These are poems thinking about what it means to have all these pop-cultures as role models, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to George Jetson. We are, of course, surrounded by these figures from almost the first moments of our lives, and so I was trying in these poems to interrogate my own ideas about what it means to be a man, to be a dad, to be a human being. Pretty much as soon as I start asking myself these questions, I’m thinking about how weird and probably unhealthy it is to judge myself because I’m not as muscular as the Terminator, but there it is. What are you gonna do?
HS: In what ways is this collection informed by ideas of performance and witness?
AH: RuPaul says, “We’re born naked; the rest is drag.” It’s all a performance, right? Gender and masculinity and identity and how we present ourselves to the world. I just the other day read this amazing poem by Gabrielle Bates called “‘Person’ Comes from ‘Mask,’” which is about grief but also about these moments where you suddenly perceive yourself as if from outside your own body and it feels so strange. Sometimes when I’m mowing the lawn in front of my suburban house or cooking dinner at the grill or playing catch with my son in the back yard, I have this almost dissociative experience of, like, is this really me? Or have I become the dad from a 1950s sitcom? That Pleasantville / WandaVision kind of feeling is the source of the line in the book about not knowing whether we are characters or actors.
HS: How does this book reimagine and interpret family? What understanding of “family” do you hope readers will take with them?
AH: I hope the last few poems in the book provide an answer to this. Family is the people who are with you on the long car ride even when you’re getting sick of each other. Family is the people who will listen to your stories. Family is the people with whom you retreat inside a warm house when it gets too cold and snowy outside. The world might be misshapen, your hearts might be battered, but still. Your family is your heart.
HS: Somewhat related to the previous question, your work gives the sense of both embracing and rejecting the title of “father” and the state of fatherhood—how does this book reimagine it under late patriarchy?
AH: Maybe this: maybe I want to reimagine “father” not as something you are but as something you do. To strip away the performative aspects and societal expectations that reserve these roles for people who look and act and are a certain way. There is no one way to parent your children. No single “correct” path to being a dad, or a man, or a person. You don’t have to be some white, cis, middle-class, suburban, Ronald Reagan-approved, emotionally stunted bulwark of masculinity. I love having kids. I love spending time with them, and I love watching them need me less and less as they grow up. I hope that is apparent to them, always.
HS: In “Looking at Men,” you say: ““The world’s pedagogy / has not evolved lately…” In what ways does the world’s pedagogy need to evolve? How else does this idea manifest itself throughout your book?
AH: The world needs to stop hurting people who don’t match some prescribed version of what’s acceptable. That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? And yet. Here we are, where we always have been, hurting each other. I think many of the poems in this book are asking these questions: Why do we hurt each other? And could we please stop?
HS: Can you speak about the recurrence of “Fairy Tale” as a poem title? How has your work been shaped by the stories you consumed growing up?
AH: I was a reader before I was a writer. How reading makes me feel—that’s why I write. The idea that perhaps something I put on a page could possibly make someone else feel some bit of what I feel when I read something meaningful? That lump in the back of the throat. The way words on a page have a literal physical effect in my body? It amazes me. So, yeah, my work is very much shaped by the stories I have consumed. There was one series of books in particular that I used to check out over and over from the library with fairy tales from all over the world. I thought they were called something like “Cavalcade of Norse (or Hungarian or Irish or whatever) Fairy Tales,” but I can’t find that title on the internet, so I must be misremembering. Anyway, fairy tales are stories and they are entertaining and scary and magical, but they’re also ways of explaining who we are. You don’t have to fully buy into Bruno Bettelheim’s Freudian analysis to see that fairy tales are morality plays, cautionary tales, metaphors. Storytelling is central and essential to being human. Any time we write, we’re joining a conversation that has been going on pretty much as long as we’ve been a species.
HS: In what ways do you think the violence of the patriarchy is being interrogated in this collection, and how does this interrogation drive your writing?
AH: Writing poems is not a neutral act. Publishing poems isn’t, either. These are political acts. Poems exist in this world and are shaped by the same forces and power structures that shape our lives. I don’t think my book will transform the world in any meaningful way. But I have to hope it matters somehow, right? I have to hope that by telling the truth as I see it, by asking questions, by at least trying to challenge what I see as toxic about the world, that my poems will do more good than harm. Jen Benka has an essay at Electric Lit in which she says, “Poetry and storytelling work against immobilization —the want to avoid being uncomfortable or rejected, the desire to anesthetize, the fear of having feelings for another human being.” I could quote the whole essay here, really, but what she’s talking about is exactly what drives my writing: I write to be less lonely, to connect with the world, in the hope that something I write, some word I put on the page, will reach some reader somewhere, and they in turn will feel less lonely themselves, and that connection, that spark, that feeling that someone sees us as we are and loves us anyway — that is how we undo the violence of the patriarchy.
Amorak Huey is a poet and professor, a writer and sometime journalist, a decent dad and a mediocre slow-pitch softball player. He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He is the author of three previous books of poetry and two chapbooks, as well as co-author with W. Todd Kaneko of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology.
Hannah Soyer (she/her) is a queer disabled writer born and living in the Midwest. She is the founder of This Body is Worthy, a project aimed at celebrating bodies outside of mainstream societal ideals, and Words of Reclamation, a space for disabled writers.She is the editor of The Ending Hasn’t Happened Yet, an anthology of poetry from disabled, chronically ill, and/or neurodivergent writers forthcoming from Sable Books, and her work has appeared in places such as The Rumpus, Disability Visibility Project, and Entropy. Hannah also happens to be a cat and chocolate enthusiast.