Dorothy Chan interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
What inspired you to write about women as centerfolds?
That's a great question to start off. I'll start by talking a bit about my poetry aesthetic. I love poetry that is raw, real, and passionate. I also believe that poetry should be accessible – though poetry isn't the most popular form from a mainstream audience's perspective, I'd love to prove people wrong. I think poems that get to the core of the human experience – poems that work with this and direct language, can truly captivate any audience.
In terms of the subject of the centerfold, I've been fascinated with Playboy since a young age. And how fitting that Holly Madison, Hef's former #1 flame, just released her Down the Rabbit Hole memoir. Playboy and the Playboy centerfold is definitely a fun subject to write about for many, many reasons: 1. It's an iconic American brand, thereby already recognizable to most audiences. When I think of iconic American brands, a couple things come to mind: Disney, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Playboy, 2. As a woman, I find it fascinating to explore different parts of sexuality in poetry. I think in this series I'm taking one of the most stereotypical sexy jobs/people and deconstructing, or perhaps reconstructing, and 3. From a contemporary feminist perspective, I want to vouch for the feminism inherent in these models' decisions. Long story short: If you're in charge and you're in control, that's feminism.
These poems are wonderful examples of the ways in which we view the female body as sexual object in our culture. In each of these poems, a speaker describes a scene but does not offer comment. Could you talk about your use of the speakers?
First off, I'd like to say that these women are put in the role of the "sex subject" rather than the "sex object." By moving the focus away from a photographer or a voyeur's comments, I am giving these women their own power in the centerfold modeling scenarios. In fact, I'd argue that the women act as their own voyeurs – as much as they are in the moment, instances exist where they step "out of body" and reexamine the cultural and physical context of their modeling. Although their commentary on their situation (in terms of analyzing the exact situation) may seem restrained at times (or at least in these poems), I would still argue that their commentary still exists. And sometimes silence and pauses in poetry speak enough for us. Their commentary is even playful, which is a major point of this "Centerfold of the Year" series. Sure, the women see modeling as a job (and a legitimate one at that). Yes, they are putting themselves in power by speaking out and narrating the situation. But though many may focus on the "serious" aspect, that is the feminist analysis of the situation, I'll first take this a step back and say that the banter is even funny. For instance, Miss February narrates the experience of the wardrobe change and the many poses she tries as she takes her underwear off. But instead of leaving it flat, she thinks back to Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood cartoons she saw as a kid and compares the photographer to the lecherous wolf. That teasing makes the situation even more interesting.
I'll also go back to the age-old concepts of "actions speak louder than words" and "show vs. tell." One of my goals for this collection is for the reader to see the power in these women's choices. A centerfold model can wait for instruction, or she can actually control the scenario and how she comes across on the page. Sure, I could go into a long "tell-y" explanation of how this collection qualifies as feminist, but instead of doing that, I'll have Miss February grab hold of the blanket at the end and mark her signature red lips all over it. She's basically saying "Here I am!" and you're here to photograph me.
“July and August Double Issue” is an interesting poetic study of the speaker, given that two centerfolds exist in this poem. I like the fact that the July and August twins commentary bounce off each other, without taking away from each other. I see this collection as a study of the real woman. I know you might argue, “How can a glamorous blonde bombshell Playboy centerfold be real?” This is where I want the judgment to end – the girls see their job as a day job that could potentially lead to bigger career goals. In the flesh and with so much focus, they each have their own mundane vs. profound thoughts on their life. Sure, centerfold may not seem like the most relatable job to many people, but the reactions and commentary is. For instance, Miss July and Miss August pose and compare themselves. I think this is a normal reaction – regardless of how confident someone may seem, it is still natural and human to make those comparisons, no matter how harmless. Later on in the series (in the full manuscript form), a general love interest is introduced, thus shifting the sequence. I think this is a significant introduction because we take the girls technically describing details of their job to getting more personal in their own job. "Centerfold in the Water" is a great example of this – the model is doing the underwater pose regardless, but with a new love interest, she feels a different kind of sexual motivation. Though the man isn't on set with her, while posing, she thinks of her own pleasures in the relationship.
In “Centerfold in the Water,” I love that the speaker includes a love interest within the images of the shoot, especially in the lines “if only this pool became a glass block right above our sheets, / our bodies glued together in the small space opened /for us.” How else do the poems in this manuscript use imagery in the scenes to reflect a love interest?
I think it's the whole idea of creating desire through one's desires. As you said, "Centerfold in the Water" is a great example in that photoshoot reflects desire. In my full Centerfold of the Year manuscript, February and July and August come much earlier, so in those moments we only see hints of that desire. Nonetheless, those hints still exist. In "Miss February," the centerfold's voice and the line breaks inherent in the poem play with this teasing – this teasing that one would do with their romantic interest. Miss February narrates, "perfecting my pose, wiggling at the camera, playing a little coy girl,/pigtails tied with pink bows—" as if she's talking to her love interest on the phone, setting the scene of what she's wearing and how he falls into the desire. It's as if she's imaging him as her voyeur – her voyeur that calls her "coy." It becomes very playful and as she's undressing herself piece by piece, she's thinking of him undressing her. I think this is a very natural response when posing provocatively – models cannot and do not become those desirable women on glossy pages without feeling out their own desires first.
In terms of how desire plays out in my whole ms., I'll give you a breakdown: February and July and August Double Issue start the manuscript in a section called "Centerfold for Hire." This section has more of a “toughness,” a feeling of “this is my day job” and “I am the object of ALL your desires because no one is more desirable than me.” This is why February and July and August Double Issue play more with setting the scene. The centerfold is more guarded at this point. The next section of the manuscript is “Non-Domestic Bliss.” I like to call this section feminism with a capital F. The centerfold refuses to be the trophy wife. There's even a poem in here where the centerfold is recreating a mansion fantasy and she ends up taking off the gold swimsuit because she's had enough of the trophy wife stereotype. But, once her love interest is found in later poems in this section (and the next section called “Showgirls and Freak Shows”), she begins to find a happy medium between the feminine toughness and her own feminine desires. And instead of just focusing on the overtly sexual, she looks for those tender moments in her own relationship to bring out that ineffable desire.
Did you refer to any specific sources while composing these poems?
When composing these poems, I refer to the Playboy tumblr archive, as well reruns of The Girls Next Door. When I look on the Playboy tumblr archive, I look for images that of course captivate me. And then I use that image as my ekphrastic inspiration. Many times, it's actually a combination of images, or personalities. I try to take what's in the image and move it a step forward in relatability – insert a bit of myself into the situation, as well as my knowledge of how playmates and celebrities posing feel in those scenarios (hence The Girls Next Door episodes). I'm also inspired by art history in general, and there are hints of art movements that run through this entire manuscript. I've always loved Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin and I look to Ellen von Unwerth for contemporary fashion photography. When I think of “centerfold,” I also think of pin-up. Names like Gil Elvgren, Enoch Bolles, and Alberto Vargas come to mind. It's interesting how pin-up was regarded back then – how it was "porn" if the model was photographed but "not porn" if the model was drawn. And how nowadays we think of pin-up as a form of art rather than porn. I wonder if the same theory applies to Playboy. I mean, looking back at the Barbi Benton or Cynthia Maddox or any of the vintage issues, the magazine already has a different feel. It's not raunchy like it was in the 90s. Standards change. A friend once argued that even in a million years, Playboy can't be “art,” simply because the model's name and her calendar year is listed next to her image, thereby making the image a product. But I beg to differ. If you think about Kate Moss' Playboy issue photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, because the supermodel was involved, fashion and art played hand-in-hand with the shoot. I think Playboy already has that potential to be labeled as “art” for several reasons: 1. It isn't raunchy and disrespectful to women like its counterparts Hustler and Penthouse and 2. You'll notice on episodes of The Girls Next Door that set design is a huge part of the process. A lot of artistic direction is involved in "creating" the centerfold. That is why in this collection, I also focus a lot on the set and story behind the girl.
Centerfold of the Month: Miss February
The stylist pushes go-go boots up my feet, the last minute addition—
perfecting my pose, wiggling at the camera, playing a little coy girl,
pigtails tied with pink bows—
how the pink goes with the white,
goes with the white,
goes with the magenta:
panties I pull down, my lips forming an “O,”
pulling lower and lower,
legging the air like an upside-down leap
frog, making the photographer whistle like a wolf cartoon—
back to when I was twelve, pretending not to know
the meaning of a whistle—erect as the wolf stood……
Wardrobe change/addition: The stylist picks out a pink bra—
I pull up the blanket, only letting one strap show.
“She’s too covered!” Someone yells.
“But we’ve got enough,” the photographer objects.
“What’s hotter than the ‘reader’ biting this strap off?
It’s a piece of candy.”
Pink candy…I hate how I’m salivating…
wanting to lick something—the blanket’s making me hot.
I throw it down, letting it messily
down on the bed, ripping my bra off—
I lie on my stomach, my butt raised higher…
biting the blanket like it’s a chew toy.
Next shot: Done, I hold the blanket up again,
my red lips marking their territory all over the white.
Centerfold of the Month: July and August Double Issue
I’m most worried about my own body against hers:
butt to butt, boob job to no job…I guess we’re no longer identical—
blonde to blonde—pink to blue...panties my sister strips off,
swinging them over her head...cowgirl,
letting the photographer know she was “Made in Taiwan”—
the tattoo on her lower back, as her ass faces
camera. I’m still lacing my heels on the hood of the car,
like the priss of a woman who wears polka dots
and can’t pump her own gas.
My sister’s breasts are pumped enough:
the peep show of one exposed,
swinging her body enough so the round
rather than the fur is seen.
She’s got skill: the freshly-fucked-
All the photographer wants from me is a wider smile—twins:
he thinks we’re color-coded for convenience,
as if all women can be split: Betty or Veronica,
Judy or Lana—
I give him the smile he wants—I don’t want to be the woman
the guys point at.
I get up from my priss of a woman pose,
standing up straight—all glamour shot,
taking off my panties, until my sister
pulls them lower for me, and she inches
her back parallel, her breasts on my butt,
my panties lowering.
“We’re switching positions,” I tell my sister.
“I’m the one that likes the ass shots anyway.”
I push her into the car, and she gives me a look
like I’m the most damned woman on earth.
I give her a look like she’s the most beautiful
woman alive. This shot’s Narcissus—classic:
Why have one when you can have two?
I help my sister take off her bra. No surprises here.
In restaurants, I order her food.
In cabs, I’m the one handing over the money.
In shoots, I’m the one taking everything off of her.
She’s not creative enough to pleasure herself
for any photographer.
I grab her panties like a slingshot,
pulling them further and further until her legs form
an open scissors…the look on her face…
she’s forgotten that this is a shoot—
taking her hand, pushing my forehead.
It’s the fight the photographer’s been waiting for all day.
Centerfold in the Water
He wants to chain me to the bottom—
the pool, the liquid dream, a midnight swim—
my hair is heavy, dripping down into water,
body upside down avoiding a yeast infection:
water splashes off my ass, the flesh, the red pout,
one knee bent: hands on the diving board, the flesh of fingers
on the long. The delicate seduce me in moonlight,
wrap me in your towel: his and hers, hers and his.
I’ll start my day at 10 pm with you, let it end at 4.
My body mimics the board—a backwards flip
opening my mouth for the camera, imagining you on top—
both of us suspended, our eyes,
lips mouthing the Do Not Disturb—
if only this pool became a glass block right above our sheets,
our bodies glued together in the small space opened
for us—if only this were Hollywood,
and I could see my reflection
in the water, in the glass.