“The thing crafted from fabric and plaster, / more pile of dirt and wet cardboard / than realistic human skeleton, lies / under glass in a white cinderblock / coffin elevated over the concrete floor / in the last of three corrugated steel sheds / at the roadside attraction.”
21 August 2017
In a fascist near-future America, the thing on display at a roadside attraction remembers.
Today was a perfect day: after experiencing a spectacular solar eclipse this morning with friends among the large crowds gathered at the University of Arizona campus, my very first published poem became available online in the second issue of the wonderful LGBTQ+ journal Impossible Archetype! The issues of this journal are available as free PDF downloads. Packed within issue two are so many fantastic poems; I’m still amazed that my poem “Roadside Freak Show” is included among them.
I have much appreciation for the instructors and writers at The Writers Studio Tucson who offered helpful feedback on early drafts of this poem. They helped me find the best way to navigate the tonal differences between factual information, protest, and lyricism in my early drafts. I learned a lot about considering readers when I start revisions of my poems. Good poetry can be opaque, have lots of different meanings, and make the reader work to read it, but the poet also has some responsibility to make their poems in some way accessible to diverse readers. I write for myself in the first few drafts, but then I take a step back and try to imagine what strangers coming to my work will see. It helps to have fellow writers offer their critiques as first readers. Frequently they find images and phrases that make sense only to me and end up offering no means by which they can enter into the poem, too.
I did research for this poem. On a Saturday in March, I drove southeast of Tucson to visit The Thing and experience for myself the weirdness that is the United States roadside attraction. I had been talking myself out of going for several months for various social anxiety reasons, but I knew as soon as I arrived that I had made the right decision. I took notes and pictures while I followed monster prints to the three sheds packed full of dust-covered items behind glass, hanging from the ceiling, standing behind metal dividers, or resting inside a cinderblock coffin. I could not have been able to capture the atmosphere and horror I believe are important components of my poem without experiencing this place for myself. I could not have made the necessary connections between the roadside attraction, its history, and current events, either. I’m convinced now that research must be part of my writing process.
The biggest surprise, of course, was how the other items at this roadside attraction frightened me more than The Thing. I wasn’t actually expecting any real fear at all, but the disturbing things collected there forced me to grapple with the very idea of roadside attractions. You can’t walk into a shed where the mannequin of Hitler sits in the back of a Rolls Royce while other mannequins with expressions of agony are posed in scenes of torture and not feel abject terror.
I found The Thing itself poignant. A crafted thing “from fabric and plaster, / more pile of dirt and wet cardboard / than realistic human skeleton” suggests many things about its creator, the era it’s from, the era it finds itself in, this roadside attraction, and these United States. It calls attention to various issues like racism and cultural appropriation. The Thing is beloved by—though it’s also meant to frighten—travelers and children. And it’s waiting for a reckoning we still haven’t had with our nation’s ugly past.
I felt like The Thing could be me someday. There’s nothing attractive about that prospect.