Interview with Michael Dickman

Andy Kuhn: I promise that the first question I ask about you will not also be about your twin brother Matthew the poet.

Your first collection is named Flies, your second is The End of the West. Various kinds of mortality have been much on your mind, it seems. Can you say a little about that?

Michael Dickman: I should say that I’d be happy to talk about the poet Matthew Dickman. Though as a twin I bow to your attempt of addressing me as an individual. Our whole lives Matthew and I received, for example, the same birthday cards, so neither one would be jealous. So thank you, from the start, for not seeing double.

Now might be a good time to point out that FLIES is my second book, from 2011. THE END OF THE WEST is my first book, from 2009. I do think this matters, perhaps in very small ways or details, or perhaps just to me, in that I feel like FLIES stretches out lyrically from TEOTW. In some ways FLIES is also less concerned with a strong forward narrative. I hope the poems in FLIES move more in increments, little by little, image by image.

I wonder if this business with mortality that you see has to do with my being brought up in Catholic school? Could be. Most likely though it’s not for me to say.

AK: Sorry for that boneheaded error! Usually I know that 2009 comes BEFORE 2011.

I understand that you’re a new papa, for which congratulations. Besides depriving you of sleep, has this event had any immediate effect on your writing? Or on your take on mortality and ways to subvert it?

MD: Thanks for the kind word about the Little One. It’s true; I am now someone’s dad. I didn’t grow up with a dad, so it is a wild and amazing thing to be one. The immediate effect on my writing is that I’m not writing anything. But soon, soon. I can feel it. As for subverting mortality, I was taught that we couldn’t. I like that about mortality: it’s here to stay, even if we’re not.

AK: In Flies you sell the reader surrealist premises with very matter-of-fact language and images that for the most part scan with great visual precision. Were you ever a fan of magical realism? Are you self-consciously or intentionally surrealist—do you have surrealist heroes—or is that just the way your mind tends to move?

MD: Well damn, I’m going to have to take what my grandmother calls umbrage with your use of the word “sells”. I don’t think any poet is trying to SELL anyone anything. I’m certainly not. At least I don’t think I am. We are sold things by advertisers, small interest groups, and politicians of every stripe. But poets? Which ones?

Now this will sound like I’m being coy, or just dim, but I don’t think of the poems inFLIES as being surreal. I understand that things happen in the poems that don’t seem to happen in the actual world. Though for me, it all was true. My older brother died. I was visited by flies. Emotionally and spiritually and physically all those poems happened just as they are. And so I guess it’s just the way my mind moves, like you say, and it moves that way because it’s how I experience the world.

AK: The Portland, Oregon that figures in your poems is not the gateway-to-fabulous-outdoor-recreation or hilariously politically correct Portlandia kind of place the casual outsider might picture. It sounds pretty brutal, and it becomes clear in your poetry that a good number of the people you grew up with didn’t make it. Can you talk a little bit about the Portland you knew growing up? What were some things that made it possible for you not only to survive but to thrive?

MD: Portland as a gateway to truly awesome and beautiful natural places was always a reality, and we did make it to the Oregon coast every summer for a couple weeks. The mountains and the forests were more of a mystery to me. I grew up in a working class neighborhood that I loved. I didn’t experience it as brutal. But it was a hard place at times. That said, it was also a tight community. We all knew our neighbors. The Portland I knew growing up was more Gus Van Sant than Portlandia. And I wouldn’t change a thing. I was able to thrive because of my family, and a small handful of friends, and a couple very important mentors. A lucky childhood.

AK: “From the Lives of My Friends” is a very spare, three-part collective elegy that includes some strange lines.

My friends and I climbed up the telephone poles to sit on the power
lines dressed like crows

Their voices sounded like lemons

I won’t ask what a lemon sounds like to you. That last line makes me wonder if you ever went through a Mad Libs period. Do you approach writing poetry, at least in part, in the spirit of pure play?

MD: I remember Mad Libs though I don’t think I could make a poem that way. And I do think that a lot of poetry is play. Serious play. High stakes play. But sure, play all the same. But I wonder what the opposite of a strange line is for you? There can be, I hope, a kind of sense in a poem that is strictly musical, or tonal, or that stays partially hidden and I think that’s all right. Has to be. There is a lot out there that I think is strange, but I like those things. A star nosed mole is pretty strange. A platypus is strange. Photosynthesis. A little strange. Okay, now I’m coming out for the strange things of the world to unite and take over. Let your freak flag fly!

AK: Your poetry has a considerable amount of Christian imagery and references, much of it set in an unorthodox context, with even less orthodox or frankly profane content. You mentioned being brought up in a Catholic school. I guess organized religion play a major role in your upbringing?

MD: The Episcopal and Catholic Church played a big role in my upbringing as my mother kept us in Catholic School from 1st grade through High School. We attended Mass on the weekends and went to Sunday school. I was an altar-boy. And so those stories and images made their way under my skin. Deeply, deeply. Somewhere the great poet Charles Wright says something about the images we grow up with being the images we are stuck with. I think that’s right.

AK: “Stations” for example has prominent echoes of the Stations of the Cross. There are fourteen parts to the poem instead of the conventional twelve stations, but in broad outline the poem tracks with what you would find depicted in stained glass in a church. At the fourth station, Jesus encounters his mother. Your fourth stanza begins,

You will meet once again your mother on the street
but you will not recognize her

Two lines later, though, sexual partners are talking dirty with each other. One of them has to remind himself,

Thank god you’re not my mother

You’re not my mother

as if he weren’t altogether sure. Besides giving aid and comfort to the beaten-up Freudians amongst us, who can use it, these juxtapositions are funny and tender and moving. And the movement from the sacred to the profane is not one-way; immediately after the lines quoted above comes this startling affirmation:

From moment to moment God is the one pressing us against the
glorious metal shining everywhere in the universe

Except when from moment to moment we are

Do you think of yourself as a religious person, or as a religious poet?

MD: First off I need to point out that there are fourteen Stations and not as you say twelve. I hope you won’t mind the corrective, but if I let it go I’m afraid the sisters from Our Lady of Sorrows would fly out to New Jersey to rap me on the knuckles. Besides if you leave out the last two stations some would accuse you of leaving out the most important and redemptive part for our life on earth.

AK: Bonehead error number two! One more and I’m out.

MD: Not at all. Perhaps we’d be better off with fewer of them. I’ll also point out that this poem is a response, though a secret one, to a series of paintings by Barnett Newman. Do you know them?

AK: Not before reading Flies. The poem placed just before “Stations” in your book is “Barnet Newman: Black Fire I.” But I didn’t pick up that “Stations” also referred to his work.

MD: He made them first and then titled them afterwards, which seems like a great description of religious experience to me.

I am not a religious person except in the sense that I stand in awe of the natural world and in awe and anger and wonder at our relationship to it and to each other. I don’t pray. I don’t go to church. And I don’t think of my poems as being religious or myself as a religious poet. It’s too hard to just get a couple lines down. I don’t think I could do it if I thought I had a spiritual or cultural mandate or call as well.

AK: You bang up against the problem of evil very hard in “Late Meditation”.

Yesterday we put all our kids in the car, doused it with gasoline, and
lit it on fire

In the poem this horror seems to come out of nowhere, a narrative punch in the face. It’s such a shocking incident that it sounds like something specific that actually happened. Is it, or is it a kind of model of the awfulness the species is capable of?

DM: We can safely say that that moment is an example of the horror we are capable of.

AK: The “we” in this poem seems to implicate the reader. The speaker seems to be trying to quiet his mind, ultimately unsuccessfully. By the end, the whole enterprise of meditation is made to look paltry at best in the face of atrocity. There seems to be a movement in both collections between qualified hope and affirmation and moments of despair, and then back again. Is this a way that you experience life and the world as you walk around, or is it an intensification that comes particularly when you’re writing?

MD: I really like your word intensification. I think it’s true that sitting down to write a poem brings with it, for me at least (and I know I’m not alone!), a kind of intensity, a feeling of being tuned up, a slight sense of weight. Though I hope the poems aren’t HEAVY. Or at least not unrelentingly so. I think there are little moments of release in the poems, if just in the white space around the strophes.

AK: You use quite a few four-letter words in your poems—maybe not more, on a statistical basis, than a lot of people use in conversation, but more than one usually finds in a volume of poems. Do four-letter words provide a certain kind of charge that’s not available otherwise? Or are they so ubiquitous now that keeping them out of a poem would just seem silly?

MD: I think they are ubiquitous. And they are Language, and Individual, and so do things other language doesn’t. It makes it hard for my 98 year old Grandma to read, but frankly her ears aren’t really burning…though she may pretend they are.

AK: The cover of The End of the West is a ghostly photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard of a blurred figure in white jumping up or down before an empty, darkened window frame of an old brick building. In Flies¸ you have an ekphrastic poem “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Untitled” that takes off from an actual or imagined photograph. Can you say a little about how this photographer’s work speaks to you?

MD: Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Was there a better American photographer of the strangeness of childhood? Maybe, but I don’t know who it is. His photographs have been a meditation and lightning rod for me. His photos of trees seemed more like trees to me than Ansel Adams’s work, and his use of masks feel like live theater. He was also a great friend to many poets, including Wendell Berry and Denise Levertov for example. And Guy Davenport and Jonathan Williams for another. And I like that. I wish someone like Meatyard would come spend time at my house. Have a few drinks. Listen to some music.

AK: Your twin brother Matthew also writes excellent poetry, but astonishingly, it is not identical to your own poetry! How do you account for this?

MD: I bow to your curiosity and wonder with this question. But frankly I don’t find it astonishing. Why would you expect identical twins to do identical work and not say, siblings with a couple years between them? Though we look alike we have managed to find our own ways in the world, though we are entwined at our roots. It must have happened in utero! And perhaps our very different poetry is a subconscious self-defense against disappearing in the shadow of the other brother? I account for it in the same way any family members who find themselves in the same business would.

AK: You vary your line lengths quite a bit, and your poems are spare on the page, with a lot of space. Your brother favors long lines and dense blocks of text, and a more consistently ecstatic or at least celebratory tone that for me, at least, evokes Whitman and Ginsberg. Do the differences in your poetry reflect differences in temperament that were present even before you started writing poetry?

MD: Not that I can see. You know, it’s not as if Matthew is gregarious and socially outgoing and I am quiet and spare in my friendships. I think as different artists we were pulled to different things, styles, obsessions, different ways of seeing and singing what I hope are our particular songs. I don’t think temperament has much to do with what an artist makes. Of course it can, Pollock dripping his ecstatic life away and Newman in a bowtie making zips, for example. Still, Samuel Beckett was a funny and outgoing correspondent who kept hundreds of vibrant friendships, which may not be reflected in the plays or fiction. I mean No How On does not come out very far to shake our hand, though the author would have.

AK: We’re very much looking forward to your upcoming reading for the Katonah Poetry Series. Looking at the list of our readers over the past four-plus decades, are there any who stand out as particular influences of yours?

MD: I’m looking forward to it too. And thanks for taking the time to ask these questions. If any of my answers sound too brief or foggy we should chalk it up to new parenthood.

I want to say it’s a lucky thing to be asked to read in public. And in a series like this makes it very exciting. You know, every third poet who’s read for this series has been an influence on me in one way or another. So I’ll just say that my most recent influence is John Clare. A Mud-Man Punk Rocker from the 1800’s. All I want to do these days is write a poem about a bird’s nest, all because of him.

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