The below is an excerpt of Andy Kuhn’s interview of Michael Dickman. Full interview text is available in the book How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request.
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: 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.