An Interview with Michael Dickman by Ben Rutherfurd.
Ben Rutherfurd: Set against The End of the West, your second book, Flies, feels like a leap toward genuine surrealism, as it relies on dreams more than literal memory. I find it interesting that Flies, a book dealing directly with the subjects of death and mourning, goes deeper into the imagination and is less concerned with literal memory. Can you credit this decision to anything? Do you consider yourself a surrealist, an avid reader of the today’s surrealist writers?
Michael Dickman: I’m happy to think of Flies as making a leap of some real distance from The End Of The West. I like to think the poems did this in more than a couple ways, formally and lyrically. That said, I wouldn’t say I’m a surrealist. Well, I won’t say it, because it’s not true. And I wish I was a better reader and could know whom you mean when you say “today’s surrealist writers.” I think it’s true that I am often drawn to art, written and otherwise, that doesn’t play by the rules of our actual lives. And aren’t our actual lives unbelievably strange? Like William Maxwell says… Why don’t we walk around in a continual state of surprise? But maybe by surreal you don’t mean strange. And then it’s also true that I love certain poets who you could not refer to as surrealists by any measure. Jane Kenyon for one. Seamus Heaney for another. And in some real but invisible way all I am ever trying to do is write a poem like Kenyon and Heaney. I fail every time but that’s okay. Everything in Flies actually happened on both a physical and emotional level. Flies everywhere. Shit everywhere. People dying, and coming back, then dying again, over and over. Memory is very important to me. It’s the only way I have to begin a poem. And Flies comes from that place, from the wellspring of memory. Trying to remember everything exactly as it was and get it down into a poem.
BR: So much of the tension in your poems relies on the pauses created by awkward line breaks. You have a way of isolating unassuming words and imbuing them with possibility, and we feel that possibility accrue over the course of the poem. Are you conscious of this tension when writing, trying to sustain it as you progress? Who do you consider masters of maintaining tension in a poem?
MD: Well damn, I wince a little at your use of the word “awkward” which was thrown around in a review of Flies in some god-forsaken magazine and now I’m afraid I might be stuck with it. The truth is that I don’t think of the line breaks as awkward at all and I am certainly not trying to purposefully make them awkward. I try as much as I can to get down on paper the poem in the way that I hear it. Of course, it may not be the music you want to hear but it’s the only music I can make. Maybe it is a little clunky, a little stop-and-start. I would like to think it comes from growing up on punk music. The Minute Men ruined my line breaks! I was also happily and greatly moved by what Frank Bidart had to say about ‘organic form’ and prosody in his interview with Mark Halliday in the back of Bidart’s In The Western Night from 1983. I would also like to think that if you read a poem I wrote out loud at home and you paid attention to the line breaks and white space that it might sound pretty close to how I hear it in my head. “Awkward” as that might be. An awkward pause or break makes me think of an unfortunate social situation, not a poem. Well, fuck, on the other hand maybe I’m being a bit defensive for personal and prosodic reasons I’d rather not face? I’ll happily leave it there for now.
I do want to sustain a kind of music and thought and tension throughout the particular section and then throughout the whole of any given poem. There are many people who are geniuses at sustaining tension in a poem but since I’ve already mentioned Bidart I’ll mention him again. Frank Bidart is a master at creating and sustaining unbelievable tension. Maybe it was really Mike Watt and Frank Bidart who fucked up my poems!
BR: By “awkward”I certainly don’t mean clunky or without music. I guess what I was trying to get at was the way your poems, as you say, need to be read aloud, and that the music may seem exotic to a reader accustomed to a more traditional lyric line. Right now I am looking at a poem from Flies where you repeat a phrase but break it differently the second time, letting different words reverberate. It’s impressive how much the breaks and pauses shape the sense of a poem the whole way through—if that makes any sense.
MD: That makes perfect sense to me. Line-breaks and pauses, white space and caesuras shape the sense of a poem as much as the actual words do. I wonder if most people read poems aloud? It’s nice to think so. And it’s so important to hear them read! I was just at a reading where I heard a poet read a short book-length poem that I had looked at and quietly dismissed at a bookstore a few months before. Well, she read the book and I was completely floored by the music in it, the beauty, the flat out longing. Something like that might have happened to me at that bookstore if I had taken the time to read a few pages aloud to myself. Of course, there is still a lot to be gained by hearing a poem in one’s head. With the sound off as it were. There is something to receive from that as well. And poems with strong music will survive both experiences.
BR: Franz Wright is quoted saying that he would like, in a poem, “to operate by way of suggestion.” I would say that your work, by way of the tension that accrues, achieves this aesthetic. You also dedicate the poem “The Sea” to Wright in Flies. What do you make of Wright’s words, and do you share his goals for your own work?
MD: I feel like I can readily line up behind Franz’s desire for a poem to “operate by way of suggestion.” I mean I share it, that desire. And he is frighteningly brilliant at this in his work. Just dazzling. It is something I admire and probably emulate on some sub-conscious or not-so-sub-conscious level. I think I am also drawn to what I understand as the ‘quietness’ in a poem that ‘operates by way of suggestion,’ as a reader certainly. And as a writer my brain just doesn’t move very fast. Images float to the surface. Certain words. A suggestion, yes!
I dedicated a poem called The Sea to Franz Wright and Denis Johnson because they have both been teachers and mentors to me in one way or another, Denis formally at The Michener Center for Writers, and Franz informally through countless emails and some phone conversations and the happy if all too few visits. I am lucky to count them both as friends. They have offered me food, shelter, support, confidence, criticism, kindness, and a real sense of being a part of, well how else to say it, part of a family, in the best and most selfless and uncompromising ways.
Their presence in my life is a blessing.
BR: How different does a first draft of a poem look from its final draft (if there is such a thing)? Are the silences of a poem imposed late in the process, or do they occur to you from the beginning?
MD: What I think of as a first draft looks very different from a so-called final draft. My first drafts are usually little notes, images, fragments, pieces of language that catch my attention and I write them down into pocket size notebooks. Is this boring enough yet? At some point the fragments will start to speak to each other, or like magnets become attracted to one another, and I will type them up into a nearly incomprehensible “poem,” then start revising towards a kind of music and a kind of sense that I want to hear and read. It’s a kind of guided by voices method that I have fallen into and like and feels organic and right to me. Sometimes I can get a real draft of something in a few weeks, but more often than not it takes a few months. The silences in the white space are an organic part of the process. I mean I don’t think of them as an ingredient to “impose” on the poem later. They are there from the beginning, shifting, changing, and moving until they fall into place. It’s hard to really describe this, and I know it sounds a little West Coast but that’s okay. One of the struggles making poems is to find out slowly what really works for you and to be patient about finding it, and then being open for that to change later on. I never sit down and think I really want to write a poem in response to the current war… or I should really write a poem about XY&Z… but all that could change and I should be open to it. We all should. Like Fats Waller said, “One never knows, do one?”
BR: You mentioned your reliance on memories to start writing a poem. Do you have a commitment to literal memory, or is this an illusion in your work?
MD: Is it too corny to say that in all art memory is an illusion? Or at least illusive? I have a commitment to literal memory as a starting point for writing poems and then I try to write towards the often stranger emotional and spiritual truths as I experience them in my life. I don’t feel like I owe anyone a shared truth, my family for example, and I think it’s clear that I’m not writing some strict historical prose or anything remotely like it. Did my grandmother really dance with Cary Grant who at the same time was her second husband in an alcoholic dream? Is my twin brother really a saint who can cure the sick? Does my mother have a six-shooter? All of this is true in the poem “The End of the West.” And that’s all I really care about, that something is true in a poem. Are they literal memories? Who cares? I don’t. Memory is still really important for how I make poems, as I said above. It is the only way I can really get started with those fragments of language that eventually make up a poem. And I’m trying to do it in the simplest ways that I can. I’d like now to revise my first statement about how in all art memory is an illusion. It’s fair to say that I don’t feel comfortable making that statement. I can say, however, it’s not an illusion in my poems. It’s a real and concrete thing, even if it’s not at the front of the poem’s intent or music or story. Besides, “illusion” sounds as if there is some trick being played, a hustle of some kind, even an enjoyable hustle, and I don’t think that’s happening in these poems.
BR: I want to return to something you said earlier, about the music of your work being a result of your having grown up on punk music. Could you elaborate on this point? What connections do you find between the rhythms of punk and those of your poetry?
MD: Oh sure. Well, perhaps the connections are invisible to everyone but me. I mean, my poems move pretty slowly, not really a Minor Threat feel in the pace of them. But I think they do bounce around a bit violently at times. Can change direction quickly. Don’t have very many words. And don’t formally care about tradition. They tend to be stripped down, no big orchestral movements. I think they jab. Somewhere Charles Wright, speaking about the Judeo-Christian images and language in his astounding poems, says something about how we are stuck with the images we are born and raised on. This rang very true for me, and I believe it’s also true of music you listen to growing up. I feel like all those bands I loved (Minor Threat, The Minute Men, The Ramones, The Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedy’s, early Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and more) are still alive somewhere beneath my fingers when I’m trying to make a poem sound like the particular music I want to hear.
BR: All of your poems, to the best of my knowledge, progress by sections, one for each page. Have you always written episodically? What do you look for as the connective tissue between the sections of a poem?
MD: I haven’t always written like this. But gradually over years I found my way into writing sequential poems and it felt true to me and organic and I felt like I could say certain things that I couldn’t in the columnar poems I was writing before. This has to do with white space and line breaks and length as well as storyline. I sometimes wished that a poem could work like a play, like “Far Away” by Caryl Churchill, for example. That there could be a dramatic tension over “acts” or sections like we discussed earlier. I was interested in trying to get at that in my poems, to some degree of heat or other. It was a formal move that allowed me to relax and explore in ways that weren’t available to me before.
I think the connective tissue between the sections of the poems can be a little illusive. Even to me. And in fact, I find that I can’t discuss them at all.
BR: In The End of the West, your repeated use of light feels more symbolic than metaphoric. Do you see the use of symbol returning to contemporary poetry? Are you interested in helping symbolic activity return?
MD: I’m afraid I won’t be of much use on this one. I’m not sure I could point out anything unequivocal about what might be missing in or returning to contemporary American poetry. I’m sure a lot of people still deal in symbols, always have, and will do. And I don’t really have a plan for, or sense of, what my own poems might be “helping,” symbolic or otherwise. I know this all sounds a little coy, but it isn’t. I really do wish I had a better sense of all that is going on in contemporary American poetry. I do try to read a lot of different things and find that, to the frustration of some of my friends, I love most of what’s happening and being written out there. I’ve always been lost when people want to talk about ‘schools’ of poetry, or lyric gang fights, or narrative turf wars, or them or us, or whatever boring-ass shit people feel they need to define themselves by. But that’s not really your question. Maybe it’s true that I don’t care as much about “symbolic activity” as I do about emotional poetry. That’s what I want alive and well in contemporary poetry, EMOTION!
BR: You recently published a collaboration with your brother, Matthew: 50 American Plays. What was the process for that book, and what do you find makes for a successful collaborative work?
MD: The poet Matthew Dickman and I wrote a first draft of 50 American Plays while at the Michener Center for Writers because I needed to turn in a full-length play to pass a class that I was drowning in. The poet and playwright Kenneth Koch had recently died and both Matthew and I were re-reading his books. The thought of trying to write a two or three act Well Written Play in a weekend made me want to take a nap forever, and when I expressed this to Matthew we began a conversation about the kind of poet’s theater that folks like Koch and Ashbery and O’Hara were a part of. We both loved Koch’s Hamlet plays. Matthew came up with the structure of writing 50 one-page plays each for a different state and we were off and running. We split them up 25/25 and wrote a draft in a weekend. Then we exchanged what we had written and revised the other’s work. Some version or other of this continued until the plays felt like they could and should have a life of their own. It was, and has been, great fun to work with my brother on this project, as you might imagine. I’ve never done any other kind of collaborating really, and in general I would guess that it is difficult work, and one should be willing to let go of a great deal. No doubt it’s very good for people to collaborate. It is a real human impulse. It’s one of the great things about theater. And, I think, one of poetry’s best-kept secrets.