10 Questions for Michael Dickman
*Originally published for Blue Mesa Review Issue 24.5 | Spring 2012
Interview by Nora Hickey
When Michael Dickman read recently at Muse Times Two, a poetry series in Santa Fe, he held a room of listeners in rapt interest. In a deft and deadpan voice, the poet traversed delicate and surreal scenes of domesticity, relationships, and the everyday. Between poems, he conversed with the audience about his persistent dreams of flies and asked for title suggestions for a new poem. The audience alternately laughed, gasped, and sighed deeply. Like the best poets, Michael Dickman stunned us into a reverie.
After the reading, I approached Dickman with a beat up copy of his James Laughlin award winning second book Flies. The dog I used to live with must have sensed the awesome and awful decomposition therein, because he ate about 1/3 of the book. Even after seeing the abused copy of Flies, Dickman was gracious enough to agree to answer a few of my questions, which took place over an email exchange in October 2011. Like Flies, Michael’s first book, The End of the West, is an original stunner. Dickman’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, Field, Tin House, Narrative Magazine and others.
NH: Are there any generalizations about you, your work, or poetry in general that you’d like to take down?
MD: The only thing that comes to mind is the old and very worn out idea that poetry is dead, that no one reads it, that it has no cultural power. This idea, and the writing and thinking it attracts, has always struck me as the worst kind of pandering and panel-discussion-job-security-see-you-at-AWP bullshit. We should rid ourselves of it.
NH: In an interview, John Berryman referred to his “equipment for poetry,” that stuff of life and work that enters into one’s writing that isn’t directly the result of thinking about the writing. (For Berryman, “five or six old and recent works on St. Augustine” at the time). What is your “equipment for poetry” at the moment?
MD: I’ll happily follow Berryman’s lead and say that at this moment in time my equipment consists of what I am reading, listening to, and seeing as well. The seeing reaches from movies, to visual art, to walking along the D&R Canal. I just finished reading the journals of Spalding Gray, which has me thinking about storytelling, and about what William Stafford called ‘writing from the center of your life’. I’ve been watching Godard’s Band of Outsiders again, which has me thinking about editing, pacing, and choreographed dancing. And I’ve been listening to the genius Sidney Bechet, which has me thinking about nothing but Sidney Bechet.
NH: I had the pleasure of hearing you read, and was tickled to hear how your vocal interpretation of your work was different than my own interpretation; I wondered how you make these “out loud” decisions, and what you think of the spoken component of poetry.
MD: Well, I think I have failed here. I want to get the poem down on paper in a way where you reading it at home alone would sound like me reading it at home alone. I try to do this through line breaks, whitespace, and section breaks. And through the repetition of syntax, or the breaking up of repetition. This all sounds smarter or dumber than I mean it to. In the end I am convinced by a poem, mine or another’s, through sound. I don’t think I have a tin ear, but one never knows.
NH: If I made my friend who “hates” poetry read one of your poems, which one would you suggest for him? Why?
MD: Your friend only feels this way because they were lied to about poetry by an absentminded teacher sometime around the 8th grade. I would give them HOWL by Allen Ginsberg. But if I were forced to give them a poem of mine I would give them “Flies”, for its science fiction and dreamlike qualities. Everybody dreams.
NH: In relation to your poem “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” Nick DePascal writes, “In the space of seven lines the speaker offers opinions and feelings on enough topics to fill a much longer poem, or perhaps a memoir or two.” This quick yet sweeping kind of emotional (and physical) travel seems to occur in a lot of your work; what kind of exploration does poetry allow you to enact?
MD: I’m not sure how to answer this really. I’ll just say that poetry allows me to say YES. Yes to any image, feeling, and music, no matter how strange or incongruous. Poems allow exploration in a world were everything seems to have been figured out for us already, from what books we ‘might also like’ on Amazon to who are friends could be on Facebook.
NH: Do you read reviews of your work? What do you think of them?
MD: I have done. And I don’t mind them, good or bad or in-between. Though I should say I only read reviews that come from a place with an editorial board of some kind. I believe in Stephen Sondheim’s understanding of critics that they are there to simply alert us to a work of art. What the critic thinks about the art is often beside the point for me.
NH: Who are your favorite lesser known poets?
MD: John Taggart is my favorite “lesser known” poet. He is an American genius from Pennsylvania who we should be reading out loud from street corners everywhere. If you want to know about music in lyric poetry, read John Taggart.
NH: Do you think “success” has any effect on a writer? Has your success influenced you as a poet? As a food service worker?
MD: I shrink away from the second half of this question. I think success effects us no matter where we find it. The kind of success that we might readily think of: money and fame, is not really available to poets. Not in America. I am sure that Billy Collins can walk into a grocery store unhampered by fans and professional photographers. Well, also I don’t think of myself as a success in any way. Besides, the poems don’t know, nor do they give a shit, if you’ve published in the New Yorker or Poet Lore. They don’t care. It is still a blank piece of paper at the end of the day.
NH: I would like to see your poem “Flies” turned into a movie. Who would you want to direct and star in it?
MD: I don’t think we could do better than Hal Hartley directing Adrien Brody.
NH: What conversation in contemporary poetry is most compelling to you? Which dialogue could you do without?
MD: I am most compelled by any conversation about what poems and poets have moved you. And about what you are moved to write. And how.
I don’t care what anyone thinks about MFA programs, so there.
Thanks for asking.