Matthew Dickman is a very unusual creature: a famous poet, at least here in Portland. At his Powell's reading on October 1, he drew over 200 people for a standing-room-only crowd. He's a local — he grew up in Southeast Portland (as did his twin brother, Michael, who is also an award-winning poet) and is now the poetry editor for Tin House. Dickman's first book, All American Poem, won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. His new collection, Mayakovsky's Revolver, is the winner of the May Sarton Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The collection centers around his older brother's suicide and includes poems of grief and joy, elegies and celebrations. Tony Hoagland raves, "Dickman is big news.... His work will make you love poetry again."
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Jill Owens: In the introduction to your first book, All American Poem, Tony Hoagland wrote, "We turn loose such poets into our culture so that they can provoke the rest of us into saying everything on our minds." Do you think that's true of your work or other poets' work, and if so, how does that play out exactly?
Matthew Dickman: [Laughter] Is it true about me? I think that I try to say things that are on my mind. I think sometimes there are things on our minds that we aren't aware of, and I think that the greater mind might be like our inner life. I don't know how it works. I think of this quote I love talking about by the poet Larry Levis, where in a poem he talks about writing poetry. He says, "Out here I can say anything." I'm not sure what Tony is saying except that he's being really sweet about it, but I think that writing, or any art form, that's the only time we get to be free, when we're making it — at least here in the United States. There's an opportunity to unleash the self and say what's really on your mind. If you don't, that's just up to you, I guess.
Jill: So this may or may not speak to that, but there are these lines in "Akhmatova": "As I walked around / the shallow pools / feeling like I had done a good job being myself" which seemed to kind of sum up something in your poetry to me, the trying and failing and trying again, just to be oneself in the face of grief or even of joy.
Dickman: Yes. I guess in that line or in general, maybe, I often feel bad about things I've done in my life or things I haven't done. That poem is set in these shallow pools around the Oregon Coast, butsometimes, I feel like you get out in nature, and nature can illuminate the fact that you are a human being and can put things in perspective for you. It can help you feel pretty good about being you. Maybe the shit that you're going through feels a little less heavy when you're looking at an ocean. [Laughter]
Jill: Or a sea anemone.
Dickman: Or a sea anemone! It feels so much more amazing than me when I look at it and touch it. I think, with me, that's there a lot, this being in the world and because you're in the world, always failing at something and always hurting somebody, but then trying to be good and trying to be humane.
Jill: You mentioned in an interview that in Mayakosky's Revolver, you're writing, in part, about the "shadow" — you call yourself out for some pretty mean acts, including in "Elegy to a Goldfish," which is kind of a terrifying poem. How were you thinking about that in connection with empathy and honesty?
Dickman: I think about the shadow. My understanding of it comes from this Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz. He encouraged poets to engage in their own shadows. In our own poetry, often the person who is writing the poem comes off looking pretty good in most of the poems. [Laughter]
I'm my own hero in almost every single poem and certainly, especially, in my first book, All American Poem. That's natural. We write, we make stuff, and we want people to like us. That's just a natural instinct.
Often an "I" in the poem, the narrator or speaker, is someone who gets out unscathed in the poem and is doing something brave. Or worse, he'll climb this mountain showing the rest of us a truth we've been ignoring our whole lives.
Milosz talks about wanting artists to engage not just the parts of them that are socially acceptable and that are palatable to other people, but the other parts of the self that are darker and scarier. We all have those parts. Whether you're a painter, or a musician, or a poet, I think you can create some art that engages with that part of you. It's a good thing to engage with, because we're not just one type of person, of course.
Jill: This is maybe the flip side of that, but there's a line in the poem "Dark": "I had forgotten how brave we are, how dark our lives can be." I was talking to a friend of mine a couple weeks ago about how sometimes we should acknowledge each other more for just getting up in the morning and getting through the day, and all the things that have to be done day after day. I think that a lot of your poems celebrate that.
Dickman: That we're doing this right now, that you even got to work, or that I even got out to my grandmother's house earlier today — it's fucking insane that we were able to do that. Just within our own bodies, within our different parts of self, our subconscious, our conscious, our inner life, all of this working at the same time, and all of the brain and all your senses doing the most complicated circus act in the universe, to make you walk forward in a way that's sane and makes sense in the world that you're in.
Then put on top of that everything that we have, all this technology we have. If you have to get on a freeway, all the different cars. Then in the cars, all the different other human beings with their different stuff. It's amazing there aren't pileups every day on I-5 or I-205.
I think it's more awe. Not so much a pat on the back like, We're awesome, but for me, it's like, Right! What we're doing is actually really complicated, and very difficult. I feel like there's some wonder in that. Of course, we use living to piss on each other [laughter], but there is, of course, equal amounts of great love and compassion and bravery from people.
Jill: Mayakovsky's Revolver centers around the connected poems about the death of your older brother, and those are some of the most startling and moving poems in the collection, I think. Was that written all at one time, or were you writing other poems while working on that?
Dickman: Those poems that make up that central part were written all at the same time. I was lucky enough to be on a Lannan Foundation residency out in Marfa, Texas. I was given a home to live in, and I was given time and some money out in the middle of west Texas. The closest biggest city was Juarez, so we were out there. Marfa is a magical place.
I went out there, and I wanted to write a long poem, a long elegy for my older brother. I had imagined maybe a book-length poem. I thought, OK, I want to write a 20-page poem. I got out there, and I tried to write a 20-page poem for the first four or five days, and I was really sucking at it. [Laughter] It wasn't going anywhere, and I felt discouraged.
Then I did this thing that my mentors, Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar, two great poets, used to do. When my brother and I and our friends Carl and Mike would come visit them, we'd get up in the morning. We'd pick out five or six words, and we'd write for 20 minutes. The only rule was you'd have to include those words we picked out in your poem. Then we'd read them to each other. Some were really great first drafts, and some were crap.
I just started doing that. I would get up every morning, and on a little yellow sticky pad I would just write five or six words that came to mind and then I would write a little poem. I did that, and I wrote probably 40 to 45 poems that month. Then I picked the ones I really liked and worked on those. I rewrote those, and eventually they became those 13 poems that are in the middle of the book.
Jill: What were some of the words?
Dickman: They were random. Some of them were just words that were around me like "cactus," "donkey," "dog." I have them all at home. I have all of them saved for kindling. [Laughter]
Jill: There's also a lot of space imagery in this book, it seems to me. I was wondering how that imagery connected with the other subjects you were writing about.
Dickman: The book was almost going to be called "Dear Space" because there is a poem in there called "Dear Space." One of the connections for me, probably, is when I think about my older brother's death or I think about other friends who have died either by accident or old age or disease or suicide, and when I think about the living, I understand both the dead and the living as much as I understand outer space, which is like zero. But I do know I have feelings about outer space.There's something about the inconceivable immensity of outer space that reminds me of grieving over a dead friend or a dead relative. It also reminds me of love and of getting up in the morning. It freaks me out in a really great way that we're made out of the same stuff that stars are made out of, and this table is too.
It's awesome that we're separate because who knows what kind of crazy experience that would be if we weren't. But everything seems to go together and then reach towards outer space for me. That's a long rambling nonanswer to your question [laughter], but there is something about the wonder and the scariness and immeasurability of space that reminds me of our lives on earth. And so, I think space was coming up a lot.
Maybe also because when the book was first started being written, I was in Marfa. There are no lights out there, so you're covered in stars. So maybe that stuck with me, too.
Jill: There's also an inexhaustibility to the speaker's want, in several poems in both books — in "On Earth, " there's the line "I want them all / and all the time," which I thought might encapsulate that. In a strange way, I think that might explain some of your poetry's appeal — it makes the reader want too, or want to want. Not all poetry does that, even some poetry I really love. Does that make sense?
Dickman: I think so. I do want a lot of things and they change all the time. The other day, I was thinking about happiness and what it means to be happy and then I was listening to some people who are really, really smart talk about it. One person was asked, "What do you want?" And they said, "I want to not want anymore. That would be happiness." Then there would be peace, or something. But I like the very American, kinetic, energetic, ecstatic want. [Laughter] I like that. It's so much fun. I think that's an OK place to be.
Jill: I think so too. You mentioned in a couple of interviews that you took a break from writing for several months several years ago, when you were going to therapy. Did therapy affect the way you thought about poetry? It sounded like your writing changed a lot after that.
Dickman: I don't know if therapy affected my writing. The breakdown that I had, and then going to therapy, affected my writing in that I wasn't writing and it lasted for months and months and months. When I went back to writing, what would happen, which I don't fully understand, is that in a way I had forgotten or left behind some rules and stuff and was writing in a completely different way. But I don't know if it was my therapy. At the time, the therapy I was in was basically therapy just to try to sleep and eat and figure out some other things. But I'm in therapy now, and as for writing, it's become as interesting to me a part of my writing process as letter writing has been for so long.
I write letters to a lot of people. I'm lucky to have some really wonderful older poets to write back and forth to. There's an intimacy when you sit down to write a letter that's different from an email or a text message, of course. Especially a handwritten one, although typing is also a physical act. But there's a kind of intimacy. It's not quite like going into a confessional box, but it feels close to that for me, being raised as an Episcopalian and going to Catholic school my whole life, because there's a nice, sweet intimacy there. I feel like you figure certain things out and you wrestle with a part of yourself or part of your inner life that's different from the rest of your day when you're writing a letter.
I feel like it's the same with therapy. The kind of therapy that I do is talk therapy, and some of it is posttraumatic stress therapy. It's a processing of the past that, in a way, maybe you're doing as a poet too, when you sit down to write a poem. Even if you're a language poet who is afraid of your own body and emotion. Even if you're that, then you're still processing your life when you sit down to make something. At least it's coming out of your life in some way.
I think it might boil down to just this, which is the one thing that therapy either back then or right now has done for me as a poet, is that it has urged me to be more honest with myself, and to engage in the work in a different way. Like, to be more excited about creating it and making it in the moment of making, and less manic about where am I going to send these poems out to get published and how's that going to happen. Less of the career stuff, and more of how am I experiencing making it and does it feel good.
Jill: There are a lot of movies and a lot of historical references in your poems. Are those frames that you use to think about the world fairly often?
Dickman: I think they must be. Movies have been so important in my life. My memory is not that great, or at least that's what I tell myself, so that probably makes my memory not so great. I'm not sure how that works. [Laughter] But I do know this. I don't remember a lot of actors' and actresses' names, or sometimes I'll forget the names of movies, but they've always meant a lot to me. I've felt very deeply about movies, particularly older films. My twin brother Michael and I have a mentor and father figure named Ernie Casciato, who's a local Portland actor. He helped raise us from high school on and introduced us to old films. It really affected both our lives. There's something about, I think, how I experience the world because of films that I've watched.
Films, or even something like your Diet Pepsi bottle, might end up in a poem... [Laughter] [Ed. note: I was drinking water out of a Diet Pepsi bottle.] It looks very spacey, like something you would insert into a ship that might light up the ship. I would talk about a Diet Pepsi in a poem, or anything that's around me. I think environment's important.
Jill: I really like that about your poems, and I would bet a lot of people do. There's the large and the sacred, and then there are the Diet Pepsi bottles and Starbucks cups...
Dickman: Yes, which are sacred in a different way. One thing that irritates me a little bit is when people use the word reference. They say, "You reference pop culture," or, "Do you think it's safe to reference pop culture?" Well, you're a writer in the United States. Everything is safe. [Laughter] That is a Western problem.
But I don't like the word referencing. No one ever says to Mary Oliver, who's a million times better poet than me, but no one ever says, like, "Oh, what's the deal with referencing geese?" [Laughter]
Jill: Or flowers.
Dickman: No one ever says, "Hey, why are you referencing that bear? Are we going to have those bears 100 years from now? Isn't it dangerous to reference it and date your poem with this bear?" I just don't understand any of that. [Laughter]
Jill: It might be less likely that there are bears around than Diet Pepsi.
Dickman: That's the sad thing. Pepsi's going to be around longer than bears. Or, at least, more available. [Laughter]
Jill: How is your project going, where you're advocating for poetry by having people send a book of poems to someone who doesn't read much poetry?
Dickman: I think it's OK. It was a quiet little thing. I mentioned it at a reading I gave at Powell's on October 1st. Then I wrote about it for the Tin House blog. Some people have been tweeting at #shareapoem, and that's been interesting seeing people's tweets and what they're buying and who they're sending it to. I heard from a stranger who is buying something like 25 to 30 books of poems. She has a son who's in the military, who's in Afghanistan, and who is a reader. But she's not sure if some of the people in his regiment read poems, so she's sending them a bunch of books of poems to read.
It's great. Then there are stories like, "My sister-in-law is this wonderful scientist but doesn't read poems. I'm going to send this book of poetry to her and see what happens." I'm hoping to do more with it. The call, at least on the website of Tin House, was for the 30 days leading up to the election to try to create a grain of sand of empathy. That would have been awesome from this, I think.
I've been talking to some small-press publishers and trying to maybe look at working out organizing a bigger event, or bigger push, for it. So, we'll see.
Jill: Do you know about World Book Night?
Dickman: I don't, no. What is it?
Jill: It's one night a year where people sign up to give books out to people who aren't big readers. I think it's gone on in the U.K. for a while, but last year was the first time it happened in the U.S. Publishers basically underwrite the costs of the books so they can be given away for free. They just announced the titles for next year, and there's a Tin House title on the list, which is really cool. Your idea sounds kind of like a poetry version of that.
Dickman: That's so cool. Absolutely.
It's so crazy to me. There's this weird cycle happening where people say, "Poetry doesn't make money," which is true. Not if we're talking about the money that fiction makes.
Jill: Even in that case, it's a particular kind of fiction, though. A lot of fiction doesn't make very much money.
Dickman: Right, totally. Literature in general, compared to the NFL. [Laughter]
Poetry doesn't make any money, so there's no money invested in poetry. The space goes to ads. Poetry doesn't get out on the tables a lot when you walk into a bookstore, and it's not promoted. But I think if something is not promoted, then how are people going to know about it? I think poetry needs a little bit of help because it was so mismanaged when we were younger.
When we're really young, it's great. We have parents, often, who read poetry to us and poetry is this fun thing that is going on. Then we get into middle school and high school and poetry is sometimes wrecked for us. It's mistaught. It's taught as a puzzle. It's taught as something like, You're not going to understand this, but we're going to painfully take the next hour to go through and explain it. Fiction is not taught that way. Also, why are you reading Carver in a high school class and the poetry equivalent is John Donne? That's fucking crazy to me. For teenagers, with all the chemicals shooting off wildly inside their bodies... Raymond Carver or Lord of the Flies is great to read as fiction in high school because you can understand it. In high school, you want to fuck, fight, or die. Then you've got Donne or Keats or something, and then you've got some teacher who has to explain why it's about sex, whereas they should just be reading an Anne Sexton poem.
I feel like a lot of damage has been done to our experience of poetry by the time we are in our 30s. I feel like poetry needs some advocacy, and that's partly what the project is about, is to get it out, because poetry is not confusing. I'm not very well educated. I was an undergrad for eight years. I never did very well in school — I'm not gloating about it, I wish that wasn't true — but I think you can experience art without being overly educated.
People do that all the time with music or dance or museums. People will go there and they'll see some modern dance. They'll see a painting and they'll say, "Well, I don't get it, but it feels good. I don't get it, but it sounds amazing. I don't know what's in here, but it tastes awesome." [Laughter]
With poetry, they're just like, "I don't get it." And then, that's it. That's where it stops. I just want to push for... You don't have to be overly educated to understand poetry. You don't have to understand it in a critical way. There's a way you can understand poetry that's emotionally credible.
Also, what else is crazy to me with all this is that everyone who talks out loud is speaking poetry all day long, yet never reading it. Human beings have always interacted and tried to explain our experiences through metaphor and simile. People are saying lines just during their work week, to explain some feeling they're having, that poets would die to have in a poem.
So we're engaged in poetry all the time. There's just been this weird disconnect from it on the page.
Books mentioned in this post