“‘It’s all so strange, writing poems’: A Conversation with Michael Dickman,” curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1975, Michael Dickman, his twin brother Matthew, and his younger sister were raised by their mother in the neighborhood of Lents. He received his MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dickman’s first collection, The End of the West, was published in 2009 by Copper Canyon Press. He is also the author of Green Migraine (Copper Canyon Press, 2015) and the coauthor, with his brother, of 50 American Plays (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). His second collection of poetry, Flies (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), received the 2010 James Laughlin Award.

His many grants, fellowships, and residencies include honors from organizations such as the Michener Center for Writers, the Vermont Studio Center, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Lannan Foundation. He was awarded the Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University for 2009-2010.

In addition to writing, Dickman appeared in the 2002 film Minority Report with his twin brother, worked for years as a cook, and has recently been active in the Writers in the Schools program. He lives in Portland, Oregon. I recently had a chance to ask him a few questions about his poetry.

KMD: Your work has been described as “interior, fragmentary, and austere.” For me, so much of this austerity, and its beauty, arises from your approach to the poetic image. You allow the image to speak for itself, to generate meaning and possibility. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about your life as a reader. Which poets were most formative to your thinking about the image?

MD: I started reading in high school. My sophomore year in high school. Before that, I had read hardly anything at all. Comic books. Thrasher magazine. All worthy of contemplation. But then two things happened, the first was that I found in my drama teacher, Ernie Casciato, a mentor and benevolent surrogate dad, and he introduced me to the world of art and theater as a viable way to live your life. And so, I started reading plays, and watching classic and art-house films, which is its own kind of reading. The other thing that happened was that a friend of mine convinced me to buy a book of poems, The Captain’s Verses, by Pablo Neruda. I read the book from front to back in one sitting and found myself in tears. I then read everything by Neruda in translation. I did that mostly standing in the poetry aisle at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up. So eventually I started picking up books next to the Neruda books, and I was off and running.

These days I like to read a lot of things all at once. As of this morning I’m part way to finishing Katherine Dunn’s “Attic”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”, Hilton Als’ “The Women”, “White Girls”, and “Alice Neel: Uptown”, Sam Stephenson’s book about Gene Smith, “Gene Smith’s Sink”, John Ashbery’s “Girls on the Run”, Christanne Miller’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles, Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks”, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “We Were Eight Years In Power”, Richard Nelson’s “The Apple Family Plays”, and various other books of poems including Hoa Nguyen’s “Violet Energy Ingots” and some versions of Dante’s “Inferno” by Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis.

I think reading is exciting and it counts as the major form of entertainment in my life, outside of my two children. I suppose I like to have a lot happening at once. A varied or even chaotic reading life?

That said I’m afraid I won’t be much help in answering your question about poets who influenced my “thinking about the image” as I never think about the image as such. I mean as a thing, or subject. It might be true that I subscribe too literally to Grace Paley’s injunction about one needing to be a little dumb in order to write. Despite my teaching at Princeton University I’m not an academic or critic. And yet, I could happily produce a list of poets who are great image makers, though they wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Emily Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, and Jean Valentine just to name three. Charles Wright, Sharon Olds, and John Clare to name three more.

KMD: Your collections also make gorgeous use of recurring imagistic motifs. The image reads as an accumulation, becoming less familiar with each iteration, each repetition bringing us farther from what we thought we knew. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on repetition as a process of defamiliarization. Could you speak to why this defamiliarizing impulse, and this making what is familiar strange, is such necessary work?

MD: Oh I don’t think it is necessary work. But it can do interesting things, repetition that is. I love the floaty feeling I get reading, for example, Joe Brainard’s “I Remember”. I also like feeling off balance in a poem or painting or movie. In my own poems, I’m never trying for a ready-made or planned-out end result, but just following the language around through rumor and reverb. It’s interesting to hear you describe your reading experience as moving farther from what you knew as I’m always trying to write closer and closer to what I think I know. I try to be as clear and straightforward as possible in my poems. I feel like all I’m doing is trying to write a Seamus Heaney poem, but it never works out. But I try. Paul Muldoon said the hardest thing to be is clear. And I feel like I work on that a great deal, being clear. I try to.

KMD: After publishing several single-author volumes, what moved you to begin collaborating? Tell us about 50 American Plays. What were the mechanics of the collaboration? What surprised you as the process unfolded?

MD: Well, it wasn’t quite several, like you say, but two books, “The End of the West” and “Flies”. My twin brother, Matthew, who is also a poet, and I read every draft of every poem the other writes, so in a very real way we’ve always been collaborating. He and I had a rough draft of a play called “50 American Plays”, a play for every state plus one for Guam and one for Puerto Rico, because we’re like that. It was a very rough draft but it kept coming up in conversation every once in a while. It was still interesting to us in some way and so we took it out and tried to get it to stand up.

The process originally was that I wrote 25 one page plays and Matthew wrote the other 25, in alphabetical order, plus Guam and PR like I said, then we exchanged them and revised the other’s work. The deal was you had to accept the changes no questions asked. And that was that. But when we were trying to make it into an actual book we worked together on each play, trying to get the thing to live while also stripping it down to essentials, or what seemed like essentials at the time. What surprised me was how wedded I was at times to things Matthew wanted to change. It was good to be forced to divest from that feeling of being a capital “M” maker. It was healthy. It felt good to bow to the plays, to language, and to my brother, that they could do what they wanted to do.

KMD: What has collaboration made possible within your practice as an individual poet? Relatedly, in what ways has collaborating transformed or deepened your engagement with the lyric?

MD: I’ve tried to work that way in my own poems ever since, letting the language move and unfold and not try to be in control all the time. Not that I ever felt that I was a so-called Maker. In fact, I have an allergy about that. I don’t think poetry is holy. If anything, collaborating with my brother has made me more receptive to outside influences of all kinds, from the language itself, or a passing conversation outside my kitchen window, an ad on the radio, anything at all could make its way into a poem and help it sing.

KMD: What are you working on now? What can readers look forward to?

MD: Poems and some short prose pieces. I hope to turn in a new book to my editor soon, late spring maybe, called “Days and Days”. We’ll see. It’s all so strange, writing poems. Don’t you think so? What a strange thing to do as an adult.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty books, including Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (University of Akron Press, 2020) and DARK HORSE: Poems (C&R Press, 2018). She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly.