A Conversation with Matthew Dickman

By Lori Davis

Are there any occupational hazards to being a poet?
I can’t imagine any hazards in any art where your purpose is to engage with the self and to share that engagement with others. Of course poverty might be an acceptable answer.

What books are on your nightstand at the moment?
John Berger’s “Here is Where We Meet” and Rebecca Brown’s “American Romances”

What are the most important attributes to staying sane as a writer?
Forgiveness. Empathy. A beginner’s mind.

What does "being  a poet" mean to you?
It means writing poems.

Are there any new poets holding your attention right now?
If new means poets publishing in the last ten years then it would be Zubair Ahmed, Alex Phillips, and Heather Christle, among many, many others.

Tell me about the new book.  When does it come out?  What's different about it?
The new book is called “Mayakovsky’s Revolver”. It’s due out from Norton in October. The book centers on the suicide of my older brother. As a whole it, hopefully, deals with living a celebratory life even within great moments of darkness and grief. More than my first book, I think Mayakovsky’s Revolver deals more openly with my inner life, my confusion, and my fears.

How does your brother influence your work?   And vice versa...
My twin brother, Michael Dickman, is so integral to whom I am as a person and a poet that it is impossible to say “how” he influences my work without it sounding nonsensical. I’m influenced by so many things and by so many great writers. Michael is more than an influence: he’s my center of gravity and existence.

Which one of you started writing first?
I wrote a first poem in the eighth grade. Then both Michael and I began writing poems in high school.

Are you usually considered "the wordy brother"?   
I use more words than my brother does though his poems are more important to me than my own.

Do you have any other creative outlets or hobbies?
I believe reading is an outlet… so I have that. I walk a lot… is walking a hobby?

Okay, MFA...pros and cons?
There are no cons to joining a group of other artists and exploring poetry together but for the fact that some schools make you pay money to do so.

Do you have good daily writing habits?   Any rituals or routines?
My writing habits are as unhealthy as my drug habits were when I was younger! No ritual. No routine. I write when I can, not every day, and often (by chance) at night.

Do you write in any other genres?
I write letters to friends.

Is there an average amount of time you spend on a poem?   How much revision do you do? 
There really isn’t an average amount of time I spend on a poem but I revise a lot. Revision is where I get to make sense out of the weirdness that is the brain and heart.

Do you write with particular reader in mind?
I write with me in mind. That’s all I can handle and even then I fail a lot. I never know who this “reader” is. The “reader” is like my father: there’s a feeling of intimacy though we do not know each other.

Does humor play a role in your poems? 
Only in that I am writing, in part, to understand myself, to understand the world I live in and there is humor in that world.

Regarding titles, for poems and books, what is your selection process like?
My selection process for titles reminds me of a drunk Neanderthal: usually one word and usually it denotes a desire.

There are many musical references in your poems.   Does music play a role in your creative process?
Really, I wish I were in a really great band.

Do you belong to a "literary community"?  How important do you think that is for a poet?
I belong to a large poetry family, which includes poets of vastly different sensibilities. Really, every poet is related it’s only how aware you are of your relations. It is wildly important to connect with your tribe. The world is fucked up and no one should live alone in such a place.

Do you remember the first poem you read that sparked your desire to write?
The first poem I remember falling in love with was Anne Sexton’s “The Truth the Dead Know”

What advice helped you the most when you were starting out?
“Be Free”

What is poetry?    
WHAT IS POETRY by John Ashbery

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it

As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.

It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?


Does poetry matter?
Of course it does. It’s our first language (love) and our last language (death). We need it to understand the world.


Matthew Dickman is the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008). The recipient of The Honickman First Book Prize, The May Sarton Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Kate Tufts Award from Claremont College, and the 2009 Oregon Book Award from Literary Arts of Oregon. His poems are forthcoming or have appeared in McSweeny’s, Ploughshares, The Believer, The London Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, and The New Yorker among others. Copper Canyon Press is publishing a book of poem-plays co-written with the poet Michael Dickman titled 50 American Plays in April of 2012. W.W. Norton & Co. will publish his third book, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, in fall of 2012. He is the poetry editor of Tin House Magazine. Matthew Dickman lives and works in Portland, Oregon.


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