ased on my own experience, you should plan on having to buy a Matthew Dickman book multiple times—the first copy for yourself, and the next several, again, for yourself, after having repeatedly insisted fellow poets “borrow” them. Perhaps this is due in part to the unmistakable sincerity and human verve that not only pushes Dickman’s poetry down the page, but also reminds of poetry’s unique capacity for generosity—it's nearly impossible to feel alone while reading Matthew Dickman.
Tony Hoagland raves that Dickman is the kind of poet “we turn loose … into our culture so that they can provoke the rest of us into saying everything on our minds,” and recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Matthew about what’s been on his mind—including his formal approach, the elasticity of The Self, punk rock, and his new book, Wonderland (forthcoming from W.W. Norton March 6th, 2018). And as you’ll see, his answers were just as generous and full of spirit as his poetry.
COREY OGLESBY: Reading Wonderland the first time, I was most immediately struck by the stanza breaks—a device I couldn’t recall having seen much in your previous work. This changeup in form seems to me like just one of the ways this collection quickly announces a kind of overall stylistic departure. Was there something about this book that demanded a different approach?
MATTHEW DICKMAN: While first working on the poems in Wonderland, I was also thinking about this question: why, if I am always changing—that is to say as I live and live through transformative experiences such as the suicide of my older brother or the recent birth of my son—do I continue to write, at least formally, in the same way? This seemed odd to me. So I began experimenting with stanzas and line breaks in a way I hadn't for years. I was also helped through what felt like very important conversations with my twin brother, the poet Michael Dickman, at the time. These conversations revolved around the poems and their forms, but also felt like conversations about The Self and the elasticity of The Self. Isn't it true that The Self can be many things, can bend and change or should as you live your life? I believe so. And so should poems, the poems one writes.
CO: Some formal elements throughout Wonderland seem to cast a kind of incantatory spell via repetition, like they’re working to conjure up the memory of a specific Self. Was there a particular Matthew Dickman you were trying to locate or give voice to?
MD: I'm always trying to locate Matthew Dickman. That is to say, I feel like often I have lost who I am or I feel like I have never known who I am. I have felt it. I know I have felt it. And that is like everyone! The hour poems are just the evidence of an anxiety/mania-flushed 24 hours. The repeating lines that begin and end poems like "Astronaut" are about anxiety too. Like trying to say the thing but being too nervous. Or not knowing what the thing is, yet but needing to speak.
CO: That “need to speak,” that urgency, is an energy I’ve always enjoyed so much in your work. There’s a rawness and speed that, even before this book, I’ve thought of as being kindred to punk music, which makes me wonder about the poems in Wonderland titled after punk bands like Circle Jerks and Bad Brains, and if you consider your poetics at all informed by punk, and if so, in what ways.
MD: The first poets I ever heard were the singers in punk bands, though then I didn't think of them as poets. They gave language to the emotional and social life of my childhood. There is an influence, and that would be how straightforward those old punk songs were and how "daily" the subjects of the songs. The poems you reference I tend to think of as nature poems. When writing Wonderland, I had gotten to a point where I had a bunch of it done and looked around the landscape of the book and noticed there were all these poems about the people and experiences of the neighborhood, of my childhood, but no trees! No birds! I began to, as Jorie Graham puts it, "write into the corners" of the book, and it seemed important to talk about nature—the natural world of that place and time. But I couldn’t just write a "nature" poem—couldn’t just write about some crows, because the crows and trees and what have you only existed for me alongside or with "class." So the titles of those poems are a link between nature and class in my childhood.
CO: I think those poems definitely do a great job of keeping the book’s central concerns afloat while simultaneously looking at them from different angles, which is something Wonderland does so well as a whole—there’s a focus that’s never lost. When you get to the point with a book like this where you’re “writing into the corners,” what other kinds of things are you looking for?
MD: I suppose I'm looking to see if I'm leaving anything out, anything that seems important. So with Wonderland, that was the fact that there was nature—not just skateboards and skinheads—in my neighborhood. I'm also trying to be open enough to listen to the book and hopefully overhear what the book might be wanting. That sounds perhaps too general, but it's true that a book will often announce what it needs. When I was getting close to a finished manuscript with Mayakovsky's Revolver, the book told me it needed something more than death and elegy, so I ended up—at the zero hour—writing the last poem in the book, titled "On Earth," and that poem, I think, ended up anchoring the deaths and elegies. It completed the dream of death by ending the book with the living.
CO: If the completion of a book's “dream” tends to occur to you later on, to what extent do you enter the book-making process with an idea already in mind of what that dream might be?
MD: I enter the dream of the book the same way I enter the dream of writing a single poem: reaching out into the world, into my own inner-life, without knowing what I am reaching for or toward. This is a fancy way of saying that when I am making something, be it a poem or letter or essay or book, I have no idea what I am doing. I only learn what I am doing by making the thing.
CO: Do you have any specific artists’ voices or presences (a writer friend of mine referred to them the other day as “Force Ghosts”...) who materialize in the room at any point during the writing process with helpful advice of some kind? Who are some of your sages?
MD: A lot of my "Force Ghosts" still walk the earth: Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Marie Howe, Major Jackson, Mary Ruefle, Roger Reeves, the artists Jason Dodge and Douglas Gordon, the musician Geoff Rickly—friends and family who, in different ways, guide my humanity. But these are just some of the many souls that help keep my soul alive.
CO: Assuming you yourself are a similar figure for other struggling poets, what advice would you give them?
MD: My advice would be to try and be courageous when you can, to have a big and rich reading life, to expose yourself to things that on first glance may not seem to be something you would be interested in, to try and be brave enough to love even if you do not understand what or who it is you love, to have beliefs but also the ability to change your mind, to be kind to yourself, and finally, to avoid definition, even if it is you yourself that is dying to be defined.
MATTHEW DICKMAN is the author of two full length collections, All American Poem, which won the 2008 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry, and Mayakovsky's Revolver (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012); and co-author, with Michael Dickman, of 50 American Plays (Copper Canyon, 2012), and Brother (Faber & Faber, 2016). He is also the author of four chapbooks: 24 Hours (Poor Claudia, Portland & onestar press, Paris, 2014), Wish You Were Here (Spork Press, 2013), Amigos (Q Ave. Press, 2007), and Something About a Black Scarf (Azul Press, 2008). His third book, Wonderland, will be released by Norton in 2018. Currently, Matthew teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program and writes advertisements for a living. He lives in Portland with his partner and two children.