A Conversation between Terry Kelly and Michael Dickman
(TK) Michael, I begin my review by sketching your fairly rapid and successful US poetic 'career' to date, and that of your twin brother, Matthew. How have you handled the inevitable positive and negative critical reactions engendered by such publicity?
(MD) I should say that there were a lot of things out of my brother’s and my hands when it came to the attention, both positive and negative, paid to our first books.
By accident our books came out within months of each other, not planned in any way at all. My first book had been bought two years beforehand. Matthew’s had won a prize, which published within the year. Also, we are identical twins. Because of being twins, and poets, a writer named Rebecca Mead, interested in sibling relationships, wrote a profile about us for The New Yorker. Now all of that was a perfect storm for possibly too much attention. Of course, positive attention feels better than negative attention, but you can't write poems from either place. And because it’s poetry in the US it didn't change our lives financially or professionally. After the article in The NYer came out I was still working as a prep cook in the basement of a bar. And my brother still worked at a grocery store.
Still, for a while there it was pretty loud and many people felt they needed to weigh in on our worth as poets and sometimes as people. One thing the negative attention led to, as it was mostly on social media platforms or blogs, is that now I don’t participate in any social media. I’m not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and don't write a blog or maintain a website, and never have and never will. That has been, I believe, a great boon for my health! It also gives me more time to read and write.
I feel that your latest collection, Green Migraine, is your boldest book to date, asking more of readers, in poems that are less anchored to recognisable memory and the here and now. Would you agree?
I think one of the ways Green Migraine differs from my other books is that it is devoid of people, except for John Clare, and in the last and longest poem in the book, my baby son. It is, I think, a book committed to the natural world. A book largely about animals and trees and butterflies and water and psychic pain. I think you’re right that despite the actual natural world in them they can feel less connected to a feeling or narrative of the “here and now”. They can be a little jumpy. On the other hand they are a secret or not-so-secret book of sonnets. Every section of every poem is 14 lines with a volta of some kind and rhyme that comes and goes. And so I hope there are some formal elements underpinning the more erratic or unrecognizable elements of the poems. Whether a reader is completely conscious of it or not. I do like to feel off balance as a reader, and don't mind writing something a little off balance too, apparently. The art I am most interested in is the kind that asks me to participate. I don’t care too much for things that come out 100% to meet me.
How do you think your recent self-confessed obsession with the English rural poet John Clare influenced Green Migraine?
John Clare’s speed and commitment to looking and really seeing what was in front of him, in his own backyard, or field, or fen, acted as a kind of lightning-rod and tuning fork. He reminded me at times of some of my favorite punk bands. He can start and stop on a dime. He can go from 0 to 90-mpr in seconds flat. He is as intense about his wife as he is a bird, about his friends as he is a fern. It's also true that I started reading him around the time that my wife was pregnant and would read those poems to her and to the baby not yet born. After my son was born I would read Clare poems to him early in the morning, making coffee, while his mother slept. Both that reading event of discovering Clare for myself and the event of becoming a father led to the poems in GM.
No less than five poems in the new collection, including the title poem, are named after types of coloured migraine. What's the significance of this?
It's true that I suffer from Migraines. So did my grandmother. Happily I only get one about once or twice a year. They often last for two days. In an effort to better understand them I read Oliver Sacks’ great early work ‘MIGRAINE’ and learned that the two most common migraines we think of are called ‘White’ and ‘Red’ migraines. I wrote two poems to start based on those. A friend then suggested I make up some migraines. And so over a couple years I ended up writing ‘Black’, ‘Yellow’, and ‘Green’ migraines as well.
In a New Yorker podcast, you described your poetic approach as ‘guided by voices’, with disparate pieces of language ‘calling to each other, like magnets’. With this in mind, do you think your poetry is becoming less linear and more experimental?
It may be less linear than a lot of poetry, including poems from my first book, but really I think it just gets closer and closer to how I experience the world, and I'm not alone I don’t think. Things are much more circular, chaotic, strange, beautiful, and surprising than we give our lives credit for. Poetry can be a difficult way to express this because poetry often wants something compact, clean, balanced, etc... Even a great and messy poem like Allen Ginsberg's HOWL is formally very controlled. And so I guess what I want is to be surprised at what I write. And the myth of a straight narrative doesn’t really have a place in it. At least right now. That said, I don't feel like what I'm making is purposefully experimental. I'd like it to be experiential. Or hyper-real.
Finally, Michael, could you say anything about the content of Brother, the forthcoming collection from Faber & Faber, which will introduce your poetry to a UK audience next year?
Brother is a book of elegies written for and about my older brother, Darin Hull, who committed suicide almost 10 years ago. The book will consist of 10 poems from myself and 10 poems from my twin brother, Matthew. Our styles are so different one from the other, our voices also accomplish different things, and yet together I hope something powerful and unique emerges about loss and love and being human.