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Poet Matthew Dickman visits Lycoming College

Between Love and Grief

April 8, 2012
By BRIAN BUSH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Speaking with Matthew Dickman, you'd never guess that he's something of a bright star in the world of poetry. Dickman is gracious and genuine and modest to a fault, always deflecting attention away from himself and putting his achievements in perspective. Describing the experience of winning the prestigious Honickman First Book Prize for his debut collection, "All-American Poem," Dickman was eminently humble.

"I was utterly surprised," he said. "There were books that came out that year, in 2008, that I think were better than mine and didn't get any attention. It felt random and lucky and awesome."

This coming from a poet whose work has won several awards, fellowships and much critical acclaim; whose poems have appeared in nearly every major poetry publication in the U.S., including The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Tin House and Ploughshares. Not to mention the fact that Dickman and his twin brother Michael - also an award-winning poet - were the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile in 2009.

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Award-winning poet Matthew Dickman will read from his work at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Clarke Chapel, Lycoming College.

On the topic of the awards he's received, Dickman was characteristically unassuming. "I think awards are wonderful and I've been lucky to get some, but the most interesting thing to me as a human being and the most meaningful thing to me is the effect my work has on the people who read it."

Local poetry lovers will have the privilege of experiencing those effects first-hand when Dickman reads from his work at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Clarke Chapel at Lycoming College. The reading is free and open to the public.

Dickman was born and raised in Portland, Ore., where he currently resides. Over the past 15 years, the city has developed a dynamic literary culture.

Portland is home to Powell's Books, the famous bookstore that occupies an entire city block and is said to be the largest independent bookstore in the world. The city is also home to the literary magazine Tin House, where Dickman works as a poetry editor.

"Certainly I wasn't aware of Portland's literary scene until later. Some things weren't around when I was growing up," Dickman said. "I grew up in a neighborhood in Portland that I feel lucky to have grown up in, but was also sort of a violent and lower-class neighborhood. There weren't a lot of poetry readings happening there. It wasn't until much later that my twin brother Michael and I started taking the bus to downtown Portland and getting interested in reading and writing. When we did, we sought out different places to experience poetry, one being Powell's Books and a myriad of open mics around Portland in the early '90s."

Dickman said Portland has since become a hub of literary activity, with several small publishing houses and reading series sprouting up around the city.

"There's a lot of independent, ecstatic energy happening in Portland right now surrounding poetry," Dickman said.

Dickman is a poet who is influenced by all aspects of living and by all types of artistic endeavors. His earliest influences were the musicians whose lyrics approached the condition of poetry, including Black Francis of The Pixies, hip-hop artists EPMD and De La Soul, and the art-rock band Talking Heads.

"Those were the poets I was listening to long before I read any poetry on the page," Dickman said.

This early musical engagement laid the foundations for later poetic influences, which were as numerous as they were varied.

"I feel influenced by so many poets," Dickman said. "Certainly the natural, everyday rhythms of Frank O'Hara affected me, as did the strange storytelling of the Japanese poet, Kazuko Shiraishi."

According to Dickman, poetic influence doesn't stop or remain static. The work of his contemporaries continues to inform Dickman's own work.

"I feel influenced by poets like Terrance Hayes and, more recently, poets like Dorothea Lasky."

Always the self-effacing poet, Dickman added: "Not that my work sounds or is nearly as good as theirs - because it isn't - but they affect my heart and they affect my imagination."

Dickman's imagination and heart also are stimulated by non-literary pursuits like visual art, photography and film.

"I don't see my writing life as being divided from the rest of my life. Poetry isn't just about reading, it's about seeing and hearing and living," he said.

Dickman is especially fond of actor Dennis Hopper's photography, which he says puts him in the mood to write.

"Looking at his photographs makes you want to write a poem or go have a drink with a beautiful woman," he said.

The poet doesn't shut himself off from any artistic influence.

"I don't know why you would," Dickman said. "That seems like such a strange idea or practice. I think it suggests some sort of wild, out-of-control ego and preciousness, which I think is dangerous in art. If you're living your life, you should be living it fully."

Dickman's second book, "Mayakovsky's Revolver," will be published this fall by Norton. At the center of the book is Dickman's 13-part elegy for his older brother Darin, who committed suicide five years ago. The elegy is called "Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral."

"The sequence deals with things that are based on memory and some things that are trying to figure out certain moments in his life," Dickman said. "Hopefully, it becomes something bigger, too; something that reaches someone in terms larger than just my relationship with my dead brother - in terms of what's happening to all of us here on earth."

For Dickman, what's happening to us here on earth is divided between two extremes of feeling.

"I believe that no matter what we write, we are writing out of two human experiences: ecstatic love and deeply-felt grief," Dickman said. "I think those are the two things that run us. Those are our bosses here on earth. The thing about both of them is that they both destroy language. I think poetry is the most immediate, energetic literary form in which to take the rubble of the language left by these subjects and create something meaningful."

Much of Dickman's poetry takes up one of these two subjects. Indeed, his first book contains a poem called "Love" and another called "Grief."

Dickman uses the fragments of language produced by love and grief to build poems teeming with life and meaning. His work finds expansive ways to express that which is ineffable. By turns ecstatic and somber, Dickman's poems are soul-filling; they leave you feeling sated in the best possible way.

Before the release of "Mayakovsky's Revolver," Dickman will publish a collection called "50 American Plays," which he co-wrote with his twin brother, Michael.

"There's a poem-play written for each of the 50 states, plus one for Puerto Rico and one for Guam," Dickman said. "My brother and I looked up the 50 states online because we're both poorly educated and we split them in half. We've been working on it for the past few years - not that that will show at all in the work," Dickman said, laughing. "But it'll be fun to do readings from the book because it means we can have people from the audience come up and read different characters."

Dickman promised to read the poem-play written for Pennsylvania when he comes to Lycoming. He was kind enough to read the poem for me over the phone, which I won't reprint here, lest I ruin the surprise. Suffice it to say that the piece is called "The Haiku Poets of Pennsylvania."

Dickman said he's always excited to give readings and stressed the importance of reading poetry aloud.

"I think poetry should absolutely be read out loud and read out loud all the time!" Dickman said. "I always feel lucky and excited to do a reading. I love having the opportunity to share something that I've made and that is important to my life with someone else. I'm always super nervous beforehand and a little nervous during, but that's OK."

Dickman said he is partly nervous that no one will show up to his readings.

"I always feel totally shocked that anyone but my mother might show up to watch me read - sincerely shocked," the poet said.

I assured him that more people would turn up for his reading than he expected. "No," Dickman said. "I think it's just going to be you, me and my mom."



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