INTERVIEW WITH PAUL DICKEY
THEY SAY THIS IS HOW DEATH CAME INTO THE WORLD
362 Chestnut Hill Rd
Woodstock, NY 12498
2011, 78 pp., $14.95
The following interview was conducted over email by Rattle editor Timothy Green and Paul Dickey, author of They Say This Is How Death Came into the World.
In the 1970s, Paul Dickey published poetry in Kansas Quarterly, Karamu, Quartet, and Nimrod. After taking a hiatus while concentrating on family and a career in data processing, Dickey started to publish again in 2003. Since then, he has published poetry and fiction in about 100 literary journals, both print and online. His first poetry chapbook What Wisconsin Took was published by the Parallel Press in 2006. His poetry has been anthologized in An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions, 2009) and Nebraska Presence: An Anthology of Poetry (Backwaters Press, 2007).
Dickey has an MA in the History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University, Bloomington, and he studied writing poetry and fiction at Wichita State University in the 1970s, primarily with Bienvenido Santos. He is married and has three adult children, one grandson, and one granddaughter. Retired from his data processing career, he now teaches philosophy in Omaha, Nebraska at Metropolitan Community College.
They Say This is How Death Came Into the World was published by Mayapple Press in January, 2011. Diceky’s new book, Wires Over the Homeplace, will be published by Pinyon Publishing this fall.
GREEN: They Say This Is How Death Came Into the World is broken into three sections—the first and third are prose poems, while the middle section is lineated and (mostly) free verse. Several of the prose poems seem to know they’re prose poems, including one built around a lesson plan on the subject. This question is obvious, but it’s something I’ve never fully worked out for myself: Why do some poems end up written in lines while others appear as verse? What’s the difference to you, and at what point do you realize whatever you’re working on is going to become one or the other?
DICKEY: Besides the usual things one says about verse vs. prose, my prose poems and lineated poems have fundamentally different psychological profiles. Although they both are primarily driven by metaphor, the prose poems are more comic, political even, absurdist, edgier. The lineated poems are more imagistic, “softer,” controlled, more inclined to stay close to home. The prose poems are more self-assured, will brazenly walk up to the mic and tell the reader, “You better listen up.” They are perhaps more educated, more interested in such things as philosophy and literature, but perhaps less so in the day-to-day life wherein we are merely human. The lineated poems are shyer, may be slow to speak up in the crowd. They tend to believe the reader will come to them eventually—if they are good. They just live their lives: take walks, do their jobs, take vacations, put together jigsaw puzzles. The most important thing to them is being human. Within the family, the prose poems and the others don’t really like each other that much. So most of my poems have to know pretty early who they are and on which side of the family feud they will be.
But of course some poems have trouble deciding who they want to grow up to be. Some try both lifestyles for a while, but eventually they will have to choose. Occasionally a rather maverick poem appears that threatens to challenge the binary bounds of Dickeyville and that can be an interesting time. The Einstein poem you rejected for Rattle recently is one that in many respects plays better in the sandbox with the lineated poems but demanded to shoot some baskets with his big brothers on the blacktop. So I let him to do that. At least for now. He may still change his mind though. And I fret myself that he is not street tough enough ultimately to be a prose poem.
Tim, I may not have answered your question. I suspect I am beginning to sound like a prose poem itself.
GREEN: It’s interesting that you mention that your prose and verse poems have different psychological profiles. I hadn’t noticed until you put it that way, but it fits very well with what I perceive as the central theme of the book—portrayed most starkly on the cover, where Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” is collaged with an image of the human heart in one corner, and Schrodinger’s wave equation in the other. Much of the book is a tug-of-war between reason and emotion, and as you write memorably in the title poem, “Everyone has their own salvation.” But I get the sense that in the end, reason wins for you. Is that how death came into the world? Or am I reading too much into the title?
DICKEY: That is quite perceptive of you, Tim. Yes, I think I wear that paradox on my sleeve all the time: reason vs. emotion. I am both a niggling, analytical thinker and probably a sentimental wimp. For the past few years, I have been trying to write a full-length play that I call John Stuart Mill’s Got the Blues with that as the central irony. In the history of science and philosophy, J. S. Mill was a dramatic embodiment of the conflict. If you ask my logic students, with the stringent (they of course call it “picky”) logical requirements I require of them, they cannot imagine that I am a poet in another life. O.K, yes, I believe, in its place, reason has to rule. I think Plato got that right. But that doesn’t mean it owns every place in our lives. So the trick is that every minute you have to know where you are.
As for the book, I don’t know if reason or emotion wins in most of the poems. I suspect emotion does. And that is probably the way it should end up in a book of poetry. Of course, poems are meant more to be doors to experience than logical arguments.
You asked about the title of the book. In the traditional Christian view, as I understand it, death “came into the world” because Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge which distracted them from the perfect and divine awareness and worship of God. Consequently, Adam and Eve become reasoning and emotional beings, but ones that would die. They began to live in the world that art and science occupy and where my poetry too is trying to exist. Poetry is knowledge. Perhaps as the knowledge that Galileo and Schrodinger were seeking with their reason and science. But how do we make sense of that? The title is saying that both human reason and human desire are bites from Eve’s apple and alas, we have been sentenced to death. But keep in mind, the title says this is only the Christian tradition, that is, “They Say.” Actually, who knows?
GREEN: Let’s talk about a specific poem. One of my favorite in the book is—not surprisingly— one of the ones that we published in Rattle, “A Man and a Flag Are One.” It’s always been one of those poems, though, that I’m never sure wheher or not I’m interpreting in the same way as the poet. To me, it’s one of the best “9/11” poems I’ve read—capturing the fear and paranoia and self-examination of that period in U.S. history for several years after the attack. And present still … I was driving home from the office a few weeks ago, and a tire on a cement truck exploded at 75 miles per hour in a shower of dust and debris. My immediate thought was, absurdly: Terrorists! That type of anxiety is perfectly captured in the shifting meaning of the figure on the roof described in that poem. And the fact that he’s “wrapped in a flag” has important implications, too. Did you intend for this poem to be about our psychological reaction to 9/11? And does your intention matter anyway? You have a few poems in the book that address that question, at least obliquely (“The Poem Doesn’t Even Know Where They Live” and “A Note to the Reader Who Has Come This Far” for two). Does a poem have to mean anything at all?
DICKEY: That’s an interesting take on the poem, Tim, but I can’t take credit for “intending” that. Actually, the poem was written before 9/11, but I am sure that the Oklahoma City bombing and the aftermath of that had something to do with it, although even that was unconscious. And so, yes, this brings up the intriguing paradox of meaning in poems. The meaning of a poem is no more the intention of the author as is the meaning of the constitution is the intentions of the framers (with all due respect to Mr. Scalia). Meaning definitely grows and changes over time in a text.
But I do think ultimately a poem has to mean something, or at least I would say, meaning has to be somewhere “in there” messing about. Bottom line, it is an invaluable tool to help us engage a poem if we don’t confuse ourselves and think it is something it isn’t. It is just that what we naively think usually as what must count for meaning is not always absolutely necessary to have meaning. In the philosophy of literature, of course, this is the domain of Hermeneutics. I love it when I can discuss this in my Intro to Philosophy class. Oh, the glorious problem of what constitutes the truth of a text.
Suffice it to say, I don’t write poems or read poems for some independent sense of “meaning” and I often don’t trust poets who do. That is typically a recipe for an over-written poem or a boorish discussion when explicating a poem. I am willing to let meaning float above the poem as in the case of the first poem you mentioned or, in the case of the second, be a character in the poem if that works. I do not want ever for (capital M) Meaning to be the defining embodiment of the poem. By the way, I am not afraid of writing nonsense, since I probably believe it is impossible to write nonsense if you are fully engaged with the poem, so often meaning takes care of itself if you write the right poem. Don’t ask me what is it to write the “right” poem though.
GREEN: Maybe because I’ve found that writing creatively came much more easily before I started working as an editor, I’m always interested in people who have made their careers outside of literature. I couldn’t help but notice that your publishing history includes a two decade gap where you worked in data processing. What exactly did you do in that field, and how do you find that it affects the way you engage in reading and writing poetry?
DICKEY: It was a pretty hum-drum data processing professional career. I started out as a programmer but evolved into what were more analytical roles. At times, I did various stints at various levels of management, but management was never really my interest or ambition. At other times, I functioned as a non-managerial “technical expert” on “emerging” technologies, such as microcomputers in the early 1980s, “expert systems” in the late 80s, and internet stock trading in the mid-90s. Eventually I functioned as a business/technical strategy advisor to executives at the Ameritrade Corporation.
Most of the impact of this career on my poetry was negative and not worth discussing. I wrote very little for twenty years. Even today, I feel that I have missed many opportunities over the years to enrich my writing through contacts with other writers and literary experiences. The only positive that I can imagine is that it gave me a liberty from a concern with career in the business world of poetry. I suspect there is some advantage not to be burdened to make decisions in regard to your writing based on practical concerns of making a living. That is, I may be a less conventional writer now since I didn’t have the opportunity to become conventional.
GREEN: Did you find it difficult to break back into writing and publishing after those 25 years? Your biographical note says that you resumed in 2003, and then the chapbook What Wisconsin Took appeared in 2006, and this full-length in 2011. That seems like a pretty good pace. Do you have any advice for those hoping to follow in your footsteps? How did They Say This find its way into Mayapple Press?
DICKEY: Is that fast? It seemed slow to me. But I had started writing all the time in 2003. I had retired and I started writing at such a frantic pace that soon it was natural again. As for publishing, it is much easier with all the online resources these days to find the places to publish. I probably started to send stuff out a little too early (as do most writers I think), but soon I started to get some acceptances and the quality of the magazines gradually improved. By the way, I started sending poems to you at Rattle in 2003 and you took one in my second batch the next year. This was my first “good” publication since 1980. I soon got an acceptance at Sentence and I was beginning to feel validated.
There’s no great guiding light in my publishing story. When I thought I had a chapbook manuscript, I entered some contests, actually was a finalist in some, but then I found Parallel Press, a project of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Library. I blindly sent them a manuscript and they took it. By the time that was published, I was nearing a full-length manuscript and so entered more contests but then found Mayapple Press online. I sent They Say to Judith Kerman as a blind submission during her advertised reading period. She liked it and offered to publish it.
Advice? Oh, I’m not sure. Actually, I’m a bit cantankerous and not all that sure I think it is ethically warranted always to encourage beginning or many wannabe writers. In many ways, we might be better off if we turned some of our wannabe writers into serious and committed readers. Tim, you’ve done research on this. Do we really now have more writers of poetry than poetry readers? What if there were more people making pizzas than eating pizza? That couldn’t be a good thing, could it? In the end though, I know that writers will write and no one should tell them not to.
Did you say “follow in my footsteps?” God forbid. I guess the only thing I might say now to myself of 40 years ago would be to make sure you are doing what you love and are making your best choices for yourself and for those you love. Do what you do, but if you are a poet, don’t hide and run away from it, fess up and be a poet, regardless whatever else you are or need to be. You can work full-time at an insurance company, for example, and be a poet. For too much of my life, I wouldn’t give myself permission to be a poet.
GREEN: I don’t think it’s actually true that more people write than read poetry. It’s certainly closer to being true than it would be for any other form of art—far more people listen to music than play music; far more people enjoy paintings or movies or novels than make them. Poetry is a conversation, and it’s easy to be drawn in to a conversation—but in almost every case, I think, it’s reading first that drew them. Anyway, it’s interesting that you say you weren’t giving yourself permission to be a poet. There was a moment for me, as a senior molecular biology major reading Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance of all things, when I realized that a career in poetry was worth pursuing. It’s not going to cure cancer, but all art is a bulwark against something much more insidious. Was there a moment like that for you?
DICKEY: Actually, it wasn’t for me coming to realize that poetry was a worthy objective, but more that I personally could have the gall to call myself a poet. Rainer Maria Rilke was a poet. Wallace Stevens was a poet. Dylan Thomas was a poet. Paul Dickey? As an undergraduate, I had totally absorbed Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and had bought into that grandiose and romantic notion of a poet as being someone nearly divine. And that, ironically perhaps, may be what kept me intimidated and away from poetry for so long but then ultimately compelled me to come back almost as if I had never left it.
GREEN: Now that you do have permission to be a poet, I see that you have a second book forthcoming in the fall (they say the second’s always the hardest). Tell us a little about Wires Over the Homeplace.
DICKEY: After the publication of They Say, I inventoried what poems I had lying about and found that what I had seemed to backtrack some from the dominant prose poems of They Say. They were lineated poems mostly like we discussed before. They are poems that are heavily saturated with place—both in terms of heritage and physical geography. They are mostly located in the Midwest Plains region—Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.
At about this time, I became acquainted with a Brooklyn visual artist, Mr. Ira Joel Haber, when we collaborated on a broadside for Elizabeth Bradfield at Broadsided.org. Studying Mr. Haber’s portfolio convinced me that a collaboration of my poetry and his art could work together (with some engaging conflict due to our different geographical homes) and create a stronger unit than perhaps the batch of poems achieved on their own. Thus, I asked Mr. Haber if he would be interested in a collaboration. He agreed enthusiastically and I set to work putting together Wires—selecting a drawing, collage, or photo of Mr. Haber’s that enlightened or meaningfully (did I say meaning?) contrasted with each of my poems.
Some of our work together was published online and we submitted the manuscript to Gary Entsminger at Pinyon Publishing. Ultimately Gary decided that a book including that much art would be too expensive to print but he offered to publish the book as a volume of poems. I have to thank Mr. Haber for encouraging me to take advantage of Gary’s offer to publish with the poetry only, although we both would have preferred to see the poetry and art together.
GREEN: Thanks, Paul, this has been fun.