Green Migraine(s), John Clare, and Unapologetic Poetry:
An Interview with Michael Dickman
Long story short, I first started reading your work as an undergraduate in an introductory poetry class. My professor wrote me a summative, end-of-class letter with about fifteen poets (and their books) he thought I would really like. Naturally, I bought all of them immediately and began reading through them. The two I was most taken by were Richard Siken’s Crush, and your second book, Flies. Quickly, you became a favorite poet of mine, especially after reading your first collection of poems, The End of The West.
I can’t remember where I was exactly when I found out about your third book, Green Migraine, but I knew I needed it ASAP. My heart beat quickly like a teen-Bieber fan as I looked it up, realizing it wouldn’t be out for a few more months. I pre-ordered the book, and the months rolled around through the holidays as they will, and then one day, it was there! The shiny striped cover in my hands.
I texted a photo of it to a friend: It’s here! And look at this COVER. (This picture doesn’t do it justice). I poured through the book and loved reading the familiar style and voice of your poems paired with the fresh takes and moves you’ve employed in these pieces. And so, I’ve collected a few questions for you—I hope you won’t mind answering:
I realize that this collection was previously a chapbook called Auras, and I’m curious: Do you ever get migraines, and do they come in color? That would be a type of synesthesia I haven’t heard about yet, though I bet it exists. If not, what most influenced these new poems in Green Migraine?
I’m amazed and relieved and made hopeful by your use of the word “naturally”, as in you naturally bought fifteen books of poetry as an undergraduate, or as a person at all, and I hope I would have done the same. Thinking about it just now I think it’s true that most of my closest friends, all of my family, would have done the same, rare company that they are, but I wonder how rare? Maybe it’s not. Though you are rare company!
Perhaps we’re just told that poetry reading is that, very rare. I think it’s just something in the air: nobody reads poetry anymore. I would bet you a six-pack it was in Keat’s air as well. Emily Dickinson’s air. And now ours. I went to a popular movie last night about the government sanctioned satanic practices of our national banks and at some point there was a quote on the screen to the effect of: People like the truth as much as they like poetry. And people fucking hate poetry. A reliable laugh followed. Still, these same people laughing in the theater will most likely reach for a poem during the most important and intense moments of their lives, a birth, a death, an anniversary, bat mitzvah, a wedding. I thought oh if I only had a couple dozen copies of Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL to give out to them as they threw their popcorn buckets in the trash! Let alone the King James Bible.
Happy to know that you liked the cover of Green Migraine. I worked closely with the designer, Phil Kovacevich, toward something that didn’t necessarily look to me like a poetry book. For the most part poetry books look like shit, with few exceptions. A painting, a Rothko often, with a border, framed, and then the title and poet’s name. Over and over and over again. They look like we don’t expect anyone to buy them. The worst-written lame-ass first-novel by any number of stubble-chinned mouth-breather dudes looks 100% better. That’s a problem that needs addressing. It’s also a problem connected to money. Poets seem to be expected to accept shit; shit designs, shit advances, and then in moments of personal love and national crises to be called up to speak. And partly I think this is because we accept, as a nation, a norm that isn’t necessarily true: People hate poetry. They just don’t feel like it’s something they are allowed to like and understand and be open to. I think we accept too much as a given when it comes to art. Painting is dead. Poetry is dead. The novel is dead. They say, they say. And yet Elena Ferrante is working. Maureen N. McLane has a new book of poems coming out soon. And Nicole Eisenman has a show coming up at The New Museum. Things are looking good. But maybe you weren’t even asking about this! Dean Young said, I don’t understand apricot trees but I like them. I wanted the book to look more like apricot tree, and less like poetry book. A friend recently said it looked like something you would buy at MOMA. That made me feel like, yes, we’re on the right track.
I should say this collection was not originally a chapbook. Ibedem press in Portland, Oregon did publish the migraine poems that appear in the book, five altogether, and all a different color. The rest of the book appeared in magazines, in some form or other. It’s true that I do suffer from migraines. As do my grandmother. The ones I get are the most common, a red or white migraine. These arrive with a splitting headache, nausea, weeping, and sometimes the most low-grade auras. They last from 24 hours to three days. I have some drugs now so it’s not so bad. Tylenol won’t do the trick. At some point, in order to understand them and myself better I read Oliver Sacks’ great early work “Migraine”. In it he describes these very early (and Anglo) names for the common migraine: Red Migraines and White Migraines. They are described as such depending on if you (a white person) look angry (red) or sick (white). I look mostly sick. And so I wrote two poems at first, a poem about Red Migraines and a poem about White Migraines. Then sometime later a friend suggested that I make up a couple imaginary migraines, and so I wrote poems for Green, Yellow, and Black migraines as well.
That chapbook you mention, called Auras, is dedicated to my friend and brother Ben Lerner, who also suffers from these things. Other poems were greatly influenced by my discovering the work of the great John Clare in an anthology edited by Paul Muldoon called The Faber Book of Beasts. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Clare seemed to be a mud man punk rocker. He can start and stop on a dime. Go from 0 to 150mph in nothing flat. He reminded me of Minor Threat, or The Minute Men. The way he looked at and wrote from his immediate natural surroundings also struck me. No real distance. No patronizing tone. A farmer. This discovery existed alongside the birth of my son. I would read him Clare poems in utero and also once he was out in the world. That combination had me writing about trees, deer, mice, things in the world I hoped he would one day get to see and experience and have a real relationship with. Clare wrote some of the most beautiful and fierce and open poems about birds, sunlight, hedges, fields, badgers, foxes, martins, childhood, and first love in the language. The influence was more emotional than formal, though Green Migraine is a secret or not so secret book of sonnets. The poems or sections of the poems are all 14 lines long with some kind of volta and a rhyme scheme something-or-other that comes and goes. But mostly I wanted to hold my new family close and Clare’s poems and the ground outside was a way of doing that.
I think you’re right on about how many people think about poetry; how they may feel they’re not invited to participate in it, enjoy it, or talk about it. And I like that you are hopeful, or confident in the idea that this is always how it’s been, that we should be asking for more, and should go for MoMa or apricot tree instead of the same regurgitated oil paintings or vague swirling backgrounds.
I also love how much you love John Clare. You know, you actually kind of look like him, in his youth (I think it’s in the eyes).
The last two poems in Green Migraine, “John Clare” and “Lullaby” are my favorite, aside from “Dog Vertigo.” And again, your poems are sprawling, sometimes spanning three to fourteen pages with varied line lengths and tons of white space. We get these stacked tercets followed by a momentous line that unravels until we reach the next line that cuts with only one or two words.
I know you’ve spoken to this before, but I’ve always admired this style. In my own workshops, I’ve always felt I’ve had to stay contained in a space, to not waste paper, to not make my peers print so much, or even to think that I could write and sustain a fourteen page poem. To me, it’s admirable that you disregard this insistence to be small or contained, the poet who takes whatever slop-cover is given to them, and to own the space you use. That you disregard what journals want to publish in terms of space and length, and that you’ve said you write for your friends, and now for your family, not for these other arenas.
Can you talk about your aesthetic and how it’s changed or remained the same over the course of your three books? And how you came to feel comfortable in the roominess of your poems?
I only wish that when I looked out of my eyes at a fern or a fen or a dog or some kids playing in a park that they were John Clare’s eyes! A new kind of superpower? DO you think Marvel might be interested? Keats-Eyed Boy! Or The Adventures of Dickinson’s View-Woman! I don’t know. It could have promise. And I’ll just say to the extent that anyone thinks about my eyes at all I am happy that you think about them in the same moment as our man from Helpston.
It might be true that there is something intrinsically “little” about a poem. Could that be right? This will be hard for me to articulate. I mean to say that the poem itself, while you are writing it, might start to lean towards a smallish gesture, towards a perfect poetry product, no matter how messy or wild or broken you mean for it to be. There is something so comforting about, say, four short-lined quatrains on an 8 and a half by 11 inch piece of paper. Like a Judd box in a field of grass (no doubt this misunderstands Judd, but for the moment). And once the poem starts announcing this kind of trimness and good manners it is very hard to say no to it and work against fulfilling the formal promises starting to be made on the page. A version of this can also start to play out in a workshop. In academia there are often received forms and rules about a workshop. Everyone gets a certain amount of time, often the same amount. Even if a poem can be addressed in two minutes it still gets ten if only as a misguided gesture of fairness to the poet. Other poems could use the whole hour but also get ten minutes. We often start with “good comments” and then move on to the “critical” comments. I find that neither of these positions to be very helpful when talking about art, let alone the fact that they hardly ever point towards more writing for the poet. Still, it is an expectation that is fulfilled over and over. We probably need worse manners both in a poem and a workshop. I wouldn’t mind.
What is expected and received and what feels comfortable is very hard to turn away from. I feel my own work is much too clean and well behaved, along these same lines. I wonder if this is evading your question just a little bit. Oh but I’ll also note here that it is true that I “own the space I use” because I am a white male in America. I’ve been brought up to assume that’s what I should do. Perhaps this is for another conversation?
Though I always doubt the poems I write I’ve never doubted that I should be allowed to write them. I don’t write for journals. I should say that more and more I have little to no interest in the trade magazines, for example The American Poetry Review. Though I buy them for certain authors (a recent issue of APR had amazing work by Sharon Olds and Carl Adamshick). I wonder though about more general-use magazines as a more dynamic and less myopic place to be. Or trade magazines of other arts. I would love to have a poem in Interview Magazine, or Art Forum, or Vanity Fair, or Saveur! I have a subscription to the New Yorker and the New York Times. Oh! I should say that there is one trade journal I love, subscribe to, and read religiously and that is BRICK magazine out of Toronto, Canada. It is the best lit mag on the continent and I will stand on any Eames Chair at the Paris Review office in my Saucony’s and shout it to the rooftops. I also think it’s less and less true that you need to publish in journals and magazines a lot before publishing a book. That you work your way up from a small magazine to the New Yorker and then to a book contract. The smart editors that I know care only about the poem in front of them. I don’t believe Paul Muldoon at the New Yorker cares if you’ve been published before, not if the poem you sent him is scintillating. So things are changing in that way. If you write things that are meaningful and exciting and mysterious to you they will also be those things to us.
The space and time in my poems, what you called “roominess”, which sounds right to me, came from a couple different experiences. One was that I spent my time as an undergraduate in theater departments. I was in love especially with playwrights like Caryl Churchill. And I wanted to accomplish something of an arc or scope or run changes in a poem that I saw so brilliantly done in her work, “Far Away” for example. And then in graduate school I had a conversation with Jorie Graham in which she said that white space in a poem is not paper, it’s breath. It’s breathing. This struck a chord in me. Or a tuning fork more like. And so I started to try and use white space as you would a line break or a word. It is breathing, though sometimes can feel as solid as landscape. On top of those two experiences is something that I can’t articulate which was a natural and organic and subterranean pull towards a poem that looks and feels and sounds like the poems in Green Migraine.
I think the style has changed somewhat through the three books in that it’s become more robust or unapologetic, less tenuous at least? There’s no punctuation now. Narratively there are less and less people in the poems. Except for the ghost of Clare and the event of the birth of my little boy the poems in GM are about trees and light and animals and psychic pain. I’m not sure if this is happening yet, but I’d be happy if the poems, maybe some future poems, were more off balance and choppy. I love to participate in art that keeps a little distance at first, something that doesn’t come all the way out to meet me. Does every thought or line or image need to be completed in a poem? I wonder. For sure the poems in GM are much more circular and chaotic than the poems in TEOTW. But then, at the same time, every page in GM is a sonnet, albeit a slightly shattered one. But still, fourteen lines each, with a Volta of some kind or another, and rhyme that comes and goes. I still don’t feel comfortable writing a poem, any poem. Thank goodness.
One of my favorite poems of yours is “Into the Earth” from The End of the West. It crushes me every time. And I know that Flies is about your family. I notice, as you’ve already touched on, that Green Migraine is spreading elsewhere, it’s going outside, really looking into nature. I’ve read that you love to walk, and appreciate nature, and I definitely see that in your most recent collection. But I also know you’re a father now, to August, your son for whom the book is dedicated. How has being a father, starting your own family, influenced your writing or your work?
And lastly, do you have any parting advice for young or emerging writers?
I’m glad if there is something for you in “Into The Earth”. That poem is, not exactly about family, but about a friend and lover who killed herself. Also about trying to feel something afterwards, to make contact with the actual natural world around me. Greif can be a mighty barrier and anesthetic. It’s shocking how separate and far away everything can seem and be when you’ve lost someone you loved, even if that love was fleeting. I hadn’t seen the “Amy” in that poem for a couple years when I got the news of her death. And still the world turned into broken glass in seconds flat.
In the next book Flies, the center of that book is also a suicide, an apparent suicide, of my older brother Darin. There are also poems about other family members in the book, mothers, fathers, and other siblings. Also poems about a painting, a photograph, another poet, and a series of drawings. In so many ways I’ve come to despise that book, on a purely emotional level. It’s a book I never wanted to write in a million years of course and would happily never write another word ever again for just one more beer with that brother. Just one look at him. Sometimes art seems like such a fucking mess.
I do think Green Migraine starts to move outside of that family life, catholic school, the joy and violence of childhood, adult romantic love, and my friends, and looks out the window into the backyard. Just this morning my son (he’s 3yrs old now) and I went for a walk along the D & R Canal. It was a “scat walk”! We hiked along looking to identify different animals by their scat. Mostly we think we’d now be pretty good at tracking geese, which isn’t very promising. We did hear and then see a pileated woodpecker, which was exciting. They have red Mohawks! A lot of GM was written because of walks like this, being outside. I think it’s true that my son and my wife are the only people in the whole book…is that true? Oh! And John Clare. When my son August was born I did think for a hot second ‘oh there goes the poems I’m so tired I’ll never write again.’ But then things get settled and you find time. In fact I wrote a great deal during his first two years. My friend, the poet Graham Foust, put it really well about writing and kids. He said that having children makes writing poetry both more and less important at the same time. And that feels right to me. I want to make something that Augie might be proud of or remotely interested in some day, but also I’d rather watch him sleep or play with trains or anything than write a poem. He’s so much more interesting.
I’m afraid I don’t have any advice for younger writers or early writers as we might say. I mean, read as much as you can. Don’t waste your time on stuff you dislike. Oh, and you don’t have to go to school to do it. Vote for measures that keep libraries open and stop shopping on Amazon. Keep hydrated. Have fun. How’s that?