Rooting for Language: Matthew and Michael Dickman talk to Chrissy Williams on the publication of Brother

CW: You’re in the UK to promote Brother, which Faber have published with two covers, front and back. The reader must pick one, read into the middle, then turn the book over and start again. The sense is of never-ending grief, and I wondered how this idea to top and tail the poems came about?

Matthew: The idea for the format actually came from Matthew Hollis at Faber and Faber. The book is really a product of two years of conversations with him discussing the probability of publishing some of my work and my brother Michael’s here in the UK. And then he became interested in these poems that were very separate (because they were written by two separate people) but shared an identity through grief, or through wondering about brothers and brotherhood. So I guess they’re calling it ‘tête-bêche’ which is head-to-toe, and it really came out of Matthew Hollis’s, um, dreams [laughs]. [To Michael:] What would you say?

Michael: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I really like it. I think it solves what could have been a problem. One thing that is a little touchy about publishing both of us is that we also happen to be identical twins, so that can be a little odd, but I feel like this seamlessly both addresses that and doesn’t put too much of a light on it, if that makes sense? These poems were originally published in the US in different collections, with other poems not about this subject matter. Although these poems about our older brother Darin were the central beating heart of those collections, there was some relief every once in a while, and there really isn’t here
– it’s kind of an intense reading experience. But technically, how the book works I think is really great because it invites you to have several different experiences with these poems if you are willing or want to and, depending on how you read the book, it’ll influence what the poems say to you and what the poems say to each other, and that’s exciting.

CW: And you’re happy to leave that choice in the hands of the readers? There’s no ‘ideal’ way to read the book?

Both [together]: No.

Michael: I wouldn’t even know how to begin to stage-manage a reader’s experience of a poem…

Matthew: …or a book of poems. Even in a single volume, I don’t know how you would try to manage a reader’s experience. Thinking about myself as a reader, sometimes I pick up a book of poems and I really do read it from the first poem to the last poem all the way through, but often at other times I’ll bounce around in the book. Sometimes even just looking at the poems’ titles, you might read one poem and then flip through, and the title of another might feel connected to the poem you just read for whatever reason, and you go into reading that poem.

CW: Matthew’s half of the book is a little longer (and I know he writes longer poems). Was there a conversation about whether, formally speaking, the book should be split into exactly two halves?

Michael: Yeah, there was a question about that although it ended up being true that all three of us, Matthew Hollis, my brother and I, liked that there were ten poems on one side and ten poems on the other, period, and then the fact that my brother has like five more pages is just sort of… indicative of our childhood in general [both laugh]. He gets more, and so it seems in keeping with an experience that’s familiar to us.

CW: You’ve said in the past that you’re each other’s first and best readers. Do you feel that you have a relationship more with each other’s poems, rather than each other’s publications? How do you view publication? Is it just ‘the icing on the cake’?

Michael: I don’t think of it like icing on the cake, or an end to the life of a poem, like ‘now that it’s been published, it’s finished’, you know?

Matthew: Nor does it add meaning to that poem, or importance to that poem.

Michael: It can feel good, of course, like, it feels great to have something published – it feels good, and it can verify something in you, and make you feel like maybe this is worth doing more of, although at the same time those feelings can also happen just while you’re working on a poem. I think of publication as an opportunity to communicate with people who I normally wouldn’t get a chance to communicate with.

CW: Why do you each think you have come to poetry rather than, say, short story writing or playwriting?

Michael: I think part of it has to do with how the profound experience I had with poetry early on I did not have with prose fiction. I read a lot of fiction now. I read a lot of non-fiction, cookbooks etcetera, but I really had a very profound experience with poetry and continued to. It just continued to be something to me that was very interesting, unknowable, wild, strange, beautiful – all of those things.

CW: Does that chime with you, Matthew, in terms of ‘why poetry’?

Matthew: Yeah, in a way. Growing up, music was so important, and the majority of the music that my brother Michael and I listened to when we were teenagers was either punk rock or rap music and it was really the raw exciting energy of the lyrics that affected me. People were saying these, what seemed to me, extraordinary things out loud, sharing their feelings in this way – and I think that’s probably partly what created this organic and natural path towards poetry, and made it so that when I first started reading poetry, I recognized something in it that I had loved before.

CW: To come back to the book – I notice the word ‘elegy’ isn’t used to describe these poems. How would you characterize the book, if not as a book of elegies?

Michael: I feel like the book is more commemorative, or also an attempt at – if this makes any sense at all – reclamation, or trying to get close, again, to the presence of Darin. Because the poems weren’t written necessarily as a direct response to his death – though it sounds crazy to say it. Most of the poems in this book of mine were an attempt to deal with a series of dreams I had after he died. But after Darin died, neither Matthew nor I thought ‘now we will write poems about him’, as elegies, and these poems started happening a couple of years afterwards, so some time had passed. It’s funny – I don’t think of them as elegies. Of course there are elegiac moments, of missing and celebrating at the same time.

Matthew: It’s around the elegiac subject of the loss of somebody – I think about the poems I wrote that are in here. I mean, when I was writing them, they weren’t necessarily a compulsion. They were more like a kind of reaching out towards Darin, missing him and feeling lonely. And not necessarily that I wanted to write something to memorialize him. There’s nothing to memorialize. I mean – no one knows him except for his family and his friends, and I didn’t have, as Michael suggested, any interest in writing elegies about him. It felt more base to me – that I missed him and I wanted to reach out to him, and then as well when that started happening, I wanted to understand my own grief, and I wanted to understand, uh, moments with Darin, now that I wasn’t going to have any any more. And so writing these poems kind of created for me, internally, moments I could have with him again, and creating a feeling of his presence back in my life.

CW: Do you think these poems are primarily helping you both to understand your relationship with Darin, or is there a wider statement being made about grief as well? There’s so much detail in them which isn’t personally accessible to other readers – are you worried people might come looking for autobiography instead of poetry?

Michael: Yes, about that last part. But that’s a worry of mine in poetry in general. I think poetry gets a bad rap, and I think that happens partly because poetry can bring someone to an intimate place very quickly.

Matthew [simultaneously]: Very quickly, yeah.

Michael: And so there’s a feeling of openness and of confession, not necessarily confessional, but a ‘pouring out’ that doesn’t happen as immediately in fiction. There’s sometimes a feeling like ‘of course everything must be autobiographical’, or we want it to be. Or maybe it says something about our culture that memoirs are the hottest selling books ever made these days. But then, going back a little bit, writing a poem has never made me feel better about anything in my life. I like writing poems, and I have fun doing it, often, and sometimes it’s frustrating and lots of things – but after writing these poems that have Darin and his suicide at the centre of them, I’ve never felt anything like closure or anything like that. On a real base level you could say, ‘I made the poems because I’m a poet. I write poems and that’s the thing that I make’. Um. You know, the only thing I can say is that it didn’t help me understand Darin’s suicide any better than I already understood it – what happened, when Matthew called me to tell me.

Matthew: I also agree that, as far as making art, it’s made me feel a lot of things, but it’s never truly answered any huge questions for me. More often than not it brings up more of those questions. But as a reader, I’ve gone to poems in moments in my life where I’ve lost someone, or something hard is going on, and I have learnt something about my own grief, and I have felt solace, and I have felt comfort, even for a moment, around a tragedy or a great sadness by reading other people’s work. One of the things that I’m excited about with this book is that I’m frustrated – and it may be the same here – I’m frustrated with our culture in the United States about how much suicide is still a taboo. The conversations around suicide can be really frustrating to me, because often those conversations don’t include a lot of empathy for the person who died and who was suffering so greatly. So I’m excited that this book is here and that it doesn’t shy away from the fact of the suicide. It doesn’t use coy language – even in the jacket cover, they don’t say ‘their older brother died of an overdose’, you know, they don’t hide the essential fact of the book.

Michael: Like Matthew said, I find it ‘therapeutic’, in quotes, to read other people’s work and see other people’s films and things like that, but not making something.

CW: Michael, you mentioned memoirs – Beverly Fields contended that Anne Sexton’s poems are often ‘not as autobiographical as they seem, that they are poems, not memoirs’.

Michael: That quote makes a lot of sense to me. There’s a way where I feel like, no matter the subject matter of a poem, even if you sit down and you’re like, ‘I’m going to write about exactly what I did this morning’, the minute you make a line, the minute you make any sort of artistic choice, it’s no longer strict autobiography or confession. You are now making a thing that might become a piece of art. And the more decisions you make, I think the more it becomes something else, its own thing, and not a journal entry.

Matthew: Yeah, I would even suggest the same for memoirs. Friends of mine who have written memoirs talk about the moment they wrote them as ‘their version’ of that truth of their life, right? Even documentary films make emotional choices and artistic choices that will impact the viewer. It’s the same with poems. If you have some sort of experience – you know, you go camping and a bear attacks and you survive – and you write a poem about it. It’s just not that moment.

CW: Matthew, I have a quote here from you here, from Poetry News. You talked about writing poems as ‘an experiment in making meaning out of the acid-trip, non-language lightshow of my inner life’. How much do you trust language to communicate these non-verbal experiences?

Matthew: I trust it absolutely in a way, because I know that language constantly fails. And I know I’ve constantly failed as a human being, so I relate to language. You know, I relate to the frustration of language to actually say what is being felt. This is something my brother touched on, but poetry, I believe, is the literary genre that most quickly can pull human beings into an intimate sensibility. And through things like metaphor and simile, it can take the sort of rubble that great love and great grief make out of language, and can rebuild it in some semblance that allows us space to understand it. Even if we don’t understand it intellectually, we understand it emotionally. I mean – the language is just gonna fail, you know. There’s no way any of the poems in this book clearly articulate my brother Michael’s and my grief over Darin’s suicide. But, like human beings, they attempt to, and I really love that attempt – like watching a really bad sports team. Language, like, you root for it, even though you know in the end, it’s not going to win. There’s something human – I think that’s the thing. There’s something so human about language.

CW: Michael, your poetry uses a lot more space on the page than Matthew’s. How do you feel about trusting language – are you trusting space as much as you’re trusting language itself?

Matthew [to Michael]: I think space is part of your language?

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that space – and pacing – is a tool that for me is as important as words, you know. I was really affected by something Jorie Graham said about white space on a page. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, ‘it’s not paper, it’s breathing’, and that really stuck with me. I started to think of white space as being as important as line breaks and rhythm. It became a part of my prosody. And maybe because of that I tend to think of the poems, in a way, as a little bit sculptural. How they look on the page is as important to me as what they’re saying, and I’m interested in that.

CW: In terms of what language and poems are doing, or trying to do, it makes me think of Frank O’Hara’s ‘personism’ manifesto, and the idea that the function of poetry has been utterly transformed. What is the function of poetry now, do you think?

Michael: I think the function of poetry is varied, and different for different communities. For a great number of people I think poetry is something they hear if they go to a wedding or a funeral. During these times of great joy or great sorrow, we often reach for poems, but don’t at any other time. I always wondered, what if you also just reached for a poem on a Wednesday morning, you know? But then, within certain communities, poetry can also just be a way to communicate one friend to another, like with a bunch of poets who live in the same neighbourhood making chapbooks. I don’t know – I feel like there’s a wide range of purposes for poetry and what it does, and what it’s for. I teach at Princeton University, undergraduate classes, and for the most part there’s not a student who comes in who self-identifies as a poet. And I think the job of poetry in that situation, or what I feel the calling is, is just to convince people to use poetry as a way of developing an intimate experience with language – and if you have an intimate relationship with language, I think you’re less likely to be hustled by advertisements or politicians or rhetoric in the air, and I think it can make you a more sensitive and smart doctor, lawyer, scientist etc.

CW: Do you think poetry has a wider responsibility as well? I’m thinking about the flood of poems that often follow tragic events. Does poetry have a responsibility that’s greater than just our immediate communities? 

Michael: This will sound harsh, but I don’t think it does. I don’t think poetry owes anybody anything. I don’t think it has a greater responsibility to respond to national tragedies than any other artist or any other person. I think the NRA has a responsibility to stop doing terrible things. I think House Republicans have a greater responsibility than poetry does. Poetry has often been a place where people are comfortable to speak freely on national events, but I don’t think it’s inherent in a poem, or in poetry, that it should be the thing that speaks out.

Matthew: Yeah, and I think the suggestion that poetry might have a greater responsibility for reacting to things in our world puts poetry on a pedestal in a way that other things also put poetry on a pedestal, like the academies put it on a pedestal, like it’s something that only well-educated people or students or professors can understand. I think poetry’s real role is to be with the people, just to be with normal people, to read and share poems. I think poetry is there for us to wonder about the world through.

CW: Let me ask one last thing. The playfulness in both your writing is most evident in 50 American Plays – how important would you say ‘play’ is in poetry?

Michael: I think it’s really important. Play with a capital ‘P’. Even in these poems, it’s important to be able to play with language, play with form, play with metaphor. I think it must be the most important thing.

Matthew: Play implies a kinetic energy, a kind of availability to wonderment, even if that wonderment is about something as difficult as a brother’s suicide, or that wonderment is about someone you want to sleep with, and I think that the energy of play is important. The opposite of that is the energy of a mind that believes it knows everything and has already made all these decisions and has all these rules, and sits down and writes a poem…

Michael: …that’s self important…

Matthew: …that’s self important and serious, and maybe it’s a perfect little machine but there’s no ghost in the machine, there’s no heart in the machine, so in the end, who fucking cares about it?

 

Matthew and Michael Dickman’s Brother is published by Faber.
Chrissy Williams’s anthology Over the Line: an Introduction to Poetry Comics (Sidekick, 2015) was reviewed in PL 83.