Tag Archives: Matthew Dickman


Monterey versus Idyllwild: Poetry’s Exemplars

Monterey Bay versus Idyllwild

Now that the Fall semester is in full stride, with two full weeks of instruction having taken place before the Labor Day weekend, I finally have a chance to reflect a bit longer on a very busy summer. The success of “Poets Metamorphosis” at CSU Monterey Bay has led several people to ask that I organize another such gathering in the summer of 2017. I appreciate the encouragement, but the amount of work required to bring together the level of poets I secured for the students, and then to secure the enrollment that would enable the poets to travel to Monterey Bay, was simply more than I am capable of mounting once again. If I were younger, perhaps, I would find the opportunity hard to resist. After all, how many times does one get a chance to assemble something that ranks with the very best of its kind?

The level of poet-teacher I aimed for at Monterey Bay was set by Cecilia Woloch’s tenure at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival. The poets she asked to lead workshops at Idyllwild, as well as the poets she invited to be featured readers at the final Saturday afternoon gala reading, would easily constitute the core of an excellent anthology of contemporary American poetry. Such an anthology, in fact, would serve as a superb self-guided tutorial for any young poet in this country. The table of contents in such a book would include Tom Lux, Natasha Trethewey, Christopher Buckley, Terrence Hayes, Doren Robbins, Aleida Rodriguez, Harryette Mullen, Robert Wrigley, Bill Mohr, Ted Kooser, Richard Garcia, Charles Harper Webb, Eloise Klein Healy, Maurya Simon, Chris Abani, Cecilia Woloch, David St. John, David Lehman, Peter J. Harris, Steve Kowit, Brendan Constantine, Marilyn Nelson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, James Baker Hall, Ellen Bass, Cyrus Cassells, Ellen Bryant Voight, and Marilyn Chin.

Obviously, in asking Marilyn Nelson and Ellen Bass to be part of my class, I borrowed quite liberally from Cecilia’s roster, but I didn’t want a completely copycat version. My goal was to bring both at least one older poet and one younger poet, who had not appeared at Idyllwild in a featured manner, into the mix, and I was very pleased that both Juan Felipe Herrera and Douglas Kearney agreed to be part of my gathering. In particular, it was the presence of both Herrera and Kearney that marks the difference between what I put together and the current version of the Idylliwild Poetry Week, which has featured poets such as Luis J. Rodriguez, Matthew Dickman and Natalie Diaz in recent years. Rodriguez is the poet laureate of Los Angeles; Herrera is the upcoming poet laureate of the entire United States, although that appointment was nowhere in sight when I asked him to be part of “The Poet’s Metamorphosis.” I would see the gap between Herrera and Rodriguez, however, as being equally as huge, regardless of whether Herrera had been appointed to this national role, and I believe Rodriguez would concede that I might the right choice in asking Herrera to be a headliner in my class.

In the interests of giving future organizers of such events some insights into the process by which this kind of intermingling takes place, I would like to comment further on the challenges raised by having to deal with the publicity engines of American poetry. In particular, I look at Idyllwild and the choice of Matthew Dickman to have been part of its summer faculty. Despite the glowing praise his first book received from poets such as Tony Hoagland and Dorianne Laux, it hardly deserved to be published. All-American Poem is one of the more mediocre first books published in the past quarter-century. Dickman’s second book, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, should have been his first, and would have merited a modest amount of praise. His unwillingness (or inability) to recognize how weak the poems in his first volume were raises questions about Dickman’s judgment as an artist, and whether a poet who is too easy on himself can eliminate that flaw from the capacities as a teacher. Ambition, indeed, should be made of sterner stuff, and self-assessment requires a more discerning touch. (I would emphasize, by the way, that Michael Schiavo’s vitriolic post really did overstate the case. On the other hand, one can almost sympathize with the exasperation that Schiavo justly feels when encountering the rewards heaped on unimaginative writing.)

All this said, I might have been willing to consider having Dickman instead of Douglas Kearney, except that I attended a reading by Dickman two summers ago at Idylliwld. He read eleven poems, none of which served much more than being pieces of quickly passing entertainment. He opened with “Lives of the Gods,” and ended with a poem entitled “Glass Pipe.” In between were two poems with dogs in the title (“Shooting Dogs” and “A Very Good Dog”) as well as three poems with the word “Poem” in the title (“Poem for Being Liked,”  “Poem for Washing Your Hands” and “Poem for Learning Lessons”). Other poems included “Strawberry Moon,” “Long Division.” It was not a set of poems that matched the quality of work I heard read at Monterey Bay or at San Luis Potosi. There is a glib quality to Dickman’s poetry, as if he were trying to be the court jester to the search engine generation. In an odd way, Dickman seems to be a distant nephew of ee Cummings, minus the quirky typography, but only very distant. Like Cummings, sentimentality stretches its safety net under the trapeze act of emotional commitment, but Dickman’s grasp seems to slip far, far more often that Cummings’.

Dickman has an off-hand, genial and charming manner that seems to have carried a fair amount of water for his poems, and perhaps his poetry will continue to improve as much as it did between his first dismal effort and the follow-up collection. Until then, he remains off the list of those I would consider to have as a poet for a course or conference such as “The Poet’s Metamorphosis.” It can be difficult to resist the fellowship of the various poetry gangs and cliques that smooth each other’s paths to success, but it must be done if courses such as the one I put together are to have the imaginative scope that aspiring poets need to be exposed to.

In case one might wonder, by the way, what kinds of informal gangs and cliques I might be referring to, consider the blogpost of Seth Abramson two years ago, about the same time I heard Dickman read at Idyllwild, in which Abramson listed the top 200 advocates of American poetry. Both Matthew Dickman and Natalie Diaz made the list. None of the poets I had as my guest artists made that top 200 list. Imagine that. Juan Felipe Herrera, who was just named poet laureate of the entire United States, did not make Abramson’s list. Nor did Marilyn Nelson or Ellen Bass. Abramson’s list, in particular, seemed amazingly unaware of the contribution that poets in California have made to American poetry in the past half-century. It’s always those who fantasize that they know more than they do who are quickest to believe that they need read no further. Abramson needs to spend several months in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Fresno, and Portland, and then post a revised list. For those curious about the poets selected by Abramson over such contenders as Herrera, Bass, and Nelson, here’s a link to his list.




Ground Level Conditions Performance Poetry

The Search Engine Generation

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Search Engine Generation

 In the past 15 years, e-mail has become the normative means of instant commercial and personal communication, and social media such as My Space, Facebook, and Twitter have aligned themselves with YouTube as the prime means of generating and accessing personal identity. All of these mechanisms are embedded within the data gathering combines of various corporate agencies and governmental vacuum machines. The unprecedented scale of this information shift has not (as far I can tell) generated any term to describe the coming-of-age youth who have been born since Bill Clinton was first elected president. These young people both generate source code and have lived their entire lives enmeshed in the uroboros-like labyrinth of source code.

An earlier generation (those born in the 1970s) got tagged with the term “Gen X,” which became popular enough as a rubric that almost everyone knew soon after its appearance to whom it was referring. A similar naming process, however, does not seem to have occurred for a subsequent generation. About three years ago, I was standing in line somewhere and suddenly the phrase ‘The Search Engine Generation” echoed in my thoughts. It felt as if someone not visible to me or anyone else had suddenly whispered to me, in the same way that a colleague will comment on something at a public meeting. It made sense to me and I’ve subsequently talked about the term with various strangers I’ve met at airports and conventions over the past couple years. As far as I can tell, the phrase has not gained any traction, and I doubt that posting it here will affect its neutral standing. Nevertheless, as a way to contextualizing the writing of Matthew Dickman and some other younger poets in a future post, I want to post this term as the best way I’ve been able to characterize the impetus behind the enormous social shifts that are taking place in our cultural and economic lives. My choice of a technological mechanism in some ways should not be that surprising. “Print culture,” for instance, is the term used to bracket the impact that the printing press had on the development of the modern world. The imprint of next half-millennium will be derived from the emergence of the search engine as the fundamental synapse of post-modern life in its post-chrysalis life.

The first time I heard the term “search engine” used by anyone engaged in cultural critique was during a seminar at UCSD in the spring of 1999. Marcel Henaff, one of my three or four favorite professors in the Department Literature, was talking about how he was the first person in the department ever to send an e-mail and during the course of his talk he mentioned the term, “search engine.” “Search engine?” I thought to myself. “What’s a search engine?” Obviously, I was still working at the level of a print-culture typesetter, who regarded his Compugraphic 7500 as sophisticated because it made use of a floppy disc to store information. Fundamentally, I was still functioning as a person shaped by a Fordist economy. As I puzzled over Professor Henaff’s citation of “search engines” as a paradigmatic shift, my limited imagination remained unable to comprehend an engine as anything other than a mechanism in which the energy results in visibly moving parts. I still don’t have a sense that the results of typing of a term into my web browser involve an engine. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine my life the past 15 years as anything other than one in which search engines have enabled me to keep track of far more projects than I could previously have handled. On the other hand, I still feel emotionally embedded in print culture and only recently have I realized that I no longer find myself wistfully thinking of entrances to libraries as places where rows of wooden drawers with paper card catalogues await my perusal. The visual joke of the card catalogue erupting in Ghostbusters will only be a puzzling prank to a new generation of film watchers.

At this point, anyone who is twenty to 25 years ago has basically been as shaped in a social sense by search engines as much as my generation was shaped by radio, television, cinema, and vinyl records. If social identity the past four centuries has largely been a plastic phenomenon, in which one performs in public space some consistent model of inclinations and preferences, it now involves an intense degree of constant reinvention, all of which is both he subject and object of search engines. The pressure to provide new “content” for these search engines seems voracious, and some of that pressure seems to have surfaced in the development of newly prominent poets. In particular, I am interested in how the overflow of information seems to have reduced the need to be held accountable for what one says. Instead, as with social media, success in being visible is justification enough for one’s artistic production. The result is an image of the poet as an “air personality” or “court jester” to the powers that control search engines. No one poet is guilty of falling into this trap, and future posts are not meant to assign responsibility for this problem to a particular poet as such. I have to start somewhere, though, and at this point it appears that Matthew Dickman is a likely candidate for cross-examination.