Back to Issue Ten.

A Conversation with Matthew Dickman


Matthew Dickman makes writing poetry look so easy that everyone can do it. (This is an illusion.) With poems like “Slow Dance” (that momentous masterpiece from his first collection, All-American Poem) Dickman gives the impression that art that tends toward transcendence, reflection, humor and references to ‘80s power ballads is as effortless to create as tying one’s shoes.

His second collection, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, remains equally as colloquial, but with a hardened outer shell. Dickman walks the tightrope between the present and the past through meditations on loss, incorporating himself into the cannon of poets responding to suicide. It takes but one read of Frank O’Hara’s 1957 Mayakovsky to see the bare illumination of humanity Dickman has cultivated.

In the section Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral, Dickman zooms us into and away from tragedy in the space of a line break. “I keep thinking about the way / blackberries will make the mouth / of an 8-year-old look like he’s a ghost / that’s been shot in the face.” In doing so, we not only rediscover familiar images, but also a childhood we have never lived.

Throughout all he does, Dickman’s greatest weapon remains to be ease. His simple language and mastery of consecutive scene whisks us through a complicated emotional landscape, before pausing, ever briefly, on a question. What now?

Do you feel that poetry is more for its author’s benefit, or for the readers’?

I would say for the reader’s benefit but mainly because I am a reader of poems more than a writer of them and am human with an ego so I assume poems are more for me than the folks who wrote them down so I could read them.

Who are you reading right now?

I’m reading interviews with Borges, poems by Maged Zaher, an amazing a dark novella by Juan Pablo Villalobos called “Down the Rabbit Hole” and Joshua Shenk’s new book “Powers of Two”. Oh! Also reading through Barry Dainton’s book “Self” and picked up Mary Ruefle again…I always turn to Mary when I want to feel like a human being!

In your own work, do you find yourself stumbling upon poems or arriving at them?

It’s maybe stumbling into an arrival! When I’m writing a poem I know that that is what I’m doing so I’m not surprised to have written a poem. That said I never know what it is the poem will be, what it is that I’m making until long after it’s made.

Have you ever written anything that surprised you? Does it still surprise you?

I don’t think anything I have written surprises me. At least none of the poems I’ve ever written. I have found old emails and letters and have thought, “Was that me?”

What was the transition between All-American Poem and Mayakovsky’s Revolver like?

It was great! I had done one of the things I never thought I would be able to do: I got a book of poems published. And so after that I felt very free to write whatever I wanted to write. It turns out I wanted to write about my older brother’s death and more about family. I felt free in both experiences, both the first and second book, but with the second book I placed less pressure on myself, it was less about my identity (or what I thought my identity was) and more about just making something.

Would you say you align yourself with O’Hara’s Personism movement?

I wouldn’t say that. But I love that Frank O’Hara was in love the day he came up with it and that he was with Leroi Jones too. I have never been part of a movement sad to say but true. Though I have had coffee with O’Hara so many times and love him and if I was ever going to wear khakis again it would be because of him and on top of that I like poems that make people feel something in their guts.

Do you feel that tragedy and loss have the power to make more meaningful art than positive experiences?

No I do not. Both deeply felt grief and ecstatic love destroy language equally. Also just because you have experienced tragedy doesn’t mean you can make meaningful art out of it…and nor should you ever feel you must. I would easily give up making elegiac art if in exchange I got to see my dead friends again…even if I only got to see them for an hour.

Matthew Dickman is is the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008), 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother Michael Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012). He is the recipient of The Honickman First Book Prize, The May Sarton Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Kate Tufts Award from Claremont College, and the 2009 Oregon Book Award from Literary Arts of Oregon. His poems have appeared in McSweeny’s, Ploughshares, The Believer, The London Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, Esquire Magazine, and The New Yorker, among others. Matthew Dickman is the Poetry Editor of Tin House Magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon.


Lois Carlisle is a sophomore at the University of South Carolina, where she majors in art history and heavy sarcasm. She was a 2013 YoungArts Finalist for Poetry as well as a US Presidential Scholar in the Arts semi-finalist. Her work has appeared in The Bad Version and Misfit Quarterly, among others.  She is also the editor-in-chief of Spoon University at USC. In her spare time, she watches French-dubbed television shows as an attempt to appear more cultural. (It’s not working.) Plus, she talks too much—which, come to think of it, is probably why she has this job.