Alexander Dickow is associate professor of French at Virginia Tech. He is a bilingual poet and translator who works in French and English, and a scholar of modern and contemporary French and Francophone literature and film. His poetic works include Appetites (MadHat Press, 2018), Trial Balloons (Corrupt Press, 2012), Rhapsodie curieuse (Louise Bottu, 2017), and Caramboles (Argol Editions, 2008). His translation with Sean T. Reynolds of Air of Solitude and Requiem by Gustave Roud is forthcoming from Seagull Books in November 2019. He is currently working on a novel, The First Supper.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The wonderful French poet James Sacré once told me, shortly after I published my first collection Caramboles, that I had written a livre-piège, a trap for myself. He meant that I had written a book that would define my writing career (a bit of a compliment, in a sense), and that I might have trouble innovating any further than that, or have trouble renewing my writing and end up repeating this initial gesture. Maybe so (that has been the case for a great many writers’ first books), but I’ve come up with various ways of eluding the problem. Appetites (2018) is only partially in the vein of Caramboles (2008); in some ways it’s a more dense and difficult book, but also more diverse in style. Narrative, by way of The First Supper (a novel in progress), has been a wonderful way of diversifying my approach to writing, and so have the fragments of Dredgings, another work in progress. In Un grenier, I embrace formal diversity as much as I can, experimenting with everything from intraverbal or subverbal nonsense to unadorned “plain style” poems, and everything in between (including verbo-visual collage and typographical experiments); it’s meant really to be a statement of all the invention I’m capable of, perhaps to give the lie to James’ comment, after a fashion, a way of saying that so much more is possible when it comes to testing the plasticity of language.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to fiction first, but found difficulty in the mechanics of storytelling, and lacked the stamina and wherewithal to develop much fruitfully, so I turned to poetry, which requires less sustained attention over the long haul; each poem can be worked on fairly independently. It took me many years to make a book out of these independent efforts, even though I was working constantly. I was 29 or so when my first book came out in 2008, but have been writing since before I turned 16. As a reader, I was first enchanted by fiction (David Copperfield, The Lord of the Rings, for instance), and arrived at poetry as a teenager, exploring the shelves at home and at the local bookstore in Moscow, Idaho. The first poem to delight me profoundly was, oddly enough, a short lyric by C. Day Lewis. I had to orient myself largely on my own, and was not attracted to modernists like Eliot and Pound, for whom I have little enough esteem; I read Stevens much too late for his work to have much impact. Bill Knott, on the other hand, was crucial to my poetic development. So were Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman. See the words on influences here below.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Sometimes quick, sometimes slow. When a draft is completed, it’s generally finished, but this only happens after incredibly long attempts at recombining materials as I develop them (those are the copious notes, and a single poem can involve ten or more pages of them). It’s more like making a mosaic than writing a poem one line after the other. I work recursively, never in a linear way; I try out different possibilities and different combinations until a whole emerges, like sense gradually emerging out of nonsense. As for books, it depends. Sometimes I start with a plan, sometimes I wait for one to emerge (see below).
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The answer is yes. For my first and second books (Caramboles and Trial Balloons), I eventually accumulated enough pieces to make a coherent book; current projects are books by premeditated design (see final question).
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes, I like doing readings. The response is usual tepid or awkward, and I don’t really care; I like to share my work one way or the other – the occasions to do so without seeming obnoxious are fairly rare, it seems. However, I haven’t the foggiest idea how readings contribute to my creative process. At best, they show me which pieces make sense out loud, and which don’t.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
As for me, one question I like to daydream about is how meaning emerges from nonsense, and how meaning doesn’t rely just on the words on the page; meaning is something that results from the reader interacting with the word; it’s a construction. That’s why we can “make sense” of a sentence such as: “road the did cross why chicken the.” Our brains can intuit meanings even when there are disturbances in the words on the page. Concomitantly, I’m interested in the way social interactions are coded and scripted.
I’m fairly uninterested in the poetics of the image; mine is a poetics of the expression – not sentimental outpouring, but of the tournure, the configuration of words in patterns, rhythm. You might find two images based on an identical conceit, one of which is boring and flat, the other exciting and full of energy; the difference is in the configuration, which is more important than the image-content.
I’m fascinated by elegy and always have been – how words relate to memory and the commemorative impulse, and this relates my work to concerns dominant in post-1945 poetry. I’m also obsessed with the relationship between language and desire, which seem to me to be of identical substance. And that’s just for starters – I’ve got lots of theories and write a lot of theory. Dredgings, my poetic fragments currently in the works, are meant as a kind of theoretic statement; I’m working toward fifty pages of these fragments before I look for a publisher. I could answer this question for well over fifty pages, too, I don’t doubt it.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer can be just about anything, which is why it’s so hard to define “the writer’s role”; too much depends on context and unpredictable reception. As the philosophy professor and poet Philippe Beck once said in a course on esthetics, “art is not a domain”: in other words, historical and social factors shape what art is conceivable at a given time, but art has no predetermined boundaries; it can involve any dimension of the human experience. I would love to have a broader social and political impact on poets and people in general, but I think I have little control over the impact of what I produce. I think politics will emerge in the poetry if a poet’s concerns are deeply political, and that if they’re not and she attempts to write a political poem, it is likely to be a failure. In other words, politics emerge from the creative act, or they don’t; if you try to impose politics on the creative act, it’s likely not to work. But there are many wonderful political poets, moralists, and poets of that sort writing today. There are always ethical consequences that emerge from circulating poetic texts, but these may not be under the direct control of the writer, or only to a limited extent. Writers have ethical responsibility after the creative act, not before. In other words, creative freedom should apply without limits, but only during the creative act. Afterward, one ought to consider whether a work is worth publishing on ethical terms. Some works are worth writing, but not worth publishing because of their unethical nature. Just because you wrote 100 Days of Sodom doesn’t mean you should make that work available. That’s where ethical responsibility comes in: the decision to publish or not.
To my mind, poetry at large is too heavily politicized these days; topical “relevance” seems to weigh more heavily in the balance than poetic innovation, and I think that’s too bad. I think diverse voices are a wonderful thing, and I like to review works by those voices – LGBTQ+, women, ethnically diverse poets -- but I think policing who should be allowed to speak from what identitarian perspective is excessive; literature is fundamentally empathic and I see no problem in a white man in his forties attempting to write a novel from the perspective of a black lesbian in her teens, or any other conceivable identitarian exercise in understanding the experience of an other. Let me hasten to add: whether that man succeeds in portraying that perspective in an ethically satisfying way is another matter entirely, and most such efforts fail in one way or another. One way in which such an enterprise might fail is by speaking in the place of a black lesbian teen writer, whose opinions about her identity we might be inclined to value more than those of the white man who attempts to speak in her place, and the competition for space in the public eye makes this a real problem (in other words, let us read, publish and review diverse voices; this seems to me a valuable priority). Nonetheless, that particular white man’s perspective on the black lesbian teen ought not, I think, be discounted or delegitimized without careful consideration of the views proposed (which, as already stated, may well be judged flawed by biases due to the privilege that white man enjoys). In any event, and very much above all, the policing that goes on in MFA programs is to my mind entirely wrong-headed, and contrary to the deepest purpose and value of literature. “Find your voice” and “Write what you know” are deeply stupid precepts. Write like someone else if you can – or try to; anyone can write like herself, but only the exceptional writer can write like someone else entirely. And write what you don’t know – in order to learn, to find out (which might require a great deal of research, including extensive conversations with other humans – among other things, in order to understand what it means to write from a position of privilege, and to learn to write sensitively, and without silencing the voices of others – which means we must read, review, publicize, and encourage underrepresented voices).
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential, and often pleasurable, but rare: many editors don’t tell you much about your work these days; they either accept it or they don’t, more often the latter. Nobody has the time. Louise Bottu worked very carefully with me on Rhapsodie curieuse, and it was very stimulating and interesting. Another recent editor has delayed publication of a work for years, mostly due to his consistent procrastination with regard to correcting the proofs. That’s obviously not ideal, and everything depends on the editor with whom one is working, and the harmony (or lack thereof) between temperaments.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)
To teach well, share yourself – your passions, your interests, your inner life. (several people, and notably my excellent colleagues at Virginia Tech)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation to critical prose) or even languages? What do you see as the appeal?
I have found little difficulty here, though moving back to narrative after years of poetry meant learning some of the basic mechanics of narrative, particularly managing narrative rhythm. As my friend Alain Damasio told me, narrative is like an accordion, and it’s important not to tarry on the scenes that bore you, as they will likely also bore the reader. So you can stretch or shrink time to tarry on the scenes that count. Critical prose comes extremely naturally to me; poetry is much more work, but I enjoy both in different ways.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I am an academic, and my creative impulses must compete with many other responsibilities; as a result, I generally have to steal time for creative endeavors. Additionally, as a professor of languages, my creative output is not as institutionally valued as my literary research properly speaking – there is only one creative-writing oriented class at Virginia Tech, which I love to teach, but there is no creative writing program in our department per se. I try to reserve some small amount of time per week for creative work. I usually work in cafes, because I like the hum of human life that surrounds me there – it’s a paradox of my particular version of the ascetic writer’s life.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually just take a break, but reading other poets or literary scholarship of quality can be stimulating sometimes, particularly when I don’t agree with the modes of writing or perspectives involved – disagreement is a wonderful spur to articulate my own opposing views or stylistic choices. For a long time, I’ve been meaning to write a screed against a writer I revile, Christian Bobin. I should do it.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Maybe pinewoods, but nothing, really. However, eucalyptus in the fog reminds me ineluctably of my aunt Nancy and uncle Peter’s former home in the Berkeley hills. And the sounds of grackles and starlings and katydids remind me of New Jersey.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Taking a “forest bath” is rather vital when I’m feeling badly. Music is a constant source of inspiration and influence, particularly the French post-romantic tradition (from Gabriel Fauré to Olivier Messiaen, let’s say: Debussy, Ravel, Erik Satie, and perhaps A. Scriabin, though he’s not French, obviously – he’s a sort of Chopin mixed with Satie, in a way) and post-punk (Joy Division and Bauhaus of course, along with so many others, and have recently been enjoying the work of the highly underrated Lizzy Mercier Descloux). Lyrically, there are a few musicians who really stand out as influences – I was marked for life by Jeff Mangum’s work (Neutral Milk Hotel), as well as that of Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.), but also Scottish folk by way of musicians like Archie Fisher. Oh, and I have an old soft spot for They Might Be Giants, as inconsistent as they’ve always been. Goofy is good too.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The Biblical stuff – Tehillim etc. In fiction: Tolkien, Lovecraft, David Copperfield, Melville, Rabelais, Julien Gracq, etc. In poetry: Bill Knott, Paul Celan, Mallarmé, Corbière, Max Jacob, Malcolm de Chazal, Lautréamont, Benjamin Fondane, etc. Among contemporaries, many women writers: Sylvie Kandé, Amy King, Kate Greenstreet, Christine Brooke-Rose have all made a big impact. Lots of stuff, really, but I gravitate toward ironists and styles of excess. The writers my work gets compared most consistently to – Joyce and e. e. cummings especially – I haven’t read all that much, in fact, and didn’t really leave a big mark. I’m soaked in the French tradition, so much so that contemporaries and I sometimes talk past each other: they say Stevens, I say Apollinaire. H. D. is the only major modernist I’m really impressed by in the American tradition, unless you count later figures like Gwendolyn Brooks, who is astonishing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish a novel. See Africa. Have grandchildren. Somehow contribute to solving the problem(s) of climate change. Win a Guggenheim, or a Pulitzer, or something similarly ludicrous. Get fan mail. All vainglorious literary things.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Perhaps a custom jewelry designer and creator, or something similarly artisanal; though clumsy and with the hand-eye coordination of a drunk buffalo, I am good with my hands. For a long time I thought about becoming an entomologist, but I hate working in a lab, and the days of entomological field work are mostly over.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Bon qu’à ça, as Samuel Beckett once wrote.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Same Same, a novel by Peter Mendelsund (Penguin Random House, 2018), and Jake Marmer’s The Neighbor Out of Sound (Sheepmeadow Press, 2018), and Giles Goodland’s The Masses (Shearsman Books, 2018). All highly recommended.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a sort of novel made up of interlocking tales in several speculative fictional worlds, under the general title The First Supper. It’s in French, and I’m working simultaneously on the English translation; part of the work has appeared in the French journal Catastrophes under the title “Dèze le Mécréant, pionnier allophage” (https://revuecatastrophes.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/dc3a8ze-le-mc3a9crc3a9ant.pdf). I’m also working on a collection of aphorisms on poetics under the title Déblais (Dredgings), some of which have appeared in English at the journal Plume (https://plumepoetry.com/dredgings/). Finally, I have another collection in the works, this one also in French for the time being, under the title Un grenier (An Attic), composed of poems and also visual photomontages built out of engravings taken from popular journals of the turn of the 20th Century. Some of these pieces are published in the journal Place de la Sorbonne, issue 8 (2018) (http://www.culture-sorbonne.fr/placedelasorbonne/pls-numero-8-2018/). That’s besides the research…