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A Fight Against the Meanness in This World: Q&A with Matthew Dickman

Matthew Dickman

Matthew Dickman’s first book, All-American Poem, received the 2008 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry, and his second book is slated to appear in 2012 from W.W. Norton. Featured in ZYZZYVA’s Spring 2011 issue, Dickman’s work has also appeared in The New Yorker, AGNI Online, and Tin House, where he works as an editor. The twin brother of poet Michael Dickman, his poems function as both paeans and laments of the zeitgeist of modern American life — tessellating mythology with reality, Beat zeal with modern nods toward restraint.

The Oregon native sat down with ZYZZYVA at Stumptown Coffee in Portland to talk about his work in the Spring 2011 issue, craft, the writing life — and Jay-Z and art’s fight against meanness, among other things.

ZYZZYVA: Your bio in the Spring 2011 issue says you work as a grocer at Whole Foods. You’re the winner of several prestigious prizes and fellowships. Do you have work in any capacity in an academic setting, or see yourself as an academic writer?

Matthew Dickman: There are four ways, really, that I pay my bills, the smallest of which is going and doing readings — I mean small as in fiscally small; I don’t make enough off of readings to pay all my bills and stuff. But I love doing readings, and I’m also the Associate Poetry Editor at Tin House, which is, for me, really meaningful because Tin House was the first national magazine to publish any of my poems. Back in ‘99 or 2000, they took two of my poems for their New Voices section. I remember when I got their acceptance letter, which was the first acceptance letter I’d ever gotten, I totally freaked out about it. Then, eleven years later, I get to be a part of their great magazine. I teach here in Portland at the writing center called the Attic Institute, where I teach some community workshops. Then I work off and on for the Vermont College of Fine Arts. So a lot of it’s teaching, and that kind of thing. But I don’t belong to a university.

Z: Do you feel that there are any benefits from not belonging to a university? Is that even something you aspire to at one point, or are open to?

Dickman: I think it would have to be a special circumstance for me. There are certainly a lot of reasons to work for a university, in an MFA program, and I have amazing mentors and friends who publish amazing books of poetry and fiction who have worked for a university full-time through the years. But for me, I just know myself well enough that I don’t think I would do very well with a lot of the paperwork and a lot of the bureaucracy. So I’m trying to figure out a different way to live my life. You know, there’s a prescription: first you’re interested in creative writing as an undergrad, then you do your MFA program, then you do a Ph.D., even, and then win a first-book contest and start teaching at a university. But I think there are other ways to live your life, too, which is fine.

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Seth Fried’s ‘The Great Frustration’: Alternate Realities and Bloody Allegories

In Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press; 192 pages), strangeness and morbidity are the rules, not the exceptions. Through a pastiche of bizarre worlds and landscapes separated by only one or two degrees from our own (which is, of course, already thoroughly frightening) Fried fashions telling scenarios and the nightmarish half-realities in which they occur. Deftly evoking a familiarity before diving into fantastical realms, the stories in this collection exhibit a surprising wealth of ideas belied by Fried’s spare prose.

“Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” a paralyzing allegory of modern-day groupthink, brings into plain view the ubiquity of violence in modern life: year after year, the residents of Frost Mountain gather for a traditional picnic — cotton candy, amusement rides, raffles, games, and everything else Americana — only to be struck, again and again, by lethal attacks. Despite the predictable continuity of harm, the townspeople return to be killed and maimed. Or, if they are lucky enough to live, their despair translates into a furious but ultimately futile activism. Downtrodden, the aging residents try to convince their children, the next generation, of the truth about the annual bloodbath of an event.

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