Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Art credit: Angel of Time, Oil Painting by Lica Kerenskaya (owned by Michael Dickel, painting ©Lica Kerenskaya). Digital image ©2018 used by permission. Art to be used for Nothing Remembers, Summer 2019, Finishing Line Press.
Michael Dickel’s writing and art appear in print and online. His poetry has won international awards and been translated into several languages. Nothing Remembers is due out Summer 2019 (Finishing Line Press, Kentucky). Breakfast at the End of Capitalism came out in 2017 (Locofo Chaps, Illinois), The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden, in 2016 (Is a Rose Press, Montana and Minnesota). Previous books include: War Surrounds Us (Is a Rose Press), Midwest / Mid-East (Lulu), and The World Behind It, Chaos…(WV? eBook Press). He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36, was managing editor for arc-23 and 24, and is a past-chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. He is a contributing editor of The BeZine (TheBeZine.com). With Israeli producer / director David Fisher, he received a U.S.A. National Endowment of the Humanities documentary-film development grant through their Bridging Cultures program and wrote a prospective script about Yiddish Theatre.
1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
While I can’t credibly claim to have “always written poetry,” almost as long as I could write, I have written poems. I can still recite a short poem that I wrote in 3rd or 4th grade. The assignment had to do with onomatopoeia. I will spare your readers the poem, though.
I also recall a poem I wrote in 6th grade, when the teacher gave us a sort of syllabic meter and rhyme scheme to use. By junior high, again with encouragement from a teacher, I entered some poems into a contest and tied for first place. I suppose I was hooked by that success—surely, riches and fame would be mine! Well, no, I guess even then I knew better.
In high school, I contributed to and then co-edited our high school literary magazine, Early Wine. I also wrote my first short story during high school. I chose psychology as my college major (thinking, naively, that somehow I would understand the human condition better and write better as a result), but I still continued to write. And I haven’t stopped, really—some pauses, no stopping in the long run.
I had my first “literary” publication, after the high school literary magazine, when I was in my early 30s, long after my undergraduate days. Around then, some friends in a writing group I belonged to suggested that I consider taking a course from Michael Dennis Browne, a poet at the University of Minnesota. I did. And I took another, with a fiction writer, Pierre Delattre.
Eventually I entered the creative writing program, left my work in counseling, and never looked back. I studied both poetry with Michael as my mentor-advisor, and fiction with Alan Burns, z’’l, as my mentor-advisor, and continue to write both today.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Possibly my grandmother—I think she gave me a copy of Robert Louis Stevens’ A Child’s Garden of Verse. Perhaps it was my parents—I can’t recall. And I have to credit my grade school teachers—who also had us try our hand at writing it, as I said already.
My more “serious” introduction came in junior high. The same teacher who had encouraged me to enter the poetry contest, had before then introduced our class to poetry. In particular, I was taken with e. e. cummings, oh, those “up so many bells floating down,” and the freedom of typographical play! I also liked Dylan Thomas. I mentioned how exciting cummings’ poems were at dinner one night, and my father pulled a book of cummings off the shelf—I had never noticed it there before.
My father or my mother fed me more of Thomas’ poems and other poets. My father, I recall, directed me to a copy of Longfellow’s Hiawatha that his mother, who died when he was in his teens, had given him, which had been hers before. It was the only time I saw her handwriting, her name neatly scripted inside the from cover. I should mention that my parents were both teachers. And I still have that copy of Hiawatha.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I don’t think of “domination,” so much as influence. I’ve mentioned reading poets in junior high English. I had excellent literature classes in high school, as well. I encountered some of the most influential poets to my own writing outside of the classroom, though. And I guess my awareness of them felt more like an awakening.
In 9th grade, I worked as a library page in the town’s public library. My big “Aha!” moment came with a vinyl record of Allen Ginsburg, z’’l, reading Kaddish and other poems that I came across at work one day. I checked it out and listened to it at home. The frank, explicit subject matter, the rhythmic cadence of Ginsburg’s voice, hearing the poet speak the poems—these transformed me and through this experience, I felt a stronger influence than e e cummings had had on me—The Beats!
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ginsburg, in particular, caught my attention. And while I was much older when I realized it, I think then I sensed the connection between Whitman and Ginsburg. I certainly have been influenced by the long breath and lines of both, along with what Bly (not a Beat poet, but very influential for me) called “sentence sound.”
Later, I read Kerouac’s novels. It would be only after college before I learned of Anne Waldman, another of the Beat poets, and just as powerful as the men. (I actually met and spoke with both Ginsburg and Waldman along the way, which was quite exciting for me.)
While Ginsburg was the first spoken-word poet I heard, I had heard singers. It took me a while to connect song to poetry, even though in Hebrew, poem and song is the same word (pronounced sheer).
My older brothers had introduced me to two singer-songwriters who now we recognize as poets—Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, z’’l. Cohen was and remains very influential to me. I probably read Lorca through Cohen. Much of Cohen’s work is infused with Jewish themes and mysticism, increasingly so with the years—as is mine. I heard his first record when through me eldest brother, and listened to, learned, played his songs my whole life. I’ve read books of his poetry, a novel…
I became interested in the Civil Rights Movement, first from seeing news clips of sheriffs turning fire hoses on marchers and of Martin Luther King Jr. leading marches in suburban Chicago, not far from where I lived. Later, I read about The Black Panthers in newspapers and magazines my parents subscribed to. The assassination of King in 1968 shocked me (I was in eight grade). That summer, Chicago erupted in “race riots.”
Also, I had become aware of the Vietnam war in this same time period. I wore a black armband with a peace symbol and joined war protests. Ferlinghetti wrote anti-War poems, as did Ginsberg, and I began to read other anti-War poets (enter Bly)
Somehow, while in high school, I found poems by Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks (I also met Brooks and had a chance to speak briefly with her—she generously gave a book of her children’s poetry to my now 30+ y.o. daughter at the time). I don’t recall where—except that I am fairly certain they were not part of the curriculum.
My friends and I sometimes skipped school and went into Chicago, where we would go to the Art Institute, Old Town, used bookstores. At least once we did it to attend a demonstration, during the Chicago Eight (later changed to Seven, when Black Panther Bobby Seale was moved to a separate trial from the white defendants). We bought poetry books, the Chicago Seed (an “underground newspaper”), and accepted free “radical” mimeographed pamphlets. I can’t recall exactly where, but I somewhere in all of that, I read them.
I’m not sure if this answers your question. I didn’t feel that I had to write like any of these poets. And I didn’t feel restricted by their styles, voices, poetics. Although, I remember that another reason I chose a psych major is that I worried that literary criticism would constrain me or try to push me to write or think about my writing in a certain way. Now, I don’t think literary criticism has that power over me, but then again, perhaps not giving lit-crit that power is why I don’t have a very successful “poetry career,” or academic one. So, I guess, as a white male in the middle class, I didn’t feel dominated by older poets. Canon fodder, I suppose.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t have much of a daily routine. I usually take in porridge (oat meal, wheat germ, bran flakes, dried fruit) with coffee for breakfast, and that’s about as much of a routine I do have. Many days, getting kids to school, picking them up, and managing daily living, take most of my time, which sounds routine but seems to vary day to day.
Teaching and all that entails takes up about ten hours a week—plus reading time for the courses. I teach English language for academic purposes, so the articles my students have for readings are not much related to my writing. The class schedule is a bit of routine, of course.
However, as to my writing routine— I do try to read each day things that might provoke my brain—often essays, some poetry, some fiction, but not all of those every day. And I write when my brain is provoked enough, stimulated if you prefer, inspired if you wish, and I have time to sit and engage.
Almost everyday now I write in social media, where I often share links to some of my reading (and most of my publications), but also commentary, short “Twitter poems,” longer poems on Facebook. I’ve become very democratic in my poetry practice, or perhaps it’s socialist—giving it away.
On reflection, I find that I am rather undisciplined in the Western, Protestant-work ethic sense of scheduling work time and chaining myself to a desk. I flow through my life more organically, and write when I feel the writing (as ethereal entity) has asked me to write.
5. What motivates you to write?
Life, peace, justice, sustainability (environmental and economic), philosophies (epistemology, ontology, metaphysics), love, observations that make me pause (observations might be: a thought, something I see, a sound or word I hear, or the touch of a praying mantis walking along my arm), confusion(s), sublimity, ineffability, possibilities, impossibilities—any of these that strikes me at any given moment.
I guess, that is, mostly moments motivate me, specifically: moments that spark like a synapse transmitting neuronic messages. Perhaps, a prophet would call it revelation. I think that the closest I get to a moment revealing itself to me is a glimpse of something that might be hiding behind the moment, something shaping the moment, my understanding of it, and what it is. Or isn’t. A Schrodinger’s cat of a moment, that’s what motivates me.
6. What is your work ethic?
I think this might be covered under my routine, in the way it is usually meant, say in a job interview. I find this question to be confusing, though. Even in a job interview. I believe in being ethical in work as in all aspects of life.
So, I try to do these things (among others) for ethical writing practice:
• do not treat others in a way that I my self would find hurtful (restatement of Rabbi Hillel)
• do not oppress or harass anyone
• represent all others fairly, as fully human
• read and review work by other writers, and do so carefully and with good will
• do not steal (intellectual property, money, material goods, hearts, souls)
• be honest (to yourself, others, the universe)
• follow your own personal morality and ethics in your writing and work practice
• be fair, reasonable, and civil with others
I don’t always succeed, but I try.
However, I realize that you possibly (probably?) meant something else.
When I write, I am completely in that moment of writing: absorbed, and all of my energy burning words into texts. It drains me. However, I see no value in sacrificing my health (physical or mental), my relationships, or my life to my art.
I suspect this is closer to an answer for your intended question. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to take apart the idea of “work ethic,” at least, as I understand the concept in relationship to “art,” in the rest of my answer:
“You must suffer for your art.”
“The starving artist.”
“You must pay your dues.”
I think these “truisms,” all about “sacrifice,” are part of a harmful mythology, related to “work ethic,” used to excuse not paying for artists’ work, to justify not valuing the life path and choices of artists. To claim, only those with the “right work ethic” would “deserve” or “earn” rewards for their work (that is, recognition and income).
The mythology also can serve to justify addiction, cruelty, and bad behavior—
“I am an artist, I sacrifice everything in pursuit of Truth and Art!”
“I am artist, bow to my whims!”
I don’t accept these views, which I’m also obviously exaggerating and parodying here to some extent in order to make a point.
However, they are all wrapped up somehow for me in an idea of sacrifice, deprivation, and imbalance that we associate with “Art.”
We have moved beyond human sacrifice in our ritual practice. We should not practice sacrificing our own selves (or our lives) now. I don’t make my writing my idol. I don’t accept “Art” as an idol, either.
Yes, I give everything to my work as I write, and I am drained when I do. I actually do a lot of work: reading, revising, editing, promoting my work, and discussing, listening, arguing—all part of the process. Does that justify me and make my labor “ethical”? Not if I don’t act ethically otherwise.
I publish and promote other writers, too. Some people have said that I work hard, but I don’t think that working hard alone justifies anything, let alone my life or art. That is why I began this answer that is turning into an essay as I did—listing ethics, not work activities.
I think being ethical while producing the best art you can matters. But I don’t think that working hard matters as much. Of course, one must work to do either of those things—be ethical or produce good art. And it might be hardest to do both.
However, the finished poems and prose pieces justify themselves or they don’t, regardless of any accounting of my work schedule, the hours put in, the other things I did along the way. Most likely, if they do justify themselves, it is in relation to readers, other work, and the context where they live in the world. (Yes, I think poems are living things.)
And, my relationship with myself and others justifies my existence. It doesn’t matter if I slaved away. Who wants to be a slave? And my existence does not lack justification if I did not sacrifice everything. Who wants to be sacrificed to any god or idol?
So, I live a life in relationship to others that I value, too. And I try to be a good human being (and too often fail). And I write. But I don’t think I have to slave or sacrifice my self to do these things.
I haven’t been a very good “career builder,” and I suppose my public reputation, if there even is one, could have been more prominent if I had slaved and sacrificed. However, that suits my sense of ethics just fine.
And that, in the end, I guess, is my “work ethic.”
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I spoke earlier about Leonard Cohen’s continued influence. I like long breaths for my lines, as in Whitman, Ginsberg, Waldman, and others. Dylan also uses long lines in many of his songs (especially the ballads). I like Bly’s “sentence sound,” and other ideas he’s written about in essays that I return to from time to time. I still write political poems, anti-War / Peace poems, and am engaged in “activist poetry.” I read and re-read poets I first encountered in my youth.
And I also explore the new, searching for poets who push boundaries. I write a lot of hybrid, experimental writing now. I very much have moved also into surrealism, Dada, and related streams of influence, some coming from influences in my younger years, many new.
I want to discuss activist poetry, because many of the poets I’ve listed as influential (not all), have written “activist” or “political” poems—Whitman, Ginsberg, Bly, Waldman, Brooks, Hughes, Baraka, Ferlinghetti, Forché (who has written extensively on the poetry of witness), Dylan, among them.
I mentioned the Anti-War and Civil Rights Movements earlier because my deeper awareness of poetry and my awakening to peace and justice movements arose together. I still return to Hughes often, as well as contemporary activist poets. I’ve recently came across again some of Whitman’s decidedly political poems attacking a bad congress and tone deaf president (sound familiar?).
That influence comes out also in my participation in a global movement of activist-poets (writers, artists, musicians, even mimes), 100,000 Poets for Change (100TPC.org). The focus is on three themes: peace, social justice, and sustainability—with the specific issues addressed left to be defined in local contexts by the people living and creating in those contexts.
The 100,000 Poets for Change global day of poetry is the last Saturday of September each year (or near to it, depending on local context), although events go on around the world all year. I am a contributing editor at The BeZine (TheBeZine.com), an online journal that publishes on these and related themes (and including an ecumenical spiritual dimension). We hold an online virtual event on the global date, also. And, I organize or help organize events in Israel, usually on a date that does not occur on a religious holiday for one of the three main religions in Israel.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I like these poets because from reading their work I feel the ineffable, the sublime, the mystical, the Zen moment of Being, the joy of language, the chaos we call Creation, the engaged desire for justice, or the resonance of being human in the context of all of the other things I listed and more: Joy Harjo, Charles Bernstein, Maxine Chernoff, Adeena Karasick, Carolyn Forché, Michael Rothenberg, gary lundy, Valérie Déus, Neil Gaiman (I like his prose better than his poetry), Kinga Fabó (in translation), T. R. Hummer, Sylva Merjanian, Mike Stone, Jamie Dedes… the list goes on and on. Certainly, I have certainly left out more than I have included. There are many poets worth reading.
9. Why do you write?
I tried to stop—to let it go—many times in the first half of my adult years. I can’t do it and stay healthy in my soul-spirit-chi. Don’t mistake that for some claim that writing is therapeutic, though. It certainly can be, but I don’t use it that way, or very rarely use it that way. It is to say that it is part of my life force and I can’t live without it. It’s like Leonard Cohen’s song, “I Tried to Leave You”:
I tried to leave you, I don’t deny
I closed the book on us, at least a hundred times.
I’d wake up every morning by your side.
The years go by, you lose your pride.
The baby’s crying, so you do not go outside,
and all your work it’s right before your eyes.
Goodnight, my darling, I hope you’re satisfied,
the bed is kind of narrow, but my arms are open wide.
And here’s a man still working for your smile.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I don’t have anything original to say on this. Read, write, read some more, re-write, read something new, write some more. Learn how to separate someone’s liking or accepting your words from them liking or accepting you—these forms of acceptance are unrelated. Rejection is hard, so find a way to handle it. Acceptance may be more difficult, so figure out how to handle that, too. You can find lots of bad and good advice in books and online. Choose which to follow wisely; I would suggest choosing that which resonates for you and makes sense to you.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I always am writing, sometimes projects come together from that. I have a collection of poetry coming out in the summer of 2019, from Finishing Line Press, titled Nothing Remembers. It is written, so the writing part of that project is over.
Mike Stone (I believe you’ve interviewed him for Wombwell Rainbow) and I have begun a project where we hope to publish a combined book of our poems, putting pieces on similar themes or using similar imagery together. Mike has pulled his part together nicely (ah, perhaps his work ethic); I hope to embark on doing my part this fall. Again, these are already written—we are in the pairing them stage and then will do some organizing. Mike’s already done a nice job of categorizing.
I publishing projects. My friend and colleague gary lundy and I have a micro-press, and we have three books on the way. I am behind with getting them laid out as books, but we are excited to be publishing the three poets—Valérie Déus, DeWitt Clinton, and Jennifer Juneau.
I publish a blogZine, Meta/ Phor(e) / Play (MichaelDickel.info), where I showcase work by other authors as well as my own writing and art. It has an international flavor, with several authors published in translation (often bi-lingual publication, with the original and target language versions of the poem on the page) and writers in English from all over the world.
I would like to do a series of poems related to the weekly portions of the Torah that are read for each Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath). I have written some. There are a lot to write, yet.
I have some other ideas, but none that are formed enough to discuss now, I guess.