Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Michael Schiavo on the Dickmans (mostly Matthew)

This is not Whitman containing multitudes that contradict nor New York School abstraction of logic or language. This is just a bad poet writing about a subject with which he has no connection.

Wow. This is, I believe, the most persuasive ultra-negative review I’ve ever read. I’m just floored by it.

Here’s another little snippet:

“In that they are a confidence game, yes, these poems are very American. But even then, Dickman lacks the invention to keep the dupe’s (reader’s) attention like a true bunko artist should. He bores you by the end of the first poem and by the end of the first section, you get the idea. Dickman admits his deceitful ways in an interview when he describes how he and his twin tried to scam Dorianne Laux to get into the University of Oregon: “‘We called her and pretended we wanted to apply to grad school,’ he said. ‘We met in her office and within 20 minutes, tops, she knew we were full of it. She could see we were kind of hustlers but we loved poetry.’” It’s one thing to love poetry; it’s another to be able to write it. The key word, though, is pretend: pretending to be interested in others, pretending to be poets.”

And then he turns to a larger, even more fascinating, point:

“I’ve spoken about the poetry, given numerous examples of how inadequate it is (you can open up to any page and find similar or worse passages), but you now ask: Why bring up the personal aspects of the poet? This is out of bounds. Should we not judge the poetry on its quality alone? Yes. And while it is our fervent wish that bad poetry will bury itself under the weight of it’s own practiced sincerity, we must have counter-voices to those who promote this kind of work, which is: simplistic argument delivered by a monotonous, inconsistent voice that gives no attention to the details of language, image, tone, or emotion.

And in this very particular case, we must talk about the personal, the how-the-book-came-to-be, for the Dickman twins have put their life story, not their poetry, front and center, have made that the reason you should find them interesting. I will say now that I have not read Michael Dickman’s first book, The End of the West, but I have read some of the poems it contains. Michael seems to know how to break a line and use the page better than his brother but what kind of praise is this? Like saying of a basketball player: “He sure knows how to dribble.”

You can’t stop a person from putting down his private thoughts in a notebook. But you can certainly discourage him from inflicting them on the public. Perhaps more galling than the fact that Matthew Dickman was encouraged with so much time and money to write such bad poetry is that Tony Hoagland—who judged the APR/Honickman contest and wrote the book’s introduction—and Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, and Major Jackson—who give the back cover blurbs—are all established poets who should recognize from the first few lines that Dickman’s poetry is not just incompetently crafted but is juvenile in all other respects as well. Really: these are people who teach PhD students at the University of Houston, edit poetry at the Harvard Review, and instruct undergraduate and graduate poetry students at the University of Vermont, Bennington, North Carolina State, Warren Wilson, Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, and NYU.

Poetry progresses on the master-apprentice relationship, on finding contemporaries with whom you have rapport, as all arts do and should. Master artists see in apprentices the gift to advance the craft and they help them to do this through their own instruction as well as their advocacy to entities, both public and private, that support artists who will contribute to their field.”

So here's a voice from the other side of the argument, from Major Jackson in The Boston Review, followed by one of Dickman's poems, selected, I suppose, by Jackson.

Matthew Dickman’s melancholic portraits of impoverished white teenagers dazzle me into the always painful, yet easily forgettable, awareness that many people suffer psychically under the knife of American prosperity. Outside the frame of these poems lurk the children of female-headed homes; parents who work two or more jobs; teenage moms who live in “Drug-Free Zones” and “Urban Renewal Zones,” unkempt neighborhoods whose parks are normally full of drugs; teen addicts slumping toward oblivion; and fathers for whom the closest thing to therapy is domestic abuse. The anger of dejected youth is almost always a cliché) in art, and in mainstream culture that anger among the ruins and squalor is usually black and/or Latino. Matthew Dickman hails from a neighborhood called Lents, a largely white underclass suburb in Southeast Portland, Oregon. He knows something about the sorrow of this world, its call for a kind of toughness of spirit and a sensitivity that must go underground if one is to survive and, more importantly here, the violence that such poverty recreates and echoes in the lives of the dispossessed. His authority is that of the native, unwavering and resolute. But it is his artfulness and large spirit, telescoping without sentimentality the single outlook of a speaker who has escaped such conditions and now looks back, as bluesy as such projects go, that gives his poems a universality of feeling, an expressive lyricism of reflection, and heartrending allure.

—Major Jackson

Country Music

When the dogs in my neighborhood go wild
over the patrol car’s red and blue scream, the lights hitting
someone’s window like electric tickertape
and I know some of those dogs are biters
because I was someone they bit,
I begin to think about the lives of men
and how we carry the heavy load of muscle, the rumble and ruckus,
without a single complaint
while vulnerability barely lifts its face from the newspaper.
But I’ve been drinking. I’m a little messed up
and there’s something about cigars and bourbon I no longer want
to be a part of. I remember how Kate would slip out
of her jeans, her bra. How she appled my body;
all that sweet skin and core, the full mouth and pulp.
She was like a country song
playing underneath an Egyptian cotton sheet, the easy kindness
of her body finding its way into mine.
But I have a father somewhere. I have a way
I’m supposed to walk down the street like a violent decision
that hasn’t been made yet.
I don’t care how many hours you put in
weeding the garden
or how much you love modern dance. You’ll still slip back
into your knuckles.
You can carry your groceries home in your public radio tote bag.
You can organize a book club.
You can date an Indonesian hippie with dread-locks
but you are never far from breaking someone’s jaw.
When I was twenty-three I went to a party,
drank two Coronas, and slapped my girlfriend across the face.
I wanted someone to beat me.
I wanted to get thrown into the traffic
I had made of my life,
to go flying over the couch
where two skater kids were smoking pot out of a Pepsi can
and talking about a friend
who ollied over a parked car the same day he got stabbed
at the mall.


At 3/04/2009 10:45 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Glad you liked it, John. I don't plan on following a William Logan-like path to negative reviewing -- as I said, I wanted to make the Charles North review the first one -- but I couldn't stay quiet any longer.

At 3/04/2009 11:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Side note:

It's really too bad, what William Logan has done to conversations about books. There is a time and a place for strong negative reactions. What Logan has done is to conflate cheap-shots and strong negative reviews. He needs to cut that out.

By the way, I'm very glad to see you mentioned Ryan Murphy's Down with the Ship. That book has not gotten near the positive notice that it deserves.

At 3/04/2009 11:43 AM, Blogger jeannine said...

Yes, this review to me is negative, but not mean-spirited, like Logan's...

At 3/04/2009 12:59 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

"Just because a poetry is supposedly free of irony doesn’t mean it is free from the responsibility to be truthful."

I loved this. This is the core of everything said for me.

At 3/05/2009 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kinda ironic that a guy who writes prose poems should comment on another writer's line breaks as "dribbling." But then again irony does seem to escape him and his patronizingly jealous rage.

At 3/05/2009 11:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Oh, I don't know. I don't think writing prose poems disqualifies one from talking about line breaks.

There does seem to be some fury in the review, which doesn't have to be a bad thing, but I don't see any patronizing. I can't speak to the jealousy. Maybe he is jealous. I don't know. The review doesn't seem to telegraph that to me.

But I suppose any poet who talks negatively about another poet who is getting more acclaim or notice could be accused of jealousy.

At 3/06/2009 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, the most stunning and disturbing part of the review was the part where the Dickman killed off Chick Corea (perhaps confusing him with Duke Ellington.) What tremendous ignorance and arrogance-- in a book that's supposed to be about making art in America. Wow.

What an insult to people who actually practice and hone their art, who put all their discipline and passion into it. People like Chick Corea, or any number of young American poets who are into art and not marketing.

This is not at all surprising coming from the offices of Tony Hoagland, who once in an APR piece described Horace's art of poetry as a "prose work," presumably because he read it in a Penguin trot.

At 3/06/2009 11:25 AM, Anonymous Joy Katz said...

Hi, John: I liked The End of the West very much. The timing. The line breaks. It felt right to me, natural, unselfconscious, the way the brutal images come in, when they do... I admire the book.

At 3/06/2009 11:48 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

A few others have written me to say pretty much the same thing about The End of the West. No one's written me anything about All-American Poem, however.

I'm sure I'm going to be getting copies of both soon. Maybe I'll try the library on All-American Poem.

At 3/09/2009 4:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The latest salvo, from pshares blog:


Not Personal? This "review" is ultra creepy BECAUSE Michael KNOWS Matthew (I believe they were at Bread Loaf together and the rumor mill you're involved with tells me Michael Shiavo was a shitty guest at Matthew's house once) and I suppose has been left in the dust! It's not a review only a very very very weird boy crying because he didn't get what another bot got. And you! Shame on you! Go write a poem!

What do folks think? Does it matter if MS knows MW?

P.S. I would have posted this on MS's blog, but he has disabled anonymous comments.

At 3/09/2009 5:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

What a good question. Of course, I don't know anythign about this Breadloaf/bad houseguest stuff. It could be all made up to discredit the Schiavo review for all I know. So I've no comment on it.

But in the larger sphere, I like the NBCC criteria. If you know where the person lives and can name the person's spouse or significant other, or know the names of their pets or children (if applicable), then you shouldn't be reviewing their work.

I don't think going to Breadloaf together would disqualify someone, in and of itself. It would only matter if they were friends (or enemies) there. I would think?

wv: conivas


At 3/09/2009 5:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That criteria makes good sense! I was also thinking about the "full disclosure" policy at newspapers.

I agree about the Bread Loaf context. And if there IS some backstory about bad blood between MS and MD, I feel manipulated, but mostly naive. :)

At 3/09/2009 6:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And if there isn't a real connection, one could also feel manipulated by the anonymous poster to pshares who said there was.

Reviews! Ah. Well, at some point one has to ignore (I suppsoe, because we all can't know everything) the fact that there might be a motivation behind the review outside of simple reviewing. I'm guessing that there probably is a personal motivation behind a lot of reviews. I would even go so far as to say that's not a bad thing as long as the review itself treats the work fairly.

I think that Schiavo's review of All-American Poem (I still haven't read the book, but I've now read a dozen or so poems from it) is fair. One could say that it's a little stronger than it needs to be, but one could counter that since there are people out there calling Dickman a genius, the review had to be so strong. I don't know. I'm ambivalent about it myself.

Also, there's the added aspect that what Schiavo is really talking about, and railing against, is the way in which the poetry-world often operates.

Perhaps it would take someone fairly close to the Dickmans to see just how this all happened, and to want to blow the whistle. All whistle-blowers could be accused of sour grapes, though that's way overstating this situation.

At 3/09/2009 8:27 AM, Blogger Gabriela said...

I think much creepier than the Schiavo knowing the Dickmans from Breadloaf is Tony Hoagland knowing Matthew Dickman personally, and still choosing his book for the APR Prize.

Marie Howe shared the Dickman twins' poems and presence with Hoagland beginning in 2004 when she was the visiting teacher at the James Michener Center, where the twins were getting an MFA. Hoagland, Howe's close friend, teaches at Houston.

If the connection between Hoagland and the Dickmans were investigated even a little, it would be roundly condemned as nepotistic. Their personal correspondence alone would show that Hoagland knew quite well that the poems he chose were Matthew's, thus the contest was not anonymous.

Based on the requirements of ethical standards, Hoagland was unethical in choosing All American Poem. The manuscript was recognizable to him as Matthew's and had been promoted by Howe.

I hope that this connection is explored and publicized as yet another example of poetry nepotism trumping professional ethics in prize and publication circles.

At 3/09/2009 9:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I don't know anything about that. Certainly that's a different issue than if the book is good or not, and not one I have any way to address, as I know none of the people involved.

If there was a conflict of interest that can be shown, I believe there are some recourses. If not legally, then at least in the public opinion. Does Alan Cordle still write about such things?

At 3/09/2009 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I looked at the guidelines for the APR/Honickman prize, and they don't have a statement regarding conflict of interest. So legally, APR is covered. However, as John notes, the court of public opinion may see the situation differently, if it indeed can be established that a close connection existed between Dickman and Hoagland.

At 3/09/2009 1:41 PM, Blogger knott said...

thanks for posting a whole poem rather than snippets,

i think "Country Music" is great

and i reposted it on my blog——

it has some charge of the bravura you-just-go-on-your-nerve of Denis Johnson's verse——

maybe like Johnson, Dickman will eventually abandon poetry in favor of prose . . .

At 3/10/2009 5:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'm glad you found something to like. I look forward to reading your comments on it, maybe you can show me something in it I wasn't seeing.

At 3/11/2009 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


First of all, I like your work a lot.
So there.

As to the rumor mill:

Dickman is about as close to Hoagland as Schiavo. They both had spent time with Hoagland at Breadloaf. Dickman and Schiavo were friends at Breadloaf. Dickman even spoke up on Schiavo's behalf when Collier wanted to through him out for bad behavior. Later Schiavo came to stay with Dickman and was, well, pretty awful. STill, they shared work with each other, etc...Then their relationship quietly ended. No real drama. Schiavo kept writing and Dickman kept writing. Then this sort of sociopathic bitter and small minded review showed up that you seem to want to celebrate. Dickman is not some Lowell-type monster pushing people out of his way. So why the ax? Does your man Murphy deserve as much attention? Sure. No doubt. Fine. Who doesn't? But you can't blame Dickman for that. Lastly, I was surprised to find that you haven't read Dickman's book yet. Seems a little weak John.
With respect to you and your work.

At 3/11/2009 9:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does Schiavo mean above when he says "I couldn't stay quiet any longer"? It's fine that he decided not to celebrate his friend's book, but oh man it's not a conspiracy! I wonder if he looks under his bed at night and in the closets to be sure Dickman isn't lurking there ready to kill him!

At 3/11/2009 10:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You could be right about all that you say here, regarding their relationship. I know nothing at all about their relationship. Actually, I know nothing at all about either of them (Schiavo and Dickman), besides the fact that somehow Michael Schiavo is a facebook friend of mine (something I just found out a couple days ago when he wrote me a message to thank me for linking to his review). Before I saw this review on Schiavo’s blog I had had no contact ever with him or with Dickman. I didn’t see the review as “sociopathic,” “bitter,” or small-minded. Maybe Dickman is bitter. I honestly have no way of knowing. I did find the review to be pretty forceful, though. Maybe even too forceful. I wouldn’t have written it, myself, from the poems I’ve read (they didn’t strike me as something to get very worked up about). I suppose, though, I am kind of celebrating Schiavo’s review. Again, I haven’t read but a dozen or so of the poems from All-American Poem.

When, on Lytton Smith’s blog, I mentioned Lowell in connection to Dickman, I was thinking only about the work, the way that Lowell, in the 70s, though his sonnet-like period, was interested in seeming autobiography in ways that Dickman seems interested (and I speak not from a position of saying Lowell’s poems are bad—there is much of interest in Lowell for me). That seems a better comparison, to me, than does a Whitman to Dickman comparison. I don’t know all that much about Lowell’s biography to know if he was much of a monster. I wasn’t trying to make that kind of comparison to Dickman. I know of no one that Dickman has pushed aside, by the way. Or even that he’d be interested in that sort of thing. My intentions were not to air some sour grapes about Dickman somehow getting the attention Ryan Murphy deserves (Down with the Ship came out a few years ago now, and has nothing to do with this—it was on my mind because Schiavo mentions it at the end of his review of All-American Poem), for instance.

[Disclosure: although Ryan Murphy is not a close friend of mine, I’ve spent time with him socially, and he works for Four Way Books, which has published my work.]

About the “being quiet any longer” bit from Schiavo: yeah, that does seem a larger purpose than your average book of poetry review. I took it as someone who has read the book and then, seeing all the awards and attention it and its author are receiving, felt like he’d had it. That tone seemed more like exasperation than jealousy to me. I still think it’s a solid review. The things I’ve seen out there so far on All-American Poem that are positive seem as much over-the-top in their praise as Schiavo is in his condemnation. Either way, it does say something about the book that it’s able to generate this much positive and negative sentiment. Controversy sells, as they say.

Do you like the book, by the way? I’d be interested in hearing what you like about it.

At 3/11/2009 10:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Sorry, I forgot to address this:

“Lastly, I was surprised to find that you haven't read Dickman's book yet. Seems a little weak John.”

I agree with you. It does seem weak. I have All-American Poem (as well as End of the West) on my list of books to get, but I haven’t gotten them yet. I wouldn’t have written anything on either book until reading it, but I came across the review and wanted to link to it, just as a “look at this” sort of thing, and then, as things have gotten larger on a few different blogs, I’ve felt kind of dragged into talking about it. As most of the comments have been very personal attacks on either the Dickmans or Schiavo.

I admit, I haven’t much cared for the poems I’ve seen so far. But, on the other hand, several friends have written to tell me that End of the West is a much better book. I’m quite interested in reading both. More so now than I was a week ago.

At 3/11/2009 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do like ALL American Poem. I like its rushing energy, the go for broke big heartedness of it, its humor, its seriousness. Poetry is a big room, lots of space, enough for many voices. I'm glad Dickman's voice is in the room. Just as I am glad that your's is.
I have to kindly disagree with your comment about Schiavo being exasperated. It read more like vindictiveness to me. Why not choose someone like Paul Guest? He is a young writer who is getting a lot of attention lately (book deal with Ecco, article in Poets & Writers) or even Matthea Harvey who just won the Kingsley Tufts award for "mid career" and I believe she is around the same age as Dickman. Well, he chose Dickman because he used to know him, they wrote and shared poems, were at the same place in their careers and now they are not. Not to the fault of either person. And Schiavo just can't stand it. Or so it seems. Michael did not write a so called negative review. He wrote a personal rant dressed up as the lone voice in the wilderness. When you do that I believe your credibility falls away.

At 3/11/2009 6:33 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

One of the posters on the pshares blog made an argument that people should write more reviews of this sort, of people one knows. (Though the extent to which they know/knew each other is still not something I have any information on.)

I really don’t know what to say past that. The scenario that you paint about the motivations for Schiavo’s post on All-American Poem eludes me, but I agree such a scenario is possible (hopefully not in this case, but I can’t know). I’ve never felt that motivation myself. But that’s beside your point. Vindictiveness and credibility. On that you have me at a disadvantage, as I know none of the story that would make for vindictiveness, just as I know none of the story that others on other blogs have been tossing around about Matthew Dickman’s actions and motivations.

I can see, in the poems of Dickman’s I’ve read, the energy you’re talking about. The poems move very quickly. And I like that as well, as an aspect of poetry. Dean Young does that quite well. And Paul Guest, too. I’ve ordered the book from amazon. Along with a couple others. I’m looking forward to getting them.

At 3/12/2009 4:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jehanne Dubrow weighs in on Schiavo's side:

"The Organ" counters with this:

What I think is important to know about this post is the very personal history that exists between Michael S. and Matthew D.; unfortunately, in his eagerness to out every other of Matthew's connections and associations, he neglects to mention that one. Why no disclaimer?

On a more personal note: I really like your idea of researching the intertextual communication between the Dickman brother's books: what an interesting examination! Part of the reason we are all so interested in the twins is because as far as we know, this has never really happened before in American poetry. It's INTERESTING, and I think it's a tremendous opportunity and still worth exploring.

...Just my two cents.


So here we have an anonymous poster (The Organ is not a real name) attacking Schiavo personally while still not defending the critique of Matthew's poetry. Add to this the fact that The Organ defends the Dickman brothers by saying that we should find them interesting and study their poetry because they're twins. Wasn't this one of Schiavo's many points, that the Dickmans are using this fact, instead of their actual work, to attract readers?

I like Schiavo's essay even more now. Whenever the Dickmans or their supporters want to talk about the work by attaching their names to some sort of critical argument, I'll think about taking them seriously.

- Robert Casey

At 3/12/2009 12:47 PM, Blogger knott said...

Whenever the Dickmans or their supporters want to talk about the work by attaching their names to some sort of critical argument, I'll think about taking them seriously.

. . . it's this kind of arrogant academic attitudinizing that keeps so many away from poetry: i can't simply enjoy reading the Dickmans' verse, i have to prove its merit, i have to present a "critical argument" to justify my admiration, i have to try to persuade those opposed: well, sorry, but i don't care if you don't take me "seriously"——your appoval is not a criterion for my preferences . . .

At 3/12/2009 4:05 PM, Blogger knott said...

I refuse to apologize or offer "critical arguments" to justify or authenticate my preferences and pleasures——

a paragraph from my blog of three years ago (I was writing about Olds, but since Matthew Dickman is in the Olds mold, I think it's relevant):

I don't see anything wrong with writing about one's self, though it seems like there are always those who stand ready to condemn the poets who do it too passionately (re Olds). Sadly this type of poem has now fallen into disfavor— not with the larger poetrybook-buying public, but with a growing segment of younger poets. The first-person narrative, the realist-autobiopoem of Olds and Levine [add Matthew Dickman to this lineage], has been subverted and refuted and or ignored by many younger poets. These new poets know they've grown up into a regime where poetry is ruled over by Theory, where the poem is a slave to Poetics. In the ancient quarrel between poets and philosophers, the balance of power has shifted to the latter: "[T]he philosophical critique of poetry is ascendant. In the provinces of literary criticism, Plato's heirs have apparently won out." (Mark Edmundson, Literature against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida / A Defence of Poetry). These new poets have internalized this cruel critique and sublimate it via the usual strategies of auto-punishment. Snatch the whip from Master and lash yourself. In any case their seemingly-on-the-surface-disparate modes of servile irony have to a certain extent seized the floor. The Confessional poem has been pushed offstage.

At 3/17/2009 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This just in: a different take on Schiavo's review:

At 3/31/2009 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if Schiavo realizes how he comes off to the general public. I wouldn't pick up a thing that he wrote. But I have read both the Dickman's work and love it. As a reader it offers poetry for the everyday person. I would buy any book they wrote. This Schiavo guy sounds like a bite of a whiner.

At 3/17/2011 7:16 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Hey John, good to see you in DC, sorry about me hissy that morning!

Good news: looks like I will be getting the tenure track position at Framingham, pending bureaucratic hoops. At long last! It is, in fact, the end of an error. I feel like an exile returning home! I feel like a bird is mocking my loss of liberty Obviously this is tongue in cheek. Where else would it be????

I'm happy about this and would love to trade new poems if you have the inclination. I am a huge fan of your work, and you. Sam Witt

At 3/17/2011 7:18 PM, Blogger Sam said...

PS-I am suspicious of some of the hype over the Dickmans, but probably mostly just envious! I liked some of the work in the New Yorker. Suspicious of writers who go by plural last name. Seems odd. But the poem with the whale imagery in it is exquisite, and I do think there's a lot of great stuff there.

Sam Witt


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