ITW #1 – Alexander Dickow

We discussed poetry, French and punk rock with Alexander Dickow.

Alexander Dickow is assistant professor of French at Virginia Tech, located in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is a scholar of French literature, a translator, and a poet. His poetry includes Caramboles (Paris: Argol Editions, 2008), poems in French and English, and a chapbook in English from Corrupt Press, Trial Balloons (2012). Scholarly works include an essay on French modernism, Le Poète innombrable: Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob (Paris: Hermann, 2015). A short poetic treatise or long essayistic poem in French, Rhapsodie curieuse (diospyros kaki), is due out from Editions Louise Bottu in early 2017. Dickow is currently in the process of translating La Horde du contrevent by Alain Damasio and La Quête infinie de l’autre rive by Sylvie Kandé, and a translation of the work of the Swiss poet Gustave Roud is currently in search of a publisher. More information on Dickow and his work is available at http://www.alexdickow.net.

 

INTERVIEW:

Poetry is one of the oldest forms of art. According to you, is poetry here to stay? Do we still need it today?

The art of speaking has and will exist as long as misunderstandings do, which have and will exist as long as human beings do, and there will always be artistic creations that fit poorly into narrative and expository categories like “novel” or “essay”; works that concern themselves principally with praise and blame, or with such infinitely complicated matters as greetings and farewells. Poetry has become (and to a certain extent has always been) the generic category into which we throw works that don’t fit, and those too will always exist. But poetry has probably always been principally a rarefied art. To quote (more or less) the poet François Cornilliat, poetry is always at once too big for its britches (so few are listening, after all, even at the best of times!) and too humble for its own good (have not kings themselves lent an ear to the poets, to the Pindars and the Ronsards? It hardly matters that few are listening: it matters which few). William Marx has argued that the decline of poetry is largely an illusion spawned by an exceptional moment in literary history, Romanticism, during which a few Victor Hugos reached unprecedented audiences. How many readers did Chateaubriand have? Few. And Rabelais? Montaigne? Fewer. Sophisticated reading is a skill few acquire, to which fewer still aspire. Yet more than a few duped Trump supporters, a great many of Marine Le Pen’s deluded followers could stand to be more discerning readers, could they not? If so, then we still need poetry today, to the precise extent to which reading poetry makes us better readers, better readers of books, of advertisements, of environments, of situations.

And do tell me: do we still need chess? How about football? Do we need football, a game that appears to encourage violence and nationalistic sentiment among its fans, a game whose institutions are rotten with money and corruption? How about politics? Do we need politics? Personally, I dare say I could do without it. We are taught to value precisely the wrong things; we look toward whatever makes the most noise. Everyone is looking that way – but it’s just noise (and I’m not talking about the opening to Père Ubu’s “Nonalignment Pact”).

 

French language and culture are a really big part of your life. Europe is full of literary talents, why is French so attractive to you?

Answer #1: I don’t have the foggiest idea. Answer #2: it’s an accident of personal history; I learned French early, and as a result, the most crucial writers for my intellectual development ended up being largely French: Mallarmé, Corbière, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, but also Proust, Rabelais, Lautréamont. But it’s still a mystery why these writers should have struck a chord. I had already read T. S. Eliot by the time I got to Mallarmé, but Eliot just never did it for me. I have no idea what set this pattern in motion. I read in many traditions, and I can read Italian reasonably well (and do so). French is where my greatest competency lies, but I try not to neglect writers outside that tradition.

 

You have a remarkable academic record (Alexander has a PhD in French literature). What is your stance on the freest forms of poetry? Do they enrich or impoverish literature?

The freer the better, as far as I’m concerned; the freer the literature is, the richer literature is. If you mean free verse as opposed to metrical forms, I tend to write in free verse, but metrical forms are fine by me, and I don’t believe they are obsolete: forms don’t become obsolete, only ways of investing them do. Leconte de Lisle’s alexandrines are obsolete, but Rimbaud’s could hardly be more alive and well. I’ve also worked with visual forms (concrete poetry more or less descended from Apollinaire, Dada, Futurism, Michaud, Dotremont/Cobra, and Lettrism), which are very “free,” and quite full of delights. I find many sound and performance poetries quite dull, but that’s more because I lean toward the visual and toward the page, away from la parole vive. Even poetry of the voice can be wonderful (Ghérasim Luca being my favorite of poets oriented toward performance), and I’m all for letting people work in that direction. The more the merrier.

 

A writer’s life can be full of disillusionment. What keeps you going no matter what? Would you do it all over again?

Yup, I’d do it again. Rejections don’t bother me so much, I guess. The exhilaration of making a thing seems to compensate for the moments of discouragement, and then some. The biggest discouragement is that it’s hard to talk about it with most people: you get a lot of vacant looks and smile-and-nod reactions when you mention poetry at a party.

 

It is often heard that it is impossible for most to read while listening to music. We know that music is a fantastic fuel for your inspiration. Which song, album or artist never fails to put you to work?

Depends on my mood! Sometimes silence is best for writing (or reading), but for the last few years, I’ve been mostly into (mostly British) stuff circa 1976-1984 or so: it started with Television (actually a US outfit) and Joy Division, and went from there. Just about anything, really, in that constellation: Suicide, And Also the Trees, the Sound, Birthday Party, Wire…
 

Compiled by Marc Louis-Boyard for Slow Culture.


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