Thursday, May 14, 2009

Author Q&A with Michael Dickel, author of "The World Behind It, Chaos"

EDITOR'S NOTE: This Q&A is the exception to several Writing Porch rules. We don't usually review eBooks. And generally, we're about novels and nonfiction. And our entries are much shorter.

However, I wanted to post this gem (which reads like he's talking to me over coffee) from Michael Dickel for my friends, poets Grace Vermeer and Brenda Riojas.

Michael tells me his trouble is with focus and cutting. I had no trouble focusing on what he was saying, but alas, I had trouble cutting it. In the words of my old editor Jack King, (who flailed his arms like a windmill when he lamented the long, LONG, pieces I'd turn in on occasion) "Who's ever gonna read all this stuff?" Enjoy, Grace and Brenda - and everyone else willing to dig through this long, LONG and delightful post.

Michael Dickel teaches English academic writing at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he also is co-editor of an annual poetry anthology, open to anyone who writes in English, called "Voices Israel." He is also working on an as-yet unnamed invitational anthology which explores the role of art and writing in contested territory. "I hope to gather Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Druze, Bedouin and other voices from the area—not just writers, but also artists, thinkers, activists—to speak not just to the situation here in the Middle East ... not just war and peace, but meaning, interpretation and response. And I want to explore throughout the collection the question of what do art and literature signify in the midst of conflict. Once again, this raises questions of what can and cannot be articulated (either in art/writing or in our lives," he said.

His own writing reflects those same themes, he says, "and art’s desire to understand and express what we don’t seem to have the ability to articulate, or speak."

What made you decide to write this book?
Some of the story of this book begins as long as ten years or more ago, when I wrote many of the poems (or their first drafts). My concerns (obsessions?) then, as now, centered on the process of making meaning, the space between the idea or image as sent out by the writer and as received by the reader, and expressing what is just barely beyond articulation.

A few years ago. I was working on another manuscript of poems related to these themes, but from both political and mystical perspectives rooted in Judaism, the Kabbalah ... I started working with incorporating photos and digital artwork into that manuscript, and liked the results. When I finished the project, and while negotiating with a publisher (in the end, unsuccessfully) about publishing it, I returned to these older poems. I revised some of them, added some new poems I’d written recently, and sent it in to why vandalism? (wv?) to see if they would be interested in it for their eBook series.

Wv? had published a number of my poems in their literary and art journal, so I thought perhaps they’d like this book. I expanded it to include my poems they had published ... The editorial board came back with some suggestions about the manuscript that helped tighten it and to focus it more—both removing several poems and rearranging what was there. I took most of their suggestions, and went a little further.

Excited by the interaction of visual images with the poetry of the other manuscript with the Jewish theme, I asked them about including images in The World Behind It, Chaos. They were very enthusiastic, so I worked with my photos and digital art to develop a coherent manuscript. The fact that I like to work, in my poetry, at the edge of articulation leads naturally to a collaboration between my visual art and my writing. The poems and graphics reflect and complement each other. Or, at least, I hope that they do. The feedback I’ve received so far is that they do this well. And, I think that these combined expressions are at the heart of this book and my concerns / obsessions: exploring the gaps between experience and expression, feeling and articulation, words and body.

Why did you decide to publish the book as an eBook?
Two reasons. First, this is what why vandalism?, the publisher, was doing. They’d liked both my poetry and visual art well enough to publish it in several of their issues, so I hoped they would want to publish my book (and, all along, I hoped to include the visual art). However, practically, eBook publication allows the inclusion of graphics so much more easily and less expensively than print. While some of the images are in black and white, most are in color. The costs of printing color alone would have made publishers less willing to take the risk and would have sent the cost of the book through the ceiling. At best, I would have been restricted as to how many images, what size, how many color images—all of that. So, the eBook format allowed me freedom to use images as I wanted. I would like to go further, doing work like Maria Damon and Miekal And do, or like Adeena Karasick, that incorporates more interaction, more media (such as animation, pop-ups, audio, and other things computers can do that a printing press cannot), and less linear sense ... In some ways, I’d like to explore both directions—traditional print and the new possibilities of electronic media. (Perhaps I could include an interactive CD or DVD with a printed book?)

Why did you decide to offer it for free?
The policy of why vandalism?, as I understand it, is to be totally free from commercialism. There are no ads on their site, and they don’t charge for anything they do. It is a work of love on their part, so far as I can see, a desire to put the art and the poetry out to the world, free of constraints other than the editorial board’s judgment. For my part, I think it could work for me something like it does for emerging bands that have been putting their music up as free downloads for years now. This develops an audience, listeners for the bands who will then buy a CD or pay for an album download in time—certainly pay for concert tickets, that sort of thing. I hope to develop an audience, readers (viewers) for my work.

In reality, I wouldn’t expect to make much money from selling a book of poetry. I’d rather have readers. I read in the International Herald Tribune just the other day that the novelist, Cory Doctorow, offers free eBooks online the same day his hardcover books go on sale, to entice new readers. Doctorow is less worried about losing money to free downloads or internet piracy than he is about obscurity. He wants to be read. And, so do I.

What does your writing routine look like?
Routine? I’m supposed to have a routine? Oh, yes, I’ve read that many writers have even severe routines and schedules. I don’t work that way, but perhaps that means I’m not writing as much or as well as I could. I tend to read, to discuss, to watch movies, to take photographs, to listen, to think, to hike, to enjoy the company of my wife, to have coffee with friends, to read some more.

When something comes, I write at full tilt, usually, whatever flows forth. Often a rhythm or sound sparks the next words, sometimes word play or twisting a meaning leads to the next, often image leads to image, story to feeling or feeling to story, so that the writing comes from itself as much as anything. I pour it out on the page. Then, I go over it. I know that Ginsberg said something like “first thought, best thought.” At times, I agree—I try not to mess with what works. However, at other times, revising helps (for me, cutting in particular). I don’t like to overwork a poem, so that it starts showing its craft or becoming muddied by its sense of self or my sense of self. However, I do like to revise to hide the craft, to focus, to develop something of the felt sense that never quite emerges in the words. Striking a balance between “first thought” and “revise, revise, revise” is, for me, my routine, I guess. If such an off-balance attempt counts as a routine.

Tell us some writers whose work you admire and why.
I’m going to start away from poetry. Recently, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer and Umberto Eco. Both authors work with some of the same philosophical issues that I try to reflect in my work: the nature of experience and memory; how history and the past reflect and shape the present, and how the present shapes and reflects itself back on the past; the way we construct identity and meaning rather than discover them, and meaning and identity, in turn, construct us; and, yet, how all of this sits in a real world—that we only seem able to know partially and imperfectly—but that has real political and historical impacts on our lives.

I mix this kind of reading in with Kabbalistic writings, Torah, and commentaries on Torah to inspire my own writing. These far-out ideas, some of them converging with theoretical science, epistemology, ontology, mysticism, and experience of the world, also influence my pleasures in poetry.

I trace my own influences as reader and writer from Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass is one of those books that sat prominently on a shelf in the dining room of my parents’ house) through William Carlos Williams, to Langston Hughes, to the Black Mountain School, to the Beats (particularly Ann Waldman and Allen Ginsberg), to contemporary writers like: Robert Bly, Caroline Forché, Claudia Rankine, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Julian Spahr, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, Gloria Anzaldua, Leonard Cohen, Adeena Karasick, Gary Lundy, Jamaica Kincaid and Joy Harjo, among many others. There is a similarly long list of international poets that I could name—Lorca, Akhmatova, Yehudai, Ali are just the tip of that particular interstellar iceberg.

The long list of poets I read contains very different poets and poetry—reflecting my eclecticism, I suppose. What they have in common, for me, is their engagement in the world, the ideological, the concrete, the political, the historical, and the spiritual in such a manner as to stop readers from easily assuming clarity and order. The poets I like best break through superficial sensibility, commercial skins, and plastic-surgery facial expressions to show the cracks on our beliefs, our world, our lives.

To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, everything has cracks, but that’s also how the light gets in.

In fiction, I have read, re-read, and been influenced by Leslie Marmon Silko, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Dixon, John Fowles, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Tom Robbins, again among others, for very much the same reasons as the poets I read. Margaret Atwood I admire for these reasons, and for her ability in both fiction and poetry (I also write some fiction, on occasion).

What challenges did you face with this book?
The main challenge was focus. Originally, at some point a few years ago, I had a much, much longer manuscript. A friend of mine suggested cutting it into parts. I had divided the original into sections, which made possible places to divide it into separate manuscripts. This was hard for me, in that I saw echoes and motifs throughout the whole, repeated themes in the different sections. I gravitate toward complexity and convoluted lines of exploration.

What I learned, through my friend’s careful reading and help, was that the motifs were likely separate manuscript themes. So, I had to take poems from different sections and move them around, reorganize them. I ended up with something like three manuscripts with a few poems left over. (I also pulled poems from the long work to create Jerusalem Imagined and Recalled—the Jewish-related project I mentioned earlier that has yet to be published—thus creating a fourth manuscript that went beyond the first, too large one.)

When I sent the manuscript for this book, what became The World Behind It, Chaos, to why vandalism?, and they suggested even more cutting and rearranging, I could see that their ideas really helped the book become a “book” somehow, more than just a collection of related poems. I used their ideas, made some modifications to their suggestions (that they, in turn, liked). I put back one or two poems that were related to some left in the manuscript, took out one or two that belonged with those taken out, changed the name (they suggested leaving out the poem that had the line for the earlier name, and I agreed), and did a little more re-ordering of the poems. This was fun and good work, but also quite challenging.

It is often easier for me to write a poem than to figure how to put poems together so that the reading of them as a “work” or “book” coheres. In the end, the poems that came out of the manuscript in this process had their own type of focus, so now I have yet another manuscript with these poems, although more of a chapbook than a full-length poetry book.

What advice would you have for others wanting to publish eBooks?
Don’t be afraid to do it. Consider how to use the electronic medium to enhance the book experience, not simply to replicate a printed book. I don’t think I moved in that direction very much, other than the inclusion of so many images. There used to be a book called The Macintosh is Not Just a Typewriter, something like that. It was early in the days of the Macintosh interface (even before Windows, if I remember correctly), and all about the formatting stuff you could do with a computer word processor and how to create, essentially, typeset documents. Of course, many of us now find this routine. However, I’ve thought, as an extension of that idea, that the computer is not just a printing press, either. It offers so much more than paper. We see this clearly on the web, with multi-media and hypertext providing a different viewing / reading experience than the linear one that paper requires.

Some decry this change in literacy, lamenting the type of reading we did before; but I think it would be interesting to embrace it, to write interactive texts with hyperlinks, pop-up images, movement, animation, comments, all of that which we see on blogs and web pages. I don’t mean we should also give up traditional forms of reading and writing, but that we should not only live there. How can poetry embrace this hyper-poetic possibility? How can fiction embrace hyper-narrative potential? What sort of new forms could emerge? Perhaps they are already there.

As one thinks of electronic publishing, perhaps it’s worthwhile to think of all the possibilities and play with them, use them, find new ways of constructing and understanding knowledge, images, sensibility and identity with them. For writers, it means giving up much of our control over the reader’s experience of our words. On one hand, how much control do writers really have over the reader’s experience, even in the printed word? On the other hand, it seems like a very exciting direction to take our cultural production of meaning(s).

What advice would you have for other writers/would-be writers?
The same advice everyone has, I suppose. Read. Write. Listen to yourself. Listen to others. Let the words carry you. Revise as needed (but don’t overwork). Write. Write. Write. Read. Read. Read. Write from experience. And play—play with words, ideas, images, and meaning. Find the erotic pleasure of the words, the text, the poem, the story.

Rain Taxi
Ravenswood Books Blog
The Cartier Street Review
The Drunken Boat
why vandalism?

EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Louise Larson, blogmistress for The Writing Porch, interviews published authors. To be considered, email her at jackielarsonwrites (at) gmail (dot) com. Larson's work has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Dallas Morning News and Entrepreneur Magazine. She is the managing editor of the Ennis Journal and a contributor at the Waxahachie Daily Light, and she has received the top award for series writing in Texas, the Texas APME, as well as a silver from the Parenting Publications of America. She co-authored a nonfiction career guide for FabJob Publishing in 2006, and is seeking representation for her new novel, 'At High Tide.'

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