Saturday, April 2, 2011

#38 - Alexander Dickow

How often had you sent out Caramboles before it was chosen for publication by Argol Editions?


I suppose I’m a lucky fellow.

I tend to have difficulties publishing in journals, where I guess my work doesn’t often fit, but Argol and Caramboles was apparently meant to be. Catherine Flohic, Argol’s founder and mastermind, contacted me first. I had written some polemic commentary about one of her books, Beck, l’Impersonnage, on my blog, in response to an uninformed article a young poet had published on the French website Sitaudis. Catherine sent me a message thanking me for my commentary, and mentioning with visible pleasure that we “dwelled in similar literary territory”, or something to that effect. At that point, I had nearly finished Caramboles, and immediately thought of sending it to her. Within four or five months, she had accepted it enthusiastically, not without a few useful critical reflections about my work. I’m exceptionally lucky to have stumbled on Catherine, who defends her writers passionately and has a true personal vision of the kind of work she wants to publish: unlike many publishing houses, Argol is not principally about the bottom line; it takes risks, and I suspect it will be one day viewed in France as the equal of prestigious houses like POL (I say this without making claims about Caramboles, of course).

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Caramboles? Did it go through any other changes?

I am fatally allergic to titles, and lacked all but a pale working title until no more than two or three months before the book went to press. Some poets and writers have a peculiar talent for creating evocative and fascinating titles, like Pierre Reverdy in France (The Massage Glove, The Hemp Necktie, The Ball in Mid-Air), or Amy King in the US. I must have come up with four hundred titles for Caramboles, all of which were fairly awful. I wanted a title that would work reasonably well in both languages, like the book, and that compounded the problem. I sent my zillion random ideas to Catherine, who finally decided upon Caramboles, a title that I had apparently suggested at one point, but hadn’t found convincing at first, and had since forgotten. But when she suggested it again, I mulled it over and accepted the suggestion. And I should say that Catherine had a nose for the title that worked: the critics (almost all of them in France) who have lauded the book invariably discuss the title, which evidently resonates in French more than in English. In English, a carambole, usually spelled carambola, is more generally known as the starfruit, those yellow-green, sour fruit often considered decorative (I find them quite delicious and refreshing). The idea of naming the collection after a strange fruit seemed both appealing and appropriate. The word carambole means the same thing in French, but it also means caroms, otherwise known as French billiards – the kind without pockets whose rules rely entirely on ricochet (which happens to be one of the mediocre primitive titles for the book). But the French also use the word carambolage, which might be translated as “collision” or “fender-bender”. An inventive bookstore owner in Tours took this little exegetic game much further, explaining obscure archaic usages and etymologies, suggesting the word caramboles had latent sexual meanings, for instance. In any event, the relation to the language of Caramboles is fairly transparent: bumpy syntax that invents a kind of weirdly approximate grammar, but without abandoning meaning-making (a friend referred to it in one critical article as an “all-over” technique, à la Pollock), idiosyncratic and disconcerting, playful…

…And speaking of starfruit, for the last few years, I’ve developed an enthusiasm for exotic fruit, and try them at every occasion. Pawpaw fruit, mangosteens, persimmons of all kinds, medlars (including the old Western European variety: they taste like apple sauce with a hint of seder wine), Barbary figs, kiwano, you name it. Affinity for weird fruit, I guess.

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

Open reading periods, completely.

My book was published in Paris, and France has few poetry contests and only a handful of poetry prizes that finance publication: the Prix Mallarmé, the Prix Max Jacob, and one or two others with some visibility. These prizes do some of their own marketing, labeling their winners with colored paper banners in large print for visibility in bookstores, for instance. Since I rightly thought that my book would find a more enthusiastic audience in France, contests were hardly an issue for me, and I’m thankful for it.

In the US, it’s not always immediately evident that a book has even won a prize at all, and I’ve never heard of 95 percent of those prizes. Above all, the prize system allows editors to dispense with the necessity of marketing and defending the books they publish, since they’ve generally already broken even thanks to the prize money (I recently read this in an article on the subject, but can’t recall the name and author of the article). Finding an editor willing to defend your book seems to me one of the most essential factors in a book’s success (very relative for poetry, in any event, but critical success is more crucial for the long-term than financial success). Prize submission is costly, time-consuming and discouraging, and (so I hear) often involves intern readers rather than publishers or editors. I don’t really buy the rumors about fraud or nepotism that tend to float around (with the occasional obvious exception), and I don’t think it’s always a bad thing to favor people you know, but I do think that the level of personal investment of editors in their contests is small enough that they may have very little stake in their results.

That said, I have submitted a chapbook manuscript to a contest no more than a month ago: but it’s a press in which I have a great deal of confidence. Choosing prizes carefully is essential if you’re going to indulge in them, in my opinion. I’m a defender of chapbooks and buy them frequently; they’re sometimes as significant as entire books – Ana Bozicevic-Bowling’s Document from Octopus Books is astonishing, for instance – and they’re often more beautifully designed, cheaper, etc. I think that some presses’ chapbooks should be considered accomplishments of equal weight as a full-length; some chapbook presses or collections are particularly selective and consistent in quality.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

The process of assembling Caramboles was like cooking an egg: it remained in a liquid state for years, literally, and then suddenly congealed. I struggled for an extremely long time with making a coherent ensemble, and some of the poems included in Caramboles date from as far back as 2002. I had work in both languages, and I knew I wanted to make a bilingual collection, but it took forever to put together some whole with stylistic consistency and vision. The long narrative poem “Prince/Dragon” that forms the center of the book was instrumental in giving the book a proper shape. Once all of the poems ultimately included had been written, the structure of the collection took shape in a matter of weeks. Once Catherine had received it, she suggested some alterations to the order of the poems, and suggested I remove a few weaker pieces. For instance, in yet another instance of editorial foresight, she suggested placing the two opening poems at the beginning of the book, and those two pieces are among the most popular, at least among French readers, who like to compare these two in particular to Verlaine.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I made a suggestion or two to my publisher, but these decisions were essentially hers, and had to correspond to the established design of the collection of which I am a part at Argol. But I find Catherine’s choices in the matter quite judicious, and I think the book looks great. Catherine uses photos that she takes herself and then transforms them into grayscale images against a black background. The photo she took for the cover of Caramboles is the mosaic tiling of her apartment building entrance, just off the rue Mouffetard in Paris….

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

My wife had found a restaurant business card with elaborate, curly inkblot shapes printed on the back, which we both liked and sent to Catherine, who decided instead on the mosaic: probably another judicious decision; in hindsight, the image we had found was probably a bit too ornamental and frilly.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

This was and is still a concern for me. Since I produce at a slow rate, publishing different pieces in books and journals is not an easy task for me, and I tend to hoard my work rather than submit like crazy (especially since I respect requests for non-simultaneous submission). But when I consider writers like Léon-Paul Fargue or Max Jacob (I apologize for my French cultural references, which reflect my background), I don’t think this is as much of a problem as it seems. The work of these writers is so widely dispersed in journals that it’s a giant editorial task to collect the work for publication. Neither writer has anything resembling a “complete works” for the moment, although there will be a 1,500 page Max Jacob selected works volume released in 2012. They tended to collect their work at rare intervals and very selectively, on the whole. And their readership has suffered because of it, to some degree.

In other words, publishing in journals doesn’t ultimately provide widespread visibility, as pleasant and necessary as it is to be involved in them. Even on the internet, the chances of being read by more than fifty readers are fairly slim (or so I strongly suspect, in spite of – or because of! – the wave of electronic journals in recent years). Hapax, where “Prince/Dragon” from Caramboles was first published in a slightly different version, certainly had readers, but only 100 copies existed in the first place. Even if you publish in Poetry or APR, how many readers will actually notice the work you publish there, or notice it enough to realize that some of the work in a collection had already appeared in that journal? Such things do happen, of course, but it’s not common, in my experience. Readers who encounter more than one prepublication in distinct journals will be even rarer (besides established fans who seek out the work, of which first-book writers are unlikely to have many). If these suppositions hold water, collecting published material in a book does a favor for future readers (one hopes…), and the readers of the book are very unlikely to be bothered by a high percentage of prepublications.

So, I do worry about it, but rationally, I don’t think I ought to.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

I tend not to edit much once a poem is “done.” On the rare occasions that I’ve done so, I’ve invariably ended up rewriting the poem from scratch, and ending up with two very different poems instead of two versions of a single poem. So I only edited the proofs for typographical errors and the like, and they were few (two escaped my attention, as another friend and critic indicated: “Vas” in the poem “Vas au lit…” should be “Va”, and the Heine quotation in the second to last poem should say “ist” and not “is”. A few poems were removed, or changed places, as I already mentioned. On the other hand, my compositional methods are particularly painstaking and non-linear: it sometimes takes me upwards of twenty hours to complete a ten-line poem, hence my slow output. I suppose I’m a perfectionist, with much more of a classical temperament than the poems might suggest.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

Oddly, I remember very little about the actual day I received my copies in the mail. I felt proud and excited, and not at all disappointed, but the rest of the day was in some ways a day like any other, although I did spend time dedicating copies and setting them aside for friends and family. I also remember that I couldn’t believe my eyes; it felt a bit unreal, as things do on major occasions in one’s life. Like having one’s first child, although much less intense and life-changing.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Did it become a factor in getting a future job for you?

Since I have not applied for creative writing positions, it has not had a direct impact on obtaining or applying for positions. But I suspect the book does “get noticed” on my cv when I’ve applied for other teaching positions (in French literature and teaching English in France), although perhaps not always advantageously: academics, according to rumor, can show hostility toward literary pretensions, particularly if they are displayed as though they reflected some kind of research accomplishment, which they most decidedly are not. I mention it, but I leave it out of presentation letters for research positions; those who are not hostile to literary efforts by researchers tend to know or find out about the book on their own, and a few academics have supported my work generously. I don’t buy the either/or relationship many people see between being a critic and being a writer, although it is a tricky juggling act with sometimes unfortunate results. My research, teaching and writing are quite distinct in their goals and methods, but they do entertain an intense synergetic relationship.

My life has certainly changed thanks to the book. I’ve met a lot of people and forged friendships thanks to the book, both with writers and with non-, given readings and interviews, and I’m invited more frequently to contribute to literary journals or events. The slightly cynical term for this is that the book contributing significantly to “networking”; a more human way to put it might be that books are ideally social objects, and that the book has been a “success” in that sense, independently of literary quality, symbolic capital or sales.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

The question stumps me every time. I’m sure I would babble something unconvincing. The book is about relationships, very certainly, and how they consist of misreading, and function a little like circus mirrors. It’s about feeling vulnerable, threatened or fragile, and the kinds of power that produces. It’s about melancholic farces and noisy lullabies. I’m not sure what it’s about. But they tell me it’s a memorable read.

What have you been doing to promote Caramboles, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I enjoy promoting my work. Though I try to avoid being intrusive or vain about it, I don’t think people should feel embarrassed or hesitant to talk about their work. In my experience, people aren’t put off by it: they’re generally curious, or act as though they are. Hopefully, I’m not imagining things.

The first thing I did was to make the book available more easily in the US by sending copies to Bookpeople of Moscow, Idaho, where I grew up, and where my mother has worked for years. The book wasn’t distributed in the US, so I wanted to make it a little cheaper for people to order (Bookpeople has no more copies, but the book is now available at Along with my mother’s bookshelf, Bookpeople is one of the places I discovered poetry, simply by digging around in the (rather chaotic) shelves, and it felt right to sell the books through them (if one grows up in a place like Moscow, Idaho, and probably in most places nowadays, discovering poetry requires an autodidactic temperament, although I had admirable primary and secondary school teachers). Most of those copies ended up in the hands of former schoolteachers, old friends and their parents rather than in the hands of writers: but I like that idea too. Of course, I also sent the book out to various writers and review venues (there’s still a copy at CutBank last time I looked, should someone still feel like writing about it two years late, just for the free copy). I must have done something right: the book was reviewed (favorably, sometimes hyperbolically) at least seven times in France, in almost every major venue available to poetry, which does not include major daily newspapers, of course. In the US, Crag Hill wrote a great review of the book in Galatea Resurrects, and I’ve had favorable echoes otherwise, and I’m quite happy with that, but it has been quiet in comparison to France.

I find the discrepancy in reception between France and the US fascinating, rather than disappointing, and I often wonder what it means. American readers, for starters, seem much less comfortable about having a foreign language on the other side of the page; they think they’re missing something, even though the book was designed to be multiple: although unilingual readers read a different Caramboles than bilingual readers, they all read a complete and self-sufficient book. It’s three or four books in one, if you like. (Oddly, people invariably believe that the poems in their non-native language deploy a more conventional syntax and style than do the poems in their own language: in other words, they believe the clarity lies on the other side, on the side they ostensibly don’t understand, or understand less perfectly…). I think people ought to imagine that strange other language on the facing page as the opacity that’s always there when people speak to each other, in our “own” language: people perhaps understand what they hear, in the most literal sense of the term “understand”, much less than they believe they do. Communication involves picking up on a handful of cues, following subtle variations in a set of pre-programmed scripts, rather than following utterances fully, in detail and between the lines. The strange language on the facing page is a reminder of what our language does behind our back every day. I understand why that makes readers uncomfortable, but I would hope they’d leave their comfort zones more readily.

But there are other reasons the book might meet American readers differently. I sometimes have difficulty conversing with American poets, because when they say Eliot, I answer Apollinaire; when they say Joyce, I answer Proust, etc. – although if other names come up, like Roethke, Auden, Hopkins, Melville, the conversation can happen again. Whether I like or not, I’m an odd mish-mash of French and American literary culture, and I’ve partly built my “tradition” from scratch. I think many people come from places where they could do this less haphazardly. In any event, the difference in cultural baggage might also explain why I reach a French audience more immediately than an Anglophone one: but who knows?

Since the book came out, I’ve had more invitations to contribute to journals, and to give readings, in Paris, in Nantes and in Tours. I love giving public readings. It’s been months and months since I’ve given one, but I’m sure occasions will come around again, perhaps here in Nancy, France where I’m currently living. I never hesitate to inquire about opportunities at libraries, cultural centers, etc. Publishing new poems and translations from time to time also has an incidental marketing function, and so does teaching (I don’t advertise it when I teach, but the students often discover the existence of Caramboles by themselves), and relationships with colleagues, and all sorts of other activities.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

Perhaps inevitably, I wish I had heard the most relevant criticisms about the book before it came out. The response to the book in France was overwhelmingly favorable, but some remarkable and very constructive criticism might have made me put the book together differently. But had this been possible, the book would have been different, and I would have received different criticism!

As far as the publishing process is concerned, I think I was well-advised over the years, having been encouraged not to rush, to think carefully about where I submitted and why/where I wanted to publish a book, not to be hasty, and also not to jump the gun. Clearly, the right moment came along, perhaps because I followed the advice. I know of a few magnificent writers who I think publish too frequently; I’d rather be the sort who releases a book with real impact every six or ten years. A matter of tastes and colors, as the French would say.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing?

A poet and friend once suggested to me that I had written a “livre-piège”, a trap; which is to say, a book that can’t be repeated, but that creates expectations in readers that you then have to meet – or refuse to meet. Perhaps he’s right; perhaps that’s just the feeling that first books often leave behind: a desire or a need for reinvention. So I have and do react to Caramboles. On the one hand, since Caramboles is a colorful book, I’ve been working on less ostentatious forms, more muted, – but which rummage around in my own guts a little more. On the other, I’ve done work that’s even more formalist; sonnets, pieces with strange writing constraints, concrete work, détournements. But the central impulse is not just to discover new techniques, new styles, new directions to work in, but to work in the direction of variety. Since I’ve been writing a dissertation on three writers with a gift for reinventing themselves (Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars), crafting a singular personal style appeals to me much less than working in incompatible directions. Baudelaire and Whitman write the same poem over and over again, but I got fairly bored reading the Flowers of Evil and Leaves of Grass from cover to cover, even though I love both these poets. I would love to write a poem that would stylistically have a little bit of everything in it, and preferably plenty of irreconcilable elements, something more than a patchwork or a mosaic. But that’s a tall order indeed.

I’ve also been working quite intensely on translation since Caramboles came out, some of which just appeared in The Colorado Review, others in Ekleksographia. Some of those have involved very exciting collaborative work with the poets who wrote the originals.

But one thing I’m certain of is that the next full-length will be unilingual. Not that I’ll cease writing in French and English, or even publishing poems side-by-side in both languages from time to time, but I’ve already written Caramboles, a book (or books) that’s built for both languages, so now I want to do something else. For the moment, I’m exploring.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

I believe poetry does create change in the world. But it generally creates collective change at an unobservably gradual rate, by influencing the evolution of attitudes and practices, and it does so in ways impossible to measure (there’s no control group for Shakespeare; you’d need two identical United Kingdoms, one having been exposed to Shakespeare, and the other having remained unexposed: personally, I suspect the differences would be rather noticeable, and not just on stage). Poems can be collectively co-opted as hymn-symbols, of course, like “Invictus”, or “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” or any number of poems transformed into ideological emblems (I use ideological here in the neutral, general sense of an unsystematic set of beliefs and values). But for the most part, poems effectuate change at an individual level, in ways and to an extent that seem to me fairly indisputable. Poetry certainly changed my own life irreversibly, and continues to do so, happily (not worth cataloguing…). One might object that by those standards, collecting insects also creates change in the world (I borrow the analogy from a satirical prose piece by Nicholas Manning). In fact, these standards are perfectly reasonable, and insect collecting indeed creates change in the world, relatively speaking. I think it’s fair to say that those whose lives have been vastly impacted by poetry, or even by a poem (“Invictus” again?), outnumber those who’ve experienced epiphanies while painstakingly inserting live grasshoppers into kill jars.

This question about whether poetry can create “change in the world” regularly irks me. The very form of the question presupposes that collective change has more intrinsic value than individual change, and indeed, that individual change does not even qualify as “real” change. I tend to wonder if the opposite does not have more validity: that vast social movements like the French Revolution tend to claim changes to the social fabric that they (debatably) never accomplish (all that “New Man” rhetoric! and then the Restauration comes along…). I prefer small but real change to vast quixotic fantasies, which does not amount to lack of ambition, tout au contraire. Individuals are difficult to… move; like societies, they tend to revert to their original position, like memory foam. Changing a person is a relatively rare event, compared to subscribing to a cause or project for collective change, which takes place all the time. But perhaps there’s as much risk of sophistry in this relation as there is in politically committed positions.

Of course, it would be nice to contribute to vast positive changes in the hearts, minds and institutions of millions of human beings, but I don’t think any writer, of whatever stripe, has any real control over whether or not that occurs. Go ahead and write like Upton Sinclair, or like Stéphane Mallarmé instead; I’m not sure the nature of the rhetoric (committed vs. not) has much to do with how much impact a book ends up actually having on collective life, long-term or short. (Mallarmé has probably altered many more people’s daily behavior than Upton Sinclair in the last hundred years, but the examples are admittedly facile.)

Hm, so, what about Caramboles. Its (conscious) ethical intention has very little to do with upending mores (or linguistic usage). Contrary to what the somewhat noisy (but apparently effective, or so I’m told) back cover blurb seems to suggest, the book is not about obeying or disobeying, it’s about the miscommunication that communication happens to be, and about not being sure whether that’s a loss or a boon. Perhaps it just encourages readers to listen a little closer.


Alexander Dickow grew up in Moscow, Idaho. Poet, critic and translator in French and English, he is currently completing a dissertation on self-presentation and stylistic transformation in the works of Blaise Cendrars, Apollinaire and Max Jacob. He has translated work by Amy King (into French), Max Jacob, Gustave Roud, Christian Prigent, Jean-Claude Pinson and others. He curated the “France Issue” of Ekleksographia. The Parisian press Argol Editions published Caramboles, his collection of poems in French and English, in the fall of 2008 (available through A chapbook of his own work, and a complete translation of Max Jacob’s Central Laboratory (1921) is currently in preparation.