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What We’re Reading: 50 American Plays (Poems)

2012 October 18

What We're Reading

As a writer, I’m interested in hybridity and genre blending, so, as a reader, I’m always excited by hybrid work as well. I find it fascinating to see what parts of various forms artists use and how they infuse one genre with another. That being said, I was excited to find out that Matthew and Michael Dickman, whose individual books I’ve read, collaborated on a collection of poems. Since the Dickmans are twin brothers it is perhaps unsurprising that they would collaborate eventually. Their book 50 American Plays (Poems) was recently published by Copper Canyon Press and took me by surprise. I tripped over myself to get it to the cash register of the book store I found it in (shout out to Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle!).

The Dickman brothers have each published their own collections of poems (Michael just published his second) and won accolades for their distinct styles. Matthew prefers a longer line and a sprawling poem, reminiscent of Whitman; Michael’s poems are more sparse, though he spreads them out over multiple pages. Both, however, have a straightforward diction and are unblinking when addressing the poverty in which they grew up. Take the end of “Scary Parents” from Michael’s first book The End of the West:

Ian broke his mother’s nose because she burned the pancakes
She left hypodermics
between the couch cushions
for us to sit on

Matthew is more optimistic. His poem “Trouble” name-checks almost two-dozen artists who tried or succeeded in killing themselves before ending on the line, “I want to be good to myself.”

Despite their stylistic differences, both Dickmans are obsessed with “The West” and America in some way, though, so their collaboration delves deeper into that obsession. Contrary to the title of the book, there are actually 52 pieces here—one for each state in alphabetical order, and ending with one each for Guam and Puerto Rico. It would be easy to criticize the brothers for not fully representing all of America in these pieces, though they clearly know that. You could spend a lifetime writing poems about only one state and not cover everything, so their limitation of a poem per state seems at once ludicrous, and the only solution to the problem. Indeed, such limited confines force the reader to imagine her own plays for each state, creating a shadow play to each of the pieces she reads.

While not necessarily meant for production, the poems in this book take the form of plays, with stage directions and a wide cast of characters, some of whom reoccur from poem to poem. The poet Kenneth Koch appears in 6, always working on a production of Hamlet. More often, characters enter once and are never seen again, as Sacagawea does in “Sacagawea in Oregon” who “sits covered in a fever blanket” and says, “I’m on a coin!” The poem is 4 lines long and manages to touch on the horrible treatment of indigenous peoples while maintaining a levity found in the rest of the poems.

Many of these “plays” are almost unperformable—how does one cast the parts of “Trojan Horse,” “Alaska,” “Baked Alaska,” or “Bus Stop”? Yet the book almost demands to be performed. The energy on the page forces the poems to careen into one another, making characters from Rhode Island and South Carolina fall over one another to get “onstage.” That energy is something all theatre artists strive for in every show.

In a brief 52 poems, the Dickman brothers attempt to recreate America, all of the funny parts, tragic parts, and bizarre parts included. These poems unfurl across the vastness of America and multiply in the imaginations of the reader. They blend genres and move freely from reality to a fantasy nation where snow soliloquizes and a bear praises a ranger on his prowess as a ranger. I wanted to read these poems because of their hybridity, but they reminded me that I love where I live even though this is a hard nation to love. I’m glad the Dickman brothers love it enough to show us.

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