Interview with Michael Dickel
I am fortunate enough to be able to call the writer, poet, educator, artist and musician, Michael Dickel, “friend”. Yet while we’ve shared an equality through creative writing and also as human beings, I’ve never really delved into the life and journey of that friend…until now.
Michael has a book of poetry currently with the publishers titled “War Surrounds Us”, a book written during the 2014 Gaza conflict.
We, as people, have the bad habit of placing things on one side or the other, we don’t see the grey in our black and white worlds. We put every man, every child, every woman, every situation into one category or the other in order for us to be able to label it, accept it and ultimately, fight for it. We create a corner each for who is “right” and who is “wrong” and forget that squares actually have 4 corners, not just 2.
Michael’s book, for me at least, allows me to see the grey, to realise that we are all human, we all see, hear and feel and as with the US and the UK…we appoint a leader through the electorate – the people choose who lead them…and not every person is in agreeance, not every person is responsible for the decisions we make as a whole. And ultimately, not every person is complicit to the actions of their leaders. We tend to reside within the buzz of mainstream media, learning “truth” from biased perspective instead of THE truth and then we judge based upon misinformation. Divide and rule made easy because we, the people, make it so.
I have spent several hours in Michael’s company this week learning about the man behind the creative cloud:
- Tell me a little about the man Michael Dickel, your background…where you originate from, your family, your job.
The man, huh? As with most people, I suppose, the narrative threads of my background, or even a summary of my background, twist, turn, and diverge—some of them loose ends, some of them wild tangents, many broken and frayed, but most of them dull weaving in some wearable denim, albeit a bit faded and worn. Which doesn’t tell you much, does it?
Well, my family comes from the East Coast, Philadelphia area. My mother’s family went back generations in the U.S. My paternal grand-father immigrated with his parents around the turn of the 20th Century. While my brothers lived in Philadelphia, I was born in the Midwest, where my father moved to teach high school in the Chicago suburbs. A tension between East Coast and the Midwest, my father’s choice of teaching as a career and the more upscale hopes of my mother (who also taught most of my life) provided a sort of warp on the loom for the weft of my formative years.
To cut to the chase, or at least getting into the car, I ended up with a first degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota. After a decade working in various psych-related jobs, plus or minus some months, I returned for a second degree in creative writing and then my doctorate in literature. I began teaching in 1987, becoming a third-generation teacher (my maternal grandmother had taught in a one-room schoolhouse). That year, I also began publishing my poetry and not long afterward, some short fiction.
However, flash back, Friday or not: in grade school I wrote a couple of poems that I can still recall, not that I’m going to give them out in this interview. In Junior High I received a prize for poetry (and a school publication of it). In high school, my poems were included in the literary magazine and I became one of its editors as a junior. And I continued to write, off and on but mostly on, until those first publications in the late 1980s. So, in some sense, I’ve always been a writer.
I married at age 22, and we had two daughters some years later. They are now grown women. My first wife and I divorced in 1999. Some years after, I remarried, and we have two children now, a son and a daughter—a second family for me, a first for my wife, Aviva.
I’ve worked in higher education since 1987, teaching and directing writing centers. Most of my professional work has been administering writing (and learning) centers. I moved to Israel in 2007, and here, I teach, still in higher education. I’ve also branched into working with film production companies, writing English grants, treatments for films, and a screenplay—all for documentaries. Mostly, I piece together some paying gigs and I write, which doesn’t pay. Like crime. Except, I think crime pays more often than writing.
- “100 Thousand Poets for Change” – what exactly is this and what is your role?
My role in 100 Thousand Poets for Change is pretty small, actually. I have organized readings in Jerusalem the past two years, and am organizing one for this year. The first year, I put together the reading myself. Last year, I had help from several people. This year, more people have agreed to help with the organizing, and I have had conversations with a couple of NGO who might collaborate with the event. That’s it. It’s plenty, I suppose, but not so much in the scope of the whole.
So, what is the whole? In 2011, Terri Carrion and Michael Rothenberg started 100 Thousand Poets for Change. There simple, and huge, idea was to have a day when globally (at least) 100-thousand poets would read, give workshops, hold parades, or participate in some other event—all to demonstrate a commitment to activism in the areas of sustainability, peace, and social justice. The idea was to have poets and poetry noticed and recognized as powerful change agents within culture. Each local organizer / group determined how to do this, how to put it together, and what local issues needed attention or would be highlighted in some way. Some groups hold fund raisers, some hold a day or weekend or week of events, some—like me—do something more quiet and modest, an evening reading.
What is very cool is that this has really blossomed into a worldwide movement, and more than 100-thousand poets, artists, musicians, mimes (yes, there is a mime group!), actors, dancers, and others participate in these events worldwide each year.
- “100 Thousand Poets for Change” – 2015 schedule is?
The official date for 2015 is 26 September, a Saturday. In Jerusalem, we have adjusted our schedule because Saturday has problems related to public transit and the Jewish Sabbath, and late September also is when Jewish High Holy Days often fall. Other locations adjust their schedule for their own reasons. Some organizers have held fund raisers and other activities year round. In this way, the schedule is very much local. The website gives more information and information about events as they are planned around the world (http://www.100TPC.org).
A few days from now, an exciting first 100TPC World Conference will be held in Salerno, Italy. Many of us who organize these events around the world will converge on the West Coast of Italy to discuss our organizing efforts, our poetry, our local strategies and issues for six days. I’m very excited to attend. There are people coming from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East…I don’t know for sure, but possibly Australia, as well. All over the world. It has also been eye opening, the bureaucracy and difficulties some of the organizers have encountered getting visas to Italy or permits to leave their own countries. Some have not succeeded and thus won’t be joining us, unfortunately.
- Why poetry? Some tell me that writing poetry is their “exhale” and others tell me that they write simply because they can. Why do you write? And why poetry?
I think the question for me is broader. I don’t only write poetry. I write prose (flash fiction and longer form fiction, essays). Recently I’ve been doing research and writing for documentary film. I’ve written a few songs, as I play guitar. I have painted, drawn, sculpted…perhaps it is why art? First, I have to write and to play music. Not doing either of these things is not possible for me. I’ve tried a few times to stop one or both. They come back and torment me until I dance with them again, like Uncle Walter and the bears in the song, Waltzing with Bears.
However, I have a deeper, philosophical answer. Art matters. While commercial commodification and capitalist exploitation tend to dilute and marginalize art in public discourse, the fact remains that art matters. What we call art, by which I mean all of the arts (writing, visual arts, theatre, music, dance, etc.) act as a sort of DNA of culture. It transmits to the living cells of society—us, individuals—information, but it also passes this information on to the future. It considers and is influenced by the past, but it takes that past and through recombination, creates a new organism that evolves. Physical DNA takes generations upon generations to achieve evolutionary change. Culture, through art, potentially could evolve in a generation or two.
This is why the wealthy and powerful want to control and horde it, even while at the same time saying pay no attention to it, it’s not important. It is important. It’s dangerous. It’s alive. And it has more of a hold on me than I ever will have a hold on it.
- I hear you have a book of poetry currently with the publishers titled “War Surrounds Us”, firstly, when is this book due to be released?
The printer’s proof has been accepted, and, if all goes well with shipping, I should have copies of it at the 100TPC conference in Salerno. As it is shipping internationally, that might not happen… the official publication date is mid-July, though. By then, it should be on Amazon, bookstores should be able to order it in the US and EU, and readers of this interview should be able to get a copy. Please do get a copy. Please. Thank you.
- Your book of poetry, what is the “theme” of the book?
Well, I think the title is the theme: War Surrounds Us. If you read through the international news each day online, say on BBC or AP, and take note, you will probably find in almost every region of the world some battle, suicide bombing, arson attack, or the like, in almost every region—labelled as terrorism, linked to various of the many, many active groups who claim credit for these things, or to nations, or to coalitions.
However, the poetry in my book is much more specific. The poems come from last summer (2014) and the period of the Israeli-Gaza conflagration. The first poem is largely a “found poem” of news updates coming up on my screen, showing the buildup to one of the series of rockets fired out of Gaza and airstrikes against Gaza from before the full-blown “operation” began. Inevitably, it seems, war comes.
The poems chronicle my observations, experiences, and concerns during the war—particularly observing effects on my young son, who was 3 at the time and turned 4 just after the ceasefire that finally held. While my perspective necessarily is that of who I am—an American-Israeli Jew living in West Jerusalem—I do try to imagine and to observe Palestinians in the poems, too. For example, I observe the strange surrealism of sitting in a forest eating ice creams next to an Arab family, both of us laughing at the mess our children are making, smiling at each other as neighbors will—while all the adults are also aware of the death and destruction only a few hours’ drive away.
The title poems comes from a trip we make to the north, out of the range of the rockets and air raid sirens. We go to pick apples at an orchard that is near a border crossing into Syria, the Quinetra Crossing that hit the news a few weeks later when insurgents captured UN soldier there. We hear the thudding of artillery just over the hills, first to the left, then to the right, then to the left… war surrounds us.
But, as I said at the start, it surrounds us all. We are in the midst of a giant conflict, worldwide, with a lot of different factions and a lot of different coalitions, armies here, rebels there, insurgents across the river, militants in the mountains. In the U.S., police shootings seem to be on the rise, there are riots, there are motorcycle gangs shooting each other one week and trying to provoke at a mosque the next. In the Ukraine, a battle rages with Russia. In Europe gun and bomb attacks rock the cities. In Asia there are insurgencies. It’s not just the Middle East. The violence is everywhere.
And we need to stop it.
- What instigated/compelled you to write it?
See question 6.
- In Israel, is the perception of man different to the perception of poet? And if so, in what way/s?
I honestly don’t know. When I first visited here, I was already a poet. I have only been a poet in Israel. I do feel that when people hear that I’m a poet, they have more respect here than in the U.S. However, I’m not sure that means much or is “real.” It’s just an impression, that people seem to think it’s meaningful. I hope it is. It’s not lucrative, but I’m not after lucre, I guess. If I were, I’d write for the business or banking worlds or not even write…do something with a better financial return on investment, as it were. If anyone wants to pay a little lucre for my poems, though, I’m happy to have it to pay the bills.
- If you were given the opportunity to meet with one person from History, who would you meet? Where? And what would you say to them?
I’m sure my answer would differ depending on when you asked me and what I was writing about or thinking about at the time. Today, the answer is that I’d like to meet one of the Anonymous poets. Anonymous is one of the most famous poets, she’s collected in almost every anthology. Who was she? I’d like to speak to one of them, to talk about the poems she wrote, those we know and those we don’t. I’d ask her why she thought her name didn’t travel down with them to us, and what were her motives for writing. I’d like to know what helped her continue to write anonymously. Of course, she might not have been anonymous in her own time (or mind). And I’d like to learn about that, too.
- Who are your favourite poets and why? (Modern Day and the “Greats”)
Which chapter of the book would you like me to use to answer this huge questions? LOL.
Why is probably too idiosyncratic or else too obviously general to answer meaningfully, but I trace my own influence-ancestry in poetry to these names (among others, and not in correct chronological order I suspect):
Walt Whitman, probably the first really American voice
William Carlos Williams
Lorna Dee Cervantes
The answer to why for any one would require an essay or three. In general, I like their poetry, they resonated for me, when I read them something changed, vibrated, sang out, generated in me new sparks and poems. I know that I left names out. They must be in another chapter.
- If you could make just one change to the world we live in, what would that change be? And why?
I think we need to have concern for, show, and act on our mutual humanity now more than ever. We cannot fall back to the old nationalistic family feuds and Xenophobia, we must see the divine spark of life and joy that each of us possesses as our human potential. Much more important than ideology, politics, even culture and art, is the need to treat each other as fully-human neighbors, people we choose to and want to figure out how to live alongside of in ways that promote what is best for everybody. We have to be less selfish, less concerned about winning, less interested in material gains and having power over. We have to figure out how to live together well. If not, we are going to destroy ourselves and likely the planet along with us.
- Given the opportunity, where in the world would you opt to reside and why?
I visited Croatia once and very much liked it, especially in the northwest. I also found Slovenia beautiful. But one place? Could it be a sailing cruiser, so I could travel around? I really want to explore more of the world. I don’t think I’ve seen enough to choose one place.
- What is your favourite poem of all time?
“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop — that’s today’s answer. Come back tomorrow for a different answer.
- What are your aspirations for the future?
To get a regular gig as a poet-teacher, or poet-poet, for that matter…salary enough to keep afloat, part or all of the job expectation would be to write and create, create and write.
- If you could start your life over from the start, would you? And if so, what would you change and why?
There are so many things about which I could easily say, sure, change that. But wait…if that didn’t happen, would I have done some other thing… so, okay. I have scars and I have regrets. Yet start over? If I could take all I know along with me, maybe. What could I choose to change, though? It’s like chaos theory, if you change that butterfly’s wing flapping, the whole world is different. But what would it be? And would it be better? I wish I had made some different decisions, financially, some years back. But if I had, where would I be now? I wish I had gone straight down a certain street instead of turning off of it, but maybe a car would have hit me as I continued in that direction. It’s the life I have. I can’t re-start it, but if I could, I’m not sure I would. Probably not. I like most things about my life now, and what I don’t like—mostly working hard as adjunct faculty for little pay—isn’t that important, no matter how much it looms at times. Well, I don’t like violence, conflict, war…but starting my life over won’t do much about those.
The world has gone mad. Again.
And again, voices incite–the hoarse leaders
pretend to have been polite. They did not shout
fear and hatred to explosive tension, to a thin-
wire stretched, first sounding a note then cracking,
snapping in two, each piece twisted. The world goes
mad. Again. The leaders call for calm, like arsonists
who work in the fire department. The fires burn
in the streets at night. The checkpoints flow
with blood and tears. And most of us just want
to go to work, have coffee with friends, teach
our children something other than this craziness
in a world gone mad. Again. And most of us want
to turn away and not see the burning, the smoke,
the arsonists lining up toy soldiers at borders
ready to pounce, to attack, to burn. Again.
© Michael Dickel.
Michael’s book, “War Surrounds Us” will be available to purchase mid-July. ISBN: 978-0-9896245-2-7
I will announce the book’s release, hopefully through official press release, on these pages and will include cover jpg’s etc. at the point of launch, so purchasing this amazing book will be made easier for all who wish to own it.