Matthew Dickman, poet, author of the recent collection Mayakovsky’s Revolver, and very brave man, agreed to talk with me about sex…and writing. Before we began the interview, he read “Four Switches,” a four-part poem he wrote while living alone for a month in Marfa, Texas and not having any sex at all. Matthew was thinking about sex more than normal and decided to write a poem about it, which you can read here. How we all suffer for our art…
How does writing about sex in poetry differ from writing about sex in other genres?
I don’t know if it does. As a reader, I’ve read really honest, great descriptions of sex in poems and I’ve also read it in fiction–sex has been written about in really human and articulate ways. And then I’ve read examples in poems and in prose where it seems like the author’s ideas about sex resonate more as a stock character than anything else. It doesn’t feel intimate or interesting.
What do you think is the sexiest word in the English language?
It’s hard to pick because I begin to think of all these images that are sexy to me. So the word might be linked to that. I think “ankle” is a really sexy word. I love ankles.
What do you think is the dirtiest? Not necessarily a word you think is dirty but one you think makes others feel uncomfortable.
If you include both genders, I think two words that upset people are “cock” and “cunt.” I think partly because of the hard C. Any word that is a single syllable with a hard sound in it is a word with a lot of power. They are both powerful, strong words, but they also carry with them, which is dangerous for some people, an irreverence to the thing they’re supposed to be talking about.
Both of them are complicated by the fact that in pillow talk, they might be used in a really sweet way. They can be intimate sweet things to say between two lovers who are understanding the same language. On the other hand, there is cutting someone off in traffic and then yelling out, “Stupid cunt.” Or a woman at a bar saying no to the belligerent advances of some drunk guy, who then turns to her and because he’s unaccepted by her calls her a “cunt.” It’s a whole different thing. So those words are dirty or unaccepted by people partly because they’re so complicated.
Have you ever written a sexual poem about someone and they realized it was about them and they confronted you about it?
No. Never. I’ve written poems about having sex with somebody in particular, but I’ve always shared those poems with that person before it ever got out into a place where more than the two of us might read it.
The poem “Getting it Right” is one everybody assumes is about somebody. It was written at a time when I really wanted to have a girlfriend, and that was not happening in my life. I wrote this love poem to no one. It’s a list poem, so it starts off “your ankles make me want to party,” (ankles again!) your thighs make me want to do this, your back makes me want to do that, “your ass is a shopping mall at Christmas.” I think of it as my Frankenstein love poem. Like those two boys on the movie Weird Science who put all that stuff into the computer and make a girl. Well they don’t even make a girl, they make a woman. I feel like that was my poem. Whenever I read that, people are always asking who it’s about.
What is the best poem about sex you’ve ever read?
Dorianne Laux’s “The Lovers.” One of the difficulties of writing about sex that doesn’t have to do with shame or embarrassment but about honesty is the problem of positioning the bodies–describing where the bodies are and what the bodies are doing in a real way that stays in the intimacy of things. She does an amazing job of that. Every body part is a different player in a scene, and she’s the director directing it in this beautifully simple way. With sex, people are really obsessed with the genitals, mouth, and chest or breasts. But in this poem, we get to see their whole bodies. For tonight, that’s my favorite.
What’s your favorite poem about sex you’ve ever written?
Probably this poem that appeared in the February issue of Esquire called “Cosmos.” I would say it’s my favorite right now partly because (I hope) that it talks in a lyrical way about the mystery of sex, how you can feel like you’re in outer space.
I wouldn’t consider it vulnerable, but some people have, talking from the male voice about a relinquishing of physical power. So for me I’m interested in something greater than what we’re told as men to be interested in, which is usually power and aggression. That’s interesting, but not if it’s all you’re doing over and over again. In “Cosmos,” the speaker talks about getting choked out a little by the woman he’s with. I like that it talks about that.
That’s another hard thing, being a member of the group I’m in–the white male heterosexual group. So much writing on race and sex from this group is often not that interesting. I’ll read poems by heterosexual men about sex and they’re exactly that. They’re kind of boring, heterosexual fantasies, which are so low-key that I can’t even imagine them as fantasies, but they seem to be. For an example, I’ve read a few poems by men that are about orgies. The descriptions are never like a true orgy. You’re a dude and you’re having sex with two girls, who you never describe having sex with each other. God forbid you relinquish your control and have them be having sex with each other and not need you for a moment.
You mention outer space a lot in your sexy poetry and non-sexy poetry. For example, the poem “Getting it Right” says, “Your mouth/which opens like the legs of astronauts/who disconnect their safety lines and ride their stars into the/billions-and-one/voting districts of the Milky Way.” Why are you so spacehorny?
I love that. Is spacehorny one word? [It is now.] Why am I so spacehorny? I think it has to do with trying to find language to describe how I feel when having sex or just after having sex that is close to that feeling. One of the things that can happen while having sex is that through the physical encounter, one can get pretty fucking close to their inner lives, and that is otherworldly.
I rarely have sex to get away from the body and the realness or the earthiness of the body. I think it’s mainly to explain that tingling feeling. Those experiences are with another person, but because it’s such an inner life experience and can be such an ecstatic experience, outer space is also useful because you’re totally alone. Not alone in a lonely way, but in a really exuberant, positive way.
Also because outer space is sexy. You know, outer space has wonderment. You stare up at the stars. You don’t know what’s there. Outer space still has some of the mystery that sex once had for us when we were younger before we ever started unbuttoning each other’s pants.
Also, I think our genitals might look like outer space aliens a little bit.
Stay tuned for more authors in the Dirty Talk series. Up next is Steve Almond, author of Writs of Passion and contributor to the Rumpus.