A Sense of Flight: An Interview with James Dickey

James Dickey

James Dickey

I have been weeding my papers–less is more–and rescued this 1987 interview with the poet and novelist James Dickey (1923-1997) from a filing cabinet.  If I may say so, I did an excellent job, though I had, alas, to write it up quickly.  Dickey was on a national book tour, promoting his novel Alnilam.

(Note: This charming, brilliant poet was desperate to escape the book tour and the hotel, and asked if he could have dinner at my house.  (It was the freaked-out from the tour vibe.)   I politely told him I had to write up the interview, but much later realized I should have brought him home and let my husband and a couple of friends (surely some friends would have wanted to meet him) entertain him while I worked.)

Here is the interview:

James Dickey

James Dickey

“It’s good, isn’t it?” said James Dickey, flipping through a copy of his newly published novel, Alnilam.

The National Book Award-winning poet and novelist who wrote Deliverance in 1970 strode across the hotel lobby, straw hat adding height to his already looming six foot three.  (“I picked this up in a resort for $2.75.”)  The biggest man in sight, he was also the only one dressed like a sportsman, the only one to have disembarked from a plane with a volume of Ruskin in his hand, and the only one who would ask you to read aloud the epigraphs to his novel.

“Did you like the part about skating?  he asked, turning to page 81.  “I worked hard on that because I like it myself.  I like the idea of skating not just in a roller rink but out on the streets.”

The characters in Alnilam (an Arabic word meaning string of pearls and the name of the central star in Orion’s belt) skate, swim, run, and, most important, fly.  In a poetic novel dense with allusions to myth, philosophy, and even Milton, the motif of flight emerges as the central theme.  When Cahill, the protagonist, learns that his son, Joel, has died in an Air Corps training accident, he travels to the camp to unravel the identity of the son he has never met.

“It’s really a book about the birth of a legend,” Dickey explained.  “Joel is an inexplicable creature of the air himself, a sort of Rimbaud of the air.  He’s a charismatic character for whom everyone has an explanation.

“One of the things I wanted most to do with this book is to restore the true sense of flight.  I just came up here on an airline, but being on an airline is like being in a hotel at 35,000 feet.  Man has been capable of true flight for less than 100 years, and these frail little trainers (planes) that these boys are in give the body the true sense of being caged in the air.”

Dickey’s own experiences during World War II in the Army Air Force indirectly led to his career as a writer.  Between flying missions over the South Pacific, he passed the time writing letters back to women in Atlanta.  “I think the magic moment came when I put something down and I looked at what I had said and thought, ‘That’s not bad.’  I got interested in the thing itself rather than my ulterior motives,” he said, claiming that before that letter he had been more interested in sports than in poetry.

After the war he continued writing while finishing school on the GI bill, and even during six grueling years in the advertising business.  “I did it at night, I did it on airplanes, I did it in restaurants.  The more I did, the more I saw I could do.  I knew that of all the things I had tried, this was the best for me.”

Eventually, as his reputation as a poet grew, he found more congenial work as a college English teacher.  “To a writer, any job is in the way, but no American poet is going to make enough to support himself, let alone anybody else,” he said.  And he loves his work at the University of South Carolina.  “I would never leave teaching.”

Although he admits that poetic language is the mainspring of his two novels, Deliverance and Alniham, he doesn’t insist on that aspect of his work. “Things written in prose, if they approximate poetry, can approximate poetry in a bad sense as well as a good sense,” he said modestly.

Alnilam james dickeyBut Alniham, 682 pages and 37 years in the writing, is stunning, innovative in form, and sharply attentive to prose rhythms.  Parts of the novel are told through the heightened, almost visionary sensibility of the protagonist, who has recently gone blind as a result of diabetes.  Dickey frequently splits the page into two columns, the left-hand side relating Cahill’s impressions and the right-hand side showing the actual scene.  Some reviewers have found this poetic device distracting.

“There’s no correct way to approach it,” said Dickey.  “Part of my intent was that everyone would have his way to deal with it.  Good Lord, is there no ingenuity among reviewers?  I would regard it as a challenge.  I would think I was the only one really capable of solving the true way, and that probably even the author himself didn’t know.”

He says he doesn’t worry too much about trying to please the public.  “If you’re a writer, you look at things from the standpoint of their intrinsic interest to you, whether it would be interesting to spend your time on it, and not necessarily whether it would hold other people.”

He likes to work on several projects simultaneously, booby trapping the house with typewriters and wandering from one to another.  He  is currently at work on two narrative poems.

In his free time, he plays tennis, plays guitar (he composed the guitar music for the movie, Deliverance), and spends time with his family.

During the interview, he charged a glass of wine to his account, slowly spelling out his name for the waitress.  “Dickey, James Dickey, D-i-c-k-e-y.”  Not a flicker of recognition.  Such is the obscurity of an American poet.