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Barry Dickson: Poet, humorist & recovering Mad Man


By Carolyn Males

If your idea of a poet is a soulful sort who gazes down at the world from on high, laboring over verse in a garret, you clearly haven’t met Barry Dickson. Sure, he might get up in the middle of the night to scribble metered lines. Or you might spot him people-watching from a park bench, jotting down the images floating around his brain. But that’s where the stereotype of a poet removed from everyday life ends.

Read one of Dickson’s poems and you’ll find the world tilting at unexpected angles. Sometimes it leaves you laughing out loud as he maneuvers you to strange juxtapositions. In comedy that’s called indirection: you’re going along one route when suddenly you’re yanked by a wacko image into a whole new realm.

But, in more serious works, that same technique can jar you, shaking you out of complacency into thoughtful reconsideration of preconceived notions. Humor, after all, can piece those walls of complacency and self-protection we wrap ourselves in.

Over the years, I’d heard Dickson read at Island Writers’ Network open mic events where, like a skilled stand-up comedian, he’d get the audience roaring at a funny line only to zing them with that unexpected twist. This talent has earned him accolades: a finalist in the North American Review and a Special Mention for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.

Recently, we met up for coffee to discuss his new book, Maybe Today. But first we delved into just how one goes from selling laundry detergent to crafting wry observations in verse.

[Q] So you started out in advertising?

[Barry Dickson] I was a real-life Mad Man except I caught the era at its end. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember that much sex and booze). At the time I was senior at Temple University and didn’t know what to do with my life. Then one day I read a Wall Street Journal article about what advertising copywriters do. It said they have a great time, make lots of money and they do crazy stuff like smoke grass in the stairwell. I said, ‘this is it! I’m going to go into advertising and write funny commercials!’

[Q] Obviously you were wacky enough to make it on Madison Avenue.

[BD] Put that in the article! Say, this guy you’re having coffee with, trust me, he’s wacky enough. As an adman, I worked on products and political campaigns including a gubernatorial campaign – Eugene Nickerson’s who lost to Nelson Rockefeller. Then I went on to a couple more agencies.

[Q] So you agency hopped.

[BD] Everybody in the business does. You’re trying to go up the ladder, and part of how you do that is you switch agencies and go on to a higher job. Sometimes you get “agency hopped.” There’s a lot of firing and a lot of waking up at three in the morning, wondering if your job is going to be there. If an agency loses an account, the whole team is out of work on Monday. I had a couple of those.

[Q] What was the decisive moment when you knew it was time to leave?

[BD] I did an ad for Berlitz language tapes. That was in the days when we thought you could learn things by playing a tape while you slept and you’d wake up in the morning and be speaking French. I was given the assignment to come up with the ad for the Greek one. So I did it with the headline “Absorba the Greek.”

Then years later when I was a creative director, I had all these young writers and artists in a meeting where I was recommending against using puns in advertising because they make very corny ads. But once in a while, I told them, one really works. So I pulled out my old “Absorba the Greek” ad, and I waited for their smiles. But they just looked at me. I said, “What’s the matter? You don’t like this ad?” They said, “We don’t get it.” They had no idea who Zorba the Greek was. That’s when I started wandering around the South looking for a place to retire to.

[Q] What was your poetic awakening?

[BD] Somewhere around 2009 or so, I’m sitting in my office on Madison Avenue and somebody stops by and says we’re going to a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y. Do you want to come? So I went, and the place was packed. Garrison Keillor and Billy Collins, the U.S. poet laureate, were doing dueling anthologies where they read other people’s poems from the anthologies they edited. “You gotta four-liner, I gotta four-liner.”

Somewhere in the middle of it, I got this overwhelming feeling: I can do this! In the cab on the way back, after they finally peeled me out of my chair, I took an envelope out of my pocket and wrote a poem. I became obsessed. I’d wake up at three in the morning, and write poems. I’d be in business meetings, and people would think I’m taking notes on the meeting. I wasn’t taking notes, I was writing poetry!

[Q] How did you hone your craft?

[BD] I started going to seminars. I’d go up to the Robert Frost place in New Hampshire and meet all these famous poets. And I’d sit in the chair where Robert Frost wrote poems, and I’d write a poem until someone said, “Dickson, get out of Frost’s chair! You’re not supposed to sit there!”

Then I did readings and sent out poems to journals and started getting letters back saying, “We’re going to put it in our October issue.” [He raises his hands and eyebrows in surprise.] You talking to me?

[Q] Your new book Maybe Today contains a lot of those offbeat, funny observations that served you well in advertising, but there’s also a lot of serious stuff.

[BD] It isn’t just jokes. It’s using humor and satire to comment on our lives and the world around us. My title poem “Maybe Today” is one of those poems I like to hit you over the head with after you laugh a couple of times. It’s a pretty damned serious. Maybe today’s the day the world will change, and we will stop seeing things like Black people being dragged behind trucks because they’re Black, and gay people being kicked to death, and women and kids being trafficked. “Maybe Today” is dedicated to a Mexican-American kid in Texas who was nearly beaten to death by white teens just for talking to their sister.

[Q] Any advice on getting published?

[BD] Just keep writing, join a group like Island Writers’ Network, and find other writers who will comment on your work. Go to workshops. Take a chance on reading your work. You might think ‘Oh, God, I can’t show this to anyone; they’ll think I’m an idiot.’ Well, that’s what the people you’re reading thought about their own work to begin with.

As for publishing, I just spent a year writing a manuscript of actual things that happened in my life, and I’m getting responses from agents and publishers who say, “I love this, but it doesn’t fit in with what we’re doing.” Meanwhile I’m dabbling in flash fiction, short pieces of 250 words.

So my obvious advice is don’t give up. Remember the percentage of writers who don’t send out their work and don’t get published is 100 percent. Guaranteed rejection.


MAYBE TODAY
In this collection, Barry Dickson skewers the absurdities of the human condition using humor and satire. But just when you think that’s mainly what you’re getting, he sneaks one in on you that’s totally serious. Come to think of it, they’re all totally serious. Even the funny ones.


Message from my late mother to all governments
In Loving Memory: Lillian Davis Dickson Siswein

Here here, no fighting. Stop it!
Be careful with that, you’ll hurt someone.
All right you guys, knock it off.
Eh, eh, no hitting, no hitting…I don’t care
who started it, no hitting.
Don’t leave this place looking like a cyclone hit it.
What in the world is going on?

Now look what you’ve done.

— Barry Dickson


Silence

I am amazed at how quiet the stars are.
Not a peep.
You would think a 400-billion-ton ball of burning gas
hurtling 64 million miles a minute
would at least make a swooshing sound.
I mean, the people upstairs can’t even
flush a toilet without waking me up.
I know, I know, sound does not travel through space
because it is a vacuum and therefore there is
no medium to carry it.
But don’t give me that. I saw Star Wars.
You can hear a laser beam hit a space ship
across this vacuum, BOOM!
Apparently, we need sound so much
we put it where it’s not.

So how come we’re not better listeners?

— Barry Dickson