Five Hits a Day: the Official Dylan Hicks Website

Hicksy's Infrequently Updated Blog

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September 29, 2015

By the Book, the weekly Q&A conducted in writing for the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, uses boilerplate questions to peek into the reading lives of writers and other prominent figures, especially actors with sideline literary careers. It lets us imagine, perhaps erotically, Jesse Eisenberg’s nightstand, and encourages interviewees to let fly with unsupported endorsements and dismissals. “There’s a fashion now for fat, hyper-intellectual, cooler-than-thou novels that are loaded with lard and siphoned of believable feeling,” Mary Karr complains in last Sunday’s column, “and those bore the dog dookey outta me.” The format doesn’t permit follow-up questions, so one doesn’t learn the names of any of these monstrously fashionable books.

A later stock question about disappointing or overrated books forces Karr into specificity. “I feel like a turd naming names,” she writes, “but the poet John Ashbery’s reputation is inflated enough to take it.” One notes that this is the interview’s second down-home scatology while entertaining doubts about Karr’s qualms. She has already condemned Ashbery’s work in her 2009 interview with the Paris Review, and in a post to her Facebook page in 2013 (“John Ashbery’s poems are the greatest case of the emperor wearing no clothes in cultural history,” a hyperbole she tempers in the Times). In both interviews Karr concedes Ashbery’s brilliance and explains that she was once taken with his work, wrote a 100-page thesis on Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but later “recanted” (I like the word choice and support its recycling). In the Times Q&A she writes, “His poems are about (he admits this) zippo, and his seductive voice is the most poisonous influence in American poetry.” In the Paris Review she says, “Most young poets cannot reproduce the interesting rivulets made by Ashbery’s stream-of-consciousness. In my early work I tried to sound cool, like Ashbery—though I’m profoundly devoid of cool.”

I’m often moved and delighted by John Ashbery’s work, but he can, as Karr says, endure formal and casual dissenters. And one expects unusual work even of firmly established unusualness to breed a certain amount of ongoing hostility; it’d be no fun if it didn’t. In any case, my gappy knowledge of contemporary poetry doesn’t equip me to speak with authority on Ashbery’s influence, though in a moment I might try to speak without it. What interests me is the common idea (not necessarily embedded in Karr’s complaint) that strong avant-garde or otherwise abstract artists yield an especially pernicious influence. Why should this be true?

As two of the above quotes demonstrate, Karr is particularly on guard against fashionable nonsense and emotional reticence, and she wants to steer young writers, at least most of them, away from the defensive poses she bumbled through on her way to a direct and more authentic voice. Also, we can assume, she’d like to steer people away from received sophisticated tastes if those tastes prove, preferably after some serious examination, to be at odds with their dispositions and talents. In some cases, this might be sensible. One doesn’t, after all, want to fake it eternally; one wants to find a mode suited to one’s personality and intellect. Maybe you’re writing fragmentary lyric essays of thudding incoherence when you could be writing memoirs of chiseled clarity; maybe you’re eight years into the draft of a preeningly make-it-new novel when you could be presiding over a drawerful of witty and unproduced screenplays; maybe you’re a not-bad underground poet destined to be a mercilessly effective literary agent.

Whether or not Karr has continued to follow Ashbery, whose later work is often more approachable, she’s not a skeptical dabbler but, it seems, a confident, lessoned apostate whose volte-face apparently came about through overcoming her own insecure charlatanism. If we aren’t instinctively and perennially hostile to avant-garde work, we will almost certainly, at one time or another, be conflicted and anxious in its presence. That’s after all part of the point. (I’m thinking here of self-conscious avant-garde movements from the time of Baudelaire to the present, particularly historical work that still presents challenges to conventional taste.) Many of us can acknowledge, sincerely or in deference to prevailing opinion, that abstract, innovative, tricky art is sometimes great, but we figure its production should be left to those who seem to have some inborn aptitude for it: polymaths, iconoclasts, lunatics, and other oddities. We might think: I could never be James Joyce; he was a genius and learned Norwegian just to write a lousy one-off Ibsen essay; but maybe I could be Anthony Trollope; he just forced himself to bash out two thousand words every damn morning. Alas, we can’t be either of them.

Those of us who have acquired some taste for vanguard art in most cases developed it through work that had already been celebrated, historicized, or canonized. We could try to understand the work’s methods and discover its pleasures without great fear of being duped. It can take a long time, however, to feel qualified to judge experimental work not yet endorsed by reputable authorities. “I had read L’Après d’un faune without extracting a glimmer of meaning,” Max Beerbohm writes in his great story “Enoch Soames,” in which an aspiring young writer meets an alluringly affected Symbolist manqué. “Yet Mallarmé—of course—was a Master. How was I to know that Soames wasn’t another? There was a sort of music in his prose, not indeed arresting, but perhaps, I thought, haunting, and laden perhaps with meanings as deep as Mallarmé’s own.” That doubled perhaps is the echo of a sentence from earlier in the paragraph: “It did now occur to me: suppose Enoch Soames was a fool!”

The unproven experimentalist always takes this special risk: of not only being epigonic or downright inept, but of being ludicrously so.

The shame of pretentiousness, the absurdity of conformist nonconformity. Mark Greif’s recent work of intellectual and literary history, The Age of the Crisis of Man, deals in brief with the American vogue for Kafka’s work sparked by the 1937 publication of Willa and Edwin Muir’s English translation of The Trial (the Muirs’ 1930 translation of The Castle was quietly received). By the early forties, Kafka had inspired colonies of imitators in the little magazines, and Greif quotes several observers who had grown exhausted with this particular and sudden flowering of ersatz strangeness. Here is Philip Rahv: “It is necessary to say to them: To know how to take apart the recognizable world is not enough, is in fact merely a way of lettings oneself go.” This is familiar skepticism: we allow that distinguished works are often (always?) ambiguous and that they might remain somewhat mysterious to their creators. But we’re particularly offended when intellectual status is granted to pro forma, undisciplined, purposeless strangeness. By the sixties and seventies, Clement Greenberg, the great champion of abstract expressionism, post-painterly abstraction, and other innovations, had grown suspicious; he worried about “the large absence of decisions that could be felt as ‘meant,’ as intuited and pressured, and not just taken by default. That’s just it: that so many of the decisions that go into the supposedly newest art go by default, become automatic, and by the same token arbitrary, decisions.”

I just wanted to post a paragraph to Facebook! A few stray thoughts, then, in closing:

“Weaker talents idealize,” Harold Bloom wrote, “figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves.” Exciting, innovative, great artists will naturally prod undistinguished derivations. Extravagant innovations might lead to impasses for pathbreakers and followers alike. Needless to say, great art will also inspire other great art, as well as worthy art from those of us who are less than great. It’s true that John Coltrane’s later music led some tenor saxophonists to falsely believe that they too could sustain half-hour free improvisations climaxing with emotive explorations of the instrument’s most Himalayan register. It’s also true that, in and out of jazz, Coltrane suggested extremely rich avenues of expression, and continues to do so. I think maybe John Ashbery’s model has made my relatively conventional novels slightly better; sometimes you need to roll with these optimistic hunches.

It’s blandly true that artists grow interesting through the often humiliating discovery of their strengths and limitations. Maybe you’ve read work in the style of David Foster Wallace or Maggie Nelson by a writer who doesn’t evince extraordinary intelligence. Maybe you’ve thought, condescendingly, that the writer might turn out okay if only he or she could settle on more modest aims. Maybe—sigh—you’ve come to such conclusions after reading work stored in the memory of your own computer. Okay. But do we really believe that apprentice or enduringly minor artists would be better served by different models? Wouldn’t they just create minor work in a different style?

In her perhaps cathartic dismissals, Karr is careful to say that Ashbery is modest and charming—in other words, not a charlatan, even if his work is in her view ultimately empty. Still, general concerns about an avant-gardist’s influence often betray the prejudice that experimentalists are desperate for in-crowd approval and will pursue any abstruse sham to win it. (Similarly, experimentalists will often impute venality and dull-wittedness to formally conservative artists.) Have you ever attended a party where one of the guests is wearing a silly hat? Did you speak to this guest and discover that she was not in fact insufferable? In my experience, experimentalists are no more likely to be phonies than artists working in more traditional modes, though of course their work might be terrible, might cry out for naysaying.

Clarity is a virtue worthy of a life’s pursuit; it’s probably more threatened by careless or dishonest convention than by virtuosic abstraction.

All right, “now give me my pants and money and let me go back and join the others. They’re crying, you know.”






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Bland Boy

September 11, 2015

Almost thirty years ago, Lorrie Moore came up with the “Lovesick” anagram “Sock Evil,” but still no one has recorded a complete anagrammatic reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. I’ve at least gotten a start, which spurred a few outstanding contributions from Dustin Long. I figured it was okay to add or delete punctuation:


Sock Evil (Lovesick; Lorrie Moore)
Sordid Bat Rule (Dirt Road Blues)
Thanatos Gyre, Odin Wind (Standing in the Doorway)
Mini Limes? LOL! (Million Miles)

Goat Teeth Inventory (Tryin’ To Get To Heaven; Dustin Long)

Intuitively Hollow Life (‘Til I Fell in Love with You; Dustin Long)
Tart Donkey (Not Dark Yet)

Consul Odd Robin (Cold Irons Bound; Dustin Long)

Yoke Me a Lovely Fume (Make You Feel My Love; Dustin Long)
Twain Act (Can’t Wait–attention Hal Holbrook)



I have a chorus for Track Three:


(G) Thanatos gyre, Odin wind

Death’ll (C) drive me into history’s dustbin (G)

Or a (C) Norse god come around an’ do me (Em) in, in, in!

(C) Thanatos grye (D7) and a’ Odin wind (G).


Another wrinkle would be anagrammatic Dylan songs aptly sung to the tunes of other Dylan songs. So “Yo, Je,” an anagram for “Joey,” could be a vaguely polyglot version of “I and I.”


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I Wanna Be Around

August 21, 2015

Last night I saw Terence Davies’s 1988 movie, Distant Voices, Still Lives, for the first time. Some of you may know the movie; if not, it’s a somewhat autobiographical collage about working-class Liverpudlians in the forties and fifties, told largely through music: from Benjamin Britten to torch ballads to British and American folk songs to blues to novelties to movie scores. It seems rare in its retrospective depiction of the richness, diversity, and vibrancy of music accessible to average people after the war but before rock ‘n’ roll. The movie did depict a world that one, particularly women, would want to be liberated from, but music was depicted as a force of that potential liberation, not a symbol of blandness and repression. I understand, too, of course, how exciting and relieving rock and R&B was to many of Davies’s boomer contemporaries, but it was it was great to see a less familiar depiction of that era’s pop music. Great movie in other respects, too.

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August 10, 2015

I’m really excited about the beautiful and cleverly referential cover art Carolyn Swiszcz did for (my 2016 novel) Amateurs. That cover’s still in production, but here’s Carolyn’s website.

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August 10, 2015

Something like Less Than Zero crossed with Dirty Mind, Miguel’s latest album, Wildheart, is a murky exploration of decadence, ambition, alienation, and sex, quite a lot of sex, as performed in the singer and auteur’s native Los Angeles. As on 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, we’re offered a tasting menu of romantic and sexual stances: devoted, paternalistic, coy, dominant, though this time more space is given to rougher role-play. “NWA,” with a spongy bass drum out of Mr. Collipark and a persona out of R. Kelly, promises, you might say threatens, sex hard enough to at least temporarily alter the partner’s gait. The whole thing would be wonderfully sexy, if I didn’t speak English. Elsewhere Miguel is more likable and vulnerable, but the mood, in the great L.A. tradition, is always mixed. The album’s signature moment might be the glammy guitar riff that drives the washout anthem “Hollywood Dreams”: the notes descend with the dream, and somehow this defeat is uplifting.

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July 21, 2015

The sensible thing, I know, would be to post articles as they’re printed, but I try to be faithful to the “infrequently updated” billing. So here are a few pieces of fairly recent journalism: an interview conducted over email with scholar and critic Eric Weisbard about his book “Top 40 Democracy,” and several book reviews for the Star Tribune: on David Gates, on Robert Gipe, on Casey Gray, and on Nell Zink.

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I was having trouble …

July 20, 2015

… making progress on what I ought to be working on, so I jotted down some notes on Trainwreck instead.

As has been noted, the movie to some degree subverts romantic comedy formulas by giving its female protagonist qualities customarily reserved for the male love interest in a gigolo-reformation plot. Screenwriter Amy Schumer’s character, also named Amy, is in some ways a self-possessed voluptuary—she enjoys sex without commitment, and her pot smoking and apparent alcoholism hasn’t yet stymied her professional ambitions. On the other hand, her partying and the no-sleepovers carapace that attends it is an unwanted patrimony, an echo of her now ailing father, who left the family to pursue unrestrained libertinism when Amy and her younger sister were very young. So it’s sex-positivity laced with shame or at least tied to childhood trauma. The psychology hasn’t been fussed over and is introduced facetiously, though we’re asked to lend it some weight. Needless to say, romantic comedies are in the business of promoting monogamy and convention, but Schumer and director Judd Apatow haven’t risked making their opposites look too appealing.

It’s traditional, of course, for female romcom protagonists, and their literary antecedents, to have a character flaw whose self-recognition and correction enables the happy romantic conclusion, some rigidity that can be softened only by true love, but it’s rare for a woman to play a romcom lead in need of full-scale redemption. This protagonist is the sort of wounded, often repellant, defensively cruel character sometimes played by Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, or Adam Sandler, and as such it’s a bold challenge to double standards of likability.

Lest we feel to at sea with all this inversion, Amy works in publishing, and her love interest, Aaron, is a very successful doctor with a beautiful apartment and celebrated patients—but these conventions are employed with some originality. When Amy first visits Aaron’s apartment, she asks, during dimly lit foreplay, if he owns the apartment, a funny and inspired way to articulate the financial stakes.

Judd Apatow seems like a decent guy, but I sure dislike his movies.

Amy’s father is supposed to be simultaneously loathsome and lovable, though the latter quality isn’t made apparent to the audience. In a rehearsal of one of the most tiresome and (I’d thought, waning) comedic screenwriting conventions of the past several decades, the father is mostly on hand to make sensationally bigoted remarks that Amy the character can chastise while Amy the screenwriter hopes for our gasps of shocked hilarity. In the reasonably crowded and somewhat diverse suburban theater in which I saw the movie, these jokes sparked no laughter, silences that gave me as much pleasure as anything in the movie itself. The movie’s satire of the protagonist’s much milder racism is, alas, a bit flat and shopworn as well.

Some fun scenes, sure. These are notes, not a review.

In another overfamiliar line of dubiously hip sophomoric comedy, a fair amount of attention is paid to ineptly closeted men who blurt out their uncontainable desires in often racy detail. Of course, minor comedic movie characters tend to reveal themselves clumsily—it’s efficient, for one thing—and part of the comedy here has to do with how mismatched Amy is with the sort-of boyfriend she has in the movie’s first act. But certainly much of this material here is predicated on the idea that straight audiences still find queer sexuality inherently funny, but might feel more enlightened if they seem to be laughing at artifice rather than difference, or laughing at someone else’s homophobia rather than indulging their own. In addition to the movie’s two closeted characters, there’s a third guy, from a tryst thwarted in the nick of time, whose sexual proclivities and techniques are ridiculous mostly because they’re undeveloped and incompetent (he turns out to be sixteen), but also because he’s androgynous. When, in a scene set in the living room of Amy’s more conventional sister, a prim bourgeoise makes a homophobic remark, Amy’s rebuke feels unearned.

The Dots were very fresh; excellent mouthfeel.




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WPA Revue

January 14, 2015

I’m really excited to put on this show Thursday, Jan. 15 at Walker Art Center. Also I’m looking forward to being able to sleep without a pill. 

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Prince Article

July 5, 2014

Here’s a longer piece I wrote about Prince for Mpls.-St. Paul magazine.



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All-Time Top 20 Pairs of Dylan Hicks’s Socks. How Many Have You Worn?

December 8, 2013

1. Brown-and-green argyle with orange toe stitch
2. White athletic, red paint stain near right toe
3. Brown dress, left behind by houseguest and never returned
4. White and off-white baby socks, mismatched
5. Cream dress, above the calf
6. Blue-and-white winter socks with red accents and snowflake motif
7. Obligatory 2010s casual-Friday sock with brightly colored horizontal stripes
8. Blue-and-purple argyle, potato expanding severely above right heel
9. Pale-pink athletic, formerly white
10. Red, washed mistakenly with whites
11. L.L. Bean boot socks, green
12. Wool cycling socks, gray, black, and red
13. White gym, above the calf with blue cuff stripes
14. Cream dress, first pair
15. Light-blue baby with fancy turndown cuff
16. Gray dress
17. Black cycling socks with Grateful Dead bears ringing cuff (gift, lightly worn)
18. Cream dress, second pair
19. White athletic, blue heel
20. Cream wool, winter running

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