- Photo used by permission of Chris Dickey
February 2nd brings a flood of memories from my founding of James Dickey Newsletter and the years of my friendship with James Dickey. This anniversary of Jim’s 88th birthday marks a renewal of the creative spirit behind the Newsletter, in its new, digital format. Of the print form of James Dickey Newsletter, he said that he loved the very “slant” of his name in the printed title. I imagine that if Jim were here, he would like being a part of the technological twenty-first century.
The James Dickey whom I knew was a gracious southerner, a man with sparkling intelligence and a truly engaging wit. He often treated me as a family member, a sister, or niece. At other times, of course, he was the great poet. In spring 1984, I was assigned the committee responsibility of an onerous task: meeting at the airport the visiting celebrity. Back in the days when one could actually go to the gate to meet travelers, I watched approach the man who stood head and shoulders above the crowd emerging from the plane. Although I’d attended Dickey readings at Oglethorpe University and Emory University, I had not met the poet. Here he was, almost as large as his image looming on the screen in the movie Deliverance as Sheriff Bullard. Before getting to know the “real” James Dickey, I thought he had the largest ego of any one I had ever met. After the Newsletter had been published a couple of times, he wrote, “You can call me James, you can call me Jimmy, or you can call me Jim.” Somewhere among those personalities, the great egotist and the man who grew up tentatively in the shadow of an older, dead brother co-existed.
In the years that followed, I enjoyed many visits with Jim when he came to Atlanta for readings and conferences. Various events, too many to name here, followed that first appearance at the celebration of Appalachian Heritage Day at DeKalb College: a two-day poetry workshop and readings; a program entitled The Stars and You; a visit to the Southeast Book Association Conference to publicize To The White Sea; a ten-day session as poet-in-residence at Atlanta-Fulton County Libraries, during which James Taylor, of the Atlanta-Fulton County Libraries, arranged a reading at Manuel’s Tavern, a well-known watering spot. The air conditioning overcome by the number of people crowded into the room, Dickey stripped down to his undershirt, which happened to be a sort of red fishnet affair. Later, during a luncheon with his sister, Maibelle, he related that Deborah allowed him only $50 cash, and he could not afford to buy more shirts. Maibelle said, while we were in the ladies room, “I know Jim is a genius, Joyce, but he acts just like a little boy.” She referred, I think, to their lively discussion over who would pick up the lunch check. Anticipating the brother-sister tug-of-war, I had placed my one-third of the amount on the table before heading to the facilities.
During one long visit, Jim was plenary speaker at a conference in Atlanta of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association while on tour publicizing Wayfarer. In a suite at the Hilton Hotel, he entertained his followers with guitar renditions, especially of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” That some of these serenades took place at 7 a.m. may or may not have added to their charm. Jim was an early riser, and he liked to have congenial talkers and listeners around. Even at 7 a.m. he liked to serenade his listeners, preferably with someone singing along. Each morning I called his hotel room to be sure he was okay for the day, and some guitar playing and singing occurred by phone! Robert Kirschten, Gordon Van Ness, Ernest Suarez, and Robert Morris, among others, enjoyed Jim’s wonderful wit during these visits. Jim occasionally dropped without warning into a pseudo-country dialect, carrying on long exchanges with whoever played the foil. When the James Dickey Society was formed, it soon embraced a group labeled the “Dickey-nuts” by Dr. Matthew Bruccoli. Although men are solitary creatures, none more solitary I think than Jim Dickey, I was privileged to add the communality of women as editor- manager and friend.
Everyone who knew Jim has a “Dickey” story to tell. Mine is a picaresque tale that winds through the years 1984 to 1997. Talking on the telephone to Jim one early morning I mentioned one of my favorite poems, “The Rain Guitar.” Although it had been published fifteen or twenty years previously (The New Yorker 1972), Jim recited it in full. Through the Newsletter I helped him develop the talents of many of his students, as he encouraged me to publish their essays. In a conversation near the end of his life, I reminded him of his promise to live to be 80. “Not like this, Joyce, not like this,” he replied. He was a great and complex man, not perfect, but endlessly fascinating as he lived and related to his own life. Certainly my life was enhanced by editing James Dickey Newsletter and by being a friend of one of America’s great poets.