INTERVIEW with Kent Dixon
KD: Hey, you’re the guys that came to me. I had the same question at the time. But we’re looking for more than that brief bio at the back, right? One of those KENT H. DIXON is primarily a fiction and non-fiction writer—published in TriQuarterly, Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Reviw and so on, his nonfiction in Florida Review, Energy Review, Kansas Review, The American Prospect, his translations (French, German, Classical Greek) here and there, has received grants and awards and several Pushcart nominations for his work, and taught literature and creative writing at Wittenberg University until retiring in 2013, and now teaches a summer course, “Creative Writing & Kayaking,” when not traveling, cooking and gardening in Springfield, Ohio, where he lives with his writer wife and five or six kayaks. He’s lost count.
OPEN: Creative writing and kayaking?
KD: Yeah, it’s a hoot. “Rivers: Reading, Writing, and Running Them.” We spend about half our time out on the river, mild rapids and a handful of man-made waves, and then we write about it.
OPEN: What if I’m a complete novice?!
KD: There’s a training period. Can you swim?
OPEN: No, I mean the writing part. [both laugh]
KD: I should post a couple of the student essays in my webpage. Some are pretty good, about conquering fears and all. I’ve got a couple of my own there, at kenthdixon.com, and some really great pictures and videos. You’d see how much we all love it. And come to think, regarding that webpage… Besides the KAYAKING theme, and JAIL, and TRANSLATIONS and so forth, there’s one called AUTHOR, in which I attempt to cover what you asked at the outset—why read this guy—with cut-aways to various of my stories and essays. A sort of a brief-bio guide to my largely autobiographic writing.
OPEN: I was going to ask you about that. Having looked at some of those flash fictions you sent to OPEN, it seemed to me you use your life a lot, in your writing. I’m reluctant to do that, especially in this day and age.
KD: Yeah, right about that, but I’ve already been harassed. Got a good story out of it, in fact. But actually, the short shorts posted in OPEN are the least of my autobiographical. Look at the Jail pieces. Them’s not me, ferdamsure! But my longer stories and essays… I seem to write a lot about my childhood, about it and from within it.
KD: Well, I loved it, for one thing. And I seem to remember a lot of it vividly, but the writer reason . . . ? I think I perceive childhood, those brilliant intuitions we lived by as kids all mixed in with our necessary cluelessness as kids, call it innocence, I see that as a kind of metaphor for us as adults, even for human kind. The world we don’t know. Think if we change ourselves in the next two hundred years as much as we have in the past two hundred; or, maybe basically, there’s hardly any change. Hence I’m well read up on primates, and I’m ever reading ancient lore, authors, obsessively looking for soul mates from 500 B.C. or so. Ἀνακρέων ὁ Τήϊος. A poem I wrote in college:
Ah, Tean Anacreon and Issa,
whom I love and would surely love me,
you would not get along.
He was a rowdy guy, Anacreon, and dear Issa—those exquisitely sensitive haiku…
O, little fly,
who washes his hands,
and washes his feet.
OPEN: Dueling sides of your personality?
KD: [laughs] Probably so! I feel ‘em, you know? You do more than just take in what you read. You take out. You’re taken out, slipping into the writer. Look at my two Sappho translations on my website: I swear I got to know that girl, and tried to bring that cross-over into the translation. It’s a craziness you go through, or so I suspect the best translators do. When I was doing a massive rendition of The Epic of Gilgamesh, collaborating with my artist son for our graphic novel of the epic, I actually had a dream one night in which Sin-leqi-unnini, the accepted author from around 1200 BC, came to the foot of my bed and with some impatience told me how to solve a big problem we’d been fretting over—whether to include the last tablet or not. Tablet XII doesn’t tie in with the first eleven, the epic proper: Enkidu is alive again and acting more like a servant than Gilgamesh’s bosom buddy; a lot of translators just leave it off, with a wee footnote calling it “the inorganic appendage.” But the tablet has such great visuals, we couldn’t bear to part with it.
OPEN: And so this Sin-legi…whoever, what’d he tell you?
KD: Unninni. Sin-leqi-unninni, who has actually inscribed his name at the bottom of a couple of the clay tablets, he sort of shook his head at me and said, “It’s a dream, stupid.”
I went and looked at the cuneiform transcription, the actual Akkadian, at the head of Tablet XII, you know, for anything like ‘dream.’ Guess what. The first ten lines of that tablet are missing, or so corrupted you can’t read them. I only needed one or two lines:
Yet another night the old king tossed and dreamed away —
if only he’d left the pukku in the carpenter’s house that day . . .
KD: Doesn’t matter. It’s a kind of hockey stick, as best you can tell. But he’s dropped them into the Underworld, his pukku and his mekku, and Enkidu, who’s been dead for half the epic, comes along offering to go get them. It’s so weird it is dream-like, and then there’s Sin-leqi telling me to just attach the whole tablet as a dream. It works! Kevin’s—my son—our graphic novel of the whole epic is coming out in in March. It’s really fun. Good stuff on it in my website.
OPEN: So this is an actual translation, from, what is it, Babylonian? What made you want to translate an entire epic from the Babylonian?
KD: It’s short!
OPEN: Where’d you pick up Babylonian?
KD: I didn’t really. Mine’s a rendition, not a translation, but I did take a correspondence course at the Oriental Institute, at Chicago—“Cuneiform by Mail.”
OPEN: [laughs] That’s sort of an oxymoron.
KD: Right. Cuneiform wedges inscribed on clay tablets, versus email! The course was only two or three months, but I was teaching, et cetera, so had to get extensions, so I corresponded with that Assyriologist for about a year. I learned over a hundred of those damn things, the syllables—it’s not an actual alphabet, so you’re learning parts of words, hundreds and hundreds of word cells—I’ve got some homework on the webpage—it’s hard, scribes spent their whole lives at it, but my little incursion gave me enough reading ability to be able to look up individual words in the huge Chicago Assyrian Dictionary—twenty something volumes, begun in the 1920s and finished only a few years ago! It’s an amazing piece of scholarship. So I was ‘translating’ a little bit. I call mine “an enriched rendition.” I could look up words, mainly to augment the sensory dimension. I ‘enriched’ my rendition with sensory detail—something the original is weak in. Full explanation on the website.
OPEN: I’ll have to look. I should have looked before we interviewed!
KD: It wasn’t up yet.
OPEN: Can you remember any of it, the cuneiform? I’ve studied a couple of modern languages, before I went to the countries—Greek and Italian mainly. It was useful, but having been, I didn’t keep it up and now I can’t do diddle.
KD: No, you’re right. You have to maintain it, if you learned it as an adult. I’ll tell you a fascinating thing, though, about that cuneiform. I guess I was in my 60s when I was immersed in it, so I was already aware that my memory wasn’t what it used to be—slower to get words, losing names and so on—and building up those words out of that chicken scratch was hard work, but after a few months, I noticed my memory was improving. I mean drastically. I was recalling things from childhood that I’d never revisited, and then things around those things, on either side. It was like finding a lost moldy box of 8 mm films from your childhood. My memory was strengthening like a neglected muscle, from a rigorous regular workout. Sha nakba i-mu-ru . .
OPEN: Babylonian, I take it?
KD: Akkadian. It’s the first line of the Gilgamesh: He who saw everything . . . knew everything, remembered everything . . .
OPEN: So do you think of yourself as a translator or a writer? You do a number of languages. How did you acquire? Say something about your education. Training. Also, I want to ask about early influences, or important ones.
KD: I had a lot of French in prep school, five years. Got to college at UNC, Chapel Hill, and found myself in 3rd year French courses right off the bat. So I majored in it. That happened to suit the Comparative Literature department’s requirement of ‘advanced’ ability in at least one additional language, so I double-majored, French and Comp Lit. Mind you, I was doing pre-med along side that, five chemistry, four biology, physics and so on. Busy boy: I think the requirement for graduation was an overall 134 credits. I had over a 160. Did some summer schools to get it all in. Kicked around France, and Italy, too, a couple of summers. Went broke one summer over there and my parents had gone on a cruise without telling me, so no money arriving at American Express, so I lived off the tourist trade. Pretended I was a guide, hired myself out. I’d listened to a enough of them! But Comp Lit was more for graduate students. You really needed a healthy smattering of all those languages, hence, elementary courses in Italian, German, classical Greek. Falling in love with Rilke, Camus, Pirandello, Ariosto, Moravia, Primo Levi…no logic to it. New Testament Greek, the koinê, it’s easier, like reading Caesar instead of Virgil. But I fell in love with Sappho: I’ve got a ‘Complete Works of Sappho’ translated. That’s a joke: there are only four complete ones. And then those hilarious Anacreontics.
OPEN: Important teachers?
KD: Sure. My Modern Drama course, two courses, Russell Graves, set me up for grad school. Seems we read everything! The French teachers—Jacques Hardré and Dr. Engstrom. He was a riot. Tiny little man with a crooked walk and canes, and he taught from trivia backwards. Take the most insignificant factoid imaginable from a writer’s life, or from the culture, and work backwards to that artist’s place and influence in history, with time spent on the beauty and contribution of his art. My Russian prof, Walter Arndt, had just come out with a translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, vying with Nabokov’s. And not to slight the sciences here. One lab instructor in Qualitative Chemistry, I can’t remember his name, he’d put us in groups and give each group an unmarked test tube, and a narrative about a crime, usually a murder, and we’d have to analyze the solution with spectroscopy and run all sorts of tests, to figure out the murder! Before the other groups solved theirs! He almost made me a Forensic Pathologist!
OPEN: Sounds like a great school.
KD: It was. I think it still is, but harder to get into than in my day, if you’re out of state.
OPEN: What about creative writing? Were you writing, before Iowa?
KD: Only two courses as an undergrad. No time. Then got into Johns Hopkins for just a year, an MA, famous teachers there, Richard Macksey and Elliott Coleman—he led brilliant workshops, only 12 of us I think. Accustomed to a full dance card, I married my college girlfriend and we had our first child at the end of that year—the artist collaborator of our Dixon and Dixon Gilgamesh in fact. We used to draw together when he was a little kid. We can’t remember if we ever did scenes from Gilgamesh, but we did draw Homer, Polyphemus and company. But with him as baby, wife and I went off to my old prep school to teach a couple of years—French and 9th grade English—and thence to Iowa. Couldn’t write a word at the prep school, way too busy—lord, I coached swimming, track, drama, ran a hall, dinner table, handful of clubs. All for $4K a year!—it was the nineteen sixties.
OPEN: So after Johns Hopkins, Iowa was another MFA? You needed a pair of them?
KD: No. In those days you could go for a Ph.D., with a creative dissertation. Not sure you still can, and Iowa also had a program—Modern Letters was it called?—where you could design your own Ph.D. So I did American lit, modern art, and film. Wonderful. I even made films, and finally got a novel completed. I tend to over-do the course work end of things.
OPEN: Hey, it’s better than working! But influences—did Iowa change you as a writer? Who’d you have there, and who were your spiritual fathers—early influences?
KD: Yeah, all fun questions. I think it’s John Gardner in one of his books, advice to young writers, he says read all the Faulkner you possibly can, and then wash it out with all the Hemingway you possibly can. I know I did that, in part, though I didn’t get all the Faulkner out, and Joyce came pouring in at the edges, and I still sound like Nabokov…I mean reaching for. He’s brilliant, but I can hear glimmers of him in my own stuff, but then I also hear Dickens and Brontë and Proust and whomever else I’m reading at the time, lately it’s Knausgaard—pretty much of a chameleon, me. You have to be careful in your reading. I had one instructor at Iowa who said she simply didn’t read when she was fully into a project, to keep from drifting into whoever’s voice—
OPEN: But who at Io’—
KD: Wait. Funny story. When they asked me on my oral exams at Iowa who I felt were my biggest literary influences, I took a chance and told them the truth. I read thousands of comic books as a kid—not just Bugs and Mickey, either. I mean GI Joe and Tales of the Crypt and Young Love . . . those True Romance ones were much less conventional in the early ‘50s. And then the wonderful Classic Illustrated series—Homer and Dante and Austen and Stevenson and Cervantes . . . it was boundless. My Comp Lit major all over again, but when I was 10 years old. They thought I was shitting them but not after I held forth on my young loves, and the process. I really think that habit of running your eye over words and pictures in no particular order, swimmingly immersed in the two mediums, that and being an only child and the countless hours I spent playing with my toy soldiers, I think that’s where/how I became a writer. Those soldiers—lead, hand-painted Civil War Confederate and Union . . . I talked my parents into letting me have a sandbox in my bedroom—hills and valleys and rivers and caves and forest! Little train tracks, trestles. My dad made me an observation balloon—Christmas ornament on a wire. It’s a shame we never thought to take any pictures—but many of those soldiers had distinct personalities. I’ve still got ‘em. Pete and Caleb and Marlow…and General Lee of course. I think it was at Hopkins that I noticed my point of view in my 3rd person stories, was the same angle you’d have on your knees above your sandbox of a re-enacted First Manassas or Shiloh. The actual visual angle, of my pov, you know, seen from up here, peeking over the cornice. I had to work hard to bend it to something else.
OPEN: Fascinating, I wonder if everyone’s point of view has a camera angle. But cut to Iowa. You were there a long time. Who’d you work with and were any of them important for you?
KD: You know, at a place like Iowa, a significant amount of influence is the place itself, your fellow students. We passed our stuff around, met in bars, worked on projects together (films, or the Review, or the endless classroom battles). I’d have to name a dozen fellow Workshop students, for the careful work we did on each others’ stuff—Norman and George and Jane and Gail and Bernie and Arthur and Karin—
[OPEN holds up hand]
Yeah, well, there’s them. Because the writer-writers, most of them, weren’t all that hands-on, not the ones I had. But they were important in other ways—Richard Yates, Gina Berriault, DeNoso, Bourjailly, Starbuck, Gene Garber . . . and the secretary that ran the whole thing without anyone ever realizing it, Connie Brothers. But the key instructor for me was Robert Coover, whom I started out with and had for two full years. He wasn’t much of a line-editor either, at least not the way I came to teach creative writing to my undergrads, but he was deeply inspiring—kind and moral, a social activist (there were riots in the sixties, over the war and Dow Chemical—Bob made a documentary of it).
He would bail people out of jail, he withheld his taxes (war protest), he had us all over to big spreads at his place out in West Branch, ran shot-gun for us with agents and editors. And he didn’t have to line-edit; just a sly question about a character or a movement, and you’d dig back in and bring out something you never knew you knew. He was into so much, knew so many writers. He collaborated with some of us. He and I edited one of the very first anthologies of short shorts to be published in the US; I go on about it in my craft essay in OPEN. And, I read everything he wrote and I still see that influence. But mainly he taught me how to write—discipline, cooling times, when to get help and when not, how to enlarge your arsenal with reading, how to look at things in a new light. I sometimes wonder if I attribute enough credit to him. He was crucial, set a superb example for many, many of us. When people ask about Iowa, I usually say it was the best of times and the worst of times—my marriage went hay-wire, I had so many Incompletes (that turned into F’s after a semester) that I was failing out of my program—I had to drop out and write term papers for a year—and I got custody of the kids; but it was also one of the best times ever—friends, and the work, exposure, the intensity of the anti-war movement, the bars, the winters (you could ice skate up the river for miles), Iowa folk in general—the ones I knew were really good folks. I loved my dog, too, big lazy lug of a Great Pyrenees. Thinking back, I even liked my enemies, kept you on your toes. So, it was the best of times, too, and Coover was at the heart of that even after he’d moved on.
OPEN: What was the Great Pyrenees’ name? [laughter] TMI…? What . . . I donno, what out of all this would you pass on to younger writers? Or why write at all, all that sort of thing.
KD: Yeah, well, sign up for my course, back when I was teaching it. Advice is so easy, such a hit-and-run proposition. Actually, I prefer teaching kayaking—you either get it right or over you go—in white water anyway. With kayaking . . . I’ve given them something for life, like learning to ride a bike. Writing . . . well, English 101 you don’t even want to look at—they still make the same mistakes 20 years later. Creative writing, I don’t know, for me it’s kind of like Hippocrates: do no harm.
OPEN: But why do it at all. Seriously, why write?
KD: There are such good answers to that. Faulkner, ‘for the glory.’ Flannery, ‘because I’m good at it.’ Any number of people, ‘because I can’t stop.’ Because I like to hear myself talk? Or, to find out what I think, what I know. To teach then? Yes, in a sense. ‘Most of all to make you see.’ (Conrad). I think we do find our way through our literature, often inversely. Céline as a moralist! The dialectic of culture—change! Turning the tried and true on its head.
OPEN: I wonder though, why do that? Why trash the tried and the true if it’s really true? Why mess with catharsis?
KD: Coover used to say he thought tragedy was kind of adolescent. And if you think about it, it is—poetic justice and tragic flaws and so on. He said the higher truth wasn’t Aeschylean, it was Olympian. [sings] How the winds are laughing, they laugh with all their might… you know, Joan Baez, the sparrow that’s flitting above the clueless calf on a wagon bound for market. The higher truth is in that laughter, in the comic response, it’s more mature. So your great comic fiction, Cervantes, Swift, Apuleius, all the great ironists, Kafka, take you to an extreme that matches, or even beats, the complicated mix of fear and pity you get from tragedy. Hilarity and pity, maybe, instead of fear and pity. Hilarity about chasing your own tail attached to not wanting to identify with human foolishness. A lot of Coover’s work tries to free us that way.
OPEN: What way. I’m not sure I follow.
KD: Well, look at a Coover story. One thing he does is take a known character, or a cliché or type, or some shop-worn myth, I don’t know, let’s make one up. Charon, let’s say, who ferries the dead across the Styx to their final destination. Actually, there are two rivers, and there’s the coin you have to pay this boatman—it’s put in your mouth for him when you die—in fact, if your family’s broke, no obolus to spare, you wander the shores for a century. A really boring purgatory. And the boatman himself is an unpleasant personality, with a long nasty beard and greasy girdle. How come? Why’s he so unkempt and irascible? Coover might take that on and after a page or so of Charon’s backstory merging into some current activity, ferrying someone say, or re-caulking his boat, you come to know damn well why he acts like a prick. You even identify. And then when he’s got you hooked, Coover will develop it further, into something about—I don’t know, say death—‘become the servant of the metaphor’ he used to say—maybe something about trying to avoid death, maybe about one of those few who manage to come back from it—Hercules gets into a kind of arm wrestle with Charon over his boat pole and wins. That would certainly piss Charon off: two trips across the Styx for the price of one. So Coover will play with it, taking its own internal details at face value and following them until it comes out somewhere entirely different. So you’re left with a whole new take. I’ve never gotten over his “J’s Marriage,” I think it’s in Pricksongs and Descants, about Joseph (of Nazareth) as an old man, musing in a bar, about his improbable wife and miserably executed “son” and what on earth was God doing to him, Joseph, a staunch keeper of the purity rules? I think that story of Joseph inspired, these many years later, a whole collection I’ve got cooking now, where I rework Bible stories and extra-Biblical, from Qumran and Nag Hammadi findings, Gnostic myths and so on. You just skew them a little so you get new possibilities, rather than be stuck in your “tried and true.” Or sometimes, I find it’s freeing enough just to translate them outright: you should see Jesus as a kid and young teen, he’s a psycho! Terrible temper. Kills people right and left. It certainly ‘undogmatizes’ the lad—a Coover word. Check out the Infancy Gospel of Thomas sometime.
OPEN: Is this, these Bible stories, are they forth-coming too? What’s it called?
KD: No. It’s in progress. But I call it Not for Sunday School. I’m auditing a New Testament course right now. There may be one or two in OPEN’s selection of my flash fiction, not sure what the final line-up’s to be. But fact is, one of them just got a Pushcart nomination.
OPEN: Congratulations! But tell me, is all your work this Coover-ish?
KD: No, I’m all over the place. Maybe why I like translating. But childhood’s huge. And the “Three by Marty,” here in OPEN, are just three stories I remember this wonderful woman in jail telling us. They so capture her! They’re my tribute to her spirit. She was such a hotspur that she finally escaped, sent us postcards as she traveled, winding up in Texas. The “Geeker Pray to His God” in there—that’s another ‘friend in low places,’ as my wife called my jail buddies. Jimmy’s at the heart of a kind of rendering I did of the inmates taking me on a tour of a crack house, that American Prospect published. Proud of that one! All this at kenthdixon.com, by the bye.
OPEN: And speaking of “by the bye,” we should wrap up soon. You have any parting advice for young writers, or old ones?
KD: You’ve got me thinking about Coover’s metafiction. I decided to wash him out of my system once, by trying to do a perfect imitation of his technique—one of his fabulations. I latched onto the Woodsman in Snow White, the one that saves her ass from the wicked Stepmother. His daughter and Snow grew up playing together at the castle, so they go way back, with deep feeling. “Johan and the Three Queens” I think it’s called, it’s been years. I should revive it.
OPEN: Three queens?
KD: Sure. The dead mother, the wicked step-mother, and the queen that the princess will become if we can get her past that vain woman’s machinations. One two three. Of course the dwarves come into it, and the Prince, the hind that Johan kills to fool stepmother with the heart she demands, but then the real modus operandi of the piece—guess who.
OPEN: You mean the mirror mirror on the wall . . .
KD: Yeah. Everybody in the story sneaks in and uses it, but guess whose face suddenly appeared on my screen.
KD: Yup, my old teacher Bob. That’s where I stopped. I didn’t know what to do with it. ‘Turn back, the imagination stops here.’ You know that Gary Larson cartoon?
OPEN: I do. The two guys stopped in a car, at a sign that says, Stop! Turn back. . .
KD, OPEN [together]: . . . The imagination stops here. [laughter]
OPEN: It sounds great. Go back to it.
KD: I think I will. You’ve inspired me.
OPEN: And likewise, we’re sure. So. Kent Dixon’s flash fiction is appearing here in this special issue of OPEN: Journal of Arts & Literature, along with an essay on the form that he wrote for it, and I think there’s a live interview, or one coming soon. And his graphic novel, in collaboration with his artist son Kevin Dixon, of The Epic of Gilgamesh, is due out this month, by Seven Stories Press. And he has a story soon to appear in next issue of The Antioch Review—a childhood story, he tells me. And you can read more by and about him at, lemme see . . . at kenthdixon.com. That about cover it?
KD: Pretty much, for now.
OPEN: Kent, it’s been a real pleasure. Good luck with the three queens!
KD: Thanks. Beats two pair anyway.
About the writer:
Kent Dixon is a prize-winning writer with three Pushcart nominations and three Ohio Arts Council awards to his credit. His fiction and poetry have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Gettysburg Review, Georgia Review and others. His nonfiction has appeared in The American Prospect, Florida Review, Kansas Quarterly, Energy Review, and others. He is recently retired from teaching Literature and Creative Writing at Wittenberg University. His graphic novel The Epic of Gilgamesh, co-authored with his son Kevin Dixon, is available now from Seven Stories Press. He lives with his wife Mimi in Springfield, Ohio.
Image 1: Kent Dixon portrait. Courtesy Kent H. Dixon.
Image 2: Courtesy Kent H. Dixon.