James Dickey's son Christopher, author of With the Contras and Summer of Deliverance, now Newsweek Paris Bureau Chief
I attended most sessions of The James Dickey Conference at the University of South Carolina last Friday and Saturday. Oddly, the venue was the 8th floor of the Business School. The panels featured scholarly papers on Dickey's work as well as personal reminiscences. Attendance was respectable but not quite as heavy as I expected. A number of the presenters, such as Lorrie Goldensohn from Vassar College and Edward Larrissy from the University of Leeds in the UK (both on my Saturday afternoon panel) had their expenses paid. I expected to see far more students, especially grad students, in attendance. Perhaps the conference fee was a deterrent, but you'd think the English Department would wave costs for students. The only undergrad I saw there was my friend Akane, who showed up particularly for my session, which pleased me.
I particularly liked the session featuring writers John Lane, James Applewhite, and Ron Rash, as well as the fascinating panel discussion by Dickey's sons Chris and Kevin, his daughter Bronwen (now in grad school at Columbia University), and his second wife Deborah. They acknowledged his drinking and carousing but all praised his parenting, agreeing that despite his work, he never turned them away. He could be stern but never violent. He often devised inventive, unorthodox games and elaborate fantasies with them. He taught them all to shoot a bow and arrow. Chris and Kevin, who were growing up just as Dickey's star was rising and he was traveling extensively, commented on the poet's contacts with celebrities, such as the time Robert Redford came to visit their Lake Katherine home to discuss movie projects--or the time Bob Dylan called in the middle of the night to discuss creativity.
Pat Conroy, who actually attended some of the other sessions, delivered a funny and poignant closing talk to a packed auditorium. He gave a hilarious account of his own trip down the Chattooga River with a friend, emulating the guys in Deliverance. He spoke for a good 40 minutes from a text hand-penned on yellow legal sheets. He recalled his fascination with Dickey's work when he was in his early twenties, working on the book that would become The Water is Wide. He eventually commuted two days a week to USC to audit a poetry course with Dickey. Conroy admits to being a lousy poet but claims to have learned much from the man he reveres as his best teacher. As much as he admired Dickey, he said, "I got to see James Dickey fall in love with being James Dickey. This taught me something. He was heading straight for 'sock-em dog' [an infamous stretch of rapids on the Chattooga, which had done in Conroy on his outing]." Conroy went on, "It was deleterious to have moon-eyed groupies such as me follow him like turtles around campus."
Conroy, in a characteristic bit of hyperbole, claimed that Poems: 1957-1967 is "the best book of poetry published by an American." Dickey "strung language up to his bow and aimed it at the carotid artery of poetry itself."
About his first book, The Boo, Conroy said that the Citadel officer who was the book's title character was (unlike his father) "a hard man who was also a soft man." And "Dickey was that way too."
Joe Queenan writing about astonishing books