Finding James Dickey

By Eric Stamey

James Dickey never meant a thing to me as a youth. My father would mention his name as my family viewed a rented copy of Deliverance, but I half listened. It was only as I entered college that James Dickey began to enter into my life and change every thing I had ever known.

When I began my studies at Greenville Technical College I was an adamant writer. Poetry poured through my hands constantly. My academics were never outstandingly strong, but my love for lyric and image were. I used to keep medium-sized note pads, filling them with two or three poems a day. I was preparing myself to become an English teacher and knew I had a rather weak handle of classic poetry, so I searched for authors, especially those that captured my attention as my professors lectured. Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Dylan Thomas all emerged with their fiery voices and bizarre visions, but the mention of local poets, who lived and grew from the same air and land as I, captured my imagination. Carl Sandburg began to have a major influence on me as I walked through his carefully preserved home and petted his wife’s goats. James Dickey was mentioned and visions of Ned Beatty squirming through the woods began to infect me. I wanted to know who this man was and where could these ideas, that had so powerfully rooted themselves in the minds of all Americans for over twenty years, come from.

My search began in the Greenville Tech library. They had a varied assortment of Dickey material. My first order of business was to look at the various author photographs on the back covers of books like Alnilam, Night Hurdling, and Sorties. I saw a man of about sixty with a massive comb-over; in one picture he was holding a little girl, in another he smiled exposing his slightly gapped teeth, and in another his determined face emerged from the shadows, staring into your soul.

As I sat on the carpeted floor of the library flipping through books, I stumbled upon a group of interesting poems. One poem was about a stewardess falling to her death from an airplane, another described a man and his self-defeating ideal of adultery, and one described the birth of a half-man, half-sheep baby. I was taken aback by the macabre sense that was flowing through my veins and hurried to check out that small volume called Falling, May Day Sermon and Other Poems.

That night I read through those poems on the top bunk of my bed. I was so inspired and in awe that I spent hours rereading the poems and looking at Dickey’s facade on the back cover. I took a piece of cheap typing paper and began drawing his dominant image from the back of the book. Three hours later I stared down at my pointillism creation (click here to see), letting my eyes travel over each dot of his inked-image. I took the picture to the college and showed it to several professors, and, that weekend, I shared it with my father. He suggested I mail it to Dickey to be signed because artists did that all the time with persons in prominent standing.

A week later I drafted up a letter to James Dickey describing how I loved his poems, especially "The Sheep Child." I also told him that I had reversed my decision to go to the University of Georgia, but to instead enroll at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. I explained that I wanted him to teach me and how I couldn’t wait to meet him. I also asked if he could sign the enclosed picture. I had no idea where to mail the package, so I took a gamble and mailed it to a generic university address and wrote, in real big letters: "English Department, c/o James Dickey."

I waited for a return letter and, about a month later, I got a reply. It came in a huge manila envelope and James Dickey’s name and address was typed above my own. I carefully opened the package and my drawing was inside with a blue, curvy signature at the bottom: James Dickey. Also I found a typed letter (click here to read) on Dickey’s personal letterhead. It was brief, written in four small paragraphs:

May 18, 1992
Dear Mr. Stamey:

Thanks you very much for your letter, and for the things you say. They are appreciated greatly at this end, believe me.
I return the drawings, signed, as you request.
When you come into these parts, please make your presence known. If you want to be in my composition class, you are already in, your devotion is evident, and that is enough. At the beginning, anyway. After that, we’ll see.
Again, thanks for your communication, it is good to have.

Sincerely yours,
James Dickey

I was out of breath with excitement. I gleamed at the letter and called everyone I could to tell them about it. I had sent Dickey a photocopy of the drawing for him to keep, but he had signed it as well and sent it back. I grabbed a sheet of paper and began writing him another letter. I was too excited and began to ramble. I summoned enough courage to enclose some of my own poems. I went to Wal-Mart and bought a cheap frame to put another photocopy of the drawing in. I mailed the huge package the next day. I never received another letter from him again.

Over the next few weeks I purchased copies of Deliverance and Alnilam from the local used book store. I watched Deliverance on video and every time it came on TBS. Once, while walking in Haywood Mall, I came upon a vendor selling antique books during a collectible festival at the Mall. As I looked, I stumbled across a small hardback book of poems by James Dickey called Drowning With Others. The price was $250. I didn’t have a penny to my name, and knew I wanted that book. I drove back home trying to find something of value. It was a Sunday, and there were no stores or pawn shops open to buy my valuables from me. I grabbed all the "Not For Resale" books my father had received as an employee at the Mental Hospital. I drove back to the mall and begged the vendor to make me an offer. I had several valuable photography books, Shakespeare volumes, and a very expensive Georgia O’Keefe coffee table book (I had taken an eraser and scrubbed off the "Not For Resale" stamp). The lady working the stand flipped through the books and agreed to trade all of the books (well over $700) plus twenty dollars cash for the Dickey one. I went back home and picked up my autograph Mike Kelly baseball card (he was the Atlanta Braves top choice that year and was currently in Greenville) and sold it to a sports vendor at the mall for the money. The book was mine.

My last year at Greenville Tech I worked at a golf range picking balls. As I rode that tractor up and down and around the range, being pinged by flying balls, all I could think about was being at USC in a few weeks and meeting Dickey. I dreamed about him sitting with me and conversing about poetry and life. I dreamed of my poems finding voice and depth from the touch of his masterful skills.

That fall, when I arrived at the university, I had to finish taking my core classes and Dickey’s composition class had to be put on hold. I looked on the sidewalks and buildings of the campus for him, but was not too sure what he looked like—I had only seen various book jackets with his pictures, and even those were different from each other. Luck would have it that that very fall Dickey released his third and last novel, To The White Sea. I bought a copy of the book when it came out that September and wrote a quick review for the school paper, The Gamecock, in hopes of getting it published. It (click here to read) was printed at the end of that week.

About a week later saw the celebration of Dickey’s seventieth birthday, which was titled "Dickey at 70" (click to see). The events were to honor Dickey’s reign at the university with symposiums and activities during the multi-day celebration. I asked to cover the event for the school paper and was granted the assignment. The symposiums started off the celebration, with many well-known professors from across the country fluttering into Columbia. First, there was to be a discussion of Dickey’s new novel at Gambrell Hall. Outside the auditorium, the book store had set up shop and I bought his latest collection of poems, The Whole Motion. As my girlfriend and I sat in the auditorium, I looked around to find Dickey. All of the accounts I had read of him described him as a massive man who loved to bow hunt. I looked for such a man, but saw none. Then, paraded by an entourage of people, Dickey came through the auditorium doors, shaking hands and chatting with people all the way to his seat. He looked frail, he was much skinner than the portrait I had drawn and his clothes seem to hang on a body that once probably conformed to the same garments months earlier. As the participants talked and read from his book, Dickey sat and watched, his chin resting on his fingers, with interest. I took glances over in his direction. "This is the man who wrote ‘The Sheep Child,’" I thought, "the creator of the southern icon, Deliverance."

After the reading, everyone flocked to Dickey’s seat to have him sign their books. I waited for the crowd to die down, and, with utter fear, approached him. I was at a lost of words and said, "I wrote you a letter." I paused, opened my notebook, and pulled out a photocopy of my drawing. He looked at the picture and then up at me.

"I have a copy of that at my house," he said, smiling. I knew he had gotten my second package.

"I wrote this for the paper," I said handing him a cut-out of my review for To The White Sea.

He took the paper, read it, then grabbed my hand and looked me square in the eye: "This review is the best I have read, better than the New York Times, thank you." He released my hand and took my two books. He asked my name and inscribed both to me. The next day were symposiums. Dickey sat in the audience on all of the symposiums, offering fast wise-cracks as the panels were in discussion. I spent more time watching him than I did to the famous professors on the stage.

That weekend the celebration moved to the public library downtown. There would be speeches by Dickey’s former teacher Monroe Spears, and one from his student, Susan Ludvigson. Afterwards would be a performance of "May Day Sermon" and a screening of Deliverance.

I sat down, started my tape recorder (click to see), and listened as Monroe Spears began his speech. I looked over to Dickey sitting on the front row as Spears told stories of Dickey’s studies at Vanderbilt and how his writing bloomed like a flower in spring. Susan Ludvigson could not make the celebration, so another woman gave a speech on Dickey’s To The White Sea. Within a few moments of her starting, I heard a loud groan, and noticed a commotion on the front row, near where Dickey sat. People rushed over, and in between legs and hands, I could see Monroe Spears gasping on the ground. His horrific moans exploded through the quiet room. His wife, sobbing, ran to Dickey, crying, "Jim, Jim, oh Jim," and sat in his lap. Dickey was motionless, only patting Spears’ wife on the shoulder.

I let my recorder continue to capture the scene. I was frightened. I had never seen someone die before. An ambulance arrived and the people in the auditorium were asked to leave. I turned the recorder off, walked up stairs, and exited to the street. I turned my recorder on again, as I waited for Dickey to emerge, and watched as he and Spears’ wife rushed into a black, luxury car and followed the ambulance to the hospital. I let my recorder run until the sound of the ambulance faded into the normality of the city, then I clicked it off.

I wrote the article (click to read) for the paper, and of course, they edited it so the Spears’ heart attack was the central theme. It was the only story I ever wrote that made the front page. It came on the same weekend when Miss South Carolina won Miss America and a USC football win. The day the article was released was also my birthday—it was such a bitter-sweet day. I called the hospital that weekend and was told that Spears was recovering well.

That spring of 1994 I took a copy of the letter Dickey had sent me to the USC English graduate studies office. I showed it to the receptionist and asked to be let in the class for next fall. She scanned over the letter and cleared my verification for the class. I rushed to my dorm and called the automated class system and punched in the class’ code. I was accepted, I would start composition with Dickey next fall.

One afternoon, that same spring, I went to Five Points to buy a book by Flannery O’Connor at a book store called "Intermezzo." The woman at the counter rang up the book and began talking with me about the Fitzgerald’s, who were friends of O’Connor. She told me how she had met Sally Fitzgerald a few years earlier at USC and how nice they were. She talked about her love of O’Connor, responding with my favorite lines from the short stories. Near the end of our conversation she asked if I was an English student at USC. I said yes. She said her name was Deborah Dickey, the wife to poet James Dickey. My jaw dropped. Hurriedly, I began to tell her how I had drew a picture of him and wrote a letter that he had responded to. I could see in her eyes the sparkle turn off. She said she was not aware of any picture being mailed to the house. I could sense frustration, said bye, and left the store.

I arrived early for the first day of Dickey’s class. The class was in a small room with a huge wooden conference table with twelve cushioned chairs. I sat down, took out my pen and notebook. Slowly, people began to drift in and take their seats quietly. One student, at the end of the table, began to whisper how he had taken the class before. I stared at my watch, it was already two minutes past and Dickey had not arrived. I fiddled with my notebook, and kept my head lowered. The students suddenly hushed and I saw a black image out the corner of my eye. Dickey came in carrying a suitcase of books and wearing a black T-shirt and pants, a huge medallion around his neck, and a black hat. As he took off his hat, his secretary, following him, placed more papers and books on the table and left. He settled in his chair and rested his chin on the fingers of his right hand, giving us a fierce look. Everyone in the class was dead quiet. Dickey continued to sit there with that heart-stopping look for about two minutes. Finally, he sat up in his chair to get a better look at the class, and said, with harshness, "Why the fuck do you want to write poetry?"

The class still sat in silence. Dickey looked around at us again and then began going around the table asking the students why they were there. Some said they wanted help in writing better verse, the one guy who said he had taken Dickey before, said he liked words, and when it became my turn, I froze. I wasn’t sure what to say. Was there a right or wrong answer?

I began by telling Dickey and the class how I had read "The Sheep Child" and it had charged my life. I told him how I written a letter, drew a picture, and mailed them to him. My words began to fumble and speed, like an out-of-control snowball. I felt like a teenager losing control at a Beatles concert. Dickey reached over and grabbed my hand, looking me in the eyes, then he went on to the next student.

At the end of our introductions, Dickey looked over to the student who was in his class before. He laughed and said how W. H. Auden would ask his potential students why they wanted to be poets. The only answer he took was, "I like words." Dickey said he knew the story because he taught with Auden in Houston, and relayed the story to each of his classes as an introduction.

Dickey’s approach to poetry was a simple one: start off with nothing and build into something. Our first assignment was to describe an object. I spent that afternoon trying to think of something original, and settled on describing a spoon. I wrote the spoon narrative in first person and tried to cut it down to the true essence of what I wanted to say. In our next class, Dickey’s secretary collected our descriptions to be photocopied. When we got the packs back, Dickey began to read out the ones he liked. He would give comments and criticism, and move on to the next one he liked. When he called "Stainless Steel Spoon Made In China" (click to read) my heart froze. He read through the description and commented on how he liked the spoon being described as "one-eyed." It would be the only time Dickey would ever read my writings in the class.

Over the next few classes we wrote Haiku, couplets, and epitaphs. My writings lacked quality and were passed over. I began to ponder my writing ability, I knew I had written some gems in my lifetime and wanted to conjure up every power I had to impress Dickey and have him help me get better.

One day, Dickey came in with another pack of poems from the class, but he was being helped by his secretary and a graduate professor to his seat. He seemed fragile and yellow. He passed around the worksheets and his secretary left. The professor, who had helped Dickey to class, stopped, turned to me, and said, "If anything happens, run up to my office and get me." He then left.

We began to flip through the poems and Dickey was about to read the first one, but before he could get started, a lady walked in. After a second glance, I realized that it was his wife, Deborah. She rushed up to Dickey and said, "You shouldn’t be here, come home."

She began pulling on him and he looked up dazed. "Jim," she said, "I’m worried about you. Jim!" Dickey just sat there. His secretary came back into the room. "Let’s get him to a hospital," Deborah said to the secretary. They began helping Dickey to his feet.

I ran up to the professor’s office that had helped Dickey in the room. We rushed back to the class and found Dickey gone. I told the professor about the hospital idea and he ran to his car and sped away.

Dickey never returned to the class because he was suffering from jaundice. One day a professor came in and said that we could either drop the class or carry on ourselves for the class credit. We decided to go on ourselves. We took old handouts from the guy who had had Dickey before and copied them, and we critiqued our own poems. We wrote ballads and sonnets and villanelles, but I longed for the magic touch of Dickey. I had always heard how he was harsh on poems and would be animated about structures, going as far as to bang his massive ring on the table to count syllables. To be honest, the Dickey that taught our class those first few weeks was frail and seemed to unknowingly repeat himself, but still he was an American master and the reason I came to USC, and I wanted to learn from him.

We did a good job for the rest of the class with our interdependent teaching. I decided not to take the second part of the class since word was that Dickey would be out the rest of the year and another teacher would take over. The poet that did take over was a friend of mine named D.C. Miller. He is a fabulous poet, and soon I found myself sitting in on the class whenever I could. Miller also let me submit poems for discussion and gave me a copy of the textbook he was using called Western Wind.

One day, as we flipped through the text book, the class read aloud a section about W.H. Auden. It described how W.H. Auden had interviewed candidates for his poetry class, and how his only acceptable answer was: "I like words."

Everyone from Dickey’s class the semester before began to laugh. We remembered Dickey telling the same story about Auden. Our laughter was a product of disbelief as we gave each other glances across the table. Dickey had fabricated the story from a book he had read, that was obvious, but it hit me hard because this was the first incident I had witnessed of a Dickey lie.

As a student in Greenville, I heard several stories about Dickey from my professors and my father. I heard about his drinking and the parties and readings he attended vulgarly drunk. I heard about how he married a student of his only months after his wife, Maxine, had died. I heard how his new wife, Deborah, was arrested for drugs. I read in an Anne Sexton biography about how Dickey criticized her poetry, but when he met the model-turned-poetess, he began trying to seduce her.

All these ideas and stories remained locked away in my brain, but they were released on that warm, spring day. Was Dickey all these terrible things or was his extraordinary life birthing tall tales? My view of Dickey was still admiration, but I was increasingly unhappy with the new portrait I was getting of him.

The next fall, in 1995, Dickey returned to teaching the composition class. I could not sign up for the class again because my degree requirements were building up. That winter I met Dickey at a conference USC hosted for writers of the World War II era (click to see). At the symposium Dickey was absent, but as I waited in lines to meet William Styron, William Manchester, Mickey Spillane, and Paul Fussell, I noticed a withered Dickey sitting at a table signing autographs. I ran across the street to my dorm, at Woodrow, and grabbed my edition of Drowning With Others that I had traded at the Mall a couple of years earlier and a couple of other books. As I slowly worked my way down the line toward him, I could see his stoic reaction as his pen lavishly scribbled an autograph and pushed the book away. He did not speak or smile. He looked sick and yellow, and at that moment, I realized how volatile his health was.

I arrived at Dickey and smiled.

"Can you please sign these?" I asked.

He looked up blankly, and then took the books, opened to the title page, and wrote "James Dickey." He stopped a second to look at the copy of Drowning With Others, then looked up at me. As he signed the book, I looked in my heart to say something to him, to wish him well, to let him know how much he meant, and how much I wanted him to get better, but my fear locked my hopefulness down.

"I was in your class last year, I hope all is going well now," I said. Dickey handed me the books, and the next person moved up. He didn’t hear me, or his illness had such a grasp on him that nothing else mattered, but his show-down with it. I stood there about a minute, watching him sign the next person’s book like a zombie. I looked at his frail, shaky hands and heavy eyes, and I wanted to scream out to him.

I turned and walked back to my dorm disappointed. It was the last time I would ever see James Dickey. He died about a year later.

Hanging from my wall, the picture I drew of Dickey stares back at me with his fiery eyes. The image gives me hope and motivation, and raises up the memories and beauties he created in my life. A second of benevolence on his half inspired me to test the bounds I had created for myself. Finding James Dickey was the life-giving light of my creative self. I do miss him a lot.