The AWP hosted writer and critic Dave Hickey during their conference in Denver. His reading was on Thursday, April 8 at 1:30 p.m. in the Centennial Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Convention Center Hotel. The venue held hundreds–of empty chairs. I was shocked. Hickey is snarky and controversial voice, a quick wit with insight into creative culture. He’s a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and last year, his monthly column in ARTnews was the most entertaining and thought provoking read in the art media. Appallingly, the AWP is closed to members only and the thick catalog of readings and workshops is like reading a college course catalog. It’s too bad more people in Denver didn’t know Hickey was speaking and that AWP doesn’t open these lectures to those who might want to pay at the door.
“I’ve never spoken to a larger auditorium with a smaller audience,” Hickey said. “I’m going to remember this when they ask me back to Denver…. Don’t fuck with me.”
A few highlights from Hickey’s reading and comments.
Hicky was supposed to read from his forthcoming book A Connoisseurship of Ways, but instead, he chose to read an essay called Firecrackers about Terry Castle and her new book called The Professor. He called Castle one of his heroes and he said it was time to try and write a fairly sophisticated review of her work. The lighting in the room was bad and Hickey slumped over the podium, his head and hair often hitting the protruding microphone as he read. But if one could ignore that and just listen to the words, linked like luscious lego’s on the page, it was eloquent, funny and inspiring with phrases like “literary tapioca” and “the vanity of intellectual culture.” And luscious sentences like: “one of those envious charismatic, brain gobbling professors who entangle gifted children in duals to the death in the guise of grown up love.”
Then the real fun began when a woman in the audience asked Dave Hickey a question about his experience in the visual art world and how it intersects with his experience in the creative writing world. Hickey basically said that it was not possible to teach creative writing. “All I can do is teach you how to write like I write.” He said the same about artists, they can only learn how to paint or sculpt like their teacher.
“The idea,” he said “is to kill us [the teachers] to take our place. This is a revolutionary practice. You’re supposed to freakin’ win.”
He talked about how he couldn’t really grade his students because when he failed a student it equaled loss of income for the department. According to Hickey (and generally agreed upon by those who teach writing given the level of laughter in the room) most creative writers want to write about what happened to them at camp–or that moment when their adolescent world collided with the adult world and someone snatched their innocence.
Hickey said he longer reads what his student writer’s write. “When I can’t take anymore of this shit I draw a line and stop.” Later, he admitted that it was the same process he used when editing his own writing.
“A great many people are in creative writing and art just to get the crit,” he said. “To bolster their ego and reinforce their own ambitions.”
“Do something good and I’ll give you a good crit,” he added.
It’s no secret that Hickey is not a supporter of MFA programs in spite of working in them. “What do you write the day after you leave?” Hickey asked, then said the attrition rate for artists is 85% and for writers 95%. Meaning that after all the money and all the time and all the work only 5% of graduates become professionals who get published.
Hickey confessed that he hates people who think they are better than they are, and in fact, every creative person has had a conversation with a friend about why the other person is succeeding or seems to be getting ahead when we feel their work doesn’t merit the attention. The fact is, only a few are truly good, or truly willing to dedicate themselves to doing the work of becoming a better writer or artist.
The good ones, Hickey says, he feels deeply obligated to let them alone. “You cannot encourage them to hesitate or miss the exit.”
The mediocre students he teaches to be good PR guys or business writers.
“I like art and writing better than I do people and especially children,” Hickey said.
What can he teach an artist or writer?
- How to dress. He recommended jeans, a t-shirt and an $800 leather jacket.
- Stay away from orgies because your obligated to write than you notes and that’s a lot of work.
- There is more sheer suicide in Under the Volcano. It’s gorgeous. The greatest testimony to death that you will ever find.
Then he closed by telling us that he was quitting teaching writing.