Thursday May 23

DoughertySeanThomasbyAndrewDenial Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author of 15 books including the forthcoming The Second O of Sorrow (2018, BOA Editions), On the One Tongue of the Wind the Orishas Rise (2016 GTK Press) and All You Ask for is Longing: Poems 1994-2014 (Boa Editions). His awards include the 2015 Betsy Colquitt Poetry Prize from Texas Christian University’s Descant Magazine, and an appearance in Best American Poetry 2014. He lives in Erie Pennsylvania, works at Gold Crown Billiards, tours, hustles, and writes poems about stuff that happens in his city between the lake and our wrecked and gloriously ruined and beautiful American lives.

Sean Thomas Dougherty interview, with John Hoppenthaler

Thanks, Sean, for taking the time to answer a few questions and for the great poetry you’ve given us over the years.

The lines that provide closure for “Pittsburgh” seem to me to work pretty well as an Ars Poetica describing the style some of your poems employ: “I ended up on a pool table and played so poorly, my friend Cody shaking his head making fragments, I wanted to collage bread, I wanted to collage the steam from a grate with a Pop Warner football game, and a mother in braids yelling, "that's my boy, that's my boy, that's my boy, that's my boy" like a mantra shouted out against anything. I could have stayed.” That is, the speaker, Whitman-like (or maybe Frank O’Hara-like?) takes to the open road and, with specificity, tells us about what happens on the way toward the epiphanic last sentence. Writing about O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems, Mark Doty points out, “The notion of contrasting and mutually influencing elements arranged on a surface—a key concept in Abstract Expressionism—is important in O'Hara's work.” I see this working in your poems. Has experimental art or music influenced the way you use the page as collage? If not, where does the technique come from?

Collage is huge for me. Actually a good number of my prose poems over the years were written as collages. I learned a long time ago to write down on scraps of paper lines as they come to me through the dailyness.   At the end of the day I might have five or six slips of papers, hastily written I-did-that-or-this-notes, noticings, and a random metaphor, a witnessing of some interaction I saw at the bus-stop or on the sidewalk, as I walked or drove passed. So many of my poems come this way.   Random lines, in the pockets of my jeans. I toss these lines in a basket I have by my desk. Then at some point, when I can find a point to write, I take these out and start to actually collage them. I lay them out looking for interesting juxtapositions. Maybe just two or three. Maybe ten. Maybe two. Then I type them up and write into those lines. I can’t even tell you how many of the prose poems in my Selected were “written” this way. For me, poetry is not simply a written art. It is physical: it is made of breath and breath is not ethereal but something closer to our flesh. Our broken bodies. We are fragments collaged, fragments. So I stitch together disparate pieces of the day. I sew them together like a seamstress. Hell if I know, I guess I can only hope these pieces of this life I find and kept are somehow pieces of the One Big Soul.
I learned how to collage language or thought to do it from a ton of visual artists, mostly African American including the collage work of Romare Bearden, the paintings of Basquiet, and the diverse approaches of Carrie Mae Weems. The installations and sense of space, too, of someone like Eva Hess taught me a lot about space. Words have three dimensions for me. These visual artists taught me to see words are three dimensions.  

For anyone our age, of course Frank O’Hara’s ideas of Personism were important. In many ways, in the discursive and chatty poems of so many 21st century poets, it could be argued O’Hara is one of the most influential poets in the English language. The twitterish pop culture laced poems of the young, or a poet like Dorothea Lasky (the daughter of Frank O’Hara and Lucille Ball?) are obviously the next generation to the NY school poetics.

For me, O’Hara was important too because I was always fascinated with the idea off the poem as Epistolary. A kind of letter. But one with in stories and in jokes. Perhaps better is the poem as a kind of eavesdropping. We don’t know the whole story; there is some mystery, but what we do hear keeps us wanting, keeps us listening, and keeps us reading. I have always had so many Dear poems over the years. In my Selected I have the Dear L series. In the end perhaps the poem in the 21st century, and this move to epistolary, is because we no longer write letters. I think of Evan Boland’s fantastic poem about the letters of the immigrant Irish, the formalness of the letter. These days we lost that formalness and grace of language in emails and texts, in informal assassin acronyms instead of a fluidity of words. And look at what it has done? How easily we are seduced by the inelegance of fascism, the hate and insult that spews from American mouths. Perhaps the poem is the antidote to inelegance, an answer to fascist thought. The intimate and kind gesture against the faceless corporate power that would make us slaves.

Sorrow is no stranger to your poetry. Your talent for engaging readers, for inviting them to participate in the sadness, results in empathy and in a kind of light-filled union between poet and reader. Some of your sentences bring me to the point of weeping. Like this one from “The Bravery of Birds”: “My daughter who runs with the palsy is smiling for the angels who may or may not come.” And reading “What Wind Who Tells Me Dear” made me have to stop and think of my life as a stepfather, a husband, a human who shares all of this grief with you and with everyone else. It’s this quality I really love about your work. You leave spaces in your work, places where a reader may enter and complete the poem by inserting his own images and sounds. Were your poems always like this? Is this a quality toward which you worked, or was it organic in your case?  

My early work is much clearer, less opaque in places. It was influenced by a kind of ‘90s notion of clarity. Patricia Smith, Dorianne Laux, Martin Espada, the book Brass Knuckles by Stuart Dybek, and Lynda Hull (all of whom were young poets back then) were crucial to me. Etheridge Knight’s laments that shake the night. They spoke of grief and politics and loss in such an amazing way. Larry Levis too back then. But if you look at Hull’s work, who may be the poet I returned to the most for years, before she died she was moving to far less clear poem, almost (again we arrive here) a kind of collage, a narrative told in snippets and cuts. She was more and more, I suspect, heavily influenced by the motion of film. Back in the early ‘90s I published the very last poem she published called “At the Westland,” which is like a noir that we can never fully understand. This kind of poem fit in with my notion of the poems as more opaque. I always think my best poems, and the poems I like best, have a bit of mystery or puzzle in them. I am also not a fan of full authorial intention. Since poems have poems and words are three dimensional, poems too often do in process things we cannot explain. I think the best poems, the ones I least return to, have a bit of ambiguity to them, which is of course a kind of freedom, where the reader enters, and adds their own experience and sense of meaning. It is in that dialectic that the poem speaks. But this experience is something more than literary I would argue, something closer to song, or is it psalm? Perhaps our poems, our truest poems, or our most untrue and broken poems, are really kinds of prayer?

In an interview with Justin Bigos, you say, “The body remembers. So while the mind may let go the body becomes an instrument of sight, and very particular for the poet, of sound.”

As luck would have it, I’m in the middle of a discussion with poet James Harms that was commissioned by a journal. One of Jim’s questions led to a minor epiphany; that is, the fair number of readings I was lucky enough to have given after the publication of my first book was a real boon to my relationship to each poem as I attempted to inhabit and perform them at the front of the room in front of real people.  This put me in touch with poetry’s oral roots, and it made me more aware, as I compose and read my poems aloud during the revision process, of how I will inhabit that poem on stage and to what Harms calls my “closer attention to the patterning of sounds that provides a different sort of foundation to the narratives.”

As one who is known for his poetry performances, I wonder if the different skill set required of performance has become part of your composition and, especially, your revision process? Do you read your poems out loud during revision? Do you consider how a poem will play on stage as opposed to the page, or do you privilege the page first?

Patricia Smith once told me, years ago, she reads her poems out loud as she writes. I remember talking to Roger Bonair Agard once over a drink in Union Station, and I told him this, and we both wanted to be able to eavesdrop on her as she writes. He told me he does this too sometimes, and I always do at some point. I speak and type. Or at some point I need to hear the words, because when the words are spoken they become breath, and breath, in the end, is what the poem is. Silence may be its bones. But breath is the poem’s flesh.

My dad was a barber and a custodian and my mom cleaned people’s houses off the books. I’m a first generation American and have cleaned my share of public restrooms, have tended both sides of a bar, and have raised a lot of blisters. Therefore, I always feel kinship for folks who come from working class backgrounds, who have worked in the real world, who know the barroom and the construction site. My life’s cv is not so different than one you provide at a site called The Bakery: “ He has worked as a lecturer, in factories, warehouses, as a security guard, in a bakery . . . a sawmill, and as a teacher of at-risk youth. He currently works at a pool hall and teaches creative writing part-time at Cleveland State University.” Can you say how a life spent partly in a pool hall, partly at home caring for a family, and partly in a university teaching works as a juggling act? How do you keep these balls in the air and still find the time to write? Obviously, your life is deeply embedded within your poems, but do you ever feel a little schizophrenic as you shift gears from space to space? Has it affected the way you compose your poems?

I don’t teach anymore.   I haven’t in quite a few years. My last teaching gig I was driving two hours to teach at CSU two days a week, and I tried to get them to pay for my parking.   I said if you want someone accomplished as me to teach there you need to pay for my parking. They said they wouldn’t do that. Yes I was an adjunct professor driving two hours and I tried to negotiate with my department. But adjuncts can’t do that. Adjuncts are supposed to say yes ma’am and no sir. But I tell that because that really gets at the core of my life, the idea that we are workers and have rights.

Now I just work at a pool hall helping to keep it clean and run the place a few days a week. I get up and go clean and wipe the night’s play away. I vacuum. I clean the glass. There is a kind of poetry to this labor, to all labor, though honestly after working three shifts in a row these days I can barely walk I am so sore and tired.

But to answer clearly I don’t write much anymore. I finished my next book for BOA and I am done for a long time. I don’t write every day or even every week. My books I produce in a few months, when I decide to make one, or maybe better put when the duende arrives with my dead. I still write noticings, I collect fragments, I still do the work of seeing as an artist, but with each year I get less readings and invites, partly because I am too tired to hustle anymore. I have two young daughters with disabilities, and I had a partner who was very, very sick for years. She is doing better now, but each year is a struggle just to get by. I’m not really sure about any of this anymore. Honestly after fifteen books, more than most, less than some, after reading in so many countries, and touring the country to perform at over one hundred universities, I have become someone far from anything literary, anything I could call a “career.” I guess I could close by saying what James Wright wrote at the end of one of his poems, “I have wasted my life.”

Okay, I’m gonna ask it. I looked through your Facebook postings to see if you’d addressed it, but you only posted a YOUTUBE of Dylan performing “Hurricane.” You may be the only poet on Facebook to have not addressed Bob Dylan’s receiving of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Your thoughts?

Poets spend too much time worrying or celebrating awards. I honestly can’t even remember who won the Pulitzer the last few years. All the old heads though were certainly going crazy. I know this might be sacrilege, but I was never that into Dylan though my parents worshipped him. As American songwriters go, I leaned way more to Townes Van Zant, his “Pancho and Lefty” just might be the most damn perfect poem. Others like Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Gil-Scott Heron, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Bragg, Shane MacGowan’s and The Roots’ lyrics are behind so many poems I write. Patti Smith (whose new memoir really is literary genius, a kind of post modern pastiche). I could name a hundred more. Punk as the Minutemen. Sharded razored as Kim Gordon’s bassline. In the end I suspect these songwriters meant as much to me as any poet so a Nobel for Dylan makes sense. His songs were more than songs but a kind of background for a revolution? But what is an award for a failed revolution or any revolution or song or poem? For what is an award anyways? What is literature? Some 19th century born colonial category. But the poem, ah the poem. Can you hear it? Go out into the fields, it says, the fields of the streets; the sparrows are waiting for their bread. We are the sparrows. The poem is the bread.


Last night I walked, wandered miles through Lawrenceville and Bloomfield, up and around Liberty Ave, past Cathedrals and cafeterias, diners named Mama Leona's and boarded houses, heart- shaped graffiti sprayed onto dumpsters, corner bars named Lou's Corner Bar, bookstores where novelists stood behind glass reciting sorrows, a strung out girl I talked to for a long time named Becky, an old Italian guy named Frankie who said he knew Roberto Clemente, I ate two slices of pizza and gave my crusts to a stray dog. I gave a cigarette to a kid named Juan waiting for the bus, who when I asked what was on his headphones rather than just saying the name recited the lyrics filling the air with unheard verbs. I ended up on a pool table and played so poorly, my friend Cody shaking his head making fragments, I wanted to collage bread, I wanted to collage the steam from a grate with a Pop Warner football game, and a mother in braids yelling, "that's my boy, that's my boy, that's my boy, that's my boy" like a mantra shouted out against anything. I could have stayed. 

      Eating Sea Roses In the Afterlife

     "We'll be together 'til the six is nine, that's right"
                                                           —Rick James

When we speak it is like I am throwing oranges at you. You bite the rind of each word with your teeth. I kiss you under your left ear. Loving you is like leaving on a train. You said come here but you couldn’t find your cigarettes. At the zoo you stretched your neck like the giraffe. In the CITGO parking lot we saw the meteor shower and felt scrubbed by a celestial light. When you were young you said, you never wanted a pony. When you take your shirt off I feel I have been handcuffed. I hide the ropes after the last time. What are weekends for? I hide the shovels and the keys to the shed. You held out to me the black bough. Kissing you is like eating Italian ice on a summer day. That’s not a UFO you, it’s the CITCO sign. Kissing you is like sipping whiskey in winter. .It’s not like I think we are dreaming, it is more like when we touch we are talking about our secret dreams. When you found the kitten along the empty back road. So cheap this life we couldn’t even count its change. You were wearing that army jacket you stole from Salvation army You were breathing from your eyes. Overflowing with bicycles. Somehow even though I couldn’t understand a word you were saying you weren’t making sense you were—Kissing you is like eating Sugarpops and watching cartoons on a rainy Saturday. Even in winter we fuck without covers. Tell me a story you said. I stared at your foot. Someone took off my shoes. Somehow I feel I am always that boy jumping off the bridge. We never shared our food but we tasted everything. That last autumn at the arcade. I saved salt packages for you in the cup holder of the car. And then there were the bandages, and the doctors. Listening to the wounded rain. We fucked like snarling wolves. I swallowed all of your pills. They were yellow the color of urine We were a house of strays. There was a dove who sang in the willow tree. You handed me the black bough. We untangled ourselves from the sparrows. You are endlessly I suppose each time all gone. More than the ghosted. Or the beautifully blind. Pull up the shades. Butter the bread. Kissing you I offer many graduations of blue. Kissing me you lift up the jar of orange blossom honey. There is no grief for the first time in years. And what you loved you said was more than the far off fireworks. On the fourth of July. When we set the roof, the roof of the house accidentally on fire.

      The Bravery of Birds

My daughter is shouting at the starlings in their murmurations. This sad music beyond desire is not nostalgia nor ruin but a pane of purple glass the sky at dusk. To wish for a little wine, a fistful of shallots. In the tangible absence of longing I turned. Our daughters faces smeared with blackberries. All of this is nearly pleasant. The dog is barking at a crow who caws caws caws as if to say you dare. I am coughing on the back porch. My daughter who runs with the palsy is smiling for the angels who may or may not come. Their mother is always ill. The writhing pain, as if she is a broken necklace. Stones of pearls in the grass. If we could run away and find some old hotel at twilight, and there lay in the rooms with the scent of sea roses wafting through the window. My daughters are fighting again. Even the oxy and the hydrocodone does not help. The light of pills. The color of nausea. The color of sunlight for the crippled and the lame? To get up each day despite hopelessness. I think of Bernadette, and how they questioned her, the brilliant light of Mary who appeared to her in a grotto and offered water to heal the world. They called her a liar and a cheat. And only after years was it revealed the tumors and the pain that ravaged Bernadette. You will not be happy in this world the Mother of God explained. And yet in the scrubbing of floors, the life lived in a cell away from the world, in this suffering there must also be something more, if nothing close to joy, then what? We go on suffering without fear? Though Bernadette suffered was there envy or fear? Who of us is ever not weary? I watch the starlings swoop and dive as if they know the air will never let them go. My daughters run and their mother rocks in her chair and holds her bandaged foot, and bites down hard against the pain. And I want to ask her if she ever returns to that room overlooking the bay, when she was strong. And the lavender was high. And a few green flies buzzed against the screen. And the scent of salt and sea roses wafted through the window we left open, lying naked on the bed in the amethyst colored light. O Love, were we too not afraid?

      What Wind Who Tells Me Dear

      Two swings at the playground
      slowly sway, side by side,  

      between there and there
      is only here, creaking maybe

      maybe May be warm
      but I keep the light

      that falls inside Vermeer
      or the Symphony of Gorecki

      we used to play and weep,
      or the Ramones that made you

      crash around the house
      before tumbling into the two

      piles of what we were 
      I can’t get past

      these reels of past

      it’s been six years
      I sometimes forget

      since we made this child
      who I listen to breathe

      she is the syntax
      of the sentence

      that we were—
      curled on the coach

      like a comma—
      on the white sheet

      of your absence—
      we knew the risk

      to have her—

      when I write

      I am repairing
      or erasing

      such grief?
      Is there something

      closer to belief

      in going on?
      A poem is the seam

      of crocus cutting through the snow
      to tell us again we live

      despite the losing
      one cannot let go,

      but even it will fade,
      the way this winter did,

      the way sparrows
      gathered by your boots

      to eat bread
      taught us the chant

      at the edge
      of the unsaid,

      a window
      opened by forsythia wind—

      your fleeting face
      passes through me still—

Photo credit: Andrew Denial