5 QUESTIONS with sean thomas dougherty
by Jackie Malone| April 2018
Who were the first poets to impress you? How did they affect the way you write?
When I started to write seriously in the late 80s there was three direct and primary influences I can name: first was Charles Simic who was my poetry professor at the University of New Hampshire. Simic pointed me to the use of prose poems and compression that even today are part of my approach. The second poet was Patricia Smith. Patricia ran a reading series and eventually a poetry slam in the very early 90s at a now gone bookstore called The Bookcellar Café in Somerville, MA. Patricia Smith was warm and welcoming and helped me with both my work and how to perform a poem. And finally, there was Philip Levine. I was working in a factory in Derry, NH and attending UNH part-time when my teacher Gail Rondeau, handed me Levine’s work. It was the first time I had ever read poems that were close to my life, poems about people working for a living. I drove a forklift back then and I would sit on break, eating a hand-cut ham sandwich dripping with relish and mustard, his dog-eared books like Name of the Roseor What Work Is, opened on my lap. There were others too such as Etheridge Knight and Christopher Gilbert who I met in Cambridge and Worchester, or the great Lynda Hull whose book Ghost Money I found at the Grolier Bookstore and carried it till it fell apart.
You have written 13 books of poetry. As you look back over your work, in what ways has your poetry changed?
Years ago in a class with Michael Martone I was asked to consider that the notion of progress in our work was false. What if, Martone asked, you have already written “the best” poem you will write. To question the notion of progress. Back then I was skeptical, but now decades later I see what he means. My work has changed less over the decades than it has circled back over and over in different and repeated ways to a few fundamental questions. The work is more about attempting to answer these unanswerable questions than it is about some aesthetic: what is longing? Is there any worth in suffering? How despite the odds and evidence, and during the very worst conditions, do humans still manage to find joy? How we must find joy.
Do you have a regular routine for writing? If so, please tell us about it.
I write haphardly and go long stretches, even a year sometimes without really writing anything. But I collect. I make notes. I write down a metaphor a line. Then when they want the poems will find me and in a very short time I will spill out a book’s amount of poetry or more. Then I will spend a long time revising it. I never sweat not writing. But honestly if I could stop writing, I would. I’d gladly leave this difficult and often unpaid labor to the more talented and rewarded. But the poems will not rest, eventually they resist the inscription of silence. Somehow they manage, even against my wishes, to bloom out of my skin.
In addition to teaching poetry, you have had a varied career, such as being a medical technician. How have those experiences contributed to what and how you write?
My job sounds much more complicated than it is. All it really means is I am trained and given permission by the state of Pennsylvania and the company I work for to hand out medications and I am a state certified Caregiver. Currently I work with a TBI population in a residential facility for people who need long term care for brain injuries. It is a quite complicated population. They have complicated memory and language issues to address each day, to cue them and remind them of where they live, to help them articulate and manage their feelings so staff can better care for them. It is work I decided to pursue quite frankly after the election. We have a President who has shown nothing but distain and ridicule for the disabled community. My partner, the poet Lisa Akus, is disabled, and my two children have intellectual disabilities. Prior to the election I worked for years at a local pool hall while giving workshops and readings around the country. But the election made me want to do more, to help more.
The older I’ve gotten the more I spend my time, in work and in my life, giving my hours to some form of love and care. In many ways this is what poetry is too. Poetry is a kind of caregiving, a kind of concern, often for a stranger. Maybe someone we will never even meet, but we write to them that nameless one in the faith that they need our words, and our words can help them. I try to get at this idea in the very first poem in my new book,The Second O of Sorrow, which is very much a book about survival and words:
Because right now, there is someone
out there with
a wound in the exact shape
of your words.
You've chosen to be a poet. What do you love most about a poet's life?
I did not choose to become a poet. After a friend’s death when I was a teenager I just started writing poems. The poems helped me to regain some sense of the holiness in life and I fell in love then mostly with reading poetry and the mystical ability of a poem to heal us. But as time passed I simply kept on writing poems. In many ways I really wish I hadn’t though. Being an artist is a hard life in America. Everyone I know, in the working-class city where I live is struggling hard just to get by. Most of us have debts that “no honest man could pay.” If I could have chosen differently for this life I would have. But then I’m not good at much of anything else, and I question even how good I am at making a poem. How good I am at being a person. At being a father? Maybe every artist, every poem is a failure? Maybe to be an artist is to fail? Each and every time we approach the page. I can’t help noticing the world and then the world says, make these words into a shape: someone is out there needs them. Write it down. Despite the odds, despite the evidence, we need this. These words. For someone. They are calling you.
To know more about Sean's poetry, go to seanthomasdoughertypoet.com