Award-winning poet, Sean Thomas Dougherty, is the author of more than fifteen books, including The second O of grief (BOA Editions, 2018), All my people are elegies (NYQ 2019), and his latest collection of poetry, The dead are everywhere to tell us things (Jacar Press, 2022). Poet Dorianne Laux called Dougherty “the gypsy punk heart of American poetry”. Reginald Dwayne Betts called him an “earth and gravel poet”, whose poems “are about the earth, about where we go and return to”. One of his locations is Erie, Pennsylvania, where he lives and works as a caregiver and medical technician. I recently spoke with Dougherty about work, poetry, and their connection in his new book.
Saleyer: I am struck by the relationship between work and the sense of grace in your poems. In “When I Listen”, for example, you start with the music, the “mourning doves in the rafters of a cathedral” and the “tender piano riffs like old people / making love”. The poem ends, however, with this warning: “Remember / after someone’s death there is work: / someone strips the bed. / Someone is mopping the floor.’ Why does the poem insist on this? What do we lose by not seeing this work?
Dougherty: I think what we are losing is the continuum of work and life. Even at the time of death, a stranger goes to work. In many ways, I think that’s what poems do. Somewhere right now, a stranger gets to work, scribbling on a piece of paper the poem that will keep us going. There’s more than a bit of Kabbalah in there. We don’t need to win the Pulitzer Prize, just a poem to save a life, to recognize a life, to bear witness to a life. What could be fairer and more humble than that? ‘To be fair in small things’, says the poem, says this labor. Who is not fairer than this woman, an immigrant worker whom I have seen how many times, changing the sheets, sterilizing the bed. Because it must work as we all must, erasing the losses of this life to continue in this life. If we don’t recognize this work, we dishonor the idea of human beings. We also dishonor the idea of the poem which, ultimately, is written with words and said with human breath. If we let the poem rise into the ethereal, away from the work that most humans do on the planet, then what is the poem but a trifle for the powerful, a moment of parlor discussion, or a line on a resume for the talented ten percenter?
Saleyer: In the poem’s initial description of Thelonious Monk’s listening, there is the shift from ‘fear’ to ‘reverence’ to ‘daydreaming’. If the subject is improvised, spontaneous, the means of description involve a good deal of know-how – oblique rhymes, etymologies, alliterations. I’ve always liked this idea of the poet as someone who creates – which I guess isn’t very ethereal. How do you understand the work of making poems? Are there times when you revel in making the work visible to readers? Times when you want to hide it more?
Dougherty: I like poems which sometimes show their architecture. In many ways the poets of the New York School do, poets like O’Hara with his poetic art to walk and its “I did this, I did that”, as if the poem unfolded during the walk. More so a poet like Ron Padgett, his famous poem about the “voice” and hoping never to find it. I love “this poem” poems like Ishmael Reed’s great poem that says “this poem, this poem, this poem” and then swallows you whole. I love how poets like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins and Jose Padua situate the poem within the act of writing, which is actually a movement that places us in the actual creative act. But I also love a poet like Patricia Smith who hides her masterful meters without showing the seams. Poetry is work, not just in the sense of cleaning a floor, but work like a mathematician develops and proves a theorem, or an engineer designs a building, or a bomb maker finds a fuse. And when it explodes, and everyone hits the ground, we’re covered in flowers and Pinata toys. I believe that poems should be sublime but also sometimes terrifying. These are terrifying times.
Saleyer: In a different vein, you have a remarkable series of prose poems that imagine responses to poetry publishers’ rejection letters. I am struck by the fact that these poems often insist on the fullness of life whose poems on the page, at best, take the pulse. What do these poems want ‘Dear Editor’ to know or hear?
Dougherty: I wrote this book in direct response to a preponderance of rejection. But it was also a way of using reality and the metaphor of rejection to talk about the work I do as a long-time caregiver for people with traumatic brain injury. I think there is a parallel between the control apparatus of art and the control that prevents people with disabilities from living to their fullest potential. We live in a culture where people with disabilities are underfunded, a culture that wants them to go unseen. In a strange way, these poems about rejections are also about all that. I also try to take the editor’s point of view, to express the profound difficulty of saying “no” to someone when so many voices must be heard.
Saleyer: Along these lines, so many of us who write and receive rejections are familiar with the language of poems being “almost” or “coming close”. It is a language that we take up, in turn, when we speak of the “almost odes of my people”. An elegy too, as in All my people are elegies, is a kind of “almost”. I can’t help feeling a tension between the elegiac desire for “almost” and the reciprocal desire in the idea that “the dead tell us things everywhere”. How to talk about those who are absent and at the same time listen to them? Does poetry close this circuit or does it only map the problem?
Dougherty: This is going to sound crazy, but I think specifically spoken poetry and language can come through the veil. Obviously, I’m not alone in this. ask anyone seanchai or shaman, Kabbalists and Sufis. What is this world if not a world, and I’m not talking about pop culture metaverse, but I mean we are moments in time, grown in time, techno-logicians of time? And yet in our brains, in our dreams, what is time? What is space? Have you ever had a long dream, a dream that takes a day or more, then you wake up, and it only took two minutes? What is that? In the same way, I see poems as pieces of language that are trapped in time but can also resist it. Have you ever seen this sci-fi movie The arrival, how with language can we change, see, transport through time and space? Is it really that far-fetched? Haven’t we tried, since the first human knew how to speak, to work magic with language? I think, at their best, the best poems try to break through that veil. On a less intellectual level, the idea of “almost” is part of the grain of workers’ discourse. Every corner bar is filled with someone who almost made it, who could have played pro, who almost won the lottery if it wasn’t for that number. For the poet, this idea of “almost”, of failure, is the song we want to sing. Perhaps we are all victims of the Spectacle.
Saleyer: I have sometimes tried to imagine the “elsewhere” of “we wish you good luck in placing your works elsewhere”, just as I have tried to imagine mine among the dead in an elsewhere. And much of life and work can seem to take place in an elsewhere, a kind of night shift of the heart, which takes place behind the scenes. If you gave me a set of directions to go somewhere else, how would I know when I got there? How would I live there?
Dougherty: I love this phrase “night team of the heart”. Poet Phil Meters has characterized my work as a night shift aesthetic. For me, “the elsewhere” consists of spaces that the so-called normal world tries not to see, the world that does not recognize the handicapped and the sick, the world that houses the largest prison population in the history of the world. . It’s “elsewhere”, “elsewhere” in the rooms I enter to make sure that someone is still breathing. The world of a bar where loners sit with no one around, but then someone walks in and says, “Good to see you.” This is the world I live in, a world where men and women work long shifts.
“Elsewhere” is also where our dead pass without fanfare or headlines, without parades. But there is also another “elsewhere”, right next to us, the elsewhere where our dead watch over us. They peer under the oak tree or hover in the corner of a room. They remind me that history and armies mean little when the veil is lifted, the mighty lose their money, lose their chariots, and stand perplexed on the side of a hill, burning, as the saying goes. Sufis, of the fire they brought within them. .
What do you see in your dreams? “Elsewhere” is never far away, though we are people who live far from the centers of power, doodling, making our maps to show others the way, our poem maps.