Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of thirteen books across genre including the forthcoming All I Ask for Is Longing: Poems 1994- 2014 (2014 BOA Editions) Scything Grace (2013 Etruscan Press) Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line (2010 BOA Editions) which was a finalist for Binghamton University Milton Kessler’s literary prize for the best book by a poet over 40, the prose-poem-novel The Blue City (2008 Marick Press/Wayne State University), and Broken Hallelujahs (2007 BOA Editions).
He is the recipient of two Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowships in Poetry and a Fulbright Lectureship to the Balkans. Known for his electrifying performances he has performed at hundreds of venues, universities and festivals across North America and Europe including the Lollapalooza Music Festival, the Detroit Art Festival, the South Carolina Literary Festival, the Old Dominion University Literary Festival, Carnegie Mellon University, Elizabethtown College, The University of Maine, Sarah Lawrence College, SUNY Binghamton, U of California Santa Cruz, the Rochester Symphony Orchestra, the Erie Jazz Festival, the London (UK) Poetry Cafe and the BardFest Series in Budapest Hungary, and across Albania and Macedonia where he appeared on national television, sponsored by the US State Department.
His poetry has been read on PBS radio in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Rochester and Cleveland. He has taught creative writing at Syracuse University, Penn State University, Case Western University, Cleveland State University and Chatham University. He currently works at a pool hall, and gives readings around the country.
Four Questions for Sean
Green Briar Review: You surround yourself with billiards and pool halls. What connections are there between pool and poetry?
Sean Thomas Dougherty: I think the biggest is stories. A pool hall is an incubator of stories and has a memory of stories. I hear stories at the pool hall that cover decades, reaching well back into the mid and early 20th century. Stories of our pool hall, pool halls which don’t exist anymore, road stories, and stories about legendary players. But in terms of the game and poetry, there is an exquisite precision to both based on fundamentals, the slightest wrong played shot—perhaps the difference of half an inch, can cost you a game, the same as one wrong word or just the right word well placed can make or break a poem. For me though as a performer too there is the point in pool and poetry where all your fundamentals fall and you have to improvise, you have to pull down deep into your gut, your marrow, your heart to find the answer. This is where they both overlap the most for idea. The idea of the impossibly achieved can occur each time you lean over the felt, each time you make that first mark on the page.
GBR: When asked in a recent interview what first attracted you to poetry and how it has changed your life, you responded with the following: “The idea that I could read a handful of words on a page and be moved inextricably the way I would by a person I knew intimately. How poetry does that, and has done that for millennium is miraculous.” Is this experience what led you to attempt writing poems in the first place?
Sean: Yes so many writers have done this for me and continue to do with for me. Just this week I read these poems by Albanian American writer Ani Gjika that stopped me cold:
her voice circled round the neighborhood
like a windhover, hoarse and purling,
I saw a black river flood up the steps
to our deaf house. Then everything went still
How does this happen? And continue to happen? How does a stranger through language reach inside your chest to crush or cradle your heart? And with such few material as a few words? What other art form is so powerful?
GBR: You’re a well-received poet of numerous books and awards. What would you tell struggling poets who haven’t yet found their voice? What about your critics?
Sean: Just write, and read everything. Nothing else matters. And ask yourself questions. Not doubting questions or professional questions but questions like “what is the shape of this noun?” “How fast is this verb?” I constantly question the language I use and such dialogue leads me to the light inside language. I think of language as a living organic tool. Give yourself permission to let go of authorial control. Authorial control is the language of patriarchy capitalism, and death. Embrace spontaneity. And write, write for the joy of it. Not for laurels, or jobs or wreathes. Write because you are a human being and can write. And read everything. Ignore nothing. Embrace everything. What you hate embrace, and ask why and become reflective of what moves you and why. And as for the critics, sometimes punch them in the face, but more often ignore them completely. They are sycophants leeching on your art. They want what you do and do not know how to do it. They have tiny little cocks and sewed up cunts. They can’t find the lower part of their bodies because they are too busy stroking their own pens. But the artist, ah the artist, we write as Cicoux says with our bodies, climbing the staircase of the body to the ones we love, and we reach our hands out to our readers, who sit with us in the dim shadows of sorrows to turn each page, and by doing so, we both keep living.
GBR: What’s on your bookshelf? And what young poets out there do you admire most?
Sean: These questions are impossible because I always leave someone out. I am probably going to leave 20 people out even just on the first part. So off the top of my head and looking around:
At the top of my bookshelf as my mainstays of course such as Peter Conners, Michael Ondaatje and Li Young Lee’s poems and prose, Joe Weil, Lucille Clifton, Ann Carson, Martin Espada, Patricia Smith, Tim Seibles, Frank Stanford, Patricia Smith, Dorianne Laux, Jim Daniels, Lynda Hull, Larry Levis, Franz Wright, Tori Dent, Joe Weil, Jack Gilbert, Mary Ruefle etc. I really like a lot of these writers from the generation one or two before me. I am not one of those poets who wanted to eat their parents.
Also on my shelf I have fine recent books by Luisa A. Igloria, Philip Terman, Charles Fort, and Al Maginnes, highly recommended and already dog eared. Phil, Al, Luisa and Charles are writers who deserve a lot of attention. Not as well known as their contemporaries but vital and necessary poets.
The writers from my own generation are too many to name, although in terms of influence probably Peter Markus, Jeffrey McDaniel, Paisley Rekdal, Malena Morling and Roger Bonair-Agard might have had the biggest dialogue on my writing in the last years. But I could probably name 20 more easily.
Most of the experimental writers I like are younger than me. This year I bought A TON of new books. Some of the really younger writers I admire whose books I really like include Lillian Bertram, Corey Zeller, Emily Vogel, Keith Montesano, Gary McDowell, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Sarah Smith, Noah Falck, Joe Hall, Matt Hart, Marcus Wicker, and Ray McManus.
Erika Meitner has been important to me for a long time and more recently Jennifer Militello who has a lot of Lorca in her lines. Her new book Body Thesaurus should be foundational reading for younger poets. Terrance Hayes, Yona Harvey, Adrian Matejka, Aracelis Girmay, and Barbara Jean Reyes, and Patrick Rosal are crucial younger writers for me.
These are writers I dialogue with. Who poems push and pull me. As we all struggle together in this difficult and necessary art form.