An Interview with Sean Thomas Dougherty
Sean Thomas Dougherty’s poetry fuses the rigor of academia with the rhythms of the streets. He is the author of nine books including Nightshift Belonging To Lorca, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Except By Falling, winner of the 2000 Pinyon Press Poetry Prize. Broken Hallelujahs, his most recent book, is an exploration of his roots and influences, combining polka-based forms with odes to African American musicians and poets, finding common ground in the rhythms that bind them. Sean is known for the energy he puts into his performances, and his poetry reflects that. He resides in Erie, Pennsylvania.
First let’s talk about rhythm, because it’s the first thing that strikes me when I read your poetry. With Broken Hallelujahs, I had to stand up and physically feel the poems. I didn’t really have a choice. Something didn’t make sense sitting down, reading silently. The way the lines drop down one to the next is consuming in itself. The content almost works as an undertone. I’m curious what state, what frame of mind, you compose in, and likewise the manner in which you hope your readers partake.
Rhythm has always been key for me as a poet. I think one basic definition of poetry is language transformed into rhythm. I was attracted to poetry that was rhythmical when I first started to write. Poets such as Ann Waldman, Patricia Smith, Quincy Troupe and Joy Harjo have been important to me for rhythm more than anything else.
When I compose I often hear a breath and beat in my head that falls out onto the page. Sometimes this is a conscious prosody such as in the Oberek which uses a double stressed line as its foundation. Sometimes it’s syllabics, 10 syllables a line. Sometimes it jags and zips. Sometimes it’s the way the wind is blowing against the side of the house as I write, or the sound of a car revving as it waits at the drug house across the street from where I live. Sometimes the rhythm is the pace of my dead great-grandmother’s voice circling through the air and speaking to me in Yiddish, which I hear as straight rhythm. I sometimes watch foreign movies with the sound off for the rhythm. The other day I was composing with Roberto Benigni’s new movie The Tiger in the Snow on in the background, the sound of his stuttering Italian entering the lines. Sometimes it’s the rhythm of a bird’s wings veeing over a city park. Sometimes in the steps of an old woman boarding the bus, saying the rosary. My neighbors yelling, cussing, singing, muttering to themselves.
You use a form called the Oberek, which in the notes to BH you say is based on the polka waltz. Clearly there’s something cultural at work here. What was the impetus behind this form?
A few years ago I had this Polish girlfriend who used to take me to polka festivals. I was skeptical at first but I am also an accordion junkie. At one of these festivals I was listening to this strange waltz with a hard two beat rhythm. It was an Oberek. I thought, what an interesting pattern to use in a poem. So I invented the Oberek based on the song form. I also think of the form as dealing with an Eastern European subject matter. That is part of its original intentions, but then I wrote one for the great African American poet Etheridge Knight because I realized its ability to move slow and hard and sound elegiac. This simple form now is one I can see a lot of possibilities for expression in, some whirling fast and exuberant in thin lines, some moving slowly and dirge-like, like a hard two footed funeral march.
The first part of BH is concerned largely with your grandfather. He seems to be a manifestation of grim realities: hard work, pain, death. Could you say something about his influence on you and your writing?
Not just pain and death, but love, struggle, celebration -- to fight, as Abbie Hoffman once said, without hope, because the struggle itself is the way to live. My grandfather Joseph Kreisler died in 2002 from cancer. He was a radical in the New Deal tradition, a real American socialist. He was a Fulbright scholar who studied Chinese after World War II but then we think was blacklisted. He then went on to work for years at the post office. Then in the '60s he became a social worker on the Lower East Side, then moved up to Portland, Maine in the early '70s where he founded the school of social work at the University of Southern Maine and worked for years with the homeless, particularly runaway youth.
My grandfather was a closet poet and writer, a pretty good one, who wrote lyric poems and read modernist writers. I think writing was one of his first loves. Both of my grandparents (and my parents) encouraged me greatly when I started to write in my late teens and early 20s. I always say my family is part of the un-acknowledged educated poor in this country. We didn’t have a lot but we always had books. My grandparents’ house was filled with books, floor to ceiling. I loved going there and going through them, finding old anthologies from the '40s, '50s, '30s. Old magazines full of William Carlos Williams. I remember he had an old copy of Transitions with a piece from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake long before it was Finnegan’s Wake.
What I learned most, though, from my grandfather was to love the world, to struggle for the world because it is our world. I lived with my grandparents when I was small in Brooklyn. When my grandfather took me for walks he would always point out things, point at a balloon let go in the sky, at a one-legged pigeon doing a dance, at a crack in the sidewalk that extended down to China. If we listened we could hear Mao laughing! He would ask me questions. He asked me what I thought, how I felt. He never stopped doing this.
As I wrote, he worked his life to make spaces for people to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette. A cup of coffee and a cigarette isn’t much for a man’s life, is it? He said that once. In this country it seems sometimes even that is too much to ask.
But he taught me to ask for that and so much more for others.
He taught me the art of compassion, to resist the acceptance of suffering.
Right now in the literary world, everywhere you look there’s a new memoir sifting the grit of this culture or that family tree. So, in a sense, this exploration of your roots could be considered timely. Where do you see yourself relative to this confessional prose trend? How about poets in general?
This is really perceptive because the prose sections in Broken Hallelujahs started out as a longer memoir that I kept cutting back and then began to think of as an extended prose poem, or sequential narrative.
Memoir and the lived life are as crucial to my work as the imagination. I often wonder about the difference between the two as my daily life is quite surreal. I walk down the street and there is a one-legged woman in a wheelchair holding the leash to three large poodles with yellow ribbons. A man in a derby hat is walking backwards talking to himself on 10th Street. A group of boys with Somali or Sudanese accents are playing a game with bottle caps. And when one wins the hand he tosses the pile over his shoulder. I cannot figure out why. That evening after they left, if you came by and saw the sidewalk littered with bottle caps you’d have no idea what a complicated and intimately joyous scene had occurred, you’d think men had been sitting there getting drunk in the afternoon sun.
At night, I watched a woman walk out of the drug house across the street and waltz with herself, stoned, singing an old Isley Brothers song, down the block in the streetlights. The daily is full of dreams and broken hallelujahs.
I am currently finishing a short memoir, about 230 pages, titled The Finnish Tango, about my turbulent relationship with my ex-partner and a powerful journey I took to Finland with her last year. It is a book about our inability as people to hear one another, how too often we carry hurts from the past that erase the present, or keep it from unfolding -- themes that I first explored too in Broken Hallelujahs. These are the themes that have driven me the last 10 years. In the end I hope the book shows there is some healing, that redemption and hope are possible even in the most distressing of times. In it there are also chapters about my own childhood and a bit on my interracial upbringing (my stepfather is African American) and the role of violence and redemption in my life.
I’ll be trying to find a publisher for this in the fall. I really hope I can as I love this book -- it feels so much a part of my skin.
There are certain choice words and images that cycle through BH, but the most haunting for me is unquestionably the accordion. It’s one of those instruments people consider affable, at least in this country, but is yet extremely evocative. In BH, it is anything but jovial. Do you have a tangible history with the accordion or is it something you’ve gleaned?
I think the accordion has more expressive joy in Broken Hallelujahs than you give it credit. Not jovial, yes, but joy? For joy needs the acknowledgement of sorrow to exist, the O’s of both words, the hollow hold they open in the throat. Like the word accordion. The accordion is an instrument that opens the human voice, that we hold against our lungs and hearts. There is such struggle in the pull and heave of it, but then when it goes it goes strong, sending a room into a whirl of dervishes.
My connection to the accordion is deep. First of all, being half Irish (my birth father who left for Europe when I was six months old) the accordion is the center of so much Irish music. When I was in my early 20s I was an obsessive Pogues fan, this great Irish sort of punk band. Their accordionist, Spider Stacey, was the center of the band, driving them hard against the walls of clubs across the planet. Then I love Cajun music, Columbian music, and the tango. I love the rising ecstasies of Sufi songs that emerge from Pakistan where even there the accordion has become central for so much song. Out of Central Europe the accordion has traveled well because in it is the possibility of expressing great sorrow, but also great joy. It is like poetry in that way.
When my grandfather was dying he told me this amazing story of when he was 13. His father took him back to Uzhhorod, once part of Hungary but then and now one of the most eastern points of the Ukraine. My grandfather told me of riding on a hay cart with his uncle to a great party in a barn. There his uncle and another man played the accordion and the room whirled and swirled with Jewish dances. Out of the black earth the accordion lifted the voices of the dead and they swirled with the laughter of the living.
When I die I hope there will be a funeral march with accordions. Each player will play a different song from around the globe. There will be cumbia and tango and Irish and Ukrainian dirges and in the end the Zulu of New Orleans will dance and the accordions and drums will chant and I will fall deep into the black earth of my ancestors wrapped in a shawl of blessed notes.
Your cultural background is not what would be considered normal and it shows in BH. Hungarian Jews and East Coast rappers don’t often find themselves in the same book. Has your mixed cultural identity been something you’ve had to resolve, or has it always been a liquid part of you?
Liquid as in ocean, or a salt-rimmed shot of tequila, or better yet Vodka in a corner bar in Erie, Pennsylvania where this Bosnian dude in a red shirt is talking to his Puerto Rican friend about the half-Afro-Russian girl he’s got a crush on. True story.
Growing up in a mixed ethnic household and neighborhood, I guess issues of cultural identity were just part of being. We were all mixed up. At family reunions in Queens everyone was your “cousin”: black, brown, white, Asian.
I experienced some violence growing up white with an African American stepfather, but you resolve what you need to resolve as a child. As a writer, I just thought my mixed up story was not that unfamiliar when I looked around where I lived. I mean look at Natasha Trethewey’s book which just won the Pulitzer. I think she and I are near the exact same age. So part of this is generational.
In Broken Hallelujahs I wanted to explore my Eastern European roots and move fluidly into African American poetics at the same time. Though Hungarian Jews and East Coast rappers may not find themselves in the same books, I think they will, more and more. I mean, spend a day criss-crossing Brooklyn, or the east side of Erie, or the Northside of Syracuse, or Lowell, Massachusetts, for that matter. All us different people struggling side by side and out of that making a new language. I think this is one of the things I try to get at in the long list poem “Shift.”
You locate yourself in a strange place with your poetry, somewhere between the streets and the lecture hall. Your poems are concerned with people on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, people who are struggling and ignored, yet at the same time you use words and allusions and forms passed down through academic traditions. Why bring these two worlds together on the page?
That’s me. A former high school drop out, street kid from Brooklyn, and the Old West End of Toledo, Ohio, running through the alleys near Scott High with its legendary basketball team. Then high school in New Hampshire, in Manchester with its working class grit and grace. I didn’t go to Harvard. I went to state schools. I worked in factories and warehouses for three years before I went to college, then loaded trucks in a union shop third shift throughout college.
I consider my work exploratory, if not experimental, though I don’t feel close to a lot of experimental writers. A lot of so-called experimental writing leaves the world too much for my tastes.
Too many poets of that caste sound like they can only exist in a classroom or gallery. That is fine for them. But I want my poems to exist on many fronts, in many places, for Giotto and graffiti, for the bodega and the cathedral. When I write, somehow all that gets mixed up together in my heart.
In the end, to quote my friend Joe Weil, poetry has to remember how to “praise.” I have to remember to praise.
Too many poets seem like they write for a Guggenheim. I write for a bowl of grits. My father makes a hell of a bowl of cheesy grits. If I can write a poem that he thinks is good enough to deserve a lifetime of those grits, I’ve done my job.
To finish up, what are you reading these days?
Here’s what’s on my desk or beside my bed this week:
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient
Vievee Francis Blue Tail Fly (my vote for best first book of 2006!)
Peter Markus Good Brother
Tracy K. Smith’s Duende
Martin Espada The Republic of Poetry
Laurie Kutchins Slope of the Everlasting Child