September 24, 2010
Fighting for Your Lunch Money: An Interview with Sean Thomas Dougherty
BOA’s A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize coordinator Albert Abonado recently interviewed BOA poet Sean Thomas Dougherty about his newest collection, Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line, and the state of American poetry. Anyone who knows Sean’s poetry knows that he doesn’t pull any punches - he throws them. Dorianne Laux calls Dougherty “a poet of grand and memorable vision” and describes Sasha as “the gypsy punk heart of American poetry.” Patricia Smith believes that “this book will be the one that stamps his defiant signature on the canon.”
Dougherty’s last book, Broken Hallelujahs, delved deep into his family history, including being raised in an interracial family with an African-American stepfather and a mother whose grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Budapest and the Ukraine. That book was rich with issues of identity and the complexities of history. Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line takes those themes to the street where we find the poet stalking the back alleys of his two latest home-cities - Macedonia and Erie, Pennsylvania – searching for the ever-elusive “underground sound” that drives his work. With this book, Dougherty has indeed located that underground sound: it is pulsing in his breastbone. Listen close to his words, you might need them someday:
ALBERT: What do you think it is about your poetry that makes you an “Underground Sound”?
SEAN: My poems are born outside the mainstream of literary or performance venues. My poems emerge from the local. My poems ride the bus. They shop at the corner store. My poems can beat me at pool. They scoff at pretense and the uber-literary. They prefer to hang with poems that aren’t afraid sometimes to say fuck. Yet they also have a great distain for poets who want to be alternative stars, slam sensations, TV wanna-be-stars. My poems prefer the basement and the bar to the bright lights. They are made of the voices found shouting and slurring. They carry brass knuckles,
Because there in the small rooms, in the alleys and backstreets, in the attics where bands are practicing, in the hall where two boys are playing dominos, in the lists and the listening, in the shot glass lifted after working the night shift, there is the true poem. The true poem dark and drenched with Duende. That is the sound I have spent my life searching to sing. I don’t care about literary things. I don’t care who won the big award last year. Often it is a poet I really do not have any respect for. A poet who I would never want to meet. A poet whose poems are poor piss reflections of feeling. A poet who went to Harvard, studied with all the right people, kissed all the right asses, learned from their bourgeoisie training how to write and what to say. It’s all a kind of ugly joke just like the entire system with our illusion of freedom. And more people in prison than in the history of the entire world.
Apartheid poets. Playing their language games. Gathering tenure. Writing a poem for tenure! How utterly pathetic.
In the underground there is only the scribbling than cannot be scribbled because the poem wants nothing
but to become.
ALBERT: One of the qualities I love about Sasha Sings the Laundry Line is your ability to blend a variety of cultural references from Gogol Bordello to Pavarotti to Lao Tsu; this on top of your precise imagery really situates the reader in a physical world. How important is it for you to write about real, tangible people and spaces?
SEAN: Almost but not everyone in Sasha is real. The few who aren’t feel real to me. Even they are situated in a real place: diners, bars, etc that actually exist. I don’t think it’s important to me or to any writer of poetry or fiction to write of real people or places. I never set out to be that kind of writer who writes so close to their life, but after many years I guess I have to admit that my work is pretty close to my skin. But even if it isn’t “real” the work should have a relationship to the life. I like poems most that exist in the world.
Too many poets negate the life from the poem. For me the poem is an attempt to make sense of and to communicate the life. To translate it. To offer it in language for someone who may need to hear the simple story that we “did not die”. I did not die when I could have, that I did not die when I should have. That I kept going. That along the way many do not. For them we continue the struggle.
The poem is simply part of the struggle to live honorably.
Too many of my peers write for laurels. They may deny that, they may say they write out of a more honest artistic space but they are liars. You can see and hear it in their work. That is why they are failures. Their poems are filled with self conscious missteps. There is a kind of weak elliptical poem I find utterly pretentious, pedantic and pathetic. The big three P poem. The faux intelligentsia poem. The journals and presses are filled with them. Someone should smack these writers upside their heads.
That’s the problem with too many American poets. They never got their ass kicked. Maybe they’d be better writers if they’d gotten beat up as a kid or had to fight for their lunch money.
ALBERT: I really liked it when you wrote “I did not die when I could have, that I did not die when I should have.” You immediately brought to my mind the final lines of Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me”: “come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.”SEAN: This is going to be long and I will still leave out fifty people. Lucille Clifton was a force to me, a poet of conviction, a poet you didn’t need a PHD to read, and whose work has social relevance. Other BOA poets and former BOA poets such as Li Young Lee and Dorianne Laux were really important to me in developing a situated poetics, one that engaged—not hid—from the world. Dorianne gives us a poem that situates issues of class and struggle and the attempt to find the beautiful in the daily. Patricia Smith has been very important to me for many years. The musicality and formal precision of her work is mindboggling. Jim Daniels taught me to write the long narrative line and his poems about work, factories, bridges, cities feel like home. Martín Espada is probably the most important poet to me on the planet. His poems actually kept me writing at times when I wanted to quit. His conviction and understanding of the role of the artist and his toughness—and his cool hats—gave and give me hope and strength. And as an artist he has only gotten better and better. His The Republic of Poetry is his best book and a necessary book for the twenty-first century.
Which kind of leads me to another question, what writers out there right now are doing something that moves you?
There are so many beautiful poets writing today. I want to say though that I respond to poems that are rough, not quite finished, raw, and tough. A poem that is too precious is dead. Terrance Hayes is an important younger writer to me; I just picked up his newest as well as the long awaited second book Ideal Cities from the fabulous Erika Meitner. Meitner writes a tough unapologetic poem that makes so much solipsistic ellipticism read like mush. Malena Morling is another important poet for me, she writes an accessible nearly mystical kind of poem, that also bruises the air. Malena is originally from Sweden and she brings a sensibility and poetics from the upper latitudes into our Language. Hers are transforming life affirming poems. Joe Weil is a tough poet, a very under known poet who worked as a teamster for many years. He teaches now down in Binghamton. He is not very well known outside of his native New Jersey where he is a legend. Joe’s poems engage issues of work, struggle and survival, yet he is also devastatingly intellectual but never in a pretentious manner. Jan Beatty from Pittsburgh is the toughest poet on the planet. All of her books are jeweled shards. Too many poets write in a manner that never acknowledges the rough and tumble physicality of the world. Precious poems are for teenagers. True poets don’t have time to be writing gently. The world is broken and there are shards everywhere. Lynda Hull knew that. She was a tough beautiful poet who died far too young and now is not well known.
Most of my biggest older influences were quite obscure in their lives such as Frank Stanford, Christopher Gilbert, and Eugene Ruggles whose book I found in a box at the Grolier bookstore for a dollar. His only book Lifeguard in the Snow published in the 1970s is one of the lost treasures of American poetry.
That is only ten percent of what I think is good but I tried to mention mostly writers who I think are lesser known and publish with small presses.
I find myself rather disdainful of the recent big award winners. I own very few of them.
ALBERT: Also, you spent sometime overseas. How did your experience influence writing some of the poems in this collection?
SEAN: I spent a good part of 2009 in Macedonia though the sponsorship of the United States Fulbright Program. I lived in Skopje and taught creative writing to an amazing group of students at the State University. In addition the State Department sent me on a tour to perform in Albania and Macedonia and to speak about the role of art in a democracy. In Skopje I spent hours walking the city, but I quickly found that for all the foreignness it felt oddly familiar, perhaps how cities were in the United States were when I was a child, with urban neighborhoods still in intact: cafes, bars, corner stores, children playing ball in the alleys, and people in apartments they were given by the former socialist government who had lived there for decades. The cobblestoned streets, the open air market, the diesel buses, gypsies crowding the intersections selling and hustling, the old stone bridges, the Byzantine castle rising like a testament above the city, the mountain and the river, the snow covered peaks of Kosovo in the distance. Men in bars smoking and telling stories, stuttered translations. My friends Rumena and Matt taking us up precarious back roads and into jazz bars, slurry with the Balkan night air. The late night conversations nurtured by cigarettes and Rakia (a kind of Brandy), listening to poet Zoran Ancevski tell me long stories about being in the Yugoslavian army, or when he was in the states in the 1970s as a student, and how he drove up to see Gary Snyder and when he found the house there was a big party with Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg and a dozen other poets sitting in a hot-tub making spontaneous poems on a blackboard. There was an exquisite foreignness and familiarity to the Balkans. American culture was everywhere, right alongside a very particular Macedonian and Albanian way of being, and a sense of time that was far older than anything I had ever experienced. So what I wrote in Macedonia sounds like what I wrote here, my same themes of working class spaces and streets, the same issues of identity and the attempt to understand oneself and relationship to the culture; yet these poems written overseas also deal with the dislocation of language, of being confronted by situations and images that I recognized but couldn’t fully translate. I clung to the daily, shopping in the market for vegetables, bartering with hand signs, exchanging the few Macedonian words I knew with a cab driver, and the long evenings Lisa and I would walk along the Vardar river, pushing our child in her pram—far from everyone we knew we tried as best we could to make a life. We lived there. And out of that stillness and safety between us the poems emerged and sang themselves into Sasha.
ALBERT: I wanted to close the interview on this. Anyone who knows you knows about Punk Rock Sunday, your music show on Facebook, and your love of music. If you could imagine a basic three piece band composed of poets: guitarist, drummer, and bassist, which poets do you think would play what instrument?
SEAN: Ok I wrote this for you, Al. Poets just kept showing up in it, it is quite the Arkestra.
In a Bar Named Afterlife
Neruda straps the golden accordion
across his chest. I am tattooing
the set list on my arm in red ink.
Ginsberg begins to growl, the cities
turn to lights, constellations
into letters, which make the notes
to the prayer Akhmatova begins
to bandage the air with the wail
of the Black Marias. Carl Sandberg
raises his fist, pulls from his work shirt
pocket an enormous trumpet,
the size of a bull. He blows the prairie wind.
He blows the slaughterhouse walls.
He blows the rusted rails. A piano pounds
the sound of running horses, thunder,
a boy hiding from hound dogs, braying;
Etheridge Knight wallowing
through the black keys, with each riff
a prison collapses into gravel. Gavel of the judge,
poor pouting Lorca. He has forgotten his guitar.
He wants to weep a casida. He wants to sing
the bent lily, the dead girl and the bayonet.
He begins to chant a minor chord.
And from the corner the Duende stretches
out her castenetted wrists, with each click
she twists the shadows into scarves
that float and flutter through the smoke,
a rhythm to call back the caravans.
And the head of the moon is a drum. Aime Cesaire
touches the bruise on his palm. He pounds
the moon with his palms like dirt.
No one is drinking. No one needs
their methadone fix. I am writing
this all down. No one solos too long.
Or Bukowski screams out SHIT!