Luke Rolfes: Sean Thomas Dougherty, author of twenty books, is out with a brand-new collection of poems from BOA Editions entitled DEATH PREFERS THE MINOR KEYS. Dougherty brings his A-game to this book which offers narratives, ruminations, and images of pain, caretaking, love, and survival. Sean, I can’t thank you enough for spending some time talking with us about this terrific, hard-hitting collection.
Rolfes: I’ll dive right in. These pieces feel different than some of your earlier work. I dig this new style! It’s difficult to describe these poems in a way that totally encapsulates what they are doing. They are prose poems, certainly, but they behave sometimes in imagination like mini-stories or tiny-memoirs. Can you tell us about this new form? Is this style something you consciously went toward in your work, or did it come naturally?
Sean Thomas Dougherty: For decades I’ve been influenced by writers who write short prose, that’s one of the reasons I loved your book of stories so much! Writers like Claudia Rankine in Citizen Michael Ondatjee’s Running in the Family, Dinty Moore’s work and his journal Brevity, Sandra Cisneros, Sarah Freligh, Charles Fort, Mary Biddinger, and of course Lydia Davis. I love books where pieces fit to make a whole, and I like to make books out of pieces, so when I set out to write this book I was very much thinking of a book of related small prose pieces, and I wasn’t really setting out to write poems as I was to tell a variety of interweaved stories about my wife’s illness, about my work as a caregiver, about my kids and history and maybe something close to God. To tell these multiple threads I saw the prose poem/micro essay as a way to tell pieces of a story, leap away, and then come back to that story elsewhere. I was also very interested in how aphorisms can function as reflective moments within (or against) a narrative, and so the book is full of small aphoristic moments.
Dougherty: This is also an attempt to write what I like to name Slow Writing: which is meant to be read slowly and carefully and pondered over. This is not a quick read. The book is written to be read in sequence a few pages at a time. In a century when literary work is often consumed in tiny bite-sized pieces online, I became much more interested in work that unfolds slowly, mystically, drawing the reader’s attention to sentences that hopefully make one pause and reflect before going on to the next line. Despite this, there are some blazing fast pieces such as the performance piece “One Sentence on Pain” which was influenced by my hero Ann Waldman’s prose poem “Marriage.” But the idea of Slow Writing is to claim a space for difficulty as generative and spiritual. To create in language a space that is closer to a prism: a room of many walls through a series of sentences that move forward, then pause and turn, often directly to the reader, posing a question, or pondering.
Rolfes: It says on the back of this book that many of these poems were composed on break during third shift. I’ve heard that limiting one’s writing time can change a writer’s process in interesting ways. I’m curious: Did writing at work during bits/fragments of time influence you creatively in a way you didn’t expect? And were you able to write complete drafts in one sitting, or did you have to build them in pieces?
Dougherty: Yes, this process had me really focus down on the sentence as the unit of measure as I often only had time to write a few sentences at a time: Pass some meds. Do a hall check. Everything is quiet. Write a few sentences. Help someone fix their tv. Check someone’s temp. Then everyone asleep. I write a couple fragments. Hall check. Everyone is breathing. I wrote by hand. I scribbled. I don’t often write prose by hand. No, I don’t think any of the pieces were written in one sitting. What I’d do is after a few sessions, a few days, I’d gather up the fragments and type them up at home. Sometimes then the order would switch. One reason I was able to do this was I was trying to write a lot of sentences that would function as if pieces of a larger puzzle but interchangeable in terms of placement. But in the end, I worked to map an interweaving of narrative threads to read in sequence. The book is meant to be read in sequence, page by page, like any prose book, and to be read slowly, a few pages at a time.
Rolfes: In recent poems (and this book in particular) your job as caregiver pops up again and again. I spent a summer, when I was younger, working at a Long-Term Care Center. My supervisor told me, on the first day, to try my best to give residents anything they wanted. “This is their home,” she said. “Don’t forget that.” It seems that a lot of your poetry champions that same idea that we need to give this kind of grace to folks who have disabilities. Could you describe how your work as caregiver shapes you and your writing?
Dougherty: My community is the disabled community. Both my daughters have a disability as does my wife and I’ve struggled with invisible disabilities for decades. But my work as a caregiver is something else. There is a professional stance of detachment in caregiving. I’ve taken care of some truly not good people, but there is a human right to caregiving. Everyone deserves care. It has nothing to do with us, but with the participants. This sense of detachment has influenced my work. Ironically, the closer I write to my life and family and the more I feel my work is for others. That same sense of detachment makes the writing not mine, but something for the reader.
Rolfes: To my reading, it felt like many of these poems were speaking directly to someone. Perhaps the reader of the book? Perhaps a friend or family member? All of the above? Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing DEATH PREFERS THE MINOR KEYS, or do you see these poems more as being directed to anyone/everyone/no one?
Dougherty: The book is directed to my wife and to the reader. I envision this dual audience often. I try to imagine the stranger out there, someone who too is struggling, who may need these stories to feel less alone. Together we go on and never any of us are the kind who shoot horses.
Rolfes: Did you have to make tough cuts in building this collection? Or was it one where the poems fit together quite easily?
Dougherty: This was a very hard book to arrange and my editor at BOA Peter Conners help out a lot with the section structures. Also, we did a big last cut down. The book was twenty pages longer than its final version.
Rolfes: I would love to pick your brain on a couple individual poems. One of my favorites is “Death Letter #3.” I’m struck by the ending anecdote about working in a wedding décor factory and watching the potpourri line-crew go on break. “To this day I swear there was nothing more like freedom than witnessing those women spill out on break to the parking lot and pull off their white hair nets and let down their thin and voluminous hair for a time, shaking their heads, sharing lighters, borrowing cigarettes, gossiping in the parking lot.” That’s such a great image---one that will stick with me for a long time. I’m curious what inspired you to write these “Death Letter” poems, and what triggered this real or imagined memory of factory work near the end of this piece?
Dougherty: That memory of working in the factory is factual. It comes from when I worked for a couple of years at the Treasure’s Master (TMC Corp) factory in Derry, NH in the late 1980s. I worked in the warehouse and on the packing line and drove a forklift. It was rough work but the people I worked alongside were wonderful. The Death Letters came as a direct reaction to my wife’s longterm illness and the feeling that Death is often in the room or in the house or waiting, a kind of mythic albeit naturalistic presence. Not the Death of horror films but more the idea of Death as in Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, the Death that plays chess. An ironically empathetic death. Death, the one who is also the reliever of great suffering as opposed to just the grim reaper. A presence waiting, but in no rush.
Rolfes: Another favorite of mine is “The man brings me a bowl” In it, a man recovering from a serious accident collects various objects in a large, blue bowl. The poem becomes not so much about what the man collects but how he perceives his collections. Bowls of snow, for instance, he describes as “Snowman heads.” This piece felt especially imaginative, like a piece of micro or flash fiction. Could you tell us how you went about constructing this one?
Dougherty: This piece came directly from my caregiving job and imaging new projects for rehabilitation. It is part of the small sequence (the “Frog Singers” is another one) that pushes the realism of this work into magical realism. The piece works by mixing the mundane with the seemingly magical, and yet nothing in the text is too far from what is or could be.
Rolfes: The Laurel Review was fortunate enough to publish another favorite of mine entitled “The Shape of a Pill.” In it, you ruminate on various forms of light: “snowlight, locomotivelight, electrocardiogramlight, the light that travels through the veins, blueriverlight, autumnleaflight…” The idea of light pops up again and again in this book, perhaps as the inverse of death. In the opening poem of this book, you say, “I’ve never seen a person pass me who wasn’t leaking light.” What drew you time and again to this idea of light, especially in a book that falls so often into conversation with death?
Dougherty: This comes from Kabbalah. The shattered vessel from which we all come from, and the Reform Judaism idea of Tikkun and that one’s role in to act as an agent in repairing the world. I found it slightly ironic that this idea was explored and this book about light was written partly on the night shift.
Rolfes: What’s next for you and your writing, and where do you see your poetry going from here? More prose poems? Any new projects in the works?
Dougherty: I’m taking a break from writing to concentrate on my caregiving responsibilities at work and home. Plus, my own health is precarious. This book might be my last book. At least for quite some time. Sometimes being a writer is knowing when it is time to not write and to just let life unfold around you. I’d like to spend the next years simply trying to live, and to get the book into the hands of those who might need it.
Rolfes: I can’t thank you enough, Sean, for talking with us. DEATH PREFERS THE MINOR KEYS is a stunning book, and I hope as many folks as possible get their hands on it. Don’t miss this one!
Bio: Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author of twenty books. His poetry collections include Death Prefers the Minor Keys (BOA Editions, 2023); The Second O of Sorrow (BOA Editions, 2018); All You Ask for Is Longing: Poems 1994–2014 (BOA Editions, 2014); Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line (BOA Editions, 2010); and Broken Hallelujahs (BOA Editions, 2007). Dougherty lives in Erie, Pennsylvania.