Sometimes when I look at the sky: A Conversation with Sean Thomas Dougherty about Death Prefers the Minor Keys – curated by Tiffany Troy

Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of twenty books. His book The Dead are Everywhere Telling Us Things received the 2021 Jacar Press Poetry prize selected by Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs. His book Not All Saints won the 2020 Bitter Oleander Library of Poetry Prize. His book The Second O of Sorrow (BOA Editions, 2018) received both the Paterson Poetry Prize, and the Housatonic Book Award from Western Connecticut State University. Other awards include an Established Artist Fellowship for Northwest Pennsylvania, two Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowships in Poetry, and a United States Fulbright Lectureship to the Balkans.

Death Prefers the Minor Keys is a prose poetry collection that teaches us that “survival is more than love, it is labor.” It draws from Dougherty’s experience juggling multiple shifts–including as a caregiver and medical technician–and his intimate family life with a severely ill wife and a daughter on the autistic spectrum. What results is a tender music from a working poet who turns down the lights and coos Death to put away his Scythe in our darkest hours between dusk and dawn.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “Death Letter #2,” set up the rest of the collection that follows? The title was macabre, and attuned to the idea of how “survival is more than love, it is labor,” an idea that you fully develop throughout the collection. I also thought it was fascinating that you started with the second of a series of “Death Letters.”

Sean Thomas Dougherty: The opening death letter attempts to introduce the main themes of my work as a caregiver and my family as characters, the role of birds (particularly crows) as a Greek chorus in the edges of the pieces, and the metaphysics of Death as an active character or presence in the collection. My conception of Death is maybe quite different from the American ideological or populist notion, more as an inevitable guide to pass through the veil.  Years ago too when my wife Lisa was first very sick I began to feel as if Death was an entity that inhabited our house but not necessarily one who wanted to be taking her away.  More Death as a laborer, whose job never ends, but who is always searching for a moment to slough off.  So I sing these songs in a minor key so he will hear them and lay down his Scythe.  But often there is Death, in the background, whistling along offkey.  Love too then is labor.  Love is mercy too.  Love is not a state of being but is built and grows through acts of care.  Writing is one of those acts.

TT: Can you describe the process of writing this collection?

Perhaps you can link to “Poem as Pedagogy or Prose Poem that Includes Prompts for the Readers.” I’m curious about your thoughts on memory and the fictionalization with each re-telling, how memories are in turn fictionalized by objects, photos, films, etc. and different ways of writing poems (without hands) as a means to see the world in a new way.

SD: Like much of my work many of these pieces were both written and collaged.  Sentences or passages were written by hand on separate pieces of paper spontaneously at work, at home.  Then after a few pages I’d collage those together.  Often I would ask a question or give myself a minor prompt as the piece at the center does.  In many ways “Poem as Pedagogy...” is an ars poetica of the book maybe? Other pieces that are more narrative were written at one or two sittings.  But the whole book is a kind of collage of lines and witnessings that I wrote mostly on the third shift during down moments.  As a working person, there is some survival strategy in this process.  It is a way to be a writer when one has little time.  But it is also a process that–as best can be–reflects the way my brain works, which engages languages in fragments and sentences.  Which attempts to write tiny wholes, then stitch them together to make larger wholes, and often wants to let the seams show. Also the book shows this sense of pushing against linear time leads to repetitions of images and stories, the same way the mind may make repetitions of events it cannot let go. 

TT: It’s so interesting how you describe your writing process as similar to the visual process of collaging. On the macro-level, how did you organize the poems in the five sections?

SD: That was actually my editor Peter Conners at BOA.  I didn’t have chapters in the original manuscript.  I just wanted the pieces to flow together more improvisationally.  I even at one point thought of taking the titles off.  But Peter suggested this structure and separation to give the reader pause and emphasize the themes in the groupings.  I was really happy with it.  He is a terrific editor and over the years has reigned in to good benefit my more improvisatory tendencies.

TT: I definitely agree with you that the titles and the structure give a sense of cohesion and allow the reader to take a breather over sometimes heavy subject materials, to great effect. Why the prose poetry form and how does it inform your collection? I noticed how capacious the prose poetry form is (in terms of content that it allows, without the line breaks), but also how dense and heavy it feels.

SD:   The form enables one to either exist or subvert narrative.  In the 21st century too an enlightened reader will know this of the prose poem, that the expectations of where the paragraph begins might be subverted and the poem/essay will go in an unexpected direction.  I “write” a lot by using collage, so the form is perfect for me.  More theoretically and conceptually the form works well with how my neurodivergent brain works.  It is difficult for me to sustain a narrative in my thoughts and I am often jumping time and space at any given moment.  It has taken a lot of work and therapy for me to become a functional working adult!  To use a metaphor of the page, my brain doesn’t recognize the border of the page or has a hard time grasping linear time.  The time palimpsests and I try to show those textures and juxtapositions of time and history in language, particularly in this book and in the long title poem of my previous book The Dead are Everywhere Telling Us Things.  The poet Chad Sweeney talks about how he tries to show the way his autistic brian works in his work. I think our goals are complementary and quite similar though his language and sense of syntax is more inventive than mine I must admit..

TT: I am so impressed by how you integrate the form/ content with how you think. As a working poet, how do you go about incorporating real elements from your job as a caretaker/ medical technician, as the father who wants his daughter to not be in pain, and as the husband taking care of an ill husband? What do you think the role of poetry is in the process of introspection and thinking, albeit in the minor key?

SD:    Since it is med work I am restricted by HIPAA rules of engaging it directly, so I often fuse elements or elements or make imaginative moves.  But there is an ethical goal to show people I take care of–a population who often falls through the cracks of social services and ends up homeless, etc.–in as much ontological complexity as I can. I also use it as a place to imagine, as in the series of imaginative therapies.  Working with folks with brain injuries, I am daily exposed to both brutal and really profound forms of discourse and seeing in the world, and a questioning of time and space as I help people negotiate this time and space who in their minds are elsewhere. My work as Caregiver at home or work is not complementary to me being a writer.  It is the exact same work.  Poetry and writing for me is the same as the work we do as writers, which is to imagine a stranger and write something that will help them in their world.  Both are not just about empathy, but professional detachment.  And within that detachment from self that is given to the other something profoundly simple and holy emerges: the act of care.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

SD:  I have lived a hard and difficult life, sometimes due to illness in those I love and care for, sometimes of my own making.  But I go on.  You will too.  If you want to write, there is always time even when there is never time.  One sentence written in thirty seconds might change the world.  And together we will turn this world into a minor key that we will sing off-key and glorious together.  No one is ever alone if we understand that.  As I have written, Nothing born on this strange planet is a stranger.

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.