Spotlight Interview: Thomas Dooley
by ARDEN LEVINE
Arden Levine: Thomas, I was thinking about the fact that we met in 2013, and that it feels at times like all of American history has been dredged up or dragged over during the intervening years. Much is said about nefarious collusion in these strange modern times, but is it possible that we can also conspire toward compassion?
Thomas Dooley: Well, yes. But compassion happens far too quietly for America to be interested in it. The America I dwell in these days is peopled with disenfranchised students, the chronically ill, disillusioned caregivers, immigrants. When I am sitting at the bedside or in front of the classroom, I am asking someone to reflect on their lives, sometimes just thinking back a few days or mere hours. For some, this is hard stuff. I think maybe we've just gotten too noisy and speedy that the only reflection today is our face in the glass surface of a smart phone. Maybe. But what I am finding, slowly, is if you tell someone that you are there to listen to their story and help shape anything that feels messy (not clean up, just shape), what generally happens is a big, open door to the interior. It's what Mark Doty calls that "tenderness toward experience." That tender invitation to listen deeply so as to shepherd a poem to the page. Then you read that poem to its creator and suddenly, they become a witness to themselves.
Much is said about nefarious collusion in these strange modern times,
but is it possible that we can also conspire toward compassion?
AL: Speaking of tender listening and collaborative conveying, let's talk about Emotive Fruition, the series that you direct, in which curated poetry is performed by acclaimed actors. I was fortunate to have work featured in three of the earlier Emotive Fruition shows, including the production that WNYC's RadioLab co-produced. Who would have thought that poetry and science would chat so cordially as they did, but there we all were when it happened. When you envision a technological tomorrowland, with its inevitable marvels and mishaps, where does poetry’s UFO crash down? And do poetry and science still stay in touch? What new inventions do they use to communicate?!
TD: Poetry and science thrive because they both head out into the night, out into the big field, with their flashlights and windbreakers, to be curious. When I was shaping the Emotive Fruition show, I knew the marriage between poetry and the periodic table of elements was going to be a joyful one. Here you have science who is always drawing a line from the micro to the macro, and then back and forth, eternally. Poetry moves in the same way. We blast into the cosmos, then down to the dirty, half-chewed fingernail, then trespass into the interior. As a poet, I want to ask the natural world questions. I want the ever shifting chemistry in my brain to stand still and answer me. I want the elements in the world (iron, neon, gold) to sing their songs. As a director, I want to draw lines, connecting poetry to the world, and the world to poetry. And then I want to draw a line from this poem I'm reading to the poet who wrote it to the actor who will perform it to the person in the third row who is drinking a beer and listening.
AL: And indeed, one of the features of Emotive Fruition that I, and many of its devotees, most appreciate is how communities convene around it. There are several strata of collaboration building out from the center of each show: the poets with each other, the poets with the actors, the poets and actors with the partnering organizations (we'll come back to those), and the more subtle emotional collusion between the literary message and the audience reaction. Recently, Emotive Fruition has featured poetry from such recognized collectives as Kundiman, Cave Canem, and Lambda Literary. How did you and these powerful co-conspirators come to find each other and see each other?
TD: I want to create a safe and vibrant place for people to talk to each other. I have forever been in love with actors and poets. Both communities have given me a couch to sleep on, a meal to eat, a green light to go. When we step into the rehearsal room, I am always surprised how seamless the collaboration becomes. For both communities, actors and poets, everything begins in the text. They come to understand that actually, they both speak the same language. They are both deeply interested in what's on the page: that's where the character starts, that's where the poem thrives. Communities of writers such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, and Lambda Literary have come into the Emo Fru fold because people who are involved with those organizations (such as Cathy Linh Che, Ama Codjoe, and William Johnson) understand how restorative a space like that can be. They join me in trying to change the way people connect with poetry. We march under the same banner.
Poetry and science thrive because they both head out into the night,
out into the big field, with their flashlights and windbreakers,
to be curious.
AL: To your remark about restorative spaces... Because my own career is in affordable housing and urban community development, I spend a whole lot of my best energy thinking about concepts of home. So I was particularly moved by the most recent Emotive Fruition production, Every Day We Get More Illegal, which showcased the poems of the authors affiliated with CantoMundo; the production deeply contemplated conflicting/ed and confounding/ed conditions of safety, community, and place as it relates to where Latinx individuals live and who they live there with. Did you see this show as a production of our current moment, or as a timeless treatise?
TD: Back in July, Deborah Paredez, the director of CantoMundo, and I were discussing the call for submissions just at the very moment it was being reported that children were being separated from their families at the United States–Mexico border. Suddenly the idea of a poem felt so small. But months later, when I sat in the audience on Monday night at our show with CantoMundo, I let the poems wash over me and I was overcome by their power and their promise. I think we need to keep talking. We need to keep writing. We need to raise the dead. We need to beat the drum. We cannot be silent. I am working on a series of poems for my next collection that takes sacred texts, mostly from the Gospels and Hebrew Scriptures, and places the queer body at the center of those narratives. Queer love is allowed in some legal ways now, but it has not been sanctified. With my poems, I'd like to envision a world where I am sacred and all the saints say so too! For now, I'll shift in my seat and wander for a home. When the world isn't quite set up for you, when you grow up hearing your love is bad, you try to express the divide. I became a storyteller.
We need to raise the dead. We need to beat the drum. We cannot be silent.
AL: One of the poems in the CantoMundo show had a line that seemed particularly resonant: "To understand her, I had to find what was jagged in me and lift it into place." When hearing it, I thought about your own book, Trespass: in it, you took the scissor-edges of your family story, and transformed them from cleaving-apart devices into devices that can cleave entities together (i.e., reader with narrative, yourself with other survivors). When doing the bringing-together that you so often and deftly do, do you feel that you actively use the jagged in yourself? And if so, how so?
TD: That line written by the poet Henry Mills became an immediate favorite of mine; it comes after the line, "It was like watching/ a broken bone reset deep inside her." There are some days when I feel that words can do the work of resetting broken bones in me. Then other days when I can't lift my eyes to endure a few lines on the page. When I write, an image will come or a phrase will arrive and I feel something that might look like relief. Maybe that's the compassion you asked me about earlier? When I bring together poets, I want them to know how much I have dwelled with their poems; how much their poems lift something in me into place. That's also compassion. We want to be the capable healers and also be the ones healed. You know my favorite thing about the Emotive Fruition process? Being able to listen to others listening to poems.
AL: The realities of the current moment have motivated so many forms of gathering, and the art-making and word-crafting world provides us with many examples, both explicitly and implicitly political. I'm thinking for example, of those operating on a national scale, such as Split This Rock, but also the NYC-based No, Dear Magazine, which aspires to activate a richly-textured network of local and loved poets through various means, including the publishing of a journal with recent themes such as "States", "Labor", and "Republic". Are there any conveners that you see as the future of the forces of virtuous collusion?
TD: The earnest will be the conveners. Not the trendy and definitely not the fame fuckers. Those who care about the larger picture, and tend to the fragile details will be the forces. I love when I get cozy with a truly earnest artist. I want to be hungry with people. I want to love deeply and put a fist to the world.
AL: So, to round this out, guest editor Cynthia Manick has asked that I put you briefly in a time machine and send you careening backwards and then forwards! (Interviewee whiplash on a cosmic scale!) First, let me know how your conversation went when you just met with 13-year-old Thomas Dooley... then, let me know what you chatted about with 83-year-old Thomas Dooley. I'll wait a few moments for your craft to land on both sides of history...
TD38: I love your turquoise sweatsuit.
TD13: Thank you, it was a Christmas gift. I'm obsessed with this color.
TD38: The matching Florida Marlins cap really brings it all together.
TD13: Right?! I just love this color. Not so much the team.
TD83: Hey, kids.
TD38: Well hello. I really love your turquoise sweatsuit.
TD13: We match!
TD83: Don't you just love this color?
THOMAS DOOLEY's debut collection, Trespass (Harper Perennial) was selected by the National Poetry Series. He is the artistic director of Emotive Fruition, an organization that seeks to change the way people engage with live poetry.
ARDEN LEVINE’s poems are forthcoming in Harvard Review and Indiana Review, and have recently been featured by AGNI, Sycamore Review, The Missouri Review, and Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry. A Washington D.C.-born New Yorker, Arden’s daily work focuses on developing, preserving, and advocating for affordable urban housing and neighborhoods.