Poet Sean Thomas Dougherty took some time out of his busy life to ask Kevin Carey a few questions about his new book of poems, Set in Stone. They met a few years ago at the Mass Poetry Festival where they shared stories about their east coast roots and their love of basketball.
Dougherty: In your new book, as in your previous books, place seems so important; it becomes almost like a character that weaves the other speakers together. I think too, of “The City I Left” and the difference between then and now, of the iconography of Revere. Can you talk a bit about place, about Revere, and all the specific places you mention, making it a kind of travelogue of youth and loss and life, about Boston and the north shore and what it means to you as a poet, and how you find its role, that specificity or need for it in this new book of poems?
Carey: I don’t think it was until years later that I realized how much Revere was in my blood. My history: the characters I met, the jobs I had, the mistakes I made, much of what I learned seemed to trace its way back there. The place, a city for sure, with all that goes with that, but a beachfront community as well, a stone’s throw from Boston, made this place a strange intersection of personalities. I was unaware at the time (growing up there) how many stories I would carry with me. My family was involved in politics and business in Revere for many years, so there was that perspective as well. “The City I Left” is a poem about me leaving, but it’s also about others who left for various reasons, and the changing nature of a lot of urban environments.
From The City I Left
…The city I left
was my mother’s home
until three years ago,
Lancaster Ave at the foot
of the General Edwards Bridge,
the constant rush of traffic
over the green iron grate,
houses packed in between
single car driveways, dogs
barking, seagulls squawking,
sirens around the corner
day and night.
In the city I left, five stops
on the blue line to Boston,
I saw the last of the carnival
pack up its wagons and leave
the three-mile urban beachfront behind.
I saw the crowded barrooms thin
and die along Broadway,
I saw the gangsters
move to the suburbs
to hide out in their ranch houses
and barbecue steaks
and wash their cars
and plant grass over buried bags of cash.
Dougherty: In all your books you return to basketball. You use it for memory sometimes, nostalgia, but also, as in the last line of Set in Stone, the hoop hangs as a sort of emblem of familiarity that makes a stranger’s devastating act of violence not so foreign. This empty hoop the same that hangs in anyone’s drive.
From Another Ending
It’s a scene I can’t get
out of my mind:
a white clapboard house
black top driveway
from a brick chimney
a young father holding
his dying child…
Dougherty: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship, if any, between basketball and poetry? Between teaching creative writing and coaching (7th grade hoops for decades). Did you ever have any of your ex-players in your creative writing classes?
Carey: I remember looking out to the rows of students one time on the first day of class. A freshman girl was sitting mid-row, and I recognized her right away. She was my daughter’s teammate on a YMCA team I coached. I whispered to myself, “couldn’t hit a jump shot, no left hand.” Nineteen years of coaching middle school basketball and a few YMCA teams, you develop an internal Rolodex of players. I learned so much from playing basketball, but the joy of it was the greatest gift. I could still kill three hours in a gym shooting free throws. Coaching at the level I coached at, it was really about getting kids to love and appreciate the game. I think it’s the same with teaching writing, exposing students to the joy of it, giving them some tools to improve, so they have the confidence to tell their own stories.
Dougherty: If you could play any basketball player one on one, or spend an afternoon shooting around with them, who would you choose? If they let you, what poems of yours or anyone’s would you read to them? Why?
Carey: If I could hang with any b-ball player, it would have to be a Celtic, probably Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. I always wanted to be a fly on the wall when that 2008 team practiced. I think I would read a poem about Bill Russell which I wrote in my second book, “Jesus Was a Homeboy.” Garnett is a fan of Russell.
Dougherty: The poem “Tobin Bridge.” I find it one of the strongest poems about loss and friendship I have read in a long time. I think of course too of the poem “Icarus” by Jack Gilbert, with its meditation on falling. Can you say more about how you approached writing about such a devastating loss? How long did it take you to write the poem? How did you even begin?
Carey: Of course, it was a shock to all of us when it happened, like any suicide for the people left behind. We were saddened by the loss, but what I couldn’t get out of mind was the act of it. The physical act of her doing what she did. So, the bridge became the starting point for me, the idea of bridges being so frightening to people and in this case to me and my wife because of what it now represented. The bridge was like a gate into this poem (story) and I guess in some ways, it allowed me to move into the tragedy a little removed at first. Eventually the poem gets personal but beginning it with the bridge gave me some distance from something that was still pretty raw when I wrote it.
Dougherty: Can you talk a bit more about the title poem of the book Set in Stone: the implications of death (a gravestone: a metaphor of permanence that pushes against a book so much about losses and leavings.) But the poem is more about the opposite of death? Some knowledge of our children leaving but knowing they will return? Are the poems, “the worthwhile pieces” we attempt to save from the life? Or are the poems something to leave for those we love? Or strangers who might need them?
Carey: That’s a great question. The stones to me are the things we hang onto, yes perhaps the poems, or the memories, or the little pieces of things that get us through. I feel like children take little pieces of us with them as they grow and go away, almost like they’ve chipped away what they need to move on, and we (the parents) are often left feeling like there’s a little less of ourselves present after they go, even if it’s temporary. It’s a little bit of a trap, no? The nostalgia always waiting to creep up on you.
From Set in Stone
I’m trapped between the memory
and the moment,
the deal we make
if we make it this long,
the markers of a life,
the small worthwhile pieces
that rattle around in my pockets
waiting to be set somewhere in stone
Dougherty: So much of your work engages memory (perhaps memories set in stone, then reset?). The older I get, I wonder how much of poetry itself is mostly about memory, or trying to get at something that memory can’t, kind of– emotional memory? How do you reflect (itself perhaps an act of memory) on the role of memory? Or is it the act of remembering in your work?
Carey: For me it usually starts with something I remember, or something I forgot I knew. I start writing about a place or an event and often, I surprise myself with what I remember. Of course, memory is very selective and I’m sure there are folks out there who might question my memory of a certain moment or time. I remember hearing that Bukowski once said to someone who questioned him, “go write your own f***ing book.” I might not go that far if challenged about something, but I do believe we all have a right to our own recollections. This is how I remember it, so this is how it is, in the poem at least.
It’s like being locked out of the theater
when your favorite movie is playing.
You know the film
you know it’s on the big screen in there
you know the scenes
some of the lines by heart
but you can’t hear the projector purring
you can’t feel the strangers around you
so you stare into the lobby
past the girl with the glasses in the ticket window
past the sold out sign
past the old man sweeping the floor
and you think I know that guy
and the marquee over your head goes dark
and a slight rain makes you shiver
and you shuffle your feet on the damp sidewalk
and you hope you see someone leaving
after the show so you can ask was it good?
Dougherty: You write across genres and write and produce plays and make documentary films. Do those kinds of writing come from a different place than the poems? Why write the poems? Why not instead just work in novels or on the stage?
Carey: It’s really about storytelling for me, which is why my poems are so narrative. I think sometimes the story wants to be in prose, or in dialogue for the stage, or in the shape of a film. I remember once I tried writing this poem about my father digging his way up from the grave and coming to Christmas dinner. I couldn’t get it to work. Then I wrote it as a short story and it won a couple of awards. Sometimes it’s about experimenting with the idea to see where it fits, how it’s packaged. I like to write in different genres. I have a crime novel Murder in the Marsh coming out soon (how’s that for a plug!) and I’m working on a play and another collection of poetry. Working in different forms allows me to always have something in process. Something to edit. It keeps me busy as a writer.
Dougherty: You came to publishing later in life, Kevin. Can you talk a little about that, and how that affects or influences your sense of being an artist?
Kevin Carey: Yeah, I was a late bloomer. I had to get some things out of my system before I could take writing seriously. I feel lucky to have had some success. Writing (and teaching) can be a lot of work, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m too old for hoops anymore. I’m most grateful for the people I’ve met through writing, people who have helped me along the way. Folks like yourself, who have inspired me. You got me to write that Julius Irving poem right? Thanks for that.
For Julius Erving
Smoother than the Orange Julius,
flying over the rim
like a 747 over downtown Philly,
like a crop duster
like a piper cub through the mountains—
was that the Doctor?
The ABA the NBA
short shorts and long socks
an afro swaying in the altitude
maybe a finger roll to save you face
(before it was a thing)
maybe a big swooping dunk
from the mean fast break machine.
You and Bird trying to choke out a win
beating my Celtics with your up and unders
with your foul line J’s
with your smooth rising silk,
and before that
a college kid at a basketball camp,
standing flat-footed under the basket,
rising and dunking two balls at once.
I was sitting under that hoop watching you,
you stayed in the air for a week
before touching down
before answering your house call.
On my bedside radio, Johnny Most called you Julius
but we all knew you were the Doctor,
a shimmy here, a shimmy there
lifting, soaring, extending,
a solo flight in the empty sky.
Other CavanKerry Books By Kevin Carey
Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of 18 books including Not All Saints, winner of the 2019 Bitter Oleander Library of Poetry Prize; Alongside We Travel: Contemporary Poets on Autism (NYQ Books 2019) and All You Ask for is Longing: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions 2014). 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 the Twin Cities College Association Poet in Residence; and a Fulbright Lectureship to the Balkans, sponsored by the US State Department. He now works as a care giver and Med Tech for various disabled populations and lives with the poet Lisa M. Dougherty and their two daughters in Erie, Pennsylvania. More info on Sean can be found at seanthomasdoughertypoet.com
Kevin Carey is the Coordinator of Creative Writing at Salem State University. He has published four books – a chapbook of fiction, The Beach People (Red Bird Chapbooks) and three books of poetry from CavanKerry Press, The One Fifteen to Penn Station, Jesus Was a Homeboy, which was selected as an Honor Book for the 2017 Paterson Poetry Prize, and the recently released Set in Stone (2020). Kevin is also a fiction writer, filmmaker and playwright. His new crime novel Murder in the Marsh will be published in the fall by Darkstroke Books. Kevincareywriter.com
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