Friday Feature: Interview with Edward A. Dougherty

Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Edward A. Dougherty, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.

Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?

My first publications happened when I was in my 20s, back in the 1980s, after I graduated from undergraduate school. One that stands out was photocopied with poems and stories all jammed together; there was very little white space. The other poems were rhyming generalities. The language didn’t feel distinctive or polished. Frankly, I was a little embarrassed to be in that company, and that’s why I don’t name the journal or give other details.

What inspired your piece in the Jenny?

Primarily, I write poetry and find writing personal essays difficult, although I love lyrical essays like the title piece in Scott Russell Sanders book The Force of Spirit or “Rain and Rhinoceros” in Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable. And so, I keep trying.

My essay “The Memorial Chain” recounts an attempt to pass along stories from one sibling to another to remember our father around the 20th anniversary of his death. It led me to consider and reconsider incidents with my dad and which one felt emblematic enough to tell one of my brothers or sisters when they called.

What got you into writing?

What got me into writing was a desire to be understood. What keeps me writing is a desire to honor my own experience and to create communion.

What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?

The lyrical moment, both in life and in good writing, is continually rewarding. These moments seem larger than whatever time they take to live, seem more meaningful than the story of what happened can convey, and more pleasurable — even when painful — than I deserve. Any essay, fiction, or poetry that honors such moments in language that is charged with the same energy is my preference.

What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?

Like favorite music, it depends on my mood, my need. If I want rich and complex language, I go to Charles Wright, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Robert Hayden, or Carolyn Forche. If I want language as clear as glass so I can see the world through it, I go to Japanese haiku or W.S. Merwin or Denise Levertov or Naomi Shahab Nye. If I want mythic largeness, I might go to Galway Kinnell or Bridget Pegeen Kelly. If I need life and language concentrated to essentials, I return to Margaret Gibson and Eamon Grennan. Many of these writers span my artificial categories and nourish more than one aspect of my spirit.

What’s your proudest moment as an author?

One high point was seeing my essay referred to in a book about Denise Levertov, who I had written a fan letter to and she responded. I count her as a mentor though I never took a class or workshop with her.

Another notable experience was at AWP, feeling like a guest at someone else’s party, only to realize that my decades of independent work had put me in the conversation. I presented as part of a panel and attended a session that I realized I could have given. It was thrilling to sense my own growth and to feel at home in the community.

How has your writing developed over time?

In so many ways, it’s hard to answer. One thing does stand out, though: I spend years and years honing imagery, both my perception and my use of language. My revision process was a matter of stripping down, chiseling the bulk of words and phrases to only the most essential and evocative ones. Then, after my first two books were out, I realized that I was becoming interested in enriching the language with repetition, musical phrasing but looped and deflected. This then returned me to the essential inner/outer experience of the speaker, which could be embodied in many kinds of language, which led me to a variety of forms, lengths, and styles.

Are you currently working on anything?

I believe in working on many things at once, so that I can be generating or revising or assembling collections or whatever I have the energy and time for. My current projects are researching the creative process through reading and interviews. I’m also working on longish poems that are “talkier” than anything I’ve done, which makes me nervous and excited. I call them Discursions.

What’s your writing process?

I hand write poems, but prose I go right for the keyboard. I use cheap, recycled paper notebooks, and I fill them, following William Stafford’s advice in “A Way of Writing.” This means I write a lot of junk, but I believe it is a way of cherishing the uniqueness of my experience — events, impressions, knots of language. It’s like gathering shells on a beach. A useless collection, perhaps, but a great way to spend a few hours.

What are you currently reading?

Margaret Gibson’s forthcoming collection Ask Hereclitus.

Have you ever co-written something with another author? If so, what was that experience like?

I co-wrote a book of exercises with Scott Minar called Double Bloom: Exercises for Poets. We both teach inductively; that is, we have students write and then we process it, making whatever points from the experience and work students have. The process of gathering our own idiosyncratic exercises and then refining the progression so that a class or writing group could use them was actually great fun. We respect each other, maintain a sense of humor, and share a common goal. I am very proud of that book.

Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?

I have collaborated with a composer, Will Wickham, on a project that resulted in a multidisciplinary show or choral and instrumental music as well as poems read by a single actor. It’s called Where Sacred Waters Divide, and one of the presentations is available on YouTube. (You have to hear Rose read the hell out of a piece around 51 mins into it. It’s about a woman who is at the firehouse when her father calls in that his truck is being caught up in the flood; he was killed and she lives with that moment all her life.)

The experience of writing poems on a theme (water) and on a deadline (2-3 months) only worked because Will is remarkably gifted, enthusiastic, and creative. I felt utter freedom to explore all kinds of dramatic monologues, lyrical descriptions, and other approaches, knowing that Will would find kernels to work with. That a whole chapbook came from it was just a bonus!

I also created “emblems” which are a short poem with an image. Mine are abstract paintings, rather than the traditional illustration of a saying or moral, so I was updating the form a little. My process was to create hundreds of these 3 x 3 images and meanwhile I wrote over a hundred poems of 3-7 lines, completely independent of each other. Combining them was a whole other process, one that stalled me many times. Finally, I moved quickly and intuitively, dealing out the images on black cardboard and just choosing what I responded to — fast, without thought, without planning regarding the poems. I did the same with the poems, revising as I did. Then, in several rounds, again quickly, quickly, I brought them together. Trying them on, in a sense. They were ultimately displayed at the Atrium Gallery in Corning, NY and again at the Word & Image Gallery in Treadwell, NY, and individual emblems are appearing in journals.

Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.

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