SJU Alum Thomas Dooley Talks Poetry, Projects & Lessons Learned with John Rafferty

This interview was conducted by SJU Writing Studies student John Rafferty.

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St. Joseph’s University alumnus, Thomas Dooley’s poetry collection, Trespass, has been named a 2013 National Poetry Series selection. I spoke with him about his many endeavors and the tremendous success he’s enjoying with his poetry.

Trespass is garnering incredible reviews. What was the writing process like?

The writing process for Trespass was, for the most part, enervating. I approached the creation of Trespass as if walking into a dark house and flicking on the light switches; I lifted blinds, opened closet doors, took dust covers off furniture. I tried to look at this family narrative from every angle possible, so when I felt stuck I would ask, “what door have I not opened yet?” When I felt brave enough to look, I could see a new poem take shape.

I was fortunate to have an incredible group of poets around me who offered encouragement and advice for Trespass. I had an excellent editor at HarperCollins who provided some very incisive ideas for edits. A talented watercolorist created the book cover. The process from first poem to published book requires incredible focus and discretion, so I am thankful for the generosity of so many artists.

You’ve brought poetry to the stage with your theatre project, Emotive Fruition. Where did that idea originate?

I founded Emotive Fruition because I wanted to find a new way for audiences to encounter poetry. I bring together two artistic communities that do not often collaborate: actors and poets. Once I have gone through submissions and curated an evening of poetry, I cast professional actors from television, film, and Broadway to perform these poems on stage.

Our process is fueled by collaboration. Actors and poets meet during a rehearsal and work together to make the poems shine on stage. Emotive Fruition has garnered an incredible following and we look forward to new collaborations. In May, we will be hosting an event with NPR’s hit show RadioLab. We are working with universities and MFA programs, such as NYU, to cultivate and foster community and collaboration among student writers and actors. For me, Emotive Fruition has become a place where poetry can live and flourish; it is very much a vibrant and unique addition to the art and culture of New York. I hope to expand it to Philadelphia and beyond!

You are also involved in narrative medicine, something I was until now unfamiliar with.  Can you explain it to those who might be aware of it?

Narrative medicine is the practice of honoring and being attentive to a patient’s story. For the past five years, I have been facilitating creative writing sessions at the bedsides of hospitalized teenagers. I created the literary journal SURGE, which publishes the writing and art from my patients. I also provide creative writing wellness retreats for physicians, mental health professionals, and hospital staff. We all need the therapeutic process of writing to shape and organize our thoughts and feelings.

Between your writing, theatre project, and narrative medicine work, how do you balance it all? 

Balance is hard. There is always renegotiation. At the moment, I am a freelancing artist so I create new work while trying to piece together an income.

I try to stay very present to the demands of my writing projects. I have been busy working on a new manuscript, a verse novella of sorts, entitled Hang Down Your Head. It’s near completion and I am in the process of getting it published. My writing, publishing, and collaborations truly fuel and feed me.

I just accepted an offer to teach creative writing at New York University in 2016. I love mentoring young writers; they infuse the workshop with a sense of discovery. I’m also interested in shaking up the creative writing workshop. I would be interested to craft a workshop that included collaboration among students, writing about illness, performance studies – so many possibilities!

What was the greatest lesson you learned as English major while at St. Joe’s?

I learned some powerful lessons about myself. Dr. April Lindner gave me confidence to be a poet. In her creative writing workshop, I felt like I had potential to write and publish poetry. It also was the first writing workshop I ever attended. Dr. Lindner modeled for me how to discuss and critique student work. To this day, I try to channel her when I teach.

Dr. Owen Gilman created a space in his class for me to find my voice. I remember presenting a paper about my personal history to the class. That paper was a prelude to a lifetime of embracing my own personal narrative and writing about it. I am proud of my time at SJU and love coming back to talk with students. I look forward to the next time I’m on campus.

You can stay up to date with all of Thomas’ work and happenings at his website, http://www.thomasdooley.us/, including his newest work, Hang Down Your Head.

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