Thomas Dooley

Poet and POL judge
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Noah Barker

Music Credit: “Annibelle June,” composed and performed by Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck.

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Thomas Dooley: I know violin strings. You have to make them tremble. A quick hand against the steady hill of your shoulder. In the shallow valley by your neck. Thresh the horsehairs of your bow. Over the ridge and drag back. Full as a field. Released to a hurdling. A long, falling gallop

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Jo Reed: That’s poet, Thomas Dooley, reading “Elegy for Tyler” from his collection, Trespass. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Thomas Dooley is the author of Trespass, a winner of the National Poetry Series. It’s a collection of poems that focuses on family, memory, and secrets. Dooley’s love of theatre is apparent in the book’s presentation. It unfolds in three acts: The first sets the scene: the narrator’s father was abused by a priest as a child; then as a teenager, the father abuses his niece. The last act looks at the repercussions of those moments in the family’s history. The middle act is another reckoning: the end of the narrator’s first love. Dooley shines a light in dark places, but it’s a light that illuminates rather than blinds with its glare. It’s no surprise then that he is a practitioner of narrative medicine, providing creative writing services at the bedsides of hospitalized teens. This is a poet who knows the power of story. As the creative director of Emotive Fruition, Thomas Dooley is committed to creating a theatre of poetry. He founded the New York based collective of poets and actors with the aim of crafting a new way for audiences to engage with poetry. Given his experience with the performative aspects of poetry, it’s no surprise that he has served as the judge in the semi-finals of the NEA’s national poetry recitation competition, Poetry Out Loud. In fact, despite a busy schedule, he’s returning as a judge again this year, to his absolute delight…..

Thomas Dooley: It’s so exciting to see families, students, teachers, other classmates, really gather together with real, true excitement over poetry. And to see how those poems really come to life on stage, and the bravery that that takes, too. You know, the poise that it takes. I’m—I’m so fascinated and amazed with the poise that these students hold in their bodies when they’re on that stage reciting poetry. It’s very inspiring for me to see that happen.

Jo Reed: What do you think the value is in asking students to memorize a poem?

Thomas Dooley: Mmm, well I love—I love the phrase, “Learn it by heart.” You know, it’s another—it’s another way of saying memorize something, you know, learn it by heart. I think that what that is doing is that you’re endearing that poem to you, you are finding yourself in the experience of the poem. So, I think at the very least, when we are able to allow a poem to become so well-known that we know it by heart, we feel less alone, we feel connected, we feel like we are part of a story that we can, you know, hopefully all step into and share. I mean, that’s why I turned to poetry. That’s why I turned to literature. It’s because it makes me feel like I’m part of a chorus of voices, that I am not so alone.

Jo Reed: Do you remember your earliest experience with poetry?

Thomas Dooley: Mmm. I was thinking today about one of the first times that I had a really personal connection with a book of poetry, actually, and I was probably around ten years old and in the school that I was going to, they asked if anyone wanted to start the morning with a prayer or an affirmation or a quotation. And I remember that I was in my parents’ attic and I came across a book of poems by Carl Sandburg and I believe they were the poems that were in celebration of American workers and American families; there was a sense of patriotism and the images were really deep with connection and the self and the expansion of the self. And so I started bringing in Carl Sandburg poems to my class and that’s how I chose to begin the days by reading those poems aloud.

Jo Reed: Were your parents interested in poetry or theatre? Did you come from a house where that was discussed or looked at as interesting?

Thomas Dooley: I came from a house of educators, so both parents are teachers and my siblings—many of my siblings are teachers, so the idea of education and discussion and inquiry that was all very important and very alive around the dinner table. Growing up, I was very interested in all kinds of the performing arts and the literary arts, and I felt a lot of encouragement from my parents because in my town, that was something that was really important—school choirs and spring musicals and fall dramas and speech and debate. So those things were definitely important to my family and I’m also part of a very big family, so I’m one of eight kids.

Jo Reed: Wow. Where are you in that?

Thomas Dooley: I’m kind of somewhere in the middle; I’m the middle boy so I have three older brothers and three younger brothers and an older sister so there’s—

Jo Reed: Only one sister—

Thomas Dooley: Seven boys—

Jo Reed: Oh, my God.

Thomas Dooley: —one girl.

Jo Reed: Your poor sister.

Thomas Dooley: I know. <laughs> So it was in many ways its own kind of theatrical experience. I mean, family life was its own theatre.

Jo Reed: Was lively as they say.

Thomas Dooley: It was very lively, yes, and we were encouraged to explore those different avenues of expression so that was something that I was very happy about.

Jo Reed: Would you like put on plays with your brother, probably not call them plays but do make believe where you take on characters and conquer the world?

Thomas Dooley: Absolutely. I actually was a very young adapter of literature to stage. So I would take lots of books that we were reading and I would kind of scratch out some kind of a stage performance and then yes, we would perform it for my parents and their friends. I remember we had this smashing performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where the set for the queen required every single taper candle that we had in our house. So <laughs> my mother thought that I was going to burn the house down with the scene in the queen’s castle so <laughs> it was a lot of fun to kind of dwell in that imagination with my brothers.

Jo Reed: For you it was really poetry and theatre simultaneously.

Thomas Dooley: Absolutely, yes. I was very lucky that when I was in third grade my teacher was, and still is, a poet—Wanda Praisner—and she would bring me to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which is a big live poetry festival up here in New Jersey, New York area. And so when I was—third grade up until high school, I would go to the poetry festival and I was able to see how a poet could engage with their community. There was an engagement with the page, but there was also this physical engagement that felt really alive to me, the idea of a really kinetic, exciting poetry reading where an audience was around the single voice and that voice was speaking very clearly about experience and the inner life and confession. And that was very exciting for me when I was younger, to see how alive that connection could be.

Jo Reed: Trespass is your first collection of poetry and it was selected for the National Poetry Series, and before we talk about Trespass specifically, just fill me in on that series. What is that?

Thomas Dooley: The National Poetry Series chooses five books of poetry every year, and those five books of poetry, in addition to receiving the honor of being a National Poetry Series selection, get published through different publishing houses.

Jo Reed: And yours was Harper Perennial.

Thomas Dooley: Correct, yes.

Jo Reed: Trespass—your interest in theatre just seems so apparent in some ways in the way Trespass is put together, really does look like it’s put together, and reads like it’s put together in three acts. Is that purposeful?

Thomas Dooley: It was, yeah. I was very much interested in following this very specific family narrative from the prehistory of it—what we receive from our parents, what family stories, what family questions, what inherited grief and inherited shame we also receive. So the beginning of Trespass was in some ways imagining where this family is and what they are dealing with, and then the second act or kind of the break from the family drama is a longer series of poems called “Separation,” and that imagines the speaker in a separation from a very significant romantic relationship. And then once that break of 16 poems happens then we are back into the very present of the family and what they are grappling with, and what they are trying to discover about themselves, and how they can find in some way, endurance to go on.

Jo Reed: What inspired Trespass?

Thomas Dooley: I was looking up at what we inherit from our families. In addition to eye color and hair color, we also inherit the more emotional and ephemeral experiences of loss and grief, which was happening around me. I was also looking at how one could write about family, but hold them very tenderly, so that it is a looking into rather than a pushing away or base exposure, but it was really to turn towards and look into the knot of the family drama and the family story, and to try and not necessarily detangle that knot, but to find a way into it and see what poems were living there.

Jo Reed: It’s very spare and yet lyrical at the same time and that’s quite a feat, so bravo to that, but what’s also very striking to me is how much it’s about what’s unsayable in a family.

Thomas Dooley: Yes, absolutely, yes, because being in a family we have all of those hidden stories and hidden feelings too, so it is trying to find a way to say something when it feels unsayable; it is trying to find a voice when you feel perhaps voiceless or where confusion or anger renders you voiceless, so it’s a way to kind of feel yourself in that actual space and so that the poem can really live and breathe. And I think what you said about its being spare, that is a really important part of this book; I think the silence is maybe just as important as the lyrics.

Jo Reed: Yes, I agree, and it works so well with family secrets and what can’t be talked about.

Thomas Dooley: Right, absolutely.

Jo Reed: The book centers around a sexual incident that happened in the family.

Thomas Dooley: Right.

Jo Reed: What’s so interesting is the way the narrator doesn’t demonize anyone, and I think the poem, “Maybe in an Atlas,” is the clearest indication of that. Can you read that for us?

Thomas Dooley: Absolutely, and that was very much the experience of this poem was finding a way to imagine this family maybe in a different atlas, in a different town, in a different state and what that would look like. “Maybe in an Atlas”: Maybe another New Jersey somewhere. Linden wood as cash cow. And a way out. If my father grew taller that year, sudden. Reached the high altar wicks, a Moses in Egypt. Bigger than the priests. What if deus ex machina. Or a catcher. No rye. Rye watered down. Rocks to mean rocks. Not glacial. Not a cold hand anywhere. A siren sounds on skin. Maybe a pie in the window. Adults made big gestures with giant hands. He wasn’t soft. Boney, but not folded like egg whites, hankies. In his yearbook: “Aspiration: farmer.” Tall as corn, as noon sun. Only if he grew taller, sudden, he wouldn’t be lightweight linden, maybe a hundred proof. She was proof. Girls were softer. Maybe his hands looked giant. And she lay down softly. Like he was made to, maybe.

Jo Reed: That is such a powerful poem, and in a way it’s almost like the nugget of the book, at least in the way I read it in the collection because you sort of get what happened to the father and a hint of what that leads him to do.

Thomas Dooley: Right.

Jo Reed: It’s a hinge.

Thomas Dooley: Yes, it’s a hinge, absolutely. It’s trying to place all of the members of this family in a continuum so that they’re not these isolated incidences, that they all have stories that are living through them and causing consequences.

Jo Reed: You dedicate Trespass to your parents and I’m curious how your family responded to it. Was it drawn from experiences in your own life? I don’t mean it was your autobiography, but—or was it something you just took out of whole cloth?

Thomas Dooley: Well, it was looking at a family that was going through a lot of very confusing issues and a lot of the narratives that were kind of coming out. It was really hard to kind of have an idea of really what was—I don’t want to say what was true, but what you wanted to really press yourself to and try and understand. And so for me as a poet, I’m very different from my siblings. I really wanted to look into this very difficult time in my family’s life. And that was hard for other people to accept and it really challenged, I think, some of the relationships in my life because I was looking into something that felt very uncomfortable and in some ways dark and exposing.

Jo Reed: Well, I think it’s a rare family that doesn’t have secrets and I think often those secrets are poisonous and yet—

Thomas Dooley: Yes, exactly. Right.

Jo Reed: —and yet there can be so much pushback when a family member sheds light on it.

Thomas Dooley: Right, exactly. So the secrets are—yes, they’re very poisonous; they’re poisonous not only to those who are holding the secrets, but they feel in some way toxic to those who now are let into—

Jo Reed: Absolutely, yeah.

Thomas Dooley: —so now we all have to kind of hold this together and not talk about it ever, but just dwell in the secret together and so, what does that look like and how does that feel? That was something that I kept asking myself, “Well, where are you in this and what are you trying to explore with these poems?” And so when I dedicated the book, I dedicated it to the people who most endured and tried their very best to be strong and loving throughout this whole experience.

Jo Reed: You also used music as a metaphor throughout and I’d like you read one of those poems, “On the Radio Bombast.”

Thomas Dooley: Yes. So this poem appears in the center section of the book and the title of these poems is called “Separation”: On the radio bombast of tympani and horn from the Slovak symphony. You are nowhere in the glissando. The piccolo is too bright for you. In these passages a fullness. You do not live nor on the bridge today. Mid lake birdsong, glottal frog. That’s when I sang to become hoarse.

Jo Reed: And that’s “On the Radio.” How does music work for you metaphorically in your writing?

Thomas Dooley: For me the archive of musical images is really important. From a very young age, music was a big part of the expressive arts, so I was in choirs, I was in musicals, and so that archive really lives very vibrantly in me. And I felt like in the moment of being separated from someone, either a family member or love, I was interested in how music was sounding differently; it became a different experience.

Jo Reed: Oh golly, yes.

Thomas Dooley: Right?

Jo Reed: Yes. I mean, just think about it, when you’re in love, how it sounds, when you’re breaking up, how it sounds. Absolutely, music changes.

Thomas Dooley: Right. Right, and so as you’re going through all the different feelings of grief and anger and frustration and confusion, you come across this sweeping, beautiful movement from the Slovak symphony on the radio and it makes your heart swell and you are reminded oh, right, I have a heart in there and it is actually swelling. <laughs> And so that’s really where that poem took flight for me was really looking at how music also can turn and shape around an aching heart.

Jo Reed: Now we’ve been talking about Trespass. I don’t want to leave out Emotive Fruition, which is a poetry theatre project that you created. So why don’t you tell me how that idea originated, because it is connected to your book.

Thomas Dooley: Absolutely, yeah. When I moved to New York and was living here and doing professional theatre I went to school and received from MFA from NYU, and while I was at NYU, I wanted to really be a part of the poetry scene and really create a very memorable reading series. So I wanted to really bring poetry to the stage in a very alive and immediate way. And one of the ways I saw that happening was by working in collaboration with poets and actors, and what we found in those first beginning rehearsals is that when you put poets in a rehearsal room with a talented troupe of actors, you get this very interesting conversation about text because these are two communities of artists who are really interested in text. For the actor that is all about their intention and their motivation and who this character is, and for the poet it is all about the reality and the experience that they’re shaping for a reader; the language is the map. And so putting them in a rehearsal together we saw that there was this explosion of excitement because these are two artists who never collaborate together, and once we go through all of the poems that have been selected and curated for this themed evening—each evening is a different theme—then we end the rehearsal and we invite a big audience to a wonderful performance space downtown in New York and we put the actors at music stands with all the poems and they perform the poems for an audience in two acts. So it is structured to feel like a night of theatre, but we are using the poem as the actual dramatic literature. The engagement between audience and poetry is so alive and people experience being really moved and really surprised that poetry can be so moving <laughs> and can be so vibrant and can make them think in a different way. So we’re seeing this whole engagement from the audience standpoint and it’s exciting to see how poetry can feel like you’re not trying to puzzle something out or that you’re trying to bang on the door to get into a poem. You have an actor who is making that passage meaningful and exciting for an audience member.

Jo Reed: Thomas, you also do work in narrative medicine.

Thomas Dooley: I do.

Jo Reed: Can you explain what that is and what it is that you do?

Thomas Dooley: I bring creative and expressive writing to the bedsides of hospitalized teenagers, and I’ve been doing this work for the past, I think about eight or nine years here in New York. And one of the important things that I carry with me as a practitioner of this work is that I am holding a space for a patient to find their voice, and in finding their voice they find power in a very powerless experience. So when they’re able to put their experience of being hospitalized into language, I can see their relationship to their physical well-being actually change because now it has been reimagined. And so just, what we were just saying before, it is finding that voice in a very confusing experience of being a patient but then finding your voice can be very powerful.

Jo Reed: And at least, you know, being able to exert control over one part of your life and an important part where you get to tell your story.

Thomas Dooley: Uh huh, absolutely. I remember working with a boy for a very long time. He had a chronic condition of sickle cell anemia and I had been working with him for—over the course of a few months and he was in the pediatric ICU for a little bit of time, and he was very ill, and I remember kind of pressing my ear to him to kind of hear what he wanted to say from the bed and being his scribe, writing down what he was feeling; he was kind of going through a body inventory of what he was feeling and what he was experiencing. And when I read the poem back to him he kind of looked up at me and he said—I said, “How do you feel?” and he said, “I feel good” and I said, “Tell me about that” and he said, “I feel like I said something that means something.” So there was something in the act of saying, the act of writing that he found deep meaning in and that’s what I try to bring into the room with me when I’m up at the hospital.

Jo Reed: Thomas Dooley, thank you. I really appreciate it. Your book is just lovely and hard, but in a way that I appreciated.

Thomas Dooley: That means so much, Jo, really. Thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

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Jo Reed: That’s poet, Thomas Dooley. His collection is called, Trespass. He’ll be in Washington DC at the Lisner auditorium for Poetry Out Loud. The finals take place on Wednesday, April 26, beginning at 7:00 p.m. It’s free and open to the public, and if you can’t make it to DC—don’t worry, we’re streaming it live—go to for details.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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His collection Trespass shines a light in dark places