Braddock Serenade–John Dorsey
my father says
he thinks my grandfather
had a bunch of mini heart attacks
years before we knew
his health went south
but just kept going
like the energizer bunny
covered in factory dust
& pittsburgh moonlight
i just remember his smile
how it glowed
playing through the pain
feeding sadness into the mouth
of bellowing smokestacks
boilers of generational poverty
the blood of the roman dead
covering his work boots
staining his dentures
taking away everything
` ` `
JH: Thanks for agreeing to talk to me about “Braddock Serenade,” John. I really love the understated tragedy here, and also the way a portrait of one man reveals such a deep truth about the expectations on the working class. I found myself marveling at his almost mythic toughness while at the same time hating that that was my first reaction—which calls back to beliefs about masculinity ingrained in me as a child in a blue collar culture.
What can you tell me about the origins of this poem and its composition?
JD: First, am just glad you like the poem.
I grew up in the hills outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The men in my family have always been working class, mostly mill workers or cement contractors, that sort of thing, my younger brother is a butcher, my dad’s dad, who the poem is about, spent more than 40 years as a boiler engineer at the Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where my dad still works. He was a tough man, at times very quiet, but when he did talk was very funny, the funniest man I’ve ever known really.
The poem really is about watching diabetes and the long hours in the factory take away everything they could, there were nights he would sleep on a cot in the boiler, not even going home, certainly not eating well, wrecking his health, even as he slowly went blind, because much like you said, it was just something a man of the working class was expected to do.
This poem really is just one of many, he passed on my 20th birthday, something that still makes me tear up, but I keep writing poems about him to keep his image in my head, he was someone who was as tough of heart as he was of body, and that’s what I keep with me, and that’s where the poem came from.
JH: I’m interested in the language especially. There is a perfect leap near the end and we get almost surreal image of the “blood of the roman dead” on his shoes and staining his teeth. It’s really powerful, and such a perfect move. Can you talk about that line and use of language in general?
JD: Sure, first and foremost I believe in the use of accessible language. The whole point of poetry like this and poetry in general is that everyone should be able to understand what you’re saying, what you’re trying to get at. I’m also a history buff, always have been and I guess I thought to myself that most people know about the fall of the Roman Empire, at least in some general sense, and beyond that I wanted to show that I was writing about whole families, generations, not just the story of one man, and ultimately that things do tend to repeat themselves down through our bloodlines.
JH: Tell me about your writing process. I get the impression you’re relatively prolific. When do you write, where do you write, any rituals, et cetera?
JD: Well, when I was younger I used to write when I was inspired, hit by some creative bolt of lightning, I would usually come up with a title first and go from there. Now I usually come up with whole books rather than just single poems, working on a certain theme like people or place. What I do now is a lot like being a portrait painter, often I’ll have someone ask me for a book and I’ll tell them to give me four weeks, eight weeks, whatever I think it will take and I’ll just sit down and write them a new book from scratch. I do keep a notebook with ideas and titles and I’ll mine that when I’m working. I usually like to write in bed between three and five in the morning, lately I find myself writing whole pieces in notebooks again after years of only working on a computer. I normally have some sort of candy by my side at all times and a book by someone I admire like Everette Maddox or Richard Hugo, if I feel like I’m running on empty.
JH: You mention Everette Maddox and Richard Hugo. What other poets do you read or recommend? Who would you say has had an influence on you as a writer?
JD: In terms of my influences, that’s a pretty long list, but my heroes have always been my friends like S.A. Griffin, Kell Robertson, Scott Wannberg, Todd Moore, Rebecca Schumejda, D.R. Wagner, Ann Menebroker, Neeli Cherkovski, Mike James, as well as folks like Hugo and Maddox, and the late great Ted Berrigan.
JH: John, thanks again for your time. It has been a thrill to discover your poems. One last questions, if I might be permitted to get a little philopsophical. I like to ask poets what they hope their poems will do in the world once they’ve been written. What is your hope for an individual poem?
What I’ll say is this, what folks take away from my work is almost always different than what I took away from the experience of having written it and that’s okay, I just hope I’ve made them feel a little less alone in the world, that’s what I aim for with each piece of my work.