Professor Dan Donaghy Receives 2019 Paterson Poetry Prize

Daniel Donaghy, English professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, has been named the 2019 Paterson Poetry Prize recipient for his book of poetry “Somerset.” The annual award, sponsored by the Passaic Community College Poetry Center, honors what judges deem the strongest collection of poems published in the previous year.

Drawing from authentic experiences and the growth surrounding them, “Somerset” is the third part in a series centering on Donaghy’s upbringing in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The collection was his most difficult to create thus far, requiring newfound intellectual and emotional energy as he navigated delicate spaces.

“I went all in to examine what life is and was like in Kensington, with all of its complexities, and make art out of it,” said Donaghy. “I was not going to try to write funny poems just to soften the edges of the book, which, I admit, I did in my earlier books. There were times during the course of writing ‘Somerset’ when I knew I was in uncharted territory, pushing further into heavy issues such as the conditions that our family and neighbors lived under.”

Through his poetry, Donaghy touches on racism, poverty and chronic violence. He praised Paterson co-winner Sean Thomas Dougherty for being another writer who has strived to address more difficult subjects.

“There were poets before him and me, too, who broke down the door in regard to writing honestly about class and place,” Donaghy said, crediting Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and James Wright among them. “Those writers, and many others, continue to show me how to write about and explore big, tough questions related to where you live or grew up. You never run out of questions about where you come from and how it’s impacted you.”

He continued: “Some of these poems were incredibly draining to write and are still hard to read. Seeing how people respond to them reminds me that I’m not alone in the world. That sense of connection is one of the great gifts writing and reading can give us.”

In addition to focusing on broader social issues, Donaghy gets unquestionably personal with “Somerset,” particularly when confronting the death of his mother.

“Writing about her brings her back to me, though, so with the pain come waves of her love, which was endless,” he stated. “There’s a line in the book from ‘Birthday Poem for My Mother’ that says, ‘how close we can get to the dead sometimes.’ That’s as good a reason as any I can think of to write: to bring back the dead and talk with them, be with them again.”

Donaghy has noticed, however, the poems that were the hardest to write are the poems that people respond best to at readings. “I took a chance and claimed my truth, and I wrote my heart out, and I cried sometimes while I wrote, and I am glad now that those poems are in the world,” he said. “I hope my stories will inspire others to go out and tell their stories, as well as to listen with empathy and openness to the stories of others.”

Donaghy feels “tremendous freedom” at Eastern to seize creative opportunities, and thanks President Elsa Núñez, his students and colleagues including Chris Torockio, Raouf Mama and Susan DeRosa for their support along the way. On sabbatical this semester, Donaghy has several projects in the works, from poetry to short stories. “I’m just thankful that the words are coming. I hope I can revise them into things that I can be proud of, that can be valuable in people’s lives and that further Eastern’s mission as Connecticut’s public liberal arts university.”

A scholar in contemporary British and American poetry, Donaghy has been published in some of the most widely read literary publications in the country. He was Windham County’s first-ever poet laureate and is responsible for launching “Here,” a national poetry magazine.

Written by Jordan Corey