Works of Justice is an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration, and presenting challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.

Break Out: a movement banner for Sean Thomas Dunne's interview

This September, in commemoration of the Attica Riots, PEN America and The Poetry Project launch BREAK OUT: a movement to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into literary community. Throughout the month, over two dozen local reading series in New York City—and across the country—will feature the work of a currently incarcerated writer. One of our featured writers is Sean Thomas Dunne. Learn more about the effort here.

“Even though I’ve been up for three days on speed, it couldn’t be more perfect. I’m at that pleasant, dream-like, euphoric stage of insomnia and malnourishment, chewing on my tongue and fiend smoking Camel filters quite merrily. You see, speed addiction is a degenerative process. And this was before the degeneration. Before the voices. Before the psychotic episodes, the 51/50’s, and prison. Before the guilt and shame that would eventually make it impossible for me to enjoy the high, and yet paradoxically, unable to stop. It is a commonplace affliction.”

—From My Past and Future In Present Tense by Sean Thomas Dunne

Sean Thomas Dunne does not bother with metaphor. And, by the way, asking the reader to struggle with poetic interpretation is overrated. The California-based writer’s visceral impressions are a clear and direct ride right into the scenes where his deeply-rooted identity took shape. Craft questions annoy Sean, too. In his own words, “form is coincidence.” Sharp and raw, Sean is a storyteller who commits himself to only two tenets on the page: 1) brutal honesty, 2) “Talk beautiful.” Read Sean’s poems, stories, or lyrics and you’ll find yourself sitting beside him as he—painfully, poignantly, and often hilariously—narrates his past and its many characters. Inspired by punks, the homeless, and street poets, Sean writes with the goal of disarming an audience, and once the page is opened, any reader might serve as the explicit target of his moving stories.

Typically we’d insert a little background information about the featured writer here, but instead, I’ll share the words Sean offered for his own biography:

Sean Thomas DunneDo you want to know a secret? I set my desk on fire in sixth grade. That’s not the secret though. I never told anybody this before, but it wasn’t intentional. I mean it was an accident. I was just playing with a lighter and the fucker caught on fire and that was it. But everybody thought I did it on purpose so I just went with it. For years afterwards kids would come up to me and be like, “You’re Sean Dunne? No way!” It was a notoriety I coveted. But I never told anybody it was an accident. I’m not saying I was above or beneath doing it. I just always wished I had meant to.

About me? I’m a burglar and a cashier. I’m a New Yorker and a Californian. I revere the act of breaking bread and I like to swim in the ocean. I hang out in the cemetery with my dead friend Kevin all the time. Fairhaven Cemetery in Santa Ana. If you ever need me, look there. What about me? I get dissed by girls and nobody trusts me. People I grew up with love me, but they don’t want me around. I walk around in the rain talking to my guardian angel and my dead friends, looking for somewhere safe to come down. I’m a cold, sacred kid with nowhere to go, just searching for one bold and true friend to keep warm with beneath an overhang in the rain.

In curating writing for the September BREAK OUT series, I was gripped by Sean’s candid voice, and how it climbed over barriers and time and space to bring me into the punk-heart of life’s most vulnerable, bleak, and beautiful offerings. In the spirit of pursuing literary relationships for this month’s BREAK OUT movement, I had the honor to interview Sean about his relationship to writing, community, and identity.

P.S. Sean also happens to be someone our program receives a lot of wonderfully decorated mail from, full of song recommendations. We’ve compiled a playlist from his suggestions, Listen to this, wrote Sean Dunne,” though we regret we had to choose a singular Crimpshrine song, because we know Sean loves them all. Obsessively.


ANJALI EMSELLEM: In your piece My Past and Future in Present Tense, you write, “I see too much to write a rap without any bad words.” Without exception, your poetic voice is explicit and urgent. I am rarely met with the act of interpretation in your work—your descriptions guide me through visceral locations and experiences. How have you developed your written voice? What communities in your life do you value and how do they influence the way you approach writing?

SEAN THOMAS DUNNE: What did you mean by my interpretation, Anjali? You preface this statement by quoting a passage from my BREAK OUT piece. I just don’t understand the correlation between the explicit nature of my work and the concept of interpretation. You’re goddamn right you don’t need to interpret my shit. I don’t speak in friggen riddles. I don’t believe in that. My goal is to give you the dope, ether-washed and pure as pre-dinosaur water, to let all those wack metaphors evaporate with the cut and just talk beautifully. Sometimes you gotta curse to do that.

I just write exactly how I talk. I don’t write any differently than the way I speak, with one exception: I write much more thoughtfully that I speak, but it is still my voice. I am the narrator and I am the protagonist. I’m just sittin’ on the stoop with you drinkin’ a 40, and telling you a story. I can’t say that I have knowingly developed my voice. I think that would be both pretentious and contrived. Certain aspects of the craft have to come naturally and for me, this is one of ’em.

Straight up, I value the homeless. Junkies, prostitutes, runaways, abused kids, abused women, abused men, tweekers, bicycle thieves, dope fiends, and alcoholics in the fraternal order of bums. I value people who have nowhere to go. They are my heart. I write these stories for them. It’s only a matter of time before I’m out there lookin’ to come up too, again and I never forget where I come from.

There is also the community of punk rockers out there cold doing the wop who hold stakes in the territory of my heart. I am a punk. That is my cultural identity. I’m not a white cis male. I’m a punk. But yo, there’s a lotta fuckin’ snobs and cold shoulders and elitist assholes in my culture. So I hold the destitute above them. I identify with Mary Magdalene much more than I do Sid Vicious. But don’t get it fucked up. How do these two communities influence the way I approach my writing? They have everything to do with it. I mean, I write stories about homeless punk rock drug addicts. I read Stephen King’s Book On Writing, and here’s what I got out of it: Write what you know. I hope that normies can glean a visceral response from the descriptions of my characters the the situations they find themselves in because I don’t know anything about anything else and I don’t want to write about anything else. I have a profoundly passionate compulsion to talk about these topics.

EMSELLEM: The themes in your work straddle street life and intimacy. This made me wonder about your creative process—not just the process that occurs while writing, but also the part of writing that happens before and after you are with the page. How has writing bridged separate worlds in your life? How is writing an identity in addition to a practice for you?

DUNNE: In the context of juxtaposing street life and intimacy, it has bridged the worlds in my life significantly because of my ability to express myself is my ticket to a girl’s heart, and for me, that means a potential cessation of loneliness and pain. But it also means the invention of those two things, sometimes, too. It’s a trade off in a life subject to constant compromise, and I would do it again and again. Writing has bridged the worlds in my life by allowing me to be charismatic in a pauper’s clothing. Writing has bridged the worlds in my life by allowing me to kick sicker flows than any wack Lil’ Wayne impersonator out there, therefore admitting me into communities and cultures which otherwise would not have accepted a homeless punk rock white boy. Writing has bridges to worlds in my life by winning your interest, therefore, in the words of a great Robbie Pollock, providing me with a “pathway to artistry” from the murky scum of the Black Lagoon.

envelope with "You're Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr. Listen to it!" written on itI guess I just think of myself as a writer. I always have. I have been writing since I learned how to spell. Before that I was John Lennon in my previous life, so I guess I’m degenerating. But whatever. It all started with Lisa, Dean, Whitney Olson, and Shaylynn Shulman. Those were my three great elementary school loves. A need to impress them was the mother of my invention and I guess the identity just came with it. I don’t fucking know.

Um, it just happens depending on the story I want to tell. Even with poetry. I write prosaic poems because all I give a fuck about is telling a story and a buncha fuckin’ ambiguity would impede that. The form is only a means to say something, a utilitarian coincidence.

EMSELLEM: You write in many genres: fiction, monologue, poetry, and more. How do you see the relationship between form and content? When you write, do you pick the subject matter or the form first?

DUNNE: What the fuck kinda question is that? Do people do that? Choose a form and then just pick a subject? No. I don’t do that. That seems really disingenuous to me. I have something to say and it comes out in the most practical way for me to say it.

EMSELLEM: All of your work carries a quality of energetic and expressive storytelling. How would you describe the sound of your voice? What qualities of your writing can only come through in performance? What is the relationship between performance and written work in your creative expression?

DUNNE: I can affect ur heart without having to hear my delivery. I prefer to say my raps, but they stand up on their own. You ever notice that 99 percent of rappers don’t put lyrics in their records. It’s because without the assistance of background noise, and their cadence, they got nothing. I don’t have that problem. My records would BE a fucking lyric sheet. The message I am trying to convey is the most important thing. I don’t need to be present for you to feel it. That’s minor league shit. Patti Smith had that problem. I think of it as a defect in the quality of your content.

The relationship only exists in my mind insofar as I enjoy reciting and reading my shit to people I get a kick out of doing my character voices. In a nightmare of privation, I have found a way to transform my distress into an art form and I get a rush of dopamine when I am able to act out these tableaus for an audience. I realize I sound real conceited right now and I slightly apologize for my abrasive tone. I am monstrously defensive because I’ve been kicked around quite a bit. Most of it was my doing, but that don’t make the boot hurt any less. You are talking to the bum on the corner and you ask me about the relationship between performance and written work in my creative expression. I tell you that I take great pleasure in disarming an audience. I take great pleasure in impressing people. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I have value. But I don’t really intentionally write anything with the exclusive agenda of it being performed. Yet.

illustrated envelope from Sean Thomas Dunne

EMSELLEM: You know how to artfully express ambivalence, vulnerability, and bitter truth in your work. You boldly commit yourself to honesty. Do you write for yourself or for your readers?

DUNNE: I write because I want my writing to be read, I want strangers to feel my shit. I want my words to get the motherfucking respect that I don’t. I want to be loved and all that good shit. Cathartic release is a byproduct of my desire to say something that matters to you. I enjoy crying and laughing with myself while the process is taking place, but none of that means shit to me if no one reads the final copy.

Sean’s work will be staged live on September 18, 2019, in New York, New York, at the Lyrics, Lit and Liquor reading series. Learn more about the BREAK OUT movement »

Listen to the playlist!