Abigail Keegan: What lead you to write poetry?
Mark Doty: A sense of great internal pressure, the tremendous desire as an adolescent to gain some control over the turmoil within by speaking it, by giving it a name. When I was 14, maybe, I began keeping a notebook, which was not a diary and it certainly wasn’t poetry, but a catchbook of phrases, impressions, dreams, daydreams, quotations of things I liked, a kind of repository for all that was turning within. I kept my notebook deliberately in terrible handwriting, just in case anyone should find it and try to read it. I wanted it to be completely private and sometimes I couldn’t read it myself. That was the beginning of writing for me, and I was lucky enough to stumble across some poets who spoke to me when I was very young. Some of them are Federico Garcia Lorca, William Blake, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
In reading those poems I felt a sense of excitement about being in the presence of that kind of language that did more than describe the external world, that somehow did something else besides telling a story. That language seemed to vibrate with feeling and to contain something which could not be said in any other way, as if the only way to speak this particular perception was through the words of this very poem. That was very moving to me and I wanted to make something in response to it. The words and phrases in my notebook became the beginning points, the building materials from which I would try to shape my beginning poems.
Suddenly I seemed to be less alone because there had been other people who thought something like I did and whose sense of the world, as represented in these words, seemed to mirror mine. And not just mirror it but also challenge it and raise questions and push me further toward the real. It’s part of being human, I think, to what we long for most, which is to feel our feeling, to be ourselves in the mot profound way. It’s also something deeply frightening and so we tend to avoid it. That’s why we have this attraction/repulsion relationship to poetry. We hunger for that sense of the inner life and for the truth and interiority, and yet we also want to get away from it because it may cause us to feel things that are troubling to us, or it may cause us to change.
Harbour Winn: I’m wondering what your perception of your audience of you—how you distinguish between yourself and the persona who speaks in your poetry. How do you, in language, strive for the persona or “the other” to be heard by your audience? does this happen after lots of drafting, or does it come in a moment of inspiration?
MD: No it’s completely spontaneous; I’ve never had to work for it. I don’t believe that subjectivity can actually be captured in language because it’s too complicated and too slippery. Words, for all their elasticity and complexity, are smaller than experience is. They can’t quite contain it all. So when we are writing about our experience, we are always making a version of that experience, and we are making a version of the self for the audience to meet. We select some details, we suppress others, we heighten some things, and we put others things in the background. There is no such thing as being your naked self on the page; it’s always an act of self-presentation. Somebody who taught me a good deal of that was Robert Lowell, whom we think of as not just a confessional poet but the inventor of confessional poetry in his wonderful 1959 book Life Studies. Lowell said about that book, “I wanted the reader to feel he was meeting the real Robert Lowell.”
The writer may say, “I want you to feel you’re meeting the real Robert Lowell, or the real Robert Pinksy, or the real Jane Hirshfield,” but of course what you’re doing as a writer is making a kind of persona, a mask. Some of those can be quite far from the way we experience ourselves, and some can be much closer. I’m trying to come as close in my work to the texture of my experience as I can and to the texture of my perception. That is why poems are what they are. It’s why they are discursive and extended. It’s why they work in kinds of complex sentences. It’s why they’re interested in not just distilling an experience but trying to give you some context around that experience, so that you as the reader can get a little closer, I hope, to the texture of my subjectivity. It’s one of the reasons I read. I read in order to meet people and have a sense of the way in which somebody else has experienced the world, and to feel my own connections to that experience and my own differences from it as well.
Conceiving of audience is a difficult question to talk about because I think poets don’t often know precisely to whom they are speaking; it remains a little bit of a mystery to us. If you say, I’m writing a poem to this group of readers, the result is likely to be overdetermined and boring. The poem is spoken to whom? To the kind of invisible best friend, to the ideal reader who’s on your side, who wants to understand you but needs help in being able to do so. I conceive of the audience for my poems as being one person at a time, as opposed to speaking to a large group of people in a sort of public way. I would like for the poem to be spoken say, around a table, two chairs, a lamp, and I’m going to invite you to come in and sit down with me and listen. That makes a different kind of address than the way you would speak in a large hall of people. It’s also a different kind of address than the way you would speak in a large hall of people. It’s also a different kind of address than the way you would whisper something to yourself, trying to figure something out for yourself. It’s conversational and it’s directed toward a listener whom I imagine, although I admit I imagine that listener in a very vague and shadowy way.
The problem with the way we often conceive of the audience is that we can wind up talking down to people or overly explaining our experience. One of the characteristics of a good poem is that it trusts its reader to do the readerly work of coming to the page with imagination open, with the willingness to engage with the poem, to wrestle it out, to be there for the difficult parts, to supply one’s own imaginative experience to the images on the page.
AK: As you said [in the OCU Workshop], poets don’t know what they’re writing about until they’re writing it; so if you conceive of audience, you’re writing to persuade or to have an impact. If you’re in the process of self-discovery, you are your audience.
MD: Right. This is one of the things I’ve learned from Elizabeth Bishop in a poem like “The Fish.” She takes us with her through a process of perception and that means she is not giving us her wisdom, she doesn’t already know what she’s doing when she begins the poem. She invites us to be part of an experience of coming to knowledge. That’s been crucial for me, because it suggests that one might write a poem in which you’re feeling your way through what experience gives you to get a sense of truth, to get at the core of something. Of course by the time the poem is finished I know what it is I’m getting at, but I want the poem to retain a feeling of struggling towards understanding, of coming to know it. I believe that the energy of discovery is part of the engine of the poem, it’s part of what makes it come alive and vital.
HW: You’re describing the rhetorical persona, the sense of whom you speak to, I think in Firebird you reflect back, or maybe in the preface to Heaven’s Coast you talk about the danger of the artist being too close. While I understand that, I think part of the power of Heaven’s Coast is that perhaps there is less of the sense of the rhetorical mask. There is, paradoxically, a kind of immediacy that engulfs you.
MD: I had no distance when I was writing that book. It was begun six weeks after Wally’s death, at a time when I not only couldn’t write but I also couldn’t really read very well; my concentration had been shattered by the experience of new grief. [Editor’s note: Wally Roberts, Doty’s partner of many years, died of AIDS complications in 1993. In Heaven’s Coast, Doty recounts the experience of this loss.] The ability to begin writing what I thought was an essay about observing the process of grief felt like a huge gift to me, that now I don’t have power over anything else, there is nothing in my life I can control, but I can shape these sentences about how it feels to be in this moment. And that gives me just this much distance from the awful chaos of my feelings. Now I’m standing back trying to shape this material, I’m trying to say it well. It felt like a great consolation to be able to do that. It’s an interesting book in this regard because it’s far from “emotion recollected in tranquility”; it’s written right in the heat of the moment. If I had waited five years to write Heaven’s Coast, it would be a very different book. It would probably be a more linear one. It would probably spend more time on stories about my relationship with Wally, as opposed to being completely focused on his death and on that time, my experience thereafter. I’m grateful that I didn’t wait because I think that book already exists.
When I wrote Heaven’s Coast, part of my motivating force was that I could not find anything to read which was commensurate with my experience. There were plenty of books about grief from a psychological point of view that intended to tell you that your feelings are normal, and plenty of religious books, which intended to tell you that death was not the end of life so you need not be shattered by grief. But that wouldn’t work for me. I wanted to read something by someone who had been shattered by grief.
I worked on the book for a year after Wally’s death and I though two things: First, I would just put everything in. It was my first prose book and, unlike the experience of writing a poem where one takes everything out and you’re doing all you can to compress this thing to a few words that are absolutely necessary, I thought, I have all these pages, and I will add and add. I can tell more stories, I can stop and mediate about questions, and I can talk about what I’m reading. Secondly, I wanted the book, because it was potentially infinite, to have a boundary. I chose the first year of mourning as being that boundary because I imagined it would be like the ceremony in Judaism where the year after a death people gather and the headstone is unveiled and the name of the person who died has been written there in the world. Wally doesn’t have a literal headstone, but I thought the book would be a way of writing his name in the world.
HW: You write in Heaven’s Coast, “The lower one goes in the medical system, it seems the more humanity, the more hands on help, the more genuine care one finds.” When Michael Ondaatje was here last year, he had spent the fall in a seminar at the Columbia University Medical School and he found similarities between doctors, the humanities, and medicine. Do you see the humanities as having purpose in the education of a doctor?
MD: Absolutely. Recently I was in an odd situation: I went to the 25th anniversary of Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, which is part of Harvard Medical School. My role there was to teach a little workshop on creativity and healing with a friend of mine, Dr. Rafael Campo, who is a poet as well as a physician. They announced that Barney Frank, the congressman who was going to be part of the closing panel that day, could not be there because Congress was having a meeting about terrorism. They asked if I would fill in for Barney Frank on this panel, the purpose of which was to imagine the future of healthcare. I said, “Yeah, sure. Why not?” Suddenly I find myself on stage in front of literally hundreds of doctors and I’m supposed to imagine what medicine might be.
I got quite into this and began to think about a kind of community healthcare center of the future. I had many fantasies about this, but one of them would involve a person whose job would be a literary advisor. The job of the literary advisor in the hospital or clinic would be to help you find what to read and I don’t mean in terms of information about your illness, but in terms of common struggle: How have other people dealt with the pressures of physical decline and incurable disease, with a disease whose course is unknown? How have people thought about that? What kind of record of t heir struggle have they left us to consider? I think that would be of such incredible use, to join the ill to a community of other thinkers about their experience. It would seem like such a humanizing force in medicine.
To my great delight, there was a wealthy benefactor of the hospital present who was very enthusiastic about the idea. This actually might happen in a kind of pilot program at Beth Israel, which would be thrilling. Rafael Campo has written a wonderful book, The Poetry of Healing, about his experience as both a physician and a poet and the intersection of those two things. I highly recommend it. He quotes an interesting new study, the first clinical evidence, hard evidence, that people who write creatively about their health do better, they live longer. So, it’s not just speculation on the part of humanists anymore.
AK: I want to ask you about elegy, I have been particularly interested in Byron. He has some elegies for a dead lover encoded within the first series of his really popular poems. I became interested in how important elegy is for the gay community. There is a larger question; there are a lot of theorists that say elegy isn’t possible now because we don’t have final principles to refer people to, elegy cannot offer the consolation is has previously. At the end of Still Life With Oysters, you suggest some kind of flexible permanence in the idea of tenderness and style, as being that which the writer, the poet, has to offer. What do you hope for elegy when you work through it and offer it to an audience?
MD: Traditionally the elegy has to do two things. It has to memorialize, so we’re attempting to conserve something of that particular person. What do we wish to hold in the world? Then it attempts to offer some consolation, to make some gesture of meaning-making in the face of that loss. It’s interesting that before the 20th century, the memorializing side of elegy was the least of it. Milton doesn’t particularly care who Lycidas was, it’s beside the point. The point is, “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,” that in fact this dead young man has a continuing life in heaven and we need not fear for the brevity of life on earth. By the end of the 19th century, that sense of elegy is collapsing right and left and the elegy becomes more a form of memorialization and the inscriptions of particular characters. Its gestures toward making meaning are necessarily tentative, provisional, compromised in some way. I’ve thought about this a lot, having lived in the teeth of an epidemic and a community in which I felt desperately needed to inscribe whatever gestures of making sense we could in the face of all that chaos. And yet how could we do that without denying the actuality of death?
There was a Unitarian minister in my town who, entirely well-intentioned, used to lead memorial services. I remember going to one in which he was talking about a man whom many people loved and he said, “John’s not dead, he’s with us still.” I couldn’t bear it. I wanted to stand up and say, “He is dead! And if we don’t acknowledge that fundamental fact of this loss, any kind of consolation you offer us is going to be just pointless.” For me this seems to point to something about what elegies might be in our time; they need to acknowledge the fact of rupture, of breakage in the world. And if they stop there, they’re not offering as much in the way of how the living might, at least temporarily, make some stay against chaos, might make some kind of gesture of making sense. I have wanted to write an elegy that was balanced, which made provisional affirmations, which acknowledged the reality of loss but attempted to go beyond merely chronicling that reality.
It’s interesting to connect with the history of gay literature, because I think there were strong elegiac currents in the art of gay men before there was an AIDS epidemic. A good example would be Cavafy, a hero of mine, and those beautiful poems that memorialize his dates—these handsome young men he would meet in the cafe and know for an hour or a week, and sometimes 25, 35 years later he’s writing a poem that remembers that encounter. Those are not poems that are attempting to remember the dead, but they certainly are poems that are attempting to make a stay against loss. Because there is no social structure that will allow him to sustain those relationships, they are doomed from the very beginning to vanish. In that relationship which is so temporary, so fleeting, is the place where that speaker is going to find his greatest moments of joy and the most profound occasions of meaning in his life. It’s as if the groundwork had been laid for fusing the mournful and the joyous before we had such grave reasons to do so.
AK: What do you want to see happen in your future work? And what would you like to see happen in American poetry?
MD: In my own work, it’s not so much a matter of what I want to see happen as the course the poem decides to take. In writing the poems that became Source, I found myself interested in turning outward. I wanted to write a more social, a more public poem. Having published three volumes, which formed a kind of trilogy about my partner’s death and my own coming back to life from that experience, I had enough of talking about myself in that way and I found myself increasingly feeling like a citizen of the country rather than of one particular place because I was traveling a great deal to teach and to give readings. I wanted to talk about a broader sense of American life; but oddly, some of the poems I would say are more spiritual—if we will accept that term—are more idiosyncratically personal. I didn’t expect that; that was simply what the work insisted on doing. The poems I’m writing now seem to be engaged in a rather fierce argument with time. And while limits and mortality have been central subjects of my work, I don’t think I have thought of time as a force and as a mystery in itself as much as I’m doing now. That’s my predication at this moment for what the next book of poems will do; when it actually comes around, we’ll see, for it may have done something quite different.
The poems so far are shorter and they continue something that happens in Source, where the speaker is a little further in the background. What I would like to see happen in American poetry is more of the same. I think this is a good moment in that there is a great deal of poetic practice. It is an enormously rich time. The literary communities that have grown around American universities and community reading centers in many of our cities are larger and healthier than ever. This is a wonderful thing for the culture; it means we have more and more people making poems, reading them, giving attention to the inner life, and giving attention to one another in these smaller communities than has ever been true before. I can’t help but think that is a good thing for our culture. While there are huge differences, there are always arguments within the world of poetry. Ten years ago we were obsessed with an argument between free verse and formalism; at this moment we are obsessed with an argument between representational and nonrepresentational, or between different visions of what post-modernity is. The fights will go on, but the subject of the fights will change, of course, over time.
What excites me is that I see fewer and fewer poets adhering to any one school or way of making poetry. My students in Houston and NYU and Columbia, who are some of the best young writers in America, seem just as likely to produce a fragmented poem with no self on the stage one week, to write a sonnet the following week, and then maybe a Wordsworthian memory narrative the next week. So more eclecticism, a blending of schools, people writing from political concerns and aesthetic concerns, a willingness to see how we can make it new. I think it’s an encouraging time, actually.
HW: You have described yourself as “working at the juncture of memory and imagination” and have said that you place the act of remembering in the foreground. You also have mentioned Nabokov’s Speak, Memory as a book that does something of what you aim for. I’m wondering about other writers like Annie Dillard in An American Childhood, Ivan Doig in This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Li-Young Lee in Winged Seed. Do you see yourself connected with these writers and their work?
MD: I love reading memoir, and I’m enormously interested in the shapes that people describe in experience. I think, in that way, the art of the memoir is not so far from the art of the poet, at least as I practice it, which is to look at all the stuff of experience and attempt to identify patterns. What kind of meaning and shape might I make today, understanding that if I wrote Heaven’s Coast five years later I would make a different kind of shape? I think that is always true, you never get it right. This becomes clearer in memoir than in poetry since poetry tends to be shorter and you can exercise a little more control. With memoir, I feel there is always another way to tell that story. There is another emphasis. There is something I left out. There is a whole other way to structure the tale.
Memoir in an exciting from because of its hybridity. There are memoirs that behave like novels. There are memoirs that behave like autobiographies. There are memoirs that behave like Heaven’s Coast, for instance, which borrows from nature writing, literary criticism, what we might call a kind of practical or applied philosophy, a la Thoreau. That is very intriguing to me, to have a form for which the parameters are loose and the possibilities are far from exhausted. We are far from exhausting the possibilities for memoir. There is a wonderful young writer named John D’Agata; he has a book called Halls of Fame, which is a book of essays that reinvents the essay as a list, as a kind of catalog, as a lyric poem. There are essays doing quite new and energetic things. As I was enthusiastic about the state of poetry, I think nonfiction prose is also an arena that offers great opportunities of invention and investigation.
Transcribed by Michael Pace