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An Interview With Poet Mark Doty

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Online Only, posted 5.23.03

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Mark Doty's work has always straddled the line between a sense of belonging and alienation, so it's no surprise to find the crucial question, Where do I live? at the heart of his forthcoming book. In June Graywolf will publish Open House: Writers Redefine Home, Doty's first anthology project. In it, he invites nineteen accomplished writers, including Rafael Campo, Elizabeth McCracken, Honor Moore, and Terry Tempest Williams, to consider the idea of home. The resultant essays form a collective mediation on the many ways in which our surroundings create us, at least as much we create our surroundings.

Doty is the author of six books of poems: Source (HarperCollins, 2000), Sweet Machine (HarperCollins, 1998), Atlantis (HarperCollins, 1995), My Alexandria (University of Illinois, 1993), Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (University of Illinois, 1991), and Turtle, Swan (University of Illinois, 1987). He has also published two memoirs, Firebird (HarperCollins, 1999) and Heaven's Coast (HarperCollins, 1996), and a book-length essay entitled Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (Beacon Press, 2001).

Doty's irreverence, wit, and generous dedication to craft make him one of American poetry's most sought-after teachers (he holds tenure at the University of Houston). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, and Whiting Foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Doty what marks his work as American, and what it means to be an "American" poet.

Mark Doty: This isn't in any way an easy thing to see about oneself. Our "Americanness" is transparent to us until it's called into question, or spotlit by being placed in some less familiar circumstance. I have just been to a couple of poetry festivals in the UK, for instance. I read in London along with an international line-up of poets, and then in Aldeburgh, mostly with poets from Britain and Scotland. That makes me feel American indeed, in a number of ways. Less articulate, first of all; our European colleagues are so much better talkers than we are! Secondly, less interested in particular details of class and origin. There's a lot of poetry being written in the UK that attempts to conserve something of regional speech, that wants to capture, say, the talk of fishermen from Northumberland. There isn't a parallel in contemporary American poetry, really.

Beyond that lies a realm of large generalization. One can try to make broad claims about the character of American poetry, but such attempts are always complicated by the wonderful contradictions of history and of individual character. If one thinks broadly of Whitman and Dickinson as the parents of American poetry-or perhaps, more accurately, its queer uncle and aunt?-then certain American characteristics come to the fore, predicting a poetry that could be expansive, exuberant, inclusive, skeptical, concerned with the possibility of personal revelation, and faithful that there is meaning to be found in experience. Both are interested in the forging of a voice, the creation and expression of a coherent character on the page, one who acts in the work, who does the work of inquiring into experience.

P&W: Sounds both like the internal mandate from which many of us work, and also like the definition of that dread term "confessional poetry," which we're always being warned against. What do you see as the difference? Is there one?

MD: I fear that term—"confessional"—has cursed us all, and I am amazed by its persistence. It was invented, of course, by M.L. Rosenthal, in a review of Life Studies [by Robert Lowell], and I've never felt it was apt, since Lowell's poems feel less like monologues delivered to a priest, in search of absolution, than they feel like monologues spoken to a psychiatrist, in search of insight. There is a huge difference between the search for insight and the desire to be forgiven. Now, admittedly, there's something deeply paradoxical about writing in public as though one were speaking with the privacy of an analyst, and that deep tug between private and public life is an energizing polarity for Lowell and for the poets he influenced. The term quickly became a handy categorizer for experience that was outside the mainstream; Sexton's illness or Plath's rage were "confessional," whereas reports on more conventionally validated realms of experience were not.

There has been a huge cultural shift since Lowell published Life Studies; the startling stuff of private revelation is now the ho-hum fodder of the daytime talk show, and even they're tired of it. The result is to make us wary of autobiography; we fear that to name the stuff of a life is to make use of the same tired terms. I've had eighteen-year-old students say to me, "I don't want to write confessional poems." And when I said, "What DO you want to do?" the same young poet said, "Well, I want to write about my life."

Obviously I am very influenced by those poets of the Fifties who made the investigation of self a central strand in their work. We are meant, in Berryman, Bishop, Roethke, and Lowell, to name a few, to meet a character who is a version of the poet, a character who's more or less the same person from poem to poem, and to follow that character's path through the difficult realms of experience. I guess I am that sort of poet, but in truth the term "confessional" is hollow and meaningless for me.

P&W: You've never shied away from locating your self—or a self—in your poems. This has made your poems in some way unavoidably political, since yours is the voice of a gay man writing from the midst of plague, and then more specifically as a gay man losing his partner to AIDS, and healing from that loss. More recently, in Source, you're tackling complex ideas about the nature of democracy, expanding on your ongoing theme of the relationship of the individual and the collective "whole."

And yet, since Source was written and published, so much has changed for America and Americans. Of course I'm referring to the 2000 Presidential Elections, 9/11, and our entrance into an undefined, constantly escalating war abroad and against some of our own citizens. How have these events changed your work, the way you think about it, and/or your beliefs about the role of the poet in our culture now, as opposed to two years ago? Have you seen changes in your American colleagues or students as well?

MD: First, thank you for your reading of my intentions in Source. It's a book that grows out of some years of travel, of living in a number of places, and thus feeling less like a resident of any one spot than a citizen of the nation-and an uncomfortable one. One cannot write, really, as a "representative"—to try to do so would be to overdetermine the poem, potentially, and cut off the possibilities for discovery. And yet there's a paradox here; I know that when I wrote poems about my partner's death, and the community in which we lived, I was in some way a carrier of that community's stories. I needed to write about the particular circumstances of my life, but as is the case with everyone, really, my life was a part of a larger fabric and I was responsible to that greater narrative, like it or not. Usually good art isn't made out of the desire to be a spokesperson, but the artist IS a spokesperson, and we may as well try and make use of that paradox.

But how to apply that thinking to our current situation? I guess I think it's too soon, mostly. I was living in New York City in September of 2001. I was startled, a few weeks after the 11th, when I first went to L.A. and my friends there were talking politics, talking about the situation on a national and global level. I felt my thoughts were stuck at a material level; what was real to me was the white dust on everyone's shoes, the terrible burning—computer-and-concrete smell in the wind from downtown. I still felt that way when the first requests for contributions to "writers respond to 9/11" anthologies showed up. I just couldn't deal with it; there was something reductive about the prospect of going to work and making a poem to talk back to that great gesture of fury and the resultant despair.

That feeling began to shift after the first anniversary. I've written a rough version of a poem that has to do with those days. It seemed to take me that year in order to begin to have access to metaphor. I do feel it's true that there's been a watershed moment in American life. We have been [forced] into something like citizenship in the world; we can do that, or we can be bullies who insist on our own power and our own point of view, and damn the costs. As of today, it seems clear where we're headed, at least in Iraq. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a perspective shift about our relationship to the rest of the world that has been set in motion. There is hope for seeing differently, but who knows how long it might take for such a shift to be expressed in our leadership. I'm saddened and terrified by this administration, like most everyone I know.

P&W: Do you see yourself, as a poet, as having a role in making that shift to world citizenship come about? If so, how does that work?

MD: I wish I could say that poetry in America has that kind of power! We are in no such position. But I have to believe that the practice of poetry, and the professing of it (in the sense of both teaching and speaking as a poet in the world) is an act of paying attention to experience, of responsive awareness. And in that sense it does make the world a bit more human. I have seen firsthand poetry's power to awaken, deepen, provoke compassion. It is a long ways from that to world citizenship, but it is nonetheless a work in that direction.

At the Dodge Festival last year, the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammed Ali read an unforgettable poem about a Palestinian vendor, who'd responded to an American invasion force by making them sandwiches. It was a poem about how the particular focus of people's lives transcends broad political forces-or maybe flies beneath the radar of nationalism. You know, America was brandishing its grand power and the guy was gesturing back with sandwiches. People loved the poem; you could feel in the audience that sort of moment of recognition, as the Palestinian character (and the poet standing in front of us) suddenly became completely recognizable. His humanity was of a piece with that of his audience. That's an illustration of the power of poetry to evoke empathy.

P&W: I love this also as a metaphor-the poet as someone who makes sandwiches in the face of the world's brutality...

MD: Well, he was doing the practical, ordinary, necessary, nourishing thing. I'd like to think that's what poetry is too. Though I suppose we might have to discuss the "practical" part.

These days, these matters, will take years to find literary expression. It was years into the AIDS epidemic before there was writing that seemed larger than simply a cry of horror. The initial writing about Vietnam mostly hasn't held up very well (with the exception, I think, of W. S. Merwin's haunting poems from those days), but what came along later-Yusef Komunyakaa's poems, for instance-is extraordinary.

Of course this doesn't mean we shouldn't try! It's just that, for a while, it is much harder to get the self out of the way, to stand in relation to the gravity of circumstances. You ask about changes in my students. I was teaching at Columbia that semester, and half my workshop said they couldn't see why on earth they should get a graduate degree in poetry, after what happened. And half said they felt they could do nothing BUT write. That was a telling response.


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