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An Interview With Poet Mark Doty

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Online Only, posted 5.23.03

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P&W: What it seems to come down to is that people's gut reactions to being a poet during this time of grief and crisis is deeply linked to their reasons for writing, their "internal mandate." Do you feel you have an internal mandate for writing, and if so, what is it? When did you discover it, and how has your relationship to it changed and served you as a writer through your career?

MD: Something in me resists giving too clear a name to that internal mandate, or too easily defining its purpose. The urge to write for me is in part the desire to make a form to resist the passage of time, and in part a desire to make a shape that will stand against the disorder of experience. And then there's that desire to approach the unsayable that you describe, and there is also that desire to be heard... And there's probably more in there, too! There have been times when I have had more of an internal imperative to be a witness, or to give testimony, and times when I feel my work is more exploratory, less driven by the particular character of circumstance. I know the world's always on fire, but like everybody I'm sometimes closer to the flames, sometimes not.

P&W:
Do you think this answer has changed over time? If I'd asked you the same question, say in 1982, or 1992, would you have described your experience of your "imperative" differently?

MD: Yes, absolutely. In 1982 I was very concerned about how to name my experience, how to find a way of speaking in poems that would admit more of my life, allow the inscription of my late twentieth-century gay man's life on the page. Not in terms of writing about sex. I mean the way my experience as a gay person informed all the aspects of life-the social climate I moved in, how I dressed and spoke, my economic life. And I wanted to understand the drama of my family, find a form in which to explore those forces that had shaped my adult self.

By 1992, my interest in memory and in personal history had fallen aside, at least for the time being; it was the height of the AIDS crisis and I felt that the act of writing was tremendously pressurized. Those questions about identity and desire were of course still very much on the stage, but they were lent a different urgency, placed in another context.

Now I would say that all these things are still with me, but I am more concerned with the self in community than I used to be. That old question of the relationship between the one and the many seems to loom larger for me as time passes.

P&W: How does the type or quality of the imperative you feel when writing a particular poem influence what kind of a poem you write, in terms of style, tone and structure? I'm thinking of some of your more "elaborate" poems ("Letter to Walt Whitman" comes to mind, of course, as does "Mercy on Broadway," in a different way) as compared to some of your poems which have a more intense focus (like "Fish R Us" or "Golden Retrievals"). Can you pick one from Column A and one from Column B (or your own two examples) and talk a bit about how different kinds of poems come to be for you?

MD: I love the inclusiveness and scale of the long poem; I've always been drawn to those grand poems that seem to become a kind of model of an individual consciousness, showing us so much of a particular speaker's process of attention, and containing, as a long poem must, a complex organization of time. I'm thinking of James Schuyler's "The Morning of the Poem," Herbert Morris's "Boardwalk," James McMichael's "Four Good Things," and of course Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover. They arise out of a fundamentally different impulse than the lyric poem's desire to illuminate a single, resonant moment. Oddly, they may arrive at something like the same place; there is no necessary relation, in poetry, between length and depth, or between length and complexity! But the poems travel along quite different paths to get to a sense of wholeness, a satisfying dimensionality.

As for examples from my own practice-well, "Letter to Walt Whitman" is a poem that wants to think about Whitman's vision of egalitarianism and camaraderie in the light of American life now. It is, I'd say, an investigative poem; the speaker is feeling around in the materials available to him (the evidence of Whitman's life, the abiding resonance of Whitman's name, the debasement of a sense of human fellowship in America now) to try to understand something of the impasse we've come to. It couldn't really be more compressed because it doesn't center on a single, telling moment or image; instead, it's a motion through various scenes. Whitman's house in Camden, a beachside changing room, a hotel in Columbus, a rest stop in New Jersey, a discount store in Salt Lake City.

That's basically the opposite of a poem like "Fish R Us," which wants to use a single moment's perception-the sight of a big bag of goldfish in a pet store-as a springboard for ideas about community, crowdedness, and our common fate. So now that I spell that out, I see that these are the same subjects as in "Letter to Walt Whitman"-it's just that the poems partake of radically different approaches to time.

P&W: How does one (in this case, how do you), as a poet, negotiate the shaky ground around representing other people's lives and experiences in your work? The most obvious example of this for you would, of course, be your writing about your relationship with Wally, his illness, and his death. Did you feel a responsibility to him to represent him in a way he would (or did) approve? Do you ever feel conflict between wanting to say something that is important and/or true for a poem you're working on, but might upset the person it's related to or about? If so, how do your resolve that tension?

MD: I don't think you do resolve the tension, I think you just learn to live in it in ways that protect your work and your life with others. This is even more of a problem for me as a memoirist than as a poet-since there is often a tacit understanding that a poem is something made to give shape to individual perception. We don't (for better or worse) assign poems the burden of historical truth-whereas the memoirist makes a kind of pact with the reader that his or her writing operates 'under the sign of the real.' But memoirist and poet are in fact balancing three different kinds of allegiance-to one's own sense of reality, to the esthetic needs of what one's writing, and finally to one's ethical sense, the need to treat others responsibly. It's almost as if these three considerations occur in that order, actually. I usually begin with a desire to describe some aspect of experience, and then I find the poem itself taking over; the shaping of language becomes more important, and the poem begins to take on a direction of its own. And somewhere along the way, the ethical implications of what I've made also present themselves. Ultimately, in completing a poem, you have to negotiate with all three of those contexts at once-but I also think that in the initial writing process, of course, you just have to make what you want to make.

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