Q&A with Mark Doty
Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008. His eight books of poems include School of the Arts, Source, and My Alexandria. He has also published four volumes of nonfiction prose: Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Heaven’s Coast, Firebird and Dog Years, which was a New York Times bestseller in 2007.
Doty’s work has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Whiting Writers Award, two Lambda Literary Awards and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. He is the only American poet to have received the T.S. Eliot Prize in the U.K., and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill and Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Doty lives in New York City and on the east end of Long Island.
As a reader of both your nonfiction and poetry, I’ve noticed resurfacing images, phrases, or even whole poems between your poetry and your prose (I’m thinking especially of the beautiful “A Green Crab’s Shell,” which is its own poem and appears almost word-for-word in Heaven’s Coast as a prose block). I was wondering if you could speak to that intersection of nonfiction and poetry, both in your own work and, perhaps, at large. Besides the lineation, what do you think separates “A Green Crab’s Shell” as a poem and as a piece of prose, even though the words are nearly the same? Certainly other writers have taken nonfiction and lineated it into poetry, but the examples that I can call to mind (Zukofsky, Reznikoff, etc.) usually take the works of others as their source material for the poetic process. How do you think about and understand those dynamics operating in your work, where the source material is also the source’s material? Is it a (self)reflexive process? In short, I think you’re playing at the interesting division between truth and honesty in poetry (and prose), and I would love to hear whatever thoughts you may have on these issues.
Peter D. — Baltimore, MD
I appreciate the complex way you’re thinking about this question. When I’m done I’ve felt that the metaphoric object I had examined in one form had still more to yield, if it were held up, so to speak, to a different light. There’s a bit in Heaven’s Coast about going shopping with my late friend Lynda for kimonos; in the prose version, it’s a warm and pleasurable memory of an intimate time with a friend I miss. But after I’d written it, an image kept nagging at me, which was a small moth-wing thin white kimono hanging on the wall of the shop, shivering in the breeze from a vent, looking impossibly delicate. So I found myself beginning a poem centered in that same scene, and the tone of the piece veered wildly away from the prose version; the poem begins in description and winds up in something close to rage and fear.
In this way, every time I use an image again, I want it to yield more or differently. Sometimes this is just by virtue of including it in a longer work, so that it becomes a part of a larger architecture, and connects to other moments in the book. The intense spotlight places on a single image in a poem, say in A Green Crab’s Shell, might fade instead to a broad wash of light, in which many details go to make up the whole. I’m intrigued by the truth and honesty part of your question, which is something every memoirist wrestles with. But I’m not quite sure how to bring it to bear on the relation between poetry and prose, so I’d probably need to hear more of your thinking in order to answer that bit.
You often write about animals, avoiding the tenuous boundary between emotion and sentiment that arises when pets are the subjects of poems. What guidance would you offer to writers who wish to write about animals? How is it possible to balance sincerity with craft and create a good animal poem?
Dale Webb — Great Falls, Montana
I like the way you frame the challenges here. The problem became most dauntingly clear to me when I was setting out to write DOG YEARS. If I were writing a full-length memoir about my pets, for heaven’s sake, it had to be brief, compressed, tonally various, and I had to be able to stand back from the immediacies of feeling in order to examine broader matters.
Writing poems about animals seems to call for a certain rigor. One can’t be satisfied simply to present an anecdote, or tell a sad or comic story, because the immediate response of the reader’s likely to be, So what? We all glaze over a little, when someone starts to tell a story about their guinea pig or parrot, just as we do when someone starts to narrate a dream. We don’t expect that the narration will convey the depth of feeling that the speaker has for the animal, or the gripping, depth-charged nature of the dream. Ordinary speech doesn’t usually do that, so the story seems more important to the teller than to the listener. Poetry’s work is to make the story the listener’s as well as the poet’s; we have to be able to meet on some shared territory, or the reader won’t care. This can happen through compelling, exact language, where a rhythmic charge or sonic texture often conveys what denotation can’t. And it can also be reached through rhetoric, as the poem moves to make something of the experience being reported, to stake a claim on meaning.
I wrote many poems in which my dogs Arden and Beau appeared; generally, they are engaged in some action which becomes metaphoric for the speaker–perhaps a reflection of self, perhaps a chance to make some commentary on joy, appetite, persistence, or the ravages of time. In those poems, the dogs are vehicles for thinking; I’m not talking about them so much as individuals (though I love to do that) as emphasizing an idea to which they point. They become the vehicles for parable. I thought I’d done enough of that, so when I got a new dog, I decided that I wouldn’t write poems about him unless I could see some whole different approach. I resisted an impulse or two to begin–and then recently we were walking in a cemetery near my house, and Ned stole one of the stakes used to mark the boundaries of a soon-to-be-done grave. I just couldn’t help myself. Now I’ve open the door, I fear, and there are more Ned poems on the way.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received from a poet? Like most PQAers, does this mean we’ll find new poems from you in the next issue of Smartish Pace?
RH — Dayton, OH
When I was a 17-year-old poet, and a dedicated young surrealist, I had a conference with William Stafford, a genuinely insightful and generous man. He read the three or four poems I presented to him while I sat quietly and watched. Then he said, “Well, I have a feeling that these are poems in heaven, but they’re not poems on earth yet.”
I loved this. He conveyed to me that he could see the shining impulse, the interior world that the poem pointed to, but that I hadn’t yet figured out how to make this interiority available to a reader. But what he said, and the way he said it, made me feel I was capable of doing that work. It wasn’t impossible, and if I applied myself, I’d be rewarded. We went on and talked for a while about the poems or whatever, but he didn’t really need to say another thing.
And yes, I’ve got some poems in the works, and I hope to have one or two done so I can hand them on to Smartish Pace.
Thank you Smartish Pace for another great poet for Poets Q&A. And thanks Mark for being here. Mark, How would your poetry be different if you didn’t live in New York?
Andrew Koch — New York, NY
That’s a really good question, Andrew. I can see a difference between the work I wrote when I lived primarily in Provincetown and what I’ve written while living mostly in the city. Those older poems are more singular in their focus, and the speaker’s concentration on fog or dunes or the peeling paint on shingles on an old barn is unlikely to be interrupted by the random. New York City, of course, is all about interruption, about multiple stimuli competing for our attention, and that’s why Frank O’Hara is maybe the great poet of New York, in that he captured exactly its cascade of sensations, the continuous appearance of the beautiful, the ruined, and the random. I think New York has speeded my poems up, and pushed me to further consider what was already an obsessive subject: what’s the relationship between the one and the many? Can the self whose dramas seem so heightened and crucial to us really be so singular when a hundred thousand other yearning selves are heading right down the avenue at this minute?
One other thing about writing about New York. It’s a place that already resides in the imagination of readers; we have images of it, and even those who don’t live there often know their way around. It’s delightful to me that I can say I live on 16th St near 7th Ave and a good many people all over the world know what I’m talking about. Maybe that means there’s more burden on the writer to make it your own, to refresh the familiar. And maybe it means there is a complex and intriguing shared territory between writer and reader, since New York is as much myth as place.
What is the place of politics in poetry? Are there circumstances where poets have a social imperative to get political? What is your most political poem? Thank you Smartish Pace for another awesome PQA poet!
Mathew — San Diego
I’d say that rather than a social imperative to address public matters in a poem there’s more likely an internal imperative. When that pressure wells up—that I-must-speak-about-this feeling—the challenge is to find a poetic vehicle that can carry the weight of your passion, as opposed to just making a statement about the problem. Here’s an example of what I mean: I’ve wanted for years now to write a poem concerning those citizens of New Orleans who were turned back as they attempted to cross a bridge. A blatantly racist gesture, and a shockingly inhumane one in the face of what was going on in the drowning city. You can’t cross this bridge: I feel like America has said this to people of color, to women, to gay people. The metaphor is very clear, and probably that’s why I can’t write the poem. When I give it a try, I find I’m inscribing something I already know, a linkage I’ve already made intellectually, and so the poem just doesn’t ever come to life.
So here’s an opposite example. Years ago, in what was then the very tattered core of Providence, Rhode Island, I came upon a homemade flyer someone had posted on a wall near the gay bars and baths: HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT, it read, beneath a picture of Jesus. The phrase stuck with me, but I didn’t know what a deep chord it was striking till I began to write a poem that seemed to come tumbling out of it. No way I could have predicted the way that poem would go. The phrase on the poster is the poem’s title, and I’d say it’s my most overtly political poem because it is a passionate defense of sex addressed to the Christian right, who hate and fear the body. It borrows some of its rhetorical form from the strategies of preachers; its intent is to lecture them right back.
Your diction is very crisp in the depiction of visual details in your poems. Why do you think that detail is so important to your aesthetic, which–it seems to me–deals with ideas on a large scale?
Deb — New York
I just wrote a book about this question, more or less. It’s called THE ART OF DESCRIPTION, and is part of a series of short books Graywolf is putting out that each address some singular aspect of craft. But of course if you pull any single thread in the beautiful ball of yarn that is poetry—the line or rhythm or syntax—you wind up talking about the whole thing. Impossible not to. So my book is ostensibly an examination of how we render perception into language,
but it winds up also thinking about why we’d want to do that, and about the nature of the poetic project in general.
Your question is such a smart one. I’d say that for me the close examination of things is one means of trying to identify principles or patterns in the world, trying to go deeply into appearances to better understand what is. Emerson said that “every object rightly seen reveals a new faculty of the soul,” which suggests that when we are looking closely at the world we’re also looking at ourselves, as perceivers and as thinkers.
On a more practical level, detail brings us back to the body, the physical presence of the perceiver in the world. And thus a kind of ballast is lent to ideas, which otherwise would just float away in a gauzy drift of abstraction.
One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of your poems is the rich intertextual allusions enfolded and granted a new life through your works. “Nocturne in Black and Gold” is a perfect example. While doing a research paper on the poem (which I hope can later grow into a dissertation about intertextuality in your works), I encountered the problem of tracking down the source of the epigraph “Shadow is the queen of colors” by St. Augustine. Instead of finding it from St. Augustine who wrote in his Confessions, “For daylight, that queen of the colors, floods all that we look upon everywhere I go during the day,” I find the quote almost exactly the same as the chapter title, “Shadow is the Queen of Colour,” of Derek Jarman’s Chroma: A Book of Color. Have Jarman’s works influenced your writings? Can you identify the source of your epigraph? Also with the invention of E-books and online search engines, allusions and their origninary sources become more readily accessible to readers. Does this fact make a difference for you when writing poems with either ekphrastic or intertexual references?
Janet Lin — Taipei, Taiwan
Thanks, Janet. I like poems that contain links, as it were, to other poems or texts that bear upon the matter at hand, that open things up or illuminate in ways that might not otherwise happen. Sometimes I’ve done this within the body of the poem itself, though allusion or quotation, and sometimes through an epigraph, or in SCHOOL OF THE ARTS there are notes in the back of the book that offer relevant quotes which seem to me to enlarge the poem.
It’s been a while, but I feel fairly certain that the St. Augustine quote came from a book called A HISTORY OF COLOR by Mario Brusati, which would mean that the original quotation was translated into Italian and then again into English, since I read the book in an English translation published by Shambala. It was an important book to me when I was working on ATLANTIS, since those poems are much concerned with the complexities of color and the nuances of the visual world, out of a kind of (doomed?) faith that consummate attention to detail, naming things, might save something.
I very much like the idea of poems published with hot links in them, so that readers could wander off and look at a work of art that’s being referenced, or see the source of a quotation; I think that would be an enjoyable way to tead.
But maybe readers are already thinking this way, treating the page as if this were the case. A colleague of mine notes that her undergrads now have no problem at all with the form of The Cantos, whereas a while back Pound used to drive them crazy. Has the web made us catch up with Modernism?
Hi Mark! We’ve talked before about the importance of assembling a book of poems, and especially your new and selected, Fire to Fire. I loved how you spoke of the book itself as a poem: a work of art made from smaller works of art. Can you say more about that process?? xo —d
Dorianne Laux — NC
Dorianne! Thanks for your good question. I know that readers rarely read books of poems in the order we place them—I myself like to skip around in a book, checking things out, before I settle down to read the thing cover to cover. This is especially true in something as extended as a new and selected volume, which in a way is sort of a reference book, a compilation one might consult but which few people will sit down and read straight through.
Even recognizing this, I obsess about order like a madman. It’s one more tool we have for making meaning, and there all sorts of implications that ordering creates. One poem might amplify or complicate another. Information disclosed or questions asked at some point might resonate throughout a book. Repeated touchstones take on increasing meaning as one encounters them again and again. I’ve observed an intriguing process with my grad students assembling theses. The project usually starts out as a big pile of poems, relatively shapeless, the center not quite clear. And as one works through the stack, looking back at what’s already been written, recurrent themes and formal strategies begin to come into focus. Often that’s when one learns what one has been writing about, the subject beneath the subject. The magical thing about that process is that this awareness begins to fuel new poems, often with a kind of sureness or authority that can be new for the writer. And so a heap of poems begin to coalesce into something more dynamic and alive, something with internal energies and stresses—a book, in other words.
As one keeps on working, and self-awareness increases, it’s likely that the direction of a book might emerge a bit earlier in the process of writing a new book. I feel like I’m always listening for what poems are trying to do, how they talk to each other. While I’m conscious of the single poem on the page in front of me, I’m also thinking about it’s relation to the whole. And that relation has become increasingly important to me over time. There are a number of poems in FIRE TO FIRE called “Theory of Beauty,” for instance. I want them to complicate each other, and to suggest that you don’t get finished explaining something that has such a force and allure in your life. Instead, it’s as if the subject opens and opens.
Hello Mark, I have about 25 poems I have gotten published on Divinecaroline.com. What is the best way for me to get my poems published for the public and actually but them all in one book to get paid for them? Writing is my passion and I am currently working a play, a few screenplays and a few books. I also want to write children’s books. I want to get my poems published but don’t really have the funding as of yet. Any suggestions? If you would like to read my poems, please go to divinecaroline.com and do a search on Tra Merryman. Thank you for your time. My goal…to be one of the Poet’s on sites like this answering questions of my own!
Tra Merryman — Houston, TX, USA
The first thing Tra, is to just forget about getting paid for them. You make a few dollars here and there when you publish a poem in a magazine, or if you’re lucky some money from awards or from giving readings, but the reality is that poets do the work for love, and can’t really expect remuneration beyond the satisfaction of making something that pleases you and maybe getting to share that with some readers. You could self-publish your poems tomorrow, or put them up on the web, but if you want people to know about them, getting them into literary journals is your best bet. This takes patience and time, but it’s the best way to start to join yourself to the community of people who care about poetry. I’d also suggest looking for ways to contribute to that community. Maybe you could volunteer to work with a literary journal in your area, or help run a reading series or start a writers’ group. I find that people who give to the literary world find rewards coming back to them; it brings you friends, gives you a better understanding of how the poetry world works, and lets you feel you’re putting your shoulder to the wheel and helping American culture, even if it’s in a small way. We can’t have too much of that!
Your collection Atlantis consists largely of long poems—some in parts, some not. What, for you, determines how expansive or compressed a poem should be? What helps you lengthen and broaden a moment that another poet might present only briefly?
Jane — Carroll, Iowa
Most poems begin, for me, with something “given”—that is, an image, a bit of sensory perception, perhaps a phrase presents itself with a sense of importance, with a kind of fascination or psychic charge attached to it. And then it’s my work to take that and lean into it, as it were, pressing further, to see what the given might yield. I don’t usually understand those fascinations until the poem’s been written; the writing process is an act of uncovering what depths of meaning the given might yield, if one is willing to pay attention, to keep refusing an easy answer and say instead, “What else?”
Sometimes it’s true that a poem unfolds quickly, as if it’s already been written or thought-through on a less conscious level, and then can just come tumbling out. But more of the time the gestures I make toward unpacking an image are tentative, and I need to keep coming back, trying again, questioning, in order to get at the core of the thing, and thus to make a poem that has more dimensionality, that can hold more of experience. I think one develops an intuition for when a poem is incomplete, when too much has eluded you. Perhaps it’s a sense that the impulse that has driven you to write has not been completely examined, that there are still rooms in the house you haven’t entered. I used to dream sometimes that there was a room in my house I hadn’t discovered yet, and when I stumbled on the door I’d be startled by how large that hidden space was. Not a bad metaphor for what happens when a poem suddenly opens out for you, and you see another possible direction, a way in deeper.
But I will admit, too, that sometimes I try expanding a poem, perhaps by moving in time, or allowing myself to meditate in a way that seems off the subject—and then wind up discovering that what I’ve added hasn’t helped a bit, and I’d be better off chopping the poem back. But if you haven’t gone exploring in a poem, how can you know what parts of the thing you haven’t discovered yet?
Who are your biggest poetic influences?
David — New York, NY USA
James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, C. P. Cavafy, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, and probably whatever poet has generated a fascination for me at the moment. I think influence is ongoing, and that it’s a good thing to let poetic voices and possibilities sort of wash through you as you read. The poet’s always looking at poems by others and asking, How can I use this? Which in the long run is probably more healthy than not.
1) How did you get into writing? 2) Who inspires you? 3) If you weren’t writing poetry, what would you be doing instead for a day job? 4) Which poets have you read recently that you would recommend? 5) Do you watch “Law & Order”? 6) What advice would you have to young people still trying to come to terms with their sexual identity?
Gah-Kai Leung — London, United Kingdom
1) How did you get into writing?
Started in high school. Like many young people, I had a large and dramatic inner life which I couldn’t really show anybody–I could barely see it myself–and which could only be contained if I made some vessel for it. A notebook, a book of collages or drawings, a place to keep what I thought or dreamed. And then I started reading poems–Blake and Garcia-Lorca, Cummings and Tolkien at first–and then bringing their formal influence into the rough little baby poems I was making. I was lucky enough to get some encouragement early on, and then I just never stopped.
2) Who inspires you?
People who persist in making over a lifetime, people who resist the messages we get from the world that our work doesn’t matter, people who work with devotion.
3) If you weren’t writing poetry, what would you be doing instead for a day job?
I’d either be a psychotherapist or a vet.
4) Which poets have you read recently that you would recommend?
Recent books by Melisssa Stein, James L. Hall, Jericho Brown, and Carol Muske-Dukes.
5) Do you watch “Law & Order”?
No. Well, probably once or twice, because a guy I knew from my gym appeared on it as a thug, and I wanted to catch his performance.
6) What advice would you have to young people still trying to come to terms with their sexual identity?
Breathe, take your time, don’t rush, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you who you’re supposed to be. The richest and deepest life comes when you don’t hide anything, but it’s hard for most young people to be entirely open. If you can, that’s wonderful. If you can’t yet, you will. Whatever your circumstances may be, at home or in school, these things will change, and you’ll be more in charge of the shape of your life. It does indeed get better, as the slogan suggests. Not easy or simple, but better.
The postmodern impulse toward language-driven, self-referential, and self-consciously theoretical poetry has alienated Americans outside a limited audience. Many contemporary American poets seem resigned to the regrettable circumstance that few Americans seem to read poetry these days. I have heard poets say that, alas, only other poets or academics or elites will ever read their poems. Do you agree or disagree with this premise? Should contemporary American poets be content with a limited audience?
Murray — Vicksburg, MS
Well, that sense of disconnection from audience has been going on since the advent of Modernism, when the overturning of conventional forms and thus the rejection of a bourgeois audience was a sign of the ‘newness’ of what the artist made. If it wasn’t discomfiting, or unfamiliar, or if it spoke to a large audience, then it probably wasn’t art. This dynamic has continued, in various forms, so I’d suggest that “Americans outside a limited audience.” As you note, were already alienated from contemporary poetry before post-structuralism came along.
Over the course of my time as a working poet, however, I’ve seen a steady increase in the number of reading series, publishing venues, literary festivals, and so on—there are indeed a lot of people who are hungry for this art. And part of what fuels that is the desire for something not mass-produced but reflective of individual sensibility, something out on the margins. I am reluctant, myself, to bash hermetic poetry; it seems more useful to approach poems with curiosity and with as few preconceptions as possible as to how a poem will behave. This doesn’t mean one will like everything, obviously, but it does make it possible to entertain poems one doesn’t immediately know how to read. I fear if we were to say that poems need to reach out to a broad audience and thus be “accessible,” we run the risk of ruling out a brilliant but idiosyncratic poet like Jean Valentine, or Susan Howe’s invigorating investigations of the library stacks. The house of poetry has many mansions, no?
I’ve seen you read several times over the years and I am always impressed by how poised and comfortable you are in front of your audience. Do you think being a good reader is something that has come naturally to you or is it a skill that you’ve developed?
Betsy — Washington, DC
Thank you. I’m suddenly remembering seeing Agnes Morehead on some show or other when I was a kid reciting a passage about what it takes to be an actress—skin of a lion, armor of steel, apparently entirely unruffled, etc.. That may have been an early influence!
But seriously, I used to get quite nervous when I was first giving readings, as everyone does, but over time I came to relax more and thus began to enjoy the experience of interchange with an audience. I probably felt I had to be somber, at first, in order to demonstrate that I was serious. But over the course of time this internal injunction fell away and I began to enjoy exercising my inherent theatricality, and letting some sense of humor into the proceedings as well. I think when you’re asking people to listen to the documents of your own subjectivity, or the manifestations of your inner life, the least you can do is be an interesting performer.
So, advice: practice. Thank your hosts, thank the audience. It helps to have something to say between poems, just to give the audience a chance to hear your ordinary voice, and perhaps to provide a bit of context. Not too much or you can give the poem away, but a little breathing space. If you have nothing to say, count to eight in your head before the next poem.
“It costs less, no doubt, to keep a lion than a poet—the poet’s belly is more capacious.” So says Juvenal. The costs of poetry—of writing poetry, if not the keeping of poets—are pretty high especially nowadays if we look at the solitary time and energy that go into writing poetry and the lack of social and capital reward or recognition. Competition has also risen—more and more people have taken to versifying to the point where there seems to be more writers than readers of poetry. On the other hand, there are more and more digital venues for the publication of poetry. So there is arguably a kind of democratization of poetry going on in terms of the numbers of people writing and publishing it, lessening the roar of the hungry beast. At the same time, there is a widespread sense among readers that much modern verse is unintelligible, hopelessly and willfully obscure (as if the dominant style requires one to cultivate elitism even as the poets are more and more drawn from the middling classes). Do you agree that these are the general trends today? What’s the future of poetry as you see it? Will the best tend to rise to the top or get lost in the shuffle?
Anthony DiMatteo — Patchogue, NY 11772
Thanks for the thoughtful question/statement, Anthony. This feels related to Murray’s question above, and it probably reflects an anxiety we pretty much all seem to feel about devoting ourselves to the practice of a mandarin art, one that’s nearly always obsessive. Who but you cares how many times you readjusted that line break? When I was teaching in Houston, Bly and Barks came one evening and did a program of Rumi. There were seven hundred happy people in the audience, and the next day the grad students in my workshop were just beside themselves with this anxiety. Why couldn’t they have an audience like that? Did the work have to get dumbed down or offer some kind of spiritual consolation in order to reach an audience, and was that necessarily a bad thing? I suspect that my students’ worry was exacerbated by the fact that they already had MFAs in poetry, for god’s sake, and now were getting PhDs.
I think this is basically kind of a good anxiety. It means you’re conscious of a moral position you occupy as a writer, and that you’re not occupying a solipsistic universe but paying attention to what you do in relation to the world at large, something an artist requires. Emily Dickinson’s poems can feel quite hermetic, but they’re deeply attentive to the Civil War, to the weather, to literary fashion; she had her eyes open. Lately when I am confronted by this concern in myself or in others, I’ve been remembering this strange and brilliant statement from Joy Williams: “The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.”
I don’t think I can add much to that, except that it suggests a reason for that endlessly obsessing over the line break or the right verb: that we want to make something that tries—even if it’s vainly—to be commensurate to the world as we know it, rightfully responsive to the life we’re given.