Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Interview with poet Mark Doty: A poet who goes from “Fire to Fire.”
When a publicist from Harper Collins in New York City emailed to see if I wanted to review Mark Doty’s new poetry collection: “Fire to Fire,” I was on it like the proverbial hornet. Doty is high on the top shelf of American poets, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Whiting Writers Award and the U.K’s T.S. Eliot Prize. His poetry has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Ploughshare, Prairie Schooner, and many other well-regarded literary journals. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, as well as the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. In his new collection Doty peppers his work with beautiful studied images, and haunting apparitions he spies in the most unlikely of places. Doty has an astute ear for music, he can smell death’s most subtle odor, and he can explain to you what you have been just dying to articulate. To be honest, few of the poetry books I get to review are dyed-in-the-wool page turners. But Doty’s is hands down. I interviewed Doty recently for The Somerville News.
Doug Holder: You were an army brat moving from one place to the other. Did that transience early on make you want to get that image on the permanent page?
Mark Doty: I really had transience drummed into me -- by my grandparents' apocalyptic Protestantism, and the hymns we used to sing on the porch, and what seems to have been a built-in obsession with mortality. And because we moved all the time, it's true that people and places were always being left behind.
DH: Ghosts are a presence in your poems. Do you feel that you are haunted? Is that a good thing for a poet?
MD: I do want my poems to hold conversation with the dead -- both my own and the great dead whose poems I love.
It's an inescapable thing for a poet, because how can you not speak back to the poets who've mattered most to you, who've taught you to see and to speak?
DH: Saul Bellow considered himself a writer who happened to be Jewish. Do you consider yourself a poet who happens to be Gay?
MD: I like to steal a line from Lucille Clifton, who says, "I do not happen to be black, I AM black." Same-sex desire lives right near the core of me. But what that has to do with being a poet is complex. It doesn't mean that my poems must always focus on
sexual life, or on the cultural conditions in which gay men live. But it does mean that my sexuality is part of my subjectivity, and inescapably shapes how I see.
DH: Your partner Wally Roberts died of AIDS. Many of your poems address this. Do you view “Illness as a metaphor?
MD: Other people made it so -- AIDS as a token of sexual shame, or punishment for transgression. HIV's a virus, and we surround it, as we do a select group of diseases, with meanings. I have yet to find any of the ways we try to make HIV disease "mean" to be helpful. But I've wanted to at least give form to my experience with Wally, and with our friends and neighbors, during the terrible crisis years of the late 80s and early 90s. That's part of what you described above as being haunted. What can you do for the dead but keep their stories, or name them?
DH: I noticed your second volume of poems was “Bethlehem in Broad Daylight” was published by David R. Godine, Inc., a fine small press here in Boston. I awarded Godine an Ibbetson Street Press Life Time Achievement Award a few years back for his contributions to poetry and the small press. How was it working with Godine? Do you think the small press plays an important role in the development of poetic talent?
MD: Godine published my first two books, and I'm forever grateful for that. The press took a chance on an unknown poet and produced beautiful volumes. I don't think poets need think about smaller presses as just places to start out. A trade house isn't necessarily the best place to wind up; books can get lost in the shuffle, and frequently do not remain in print. The loyalty and resources of a more specialized literary press often serve our art better than the big houses do -- though I have been very fortunate in this regard.
DH: Your poetry is accessible. I don’t think you need an academic bent to get something out of your work. Obviously this has not hurt you in the poetry biz. Do you think a lot of poetry being written today is deliberately obtuse?
MD: It’s a very large and capacious house, American poetry. I have no desire for everyone to work in the same way. What interests me most is the individuality and vivacity of a voice, a way of seeing and speaking the world. So there are poets I love who are very plain-spoken (like Marie Howe) and poets I love whose work makes a different set of demands on the reader (Brenda Hillman or Jean Valentine). I don't think either transparency or opacity are virtues in themselves. They're just ways of speaking. What matters is what you do with them.
DH: In the poem “Almost Blue” in your new collection “Fire to Fire” (Harper Collins) you write of the beautiful and doomed jazz musician Chet Baker. In the poem you imagine Baker’s swan song which is composed of nodding out and falling out a hotel window in Amsterdam:
“ and you leaning into that warm
haze from the window, Amsterdam,
late afternoon glimmer
a blur of buds.
Breathing in the lindens
And you let go and why not.”
Is this acceptance of things as they are, what is, is; something you try to get across in your work?
MD: Baker was a heroin addict for something like 28 years, so you could see that as a very long slow letting go. He fell from a hotel window in Amsterdam, maybe nodded out, maybe jumped. I wanted, in this poem; to try to lean into the feeling of addiction, into that state of mind that just says Oh, let me go, let it all go. What I want to admire, you know, is the Chet Baker who made all that incredible art, who kept producing that stunning music. But there's something about the toxic pull of addiction, of the poison -- you know, the deep allure of that. Acceptance? I don't know. Sometimes yes. Then sometimes I think you should resist with all your might.
At the Gym
This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,
and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they've chosen
this time: more reps,
more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we've been:
flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
gaining some power
at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who's
added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there's something more
tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.
Here is some halo
the living made together.
Mark Doty will be reading from his collection "Fire to Fire" March 19 7PM 79 Harvard Street Brookline Booksmith