THE POET AND THE POEM:
An Interview with Mark Doty
by Grace Cavalieri
The Poet and the Poem
Mark Doty is one of America’s most beloved poets. He’s written 12 books of poetry, 3 memoirs, among other writings. He holds the National Book Critics Award, the LA Times Award, Britain’s T S Eliot Prize, The Lambda Literary Award, Bingham Poetry Prize, Whiting Writers Prize, NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. He was finalist for the National Book Award plus other honors. Mark’s recent book is FIRE TO FIRE:
New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 2008.)
More than any other poet, you shine light on the things of this world vividly, brilliantly. How do use material objects - furniture, houses, oysters, lemons – serve you, to convey what you want to say?
Thank you, I'm honored. I've tried to write about this phenomena, how material things serve as the vessels for feeling and thinking, how we invest them with ourselves, in my book on Dutch still life painting, STLL LIFE WITH OYSTERS AND LEMON. And I'm working on a little book now for Graywolf Press called THE ART OF DESCRIPTION, which also tries to answer this question. The short answer is that the world of sensory perception is a vocabulary for us; it's the lexicon we have to use if we want to convey embodied experience and not just ideas.
GC: A forthcoming book from the Univ. of Iowa Press features your essay on “Memoir.” How do you see a writer’s personal memoir as being able to take readers back to their own experiences?
MD: That's what the reader is always doing, finding his or her life mirrored in the text. The more a memoir evokes the world of sense perception, the more it tries to come close to how it feels to be alive, the more readers will see themselves there. When you write a memoir, as with a poem, you usually begin in self-expression, but by the time you've come to the end, it's something more of a gift for the reader than it is a vessel for the writer's feeling.
GC: We all know your dogs’ aches, pains, trials and tribulations as well as our own. Why don’t your cats get much PR? (This question was provided by my cat)
MD: Ha! I've had many cats in my life, beginning in childhood, and then as an adult there were two who were with me for years, Portia and Thisbe. They are the cats who remain nameless in DOG YEARS. I think cats like to lurk in the background, or hang out on top of the furniture watching the action, so that's where they are in my memoir. Seriously, I think cats may be less narrative by nature.
GC: Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and brought it to earth but paid a price. What does this myth mean to you as a poet?
MD: Any making has its price, doesn't it? It strikes me as odd, though, that it's the gods who punish Prometheus, when it fact we know he's going to burn himself with the fire. Possessing fire is a gift, but it's a great danger, too. Human artistry, human inventiveness, is always two-sided; the knife that we use to carve an altarpiece can also be used to maim an enemy. Creation nearly always carries the potential for destructive use. Fortunately poems are not particularly destructive objects, not in the usual sense, though they may contain ferocity and fire, and might go off in a life like an explosive.
GC: You have won a cachet of top literary prizes. How long to do you feel good after the news and what does it mean to you to receive an award?
MD: Your question implies that you already know the answer -- not long! It's wonderful to be recognized, and to have one's work singled out so that more readers will find it. But it isn't in itself sustaining, just as publication isn' t either. Those are fleeting pleasures -- though I understand that it's hard to say this to someone who would like to win an award or publish a book -- and the real sustenance seems to come from doing your work, being involved in making something new.
GC: Not since W. C. Williams Pictures from Brueghel has a poet been so renowned for featuring paintings in poetry and prose. How many ways do you look at a painting?
MD: These questions make a guy feel good, thanks. I love looking at paintings, surely in part because I am a person who dwells so much in language, working both as a writer and a teacher. The immediacy of painting is thrilling to me, the sudden complete experience of a color, or the way a canvas opens up to you as keep looking. I guess I would want to think about seeing in the same way I'd think about the composing process -- to keep returning to the image, asking questions, walking around it, letting the eye (and mind) wander, allowing oneself to be educated by perception.
GC: What was the last film you say and tell us your thoughts about it?
MD: Robert Altman's lyrical 70s western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which I hadn't seen since it first came out. I've been watching a lot of his movies again lately, some of them for the first time. He was a masterful director and there's an amazing way his early work channels the spirit of his day; McCabe is like the visual equivalent of one of those Dylan songs in which larger-than-life characters out of American myth enact their pursuits of love and satisfaction. It's also a movie that cares about landscape and local incident more than it does about plot in the usual sense, and I really like that immersion in the particular.
GC: When you wrote Murano, how did it make its way to become a book length piece?
MD: The first drafts of the poem were written in Venice. I'd been at an artists' colony in northern Italy for a month and I decided to end that trip by spending a week in Venice, very early in the spring. I'd never been there before and I was overwhelmed by the sensory world of it, and I soon realized that the person I most wanted to tell about what I was seeing was my friend Lynda Hull, who had died in a car accident the year before. I began writing these notes to her, and the poem metamorphosed from a celebration of Venice to a meditation on the allure of artifice, the dangerous appeal of the toxic, and the dual nature of making. (See question 4!) After the poem was finished, a curator from the Getty Museum contacted me because she saw in my work an interest in surfaces, and in what are called the "decorative arts" -- stuff like glass-making or ceramics or fabrics , and a term that has a certain dismissive character to it. Her feeling was that my work entered into thinking about such surfaces in a different way, and that's how we began to make a couple of little books together . Books that are in themselves very handsome objects I think! The Getty press does beautiful work.
GC: In light of your love for the visual arts, what do you see on the scene now that you want to write about?
MD: Well, I have written a bit about Lucien Freud, an heroic painter, and about Sam Taylor-Wood. I like Bill Viola's video work a great deal, and Jenny Holzer's words made of light. I never know when I will want to write about visual art, though, because sometimes I have a very complete experience with it, and have nothing to say, as if it just doesn't require talking about. And other times, works of art lend themselves to what I'm thinking/worrying/wondering about already, and then they find their way into the poems and prose.
GC: In teaching poetry, what is one thing you realized that had not occurred to you before?
MD: This semester I am a guest at Cornell, where I've been teaching a workshop for advanced undergrads. We read a group of poetic sequences -- ranging from Hart Crane to Terrance Hayes -- and then work shopped a poem by each person with an eye toward how it could be expanded into a sequence. Then they went off and worked on it, and came back with a long poem, or a poem in parts, or several related poems. It's been amazing; it turns out that what developing poets really need to do is practice extending their thinking, complicating their ideas, reaching further into feeling. And that's what writing a sequence asks you to do. So I feel I've stumbled on something useful, and now my students are all trying their hands at writing long poems. It doesn't matter if they keep writing in longer forms or not; the important part the practice at complicating the picture.