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Sleet Interview with Mark Doty

by Jeanne Schnitzen

Mark Doty is one the most accomplished poets in America, winner of numerous prestigious awards, including the Whiting Writer’s Award, the National Poetry Series, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction, the National Book Award, and was the first American to win the UK's coveted T. S. Eliot Prize.  He has published over a dozen books of poetry and prose, and his poetry has appeared in countless magazines and journals, including Ploughshares and The New Yorker.  He lives in New York with his partner, Alexander Hadelin.

Many months ago I saw for the first time on my Facebook newsfeed, an entry written by Mark Doty. It described a street scene from my birthplace, Queens, NY. And because I often do things without thinking them through, I sent a message to Mr. Doty telling him I loved his few NY paragraphs. He answered within seconds; I fell off my rolling chair. That small interlude led to the gracious Mr. Doty granting little old Sleet an interview. And the story gets even more charming. A very dear friend who lives up the street knew Mark Doty a couple of decades ago, when he was her college advisor at Goddard. I talked her into conducting this interview, even though she had not spoken to him since those college days. And then recently, I traveled to San Francisco for a weekend to visit family. I also went to the museum at the Legion of Honor. While there, I stumbled backwards into a darkened side gallery that housed, to my complete surprise, an exhibit of Mark Doty’s new book of illustrated poems, A Swarm, A Flock, A Host, A Compendium Of Creatures. Sleet is so proud to present to you our interview with Mark Doty. [ed’s note].


SLEET: First, congratulations on the new project!  Susan [Sleet ed] actually saw the exhibit when she was in San Fran, and brought a couple books back.  I heard an interview the two of you did also.  She loved it, of course, all the more so since she does a lot of chapbook collaborations where she’ll paint someone’s poems.  One thing I wondered about was the use of italics for (what seems to be) random words or parts of words.  What’s the story behind that?


MARK DOTY: This is an exuberant, inventive project. Darren Waterston and I produced a portfolio of fine prints for the San Francisco Museum of Art, twelve large visual images and twelve equal-sized pages of text with smaller images interspersed. That version of our bestiary comes in a beautiful linen box, in a very limited edition, and costs $6,000. But Prestel, a publisher of art books, has produced a trade edition which is very different. The book designer played very freely with the visuals, as well as with typography. Italics are actually used in the traditional way, to indicate a quotation, but there are lovely little variations in the type, bits of antique font or little frills. In an earlier version, random words appeared in a bright aqua, which I really liked, but the editor found it a little too arbitrary. So now every time a new animal is introduced, its name appears in that bright color.   

The purpose of all this is to wake up the book, to make an object that is visually arresting, intriguing, and unpredictable. I am very proud of it; I think it's one of the most beautiful books around, a joy to look at and to hold.

SLEET: You’ve done a lot of writing inspired by various paintings.  Do you paint or draw yourself?  How did you learn to relate so well to art?


DOTY: My mother was a gifted amateur painter, and I used to go with her to the art school where she studied and hang out, intoxicated with paint and oil pastels and the names of colors. I studied drawing in college, but I've never made visual art seriously, either because I couldn't stand it if I didn't do it really well or because I know I'd just disappear into it and never write again. And I feel, rightly or not that writing is my given work in the world, the thing I'm supposed to be doing.


SLEET: How have you seen your work evolving through the years, from the days of the pony-tailed Drake student on?  When did you realize what a gift you had, and that writing would be your life’s work?


DOTY: I always loved assembling words, feeling the tones and rhythms they created together.  Like most young poets, I began doing apprentice work, trying to write the kind of poem that was stylish at the time, strengthening my craft. I always felt writing was the thing I wouldn't walk away from; I could stop doing other stuff, acting or teaching school kids, but I felt very early on that if I stopped writing I would be someone else.


SLEET: How does your muse work?  Do you tend to start with an idea in mind, or just let yourself wander on paper until something evolves?


DOTY: I have never been able to connect with the idea of a muse. For me, a poem begins with a fascination; I find that something I see or hear resonates with me, that an image tugs at my sleeve, as it were, and asks to be examined. That's usually where I begin, and it's been anything from listening to a poet recite on the subway to seeing a poster advertising a lost cockatiel. From that point of origin, I have to wander, to see where the image will take me, and find out — if I'm lucky — what it is that's been waiting to be said.


SLEET: Who, or what, do you turn to when you get stuck?


DOTY: "Stuck" for me either means I'm too busy and overscheduled to be in a receptive state of mind, so I just have to slow down, breathe, and come back to the present moment — or that I have attached myself to firmly to a particular outcome, thinking that a poem or essay has to go this way or that, or lead in a particular direction. Relaxing, turning away from concentration, allowing myself to drift… those can be means of returning to fluidity.


SLEET: Are you still teaching?  I know you’ve taught all over the country; what kind of differences do you see in different areas?  Weren’t you in Texas at one point?  I imagine that must be really different than teaching in the East.  Do you find that you assign different writers or types of work, depending on where you are? 


DOTY: I think I will be teaching until I am carried to my grave, I guess. "Retirement" seems like rather a foreign concept, and it's energizing to remain in contact with younger writers, with those seeking to give some form to what it's like to be themselves in this moment. I don't really think about regional differences among students so much. In Texas, I taught sophisticated graduate students who'd already decided to enter the professional world of the writer and scholar; because it was a PhD program, nearly all my students there intended to teach. Now I teach primarily undergrads in New Jersey, almost all of them from that state. They represent a wonderful range, from kids who just walked in the door wondering why you'd want to read a poem to those aflame with a passion for poetry and a need to define themselves through their art.


SLEET: Who are some of the artists you like to assign, and why?


DOTY: I want to try to match readers to writers, so it's not so much a matter of saying "everyone should read this," but rather that "you should read this" because of some particular aspect of the work, in terms of form or content, that feels connected to your writing. One of the best ways we learn is by finding writers who excite us, to whom we feel a sense of connection. The reason doesn't matter so much; the connection is all.


SLEET: Do you ever get students who are afraid to write poetry?  How do you help them move past that?


DOTY: I am often afraid to write! Not poetry, but particular poems. For many reasons — that I will fall flat on my face, or embarrass myself, or that there's some content that makes me want to go do almost anything else but write, something I don't want to look at head on. Both these fears are uncomfortable but they seem to be necessities, at some point in the writing process. Both have to do with taking risks, and without those there's no movement forward.  

My creative writing students are advanced ones, so they aren't afraid of writing poems per se. But they too find themselves skirting or pushing into difficulty, and it takes support (both from teachers and peers) and challenge (usually in the form of reading great poems) to urge them along.


SLEET: Who do you like to read for fun, any guilty pleasures there?  

DOTY: I actually am not much of a trash reader. I like novels a lot, though I don't have the time to give to them I once did. Right now I am reading a wonderful Columbian novel by Juan Garcia Vasquez called The Sound Of Things Falling. It's amazing. I like reading good graphic novels like Alison Bechdel's work. The most unlikely thing I've read for a while was a fantasy novel I loved called Tender Morsels, a sexy and sad and wild concoction by an Australian writer, Margot Lanahan. It reminded why I read so many fantasy novels as an adolescent — it just lifted me right out of myself, and talked about essential things in a way that SEEMS removed from the daily world. And of course is really just an inch away from it.


Please see our poetry section for one of Doty’s unpublished poems, “Robinson Jeffers.” It is from his forthcoming book, Deep Lane, which will be published in 2014 by W.W. Norton.


Jeanne Schnitzen first heard Mark Doty read his poetry when he was a student at Drake, and later studied with him when he taught at Goddard College.