The Cortland Review


Mark Doty
Mark Wunderlich interviews Mark Doty

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 5: It Takes All Kinds

R.T. Smith
A Day in the Life of poet and editor R.T. Smith.

Mark Doty


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Interview with Mark Doty

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You mention the esthetic education; how would you describe the link between sexuality and esthetics? Do you believe there is such a thing as a tangible gay esthetic—one that goes beyond camp?

My book traces the development of an esthetic sense, and connects that development to a sense of being an outsider; if I couldn't belong to the world of people, the many new towns and schools in which I'd find myself as the son of an Army engineer, I could find my place in the world of made things. I could join my smaller, uncertain life to the ongoing, confident life of music, or painting, or books. I suspect that some kind of a sense of self-as-other—because of sexuality, or sensitivity, or any form of exile—is a prerequisite to the artistic life.

As for a gay esthetic—well, it's a complicated question, isn't it? My years in Provincetown—which fills up every summer with gays and lesbians from all over the world—have taught me that gay people come in as many sorts of varieties as everyone else, and therefore it's impossible to essentialize them; I wouldn't want to claim that gay people are by nature this or that, or like this or that.

But there is, on the other hand, a kind of esthetic sense which has been historically identified with us, and for good reasons. It is a sense of disjunction between surface and substance, and it has to do with our understanding of style as a way of presenting ourselves—both as a way of communicating who we are and concealing our identities when we choose to do so. It is a single characteristic of gay experience, because our parents look at us, as children, and they don't necessarily SEE that we are, on the inside, quite different. Children know this; we can have a queer interior which the outside world may not see, and so we begin to think about this difference between the world of being and the world of seeming. I think this split is often the beginning of a way of seeing the world.

J.D. McClatchy quotes a funny statement of Ravel’s in his book of essays, Twenty Questions. "Does it not occur to these people," the composer said, "that I may be artificial by nature?" His remark points to the way that style—in music or poetry or anything else— is far more than mere decor. Gay life teaches us to read the stylistic signals of others, the codes of dress and conduct, which, far from being just fashion, mean intensely. We understand that style’s the visible aspect of identity, something which we choose, over which we have power. I believe we understand that who we are is, to a large degree, a function of how we are, that our self-presentation is deeply allied to our sense of identity. That costume is, as John Ashbery said somewhere, "a kind of visible core."

Literary style is a sort of costuming; and writing marked by a gay sensibility is always concerned with allowing us to read beneath the often gorgeous elements of surface to the bare, desiring body beneath. Merrill is the perfect example; his grace and allusiveness and formal elegance is far more than a kind of elaborate theatrical get-up. Instead, it’s the elaborate robe which both conceals and reveals the body, as all good outfits do.

And that is camp, of course, in a way—that it goes beyond the merely ironic when it becomes a central way of making meaning.

You are a very sought-after teacher. How does teaching affect your work as a writer? Are there other kinds of work you want to do?

The effect of teaching on my work is, by and large, salutary. For one thing, it allows me to be part of a conversation about poetry and poetics which continues to stimulate and engage me; I teach very accomplished graduate students and their questions and struggles are ones I often share. I'm always finding that the work of poets I'm bringing into class for students to read, the kinds of issues I am addressing in student work—those are the things I'm wrestling with myself. The work also allows me to have friendships with people I probably wouldn't meet otherwise; as you get older, you don't meet much people younger than yourself unless you have some sort of structure which enables that. Just as grad school provides a community for student writers, so it does for me.

...all artists are mentored in some way—we need to be shown that a passion might become that which a life is built around. . .

The hesitation in "by and large" is, of course, that the demands of teaching are serious, and they often mean that the work I'd be doing myself gets put on hold for a while. But it gets done! And I have a very good arrangement now, teaching every other semester, and that time is a huge gift.

A good question, about the other work I'd like to do . I think I have folded a number of ambitions into my poetry: the desire to paint has expressed itself in visual imagery and a vocabulary of color, the desire to sing or make music emerges as an interest in sonic texture, and the desire to be a cabaret performer makes itself felt in a certain theatricality, as well as in giving poetry readings!

Of these, only the desire to paint still nags at me; I hope that I will be able to realize that at some point in my life. And I might like to write a novel, though I am completely intimidated by the form. I do not ever want another job besides teaching writing, really! At least not at this point. I've been teaching steadily for about fifteen years—perhaps in a while I will feel differently.

You mentioned earlier the relationship of esthetics to sexuality; that being an outsider also led you, in part, toward art-making. What other forces contributed to your becoming a poet? When did you first see that it was possible to live a life as an artist? Were you mentored in some way?

I'll send the reader in the direction of my Firebird, first; that book's an extended meditation on this subject, in a way—a consideration of how the artistic life comes into being, and the ways in which it first began to serve, for me, as a source of rescue and sustenance. But as the book's not coming out till next fall, here's a bit of an answer!

From the time I could read, I was always writing something: stories, plays, soap opera scripts, little novels, who knows what. I think I always saw language as something that came rather effortlessly, and offered great elasticity, room to play. I didn't come to poetry until I was a teenager. I'd love Tolkien, and found myself compelled by the little songs his characters sing. I was keeping a notebook, not a diary of what happened but a sort of commonplace book of quotations and bits and pieces of imagery, scraps of language which seemed to contain some of the shine and tumult of the inner life. I stumbled across some poets in a bookstore, an alternative place on Fourth Avenue in Tucson, which was the counter-cultural hotspot of about 1967 or so. The bookstore was called The Hungry Eye, and in reality didn't have all that many books, but it seemed like an outpost of another world. I read Garcia Lorca there, and Charles Simic, and the way their imagistic, evocative language seemed drenched in interiority pulled me right in.

Then I met a poet, Richard Shelton. He was teaching at the University of Arizona, and we were introduced through a drama teacher of mine. Dick was phenomenally generous; he used to have conferences with me, at the Poetry Center, when I was just fifteen or sixteen. I wasn't writing well, of course, but there must have been a certain precocious surreality about my fledgling poems which interested him. He used to read my poems, make some comments, and point me in the direction of things to read I'd never have found on my own. Most importantly, he showed me that one could have a life as a poet, that literature, or any art, might be the very center of one's experience. That wasn't the easiest thing to see, in suburban Tucson in the sixties, and it was thrilling to me. One day I went to Dick's house in the desert to help clean out his garage, and his wife Lois was at the piano when I walked in, playing Kurt Weill, and singing "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera in German. I felt a window had opened onto another world.

I suspect that all artists are mentored in some way, some way like this—we need to be shown that a passion might become that which a life is built around.

I met Charlie Simic right around then, too; he came to my high school creative writing class! My teacher asked me to read Mr. Simic one of my poems, and when I was done he looked at me rather owlishly and appraisingly and said, "Read me another one." Which was the best thing he could ever have said!

I'm so happy to hear about the generosity of those senior poets toward a young aspiring writer!

Have you ever turned against something you've written and published? I'm thinking of the dramatic story of Louise Glück buying copies of her first book from bookstores so she could destroy them...

Oh, of course! Like most young poets I was eager to put my work out into the world and be heard, and since I was raised as a neo-surrealist (and in an odd workshop atmosphere wherein we talked about imagery and form, the how of the poem, never the when) I think I was an irresponsible young writer. I didn't take what I said seriously; these were just poems. So I published work during the seventies, in literary magazines and in three now happily-out-of-print chapbooks, to which I have no allegiance. I have since claimed Turtle, Swan as my first book, though I know those old poems are still out there somewhere, and they will be back to haunt me. I recently saw that a rare book dealer on the internet was selling a copy of one of them for $650., which means that I will not be following Louise's example.

My disaffection for those earlier poems also has to do with having been in the closet—to myself to a degree, and certainly to others, though I'm sure many people could see what I couldn't own—when I wrote them. Therefore they seem to come from someone else's life, since their foundation is false.

I am curious to hear why you think poetry survives as an art form today. It seems to me that the most perfect art form would probably be film making: You get to use visual images, sound, music, the spoken voice, actors, etc. Why when we have so many choices of kinds of art-making, do people still keep returning to poetry?

Poetry certainly doesn't have the "totalizing" quality that film does, a medium which just surrounds one and hostages the viewer's attention. It lacks painting's immediacy, or photography's odd marriage of the esthetic and the palpable sense of the "real." One would think that our late-century engagement with arts which combine media, which seek a sort of seamless experience for the viewer, would supplant poetry. But far from it. My sense is that, while still a minority preference, poetry is thriving. Audiences for readings increase, a great deal of poetry is published, and it seems that among young people especially there is genuine interest in and respect for the art.

Who knows why? My guess is that somehow poetry is a vessel for the expression of subjectivity unlike any other; a good poem bears the stamp of individual character in a way that seems to usher us into the unmistakably idiosyncratic perceptual style of the writer. I think we're hungry for singularity, for those aspects of self that aren't commodifiable, can't be marketed. In an age marked by homogenization, by the manipulation of desire on a global level (the Gap in Houston is just like the Gap in Kuala Lumpur, it seems), poetry may represent the resolutely specific experience. The dominant art forms of our day—film, video, architecture—are collaborative arts; they require a team of makers. Poems are always made alone, somewhere out on the edge of things, and if they succeed they are saturated with the texture of the uniquely felt life.


Interview with Mark Doty
TCR December 1998 Feature


© 2002 The Cortland Review