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 estheticone 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-otherbecause of sexuality, or sensitivity, or any form of
exileis a prerequisite to the artistic life.
As for a gay estheticwell, it's a complicated question, isn't it? My years in
Provincetownwhich fills up every summer with gays and lesbians from all over the
worldhave 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
ourselvesboth 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 Ravels 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
stylein 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 styles 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, its the elaborate robe which both conceals and reveals the body, as all
good outfits do.
And that is camp, of course, in a waythat 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 workthose 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
waywe 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
yearsperhaps 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 waya 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
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 thiswe 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
closetto myself to a degree, and certainly to others, though I'm sure many people
could see what I couldn't ownwhen 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 dayfilm, video, architectureare 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