Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s chat with Mark Doty.
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write poetry?
I always read and heard at least some poetry in school, but I was in high school when I discovered what power poetry had, and how important I could feel. I was a lonely kid, unsure of myself, uncomfortable in my own skin, convinced that nobody felt as odd as I did. Now I can see that means I felt like a whole lot of other young people do, but I didn’t know that then. When I found the poems of William Blake, E.E. Cummings and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the prose poems of Kenneth Patchen and Richard Brautigan, I felt I’d stumbled upon a secret place, a private realm where there were voices that spoke directly into my ears. They carried a magic that wasn’t readily available in my daily life; the magic in them spoke to some magic I knew was inside me. They spoke of longing and solitude, sorrow and hope, and the strange unexplainable wonder of being alive. And they made me want to speak back to them.
What is something you have recently discovered about poetry?
That you never really feel you know how to write it! Every poem is a new puzzle, and a big part of being a poet is learning to take pleasure in working it out, learning to tolerate frustration. Every once in a while a good line or a strong phrase just seems to pop out, but the truth is that most poems are written badly before they’re written well. You have to be willing to mess up, say something in a clichéd way, be sentimental or sound dumb. Then you take what you’ve written and go to work on it. Then stand back, take a break, and go back and work some more.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Once Adrienne Rich, a great American poet who wrote powerful poems examining women’s lives and the relationships between gender and power, came to visit a class I was teaching. My students had read lots of her work and were in awe of her. One said, “You’ve written so much about difficult subjects. Aren’t you afraid of anything?” Adrienne sat back, smiled a little and said, “I am afraid of everything.” I like to remember that moment because it showed just how much courage Rich had found, and also demonstrated how much courage it takes for anyone, even a highly acclaimed writer, to reveal herself and say things on the page that might feel uncomfortable. I often write poems that I’m afraid to share. In fact, if the poem you’re writing starts to make you uncomfortable, that’s probably a good sign. It means you’re pushing your writing into territory, and approaching material that genuinely matters to you.
Here’s what helps me. Later on, when I publish one of those poems or read it to an audience, there’s almost always someone who thanks me. “You gave words to what I’ve felt too,” they’ll say, or “That poem helped me feel less alone.” The truth is we are never the only one who’s experienced something, no matter what it is. Shame or guilt or self-hatred or rage or grief – those things are part of our common humanity, and when you find the courage and craft to express them, you’re doing something not just for yourself but for your readers, too.
Mark Doty is the author of several collections of poetry, including Deep Lane (2015); A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures (2013); Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008), which received the National Book Award; School of the Arts (2005); Source (2002); and Sweet Machine (1998).
His poetry collection Atlantis (1995) received the Ambassador Book Award, the Bingham Poetry Prize, and a Lambda Literary Award. My Alexandria (1993) won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Poetry Series contest, the National Book Critics Circle Award and Britain’s T. S. Eliot Prize.
He has published several memoirs: Heaven’s Coast (1996), which received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, Firebird (1999) and Dog Years (2007), and the book-length essay Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (2001). He edited The Best American Poetry 2012.
Doty has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Whiting Foundation. He received a Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Award and the Witter Byner Prize. Doty was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2011.
He has taught at the University of Houston and is currently serving as a Distinguished Writer at Rutgers University. He currently lives in New York City.
Stay updated on the 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival as information becomes available!