StAnza festival: Mark Doty talks Walt Whitman

Mark Doty next piece of non-fiction centres on Walt Whitman, with whom 'he shares common fixations'. Picture: Contributed
Mark Doty next piece of non-fiction centres on Walt Whitman, with whom 'he shares common fixations'. Picture: Contributed
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US poet Mark Doty, one of the stars of this week’s StAnza festival, tells Susan Mansfield about the risks a poem has to take to earn its place

Early next week, Mark Doty will leave his apartment in West 16th Street, Manhattan, and begin a journey to a small town on the East coast of Scotland. Doty is to be a guest at next weekend’s StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, and is looking forward to it almost as much as poetry lovers on this side of the Atlantic are looking forward to hearing him.

Memories linger from his last visit to StAnza back in 2005. Fans remember his funny, erudite, honest verse. Doty praises the festival’s intent audience, much as Seamus Heaney did when he made a return visit three years ago: “I was struck not just by the size of the audience for the readings but their intent listening,” Doty says. “I felt that people were very engaged, taking in the poems very deeply – what could be better than that?”

Speaking on the phone from his Chelsea apartment, Doty is warm, articulate, clever, much like his poems, in fact. His formidable reputation precedes him: ten books of poetry and four of prose have earned him a raft of prizes and fellowships. In 1995, he came to the attention of British readers when he became the first American to win the TS Eliot Prize, the only one to do so until fellow American Sharon Olds claimed this year’s prize.

Doty is perhaps best known as a poet of the Aids generation. His book, My Alexandria, which won both the TS Eliot Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, was written in the teeth of the epidemic which would claim, in 1995, the life of his partner of 11 years, Wally Roberts. Doty had a way of writing about these experiences which honoured the specific but also transcended it. “What you always want is for the poem to be larger than its story,” he says, choosing his words carefully, as poets do. “If a poem has to earn its place in the world, it needs to connect to the reader at another level. Often weak poems fail because they don’t transcend the personal.”

At St Andrews, he will read from a new collection which is still forming, both in his head and on the page. He will also read, as part of StAnza’s Past & Present series, from the great 19th American poet Walt Whitman, the subject of his next prose book, What is the Grass? Like his other non-fiction books, it is a kind of memoir. “Whitman and I share many common fixations, so I use his poems as a lens to look at some experiences in my life. It’s a risky kind of criticism because one is bringing oneself on to the same page as a very great poet, a very formidable spirit. But at the same time I believe that he would want to be read as energetically as possible.”

Doty, who teaches at Rutgers University, New Jersey, shares the Chelsea apartment with his husband, the novelist Paul Lisicky, and two dogs, Ned, a golden retriever, and a Bedlington terrier called George. Dogs are an important subject for his writing: his last non-fiction book Dog Years chronicled the lives of two previous canine companions.

There is little trace in his accent of his Southern roots,, but Doty was born in Maryville, Tennessee, and spent his childhood moving from around the cities of the South, following the career of his father, an army engineer. His coming-of-age memoir, Firebird, describes the bitter-sweet experiences of a boy who liked to dress up as Judy Garland, much to the chagrin of his mother, and took an overdose at 14. Two years later, his mother, an alcoholic, tried to shoot him, partly because she couldn’t cope with the fact that he was gay. She failed in her attempt largely because she was too drunk to release the safety catch. He could have lived in a spiral of self-destruction. Instead, he was saved by art – more specifically, poetry.

Around the time of the attempted shooting, he began to read Blake, Lorca, Chinese poets in translation. “There was something so magnetic about these – usually short – poems that somehow said more than the words. These words, by virtue of their sound, their placement, how they were harnessed together, made something come alive, I was thrilled by that. For a little gay kid in Tucson, Arizona in 1969, poetry was both a place to hide and to display oneself, you could reveal yourself and not reveal at the same time.”

His first collection, Turtle, Swan, was published when he was 33: “I was so proud, I took it out to dinner and to a movie, it got its own seat! That book got a couple of nice reviews and did OK, as did my second book, but with My Alexandria, things really changed. I never would have expected that I would find the kind of audience that I have – it astonishes me to this day.”

Doty’s poems don’t stint on complexity, but there is a striving for clarity, even when they describe things which are hard to put into words, from an old dog’s attempt to climb the stairs, to what happens to the soul after death. He suspects his desire to communicate comes partly from his unsettled childhood. “We moved all the time, I went to many different schools. One result of that was being a bit of a loner, a kid who loved to read, who wasn’t as connected to his peers as other kids were. But I think there is something of that child in the poet who really wants to be heard. Sometimes, I think what I’m doing is reaching out and taking an audience member by the collar, saying: ‘I want you to listen to this’.”

In My Alexandria, his work took an elegiac turn unusual in a young poet. “It was like living in wartime, or like suddenly being two generations older. I saw friends, people I was close to, the lovers of friends, perish – I was still in my thirties at that time, it was very peculiar. That really pushed my work in the direction of elegy. I was always interested in transience, the fleeting nature of all our lives, our experience. But it had a new pressure to it, a new edge.”

I wonder if he feels that sense of transience as intensely now (he will turn 60 later this year)? I remember, on his last visit to StAnza, he read a poem called “Heaven for Paul”, about being on a flight which had to make an emergency landing due to technical problems. The flight attendant wept as she made the announcement, and the passengers prepared themselves for their final goodbyes, though, in the event, no-one was injured. It is a wonderful piece of Doty poetry – warm, sharp in its observations of fellow man, unflinching in its approach to the big unanswerable questions.

Doty laughs. “Yes, I guess I’m not thinking about dying any more than I was always thinking about dying. Which I don’t think of as a morbid thing, I think it’s a way of thinking about living. It’s the outer edge of living, and in order to see what living is you have to somehow incorporate dying, otherwise half the world is missing.”

He wrote his first non-fiction book, Heaven’s Coast, immediately after Roberts’ death, when he found that, for a time, he could no longer write poems. “I just felt that Wally and I would probably be together the rest of our lives. It was my first fully commited relationship with another man, I was so in love with him, he was a wonderful person. When he died, I felt that my life had cracked. And my form seemed broken – I could not possibly stuff the kind of swirly, blurry, indistinguishable things I felt into the tight container of a poem. I think that may speak to some magical faith that poets have, that on some level we do believe that our poems can change things. I could not save Wally, I could not keep him in the world.”

Doty writes powerfully about the personal, both in poetry and prose, though he admits it isn’t always comfortable. “I think there has to be a great deal at stake for the poet, otherwise the reader can sense that lack of urgency. The crucial thing is emotional honesty, the willingness to confront oneself. I always felt that my work developed through self-confrontation, thinking, ‘I don’t really want to talk about this in public’, then I do have to talk about it, I’m excited about the risk I’ve taken, and the poem winds up gaining energy from the risk. Poets live in a dialectic between public and private which is confusing, you make art out of your innermost stuff. I write about things that I wouldn’t say to the person sitting next to me on the bus, but I’d say them to the world in a poem. That’s forever a mystery to me.”

So, what of the elusive moment when a poem starts? Let’s take an example, a poem called “Signal”, which began when Doty saw a home-made poster in West 16th Street for a lost cockatiel named Omar. “I see something and it’s as if it has struck a little chime inside my head. I think, there is something there for me, that image, quotation, whatever it is, has something to yield to me if I pay attention to it long enough. I found myself beginning to speculate about the lost cockatiel. This was the first poem I wrote after 9/11. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was writing about the fact that this bird, this single life, could disappear into the city, and the poem was actually a way of coming to terms with the disappearance of 3,000 people.”

You would not know that on first reading. Perhaps not second or third time either. But what you do know is that you’re reading something which is about more than a lost cockatiel. A poem which punches above its weight, which makes a connection, which does more than simply tell a story. A poem which has earned its place.

• Mark Doty is one of the headline poets at StAnza in St Andrews, 6-10 March. He will appear in Poetry Centre Stage on 8 March at 8pm, and in Past & Present on the same day at 2:15pm. For more information about the festival, see