- MFA in Creative Writing
- Celebrated poet Mark Doty succumbs to Houston’s humid charms
- Spring Literary Festival | Mark Doty, April - Ohio University | College of Arts & Sciences
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What exists of the history he knew lies in some photographs, some artifacts—like the traveling valise, that becomes an emblem of all the Russian exiles—and in his gorgeous, hammered sentences. In a way, everyone's past shares with Nabokov's its irretrievability, but if there are such things as degrees of vanishing, then his past is gone to a greater extent—memory's players dead, its country houses destroyed, its social fabric swept away. Odd, then, to think that I'd written a memoir in which I chose not to revisit the places of the past, when, unlike Nabokov, I could. I could have found the sites of childhood scenes, and interviewed relatives, seeking corrections or corroboration, but that wasn't my book's project.
What interested me was memory itself, the architectures memory constructs, the interpretive act of remembering. There is a passage in a poem by Alfred Corn which says it beautifully:. The idea hard to get in focus is not how things Looked but how the look felt, then—and then, now. I didn't realize how much this was the project of my book until I was done.
MFA in Creative Writing
In one passage, I'd wondered about why my sister, who married as a young woman, wore a beige wedding dress. I imagined a number of reasons she might have made this choice, or it might have been made for her—and then, in the margins of the manuscript, a copyeditor wrote, Why don't you just ask her? This was not a particularly sympathetic copyeditor. Then I wondered why it had never occurred to me to ask her, and immediately I understood that it simply wasn't that sort of book; my inquiry was into memory, not history: how it was to be that child, as that child re-arises in the mind, imaginatively reconstructed, reinhabited.
Which is how the past goes on and on in us, changing, developing, its look and meanings built and rebuilt over time. The past is not static, or ever truly complete; as we age we see from new positions, shifting angles. A therapist friend of mine likes to use the metaphor of the kind of spiral stair that winds up inside a lighthouse. As one moves up that stair, the core at the center doesn't change, but one continually sees it from another vantage point; if the past is a core of who we are, then our movement in time always brings us into a new relation to that core.
It was that sort of movement into "new relation" that seemed to make my book possible. As a young poet, I'd written about my family, but I can't say in retrospect that any of those poems are any good. First I disguised them through surrealist means; I remember, at my first poetry reading at the University of Arizona, reading a poem in which I presented my parents as circus performers, my mother perched on an elaborate trapeze, my father juggling broken dishes.
My parents, who were in the audience, didn't know what to make of it, but I remember being so nervous that I stubbed a cigarette out and jammed it into the pocket of my jacket, and had to be told by a concerned audience member, after the reading, that I was smoldering.
Later, I wrote poems about my family which were, if not a byproduct of therapy, directly influenced by it; I wanted to arrive at a kind of clarity about who we'd been and what had happened to us, and I wanted to take possession of my story; that's therapy's work, after all, the narration of a tale for the benefit of the teller. These were plainspoken, investigative poems; they were after the truth, and that was an important project for me then, but now the poems seem a bit unidimensional, their point of view finally not complex enough to satisfy.
But I was in my twenties or early thirties when I wrote them, and by the time I came to write a prose book about my family—one that wanted both to enter that child's experience in a lyric way and spin a context around him and his upbringing—I was forty-five or so, around the age my father was when my book begins. I was standing, to return to my spiraling metaphor, on another tread on the stairs; I had a somewhat more detached or at least differently attached and inquisitive attitude toward the past.
Or at least that was true some of the time; one of the first things writing a memoir teaches you is the startling elasticity of the self: how the perceptions of the seven-year-old and the anxieties of the fifteen-year-old you are perfectly available, states of mind into which one can simply slide. Childhood, it seems, is in the next room from this one; adult detachment is gained and lost and gained again, and in the realm of memory, time and location spin like an old fashioned toy, the kind where still pictures can be suddenly spun into motion.
Somewhere outside of Memphis, we turned to the radio for distraction, and a program began about African music of a particular sort: songs generated by ancestor possession. The singer, in trance, does not write the song, but receives it; these are the words of the ancestors, and they must be repeated exactly; to change the song, to improvise, is to betray them. The songs are beautiful and alive, and the program resonates in my imagination on into Memphis. We stop for a street map of the city, and while I drive Paul, who is fond of maps, searches and studies, turning the unfolded sheet every which way, but he can't find my old street.
We stop again, in a shopping center parking lot, and when I step out into the humid sun-struck atmosphere rippling over the asphalt, I suddenly know I want to be in Memphis, I want Memphis intensely, the heat and smell of it, the pressure of its humid air on my scalp, the scent of its leaves and mulch in my nose, its speech in my ears and on my tongue.
And at the same time I am suddenly unsteady on my feet, and ready to burst into tears: I have betrayed the ancestors, haven't I, writing about them, I have done it the wrong way, I have mis-sung their music; I have, with my words, wounded the powerless dead. Firebird is a book very much concerned with performance, and how experiences of performing lift one out of a self defined by others toward some more joyous, self-generated, more open identity. A series of performances provide structure to the story, and the first of these took place at Peabody Elementary School, in Memphis, when Little Miss Sunbeam, an emblem and spokesperson for the eponymous bread company, appeared at my school to what in memory is a rapt audience of children astonished by her beauty and accomplishment.
We are scouring the map, focusing on older areas of town. There's an amusement park I think I might remember, and there's the Pink Palace, a children's museum I used to visit with my father, and—there! Peabody School. Evidence of the past, it seems, can actually be found. We try once more to find Ramses Street, but it's no luck, nothing seems right, until we turn a corner and there is the school—limestone or some other yellowy stone, a handsome if somewhat self-important looking building from the first half of the 20th century, not a school anymore, but a community center. We park, walk across the street, up the steps—and it is only there, when I turn around and stand facing the street, that the body remembers: suddenly it is very clear to me, what I need to do to walk home; I know the way, the turns to take, which had been so important forty years ago, my first long independent walk.
It's the strangest sensation, knowing the way on a level which seems to reside beneath thinking—and it leads us down one street there were big trees there that dripped in the rain , a right turn, another onto—McIlhenny! That was it, the name of our street was never Ramses. I made that up, out of the memory of mummies in the museum, and the word "Memphis," and the fact that our house had fat, tapering columns like diminutive versions of the pillars at Luxor.
I loved archaeology as a child, and I'd have to be an excavator to find any remnant of our old house now-gone, torn down to make way for apartments, but all around it are the bungalows of a neighborhood I recognize. It's become a black, working-class neighborhood now, which has preserved it, to some degree, since nobody's had the money to make these houses unrecognizable: same columns and porch swings, same grassy lawns and delicate mimosas and live-oaks with their big roots buckling the sidewalks.
All vaguely familiar, none of them quite mine, and of course we aren't quite welcome here, we don't really make sense, two white guys in a Volvo full of pets—a car my memoir paid for, incidentally—driving around slowly, looking and looking. The lives of other people are unknowable.
I wouldn't go as far as a poet colleague of mine who says that "representation is murder," but I would acknowledge that to represent is to maim.
When I go to describe the forces that shaped my mother as a girl, I am working from a combination of memory, intuition, evidence, family story; I can make reasonable interpretations and educated guesses, but the fact remains that I must create her as a character in my book, and I am making decisions about how that person—in this case complex, dramatic, haunted—will be presented. I simply can't write a book in which she remains inscrutable, merely the kind of giant shadow on the wall our parents are to us in childhood—the whole point of memoir, in a way, is to make these people known.
Yet, like any biographer, I sift through what I know and I choose emblematic moments, emphasize one strand over another, and must finally acknowledge that there are threads I can never recover. My picturing will distort its subject; it is, of course, a record and embodiment of a process of knowing; it is "about" the making of knowledge, which is a much larger and more unstable thing than the marshalling of mere facts.
This would be true if I'd interviewed every surviving relative and wandered around my mother's little Tennessee hometown like a detective stalking clues—and therefore how much more true if I make a book allegiant to memory, interested in the ways that a child made sense of those people, in how they look and seem "in the then now. This particular form of distortion—the inevitable rewriting of those we love we do in the mere act of describing them—is the betrayal built into memoir, into the telling of memories.
But the alternative, of course, is worse: are we willing to lose the past, to allow it to be erased, because it can only be partially known? For many memoirists, the story we tell is all there'll be of our characters, or at least all there will be of them as we have known them. My sister remembers my mother, too, of course, and so does my father, but the person they remember is not my mother, not exactly; there are a set of internal relations, a phenomenology, if you will, that only I can name, because only I have known them.
This is what my sister meant when she said, charmingly, after reading my book: "The things you got wrong just make it that much more you! In truth I must here, as Shakespeare says, "admit impediment. Narration is comforting; as readers, we feel reassured by the presence of a narrator, whose shaping voice assures that things are more-or-less in control, that there is some reasonable expectation of coherence.
But when it comes to talking about my father and my memoir, I have to choose between honesty and coherence; if I take the former course, then it seems almost inevitable than any sense of stability I've cooked up here will tumble into a morass of contradictory feeling. He and I have an unsettled history, when it comes to my written words.
One difficult evening, after I gave him my first book, a slender chapbook of neo-surrealist lyrics published in the mid-seventies, he threw it at me, saying it made no sense. It didn't, save in the refined, oblique way of such poems, but I wasn't prepared for the intensity of his reaction.
What did it mean? That he'd spent money on my education only to have it lead to this useless and incomprehensible product? That he felt angry at being excluded from my inner life, whose text was unreadable to him? Or that he was annoyed that he wasn't represented there, in the way that Oscar Wilde says that society's rage at art is the rage of Caliban not seeing his face in the mirror? As my poems grew in clarity, so my reluctance to show them to my father—not surprisingly, I guess, after that unhappy evening!
We maintained a distance around the subject of my work, aided by the fact that we lived on different sides of the country, and this distance only eroded when my work because more visible. When my father could buy a book of mine in Barnes and Noble at the nearby mall, his sense of the value of his son's work shifted. And that's when he read my first memoir, a book about grief, a love letter to a dead man, and a meditation on what the church fathers call "last things. By the time he read the book, he was a widower too, though his letter didn't touch on that; I have no idea if the particular experiences of bereavement I wrote about resonated with his experience, but something did, and he had the forthrightness to say so.
This was partly the gift of prose—which, of course, far more people read, and read because of what it is about, than will ever see a poem. This may seem self-evident, in contemporary America, but I can testify that to a poet it still comes as a shock. Who expects to be read by strangers, much less taken to heart by them? If I'd have seriously thought that one of those strangers was my own father, I doubt I could ever have written the book. I wasn't accustomed to being seen by him, and like many gay or lesbian children, I'd protected my inner life from my parents' scrutiny for fear of judgment—quite a reasonable fear, given the level of homophobia in our country and in my family.
But that homophobia had simply been washed away, mediated by time and the ways in which age and in my father's case, remarriage to a socially liberal woman rearranges one's priorities and values. I think my father honestly felt that he gained a new kind of access to my life, and for a time we were closer.
Not, I hasten to add, close. There has been a sense of awkwardness between us since—I don't know, the dawn of recorded time? But it was fascinating and odd to me to discover that the distance between us was not about sexuality, not really—unless you could say that a lifetime's distance originated there and then we were powerless to revise it. There were some truly odd moments I mean odd in the sense that they were nothing I could ever have predicted in my life when my father and stepmother and Paul and I were two couples, going to lunch or for a walk on the beach together.
If you'd told me, as a young man that this could be possible, I'd have probably had some sort of cognitive meltdown; the structure of reality would have to shift first. Perhaps it was also some element of this sea-change that spurred me on to write Firebird. If I could be seen this far, if this much honesty were possible? But early on, when the book was just beginning, I asked my father something about that childhood year in Memphis, and heard the tone of his voice shift in his reply, "Why do you want to know? And he must already have dreaded it; every once in a while he'd ask me, "How's that writing about Memphis going?
Fears of? Well, my family never wanted to deal directly with anything, really, and I grew up with the sense that to name a problem was to invite mighty trouble. The problem, if there was such a thing, was my mother's alcoholism, the reputed source of which shifted variously: my homosexuality, my sister's misbehavior, my mother's own back pain or loneliness or thwarted creativity or mismatched marriage. None of these "causes" were directly addressed, not quite; they simply floated in the air of our household, or were blurted out in drunken and agonized moments, or were overheard, or were offered as whispered, confidential explanations.
I guess that my father was scared that his adult son would do the naming, for all the world to see, and that this revelation of our story would not be told in his favor. Or afraid that I would say the unspoken thing between us, that I felt he'd failed to protect me? The truth of my high school years is that I was pretty much on my own while my parents were entirely absorbed in the drama of my mother's spectacular collapse.
There was about a three-year period when no one remembered, for instance, to buy me shoes. I tried to kill myself, at fifteen, and sometime in there, I can't remember exactly when who would want to? In other words, he did fail to protect me. Having left home at seventeen to marry an alcoholic myself, I paid the tough dues necessary to learn childhood's impossible lesson—that you cannot save anyone, not mother or spouse, and the most powerful child in the world, which is surely what I must have imagined myself to be, cannot fix anything, no matter how good or smart he is, nor how he disguises himself to try to be who he thinks he's supposed to.
No matter how loyal he is to his drunken mother, or how loyally he later behaves toward his father by acting just like him. But write it I did, holding at bay the awareness that he and my sister would be reading the book; in order to work freely, I needed to behave as if, in the composing process, I was in an arena of pure freedom, of irresponsibility; here I could say anything without consequences.
That's the sort of permission the imaginative life requires, and I could allow myself that—increasing, actually, my sense of freedom in successive drafts of the book, which each time seemed to grow riskier and to probe further. Sometimes I'd catch myself saying, Oh, you don't have to write that, who wants to read it?
And then realizing that in projecting these doubts outward onto readers, I was actually protecting not the potential reader, but myself; I was the one who didn't want to read about whatever it was that troubled me.
And then, once I understood that, I did want to read it, and to write it. But the time came, of course, when I had to show the book to the two living people most implicated therein. I gave it to my sister with some eagerness; I wanted to know what she thought. And I didn't know what she'd told her children and grandchildren about her wild old days, and certainly didn't want them to learn these stories from my book!
Her response—much laughter—was gracious and tender and lovely.
Celebrated poet Mark Doty succumbs to Houston’s humid charms
To tell the truth, I simply avoided giving the manuscript to my father, though I told myself I would. I didn't do it and didn't do it, and then my publisher's lawyers told me I had to. Not a wise plan on my part: now my private trepidations about his response were twinned with an external, legal concern.
The lawyers asked me to present him with a release to sign, saying he wouldn't sue them, but I declined. I just couldn't imagine handing him the manuscript with a note that would suggest he might want to file a lawsuit! So I sent the thick pile of pages that comprised my book, an autobiography from the ages of six to sixteen, along with a letter explaining that I understood it might not be the easiest thing to read, and that if there were things in it that he couldn't live with I wanted to talk about them.
I don't know what I would have done had he identified things he wanted me to change; it's difficult for me to imagine, now, what that exchange might have been like, because it never happened.
Spring Literary Festival | Mark Doty, April - Ohio University | College of Arts & Sciences
My father simply never answered me at all. When I wrote to him, a week or two later, my letter came back with a stamp from the post office on the front of the envelope: Refused, return to sender. My response to the words was visceral; I felt they were stamped on my face, burning a little there, like a slap or the sensation of rushing air when a door slams in your face. I tried again, with the same result, and then I didn't try anymore. Born ; son of an army engineer; married Ruth Dawson a poet , divorced, c.
Education: Drake University, B. Poet and memoirist. Has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. National Poetry Prize, judge, Contributor of poems to magazines some under the joint pseudonym M. Doty , including Kayak! Coauthor of the chapbooks under the joint pseudonym M. Murano, J. Since the publication of his first volume of verse, Turtle, Swan, in , Mark Doty has become recognized as one of the most accomplished poets in America.
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Like the work of James Merrill , Doty's writings transcend the category of "gay poetry" to appeal to a diverse cross-section of readers; fittingly, Doty has won a number of prestigious literary awards, including the Whiting Writer's Award, the T. Eliot Prize of which he was the first U. That's what poetry and nonfiction have in common for me, that work of attending to what we see, attempting to know it in a more profound way—through saying what we see—than can be done simply by experiencing. Doty, the son of an army engineer, grew up in a succession of suburbs in Tennessee, Florida, southern California, and Arizona.
Doty described himself, in Publishers Weekly, as having been "a sissy" in childhood; frightened by his emerging sexual identity, he married hastily at age eighteen. After completing his undergraduate studies at Drake University in Iowa, he got a divorce and moved to Manhattan, where he paid his dues as a temporary office worker. He earned a master's degree in creative writing from Goddard College during part-time semesters; during the same period, he met his lasting love, Wally Roberts, a window-dresser at a department store. The couple lived together for twelve years in Manhattan and in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Wally's illness and death from AIDS, with which he was diagnosed in and to which he finally succumbed in January , was to be the central event of Doty's maturation as a person and a poet.
Doty himself tested negative for HIV. In the interim, however, Doty was publishing his early work. A first volume of poems, Turtle, Swan, was rejected by the publisher David Godine, only to be accepted by Godine after urgings from author Roger Weingarten, whose works had also been published by Godine. On its publication in , a Booklist critic praised the "quiet, intimate" Turtle, Swan for turning the gay experience into "an example of how we live, how we suffer and transcend suffering," while Marianne Boruch, in American Poetry Review, called the volume "a stunning arrival.
Miriam Levine, writing in American Book Review, appreciated Doty's gift for "simple speech," and specified that "Doty's poems work best when he finds his way back and forth between the vernacular and the elegant music of desire and loss.
If this were indeed a problem, Doty went a long way toward dealing with it in his work My Alexandria, which won the National Poetry Series contest and was therefore published by the University of Illinois Press. Yet, as Ray Gonzalez noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Doty goes beyond the triumph of the plague to write about life beyond this dark century…. He has the courage to extract beauty out of the living moments created by death….
The pain, the memories and the surviving beauty strengthen and nourish him. And one senses in the poetry as well an admirable assurance in the choices he makes. On the negative side, Shetley felt that Doty relied too much on a rich "gift for phrasemaking"; all in all, however, he hailed My Alexandria as evidence of "a big talent at work. I was casting about for what would come next.
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And what came next for me was looking around at the present and adult life," in contrast to the poems of remembered youth in his earlier books. Eliot Prize to that volume. Fenton pointed out the explicit homage to Robert Lowell in Doty's work, especially in the poem "Demolition," whose subject was strikingly similar to that of Lowell's great "For the Union Dead. My Alexandria also led to Doty's winning the National Book Critics' Circle Prize for and to the publication of his next volume, Atlantis, by a commercial house, HarperCollins, in Atlantis was a response to, and in many respects a description of, Wally's illness and death, and Commonweal reviewer Patricia Hampl called it simply "miraculous.
She compared Doty to Keats in being "poised on exact perception. When he sees the ocean—the salt spray hits you. Savoring, as other critics had done before, Doty's ability to create beauty out of grief, Allen discerned the influences of Elizabeth Bishop , Amy Clampitt, and above all, Walt Whitman , and concluded: "No recent book so strongly warrants both tears and laughter.
After Wally's death, Doty found himself unable to write or even read.
However, the solicitation of an essay by a friend who was editing an anthology soon led him to write a memoir, Heaven's Coast, in which he came to grips, in prose, with Wally's life and death. Doty deliberately refrained from organizing the book chronologically; it is a patchwork quilt of memories, including quotations from friends' letters. Bernard Cooper in the Los Angeles Times Book Review expressed keen appreciation for this literary strategy: "How else, except with tentative, borrowed strength, can one grapple with the indifference of death? Jim Marks, writing in the Washington Post Book World, found the book "unique among AIDS memoirs" for its author's "refusal to become dominated by his anger" and for his questioning of the appropriateness of beauty as a response to death.