On the Sensory Power of Language: An Interview with Mark Doty

by    /  November 27, 2017  / Comments Off on On the Sensory Power of Language: An Interview with Mark Doty

Image via Blue Flower Arts.

Mark Doty is the author of nine books of poetry, including Deep Lane (April 2015), Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, which won the 2008 National Book Award, and My Alexandria, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the T.S. Eliot Prize in the UK. He is also the author of three memoirs: the New York Times-bestselling Dog Years, Firebird, and Heaven’s Coast, as well as a book about craft and criticism, The Art of Description: World Into Word. Doty has received two NEA fellowships, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, a Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Award, and the Witter Byner Prize.

Doty visited Sampsonia Way in September 2017 to read from his book-length essay, Still Life with Oyster and Lemon, as part of City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s annual Jazz Poetry Month.

How you see a new generation of young LGBTQ+ people engaging with the work that you did in the 80s and 90s, and what kind of work you feel that the writing from that period can be doing right now?

That’s a really interesting question, and I wish that I had a better perspective on it. Those poems that come out of the crisis years of the epidemic were written under so much pressure. Before that time, I had written love poems, I had written some poems that were concerned with violence against gay men and lesbians, but the epidemic pushed me to feel something that I had never really felt, which was to speak as a representative of a community. The mainstream narrative of AIDS was one of abandonment and despair, people who were left behind by those who turned their backs on them. And what I saw was incredible devotion, love, a community holding each other up. People reaching across boundaries, raising money and soldiering on in the most ungodly and hopeless of circumstances. And that wasn’t being represented. So I just wanted to tell stories of the people around me.

There was an urgency that I had not felt before. I felt galvanized by that. I think that probably shows in the work in some way. I was writing at a moment when you knew there was nothing on the horizon. My partner Wally was dying of a brain disease which basically no longer exists. As soon as we had NRTIs (nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors) it was gone. There was a sense that nothing new was coming. What could we expect but to continue like this? The moment these new drugs appeared, it was as if everyone breathed this great sigh of relief, and suddenly felt completely shellshocked. We had lived under such burden, and with such grief. The time afterwards is when I felt the most intense response to what I had written. I think it spoke to a collective, unarticulated grief. So that was both truly moving and compelling to me and also unnerving, because so many people wanted to talk to me or tell me about their experience. I was very honored by that but you know, I’m a poet, I didn’t want to be a spokesperson and I still don’t. So, I sort of resisted being in that role. It’s very strange for your own experience to become historical. It’s now… more than 20, almost 25 years since Wally died. That time to me seems like it’s in the next room, it’s yesterday. I can go back there in a minute, I’m going back there right now, and yet I realized that people who read those poems, often, they may not have been born during that time. So that must be very strange. I can barely imagine that, because who can see your own life in that context? I’m really honored by the responses of young poets who have taken some of the work to heart. And I can also understand why there would be poets who would resist it, because you always want to make something unlike the generation that precedes you. Who expects to become something like patriarch? Wasn’t my plan.

I can tell you that I don’t think people in my generation are ever thinking that far ahead.

Of course not! We never do. And I think, growing up as a poet in this country, you just really expect to write for yourself, and if you’re lucky, to be read by a few people that care about the art. Who expects to have an audience? An audience that actually takes your work and makes use of it? It has been enormously moving to me. It’s not just there to decorate a life, or provide a sort of enhancement. It becomes, if you’re very fortunate, a text that people use to understand their own lives. That’s… that’s amazing.

How do you feel that the work has changed throughout your own process of grieving that time? As you move further away from that moment and look back, how do you see it now?

Well, I think that one of my goals is something that is true for many artists– you want to get as many aspects of yourself as you can into the work. So it’s important for me to be able to stand in that moment of fever pitch, and speak under the gun, as it were, and I think it’s important to be able to stand back, and to daydream, or to write from a different kind of position of curiosity, or pleasure in the world, or tenderness, or anger too. I try to get as many of these modes of being on the page as I can. I learned this from watching my friend Marie Howe, extraordinary poet who just writes out everything that happens to her, and then throws 90% of it away, but she just makes and makes and makes and makes. And that’s so attractive to me, you know? So, I’m grateful that I did that work, and I find myself sometimes returning to a pitch of urgency. I have a recent poem that’s about the murder of Tamir Rice in Cleveland who was killed by the police. It’s a poem of actually pure rage, and it reminds me in mode, of some of the things I wrote in those years. I’m also interested in writing about art history and ideas about identity and notions of self, and of time. The more range the better.

Getting to read some of your earlier work, and then turning to still life and reading Still Life with Oysters and Lemon was an interesting experience, you could feel threads of all of those different modes you mentioned come through the work.

The book sets out to contemplate 17th-century Dutch paintings of food, a piece of bread, some ham, an orange, a lemon peel, and takes it from there. It asks what we can make of those objects as objects of meditation. It begins in a position of not much urgency, but various things float up as I keep looking.

My immediate question was, is it true that you were just taken by this one painting? What got you into 17th-century Dutch works?

I had always, as a younger person, liked really dramatic work. Human figures, people in states of ecstasy, or terror, or pain. I sort of thought still life paintings were boring. But then I found myself pulled in. And that particular painting with which the book begins is in the MET in New York City. It just grabbed ahold of me! It was laid out flat, over a table, with a case over it so that you could look down into it, which makes it very intimate because then there are no edges, you’re looking right down. It seemed so full of life, and I tried to walk away from it, but then I said “No, no, I want to be here some more,” and then I began to feel that the way I was looking at things was influenced by that experience.

A little while later, an editor at Beacon Press called me up and said, “Would you like to write an 100 page book?” and I said, “About what?” and she said, “About anything.”

This is a fabulous opportunity, because if you set out to write a book that’s 300 pages long, you’ve got to be deeply committed, or you’ll never get there. And it’s got to be something that you can keep moving with and entering with, or it has a long arc. One hundred pages can be an experiment. You can go all kinds of places, it can bomb, and that’s okay. So, I said, yes and there’s the result. It was– I didn’t know how to do it, until– I wrote a description of that painting, and then I thought, If I could paint still lifes that represented my own life or that represent things I love, what would I put in them? And suddenly I had a structure. I could go from a work of art to an object in my own life, and think about objects and intimacy, and how we invest things with feeling and memory. That’s the miracle of those paintings: They’re full of human presence even though there aren’t any people there.

You talked a little bit about the creating and the initial process and pulling up these objects from your own life, but what about the delve into painting history?

Oh, so much fun. I am, if I could do something besides write poetry, and (we hope) prose, I would be a painter. Because I love the immediacy of color. There is nothing you can do in language that can make orange. Orange is an experience, and the depths of color, the emotive power of it, the vibrancy, it’s just something words can’t do, although we try our best. So that’s very attractive. My mother was an amateur painter, and as a kid I loved going into the room where she worked, and the smells of it, and the linseed oil, and the tubes of paint. Especially, I loved their names, which proves that I was a writer and not a painter, but cadmium yellow, and fugitive lake, you know, Alizarin crimson, wonderful things. That world was always compelling to me, and this book inlays my attempt to being closer to being a painter. Therefore it was very much fun to read this history which is absorbingly weird, you know? For one thing, the materials of paint were not standardized, right? So artists were making their own, or were using clay, natural materials, animal products, minerals, and various kinds of oils to produce paint, so the Dutch started publishing these handbooks, This is what you need to make this kind of yellow and This is what you have to watch out for. This color lasts, and This one doesn’t, This darkens, etc. Then they had manuals on how to do certain things, like, How do you get that glisten on the skin of the grape? Or, say, the exact texture of crystalline sugar on a piece of pastry. And people became specialists in this. So there was for instance, a marvelous still life painter named Clara Peters who was known for her able to paint cut wheels of cheese. There were others who specialized in sweet meats, or the beautiful sort of almost-liquid-surface of oysters. This beautiful sort of amazing devotion to some little bit of the world. The faith in the importance of representation, and the power of looking.

That’s something that I did not know, that there were “lemon experts.”

It’s remarkable! The average home, in Holland, in the 17th century had something like 65 paintings. Why? What is it about images that made people desire to hang them on the walls, and possess them, and keep looking at them? And this gets increasingly refined, like Adriaen Coorte, who’s one of my favorites, would produce a painting of a single spear of asparagus, or a few gooseberries, it’s a rare thing to do.

How do you see that sort of care and devotion transferring to your own writing process?

I’m really interested in the way language can evoke for us, the visual and sensory world. It’s sort of something that shouldn’t happen, you know? Post-structuralism teaches us so much about the slippery nature of words, and what I may call blue may be nothing like you see when I say blue, we know this to be true! And yet, there’s some way in which poetry I think comes closer to representing human subjectivity than any other art. You read a really beautifully made poem, and you feel slipped into the skin, into the experience of this other person, and that’s miraculous. That is very intriguing to me, it’s sort of this lifelong pursuit, and it’s one of the main reasons I read. You can have an intimacy of a sort: yes it’s a performed intimacy, a staged one, but it’s also very genuine at the same time. A person may have been dead for a thousand years. It’s extraordinary.

I’m curious then– what do you feel is your “spear of asparagus”? Is there something that you’re always trying to capture, that you are still, even at this point in a long career, working at getting at just the right, the glisten on the grape?

Such a good question. Well, you say “glisten,” and there have been– I’ve always been obsessed with all these qualities of light. And I love, especially, unreliable or complex atmospheres: fog, mist, the way the sun moves through water, reflection, the sort of shifts and changes that light undergoes. I think it’s because they’re representative of this sort of uncertainty, or the way you can’t paint reality quite down. The world around us is a shifty thing, it’s after all entering an eye, which is interpreting it further for the brain, and so where are we exactly? I think that obsession is partly about an instance in instability, and you know growing up as a queer kid in Tucson, Arizona, among other places, instability is your friend. We all want the world to be this nailed down thing that we all know what’s what: we’re all more interested in the spaces we can find between certainties, so there’s that. I am… okay I’ll go a little further with this, in a slightly different direction. I’d really like to be able to represent ghosts, because I really believe in– not necessarily that you know your soul “hangs around” and is you, but I believe in ongoing as in time and emanations and the influences that art has upon us or that makers have upon us, so I feel like in some ways, it’s not very far away from me, and I want to be able to name that and see it more clearly. I’m actually writing a prose book about Wally now, about my relationship with him, so maybe I’ll take a stab at it. It will be, as such things are doomed to be, a failure. But failure, you know that’s a loaded word, and what I really mean is- there’s that space between your ambition and what you make, and you never close that space. You wish to hold more and more of the world, and what you get is what you get. But that’s a good space too. A space of potential.

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