October 28–November 3, 2019
Mark Doty is the author of nine books of poetry, including Deep Lane (Norton, 2015), Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 2008), winner of the 2008 National Book Award, and My Alexandria (University of Illinois Press, 1993), 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. On Saturday, November 2, Doty will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at Brooklyn Museum with Diannely Antigua and Jessica Greenbaum.
He’s my age, the dark man leaning
against this storefront window ledge,
hair and beard dusted white,
face impressed with a frazzled net
of lines. He doesn’t attempt to please,
nor seem in need, but practices all day
a toneless, steady neutrality, repeating
his monosyllabic plea: Change.
In this way he resembles a prisoner
who’s learned to show almost no deference
to his guards, nothing of abasement.
He’s a barely rippling tank of dark water,
superbly contained; he submits
to a precise degree he’s had years
Change, he says all day,
fixed in his spot on Seventh,
the word a key he tries again,
hoping this time the tumblers turn.
Change, at night more driven,
as if he meant to chip away
at something, the word falling hard
on the sidewalk’s flint and shadow,
ringing on the pavement like a dime.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been writing a group of poems about my neighbors. The first was an elegy for a woman who’d been the president of my co-op for forty years, an indelible character. Writing it, I realized I’d always written about NYC as if I were holding a camera at some distance, trying to catch something about the motion and spirit of the whole, the way we sort of dissolve into the big life of the city. So I wanted to move in more closely, and that meant looking at individuals, and thinking about how a poem might be a portrait, and how a portrait of a single person might make for a satisfying poem. Pretty soon I realized that the people I see most often here are the homeless, visible because they don’t have walls. So a number of these poems focus on people I know a little or not at all, though I think about them a lot.
I used to see the man described in the poem every day, and all he said was that one word, and as I set out to describe him I began to question what he meant by it.
What are you working on right now?
This summer I finished a prose book I’ve been writing off and on for more than ten years. It’s called What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, and it’s coming out from Norton in April. It’s a quirky hybrid: part appreciation of the greatest of Brooklyn poets, part imagining my way into his body and mind, part memoir, part—well, spiritual adventure. During the last two years or so, I realized I’d never finish the thing if I let myself be distracted by working on poems, so I’d allow myself to write rough drafts, or note down an image or a few lines, but that’s it. So now that I have finished what seemed to me a sort of mission, I can turn to all those notes, all those maybe starts of poems. It’s like having a treasure box.
What’s a good day for you?
Walking my beautiful boy Ned in the morning, gradually waking up. He’s a nine-year-old, emotionally expressive golden retriever, and one of the deep loves of my life. Then time to write, at home or a coffee shop. A little time to play around in my apartment, rearrange, bring something in from Housing Works on 17th St. For many years I had a garden someplace, and that tending and shaping was an important part of my creative life—while I worked in the garden beds I was also working on thinking through ideas and questions, as if the materials of poetry also were to be found in the soil. Now I am solely an apartment dweller, and just this minute, answering your question, it occurred to me that this is my garden now: I put in new things, weed it, bring order to some spots, while this corner or that closet seems pretty much hopeless. But back to the good day: I’d put a trip to the Green Market in Union Square in it, on an uncrowded weekday, and a bit of time to read and nap, and then my excellent sweetheart coming over in the evening.
Oh, and that day would have at least one new insight or question in it, maybe something turned and seen from an unanticipated angle, or finding out about some aspect of things I barely knew existed. I think that certainty about the nature of reality is basically incompatible with a creative life. Certainty gradually covers you with dust.
What brought you to New York?
I lived in New York first in 1981. I’d just left a heterosexual marriage, and my first full-time teaching job had come to an end. I drove from Des Moines to the city in my little yellow Chevette with a few boxes of clothes and books, and $600 to my name. My first stint was tough; I was a typist at a fancy firm that gave us lunch money and, if you worked overtime, cab fare home. I’d have two hot dogs and a soda for lunch, and walk the thirty blocks home so I could pocket the leftover money for rent. In three months I moved to Boston, planning to move in with a man I’d fallen in love with, and would live with for the rest of his life.
My second experience of New York had a very different character. NYU invited me to teach as a guest in their grad program in 2001. The job came with a huge apartment nearby, one that had been occupied by other visiting writers; the shelves were full of books signed to them by their author s. My immediate predecessor, Agha Shahid Ali, had left the cupboards full of Kashmiri spices. I had amazing students there, who’ve gone on to publish wonderful books: Kathy Graber, Greg Pardlo, Jason Schneiderman, Jennifer Knox, Susan Miller, Ada Limón, Kazim Ali and many others. This time New York felt like home: my friends were here, and my agent and editor, and opportunities of pretty much any sort you can imagine.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
When my NYU housing came to an end, my partner and I bought an apartment in Chelsea, on W. 16th near 7th Ave, and I’ve lived here now for nineteen years, though as is the way with time, it both does and doesn’t feel that long. I’ve had two different getaway places along the way—one in Fire Island Pines, the other in the Springs, just a mile from Frank O’Hara’s grave. Hearts’ desires change as they do, so for now this neighborhood is my year-round landscape. It was pokier when I got here, more locally owned shops, fewer people on the sidewalk. My small building was full of older people who’d bought their apartments in the ’70s for practically nothing. Then came middle-class professionals like yours truly. (I’m still startled to live in an age when a poet can be a middle-class professional!) The newest residents here buy apartments with their parents’ help, or work on Wall Street. Eighth Ave is no longer the commercial hub of New York gay life, and the feel of the place shifted dramatically with new arrivals: Barney’s, the Rubin Museum and, the real game-changer, the High Line, one of the most admired public spaces in the world, and deservedly so. Some days every third person on the sidewalk is consulting a map. Even 14th St. is getting fancy. I’ve written poems criticizing gentrification, and there are weirdly alarming moments, like cold nights when the homeless sleep under Barney’s stainless steel awning, their heads beside the display windows, a foot or two from a platinum necklace, or a $5000 purse. Still, there’s enough grit and collision here to keep a sense of vitality, a living edge, and that will be here at least until the seas rise.
How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Once a week, to Brooklyn Heights, to see my therapist and often my ex-turned-friend Paul, and from time to time to Fort Greene or other neighborhoods to see friends, plus events in DUMBO or at the library. I love that sirens and alarms aren’t so constant. I love the quality and variety of affordable cafés. And the literary audiences are exceptional: listening acutely, with the expectation of pleasure. Less defended, I’d say.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Community for me is an extended thing—Time avails not, distance avails not, as Whitman said. There are poets who I admire hugely, whose work and thinking is essential to me, who live 3000 miles away, and some who live a mile away, and this being New York, I might see the distant one more often! And poets by nature are often enthralled by the voices of the dead, and how those voices, just words on a page, create a presence. I feel I KNOW Frank O’Hara, and Constantine Cavafy, and Emily Dickinson. Not to mention Whitman, who has haunted me like none other.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Holy ground, Brooklyn, thinking of just three among many: Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore.
I’ve just finished writing more-or-less 275 pages about Walt Whitman, so I’ll encourage readers interested in exploring this obsession with me to pick up a copy of the book this coming April.
Hart Crane was born right at the beginning of the twentieth century and came from his home in Cleveland to New York City as a young man, wide-eyed and enraptured by modernity and the freedom and exhilaration of urban life. The Romantic poets had despaired of city life, appalled by what industrialization had done to the quality of life. But like Whitman before, Crane felt at home in the crowded streets of New York and welcomed the opportunities for sexual adventure and encounters with the new. He lived a while in a Brooklyn Heights apartment from which he could see the Brooklyn Bridge, his emblem of transcendence, the curve that lifts up from limitation. He was wildly in love with jazz and with language, and his poems are full of gorgeous phrasing that pushes almost past referentiality. His sequence “Voyages” is one of his century’s greatest love poems, and the opening hymn of praise in his epic The Bridge is the most thrilling and moving hymn to an engineering accomplishment ever composed.
Marianne Moore made poems the way one might make collages, taking scraps of language that interested her from a wide range of sources and cobbling them into knotted and gnarly poems arranged in patterns of syllabic lines she invented—5 syllables here, 9 there, and so on. She is a model of contradictions: restrained and understated, she will follow a trail of associations that intrigues her for line after line. Plain spoken, her poems can grow deliciously lush. She loved animals, but I suspect what really excited her were the ways they have been described. Her poems have an objective, even cold quality about them, yet they possess an unexpected, modern sort of musicality. Think Satie, or Poulenc. Hired in the ’50s to produce names for new models of Ford automobiles, she produced a remarkable list of possibilities. My favorite: Utopian Turtletop. I want one.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I don’t usually read poetry at night; it gets me excited and restless, and all that ending and beginning, starting and stopping can feel wearying, unlike the long glide of a novel or memoir or book-length work of nonfiction. The horizontal quality of extended prose is wonderful when you want to sleep after you read.
So I think of poetry as something more for the daytime, and reading in fits and starts works well, say on the subway or the train to school. At home there’s always something else to do, something to pick up or put away, so it’s pleasurable to read in situations where there’s nothing else to do: a café, the laundromat, a bench in the park. There are two problems with this: if a poem is incendiary, doing something with form or content that thrills or disturbs you or both, you can find yourself talking back to it, or muttering to yourself and making faces. Or if a poem artfully touches a live emotional nerve, you can find yourself weeping in public. In either case, you may be seen as a crazy person, but that’s the price we pay.
My worst experience of this actually occurred with a novel. I was reading Paul Auster’s heartbreaking novel Timbuktu on a plane and had just a few pages to go when we landed in Houston. I couldn’t wait to finish the book, so I was standing by the baggage carousel reading while I waited for my suitcase. I reached the last page, on which the dog who is the novel’s central character kills himself, because he has lost the person he loved. I began to cry, not discretely, but in big wracking sobs. This was maybe five or six years—not much, in the life of grief—after my own partner had died, and I understood completely why that dog didn’t want to live any longer, and I could not hold back the tide of grief I felt, even as I was embarrassed to be such a mess in the buttoned-up no-place of the airport.
The only authentic answer I can give to this question is “I don’t know.” I am, like Walt Whitman, “of Manhattan the son.” The borough across the East River is alluring, multiple and diverse in its neighborhoods. It’s large, contains multitudes. Great bookstores. Every kind of grocery imaginable. Let’s say it’s an invitation I keep exploring. An open door.