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The Arts
02.18.09

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Phaedra

MAN ON THE MARGINS: Mark Doty's poems and memoirs explore the worlds where the marginalized struggle to make their mark.

Poetry Man

Mark Doty, National Book Award–winning poet and author of 'Dog Years,' recaptures the past for SJSU reading

By Richard von Busack


POET Mark Doty says his therapist once told him that the past is a spiral staircase, in which changed perspectives occur at every turn. Doty is reading at San Jose State University, Feb. 24, at a Center for Literary Arts event and taking part in an onstage conversation with Paul Lisicky on the following day. Doty just won the National Book Award for Fire to Fire, a collection of old and new verse. His 2007 memoir, Dog Years, is commonly called the smarter person's Marley & Me. But Doty's superb 1999 memoir, Firebird, is the best introduction to this singular poet.

In an essay on his website, Doty lists what he was up against, particularly "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." He writes in Firebird, "My mother taught me to love the things that would save me, and then, when I was 16, she taught me that I wasn't worth saving." Doty's mother drew a pistol on him out of drunken mania and homophobia.

After this incident, really the closing of his childhood, Doty has lived as a teacher in different parts of the country. He weathered the AIDS epidemic, losing a lover and watching the afflicted perish: "the poor and marginal / endlessly marginal and poor" is how he puts it in his 1995 poetry collection Atlantis.

In the poem "Homo Will Not Inherit," he insists, "I'll tell you what I'll inherit: the margins." But Atlantis is also about the margin of water and shore where Doty is beguiled by color: the bronze crust of a horseshoe crab, the Third World bangles and baubles for sale in a seacoast town.

Via email I asked him what Atlantis meant to him. "The lost world. In the book of that title, I'm thinking specifically of a relationship and of a personal realm lost to the AIDS epidemic. But the implications are broader, because the past is always lost to us. We all have our lost continents."

During his reading, Doty will be going over new work: "I've found myself writing lots of new poems lately, during my visiting quarter at Stanford. What a wonderful place to live. And I am missing the worst New York winter in years!"

I ask Doty, "Leaving publishers out of it, why was there such a wave of memoirs in the last few years?"

"I think people are hungry for stories of individual lives," he says, "for news about how others live. We live in a time of great homogenization, globalization, mass culture. And the memoir works against that, by giving us access to specific, subjective experience."

What suggestions did he have for a writer trying to reach for a half-remembered childhood?

 

"Try to think about spaces, how it felt to be in a particular room—a classroom, or a doctor's waiting room or under your bed. We remember spaces in a different way than we do time. Often if you begin with a specific place, you find yourself beginning to think associatively, to connect one bit of memory with another. And pay particular attention to sensory detail—the smells and colors and textures of the past."

In Doty's lucid and gleaming verse, he mentions artists: Whistler, de Kooning, Milton Avery and Caravaggio. I sign off by wondering if he had wanted to paint, like his mother did.

"I don't, but I daydream about it," he replies. "Words, by nature, are abstract and ephemeral, so I am always jealous of the immediacy and physicality painters work with. Just look at a patch of paint in a canvas by, say, Diebenkorn, and try to put that into words. It takes forever to do badly in language what paint does immediately and beautifully. But then of course painters are jealous of poets, too!"


MARK DOTY speaks on Tuesday (Feb. 24) at 7pm and answers questions on Wednesday (Feb. 25) at 1:30pm, both at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Rooms 225–229. Free. (408.924.4489)


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