An Interview with Mark Doty
Dale Boyer | March/April 1998
Mark Doty is the author of five volumes of poetry: Turtle, Swan; Bethlehem in Broad Daylight; My Alexandria; Atlantis; and Sweet Machine, which has just been published by HarperCollins. He has also written a critically acclaimed memoir Heaven's Coast. He has received numerous grants and awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize. My Alexandria received England's T.S. Eliot Award, making Doty the first American ever to win the prize. Doty has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including University of Iowa, Sarah Lawrence, Vermont College, and University of Utah. This conversation took place at OUTWRITE, the National Gay and Lesbian Writer's Conference.
Boyer: Let's start with the basics. Where were you born?
Doty: I was born in Maryville, Tennessee. My father was an army engineer. I was a civilian Army brat, so we moved around a great deal. During my childhood, I lived in Tennessee until I was about seven years old, and after that I lived in Arizona, southern and northern California, Florida—a lot of suburban, western, southern places.
Boyer: And how old are you?
Boyer: Where did you go to high school?
Doty: In Tucson, Arizona, so that sort of feels like home, because I did a few grades of elementary school, and then my high school years there. I went to high school for three years and I just got sick of it, I couldn't handle it anymore, so I registered myself at the University of Arizona in Tucson. They didn't find out for about a year that I didn't have a high school diploma. I studied poetry there for a year and a half, then I dropped out. I was out of school for a number of years. When I went back to college, I finished my BA at Drake University in Des Moines, 1978.
Boyer: You taught at Drake?
Doty: For a year, yes, I was a sabbatical replacement. It was very strange—well, it's a long involved story. Like many young gay men in my generation—especially outside of urban centers—I didn't know any other gay people, so I didn't think there was any life for me out there. So when I was 18, I got married. My wife was another writer. We met when she was a grad student at Arizona and then she got a job teaching at Drake. So that's how I was able to go to school there, because I got a tuition rebate, and then eventually was hired there myself for a year, just as our marriage was breaking up. It was rather complicated.
Boyer: How long did the marriage last?
Doty: Nine years.
Boyer: Can you talk a little bit about that? When did you first know you were gay?
Doty: When I was six (laughs). I mean, I suppose it's not fair to apply the term "gay" to what a child experiences, because I think of that as a term that signifies identity. And certainly I didn't have a gay identity as a child. But I remember having strong feelings of attraction to men as a little boy. I remember going riding on the back of my sister's boyfriend's motorcycle, and he had his shirt off—he was a bodybuilder—and I had my arms around him. I remember being just (laughs) giddy, you know? I don't even know if I was in first grade. I also remember a love of glittery objects (laughs). My sister belonged to a sorority, and they had lots of rituals and dress-up parties and I loved to sneak into her dresser drawers and play with those things—paper fans and sparkly hair ornaments—when she wasn't around, so there were certainly all kinds of signs. By the time I was a teenager, I was busy trying to cope with those feelings of sexual difference, and I thought, "If I tamp this down, it'll go away," or "Maybe everybody feels like this, and you just ignore it and do what you're supposed to do."
And there was no public discourse about homosexuality around me. I would sneak around trying to find things at the library, trying to find any evidence of other people like me. I remember buying this book in the drugstore. This would have been mid-sixties, maybe 1965, at the Star Pharmacy in my neighborhood in Tucson. It was called That Certain Summer, basically a pornographic novel. And it was thrilling to me because it was evidence of sexual difference out there, somewhere. But it seemed so far away from me. It didn't seem to offer any way to live, or a life to move into. It's enormously encouraging to me to think that most young gay people don't have to have that experience anymore, don't have to grow up believing they're the only one in the world. Television works against it, the newspapers. Our visibility works against that. In those days, our visibility practically didn't exist.
Boyer: Can you talk about the early writing part of your life? No one ever seems to talk about that. What were you doing for a job those first few years of marriage?
Doty: First I was a preschool teacher. Then I directed a couple of federally funded child care centers. Eventually, because I was writing poetry in those days—although it's not poetry that I have much allegiance to now—I became a poet in the schools. I worked with K through 12 students in schools all around Iowa, where I lived at that time. I was writing all the time, poems very loyal to the period style of the '70s, vague, neo-surrealist lyrics. I think the best that I can say for that writing is that I was practicing my craft.
Boyer: Where did you receive your MFA?
Doty: Between 1978 and 1980 I was a graduate student at Goddard College, in a non-resident MFA program. And it was a very interesting sort of hotbed. You felt—I felt—suddenly pushed to examine not only my work and the assumptions I was making in my work, but perhaps more pressingly, to examine my life—to think about the relationship between my writing and how I was living. I suppose that often happens when we're pulled out of a familiar situation and we stand at some distance from the everyday. That experience of going away to school, even going away for a few weeks and being with other writers in a very intense way—because it was like spiritual boot camp—pushed me to recognize that my life as I was living it was really founded on some lies.
My life at school felt much more real, if far more terrifying, than my life at home. And I began to write poems which were much less fabricated and cloaked, poetry which emerged much more directly from experience. I couldn't sustain the lies any longer; my spirit was suffocating as a result of that lying. I had to throw off the old life. That took courage, if I do say so myself, because our habits are hard to change, and relationships are hard to change. And it wasn't just that I was married because I was hiding from my sexuality. That was part of it, but like any relationship, it was more complicated than that. Ruth and I were held together by mutual need. So, it was a very difficult process, and it took a while. Graduate school propelled us into therapy and then me into therapy, and by the end of school, I was writing poems that were already signaling to me that I was getting ready to leave. And so the marriage ended somewhere in 1981.
Boyer: Do you stay in contact with your ex-wife at all?
Doty: I do. Over time, whatever animosity or grief existed between us has been smoothed, and—oddly enough, or maybe not oddly—Wally's illness [Wally Roberts, Doty's partner of 12 years, died of complications due to AIDS in January, 1994] was a point of connection between us. My ex had a great deal of concern and sympathy for that, so we talked on the phone a good deal.
Boyer: Wally's death is the subject of your memoir, Heaven's Coast. Can you talk about the experience of writing that book?
Doty: I started the book about six weeks after he died, in that raw, stunned time when I needed to write because I felt so much. And yet couldn't—because I felt so much. There was this terrific emotional pressure on words, and to make a poem that would contain all of that or even respond to it seemed impossible to me. And I couldn't make a poem that did anything else, because obviously the feelings were so present, so overwhelmingly insistent. I had been invited to contribute an essay to an anthology called Wrestling with the Angel: Gay Men Write About Faith and Religion. I had thought I would love to write about those subjects, but when the invitation came, Wally was terribly ill, so there was just no way I could even think about it.
About six weeks after he died, I was washing the dishes and I found myself thinking, "If I were going to write that essay, this is where I'd start. And then I'd say this." And then I thought, "Well, you know, if you're thinking like this, maybe you should try it." So I went to the computer and I wrote a sentence. Then I wrote another one. And for the first time since he had died, I could concentrate. I hadn't been able to read. I was having that awful kind of mental experience you have in times of great distress where the mind sort of jumps tracks, you know? You can't stay on any one thing. Writing became a way of grounding myself, of paying attention to what was going on, of taking care of myself. So I did that for the next year, watching myself, as it were, in grief's shifting dynamic, in that awful negotiation with loss that new grief is. Awful, but not just awful, since living with Wally through the last months of his life was also the most intimate thing I've ever done with another person. Being next to death brings us close to the heart of living, too. Writing Heaven's Coast was a process of meditation for me, a way to examine my life with Wally, and the mystery of the end of a life, and the shocked and wrenched time after. The expansive, inclusive form of the memoir felt necessary.
I finished the book on the first of March, 1995, under rather magical circumstances: a beautiful villa in Bellagio, Northern Italy, owned by the Rockefeller Foundation—a pallazzo, really, overlooking Lake Como. Not only did I have a huge room in the villa, but also a little stone tower up in the woods looking out at the Alps. It was just unbelievable, and exactly what I needed in order to finish that book. Because I could write the most painful and difficult parts of it, absolutely fall apart over the computer, and then I could leave, and lovely Italian men would bring me wine, or aperitifs (laughs) and all these gorgeous dinners. It was just perfect. And then the next day I could go back and do it again.
I finished the book there and I felt that it was a very important moment of passage. Not that I was done with grief, because I'm not convinced that you're ever done with it; I think your relationship to it shifts over time. But I had made something which could contain at least something of us, and which gave me a frame of reference to think about loss—something which could invite other people into our experience as well. Somehow in doing that I felt lighter. I began to feel interested in having a future. Instead of having all of my attention turned towards the past, some of my attention could be turned to it. Gradually I could look more and more towards a life ahead of me, which I had really not been able to imagine. In a way, I had believed that my life stopped when Wally's did. Well, I began to say, maybe that's not the case.
Boyer: You live in Provincetown. In your book Atlantis, I see you dealing with your life on the coastline. There must be something about the coastline that brings an awareness of self to the artist. I wonder if in some ways your work would have been the same if you hadn't moved there. Could you talk about what influence landscape has on your work, and maybe Provincetown in particular?
Doty: A coast, of course, is a border zone, a zone of change, where one thing becomes another. And there is that marvelous grey area when we're not quite sure if we're on land or on water. Because the tide moves in and out twice a day, because the fog pours in then disperses, because the light is constantly shifting, there is a sense of instability there in which I feel at home, and probably lots of queer people feel at home. Maybe that's the reason Provincetown is one of our places. I came there because Wally was—he had just taken the [HIV] test—Wally had tested positive. We were living in Vermont and, in some ways were happy there, and other ways feeling rather isolated. You know, when you live in a town of 8,000 people and you're the only "out" male couple in town, it creates a bit of pressure. The prospect of Wally getting sick there, and the kind of isolation we'd have experienced if we'd stayed, was not a happy one.
We had come down to Provincetown in the winter of '89 or '90, and absolutely fallen in love with the place. We felt so welcome, so recognized as a couple, so comfortable, so surrounded by the beauty of the place. We shifted all kinds of things around and suddenly we were living in a little rented cottage on the beach in the most beautiful autumn I had ever seen in my life. It was a marvelous change. That landscape is one which seemed to offer me such rich and resonant metaphors all the time. In Provincetown, the sea is always giving me something new. A walk on the beach can yield a new shell or a new form of life, or a ruined boat, or something that the fog and the light are doing that you've never seen. That was very powerful to me, to be offered those metaphors for change and transformation during a period when my life and Wally's were changing so dramatically. I also felt that this was a time when I often could not write about what was happening to us in a direct way, because it was so overwhelming, so devastating, that it would break apart any attempt to make a poem out of it. But I could write about it through the indirect means of trying to write about a crab shell, or one of those ruined fishing boats beached in our bay. So landscape was a place to look for myself, basically.
Boyer: I was confused by your comment about loving the instability, but now I see it makes a certain amount of sense that you'd be attracted to a place like that, and want to live in it.
Doty: There is a tradition of gay identity gravitating towards the unstable. Think about the way we can perform in order to "pass," the way that drag queens perform in order to mock the conventions of gender. I think that there's a certain relationship between the homosexual and the unstable, a sort of understanding suggested by queer people's inevitable insight that the body does not determine behavior. The mere fact of having a penis or vagina doesn't dictate what you do with them—nor who you love or what you desire or what you wear. How much of identity then can be seen as a construct, or a performance, or something put on like a costume? And I don't at all mean "unstable" in a negative way. "The fluid," perhaps, might be a better way of putting it.
Boyer: I remember you once told me that you felt like the "queer magnet" at Vermont College, from the standpoint that sooner or later everybody who was gay wound up working with you. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what influences you had, and then, I don't know if you feel like you can address it, but the question of your own influence on others.
Doty: Let me start with my own sense of influence. When I was coming out—1980—I felt that models for the kind of poem I wanted to write, which would include not only my desire, but also the social context and implications of my desire, were not readily available. There were plenty of poems around, poems of gay liberation which foregrounded sex, taking sexual behavior as the point of difference between gay men and straight men and, therefore, celebrating that point of difference. The problem with that kind of work was that it seemed it could only talk about sex. What role did my desire, my queerness, play in the university or the grocery store or the market place? What did it have to do with what I wore and how I spoke, how I understood myself and others, how I felt about history, how I felt about God—whole realms of experience?
Of course, there were legions of poets who had investigated questions of sexual difference with varying degrees of directness or obliquity before that moment. My education hadn't pointed me toward them, or at least not toward the ways I needed to read them! And as time went on, I would find more and more of those poets—find my way into the brilliant work of James Merrill and Richard Howard and May Swenson, and into the more encoded speech of Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop—our marvelous teachers. In those days, I wanted to be both "out" and comprehensive. Some of the work in front of me was "out" but not comprehensive, like those poems of sexual liberation I just described, or it felt extremely refined and rather distant from the stuff of my life. On the one hand, there was the bluntly sexual "gay poem," on the other, a "gay esthetic" which seemed more highly stylized than seemed to suit the way I perceived my experience. Part of what I was trying to do—though I don't know if I articulated it to myself in these terms, because I was just trying to write about my life—was negotiate a sort of middle course where all of my experience could be available to me in the poems. I wanted to talk about something besides sex, and I also wanted a kind of accessibility and availability which I did not always feel was the case in that work that seemed more rarified—less what my life felt like.
A couple of people were enormously important to me. One was James L. White. His book The Salt Ecstasies, from 1982, is a neglected—and seminal—book of its period. Here is an openly queer poet talking about his desires, his sense of loss, creating a social context for the work, and doing it in beautifully crafted language, gorgeous and inescapable imagery. Some readers have had a hard time with him because the poems are not terribly affirmative. They are spoken out of the heartbreak and the sense of isolation in the poet's life. And they are anything but "gay is good" poems. But they have an unmistakable genuineness about them, which spoke to me enormously and seemed to offer possibilities for including so much—both sexuality and its surrounding range of experience. C.P. Cavafy, a great poet of memory and desire, has been a preeminent influence for me. Not in terms of style, really, but in the way he locates a compelling sense of sadness and tenderness in the erotic life and all its human interchanges/exchanges. He constructs an erotics of memory, the poem as a vessel of longing, a token of remembrance. And he was a great poet of gay men in cities.
Boyer: How has your sense of poetic style changed? Are you after something different now?
Doty: "Style," Jean Cocteau said, "is simply a way of saying complicated things." In those days I was after a plain style because I needed to tell the truth of my life plainly. Now it seems to me that the truth is seldom plain! As I've gotten older, a more wrought and conscious style has become increasingly attractive to me. It's more often the "artificial," the more veiled, if you will, that gets at emotional truth. There are lots of ways of approaching reality, from the plain to the fancy, and we have to reach for the mode of speaking which best suits the sort of feeling we're after. I've come to desire a broader range, from the conversational monologue to the diva's aria. That, you know, is where drag is such an interesting metaphor. Revealing the "true" or "authentic" self for a drag queen isn't a matter of stripping away the clothes; it's a matter of putting them on, of getting up in the spotlight and sparkling! Some of the poetry that I thought overly rarefied in 1980 now seems like a kind of lush performance of the self, a divine dressing up in the splendid stuff of language.
Boyer: Do you feel a sense of a younger generation coming up looking to your work for an example?
Doty: It's a strange way to conceive of oneself. For one thing, it makes me sound too old! (Laughter). I am aware that when I travel around giving readings, there is usually a row of eager, bright-faced young homo boys somewhere in that auditorium and I love them (laughter). I mean, I feel like that's who I'm reading to, and that thrills me. Certainly I wish that when I was 20, I could've had an "out" gay teacher. I wish that there had been poets coming to my school to read who were "out," and whose experience was sung about or considered in their poems, because I think that could have held the door open for me. The door was always there, but in 1969 in Tucson, Arizona, it was rather dimly lit (laughter) and I, for one, didn't find it. If I could be, you know, one more person holding a flashlight, spotlight, anything I can in that direction, then that just delights me to no end. Otherwise, it's hard to think about, because it's very difficult to see oneself in context in that way. This is all relatively recent—this is only a matter of the last few years for me that I've felt an increasing presence of readers. I still feel very surprised that an audience is there, and that I get a steady stream of mail from people who are taking these books to heart. I'm just now beginning to relax with the idea that I do have more of an audience and they're taking this work quite seriously.
Boyer: You said just a moment ago, rather glibly, that you were writing for the young, beautiful gay men in the audience. Is there an ideal reader for you?
Doty: I think that I have always spoken to a kind of idealized interior listener. Perhaps the person I'm speaking to is, in some ways, who I'd like to be. I have a feeling that I'm speaking to one person at a time, that the reader is on my side, you know? There's a certain intimacy about this relationship, and the reader wants, really wants, to understand. And therefore, I want to try to explain or portray experience as clearly and vividly as I can, because this ideal friend really wants to get it. I have written, fairly recently, a couple of poems that I feel are different in their mode of address. They're both in Atlantis. There's a poem called "Crepe de Chine," about drag, and a poem called "Homo Will Not Inherit," which I feel are more public poems, and their intention—I'm not even sure it's really me talking in those poems, but a sort of "Uber Homo" (laughs) who wants to speak for many of us, and speak to the world at large.
Boyer: What direction do you think gay poetry is moving in? Is there something you think gay poetry should be doing, or what do you see that it is doing?
Doty: I think it's a particularly exciting time, particularly in terms of the work that we're about to see. I think that there are so many gifted young gay and lesbian writers who are moving now through writing programs or who have recently completed their education and are now making and deepening their work. I think in the next 10 years, it's going to be extraordinary.
Boyer: Can you elaborate?
Doty: Well, I think what I see is an increasing attention to craft and to the well-made poem. There is a generation coming up not content to say simply what is important to them, but to say it well, and to say it artfully. And I'm delighted to see that the struggles of identity politics have done their work. My students seem freer, less inclined to categorize and limit themselves. Their sense of identity is complicated and dynamic. They're open to a greater range of difference. They seem to understand that sexuality is one of many lenses through which we read—a necessary lens, but not the only one. I think we're going to see a flowering, really, of powerful writing which includes all kinds of variety—of sexual orientation, of poetic form, the complex intersections of different kinds of identities, multiplicitous senses of self based on sexual, cultural, and literary allegiances.
Boyer: I think a lot of gay literature at the start tended to focus on: 1) the coming-out story, or 2) the advent of the AIDS epidemic. I see it as having dealt with those issues—and still dealing with them in many ways—but moving now towards what your work in many ways addresses, which is more about the everyday realities of being gay, and forging an identity.
Doty: I love the notion of identity as a "forgery"—something made, or made-up, which nonetheless tells a truth. I think it's a challenge to all of us to think about the fabric of our experience and all its complications. How do we see it ourselves? And then, how do we get that richness and depth of living into the work?
Boyer: Have you always felt free to write "gay" poetry? I feel many times that there are places I can't send poems, because they're not going to publish a gay poem. What kinds of barriers do you feel in terms of those sorts of things?
Doty: I think I've been very lucky in that regard, because if there have been homophobic reactions to my work, or rejections of my work based on prejudice, I have not been aware of them. I suppose they must be out there, but I haven't had to encounter them, with the exception of, you know, a few tense moments at readings. But my method is, if I sense any discomfort, I just get gayer (laughs). And it seems to work. Because the more you sort of own it and celebrate it yourself, the more other people seem to be willing to deal with it. For me, my coming out in my poems was paralleled with coming out in my life. They were happening at the same time almost literally. I recall those moments of writing the poem that had an "I" and a "you," when I first began to give that "you" specific characteristics, like stubble, that gendered the "you." And there was a little sense of wondering, "Can I really do this?" But the trepidation was not so much at that point about the fear of what people would think, because I was ready—I'd been in that closet too long. I had a lot of energy about bursting out of it. It was a fear of being able to handle its implications in my poem. In other words, if I gave "you" stubble, what did I have to address in the rest of my poem? How did the reader's assumptions, the questions about what it meant to be a "gay couple" as opposed to a "couple" in the poem—how do those have to be played out in the poem itself? Could I just write a love poem in which the "you" has stubble, or did I have to somehow make their sexuality, with its social and cultural implications, a subject of my poem? And as a 26-year-old poet of limited craft, I couldn't even begin to answer that question. All I could do was fumble around in it, which is what I did.
Boyer: Let me ask you about your new work. What direction is your new poetry taking?
Doty: They seem to me more lyrical, more concerned with music and the creation of an energetic surface, furthering some directions in Atlantis, perhaps. The poems seem to insist on shorter lines, and on playful sonics. And while they remain involved with the aftermath of grief, there's more joy in them than you might expect. The title of my new book, Sweet Machine, comes from a bit of graffiti I saw scrawled across the belly of the model in one of those Calvin Klein underwear billboards in New York. I thought, that's right—the body is a sort of engine of persistence. We go on desiring, we go on wanting to live, even after the worst. Desire won't leave us alone, which is why it helps to keep us alive. The poems also pay attention to art—what we make as another sort of "sweet machine," something that encapsulates or represents us. In a way I feel I have gone from very heightened experience, which my last couple of books have tried to capture, to the ordinary joys and confusions—which, after some very dark years, seem to me particularly joyful and confusing. There's a good deal of play in the book, a lot of city: tattoos and traffic, the jazz of urban noise. Of course, there's an elegiac sense at its core—how could that not be the case? So I hope the poems are, like the world, surprising, with light and dark so marbled together you can hardly tell them apart.
Dale Boyer received his MFA in writing from Vermont College. His poetry has appeared in The James White Review, The Evergreen Chronicles, and others.