Monday night’s reading marked the concluding Poetry Forum of the semester, and though ordinarily preoccupied with finals, MFA students were strong in number. Mark Doty was no disappointment. His most recent book, Fire to Fire, won the National Book Award in 2008; he has received numerous awards both nationally and abroad. Doty began the evening with poems he considered fitting for writers. One poem surveyed the inevitable interaction between reader and text: in this instance, a previously owned version of Song of Myself, complete with marginal notations. Whitman offers, “What is the grass?” And Doty ponders the question noted by a student: “Isn’t it grass?” In another poem for writers, titled “Pipistrelle” Doty recounts his experience spotting a bat in
Doty’s poem can be found here:
Click here for Bennett’s poem.
Doty discussed his “Theories and Apparitions” from Fire to Fire, confiding in the audience: “I made a theory and a couple of days later I thought, well, that seems incomplete.” He read one such “Theory of Beauty,” in which he invented names for bird cries. Consider these examples of the grackle: “Fire crackers with a break report” and “Imperious impure singing.” Doty’s “Apparitions” are inspired by moments when “poets of the past intrude into the present.” “Apparition (Favorite Poem),” published in The Best American Poetry 2009, is based on a young man’s recitation of a Shelley poem. For the living poet, these lines are chilling: “He makes the poem his own/ even as he becomes a vessel/ for its reluctance to disappear.” This poem inherently questions the value of poetry, moving the reader (listener) to go home and commit her favorite poem to memory. Other apparitions include the likes of John Berryman, Homer, and Darwin.
Doty is inspired not only by other writers, but also by images and found text. One such poem began with a photo in “National Geographic” of a frozen baby mammoth, the first-ever poem from this perspective: “I am still one month old and forty thousand years without my mother.” Magazines are a mine for Doty, and he shared a found poem from “The Iris Catalog,” featuring a menacing flower called the “Anvil of Darkness.” Doty inquired, “Can you imagine growing something called the “Anvil of Darkness?”
Following the reading was an engaging Q & A, which began with ruminations on Wordsworth and Whitman. David Lehman, the moderator and Poetry Coordinator of The New School MFA program, asked if Doty was aligned with Whitman. Doty responded, “Whitman is a tutelary spirit,” and explained the appeal of Whitman’s “warmth of embrace,” as opposed to Wordsworth’s analytical approach, which often forgoes a direct address. In considering the traditions of these great mentors, Doty reflected on his own work: “I want things to be located in particular relationships and periods of time.”
The moderator asked how the word “theory” fit into Doty’s practice. Was it a synonym for poetry? Doty connects theories to observation: “one looks at experience and comes to understanding based on a study of the evidence the world provides.” Comparing theories to apparitions, Doty noted, “We as a species are theory-makers… What is it that contradicts us but an apparition? An apparition confounds a theory.” Doty also considered the haunting moments when an admired poet enters your life: “When you know someone’s work it becomes a lens through which you see your experience — for example, I’m in a John Ashbery poem!”
When asked how he jumpstarts his imagination, Doty discussed his reading preferences: “I read stimulating texts that are not poems, such as art history. I am reading Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Colasso. It just makes me want to sit down and start scribbling a poem. Music can do that. Gardening can do that.” Doty touched upon the different ways in which he approaches prose and poetry, explaining that his poems have a longer life span, or remain in the works for a good deal of time, whereas prose requires his committed concentration. When writing prose Doty does not write poems, but works diligently to complete a draft.
Instead of leaving the audience with an assignment or writing exercise Doty encouraged students to read as artists: “look for what you can appropriate.” The dexterous student might practice such appropriation by turning to the pages of Fire to Fire.