Q&A: Writer Mark Doty Brings His ‘World Into Words’ to UVA

Mark Doty’s UVA residency will include a reading, three lectures and a public conversation on poetry and race with poet Rita Dove.
September 20, 2017

Mark Doty is a writer who likes to make seemingly below-the-surface connections between people, animals, things and events.

Doty, an award-winning writer who has been hailed for crafting some of the most original and arresting work in contemporary poetry while drawing equal praise for his prose and memoirs, is spending this semester at the University of Virginia as the Creative Writing Program’s fifth Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence.

Among his nine books of poetry, “Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems” won the 2008 National Book Award. His earlier work, “My Alexandria” (1993), was chosen by Philip Levine for the National Poetry Series, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was the first American book to receive Great Britain’s prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize.

The Kapnick Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Program aims to bring writers of international stature to the Grounds to teach and engage with UVA students and the literary community. It was inspired by William Faulkner’s legendary residencies at the University in 1957 and ’58.

The program debuted in 2014 with the late novelist James Salter as the inaugural Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. Since then, Caryl Phillips, Lydia Davis and Junot Díaz each have served as Kapnick Writers.

During his residency on Grounds, Doty’s schedule of free, public events will include a reading, three lectures and a public conversation on poetry and race with poet Rita Dove, Commonwealth Professor in UVA’s Creative Writing Program. He is also giving manuscript consultations to Master of Fine Arts students, visiting several classes and presenting two master classes, one on poetry and one on memoir-writing.

In discussing Doty’s work, poet and professor of creative writing Debra Nystrom counted his poetry, memoirs and essays “among the most beautiful and most necessary works of literature being written by anyone in America today.” 

UVA Today sat down with Doty to find out more about his visit.

Q. What does it mean to you to get this post as Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence?

A. It’s a dream job! I have two master classes, one on poetry and one on memoir. I meet intensively with students one-on-one. I’m going to do various public events. It’s very refreshing, really good stuff. I happily get to do other things in addition to teaching at Rutgers [University] every spring.

Q. What would make this semester seem worthwhile or successful?

A. The Kapnick makes something extra happen. It brings another dimension to an already great M.F.A. program. I hope I bring another perspective, some insight, and help the students with tools they can use.

This is privileged work. For example, I’m talking with a student as she’s shaping herself on the page, writing something that may be in her first book. I can look at it and reflect back to her what’s going on in the work. And the student is grateful for the attention and the recognition. She’s allowing herself to be seen.

It’s thrilling, a profound way to encounter another person. Students are working on the craft, but they also have to be vulnerable, and show themselves in the process. I feel like I’m witnessing at a birth, helping new work coming into being.

If a student sees new ways for their work to keep opening up over time from this term’s conversations, that would be meaningful.

Teaching is an investment in the future, for the long term. Sometimes you see the results, and sometimes things one does or says may bear fruit long in the future.

I love much of the poetry and works of art that I do because teachers brought my attention to them. In our culture, we don’t have poetry all around us. You have to seek out poetry, even though it’s our human tradition and inheritance, one that belongs to us all.

[I hope] they see the poet’s connection to the world, that poetry shows what makes us human, how we form bonds with people, with animals, where we’re all alive together on the same planet. How poetry responds to the world and to what’s happening.

Q. Can you give us a glimpse into the public events you’re doing as Kapnick Writer?

A. I’ll be reading my own work on Sept. 21. Then there’s  a colloquium about poetry and race with Rita Dove and myself on Oct. 10.

I agreed to come here before the Aug. 11 and 12 events, and though it might sound odd, when I watched those news reports I was glad to be coming here. We needn’t hold poetry and the arts at a distance. At the colloquium, we’ll talk about difference and race, what has worked for us as poets and what the challenges are. I believe it isn’t just the job of poets of color to respond to these issues. Racism damages everyone, I truly believe that. We’ll discuss some poems that reflect on the issues – race, gender, sexual orientation and others. Poetry has a way of bringing it back together – all the things scattered, and reminding us how much we have in common. We’ll talk about how artists push back on social and political issues, and think about how to make genuine, moving poems – not simply polemics or letters to the editor – about matters that divide us.

Over time, I’ve gradually written about almost everything I’ve wanted to. At first, I’d worry that courage would fail me. But if I’m angry enough, I’ll lose that worry and fear. I wanted to write about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African-American boy shot by Cleveland police 2014 because he was playing with a toy gun in a city park. I knew I wanted to write about it. I didn’t know him, where would I begin? I thought a lot about it, and the poem ends up talking about time. So much history had poured into this boy, everything that had happened before him, and now he would never have all these things in his future … that was all gone. The poem deals with how time collapsed.

One can’t shut the door on the external world. Of course poets pay attention to the inner life, but it’s a part of our work, bridging inner and outer, trying to give shape to experience.

I’ve given readings and talks before like the Medical Center Hour [Nov. 8] about my poems on the AIDS epidemic. In the early ’90s, Provincetown, Massachusetts, was my community, a place hard-hit by the AIDS epidemic. The mainstream media then offered stories of abandonment and exile and isolation. But what I saw was compassion and courage, people helping each other – volunteers, neighbors, strangers, home health aides. I didn’t see these stories out there. I felt compelled to write about them [in the poetry volumes, “My Alexandria” and “Atlantis”]. And I wrote a memoir, “Heaven’s Coast.” It came out about a year after the new medications. I remember at one book talk, there were hundreds of people in line, each holding a copy, so many faces brimming with tears. There was a huge unspoken grief among us, and the book became a touchstone for many.

Literature is not a luxury. Clearly something was needed.

Then I’m also giving a three-part lecture on poetry and compassion [Nov. 14, 20 and 29]. I’ll read some great poems and talk about how both their craft and their content brings us  as readers closer to the being of others – the lives of animals, other people, even our sense of compassion for the world as a whole.

Q. What do you write prose about?

A. I’ve written three memoirs [“Firebird,” “Heaven’s Coast” and “Dog Years”] and essays – “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon” and “The Art of Description: World Into Word,” a kind of handbook on how writers translate perception into words, trying to make the senses come alive on the page.

Q. What’s different for you when writing poetry or prose?

A. I make myself focus on getting work done when writing prose – a full-length prose book requires a schedule. It’s hard when I’m traveling and lecturing. Poetry, at least some of the time, can be inspiration-driven. You can write a poem in a taxicab, or when you wake up sleepless at 4 a.m. But even poets have to work in a disciplined, steady way – now and then, anyway!

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I’m working on a book about Walt Whitman, why his work is important now and what it means to me. It’s not a biography; it’s not traditional literary criticism. It’s a personal reflection, an encounter with a great poet and his work.

I’m really looking forward to wandering over to the [Albert and Shirley Small] Special Collections Library – it has a great Whitman collection [part of the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature].

Q. When did you start writing poetry, and why?

A. I started writing poetry in high school – that time when teenagers are feeling sensitive and alienated. My family was gradually falling apart. I found in poetry a refuge. There were these beautiful, mysterious words, full of sensation I couldn’t account for. … Then I found the University of Arizona and met Richard Shelton [who directed Arizona’s Poetry Center]. I’d never known a poet before. He invited me to spend time at the poetry center, and, in a gentle way, held the door open to another world.

Mark Doty – Schedule of Events

Sept. 21: Reading. 5 p.m., Small Auditorium.

Oct. 10: Colloquium. “What Violence Has Torn Apart: Poets Rita Dove and Mark Doty on Writing Across the Lines.” 6 p.m., Paramount Theater.

The late John Berger wrote that the work of “every authentic poem” is to “bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart.” At this moment, many American poets feel keenly the importance of writing across divides. What can our poems do to cross the lines of race, gender, class or sexual identity? What obstacles – imposed by ourselves or others – get in the way?

Two poets – Rita Dove, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Commonwealth Professor of English at UVA, and Mark Doty, National Book Award winner and Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence – will discuss these questions with each other and with the audience, talk about what they have or haven’t been able to write, and why poetry feels necessary now.

Nov. 8: Medical Center Hour talk. Noon, Pinn Hall Conference Center Auditorium.

“Being-in-Common: Three Lectures on the Poetics of Compassion”

Nov. 14: “Compassion for Animals.” 5 p.m., Small Auditorium.

Nov. 20: “Compassion for Others.” 5 p.m., Small Auditorium.

Nov. 29: “Compassion for the World.” 5 p.m., Newcomb Hall Ballroom.

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications