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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
May 6, 2024
Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
May 6, 2024
Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

Mark Doty reads of Turtles and transience

Mark Doty is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of nonfiction. In 2008, he won the National Book Award for his book of new and collected poems, “Fire to Fire.” Doty is a prominent writer at Rutgers University and gave a reading at Grinnell this past Thursday.

As you have traveled and moved around a lot can you talk about how place influences your writing?
I’ve been traveling my whole life. I went to seven or eight schools by the time I finished high school. There are both positives and negatives to that. I feel it really pushed into my inner resources because friendships would often disappear. I needed to find sources of community and some sense of stability and for me those were in books. As a child my best friends were books, or were in books. I found that you could really get closer to another person in a work of literature.

I think that all that traveling helped me to become a writer. I think it gave me a sense of self-reliance and a degree of independence. It made me feel comfortable on my feet wherever I am. The downside, of course, is the possibility of isolation and not expecting your connections to last. As a writer this has made me interested in evanescence, the transience of the fleeting so that shows up in my work—in a lot of different contexts. I feel more like a citizen of the nation than a citizen of any particular place.

How long after having your two dogs did you have write “Dog Years”?
I started writing while one of the dogs was still alive. I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library as I wanted to write a book about the human relationship with animals. I thought it would more be about animals and poetry and the way so many poems turn on an encounter with animals.

I started to do that and then it began to shift and morph into my relationship with these two dogs. About four chapters into it, the book just stopped because one of the dogs was still alive and elderly at the time. I set the book aside. He died four years later and after six months I began again with the book.
I would say coming back to the book was a way to mourn those creatures because they had been in my life for sixteen years. It was also a way to stand back from life with an animal and what it meant to me. I wanted to explore our relationship with the non-human.

Where there any other factors during the time of your writing Dog Years that impacted your writing?
Growing up with that immense sense of mobility made the relationship with my dogs even more profound. Dogs bring us so into the present. I’m a dreamer and, as a person who lived by the word, can leave the present moment, maybe too easily. People spend a lot of time thinking about the past and the future and for dogs its all about the present. They tend to be therapeutic.

In your essay “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” you talk about why you feel public grief is so easily manipulated. Can you talk about that?
I was living in New York around 9/11 and for those of us living in the city there was an enormous sense of a rupture or a wound that we just could not articulate. Very quickly, I notice that my friends in some other part of the country were able to put that event in some political context. I think for those of us who were around it, we realized language became an impossibility. People would go to Union Square and sing—because you could tell people were just looking for a space to be together—and people were looking for retribution.

Instead of the kind of soul-searching that was taking place initially, how could our country be so hated? This kind of question went away. One thing I noticed that was amazing, all of the tensions that revolved around difference went away. We were all in the same boat, and it was a very moving thing. It was strange to see that move away and I think part of the reason that fades away is that we revert to a kind of simpler thinking.

As a writer of more than one genre, how does that impact your writing process, your thinking?
It gives me more options. Poetry is so often a distillation of strong feeling and there is a way in which the feeling to write a poem wells up and you figuratively “burst into song.” I think most people, whether or not they are poets, feel the need to make something when they are in love or in grief.

When I write an essay or a memoir I want to stand back and think about my subject; I want to walk around it from many different angles. A poem tends to be a very focused thing. It doesn’t give you, usually, the latitude you have in another form. Prose also gives me something to do when the muse isn’t knocking at my door.
It is very interesting to discover different readerships and that is very thrilling. As a poet, I’m used to small audiences and writing prose lets me access a different audience.

Can you tell me about your poem heaven?
A student whom I was advising told me a story about how every now and then she would step outside of the life that she know, go from Vermont to New York City, or to another urban area and basically become a homeless person for a while. She describes meeting a homeless man and his dog. That just put my imagination right to work because there is something about animal company that’s very stimulating to me as a dreamer and there is something about stepping out of the familiar identity. I loved her story and thought “what do I do?” and I asked her if I could use it and she agreed. She told me that in writing her story, I had revised it quite a bit.

Do have any advice for young writers at Grinnell?
1. Read with passion. You don’t have to read systematically. And make a little space for the rebellious part of you that wants to read for pleasure.
2. Know what advice to reject. You have to strike a balance between listening to criticism and your own stubbornness. No one ever became a great writer by following a lot of advice.

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