Katie Bolick: Interview with Mark Doty

Bolick: In the book [Firebird] you write about your "education in beauty," beginning with your sister's tantalizing drawer of shiny trinkets: crepe and tulle, glittery ribbons, "scraps of sheer and sparkled treasure." Could you talk about what beauty meant to you as a child  How has your relationship to beauty and artifice changed over time?

Doty: I guess I was bored very early on by what seemed to me the plain nature of the clothes and toys and roles handed out to little boys. I saw no future for myself there. The sort of stuff my sister kept in her special drawer of souvenirs was redolent of something else -- exuberance, playfulness, permission. They appeared beautiful to me because they evoked other possibilities, something secretive and forbidden and rich with life.

I grew up in a very disconnected suburban landscape, in town after town, and it seems to me that there was very little that existed in order to enchant, to instruct us in our larger possibilities, to engage the spirit. There was, in other words, little art, and a great deal of practicality, of ways of life determined by social and economic necessity, or social and economic ambition. My love of that shiny stuff in the drawer was, I think, a kind of early outbreak of longing -- a wish for life to be something more. That took other forms later on, of course, or I'd simply have become a drag queen rather than a poet!

My relationship to artifice has changed in very complex ways. The little boy at his sister's secret drawer is interested in what's pretty. The sort of beauty that interests me now is something more revealing of character -- a very personal sort of beauty, often a failed sort. I am drawn to the ways people reinvent themselves or the world in which they find themselves -- how the  make order and harmony out of the chaos or uncertainty that surrounds them. There's a character in Firebird, for instance, an old man I met when I was a teenager, who built a homemade grotto he called The Valley of the Moon. He had taken broke  dishes and cement, scraps of old toys, and stones found in the desert and cobbled them all together into a sort of version of paradise that was intended to represent, and perhaps to preserve, innocence. It was something of a mess, a bit haphazard and piecemeal, and yet it seemed to me strikingly beautiful, a mark of an individual sensibility in the world. 

Bolick: Your poems -- noted for their lyrical language and wealth of detail -- have been criticized for being overly concerned with adjectives and "word stitchery," as a recent reviewer put it. What do you think accounts for the critical resistance to beautiful surfaces in your work? Do you pay any heed to the charges? 

Doty: There is an interesting bias toward the plain, the unadorned; what is plain and straightforward is often equated with what is true. I have real doubts about this; I don't think it's necessarily the case that the best way to describe reality is by stripping things down to essentials.

I believe that reality cannot be captured in language, period. It's too complex, too shifty, too difficult to know and to say. I think that reality can be approached, pointed to, suggested, and that the more stylistic means one has at one's disposal the better. That's why, in the title poem of my book Atlantis, there are a number of sections that circle around the same core -- around experiences that I believe are fundamentally unsayable. But I try. I try it plain, colloquial; try it elevated, formal; try it through narrative; try it through lyric; try it through metaphor. So formal density is one strategy, both in Atlantis and in Sweet Machine, but there are other poems, in both books, which are drop-dead direct. "The Embrace," for instance, from the last book, is as plainspoken a poem as I will ever write; its mode of speech felt right for the gravity of its occasion. But I'd hate the idea tha  every poem ought to be that uncompromisingly plain.

The gendered nature of this criticism is interesting, I think. The charge is "word-stitchery," not "word-welding" or "word-carpentry." The implication is that this craft is something feminine and trivial, as opposed to the more masculine and worthy work of plain speech. I suppose that part of my queerness is an interest in made surfaces, surfaces of all kinds, and the inevitable discordance between that surface and the core, between the speech and what it represents.

Bolick: I'm interested in your attention to rupture -- the rent in the surface, the fractured shell. In Heaven's Coast you use the image of a crack in a delicate cup soldered with a seam of gold as a metaphor for the way loss first sh tters, then alters us. Did you come to this idea of fractured beauty through your experiences with grief? 

Doty: You're right, this is a profound fascination with me. It precedes my experience with grief -- I feel as if I came into the world with this preoccupation. In part it's that the complete, the entirely achieved, doesn't seem to need my attention. You can look at, say, an ancient Greek sculpture, or a superb carved wo den staff from Ghana, and say, "Yes, that's complete in itself, whole." But I am always drawn to those things that aren't intact, those that bear some evidence of limit or failure. Perhaps it's just that this is a sort of beauty I think I might be able to achieve!

And it may be, too, that this is something with deep psychological roots. We all experience a disjunction, sometime early on, between our interiority -- the deep, luminous world of inside -- and the way other people see us. That original experience of recognizing that we may not seem to be what we are seems to me one of the primary social experiences -- it happens sometime around the beginning of school, at age six or so. I suspect it has even further implications for gay kids, who learn that they have within them a crucial difference that others cannot necessarily see. We were talking before about surface and core -- I think this is where a fascination with that tension originates. Think about all the little gay boys who grow up to be so involved with decor, appearance, staging, style. Such practices all involve an attention to the tension between what something is and what it seems to be -- a kind of rupture.

 
 

from "Fallen Beauty" in Atlantic Unbound -- http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba991110.htm

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Criticism Overview
Title Katie Bolick: Interview with Mark Doty Type of Content Interview
Criticism Author Katie Bolick Criticism Target Mark Doty
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Apr 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Fallen Beauty
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