Mark Wunderlich: In an article you published in the Hungry Mind Review about your experience as a judge for the Lenore Marshall Prize, you discussed your hopes for the future of American Poetry. I'm wondering if you could talk a little more about that. Also, and this may be impossible to answer, but I'm curious to know what vision you have for the future of your own work? What are your current ambitions?
Mark Doty: I wrote the article you mention after reading a great many collections of poetry publishing during 1996 and 97, and I wanted both to complain about a certain tepidness in much of the poetry I was reading and to praise something else about it, which I would describe as a kind of formal open-mindedness. This is something I've been seeing increasingly as I travel and meet students in writing programs around the country. It seems to me there is very little pure allegiance to one kind of practice, to one school or another; the young writers I'm meeting want to forge a means of getting their individuality on the page, and in order to do so they seem just as likely to write a sonnet as they do a narrative poem, or a non-narrative piece with a less referential quality. I think that's hugely exciting; the blurring of boundaries points towards larger possibilities to come in American poetry over the next decade or three. I think we might see fewer camps, and more individual, alchemical fusions of esthetic strains present in our poetry now. That's my hope. And I fervently hope, too, that we will not settle for an esthetic practice that leaves out the social and the political. I, for one, am hungry to read poems of American life now, in all its messy complications, with its terrors and uncertainties and possible grounds for hope.
Which leads me to the second part of your question, about my desires for my own work. I've written a good deal, in recent years, along intensely personal lines. Those poems move through my own experiences of grief to connect with readers' experiences of the evanescence of what we love—or at least I hope they do! The work of the poet investigating personal experience is always to find such points of connection, to figure out how to open the private out to the reader. On one level, those were social and political poems, since they deal with a highly charged, politically defined phenomenon, the AIDS epidemic—or at least with the effects of that epidemic in my life. But the poems go about that work in a personal, day-to-day way, more individual than global.
I'm wanting my own poems to turn more towards the social, to the common conditions of American life in our particular uncertain moment. I am, I guess, groping towards those poems; I'm trying to talk about public life without resorting to public language. I am trying to address what scares and preoccupies me now. The project seems fraught with peril—part of the reason we don't write political poems in America is that most of us feel, well, what do I know? What authority do I have to speak? Where does my connection to any broad perspective on social life lie? I don't see myself ever becoming a polemical poet, or writing to advance a particular cause, but at the same time I can't believe that it's okay for us to go on tending our private gardens while there is so much around us demanding to be addressed.
Wunderlich: I'd like to talk a little more about the notion of the political in poetry. In what ways is a poem a suitable vessel for a political subject? What is it that a poem can do with a political subject that another form of writing or discourse can't? I suspect it may have something to do with the way in which poetry engages the reader...
Doty: I've been talking about this a lot in print lately—in an essay in the Boston Review this summer, which responds to Harold Bloom's introduction to the Best of the Best American Poetryanthology, and in an argument-in-print with my friend J.D. McClatchy, which will appear in the new incarnation of the James White Review this winter. It occurs to me that my sense of what political poetry consists of is to some degree generational; I'm young enough (or old enough, depending on your point of view) to have been shaped by the notion that the personal is political. When I talk about political poetry, I mean that work which is attentive to the way an individual sense of identity is shaped by collision with the collective, how one's sense of self is defined through encounter with the social world. Such a poem doesn't necessarily deal with, say, the crisis in Bosnia or America's brutal mishandling of the AIDS epidemic, though it might be concerned with these things. Though it does do more than occupy the space of the lyric "I"; it is interested, however subtly, in the encounter between self and history.
In this sense, many of the poems I love best are political poems. Bishop's "The Moose", for instance, is a brilliant evocation of an experience in which an outsider, defined by her separation from those perennial family voices droning on in the back of the bus, suddenly has a mysterious experience of connection, of joining a community of inarticulate wonder in the face of otherness. The isolation of the speaker in the proem to "The Bridge" is not just an existential loneliness; he's waiting in the cold "under the shadows of Thy piers" for a reason, which has to do with his position as a sexual other. That the great steel rainbow of the bridge arcs over him there is no accident; his otherness is an essential condition which helps to create the joy he feels in the transcendent promise of the bridge.
What these poems can do which discursive writing cannot is dwell in that rich imaginative territory of the interior connection, in imaginative engagement with the troubling fact of self-in-the-world. I don't really believe there is such a thing as "pure" esthetics; the esthetic is always a response, a formulation, an act of resisting outer pressure, or rewriting the narratives we're given.
And you're right, it is about engaging the reader. Not with our opinions about things, but with our felt involvement in the world, the self's inextricable implications with culture and time.
[. . . .]
Wunderlich: I am curious to hear why you think poetry survives as an art form today. It seems to me that the most perfect art form would probably be film making: You get to use visual images, sound, music, the spoken voice, actors, etc. Why when we have so many choices of kinds of art-making, do people still keep returning to poetry?
Doty: Poetry certainly doesn't have the "totalizing" quality that film does, a medium which just surrounds one and hostages the viewer's attention. It lacks painting's immediacy, or photography's odd marriage of the esthetic and the palpable sense of the "real." One would think that our late-century engagement with arts which combine media, which seek a sort of seamless experience for the viewer, would supplant poetry. But far from it. My sense is that, while still a minority preference, poetry is thriving. Audiences for readings increase, a great deal of poetry is published, and it seems that among young people especially there is genuine interest in and respect for the art.
Who knows why? My guess is that somehow poetry is a vessel for the expression of subjectivity unlike any other; a good poem bears the stamp of individual character in a way that seems to usher us into the unmistakably idiosyncratic perceptual style of the writer. I think we're hungry for singularity, for those aspects of self that aren't commodifiable, can't be marketed. In an age marked by homogenization, by the manipulation of desire on a global level (the Gap in Houston is just like the Gap in Kuala Lumpur, it seems), poetry may represent the resolutely specific experience. The dominant art forms of our day—film, video, architecture—are collaborative arts; they require a team of makers. Poems are always made alone, somewhere out on the edge of things, and if they succeed they are sa urated with the texture of the uniquely felt life.
from The Cortland Review (December 1998). Online Source: http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/dec98/index2.html