Artists Rely On Deep Stubbornness
to Succeed, Says Mark Doty
An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Mark Doty
by Ellen Birkett Morris
In DOG YEARS: A MEMOIR poet and memoirist Mark Doty offers a meditation on the love and loss of his beloved dogs that is both poignant and lacking in sentimentality.
While books about the unique bond between people and animals crowd the bookstore shelves these days, few if any are as well written and carefully observed as DOG YEARS.
Doty is the author of seven books of poems, among them School of the Arts, Source, Sweet Machine, Atlantis, and My Alexandria. He has also published three volumes of nonfiction prose: Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Heaven's Coast and Firebird.
His poems have appeared in many magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, The London Review of Books, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The New Yorker.
I started writing in high school, a notebook of scribbled dreams, daydreams, quotes, drawings. . .|
"I started writing in high school, a notebook of scribbled dreams, daydreams, quotes, drawings, and a collection of loose ends which made their way in the direction of poems. I was lucky enough to receive some encouragement, and to find my way toward great poets whose work I loved to read," said Doty.
"I felt, in a while, that writing was simply what I did to know what I thought and felt; it was a part of me I couldn't leave behind."
He honed his interest by earning a B.A. in English and creative writing from Drake University and an MFA in poetry from Goddard College. He is currently the John and Rebecca Moores Professor at The University of Houston, where he works with graduate students in poetry and nonfiction.
He believes programs in writing play a vital role in laying the ground work for an aspiring writer.
Writing teachers can create an atmosphere in which students learn . . . |
"Writing teachers can create an atmosphere in which students learn, helping to forge a community of responsive readers, of people who care passionately about the art. We can provide stimulation, support, encouragement, criticism, and ideas. And then, of course, students need to go off on their own, follow their own passions, and build their own work."
His own work has been fed by the arts, "looking at visual art — painting, drawing, photography, and the movies," and being part of a several communities including the artistic community and a community of gay men.
DOG YEARS chronicles his life as a writer, the loss of a longtime lover from AIDS, and the sadness of 9-11, through the story of his connection to and affection for his dogs, Arden and Beau.
"You have to be a little afraid when you set out to write a full-length book about your pets. " |
"I was really interested in writing the story of my two dogs' lives. But dogs are, of course, bound up with our species; you can't talk about them without also discussing the human culture on which they depend and with which they interact. My retrievers, Arden and Beau, actually provided me with a lens through which I could look at some very difficult experiences, and they helped to make that okay because I was always aware that I was writing about the dogs, returning to them and their story," observed Doty.
Did he have any reservations about making the dogs the focus of the memoir?
"You have to be a little afraid when you set out to write a full-length book about your pets. On the surface, that sounds like something no one would want to read! So it was crucial that I kept the book moving swiftly, and that it became the book I wanted to write: a story about love and time that happens to have animal characters in it as well as human ones," said Doty.
He noted that writers can't be afraid to approach difficult material, "even when you know there's a risk that you won't have enough distance or that you might produce something sentimentality."
"No risk equals no excitement. One kind of perspective or distance you can always try to find is aesthetic — have I said this well? Are these words strong enough to convey this perspective? Do they do justice to what I've seen? If you focus on how you are saying things, then you won't be so overwhelmed by what you're saying," Doty advised.
The book is distinguished by the fine balance between philosophical observations about art, life and loss and the artful way that Doty conveys the unspoken, often indescribable, connection between people and animals.
Doty said he likes the hybrid nature of nonfiction "the way the form allows for narration, meditation, and description, all kinds of acts of inclusion."
The chapters of narrative are separated by short reflections.
Poetry is distilled feeling and thinking, usually image-centered. . . |
"In this case, I wanted to create little 'breathers' between the narrative chapters in the form of these little bits, places to pause and consider. They seemed to me to let air in to the book," he noted.
Having worked in both poetry and prose Doty described the different skills the forms demand.
"Poetry is distilled feeling and thinking, usually image-centered, and when it works form and content — that is, thinking and feeling and music — become inseparable from one another. Nonfiction is similar in that it is a way of giving form to experience, of holding one's life up to the light of examination — but you have room to spread out, diverge, explain, comment, narrate. And the prose doesn't demand the same pitch of musicality or the same concision. At least not quite!"
Doty said writers should let themselves go in the first draft and write what they feel they want or need to write.
"Then, question everything. How do I know this? Can I make this claim honestly? Do I believe it? Cut back what you need to, and then get a writer/reader friend who loves you enough to be honest with you to read your work and respond to it."
Doty worked with Editor Terry Karten at HarperCollins on DOG YEARS.
"She reads my work very attentively, with an understanding of what I'm after and how what I've written fits into the context of my work — and with an eye too, of course, for how readers may respond. She's supportive, conscientious and cares wholeheartedly about what she's doing," he observed.
One agent came to me because he'd read my work; the other was recommended by an editor .
Doty has had two different agents, and is currently without one.
"One agent came to me because he'd read my work; the other was recommended by an editor when I was looking for a new person to represent me. To be honest, what a writer really wants seems just about impossible to me: someone you can really talk to, a wise and insightful reader who can also drive a hard bargain and make a strong business deal. Do people like that exist? I don't know anymore!"
On the question of rejection, Doty suggests that writers call upon their dual natures.
"You have to be so tough to do this. It's funny, because writers are often so interior, often somewhat shy or introverted, so you don't expect them to be tough. But artists often turn out to have this deep stubbornness, a will to say 'I am going to make what I need to make and the world will just have to learn to like it,'" he said.
Write your best work, send it to literary magazines . . .
"Write your best work, send it to literary magazines, cultivate friendships with writers and editors, read what you love and try to learn from it. Think of yourself as a citizen of the literary world; your job as a citizen is to give as well as to get, to contribute to the culture as well as to find readers for your work."
Doty has a volume of new and selected poems is coming out from Harper in the spring and is currently writing a book for Graywolf Books called THE ART OF DESCRIPTION, which examines the role of describing things in poetry.
Mark Doty is the author of eight books of poetry and four volumes of nonfiction prose, most recently DOG YEARS, which was published by HarperCollins in 2007. A New York Times bestseller, the book will appear shortly in Brazil, France, and in the United Kingdom. His work has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Whiting Writers Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He teaches half of each year at the University of Houston, and lives in New York City.
About Regular Contributor|
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.