Books interview: Mark Doty

"There are those fortunate hours when the world consents to be made into a poem"

Is there an ideal way to read a poem?

Multiply. To read aloud, to read it silently to yourself, and then when you are ready to turn to someone else, to say "listen to this", so that you have that extra kind of listening that comes from projecting a poem out to someone else. They all represent different levels of physical engagement with the reader, and poems are physical objects.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

My revision process for that final polishing has to do with giving readings; I will read new poems to audiences and need to hear them myself over and over again. Maybe the tenth time I read a poem I'll realise I don't need line five at all, or there's an extra word, or something that keeps sounding clumsy to me and I start to see what to do with it.

As soon as you read a poem to a roomful of people it's quite possible it's not good at all! You can hear with a different degree of detachment.

In your essay "Insatiable" you discuss how Walt Whitman ignores the "puritan" division between mind and body. Do we still talk about physical and ephemeral things too separately?

Absolutely. They're both ways of knowing. Poïesis in Greek is knowledge. We benefit from using more than one means of assessing reality. Unfortunately, we in the west have come to understand that when we think about the world in the most rational, scientific terms we can manipulate objects - goods - we can stand back from the world of values, emotion, sensation, and we can make more money. So that kind of rationalist thinking becomes a capitalist value. The poetic and the interior become less profitable, something we can do with our leisure time.

What about the separation of arts and sciences in the classroom?

I love when I teach poetry workshops having students who are biologists, or studying physics, because they bring another vocabulary, another point of view.

I met a couple of wonderful women who taught at a veterinary university in Canada. They were writing the curriculum and were using poetry with the vet students very late in their academic years to help them remember why they wanted to do this in the first place. After all those years of experimentation and hard science it had become hard to see why.

Vets have got some of the highest suicide rates.

I always hear that said of poets. Poets and veterinarians. Two things I would like to be!

The title for "Insatiable" came from a bumper sticker which caught your eye. Is it common for signs and slogans you see to spark the idea for a poem?

It depends upon the state of mind. I really think what's required for making any kind of art is a state of receptivity so that you're able to be struck by what's in front of you, or to become porous so that what's outside can enter you in some way and resonate against your own imagination. There are those fortunate hours when - I think John Ashbery said - "The world consents to be made into a poem". It feels like that.

Now that you mention it, I can think of many poems where a found phrase becomes the starting point. Seeing a poster on the city wall of a religious broadside that says "Homo will not inherit"; a sign on a store in a shopping mall, "Fish R Us".

The seven billionth person was just born, and cities are getting more and more highly populated. You live in and often write about New York City. Do you have much hope for the future of urbanity?

I find it hard to be hopeful about the city as I once did. A few years ago, Poetry International invited me to write my own "New York poem". I tried to write one really celebrating my neighbourhood, and started with sunflowers in the corner of the bodega, a guy who's selling, people in the streets . . . But it just started to go a little darker, more sour. I tried to praise New York and New York just wasn't willing to be praised.

That endless burgeoning of humanity, it's a lovely thing on one hand: this great stream of souls and bodies pouring into the world and out again. But it's only beautiful at a distance. If you're standing right it in it means more suffering, more struggle, everything that comes into being has got to pass out of being, so it's also a world of grief. Those things are always both true. I guess they become more true the more of us there are.

Much of your writing is concerned with desire - as a theme or glowing spots of it on the page. Are rushes of young love the same when you're older?

Before the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic I had that sense that one does of a long, expansive living ahead of me. When my friends and my partner began to sicken and die around me, that shifted everything in a sense that you just don't know what prospect is ahead of you. For me, that exacerbates desire. On the other hand you have to negotiate because desire enflamed can become a blinder. It's a balancing act I have never felt especially good at.

Secretly, I believe balance is boring. I used to take yoga classes and there's these exercises where you're supposed to be standing on one leg in this position as a stork, and I was terrible at them! I would get annoyed because they would always turn it into metaphor: "If you don't have physical balance it means you need to seek balance . . ." No I don't!

You admit to having an obsession with Walt Whitman. What is What is the Grass??

I wanted to write about reading Whitman and a sense of connection to him, that time, the way those poems embody so many obsessions and concerns of my own, and the way that he feels to me like he's sitting right there in the chair. He's not gone. He makes that very clear in many of the poems: "I'm with you now", "Look for me under your boot soles", "How do you know but I am enjoying this?," he says to us. "I thought of you long and hard before you were born." Again and again he says things that place him in the present in a way that is not true really of any other poet.

What I'm after is a kind of hybrid product which will be literary criticism, philosophy, memoir, personal essay, spiritual reflections and a kind of biography of the body, as well. So we'll see.

Is this hybrid style the future of literature?

I think so. I want to say there's some relationship between that kind of form and the seven billion. That the fullness of things, the simultaneity and multiplicity of experience makes linear narration and argument more problematic. It doesn't seem to reflect the nature of experience perhaps as much as it once did.

You've written a lot about 9/11 as an event, and collective and personal grief. Are you often asked about your politics?

In America, poets wouldn't be asked that so much. Except my friend Phil Levine, who's the new Poet Laureate, has been shooting off his mouth and it's just great. He has made some negative statements about Obama and other congressmen, and gets told to "shhhh".

Do you write poems that are explicitly political?

I find it impossible to write poems that don't arise from the centre of perception. I have wanted for several years now to write about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Also, I want to write about Iraq. But the language that I have, the imagery that I have, is all mediated. How do I go to that from some place other than received language, which tends to be the death of poetry?

The places I have been most successfully a political poet is around the AIDS epidemic and homophobia, where I can find the clearest personal connection to the material. It's also maybe where I have the most rage. That can be fuel for poetry.

Mark Doty is an American poet and memoirist. In 1995 he won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and his 2008 collection "Fire to Fire" won the National Book Award for poetry. His essay "Insatiable", on Walt Whitman and vampires, appears in the latest issue of Granta.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser