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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era