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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear