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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide