It has been 30 years since the publication of Mark Doty’s debut collection of poems, Turtle, Swan, which was applauded for its lyrical poems depicting the coming of age of a young gay man in America.
As the AIDS epidemic was unfolding, Doty found himself bearing witness to its calamitous loss, both in the larger world and much closer to home. He wrote movingly of the diagnosis and death of his partner, Wally Roberts, from the disease in collections like My Alexandria (1993), Atlantis (1995), and Sweet Machine (1996) and in two critically praised memoirs, Heaven’s Coast, and the best-selling Dog Years. “The Embrace,” one of his best-known poems, opens with a sense of foreboding, of the horror the epidemic was to cause at large and in his own life:
“You weren’t well or really ill either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.”
“I spent the roughest years of the epidemic in Provincetown, which was brutally hard-hit,” Doty recalls. “And then I found that what I saw around me—great compassion and sacrifice, heroic work to care for people who were often strangers—was not reflected in the mainstream narrative about HIV. The news showed us lonely, abandoned men dying miserably, but the reality was often one in which love found a way—not to keep people alive, but to help them live better while they were.”
The author of nine volumes of poetry, Doty has won nearly every literary accolade. In addition to being the first American to receive Britain’s T. S. Eliot Prize, he is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and numerous fellowships. He has been regarded by critics as one of America’s finest contemporary poets, lauded for his elegiac explorations of loss, his lyrical descriptions of the natural world, and his compassion and wit.
Tonight, Doty will read from his work at this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, being held at the Photonics Center, followed by a Q&A and a book signing. The event is free and open to the public.
“Mark Doty’s poetry combines an urgent clarity with a respect for mystery,” says Robert Pinsky, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and of creative writing. “As in great cinematography or music, the feeling is entirely present, with reverberations beyond summary.”
Doty began to write poetry seriously in high school. “It was a fascination and a refuge,” he says. “I felt that the poems I read and loved—by García Lorca and Blake, by Tolkien and Charles Simic—had this kind of mysterious life to them; when you read them, taking in both sound and image, they seemed to open another world, or another take on this one. I wanted so much to do that.” He studied at Drake University and later earned an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College before publishing Turtle, Swan in 1987.
Animals, visual art, atmospheric phenomena, modern ruins, gardens all serve as inspiration for his poetry, Doty says, along with incidents of injustice, those situations where “the wrongs of the world…seem to require us to speak.” A recent poem, titled “In Two Seconds,” is his gut-wrenching response to the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer in 2014.
Doty says that some poems begin with a specific image: it could be of something he’s just encountered or something that has lain dormant in the back of his mind for years. Lines and phrases then begin to form. “An image might spark a poem the first day I see it or it might live as a spark, in a notebook or in the back of my mind somewhere, for years at a time,” he says.
About whether his poetry informs his work as a memoirist and vice versa, Doty says that for him, both mediums offer methods of “investigating experience.
“Both poetry and memoir can be ways of looking at the past again, studying, describing, contextualizing, in service of insight,” he says. “And of being more alive because you have examined what you have known and set it some kind of pattern which points toward meaning.”
He admits to revising endlessly. “First, there’s the kind of revision that is exploratory, archaeological, the work of finding more possible parts of a poem, writing further into it to try to understand what it wants to be,” Doty says, and it’s often daunting work. “You never know how long it will take. To look at, say, pages of lines you’ve written about a wasp’s nest or the color of goldfinches in winter when they fade, and figure out why this matters, why you ever wanted to talk about this in the first place.”
Then there’s a second kind of revision, what he calls “the craft of getting the surface right, seeing how the poem might be supported and enhanced by sonic choices, lineation, stanzaic pattern, toning up a verb, turning word choice to something unexpected but right.” Those, he says, are part of the art’s “great obsessive pleasures.”
Having witnessed so much personal loss, Doty says, like all poets, he’d like “for something of my voice to have a life without me. This is true now, in that people read and engage with my work when I’m not around. In a way, it’s like having an afterlife while you’re still around. It’s wonderful.”
In keeping with the tradition of the Lowell readings, Doty will be introduced by a recent alum of the Creative Writing Program, in this case Tomas Unger (GRS’14), who will read from his own work.
Unger, who works by day as a writer for international law firm White & Case, has had poems published in the Threepenny Review, Boston Review, and numerous other journals. While at BU, he won the Hurley Prize for Poetry. In addition, he was the course designer and assistant instructor for a MOOC (major open online course) taught by Pinsky, and he designed and taught an advanced writing course for undergrads.
Unger says that he was drawn to poetry after chancing upon poems by Thomas Hardy and Zbigniew Herbert and by an anthology compiled by poets Ted Hughes and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney called The Rattle Bag.
He says his own poetry has been influenced to a large degree by visual art. “I spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at photographs, so I can only hope some quality of attention has gotten into my writing,” Unger says, citing photographers Sergio Larrain, Roy DeCarava, and Christer Strömholm as influences. “I like to think these people are teaching me a thing or two about writing, if without words.”
Pinsky says that the evening promises an ideal pairing of writers. “Tomas Unger is a young poet whose work, ardent, brooding, and evocative, makes a suitable companion for Doty’s.”
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, with Mark Doty and Tomas Unger (GRS’14), is tonight, Thursday, October 26, in the Photonics Center Colloquium Room, 8 St. Mary’s St., ninth floor, at 7:30 p.m. The event, presented by BU’s Creative Writing program, is free and open to the public. A book-signing and reception follow.
The Robert Lowell Poetry Reading series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.