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Mark Doty, 1996

The Brilliance of Mark Doty

By Owen Keehnen

Aficionados of contemporary poetry have probably read or heard of Mark Doty. He has authored four collections (Turtle Swan, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, My Alexandria, and Atlantis) and has won numerous accolades, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He is the first American poet to win the esteemed T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry and also was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Heaven's Coast is Mark Doty's first prose book, a stirring and stunning memoir of his year of grief following the death of his lover of a dozen years, Wally Roberts. With this book Doty has created a genuine masterpiece. It is a brilliant and accessible memoir conveying sorrow without cliché and making sense of death through the beauty of writing. Death is no longer simply tragic but attains a variety of meanings that result in new levels of acceptance and understanding. His powerful emotional exactitude is created through a brilliant mastery of language and a precise use of metaphor. The combination transforms human loss into a redemptive art form. Heaven's Coast is one of the most moving, beautiful, and poignant books to emerge on AIDS and, more importantly, on loss and grief.

Recently I had the privilege of talking to Mark Doty about the book, his seamless transition from poetry to prose, the state of grieving, and his plans for the future. I was so pleased to discover that the man is every bit as eloquent as his work. [Since this interview was conducted Doty has published the following books: Sweet Machine (1998), Source (2001), Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001), and Open House: Writers Redefine Home (2003).]

Keehnen: With the release of Heaven's Coast, do you feel a sense of closure now that the sorrow has been given a tangible shape?

Doty: I did have this wonderful rush of feeling that Wally's and my story had been given form in the world, so when I first saw the book it was thrilling. Now I'm having an odd experience talking about it. It's been two years since his death and although I talk to him every day, I don't talk about him every day, so I find myself having these intense conversations about him and his death. That feels less like closure than a weird doubling back. The intensity of these conversations has me thinking about grief again. I feel loss is this kind of aspect of oneself, and when you're "wedded" to someone for twelve years, they're a part of you even when they're not around. Wally is a part of how I see the world.

Keehnen: It's interesting how in the book you compare being in a state of love to being in a state of grieving.

Doty: When you're in love you lose a sense of boundaries between yourself and your beloved--nothing else is real, nothing else matters but that person. Grief is much like that. Wally's absence became the center of my reality in a way that his presence was once my center of reality.

Keehnen: Did you have any idea what would emerge when you began the memoir, or did you do the exploring as you wrote?

Doty: I really just trusted it. I started it because I desperately needed to write and felt completely unable to write poetry, which is what I normally do to give my life a shape. Poetry felt unavailable because I felt I had too much to say. It didn't seem to fit into that tighter, more compressed form. At first, I thought I was writing an essay. I began about six weeks after Wally's death, and I felt so relieved to be able to focus and concentrate again. After I finished that essay I wrote another and then I just couldn't stop. Pretty soon, I began to have a sense of this arc in the book, which had to do with the passage of one year of grief, flashing back, of course, to tell the story of the relationship. It was important for me to put a limit on it because it's the kind of book that is potentially infinite.

Keehnen: Did the writing flow or was it a more arduous process?

Doty: It was painful but also consoling in the way that very real things are. We can do a lot to avoid feeling things, and that makes you feel better briefly, but not in the long run. Really coming up against the truth of feeling is for me the most consoling thing, so I liked writing it. I felt it was keeping me going.

Keehnen: Heaven's Coast demystifies death by exploring it so eloquently that it transcends the word and coveys it in a "connective" way, and in that sense it somewhat functions as poetry. Was that intentional or a by-product of the past?

Doty: Probably both, but I really wanted to look at the fact of death as squarely as I could. To do that I think you have to strip away the familiar or easy language of it. One of the things we have developed as a community of people devastated by the epidemic is a kind of language with which to talk about death and dying. The good side of that is that it makes it a little more familiar, but the bad side is that familiar language makes it harder for us to experience things as they really are. The whole culture conspires to put death at such a distance--it takes place in hospitals or nursing homes, in places far away. We don't want to look at it; we don't want to think about it too much. It's very human, but there's a big cost for that.

Keehnen: Is the price a heightened fear of death?

Doty: Heightened fear and also losing some insight into what it means to live. When people are dying they're right at the edge of life, and we learn from things that are on the edge. Extremes teach us about being.

Keehnen: I found it intriguing how you explained people as becoming more themselves as they approached death.

Doty: We have a kind of myth about illness: that it transforms us, that it makes us more noble or better people, or more spiritual. In my experience it makes us more of what we are already--if you're an angry person you'll get angrier, if you're a fearful person you'll get more fearful, a control freak becomes more controlling. That's also true of people who are around the sick.

Keehnen: I've heard you comment that as an AIDS memoir you wanted Heaven's Coast to be more about the struggle and not the bedside. Would you explain that?

Doty: I didn't want to write a blow by blow narrative of Wally's illness in the way that Paul Monette's Borrowed Time is a book that describes Paul moving through Roger's illness with him. There are elements of that in the book, but I think it's really important that we don't reduce the epidemic to a familiar set of conventions in our art about it. Our culture loves to simplify things, to come up with a story and say, "This is the story, this is what AIDS is." I think making it a single experience is one of the ways we dismiss it. I wanted to talk about Wally's illness, but also about our times before it, around it, my life after . . . the entire shifting landscape of grief. I wanted to write something that didn't already exist, in part because I wanted to read it. After Wally's death I had such a hunger to read thoughtful writing about loss that wasn't self-help or religious and claimed to have the answers, but to read the stories of others who were living through the struggle, and those books weren't easy to find.

Keehnen: Did you have any success finding them?

Doty: There's the classic book by C. S. Lewis called A Grief Observed and a wonderful book by Terry Tempest Williams called Refuge: An Unnatural History about a woman who experienced enormous loss in her family. Most of the women died of breast cancer as a result of exposure to radiation from desert nuclear testing in the 1950s. Her book of death and loss is combined with writing about a bird sanctuary near where she lives. It is for her what the beach is to me. It was a very moving book.

Keehnen: It seemed in the book that when you walked the beach with your two dogs the cycles of nature were a great source of solace and understanding. Is the sea/beach biome the ultimate metaphor for you, is it a myth, a reflective tableau, what?

Doty: On the plainest level it's where I live. On the next level it really provides you with so many metaphors about your life. The coast is such a zone of change and shifting boundary--what's land at 10:00 is water at 2:00, the fog rolls in and everything disappears until the sun comes out again. That feeling of constant transformation is an intensification of how life is all the time, only you can see it more clearly there. You also encounter a lot of "otherness." It's not unusual where I live to meet up with seals or jellyfish or dolphins. Those become ways of knowing myself by encountering what's not myself. The sea gives us a lot of the unfamiliar.

Keehnen: Going along with that, I found it interesting that prior to Wally's illness you fixed things up to defy elemental wear, you gardened, it was all about containing or defying nature; but following his death you seemed to open yourself to the opposite and become more an observer with an appreciation for those cycles. Is that an accurate observation?

Doty: That's very interesting. I never thought about that. I think it has to do with being a control freak and what does confrontation with mortality teach us to expect: there are all these things in the universe that you have absolutely no say over, and how are you going to live in relation to it. You're right, one of the things I did to understand that was to move from a fascination with my contained garden to being out in the dunes and marshes, which were not under my trowel.

Keehnen: On a vastly different note, was the change from poetry to prose a difficult one?

Doty: At first it felt great, because compared to writing a poem it felt very relaxed. I felt I could include everything. Poetry makes you decide what to take out in order to leave just the essentials. I felt this permission in prose to digress and tell stories and wander around. Of course, later I had to take a lot of that stuff out because if the book is going to be any good, it has to be very lean and purposeful.

Keehnen: There's no fat in it now.

Doty: There was, and that's what made it hard. I'm used to editing a poem, which is maybe a page or a few pages long. You can hold the whole structure in your hands at once. With Heaven's Coast, there was no way for me to remember everything that's in it at once. In order to make a change on page 150, I'd have to read the whole book to enter the world of the book and see how one change affected other things. The revision process was very challenging. I would go to my room and spend a week reading the book word by word and thinking about where I had digressed or repeated myself or used the same word in the same way.

Keehnen: During the process would you feel it as "a work" or as "my memoir of grief"? Was it painful in reflection?

Doty: When I wrote the end of the chapter called "Grace," which is the most detailed description of Wally's death, I wept and couldn't stop. I felt cracked open by writing it. The first time I read the book, I also felt I was reliving it. The second time was a little less painful, a little more like a made thing. As time went on, I had to see the book more and more as something I made and something I needed to fix. I think that's characteristic of the books that really matter to us: they are both the writer's heart and soul and carefully made and shaped things. That's also why a book like this is healing; the crafting, the making, helps you to have a distance from the events.

Keehnen: Heaven's Coast and Atlantis are intriguing to read back-to-back because each illuminates the other. Do you consider them companion pieces?

Doty: Yes. The major difference is that almost all of Atlantis was written before Wally's death and almost all of Heaven's Coast was written after the fact. They represent two different points in the struggle to understand, but obviously share a great deal of imagery. Both books are about faith, not in the religious sense, but about faith in life.

Keehnen: Was the writing process similar for both?

Doty: In both poetry and prose I usually come up with an image I really want to explore, something I know I want to talk about. I usually don't understand until I am pretty far into writing about it why it matters to me or what it is I want to say about it. It's a process of investigation. The circumstances were different because when I was working on Atlantis I was taking care of someone who couldn't care for any of his own needs. So I would write in very short increments, work for twenty minutes and go take care of Wally, and then maybe I'd have another twenty minutes. With Heaven's Coast I didn't write every day, but when I did, I would sink into it and write for days at a time.

Keehnen: What are the physical details of your writing process?

Doty: I write on a computer in the morning so I don't fill my head with other conversations and language. I like writing on a computer because I have lousy handwriting and I can type very fast and later be able to read it. I also drink coffee constantly while I write.

Keehnen: Congratulations on the T. S. Eliot Prize. In addition, you've had such honors as the National Book Critics Circle Award and being short-listed for the National Book Award. What has been the highlight of your career?

Doty: I'd like to think it's still coming.

Keehnen: OK, then, do you have a writer's fantasy?

Doty: There usually aren't large public rewards in the life of a poet. You know what I want? I want readers, more readers is what I'd really like.

Keehnen: How do you see your poetry evolving?

Doty: Oddly, I think that writing this prose book has freed me up in some ways. I feel like I'm more willing to write poetry that is unresolved with broader emotional range. I feel like I'm getting more anger into my poems and more struggle. I used to be very concerned about the redemptive quality of the transcendent, that's still a big part of me, but I'm also interested in mucking around in the mess of things.

Keehnen: Do the poems you're currently writing reflect your sorrow as well, or have you consciously turned towards a new theme?

Doty: The poems I'm writing now are closer to the poems in My Alexandria. A lot of them take place in New York; they're urban poems struggling with issues about desire mostly. My experience of loss is there. However, I am not writing poems directly about AIDS or directly about Wally. I feel I've given form to that experience for now in the best way I know how.

Keehnen: What poets have been the biggest influence on you?

Doty: Rainier Maria Rilke, the patron saint of inwardness and putting your work at the center of your life. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who was the patron saint of desire, memory, and longing and was also the poet who made me feel permission to allow my sexuality to be a presence in my work. Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson. Keats for his gorgeousness and his headlong quest to understand. James Merrill, a marvelous and compelling presence in American poetry and a great queer hero. As he put it, he never came out of the closet, the closet walls just fell down around him.

Keehnen: As a longtime teacher of creative writing, what is the main thing you try to impart in your students?

Doty: There's that old writing advice to write what you know. I think it's terrible advice. If you already know and understand something, your writing will tend to repackage what you already know. The best writing I think always comes out of what you don't know, out of the struggle to understand. So I always try to think of ways to have students get their struggles onto the page.

Keehnen: What are your hopes for the future?

Doty: More future.

Keehnen: Well, here's to that. Thanks, Mark, and all the best with Heaven's Coast. It's truly a stunning work.

Doty: Thanks, Owen.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Doty, Mark

AIDS Literature

American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

Poetry: Gay Male


Cavafy, C. P.

Dickinson, Emily

Merrill, James

Whitman, Walt



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