Monday, April 4, 2011

Dog Books in Drag, or a Poet's Take on Writing Prose

Mark Doty considers himself a poet, and for good reason. He's written twelve books of poetry, and his latest collection, Fire to Fire, won the National Book Award for poetry in 2008. He's also the only American poet to win the U.K.-based T.S. Eliot award. But the prolific New Yorker has also written five books of prose, including Dog Years, a memoir revolving around his two retrievers (golden and black) that became a New York Times bestseller in 2007. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, Doty came to the St. Paul Central Library to read some of his work and talk about writing. He also waxed poetic about loss, goats and walls, among other things.

During the question-and-answer part of the talk, I had a chance to ask Doty about the different impulses behind his prose and his poetry. He's a poet, he answered, and always will be. Not until the death of his longtime partner, Wally Roberts, of AIDS, did he ever consider writing in a different genre. Rocked by loss, he "needed desperately to write" about it, and suddenly he could no longer write poems. They seemed overly restrictive, somehow, requiring a level of focus he no longer possessed. So instead, in 1994, he wrote an essay about what it was like to live in grief. That led to another essay, and another, until he realized these were in fact chapters in what would eventually be a book. It would look at grief as a "raw and awful thing," he said. That book was Heaven's Coast, the first of his three memoirs.

Doty says he now feels "ambidextrous" as a writer. For him, a poem is a quick flash, an immediate impulse that allows him to go off of something simple, an image or idea. Prose is altogether different. It lets him build context and move through time in different ways. There's more space to spread out. Writing prose requires a "steady, long focus" and a commitment to show up every day. A poem flies out, and then he can fiddle with it forever.

Doty admits he still thinks of himself primarily as a poet, witnessing his own life. But he has a lot to teach prose writers as well. Take pets, for instance. Dog Years, he said, was a dog book "in drag." In fact, it was a meditation on love, grief and travel. (He joked that he's found it in the "pets" section of bookstores more than once.) Anything we choose to use as a central metaphor in our writing--be that dogs, a statue or a barn--can become vessels for human expression.

A couple of other takeaway gems:

Good poems have an element of the "inexplicable" about them. If he's done his job as a writer, something in that poem resists explanation, analysis.

As a species, we want to synchronize with other lives around us--breathing with sea lions, listening to music, exploring the pleasures and strangeness of encounters with things outside of ourselves. This might explain why his poem Pescadero, which ran in the New Yorker in 2010, created such a strong and, mostly positive reaction.  It's about a moment with a goat, a goat kiss, goat yoga, that ineffable something we can't put a finger on.

Later, signing his coming-of-age memoir Firebird for me, Doty admitted how much he loved playing with perspective in that book, using a constantly shifting continuum of time. "Nobody wants to be in a ten-year-old's head for any extended length of time," he told me. "I had a blast writing it."

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