Heaven can wait

Gay poet takes on time and mortality in new book

By D'Anne Witkowski

ANN ARBOR - Mark Doty has been thinking about heaven a lot lately.

Heaven, and also death, are recurring themes in the National Book Critics Circle Award winning poet's newest collection of poetry, "School of the Arts," published this month by Harper Collins.

"I was invited to be on a panel in Provincetown after the premiere of a one-act play in which some characters met in the afterlife and the panelists were supposed to talk about our ideas of heaven," Doty told BTL while in Ann Arbor for a reading April 12. "There was a painter, and a novelist and myself. And the painter had great images and the novelist had certain story-like ideas, a plot of heaven. And I just had nothing. It was terrible. And so I began to work on this series of poems about heaven for different characters."

One of the poems is "Heaven for Paul," about a terrifying airplane trip Doty and his partner Paul took together.

"We were coming from London to Cedar Rapids [and] the stabilizer on the plane broke, which is sort of the equivalent of not having any breaks but also not being able to straighten out," Doty said. "The flight attendants were convinced the plane was going to break apart and we would all die on the runway. It was pretty horrible."

Doty's poems are often bourne out of personal experience. "The speaker in 99 percent of my poems is a version of me," he said. "My imagination is stimulated by trying to name and give shape to my own experience, so my life as a gay man is very much on the table in the poems."

It is in this way that Doty's poems could be called political. "I don't consider them to be driven by the desire to convince somebody of something," he said. "I want my poems to be an experience, and they're very much connected to social life and they're connected to stuff of a personal history and therefore they are political. I think a person's life is."

One way that sexuality manifests itself in Doty's work is through "uses of language that maybe push the work a little bit away from a normative heterosexual tradition," he said. "A certain kind of irony, playfulness, an interest in language that raises an eyebrow at the reader or speaks to the reader who shares experience with the speaker in the poem."

Doty's experiences as a gay man, of course, also bring his sexuality into his poetry. This includes the fear brought on by the AIDS epidemic in the 80s when his first book of poems, "Turtle, Swan," was published in 1987.

AIDS would continue to act as a backdrop to his work.

"I did a series of three books of poems ... which together comprise a kind of trilogy," he said. "The first of those, 'My Alexandria,' is concerned with the time right after my partner Wally tested HIV positive and our attempting to find ways to deal with that fact and to live with the kind of pressure which such information brought. 'Atlantis' is about his illness and death, and the book that follows that, 'Sweet Machine,' is about coming back to life, agreeing to be a participant in life again after such an experience of grief."

"School of the Arts" finds Doty still exploring themes of mortality, only this time his own. "'School of the Arts' is much more a book about middle age," he said.

"I'm 51 and watching my own body change, watching people that I love change, watching my dogs age," said Doty. "This is something that everybody goes through and, of course, you would think that having 50 years to think about it, the fact of being and time might become more acceptable. ... I actually think I'm just getting worse about it. I dislike the fact more and thus, this book."

Doty's experience of watching his dogs, Beau and Arden, grow older and die is at the foreground of "School of the Arts." The subject crops up in many poems, including "Heaven for Arden" and "Heaven for Beau."

Arden, a Newfoundland retriever mix from a Vermont shelter, lived to be 16. "He just loved his life so much, he had no intention of leaving," said Doty. "He stayed around as long as he possibly could."

Beau was a golden retriever. Doty got the dog for his partner, Wally, shortly before he passed away. When Doty's plan to get a friend's cocker spaniel fell through, he found himself at the animal shelter. "And here was this big, extremely calm, beautiful golden retriever. And I thought, 'Well, bigger than a cocker spaniel, but why not?' Well, I didn't know that the reason he was so calm was that he had been sedated. I got him home and he was a lunatic. He didn't know his name, he didn't know 'sit,' he didn't know 'don't steal my food off the plate' but he turned out to be a wonderful presence, in my life especially. Wally only lived about another month but there I was at about the worst moment in my life, you know, and I had this big, meaty golden retriever who did not know the word grief. And so he needed to go for a walk and he needed to eat, and he wanted to play and that was very helpful to me. And he really ... turned into this smart, dignified lovely creature. He was great."

Another life event that shaped "School of the Arts" was moving with Paul to New York from Provincetown, Massachusetts. The couple moved into their New York apartment a week before Sept. 11, 2001.

"Being in New York at that moment of rupture in which everyone's sense of safety was profoundly compromised, and even the sheer permanence of things seemed much more in question," he said, "that evanescence, that shock, I think, sort of reverberates through the book and it's there directly in a couple of poems, but it's indirectly sort of reverberating behind things. So that, certainly, and also loving the human beauty and density and energy of the city. That's a change in my life that is reflected in the book, too."

"School of the Arts" finds joy in darkness, but spends a lot of time in the recesses of the human heart. "There are poems that walk into some difficult territory in this book," said Doty. "I used to think I wanted my poems to move toward consolation or redemption and it was very important to me to try to find a position of affirmation, really in the face of whatever difficulty I was writing about."

This was especially true for him during the AIDS epidemic, he said. "There was much suffering and people were dying from a disease that was despised, basically, demonized, not mentioned by our president for two terms in office, seen as a kind of social ill. And so it was very important for me to be in an affirmative position toward that suffering and to name the dignity and the beauty that I saw arise in the face of it."

This will to affirmation, he said, can be a trap for an artist. "Because it can mean you always have to try to make yourself feel better or make other people feel better," he said. "And this is the book where I sort of freed myself of that a little bit."

Doty offers the poem "Oncoming Train" as an example. "It's about that all too human urge, you know when the train is coming into the station, to throw yourself in front of it. I found it very painful to write that poem. I don't want to admit that, that I feel that. And of course the minute that I do umpteen readers say, 'I know exactly what you're talking about.'"

Doty believes that poetry is a place where we can see our inner lives reflected in a world that has grown increasingly chaotic and noisy and where everything seems to be mass-produced with a goal of homogenization.

"Poetry is kind of an act of resistance to that," he said. "Even though poems can be bought and sold, you can't really own one. You know, you can copy a poem, you can memorize it, you can give it away, you have your private experiences responding to those words and feeling what they mean to you, [but] nobody owns the interpretation of a poem, the right way to read it. And that's a very profound thing. On the one hand it sort of has no power at all, it's completely outside of the arena of power. On the other hand, it's enormously powerful because it's about one person at a time paying attention to his or her life."


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