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2008 National Book Award Poetry Winner
Mark Doty Interview

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Photo © Star Black.
Mark Doty
Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems HarperCollins

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Craig Morgan Teicher: How do you feel about the nomination?

Mark Doty: I feel completely thrilled—I’m in wonderful company, and it’s particularly satisfying to me because my nominated book is a ‘New and Selected’ poems, so it’s 20 years worth of work. To have that volume singled out feels like a kind of affirmation of what I’ve been busying myself with for the last two decades, so I’m delighted.

CMT: So the fact that this is a ‘New and Selected’ feels very different from being up for an award for an individual collection of poems?

MD: It does. There’s a way in which when you try to look at your own life over time, it’s very difficult to get enough distance to make any kind of assessment of the value of what you’ve done over the years, but to have this wonderful group of judges say this work is worthy of notice is more than I could have hoped for.

CMT: Was it hard to figure out what poems to include from each of your books? Did you find yourself thinking about old poems in new ways?

MD: It was really hard—part of that was the project of reading the stuff and trying to decide on what basis to make these decisions. Was it what I liked today, or should I think about what readers had liked or commented upon over the years? Should I think about how the poems talked to one another, because I thought, I want this to be a kind of experience for the reader, who might start at the beginning and read right through. All these things were in the air, and I was confused about it. I asked some friends of mine to read my tentative selections and comment, and that turned out to be completely useless, because my friends just said, “Where’s the poem that I like?” or “I never really cared about that one.” I just couldn’t do anything with their very well meaning comments. So I thought, I’m on my own with this thing and I’ll do the best that I can. Honestly, if I decided I was going to make a ‘New and Selected’ poems every six months, it would be a different book every time. It’s like when you tell somebody the story of your life—you make choices about what to put in and what leave out at that moment, and we’re always telling ourselves that story a different way.

CMT: The last couple of books revolve around a sequence of related poems: the various versions of Heaven in School of the Arts, the “Theories of Beauty” in Fire to Fire. What’s drawn you to working this way?

MD: I really am interested in making an architecture for a book and letting that architecture help guide how the poems unfold. When I started out I did what most young poets do—take all the poems I’d written that I could stand and put them in my first book. But more and more it’s a matter of building relationships between poems, and the way that new poems get made is out of the suggestions and possibilities of what I’ve already done. In the case of the Heaven poems, I was very grateful when I had written a poem called “Heaven for Helen,” which comes out of a friend of mine, a painter, who was in conversation imagining what paradise would be like for her. I was so interested in what she said that I wrote it down and began to elaborate upon it, and in a while I had written a poem. Then I thought, that’s just one person’s idea of heaven. What else? I began to think of other people that I know and other experiences which pointed towards kinds of paradise, because even if you don’t believe such a thing, the way you imagine it says a lot about who you are and what you want in this life.

In these new poems, I found myself turning over notions that have always been at the fore for romantic poets: the nature of beauty, the nature of the soul, how love exists in time. I’m always thinking about beauty as a subject—that contested, difficult, fascinating ground that’s so important to me. So I wrote a poem in which I proposed a little theory of beauty. It was about the unlikely circumstance of looking at a prison tattoo on a man’s shoulder and realizing that it was quite an awkward looking thing, but it became beautiful when someone explained what it represented—it was a sign language character. This is beauty that is emerging out of knowledge. But there was more to say about kinds of beauty.

Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic, and freelance writer. His first book of poems, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems, was chosen by Paul Hoover as winner of the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing. His collection of short stories and fables, called Cradle Book, will be published in spring 2010 by BOA Editions Ltd.



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