By Meaghan Menzel
Mark Doty visited Washington College’s Rose O’Neill Literary House Tuesday, Sept. 16 as part of the Sophie Kerr Living Writers Series. His work is in the vein of lyrical memoir, a genre that combines the age-old art of poetry with the more-recent tradition of memoir to better reflect the human experience.
Dr. James Hall, who is currently teaching a course on living writers this semester, introduced Doty at the event. “He is a sublime human being, an excellent teacher, and an incredible poet,” Hall said.
Doty is the author of the books “Turtle, Swan,” “My Alexandria,” and “Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems.” His poems have appeared in several magazines such as “The New Yorker,” and “The London Review of Books.”
He is the first American poet to win Great Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize, and he has also earned awards such as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Award of 2008.
Doty lives in New York City and is currently a professor and writer-in-residence at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
For this event, Doty read poems exclusively from his upcoming book “Deep Lane.” In “Deep Lane,” a majority of the titles of the poems that he read from were actually titled “Deep Lane.”
“Deep Lane is a road near a house that I own… it’s a perfectly nice road… but what I really like is the name,” Doty said. “I wrote a poem called ‘Deep Lane,’ and I knew by the time I finished it that I wasn’t done. And then there was another ‘Deep Lane’ poem. And by the third one, I…understood that the phrase ‘Deep Lane’ was…pulling me into itself.”
Junior Nick Anstett said, “I like the autobiographical and original qualities” of Doty’s poems. One example of this includes Doty’s poem “King of Fire Island.” This is about the actual Fire Island in New York and how Doty once saw a deer there only to later find a deer head floating in the water.
Anstett originally saw Doty at a writer’s conference when he was in high school. He said, “Fire Island was stuck in my head for years,” but he didn’t remember the name of the author. Anstett is now a student in the living writers class and was able to see Doty read.
“Hearing him read it live again has a lot of the same images and prevalence I saw…years ago,” Anstett said.
According to Doty, each of his poems are generally a version of himself and his life. As an autobiographical writer, he has some responsibilities to himself as well as other people in his life. He has to know how certain poems will affect his relationships, but he said he also has to ask himself, “What would you feel amiss if you did not speak about it?”
“I think the hardest thing is… it requires standing back from oneself,” Doty said. The poem is not about trying to get people to notice you or take pity on you, but rather “what the poem really wants to do is create an experience for you.”
Junior Grace O’Connor said, “I like that he [Doty] recommended image as a vessel and sort of using image as a way to investigate our own image.”
“I love deeply rhythmic movement, and I actually love sacred poetry,” Doty said. “The first poems I ever heard were the hymns that my family would sing… and their imagery and those cadences meant a great deal to me. I’m after a language of the sacred, by which I mean a language of heightened experience.”
When Doty is struck by an image or an experience that continues to nag at the back of his head, he feels he has to write about it.
“What happens for me is I encounter the image which somehow is a ripe vessel for containing a question… and writing a poem becomes a process for unpacking that, and discovering what it is about that thing that matters to me,” Doty said.
Since Doty started writing back in high school, his style and his mode have certainly changed. However, his concern towards experience and humanity continue to remain the same.
“It really is in transience, evanescence—that which appears and disappears—how are we to continue,” he said. “How are we to love our world in which things vanish? What does it mean to be in time? I’m also really interested in things that people make… things that we construct… to mark that we were here.”