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This interview is taken from PN Review 104, Volume 21 Number 6, July - August 1995.A Talk with Mark Doty
MARK DOTY is the author of four books of poetry, Turtle, Swan, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, My Alexandria, and the forthcoming Atlantis. For the greater part of the last decade, he taught in the MFA Program for Writers at Venrmont College and at Sarah Lawrence College. My Alexandria, published in 1993 by the University of Illinois Press after being selected by Philip Levinefor the National Poetry Series, won the National Book Critic's Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Doty recently received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundations. This interview took place in the house which Doty purchased in 1990 when he moved to Provincetown with Wally Roberts, his companion of 12 years who died of AIDS in January 1994.
MICHAEL KLEIN: Have poems frightened you?
MARK DOTY: Yes. Over the past five years since Wally tested HIV-positive, poetry has always been a way for me to struggle with what I was feeling - to struggle with naming the condition under which we were living. That was true before, too. The reason I write is to try to figure out my experience by shaping it. The urgency of that struggle was highly underlined for me by Wally's illness. During that time I'd be going along about my business in the outer world, .and to return to the desk was to enter into the inner life - enter into the heart, really - which was often very frighteningbecause it meant facing the reality of losing him.. I guess I can't pay enough attention without language. I don't mean the kind of language where I'm talking spontaneously, but language as a made thing. That work of making causes me to look harder, to see if I've said what I really feel. Have I done justice to the world I'm attempting to describe? And I have to look again at what I'm describing. I have to look again at my description and that process of refinement brings me closer. Without writing, I don't know how else I would get there.
Almost every poem begins with some trigger in the world -some originating image - an encounter, usually, which speaks to me in some way, which demands to be written about. But if I know what it has to say to me, if I know how to read it from the beginning, there's really no reason for writing the poem. There's a poem in my second book called 'Pharaoh's Daughter.' It was triggered by going to a 4th of July parade in Craftsbury, Vermont - a tiny little town - and the parade in this town goes around and around the town green because there's no place else to go, there are no other streets. Wally and I were there watching and a float went by which represented Pharaoh's daughter. It was wonderfully silly, all these kids from the church youth group dressed up in Egyptian costumes and Pharaoh's daughter bending over the basket, the whole thing lurching and rocking while the truck is going past. I found it funny and I wanted to cry as soon as I saw it. The image wouldn't leave me alone - it insisted upon being looked at -and the poem is the process of unfolding the image. I discovered that it was not only about a childhood memory of that Bible story, hearing that story in Sunday school, but also about a fantasy of wanting to be found by the right parents - wanting to be resued by the people who would really see you fur the miraculous and marvellous child that you were, as opposed to the people who really couldn't see you - your real parents.
This deepening discovery - this being 'seen' - is this what writing the poem is like for you?
Writing a poem is for me an act of unfolding. It sometimes feels like an archeological act - there are layers to be uncovered and found. There's some point in the process when I know what the poem is about, when. I've discovered where I'm going and sometimes that's maybe two-thirds of the way through. A lot of the poem may exist on the page before I can really see that. Then of course things start to shift or change. I think that all good poems in some way preserve that sense of discovery for the reader - there's something contagious about the way the poem re-enacts it. Even though I'm crafting the poem to make it an experience for you, something like what the experience was for me - even though I am conscious at some point of where it's going-I want to preserve that feeling of not knowing so that the reader can be involved in the journey of that poem. That seems to be one of the hardest things for us to do, to be in our not knowing and stay in our not knowing and pay attention. So many poems stop or don't go far enough and I think that they don't go far enough because the writer gets to the point where he or she knows a little something more, has discovered a little bit, and quits.
I try to stay in the experience. Very often I'm working on a poem and a phrase or an image will come into my head, and I think, that's the end of the poem! But I haven't written my way to the end yet. I find what I have to do when that happens is to try to push on past it, and not accept the easy ending. Of course, like everybody else, I want to get out of that place of difficulty. I don't want to stay there. But maybe what I am thinking of as the end of the poem is actually the middle, maybe it's actu~ly the beginning - where else can I take it?
I wonder, what is it about the language that you 're using that emulates the state of not knowing - so that it doesn't lose readers or make them think you're in aflat-lining state of thinking without making discoveries?
It's important to divide this process into at least two phases, if not more than that. In the first phase where the writer does not know, I have to approach language as tentatively as I can. You know those old nuclear safety movies where you'd see people putting their hands in these enormous gloves through a big plexiglass shield, trying to manipulate something? Well, that's the way language feels to me - you've got these big over-sized gloves that are very clumsy and you're trying to touch something and you don't even know what it is you're trying to touch yet. And therefore you have to try everything. You have to keep trying out phrases - staying unsatisfied - have I got it yet? No, let me try a little more. Letting an unpredictable quality, respecting the slippery peculiarity, the unknowability of language, the unreliability of language - letting that serve you. Work with it, instead of over-controlling it. That's the first stage of the process. Once you have gotten it enough - once the poem starts to seem intact and you know what it is you're speaking about - then I think you absolutely have to take as much responsibility as you can to craft the language, to hone it and shape it so that you're making for the reader an enactment of your own process of discovery. I want to continue to keep that energy of inquiry so that the reader feels like his or her hands are in the gloves, reaching out for something unknown. Suddenly you feel it and you say, I didn't know that's what I was moving towards.
And that revelation comes during revision.
Which I love to do. I am jealous of artists who have tactile, real materials - fibre and paint - which artists with language don't get to have. We don't have all that stuff- the lovely, sensuous, colourful textures. But there, in revision, it's as if we do. There the language takes on qualities of texture and shape and the way you need to work with it and hone it emerges. Revision is also much less threatening because you've made the discovery and now you get to have fun. It's the being in the not-knowing state that is so risky because the poem may tell you what you don't want to know, or you may be invited to feel what you'd rather not feel.
Although your subject matter changed from book to book, one of the threads in all your work is the making, and then psychic dis-assembling of artifact. Instead of making artifacts objects of the past, 'you give them the energy of the present. You tum the memory into a discovery of what it is like to be in the present. Logically, it would follow that childhood is a great subject for you.
A common thread throughout three and now four quite different books is a sense of the rushing, hurrying flux of time and a desire to find fixed points: a desire to make or encounter a form which will resist loss and erasure. A poem is in itself that kind of artifact, and it reverberates with the energy of the moment in which it was made. It doesn't matter if that poem is an Amerj.can poem from 1957 or a Chinese poem from 1140 or a sonnet of Shakespeare's from 1602, it has the energy of an individual spirit encountering the huge, unpredictable wash of time and somehow making a point of stillness inside that. Anything which does that has always been of enormous fascination for me: monuments, works of art, vessels of human longing, of human identity, of human memory. I am convinced the story of our lives is one of the artifacts that we all have. There was a point when it was very important for me to try to explain myself to myself in a kind of psychological way. I thiiik that we all have that desire to. make the story of our lives. Of our artifacts, it's one that's very fluid because you re-tell the story of your life in each new circumstance. As your life changes you need to understand the story from another perspective. I wrote perhaps two books about telling myself the story of my life. It was crucial to me. Beginning to view your history as a story is a work of interpretation, a way to wield some power over the past, gain authority over it. Rather than be controlled by my own history, I could say, this is how I will understand what memory is, this is how I will understand my life. At some point I got done with that - for now, anyway. Not to say that I would never write about my family or my childhood again, but I'm pretty sure I will never write about it in the same way because I began to experience a completely different kind of pressure in the present.
AIDS started informing the first book you wrote and much of your second book and most of My Alexandria. The pressure of AIDS has been constant, ever-present.
There are poems in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight that are about gay identity and about desire. Those poems come out of a grappling with the present as' opposed to looking back and attempting to position oneself in the dynamic of the family. I started to think about what I am inside the dynamic of a culture instead. How does my individual desire align with or contradict the messages of the culture in which I'm embedded? By the time that I started to write the poems in My Alexandria, the knowledge of Wally's HIV status created an urgency to make some kind of meaning of a mystery. The image that comes into my mind is one of standing on a sandbar and having this undertow simply eroding the sand out from underneath you. While much was unpredictable, maybe more so than with any other disease, there was a feeling of our future together, which we had both come to view as a kind of given, eroding, being erased, as we stood and watched. When we knew that Wally was HIV-positive but wasn't sick, I experienced this strange combination of an urgency to confront that prospect and the leisure in which to do so. By the time he started to become ill, it was a very different situation that led to a very different life, as well as some different poems.
The story of you is becoming a story without you.
That's probably a movement many artists experience, moving from the need to get a kind of shape around your own story toward the freedom to look outside oneself. I am no longer compelled to explain the ways in which I was shaped. by coming from an alcoholic family, for instance. I just don't need to do that. Which is not to say that the lessons and shaping forces which arise through one's background go away. It has more to do with them becoming the lens through which you see as opposed to the thing at which you are looking. I'm not looking at my childhood any more, but my childhood is an inseparable part of me through which I see everything.
In your poems about childhood, and later, there is a tenderness about gay life, a lack of self-depredation. You put the homosexual in history in a way that is admirable and touching. You've always been out in your poems so it doesn't seem to me that you've used them as a way of coming out. You talked before about poems not going far enough. Do you think the reason you might be so attuned to that particular lapse has to do with being queer and therefore knowing how it feels to test the limits of a culture, translated by the poet into testing the limits of language?
The process of writing poems was a very important part of a coming out process. I started to ask, how does all my experience - my desire, my fear, my affection - how do these parts of my life that touch upon my sexuality - are fused to my sexuality - how do they get into the work in a way that feels responsible to them? That pushed the poems to become larger in order to hold more material, to be able to get more of the world in them. Way back in my earlier life when I was in the closet to myself, I wrote poems that were in the closet too and they were poems I have no allegiance to at all. The tough, contradictory, messy material of having a sexual and romantic life, having an identity in a culture that did not welcome that identity, made new demands upon the poems themselves. I also had a desire, early on, not to write a kind of poem which had already been charted out - a poem that reflected gay identity by focusing almost exclusively on sex. The point of difference between gay men and straight men was sexual behaviour. So the poetry celebrated that difference. I'm glad that work exists, but once it was done, it didn't seem like there was any-place else to go with it. My being queer has to do with history, with economics, with how I speak and what I wear. It has to do with what happens to me on the street. It has to do with my job. Apoetry that didn't admit every aspect of my life would seem to me too limited.
Do you see different impulses in your new book?
The poems were written between the time Wally and I moved to Provincetown in the fall of 1990 - at the same time you did - and just before his death this January. Among a lot of different things, the poems are very involved with trying to see Provincetown physically and psychically, as the inner and outer place in which I have been living. The working title for this manuscript was 'Coastal Studies', which didn't feel quite right, but is still in the back of my mind since it's a book about being on the coast between land and water, between living and dying, between now and forever, between here and there. How do we love a world that is always hurrying away from us? How do we love what we will inevitably lose? Love is a contract with loss. A friend of mine said, 'A dog is a pact with grief.' You don't get to sign on for the joy without signing on for grief, right?
Place, it seems, is what grounds you.
These are poems about being in a place saturated with light, beauty, possibility, grace, and being there during a time of feeling an intensifying pressure of potential loss. Things become so inter-mingled as to be inseparable. I guess that's still about the attempt to locate grace, but the poems feel different to me. Who knows how readers will see them.
You've named three books after places, but they're more than places, aren't they?
Bethlehem is a location of redemption, a point on the psychic map where one can be redeemed or resurrected, review or revise one's life. I chose the title because the poems are attempting to find that possibility in the ordinary, harsh, uncompromising world. Alexandria comes from Cavafy's poems. His city was Alexandria in northern Egypt, which was for him a great museum of memory and of desire. He has a wonderful poem called, I think, 'The old Neighbourhood', where he talks about walking down a street and realizing that he's transformed everything into feeling: the houses, the street-corners, all of it, so that places, in fact, become oneself and become so involved in one's history that one can's separate time and space, one can't separate memory and space. Bachelard said somewhere, 'space contains compressed time -that is what space is for,' a typically French presumption, but it's a pretty interesting theory. Cavafy, too, saw Alexandria as a continuum and not only as a city where he had his moments of pleasure. I think he experienced himself as much in historical time as in the exact chronological span of his life. He could write these poems about the first century AD which sound as if they're being remembered, as something that happened to the speaker in the poem. So there's a sense of the poet coming to contain a history - as you put it, to make a universe. It becomes a fixture on the map. Cavafy is long dead, but the Cavafian world is available for us to enter. He shows up in so many of my poems because I find myself in moments that have been defined for me by the way that Cavafy could see. We could say this experience is Cavafian - it has the resonance given to it, lent to it, by a work of art. A work of art has taught us to see it. Alexandria, for me, is that city of art - that made place, which is both the given and the way that we transform the given.
Were there models for you when you started writing about Provincetown -poets who you read to discover landscape?
When I started to feel compelled to write about this landscape, to write about Provincetown, I turned to poets who were teaching me how to see the coast. One of them certainly was Elizabeth Bishop who has written the great poems of the North Atlantic shore. Poems like 'At the Fish Houses' which see New England and Nova Scotia with a very particular, careful regard, for instance. 'The End of March' is a great poem about walking on Duxbury beach. Her ability to describe what she was seeing, but through description to portray the self and to portray feeling, was enormously important to me because I felt like I had written a lot of poems talking about myself directly. There were parts of my experience that I couldn't get at that way, that had to be approached through metaphor or through submerging the self into the landscape.
Which I think goes back to the issue of autobiography we talked about, and the urge to move beyond autobiography.
Yes, after we've met ourselves directly, we have to meet ourselves though other things. We need vehicles in order to encounter who and what we are. And when we go out into the marsh, it's partly the marsh that we're going to see, but isn't it also ourselves in that world and how a different mirror gives us back to ourselves? Bishop was helping me to think about that. Marianne Moore also is a poet of exact, beautiful, quirky descriptions, of poems that are stubbornly language as well as portraits of the world. They're poems that are always reminding us they're poems. Those were the models that were floating around for me and influencing me. The title, Atlantis, suggests a place which is lost beneath the waves but which is at the same time a permanent city, a fixed world. It is both lost and remembered at once. I'm not sure I have finished unpacking that metaphor intellectually, but I feel that the poems explore a number of underwater places. In particular, Atlantis is the salt marsh, the moors at the west end of Commercial Street. It's a major presence in this book, a location which vanishes twice a day as it goes under the tide and then is revealed to us once again. Something about that alternation of being visible and invisible feels very related to the way that I experience time. The past is submerged and then re-appears, the future is hidden and then is revealed. The present is sometimes to me like that: that steely sheet of water covers the marsh and it's hard to see the present, but what the present obscures is the future.
This notion of the present - obscuring the future when describing it - reminds me of a poem in My Alexandria, 'Fog'. How did it occur to you to make the world of the dead available in that poem?
I was absolutely compelled. The poem began pretty much at the place where it begins on the page. A couple of weeks after Wally and I had taken the HIV test I was working in my garden in Vermont and cut my finger with the garden shears. Blood came welling out and I found myself compelled and horrified by the sight of my own blood, of course because of the kind of knowledge and information which blood was about to provide. I felt a sense of things happening within our bodies - the blood being that part of us that the poem says 'has no outside'. We can't see it without taking it out of its element. I feared something was happening that we could not know. We had an enormous sense of dread about what that might mean. The poem didn't get committed to paper until after we had learned the results of the test, but all of the elements were being juggled in that period of time. The poem doesn't make a discovery. It's a breathless, compelled recounting of a set of events and awful facts. I could have written that poem with simply the test, or the blood and the test, and leave out the world that surrounds the people in the poem - leave out the garden, the Ouija board, the television screen, all the things going on. But I think it's a poem about putting dreadful knowledge in the context of a life. The devastation exists inside the context of an individual, a couple, and even the culture that's around those people - the things that they do and. think about. The experience is given more of its completeness by having more of a life around it.
Sarah Schulman said that AIDS is difficult to write about because we are finding out how to write about it at the same time. For you, has AIDS changed as a writing subject?
Of course the first thing that happened is that it shifted from being a subject. An early poem about AIDS, 'Turtle Swan', is basically about reading these terrible stories in the newspaper and feeling like this could happen in my life, my lover could have AIDS. I wrote that poem in 1984 and now it seems darkly prescient. It was a subject in a sense of something I apprehended at a distance. Gradually, it moved closer in, when I found myself writing elegies for friends or acquaintances. The real shift happened when it became not a subject for me, but a part of my subjectivity, apart of my daily life. To the point that I began to see AIDS almost not as a thing in itself. Is AIDS a thing? It means so much to me that it's not even a word, that it's an acronym and therefore has a larger negative capability, as Keats put it. We can imagine into it because the word is this vague shifting bunch of letters that stand for something scientific. I think people are therefore even more able to pack their own meanings and terms into it. And of course, how we define it individually and culturally keeps shifting and developing. For me, it began to feel like the great intensifier - that whatever the epidemic touched became more itself. And that was true for people with AIDS, whose lives were raised to the umpteenth power, so they became more intensely whoever it was they were to begin with, and for everybody else around them. My own fears, insecurities, what I loved, what mattered to me - all of that was so clarified and pushed by being present with Wally in his illness and that continued I think with greater intensity over the course of nearly five years. I was not necessarily writing poems about AIDS, but if I was writing a poem about the breakwater or about the colors of the boats at Flyer's Boatyard, there was a necessity, an urgency about being able to see; about being able to name experience to try to get it right; to think about what it means to love what is passing; to think about what it means to be temporary. That's true for everybody. We're all going to die. But having the sword which hangs above us all become that much lower and more visible changes everything completely.
In this context, I guess, everything you've written since 1989 is about AIDS, wouldn'tyou say?
Oh yes. Sometimes, many times the word is nowhere in sight, the expected details perhaps or the expected furniture of a poem about AIDS are nowhere in sight, but that is the dye in which the poem is steeped. It is the ground from which the poem begins. It's the condition of my life and I have no choice except to write out of it. I was really startled a few days ago when I got this review in the mail about My Alexandria - and I don't want to complain about reviews because I've had lots of very nice ones. But this particular reviewer said the poems weren't talking directly enough about AIDS. He said that there were many poems about people dying from an unnamed disease, as if I had to spell out those four letters and use the elements that he associates with AIDS in order to be talking about the reality. Or that I had to use the public definition of the disease in order to talk about it. It may be possible to see it more clearly without using those terms. There are poems that I have been unable to write because they are the more expected - the poems of being at the bedside. I don't think those are mine to write.
Do you see your queer identity poems changing?
Yes, actually I have a new poem that's a rant. I'm sort of excited about it. I was in Providence walking around and I saw a poster on the walls of this boarded up old movie palace which was a xeroxed 'photograph' of a face of Jesus and scrawled under it in magic marker was 'Homo will not inherit, Repent and be saved.' And I found that phrase, 'Homo will not inherit', coming up in my head again and again. I kept trying to avoid writing the poem and then I said, all right I'm going to do it and wrote a poem spoken to the Christian Right that is a speech about the beauty of desire, and the absurdity of 'inheriting the kingdom'. I think I've gotten a little more in your face. In Wayne Koestenbaum's book The Queen's Throat, he talks about the diva - that diva-dom has nothing to do with one's gender, that it's an attitude, a kind of fabulousness, a grand vocal performance. And I find myself writing poems that are more the poems of a grand queen. There's a poem in this new manuscript called 'Couture' which is a celebration of the gowns in old master paintings - that's half the poem. The other half of the poem talks about autumn foliage as a drag costume, the woods getting themselves up in these gowns. It's a very heightened, lavish, over-the-top poem that feels to me like singing an aria. It's a more pronounced aspect of my queer character, written out directly.
Has Provincetown been like any other place for you?
One thing that it does is take me back to some of my growing up in southern Arizona, which is a very elemental landscape, like this one, both very austere and very alive simultaneously. I feel at home. In the marsh or in the dunes there is so little, yet so very much that is intensely itself and available. And those huge, wide-open horizontals, and endlessly shifting light. My Vermont experience left me wildly hungry for light and this place offers one centuries of light. And, if this town is not about permission, what is it about? After we had lived here for a few months, Wally and I were walking on the beach and a couple of men came up very close behind us. There were these loud footsteps getting closer and closer and I felt myself get really tight in my chest, starting to feel afraid, and I turned around prepared to defend myself- and they were holding hands. That made me see how much fear I was carrying around that was completely mine. Nobody was making me feel fear now. I had brought it with me and now I had the opportunity to start to set it down. Fear and tension is something that is always in the way of creativity. The less fear and tension you hold, the more you're able to respond to your experience, to respond freely and openly. I feel a permission here for my daydreams too.
I know that you teach and have been doing it for a long time. What is it that you teach? What do you teach writers?
I try to listen carefully and reflect back what I'm hearing, and then ask questions about it. I also point to possibilities for reading, which is an essential part of the teacher's work. The process of becoming an artist is ambiguous and mysterious and indirect. We know that you can't take poems by X and give some suggestions and X will then be a better poet. But I know that my work as a writer was furthered by finding those people and poems with whom I have a kinship. A lot of young people have no idea where to begin. They pick up something that doesn't speak to them, then abandon the project. I try to steer people to their poems. I try to help them think about the nature of their project and the questions they are struggling to solve. Younger writers have such a tremendous need to tell their own story that it's very difficult for them to pay attention to things outside of that story. Perhaps at that age, more than any other, maybe that's when you're reading for mirrors. You're looking for reflections of yourself and where you cannot see a reflection of yourself, you can't see, period. That was true for me when I was 20.I didn't know how to read. I didn't have a clue about how to read a poem, although I tried. I would look at poems and sort of have reveries about them.
Is teaching something you wanted to do?
I always look forward to teaching. There is an energy present with people as they figure out ways of telling their stories. Teaching has always felt to me like privileged work. Like anybody, I've felt really beaten down at times, teaching five composition courses, struggling to make a living. And there are times when I've also fallen prey to what I think is the worst hazard of teaching - becoming canned and responding in programmed ways because you've responded to the same thing so many times or you get tired and you're not able to be present with what's happening right now. That's the part of teaching that is the most difficult. It's also the part that will help to keep you alive as a writer. If you can be there with the person that you're with, paying attention rather than saying the thing you say to a sophomore who uses too many abstractions, if you can really listen to this particular student who has a desire to talk about this and to find her own way of doing that, you can stay fresh. For most teachers, because of the demands of the institutions in which they teach, that freshness, or quality of attention, gets drummed out. You just get too worn out -having classes with too many students in them or doing it over and over again.
How is your poetry changing?
There's an increasing engagement with formality of language, an increasing musicality. I've gotten much more concerned with the sheer fabric of language as a surface in itself and, therefore, there is much more play with versions of traditional form, with rhyme and blank verse, very loose kinds of metrical and syllabic structures and so on. I am not a formalist in the sense of having a real allegiance to fixed forms, but I am very interested in the tension between pattern and free speech, between form and freedom of expression. The real poem seems to live in the tension between those polarities. The real poem is not in the sonnet's form nor in the mere spilling out of your mind. It's in the shuttling dialogue between statement and music.
As a writer, what lesson or well do you return to?
The teachers who shaped my writing were poets I met through their work. One was James L. White, who is best known for a remarkable posthumous book called The Salt Ecstasies, published in the early 80s. He took some mannerisms of deep image poetry - the powerful and striking image - and allied that with a very heart-centred intensity, a great sadness, a great will to be loved and a real doubt that love was possible. He was the first poet who spoke to me as a gay man of the possibility of giving my own life its full resonance. His ways of thinking about memory were marvellously helpful. Some poets became teachers to me because they went so fully into their way of making meaning that they made a way of knowing the world. By becoming unmistakably individual, their work became a vehicle for encountering anything.
As Elizabeth Bishop has done.
Here's a poet who is basically shy, quite reserved about telling you very much about her life. Her particular interest is simply in describing things. She wants to do the most accurate description that she can of what's in front of her, but she pours her personality, her self-ness, her own quality of attention, her soul, so profoundly into her description that it is not just description anymore, it's self-portrait. The way she perceives is so completely stamped on the poems, they could be written by nobody else. That way of perception becomes something that a reader can step into. We are invited to see the world through her eyes and, as we were saying earlier about things that are Cavafian, we can now say that there are experiences or moments that are Bishopian, where you feel like you're living in an Elizabeth Bishop poem. Frank Bidart is another poet whose work has that kind of stamp of extreme individuality. He moves through his obsessions relentlessly focused, allowing nothing in except the examination of that obsessive territory, and he makes out of it a place that you just can't get out of once you get in.
Where are you in the process of becoming nobody but yourself?
My guess is that we can never really answer that about ourselves. You know yourself in mirrors, by how you see other things. It's very hard for me to say cogent things about my own poems. I can talk about one poem at a time, but trying to think about it as a poetry… It seems I've been given permission to be who I am. When I do that, people listen to me. I guess that's a lesson of this year.
What advice would you give to young poets?
Find your ways to balance faith and doubt, which I think are both our allies, ultimately. More writers in the process of trying to become themselves are immobilized by doubt than by anything else. Very few of us have too much faith. It doesn't seem to be characteristic of the breed. We seem, instead, to be' very good at internalizing the messages we've gotten from outside of not valuing ourselves. We have to find ways to believe in ourselves enough to do the work. The only way I know of proceeding is to do your work, make things, and then to look at them and make them better or make the next thing. To keep making, you have to have enough faith. You also have to be able to make use of your doubt, because it will not abandon you. Since your doubt will not go away, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, it must become your ally. That means bringing your doubt in at the right time, at the place where it can help you question what you've done. Ultimately, there is no advice to give to young artists except keep working. If you listen to your work, if you live in it, it will deliver you to its destination. Abraham Maslow says somewhere, 'Every is contains its ought.' In that gestating poem you're making there is the kernel of the poem it could become. Here is the poem that it ought to be. In heaven, maybe it already is. But the act of translation, or the process of getting to heaven, requires the practice of living in your work.
This is an abbreviated version of an interview first published in Provincetown Arts, 1994.
This interview is taken from PN Review 104, Volume 21 Number 6, July - August 1995.