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Fallen Beauty

For Mark Doty, the poet and author of the new memoir Firebird, the imperfect surface is the touchstone of art

November 10, 1999

FirebirdMark Doty's new memoir, Firebird, is both a gay coming-of-age story and a portrait of the artist as a young man. Doty's boyhood was peripatetic and lonely; his family, like erratic tourists, crisscrossed the country -- from Memphis to Nashville to Tucson, Titusville, to Maryville, to Lancaster, and back to Tucson -- moving from one suburban neighborhood to the next. A self-described "chubby smart bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent newly arrived from unimaginable places," Doty was both stranger and misfit. Even his boyhood enthusiasms -- tap-dancing; secretly rummaging through and delighting in his sister's cotillion souvenirs; dressing up in black stockings and singing like Judy Garland -- were rarely sources of solace; they were more often a confusing jumble of pride and shame. It's this tension that makes Doty's memoir not merely an autobiography but also an inquiry into the poet's early relationship to beauty. As he says in this interview, his sister's girlish souvenirs were beautiful to him "because they evoked other possibilities, something secretive and forbidden and rich with life."

Beauty is integral to Doty's poetry -- beauty as splendor, shimmer, luster (all characteristic Doty words), and all of it cracked, preferably, or somehow marred. Think flea-market treasures: wine-stained silk opera gloves, or an intricately beaded black scarf, faded and frayed, with half the beads gone. Beneath the finely wrought, descriptive surfaces of Doty's poems are often complicated, difficult histories. "Nothing escapes his gaze and nothing -- death, devastation, the ghost of a gesture -- escapes its sheer insistence on beauty," the poet Carol Muske has written. As Firebird makes clear, Doty's interest in the disparity between a shell and its interior is not merely aesthetic; it stretches all the way back to childhood, finding its roots in the experience of growing up gay in 1960s America.

Poems by Mark Doty from The Atlantic Monthly, with readings recorded specially for Atlantic Unbound:

Long Point Light (1994)
A Display of Mackerel (1995)
The Embrace (1997)

From Atlantic Unbound:

Soundings: Shakespeare's Ravishing Failure (October 27, 1999)
"The couplet is sheer bravado," Linda Gregerson writes, "and of course it fails." Hear Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds...") read aloud by Mark Doty, Gregerson, W. S. Merwin, and Lloyd Schwartz -- and decide for yourself.

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Doty, currently a creative-writing teacher at the University of Houston, has written five volumes of poetry: Turtle, Swan(1987), Bethlehem in Broad Daylight(1991), My Alexandria(1993), Atlantis(1995), and Sweet Machine(1998). He has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the T. S. Eliot Prize, among other honors. His first memoir, Heaven's Coast(1996) -- about his longtime lover's death from AIDS -- won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. Doty lives with the novelist Paul Lisicky. They divide their time between Houston, Texas, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Doty recently corresponded via e-mail with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

Mark Doty
Mark Doty   

Did you have any models in mind when you wrote Firebird?

I like the formal elasticity of memoirs very much. They alternately behave like novels, like essays, like travel writing, like poems -- and that sort of synthesis lends itself to making discoveries. I'm especially drawn to those memoirs that place the act of remembering in the foreground -- those that take memory itself as part of their subject and examine the action of making a story out of what is remembered. In that way, Firebird was influenced by James Merrill's A Different Person and by J. R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself. And I like memoir -- actually, I like any kind of writing -- that reminds us that it's made of language, that acknowledges the stuff of its own fabrication. So I've taken particular pleasure in the dense, allusive, stylistic fabric of Nabokov's Speak, Memory. Nabokov's gorgeous sentence-making isn't just in service of itself, either; he uses it as a sort of buffer to make the losses of his early life -- the disappearance of a family, a way of life -- bearable, both to himself and to us. Style can do that: create a degree of distance that gives us a little protection from the wild heat of the writer's feeling, and thus, in some paradoxical way, allow us to feel.

In the book you write about your "education in beauty," beginning with your sister's tantalizing drawer of shiny trinkets: crepe and tulle, glittery ribbons, "scraps of sheer and sparkled treasure." Could you talk about what beauty meant to you as a child? How has your relationship to beauty and artifice changed over time?

I guess I was bored very early on by what seemed to me the plain nature of the clothes and toys and roles handed out to little boys. I saw no future for myself there. The sort of stuff my sister kept in her special drawer of souvenirs was redolent of something else -- exuberance, playfulness, permission. They appeared beautiful to me because they evoked other possibilities, something secretive and forbidden and rich with life.

I grew up in a very disconnected suburban landscape, in town after town, and it seems to me that there was very little that existed in order to enchant, to instruct us in our larger possibilities, to engage the spirit. There was, in other words, little art, and a great deal of practicality, of ways of life determined by social and economic necessity, or social and economic ambition. My love of that shiny stuff in the drawer was, I think, a kind of early outbreak of longing -- a wish for life to be something more. That took other forms later on, of course, or I'd simply have become a drag queen rather than a poet!

My relationship to artifice has changed in very complex ways. The little boy at his sister's secret drawer is interested in what's pretty. The sort of beauty that interests me now is something more revealing of character -- a very personal sort of beauty, often a failed sort. I am drawn to the ways people reinvent themselves or the world in which they find themselves -- how they make order and harmony out of the chaos or uncertainty that surrounds them. There's a character in Firebird, for instance, an old man I met when I was a teenager, who built a homemade grotto he called The Valley of the Moon. He had taken broken dishes and cement, scraps of old toys, and stones found in the desert and cobbled them all together into a sort of version of paradise that was intended to represent, and perhaps to preserve, innocence. It was something of a mess, a bit haphazard and piecemeal, and yet it seemed to me strikingly beautiful, a mark of an individual sensibility in the world.

Your poems -- noted for their lyrical language and wealth of detail -- have been criticized for being overly concerned with adjectives and "word stitchery," as a recent reviewer put it. What do you think accounts for the critical resistance to beautiful surfaces in your work? Do you pay any heed to the charges?

There is an interesting bias toward the plain, the unadorned; what is plain and straightforward is often equated with what is true. I have real doubts about this; I don't think it's necessarily the case that the best way to describe reality is by stripping things down to essentials.

I believe that reality cannot be captured in language, period. It's too complex, too shifty, too difficult to know and to say. I think that reality can be approached, pointed to, suggested, and that the more stylistic means one has at one's disposal the better. That's why, in the title poem of my book Atlantis, there are a number of sections that circle around the same core -- around experiences that I believe are fundamentally unsayable. But I try. I try it plain, colloquial; try it elevated, formal; try it through narrative; try it through lyric; try it through metaphor. So formal density is one strategy, both in Atlantis and in Sweet Machine, but there are other poems, in both books, which are drop-dead direct. "The Embrace," for instance, from the last book, is as plainspoken a poem as I will ever write; its mode of speech felt right for the gravity of its occasion. But I'd hate the idea that every poem ought to be that uncompromisingly plain.

The gendered nature of this criticism is interesting, I think. The charge is "word-stitchery," not "word-welding" or "word-carpentry." The implication is that this craft is something feminine and trivial, as opposed to the more masculine and worthy work of plain speech. I suppose that part of my queerness is an interest in made surfaces, surfaces of all kinds, and the inevitable discordance between that surface and the core, between the speech and what it represents.

I'm interested in your attention to rupture -- the rent in the surface, the fractured shell. In Heaven's Coast you use the image of a crack in a delicate cup soldered with a seam of gold as a metaphor for the way loss first shatters, then alters us. Did you come to this idea of fractured beauty through your experiences with grief?

You're right, this is a profound fascination with me. It precedes my experience with grief -- I feel as if I came into the world with this preoccupation. In part it's that the complete, the entirely achieved, doesn't seem to need my attention. You can look at, say, an ancient Greek sculpture, or a superb carved wooden staff from Ghana, and say, "Yes, that's complete in itself, whole." But I am always drawn to those things that aren't intact, those that bear some evidence of limit or failure. Perhaps it's just that this is a sort of beauty I think I might be able to achieve!

And it may be, too, that this is something with deep psychological roots. We all experience a disjunction, sometime early on, between our interiority -- the deep, luminous world of inside -- and the way other people see us. That original experience of recognizing that we may not seem to be what we are seems to me one of the primary social experiences -- it happens sometime around the beginning of school, at age six or so. I suspect it has even further implications for gay kids, who learn that they have within them a crucial difference that others cannot necessarily see. We were talking before about surface and core -- I think this is where a fascination with that tension originates. Think about all the little gay boys who grow up to be so involved with decor, appearance, staging, style. Such practices all involve an attention to the tension between what something is and what it seems to be -- a kind of rupture.

Oh, but I talk around it, and I'm still not sure I've got it right. It's a key, for me, a touchstone -- and maybe that's why I don't seem to be able to explain it in any comprehensive way. In my heart I feel that the only real beauty is broken beauty, fallen from the ideal. Perhaps I feel that way simply because the world has death in it, and therefore all perfections are limited.

Your relationship to objects could almost be called spiritual. "If I'm moved to write about those jellyfish in the water or the mackerel in the supermarket," you've said in an interview, "it's because something that I need to understand is coming to light through that vehicle. I think of it myself as leaning against the given." Could you talk about what you mean by "leaning against the given"?

I mean that in these instances a metaphor has presented itself to me, and in the early stages of the writing process I seldom know what the image stands for; I have the vehicle, in other words, but no idea of its tenor. That "leaning against" -- that's a way of describing a process of inquiry. I begin with description, usually, and then I look at that descriptive language to see what clues it may yield as to what I'm really talking about -- the "why" of the image, what makes it matter. This is a process of paying attention, of following impulses, of posing questions. In these matters it seems as if the object is leading the way.

Firebird is your second memoir, but I imagine the experience of writing it was much different than that of Heaven's Coast. How did emotional and temporal distance from your childhood influence your memory?

Very different books! Heaven's Coast was written in the flux and rush of new grief; I wanted to represent that state of being, without the mediating and shaping influence of distance. It has aesthetic distance, of course -- that was what made it possible to write it, simply being in the habit of shaping language -- but I had very little distance from the content. Firebird begins with things that happened forty years ago. It gave me a great deal of pleasure to daydream that childhood back into being; I felt I was working at the juncture of memory and imagination. Not that I was making things up, exactly, but that I was imagining into the memories, lending them detail and color. The chapters about adolescence were much less pleasurable to write; I didn't want to revisit those years! And did, of course, want to -- wanted to tell this story whole. I could not have done so without all this time intervening. And I could not have done so without the mediating interest in the form of the book, in its language, which gave me something to pay attention to besides the painful material I was confronting.

Louise Glück has written that "Poems are autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment." Do you agree? How has your experience writing memoirs differed from that of writing poems?

I probably write poetry with a different sort of principle of inclusion than Louise does; obviously my poems tend to be longer and more aswarm with detail. Chronology and comment might find a place in them. However, in general I do agree -- autobiography requires context, the placement of the "I" in time and space, in history and in culture. I wanted, in Firebird, to place that boy I was in the movements of his times -- to evoke, for instance, the movement my parents were part of, leaving a connected, rural life for the new, anonymous suburbs. I wanted to place my family's arc within the social and cultural ambitions of the sixties. And to think about the experiences of belonging that the "counterculture" provided for me. Those kinds of concerns are less likely to be the province of poetry, aren't they, with its habit of attention to the intensity of the lyric "I."

Although you write about gay themes and issues and have been referred to as a new model for gay poets and poetry, I don't get the sense that you've been typecast as a "gay writer." Is this a matter of marketing, or a reflection of the times? Do you prefer not being typecast, or could such a label be somehow useful?

It is useful and it isn't. I am quite interested in speaking to other gay men, whose experience often overlaps with mine, and it feels crucial to me to represent that experience -- particularly since it is so often stereotyped, misrepresented, falsely homogenized or erased. And I am happy to be called a gay writer because I want gay readers to find me. But I am not willing to stop there, since the whole point of literature is that we can enter into it without being like the person who made it. If we only read people like ourselves then the whole project is voided; there is no possibility of the imaginative empathy upon which literature is founded. So I am determined to have it both ways! So far, so good.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Katie Bolick is an editor of Atlantic Unbound.

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