It's been a while since I've been excited about hearing a poet read his or her work. But I was strangely giddy about hearing Mark Doty speak at Babson College.
Normally, I don't talk about where I work, but Babson is a top-ranked business school. And while we're not known for liberal arts, the College embraces the arts and tries to incorporate creativity into everything it does. Mark's appearance coincided with an ongoing project by our Arts and Humanities division on the concept of dwellings, homes, and residences in literature. He read a mix of poetry and prose in front of about 100 students and few faculty members (and me).
So here are a few random thoughts about Mark's presentation:
- Since Mark is a teacher, his presentation was appropriate for the student audience. What I mean by that is that most college students, by nature, would rather be texting, or on Facebook, or on a Playstation somewhere rather than hearing poetry. So rather than a typical reading where it's poem after poem, he tone was extremely conversational, even sparked a few laughs from the crowd.
- If you've never heard Mark read before (I've heard him many times, in large and small venues), he's deliberate and measured with his words. And his facial expressions help to lift the lines right off the page.
- Even though I have one of his poetry books, Sweet Machine, I had forgotten how rich his poems are. They sometimes go on for two or three pages—his poems need room to breathe. Mark takes a subject and examines it from every angle. I'd say his work is almost three dimensional, if that makes sense.
- After telling the audience he was going to read one more poem and one more essay, he said, " It's always good to know how much is coming so you can adjust your attention." Perfect for a room full of students on a Thursday night.
- Keeping with the theme of home and homelessness he queried: who are we if we are no longer familiar with home? And what happens if the people, animals, and things in this world were no longer a part of it, how does that change the concept? He read from his book Dog Years, and spoke openly about grief and loss—everything from pets to relatives to past loves.
- As someone who cringes at the though of having to explain poems to an audience, I was so impressed by how open Mark was about his life and lifestyle. He spoke of, but didn't read, his poem "Chanteuse," which is his remembrance of Boston in the 80s and being in love. Again, Mark spoke openly about the 80s AIDS epidemic and how the process of change was rapidly accelerated then. This is partly why he sees himself as a carrier of stories; much like a chanteuse singing these stories which otherwise might go untold.
- When one of the students asked how he writes about the subjects he chooses, Mark said that he doesn't make things up. "I examine things that happen to me, and then I start to make things up." The details can move—the sequence of things, objects, and dates—for the greater good of the poem (or prose). And while there are some writers who have to make up details to tell stories (fiction writers, for instance), he has no problem digging in his own life.
- In his closing, Mark put in a plug for the teachers and their writing assignments. He commented that it may be difficult to try something new,"… But if you don't do anything good, you won't do anything better. Stretch yourself. Use the conflict in your writing assignments to energize your work."
- Lastly, we spoke briefly after his reading. I told him about my writing life, and he was very gracious and offered some advice.
- So today, I am content and reflective. It was so good to feed my poetry soul.