Conversations on Craft: Mark Doty
Admittedly, I arrived late to this one-on-one session with Mark Doty. He began his session by reading one of his poems (I think it was called “Apparition” from his latest book Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems), and then breaking it down for the audience, explaining some of his thoughts behind the poem. The conversation opened itself to questions and answers. Here are some comments from his talk.
- Doty discussed the “so what” factor in poems, that feeling of writing a poem, getting to the end and then saying … OK, how is this relevant? Good poem, but so what? How does a writer overcome it? Goes to show that all poets have the experience of writing a mediocre but technically sound poem, yet uninteresting to the writer. That led the conversation down the path to revision.
- Why is it that we learn to do something well, such as write a poem, and then we get bored with it? We don’t think the piece is good enough, or we use the same words or devices over and over again. Be conscious of your habits. If you write a line and find yourself saying, “Oh, that sounds like me,” then it’s time to shake things up.
- There are always discoveries to be made about our poems, which can keep us from boredom. Doty says, “It’s easy to over-control our poems out of the fear of the unfamiliar. Losing control is scary, but it can be useful.”
- The question of questions came up in our talk, as in using questions as a poetic device. Doty suggests the following exercise: “Take a draft you’re working on but not done with, note the places you may have a question in the poem. Insert questions along the margins. Not all questions you’ll keep, but there will be one question that may be able to open you. Questions in poems are like trap doors, and maybe you will get to another level under the poem.” He adds, “When you look at the poem to revise, or to rein it in, you should work to keep only what’s essential.”
- I liked this quote, “Confound your usual means of making, and it will confuse and remake you.”
- Doty told the audience about an exercise that C.D. Wright uses with her students. When a poem you’ve written feels too tight or too pat (meaning too perfect, or too easy), she suggests rewriting the poem backwards. Start from the bottom and work your way up, either word by word or line by line. Rephrasing the parts of a poem can help to get it where you want it to be.
- There was a question about how Doty gets to the lines he writes. He explained that most poetic lines are written as 10-syllable lines. Dickinson shortened her line, which makes the reader feel the pressure of what’s not being said. Then there are other poets, such as Ginsburg, Whitman, and Crane, who expanded the line as if the margins didn’t exist. This interplay between line and sentence is one way to speed up or slow down the reader, and is a way to shake up your poems.
- Then I got up the nerve to ask what Doty thought of contemporary poetry. With so many MFA programs and spoken word poets, I wanted his opinion on the growth of poetry. Of course this is a great thing, with many more writers and ways to publish than when he started writing. It’s more than just publishing, it’s community groups getting together to read poems, or as simple as one friend printing a poem and sharing it with another. His students are not afraid to mix styles and not be labeled as one type of poet writing in a particular style. They mix genres and they mix media.
- Young writers (and by young I believe he meant beginning or emerging writers) don’t want to be marketed to or reduced to a member of a consumer group. People want to be thought of as individuals and are looking for authentic experiences, and that is why so many people are drawn to poetry today.