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Award-winning poet Mark Doty talks writing on iPhones, why poetry is still important

Mark Doty
Poet Mark Doty will read some of his work on Friday, Oct. 2, at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Today the popularity of the written word is not where it once was. A poetry reading is now something of a novelty; a bizarre interruption from the daily entertainment of TV, Netflix and the Internet. A solo performance by a national poet is strange to us, even intriguing.

Mark Doty, an internationally renowned poet who has received such prestigious prizes like the National Book Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize, came to prominence in the late '80s and early 90's with his highly praised collection of poems, "My Alexandria." Before attending Drake University in Iowa, Doty spent his high school years in Tucson.

In anticipation of his upcoming reading on Oct. 2 at the Phoenix Art Museum, I talked to Doty about writing on an iPhone, making his poems musical and advice for young writers.

The State Press: I noticed in my research that you spent some of your youth in Tucson. Could you talk a little about what it was like?

Mark Doty: It was really a formative place for me. When I was in high school I met a poet, Richard Shelton, who taught at the University of Arizona at that time. I was about 16 when we met, and he was really encouraging to me. A teacher of mine had shown him some poems I had written and he took an interest in them.

He invited me down to the poetry center at the university and told me I was welcome to hang out in this old household filled with books and photographs of poets, and I could go to poetry readings that took place on campus. It was like being invited to join a community. It was really important.

In those days it was a little house — a Spanish style house right on Speedway. Next door to it was a cottage where the visiting poets would stay. That was torn down some years ago when they widened Speedway. Then they built a new place which is really a temple to the arts.

SP: Do you have a writing schedule, or is it more based around when the inspiration hits?

MD: When inspiration hits and when I'm not busy with something else. When inspiration hits, I'll write any place, in the back of the taxi or in the car outside of the grocery store. Now, I really like having an iPhone with the notes program on it, and I've written any number of drafts and pieces of poems on my phone. It feels relaxed and informal. 

When I'm home and I have time, I have a writing studio out in the garden right by my house. I love going there to work. I'll look at my computer and pick up a file or I'll sort of daydream for a while and see what happens. That feels luxurious to me. I don't get to do it as much as I would like.

SP: Is poetry essential? Does society need poetry or is it something that can be dispensed with?

MD: Absolutely. Human beings need poetry — and, yes, society does, too. Human beings need it particularly because it gives us company with our feelings and our experiences. You can enter into the life of a poet who died 800 years ago, who spoke another language than yours, or lived in another historical moment. You can be close to what it was like to be in that person's skin. It's a great gift to us. It gives us a kind of mirror to look into and see where we see ourselves in this life and where we don't. The very rich thing is that it's a repository of human lives and human form.

Society needs it because otherwise how do we get access into an inner life? If we can empathize with other people and we can know more abut how they felt then our chances of being humane to one another — being civil to one another — is so much better. Poetry teaches us to come closer to understanding other people. The longer I read and write the more amazed I am by the power of poetry.

SP: Who are your favorite poets?

MD: There are so many, I'll tell you a few that I love: Walt Whitman... a poet of great power, great courage... I love Hart Crane, a New York poet, a great celebrator of the city... I love Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, I could keep going. The poets that you care about become company in your head.

SP: When you write, do you do it with an idea of reading aloud? Where do you fall on the whole poetry for the page versus poetry being spoken aloud debate?

MD: I want my poems to be musical.  I want them to feel good on your tongue and feel rich and sonically alive. I think it's a great thing to hear poems read by the poet because it teaches you something about how that poet wants to sound... And maybe once you hear the reading, you can bring some of that voice to your private reading.

It's a weird paradox. When I am writing, I feel like I am speaking to one person, somebody who is interested, who is on my side, who wants to understand what I want to say. And that feeling of speaking to one person is important to me because I want my poems to feel intimate and have that kind of connectedness to the audience.

But I find that if I'm lucky, there’s a lot of people listening to it. So I find it is a weird tension between the individual and the community. Are we singular or are we collective? I think they're both true. At different times we experience ourselves as isolated, unique beings, the only one in the world like me with my soul. At other times, I think we experience ourselves as connected, as part of a tribe.

SP: Is this tension the source for a lot of your poetry?

MD: It's an obsession of mine, that particular one. William Blake said, "Without contraries there is no progression."

SP: Any advice for would-be writers or young poets?

MD: Two pieces of advice: One, read everything. Not in a systematic way or scholarly way like you're learning literary history. Find what you love and read it, and read it, and read more of it. The only way to find what you love is to try out a lot of different things and see what speaks to you. I think people really grow as artists by not being afraid of being influenced, but to let yourself love somebody else's work and be influenced by it until you move on to the next thing.

Two, it's important to get criticism and feedback from your teachers and from your peers. But it's equally important to hang on to what you know and what you believe. That little stubborn part of us that says "Well that’s what I want to do". It's important to listen to that part, it's part of what makes you you. So you have to be open minded but stubborn.

Mark Doty has a reading at the Phoenix Art Museum on Friday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. For more information, click here.

Related Links:

Experiencing the ASU poetry scene

Keeping up with National Poetry Month

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