Poetry as healing: in conversation with Mark Doty

Credit: Patrick Rosal

As esteemed winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, the T.S. Elliot Prize and the Stonewall Book Award, Tennessee-born Mark Doty now comes to Belfast as the first recipient of the Seamus Heaney International Visiting Poetry Fellowship. Niall Coleman meets with the poet and memoirist to discuss trauma, memory and the power of poetry in post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Few writers have articulated the concept of trauma as intimately as Mark Doty. A cursory glance over his work reveals a poet deeply preoccupied with the inner machinations of grief – a subject matter he himself is more than familiar with. From working-class, military stock, Doty struggled in what was a difficult childhood, punctuated by frequent resettling and a father reluctant to embrace his isolated son. “My father was an army engineer. We moved at least once a year, and human company wasn’t always available to me,” he reflects. “My father had a real difficulty getting on with people, and I felt that I could be more intimate with words. Books were company: I had an affection for words; their sounds, their shapes.”

Such a childhood left a lasting impression on Doty, who quickly adopted reading and writing as an escape from a disruptive life. “I was born in Tennessee, then we went to Arizona. After that, we went to Florida, then over to California. That kind of life has a real impact on a child, and you become accepting of the fact that your friendships aren’t going to last,” he says, “and you never feel that you can settle in the place you are in”. His first encounters with literature were liberating: books, “these little pockets of language”, lifted a young Doty from a state of ennui into another world. “I read those songs from characters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They were simply marvellous, and I decided to take forward those experiences when experimenting with my own poetry and writing,” he remembers. For the poet, whilst many things have changed, much has stayed the same: “Oddly, I have found that life as a travelling academic and poet matches up strongly with these experiences.”

What has changed for Doty since then has, of course, been significant. In a long departure from youthful boredom in army bases, the much-travelled poet now makes his second visit to Northern Ireland as the first recipient of the newly-established Seamus Heaney International Visiting Poetry Fellowship. “Heaney is a figure that I really do hold in high regard – he is a truly wonderful writer and poet,” divulges Doty. “I am influenced by Heaney in that I want to be clear in evoking an experience and perception to the reader, but also in using that sense of clarity to point towards something that is difficult to say,” he explains, “and that is my ideal poem. Something that is both absolutely clear, yet has something at its core which is unsayable, or difficult to name”. In earnest, Doty asks how we may discuss love, mortality and grief, “with all their senses of mystery”.

Indeed, that question has been pertinent to the memoirist since landing in Belfast from New York City. “I have, of course, been struck by how friendly people are. More striking, however, has been some of the conversations that I have had with people,” he discloses. “In conversation, the trauma of the past rises so quickly to the surface. Whilst it was of a far lesser duration, it really brought back some familiar emotions that I experienced in New York following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. We found it extremely difficult to talk about anything else for quite some time after that,” concedes Doty. “In Northern Ireland, there is a very clear sense of the trauma continuing to reverberate against society’s surface. There is that sense of wanting to inform. Wanting to tell a visitor what has happened to your city, to bring that experience to the foreground,” he adds, “and I am absolutely intrigued by that”.

Bringing that experience to the foreground has been a staple of Northern Irish film and literature over recent years, which offers an ever-increasing variety of intimate, visceral portrayals of ‘The Troubles experience’. When asked why readers are drawn to these accounts, he suggests that such fascination is embedded within the curiosity of human condition. “People are drawn to the ‘respectables’ of extremity,” he explains, “and its often worth thinking about examples of film and television that have went on to become cultural markers. Shows like The Sopranos feature extreme violence and certainly reflect the darker side of the human psyche – but they have become cultural markers nonetheless”.

According to Doty, this interest in ‘Troubles literature’ is intrinsically linked to a “national examination of the past” in Northern Ireland, over 20 years following IRA ceasefires which paved the way to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. “As humans, we need to go through a period of ‘processing’ the past, until we reach the point that we feel that we can discuss it,” he explains, “and I would respectfully suggest that in the case of Belfast, there may have been a time when it may simply have been too dangerous to discuss ‘that’ subject matter – just too much pain”. However, the concept of time as a healer of wounds rings true to Doty. “In 2018, to talk about ‘the Troubles’ is to turn something into life that may not have been held up in all its facets, and that is certainly the case in the media and in literature. In this age of truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, you don’t get that truth without reconciliation.”

It is the human ‘processing’ of past trauma which has found particular relevance in the work of Doty. Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir (1996) offers itself as meditative account of loss: the book details the illness and death of Doty’s partner during the AIDS epidemic which swept across the United States. Similarly, the poet confronts his own personal ostracisation in Firebird (1999), which reflects a scarred childhood growing up as a gay man, a sexuality poignantly described in the book as ‘The Wrong One’. Indeed, the notion of empathy pervades his writing. “When writing about my partner’s illness and the fear I had of losing him, I wondered how these feelings, these emotions, could be articulated to someone from a very different circumstance to my own,” he reflects. “I spoke to people at the time who felt uncomfortable around gays and lesbians, they didn’t know how to act around them, they didn’t know how to feel how we felt. If people can be moved by something they didn’t think they could be moved by, that means that there is a humanity in art,” he continues.

It is literature’s nature as a vessel for empathy which makes it a particularly valuable tool to modern society, according to Doty. In the era of Donald Trump, he realises that he faces a great paradox as a poet and a writer. “Whilst we have some political movements that are more liberal than ever before, we also have those who shout loudest in power, which is a nightmare to me. I do not honestly believe that Donald Trump ‘won’ that election. There was much chicanery surrounding the entire campaign, and one of the gains made by creatives has been in establishing the fact that the connections that we have with each other as humans are never going to be replaced,” he says, pensively. “They can’t be replaced,” he affirms. Indeed, in the eyes of Doty, American society is at a crossroads: “There is a huge tension between who we think we are and what we are actually doing. I live in hope that the liberal values which I believe in will stand strong in the face of adversity. But the truth is, I just don’t know. The xenophobia is terrifying, the resurgent racism is terrifying.”

This perception of a growing intolerance in America has added new gravity to the work of Doty, which has frequently grappled with discrimination. He maintains that his work is particularly relevant in the context of Northern Ireland, where elements of the political class routinely condemn homosexuality as a practice. “Poetry makes the relationship between the different ways that we suffer inescapable, whether that is because you are being judged for your religion or your sexual orientation. That feeling of ostracisation, and not feeling like the person that you are supposed to be as according to the social norms which surround you,” he says. “I think my work celebrates what it is to be a citizen. My work also reflects how injustice is everywhere; it does not leave us, and that whatever is done to one member of a group, in some way or another, reduces the effects on the lives of others. So, if anyone of us is harmed, there is a potential foothold lost.”

In the current age of ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘productivity’, Doty asserts that the study of arts, literature and the social sciences are more crucial than ever. “These buzzwords, and the move towards a corporatisation of education are concepts that have been pedalled primarily by the United States. I have taught across a range of institutions there, and in many of those institutions I have seen great increases in the amounts of ‘administrator-types’ within faculties,” reveals Doty, with a hint of frustration. “The emphasis on the values of being employable, being able to create jobs, being able to create income and resources – these are all very useful. But what do we all want when we get home from work? We want to be stimulated, we want to be entertained. Some people want drama, some people want music, some people want to read. People just care about living. I want to stand up on the side of uselessness. I want to stand up on the side of laziness, and daydreaming. I want to look at what we can make.

“I may be a romantic, but I believe that if you pour yourself into that, and put energy into what you love to create, the rest takes care of itself.”

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