Photo credit: Paola Valenzuela | Interview by Tim Relf
“I have always felt that risk could energise a poem and that the reader might feel the heat being generated”
Deep Lane [June 23rd, evening of the first fireflies]
June 23rd, evening of the first fireflies, we're walking in the cemetery down the road, and I look up from my distracted study of whatever, an unfocused gaze somewhere a few feet in front of my shoes, and see that Ned has run on ahead with the champagne plume of his tail held especially high, his head erect, which is often a sign that he has something he believes he is not allowed to have, and in the gathering twilight (what is it that is gathered, who is doing the harvesting?) I can make out that the long horizontal between his lovely jaws is one of the four stakes planted on the slope to indicate where the backhoe will dig a new grave. Of course my impulse is to run after him, to replace the marker, out of respect for the rule that we won't desecrate the tombs, or at least for those who knew the woman whose name inks a placard in the rectangle claimed by the four poles of vanishing - three poles now - and how it's within their recollection, their gathering, she'll live. Evening of memory. Sparklamps in the grass. I stand and watch him go in his wild figure eights, I say, You run, darling, you tear up that hill.
This poem always gives me a profound feeling of carpe diem. I wondered what sentiment(s) you wanted to convey in the poem and felt writing it?
When I wrote Deep Lane – one of a number of ‘title poems’ in that book – I was living in a cottage in a surprisingly wild area out near the eastern tip of Long Island. A salt marsh that gave onto Accabonac Harbor was a few hundred steps away, my garden was framed by huge old oaks and maples, and in late summer box turtles used to gather under my fig tree, waiting for the ripe fruit to fall. It was a refuge when I was much in need of such a place.
It might seem contradictory that the poems I wrote there are so shadowed, but feeling sheltered means one doesn’t have to protect oneself. I’d been distracted by an overly busy literary life, by teaching, by seismic shifts in my marriage and, when I allowed myself to notice, the melancholy I’d been avoiding was pervasive and almost inescapable. My poems became a means of trying to dig myself not out of this exactly – but through it. So that’s the situation from which this poem emerges.
It was a short walk from my front gate to a cemetery tucked back in the woods, perfect for a shorter dog walk. I can’t usually date my poems precisely, but I know I began this one the next day, and that I noted the date because I wanted to remember when in summer the fireflies appeared. So it was a little before twilight on June 23 in 2010 that I bent down in the middle of the narrow gravel road to the cemetery and unhooked Ned’s leash from his collar. He was a beautiful, strapping adolescent then, not quite a year old, and he radiated the energetic eagerness of his kind.
It always feels like a surprise, after the tangled woods, to arrive at the open, streamlined expanse of the Jewish cemetery. A dog or a child suddenly encountering an open space wants to – and usually will – do just one thing: run.
The poem is faithful to events, and if it isn’t it’s because it has, as poems tend to do, almost replaced my memory of the experience. But I recall Ned’s fountaining tail ahead of me, and, once he’d found the wooden stake and managed to uproot it, the sight of him racing the darkening slopes. I also recall reading on another stake the name of the woman who’d be buried there the next day, and alternately wanting to restore the stake to its rightful place and to cheer on my bravura fellow for whom a stick is a stick.
There were markers that read “loving father” or “beloved teacher”, but many bore only names, and all were level with the earth. To lie here was to disappear into grass and sunlight, drifting cloud and racing dog.
Why is this poem structured as it is, and how has your relationship with form changed over the years?
I’m drawn to the Transcendentalist tradition of looking for instruction in the natural world, and to the idea of ‘natural philosophy’ – studying the given, and studying my own perceptions of it, the interpreting self – to think about time, presence, absence, beauty and how we make meaning. So my habitual pattern is to describe an experience that seems to hold meaning for me, and then to ask questions about that experience and about the language I use to describe it. That’s how the content of the poem arises, as an examination and inquiry.
In terms of form, I want my poems to feel like made things and, even if the voice is conversational, I want the language to have the feeling of something sculpted, chiseled, tempered – at the very least attended to. A substance built of speech rhythms, arrangements of syntax and sonic textures. I have always liked stanza-making, often setting lines as tercets or quatrains to choreograph the reader’s movement down the page. I’m less interested in stylistic coherence than in exploring different registers of voice, and trying to find the shape that best realises the poem.
This one is long-lined, which tends to relax the voice a bit, and allows for inclusiveness. It’s a meditation – thinking feeling its way forward, and you learn from Whitman how useful the long long line can be for that. Ned’s exuberance in the face of all that opposes joy stands in opposition to the way the speaker walks that feeling; while I’m walking with his gaze “a few feet in front of my shoes.”
I read for the Royal Society of Literature in London a while back and the young women who worked there told me they’d adopted the poem’s final phrase as a slogan of encouragement. When one was having a bad day, the others would say to her: “You run, darling, you tear up that hill.” I loved that!
Many of your poems have a strong sense of story. Given this narrative dimension to your work, could you ever envisage writing a novel?
Not me. I am jealous of the continuing immersion that novels offer readers, and of the marvellous sense of scale that can be created by the novel’s big embrace. The contemporary novelists I admire most – Alan Hollinghurst, Zadie Smith, Antonia Byatt – do that in spades. Novelists and playwrights have a way of identifying with a range of characters and then allowing those people to interact with one another. I seem to need to stand near the lyric centre.
The poems in this collection are, at times, uncompromisingly honest. You’ve said of them: ‘This was my life for all to see.’ How hard was it to be that honest and what was the reaction?
I wish I hadn’t said that, because it sounds as though these poems are straightforward autobiography, records of that life. What’s important in them is what attempt is made to make meaning in them, to seek insight, knowledge or emotional clarity. There is much here that I have lived, but it’s my life as both an inquiry into experience and a drama for the reader to enter.
As for taking risks, I have always felt that if I approached material that made me uncomfortable – the internalised shame of being a gay man born in the U.S. in the middle of the last century, for instance – that risk could energise a poem, and the reader might feel the heat being generated.
This, like some of your other poems, features a pet. It’s easy for ‘pet poetry’ to become sentimental and cliched – how can writers avoid that?
As one who’s a written a full-length memoir about my relationship with two dogs, I’ve thought about this subject. Dog Years is, in fact, about love and time, and puts two canine characters front and centre to do that. All writing about pets is writing about people, since we don’t know them apart from ourselves and since their lives are shaped by ours. And we are not, after all, writing in their language!
Writing Dog Years felt like a wonderful challenge, since nothing (except maybe narrating one’s dreams) has the potential to be as boring to the listener. Therefore, a book about pets must be tonally various, with shifting emotions; it must have a narrative line; it must be at least sometimes funny; it must be fast-moving.
You must acknowledge the otherness of the animals, no matter how well you know or knew them. You must grant them their animal dignity and independence. You must not offer false consolation. You must be prepared to make your reader cry, but you may not do so yourself, at least not in public. I am delighted that Vintage Classics has just reissued Dog Years in a beautiful new edition.
How has your writing changed as you get older?
Oh Lord, it probably isn’t for me to say.
Mark Doty is the author of more than ten volumes of poetry and three memoirs. He has won many honours including the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and the T. S. Eliot Prize. He is a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His collection, Deep Lane, was first published in the UK in 2015 by Jonathan Cape.
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