Aren't we enlarged
by the scale of what we're able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.
(Messiah (Christmas Portions), 81-92)
Mark Doty was born in Maryville, Tennessee, in 1953, and went through high school in Tucson, Arizona, where he entered the University of Arizona. In 1971 he married Ruth Dawson, a poet, and took a B.A. at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, at which he also taught for one year. During these years, he made his life's work poetry. He co-authored three chapbooks with her, which he no longer credits as his own work. From 1978 to 1980 he entered graduate school at Goddard College in Vermont to take an M.F.A. This required him to be on campus only twice a year intensively, but the rest of the time he worked at home. During these late 1970s he realized that, being gay, he need not live "hidden, erased" (Heaven's Coast, 50). He and his wife divorced in 1980.
In 1981 Doty moved to Manhattan to work as a secretary, but also, for several weeks in the summer and winter, taught creative writing at Goddard College in Montpelier, Vermont. On the way there, Doty stopped off in Bellows Falls and, one evening in the Andrews Inn bar, met his partner, Wally Roberts (Heaven's Coast, 50-53). Doty published his first book of poems, Turtle, Swan, in 1987. His writing changed strikingly after he and Wally Roberts were tested for HIV in 1989, Doty coming back negative, but Wally positive. They moved the next year to Provincetown, a sea-side haven that welcomes artists, writers, and the gay community, and that found a generous place in his second volume of poems, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991). Their beach-house, at the tip of Cape Cod, looked out towards Long Point Light. My Alexandria (1993), Doty's third book, was written as Wally Roberts' condition was getting worse. The poems in My Alexandria spoke to and transcended the devastating epidemic that now rages world-wide. Its greatness of spirit brought Mark Doty international fame. It won the Los Angeles Times Book Award (1993) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (1994), and (he was the first American to achieve this) the T. S. Eliot Prize in the United Kingdom (1995). After Doty's beloved partner of 12 years died in early 1994 of PML, the fourth book of poetry, Atlantis (1995), unfolded more of the pain and beauty of their lives on the brink of loss and, as ever, spoke movingly to his readers. It won the Ambassador Book Award, the Bingham Poetry Prize, the Boston Review Poetry Prize (1996), and the Lambda Literary Award.
For several years, Mark Doty did not write many poems. He brought out his first memoir, Heaven's Coast (1996), about the last years that he and Wally Roberts spent together. This won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction and had a wide popular readership. For librarians, Heaven's Coast belongs to the literature of AIDS, but for Mark Doty AIDS, and maybe "all terminal illness," is "a kind of intensifier, something which makes things more firmly, deeply themselves" (Heaven's Coast, 3). In 1998 another major book of poetry followed, Sweet Machine, and then last year an autobiographical book, Firebird, about his life from six to sixteen. In 2000, the J. Paul Getty Museum published his poem Murano. HarperCollins will be bringing out Doty's fifth major collection of poetry, Source, in 2001. The same year, Beacon Press will be publishing his meditation on Dutch still life painting and the lives of objects, Still Life with Oysters and Lemons.
Like many contemporary poets, Mark Doty earns his living partly from his numerous awards and honours. He has won the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the New York Times and American Library Association Notable Book of the Year, as well as fellowships and awards from the Vermont Council on the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Whiting Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Foundation. However, teaching remains an important part of Mark Doty's life. He has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Vermont College, and Brandeis University. In 1996 his semi-nomadic life found him living in New York part-time while teaching at Columbia University School of the Arts and Sarah Lawrence College. In 1998 he taught at the University of Utah. Today he and his partner, the novelist Paul Lisicky, divide their lives between Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Houston, Texas, where Doty teaches creative writing as Professor of English in the College of Humanities, Fine Arts and Communication.
In a recent interview, Mark Doty said: "I'm wanting my own poems to turn more towards the social, to the common conditions of American life in our particular uncertain moment. I am, I guess, groping towards those poems; I'm trying to talk about public life without resorting to public language" (Mark Wunderlich, "Interview with Mark Doty," The Cortland Review [Dec. 1998]). Those common conditions extend from small perfections, perceived as Keats might have, to a celebration of living things of all kinds, from the selfless mackerel to the golden Labrador retrievers who go on, as Auden says, with their doggy life and love us. In this, Mark Doty follows Walt Whitman, both deeply American poets, and would likely have been a source of pride to his own ancestor, Edward Dotey, who came over in November 1620 on the Mayflower. Edward Dotey fought the first duel, issued the first lawsuit on American soil, and is affectionately described by his descendant as an "archetypal American scoundrel" (Heaven's Coast, 176-77).
I would like to thank Mark Doty for his generous help in writing the commentary to these wonderful poems, and both him and his publishers, David R. Godine, the University of Illinois Press, and Harper Collins, for permission to publish them.
Given name: Mark
Family name: Doty
Birth date: 1953