MARK DOTY (1953- ). From his birth in 1953 until age seventeen, when he left his parents’ home in Tucson, Arizona, Mark Doty moved frequently. In Firebird (1992), Doty’s memoir of childhood, he recalls living in seven houses in seven years. Although he spent much of his twenties in Iowa, where he received a B.A. from Drake University, Doty continued this transient trend in adulthood, living in New York City, then Boston and then Vermont, where he earned his M.F.A. from Goddard College. A shift in Doty’s life occurred in autumn 1990, when he moved from Vermont to Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the outermost tip of Cape Cod. In his first memoir, Heaven’s Coast (1996), in which Doty captures his bereavement following his partner’s death in 1994, Doty recognizes his arrival in Provincetown—among its dunes and seascapes, its trails from town to shore—as a homecoming. He writes, “I couldn’t escape this new sense of arrival, a door in my life opening” (174). Doty further explores ideas of home in his introduction to and selections for the essay collection Open House: Writers Redefine Home (2003).
While Doty is known for writing about subjects such as mortality, grief, desire, and sexuality, nearly all of Doty’s work published to date—nine volumes of poetry, four memoirs, a book on craft, and various essays—emerges after his relocation to Provincetown, and includes literal descriptions and figurative uses of seaside elements. Throughout his writing, particularly in the memoirs Heaven’s Coast and Dog Years (2007) and in the poetry collections My Alexandria (1993) and Atlantis (1995), there are references to maritime details and surroundings, such as kelp and sea wrack, bits of shell and stone, boarded shops and clapboard houses, harbor and horizon. Doty’s writing illuminates the colors and contours of waves witnessed from the dunes, suggests the scents of coastal flora—beach plum and wild roses—and describes encounters, often initiated by his dogs, with marine life at the intertidal zone’s edge: a resting seal, a rotting whale carcass, a band of stranded jellyfish. In a review of his collection Atlantis for Commonweal, memoirist and poet Patricia Hampl wrote that “[Doty is] poised on exact perception. When he sees the ocean—the salt spray hits you.”
Though Doty continued to travel for teaching engagements throughout his Cape Cod years, drawn to Iowa City, Salt Lake City, Houston, and New York City, he maintained his residence in Provincetown for nearly two decades. When Doty and his husband-to-be, writer Paul Lisicky, moved from Provincetown in 2007, they settled on Fire Island, a barrier island located off the south shore of Long Island, New York. Sharing their time on two islands—arguably at the extremes of urban and rural life (their Fire Island community permits no cars)—Doty and Lisicky continue to live part of the year in New York City.
Many of Doty’s poems—all free verse—are elegiac and often brim with praise: “Doty’s poems are acts of celebration when they’re not elegies (sometimes these are almost the same thing),” wrote critic and poet William Logan in a review of Sweet Machine (1998) for The New Criterion. Shaped by his experiences with conflict and casualty—as a gay man in America; as a partner who lost his lover, many friends and acquaintances to the AIDS epidemic; as a son who saw his mother and, years later, his close friend poet Lynda Hull, lose battles with addiction—and refined by his own sense of spirituality or universality, Doty’s writing engages the mutability, vastness and intricacy of coastal territory and dynamics to help inform the human condition and to materialize abstract concepts, such as beauty, time, love, and transience. In some of his poems, maritime imagery seems to serve the elegy, as in the atmospheric “Almost Blue” (1993) for Chet Baker (” . . . every harbor-flung hour / and salt-span of cabled longing”) or the lyric “Lament-Heaven” (1993), in which shore lights appear as a fabric likened to death; in others, an elegy seems to emerge from maritime images, as in “A Green Crab’s Shell” (1995) (“Not so bad, to die, / if we could be opened / into this—”) or “A Display of Mackerel” (1995), in which the individual fish appear as expressions of one soul. When asked about the importance of visual details in an interview for Smartish Pace, Doty stated, “detail brings us back to the body, the physical presence of the perceiver in the world. And thus a kind of ballast is lent to ideas, which otherwise would just float away in a gauzy drift of abstraction” (2011).
To further harness that abstraction, Doty’s writing remains self-reflective and preserves a reverence for and an acceptance of the limits of knowledge and language. Exploring the craft of writing in his book The Art of Description: World into Word (2010), Doty begins by deconstructing Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” (1938) and suggests that a poem may try and reach beyond an act of representation to achieve an act of provocation. Poet and ecocritic Hugh Dunkerley asserts that Doty’s writing about the natural world falls into a phenomenological tradition, as detailed in an article published in 2001. For example, in Doty’s poem “Description” (1995), he poses questions as he aims to describe a salt marsh: “how can I say what it is?” Doty asks; “And if we say / the marsh,” he writes, “if we forge / terms for it, then isn’t it / contained in us, / a little, / the brightness?” According to Dunkerley, this self-awareness in Doty’s writing allows him to render what lies beyond understanding. Similarly, an investigation of liminal lines appears in much of Doty’s writing. Poems such as “Night Ferry” (1993), “Nocturne in Black and Gold” (1995), “Where You Are” (1998), and “Fog Suite” (1998) offer images including pier lights and foggy shores, to evoke the territory between present and future, shaped and shapeless, visible and veiled. Conversely, Doty’s frequent attention to material surfaces has engaged some of his critics and prompted Doty to respond. In one of two poems titled “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work” (1998), Doty defends his “opera of atmospheres,” turning again to water and light (“morning’s sun-shot fog / . . . tidal gestures, / twilight’s pour”) to provide the elements that both form and inform his work.
Since 2009, Doty teaches as a Distinguished Writer at Rutgers University, where he also serves as Director of Rutgers’ Writers House. His collection Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008. Among other prizes, Doty also has been awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and the T. S. Eliot Prize for his poetry and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction for his prose. The Academy of American Poets elected Doty as an Academy Chancellor in 2011.
A Display of Mackerel (1995)
A Green Crab’s Shell (1995)
Long Point Light (1995)
Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008)
Dunkerley, Hugh, “Unnatural Relations? Language and Nature in the Poetry of Mark Doty and Les Murray,” Interdisciplinary Sudies in Literature and Environment: 8.1 (Winter:2001). (Oxford Journals access required)
keywords: white, male, memoir, LGBTQ+, AIDS