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#NPRPoetry: Mark Doty

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now it's time for poetry. In honor of National Poetry Month, April, we've been asking you to submit your original poems on Twitter or TikTok. And joining us now to talk about some of your submissions is poet Mark Doty. He won the 2008 National Book Award for poetry for his collection "Fire To Fire." And he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARK DOTY: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So before we get into the submissions, I was wondering if we could talk about you for a minute. I mean, you've had a very well-respected career that's spanned decades. You've written a number of books. I was wondering how it began for you. Do you remember when you fell in love with poetry?

DOTY: When I was probably 3 or 4 years old, my grandmother, who was a end-times-are-coming-soon sort of Christian fundamentalist, used to put me in her lap, and she'd read me the Bible. And it was an experience of real warmth. I was held in her arms and sitting in her lap, and we were both looking at the book. And she would read these images to me that - you know, she read me the Book of Revelations, you know, as a kid. It was full of beasts rising from the sea and strange images and riders coming across the sky. And that dreamy, wild poetry just drew me in.

But the images were - the things I was seeing were coming to me in this very safe, loving place, so reading became a place to daydream - you know? - a place to be held and to be loved. And so that was the beginning. And the other was in high school, when I started discovering - stumbling upon poems. It started with Tolkien and "The Lord Of The Rings," and the little songs the characters would sing would seem to me so beautiful and so charged with feeling. And I went on from those to read Blake and Japanese poetry and E.E. Cummings and found myself increasingly in love with these mysterious packages of powerful language.

MARTIN: What a beautiful way to express it.

DOTY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Some of your most celebrated work addresses themes of loss and love and mortality, especially in the context of the AIDS epidemic. We're currently experiencing a different kind of health crisis, but many people have experienced loss this year, or if not directly, they've been sort of touched by it tangentially. It feels like it's - for many people, anyway, it feels like it's all around us. I was wondering if poetry has helped you deal with loss in this particular time as well. And why do you think that is?

DOTY: Writing poetry is a way of knowing more fully where you are and who you are. So that means in these circumstances that, you know, you need to look at your sense of isolation or disconnection. What does it mean to stay home? What does it mean to be deprived of things that are usually a part of your daily life and that help you to feel you are yourself?

MARTIN: So let's get into some of the submissions. Let's start with a Twitter poem that stuck out to you.

DOTY: OK. This is written by a writer who goes under the pseudonym of Disco_Bawl. And the poem has a title that I may mispronounce. It's "Amuse-Bouche," which are, of course, in restaurant-speak those elegant little bonbons you get at the beginning of a meal that are intended just to delight and surprise you. So here's "Amuse-Bouche." (Reading) All my life, I've been trying to learn how to take a single bite and be satisfied.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. Yeah. How about that? What did you like about it?

DOTY: I think we all feel like we've had to deal with less. Whatever it is that you enjoy doing, you know, be it going to the movies or being out for a walk in the city streets or going shopping, those things may not be so available to you or often have not been available at all. And can we learn to do with less? Can we take satisfaction in one bit? We try, and sometimes we succeed. So one of the things I like about this poem is that it's clear that the writer is still struggling with this. All my life, I've been trying - and that writer is still trying.

MARTIN: I think it was quite delicious. All right. You also picked a submission from TikTok, so let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: An apology written on a silhouette. Winter comes to replace its casualties. See? Their white ghosts outline every branch.

MARTIN: Very nice. What stood out to you about this one?

DOTY: An apology written on a silhouette suggests that snow is an apology for all that winter has taken away. And so can we think about replacement? Maybe we don't have what we used to have. Maybe we aren't offered everything. And things disappear, but is something else there to remind us of what was there? Or is something else coming to take his place?

And I think it's a truth of experience that for everything we lose, there's always something else. We fix our eyes on one thing that may - we may not be able to keep, but something else offers its pleasures to us, too. I think it's a really lovely metaphor contained in this poem in a very swift and elegant way.

MARTIN: I so agree.

DOTY: It's also beautifully said. Their white ghosts outline every branch - great description of winter.

MARTIN: Yeah. OK, how about one more?

DOTY: And this last one. This is by Adele Jeunette. (Reading) I took up farming earthworms in my kitchen. They ate, procreated, didn't give a damn about the pandemic. I'm fond of the slimy little things.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. OK.

DOTY: We all get jealous from time to time, or we imagine that it might be good to be less conscious. You know, what if we didn't know there was a pandemic? What if we weren't aware of all the difficulty in the world around us? And the speaker starts out telling us that, you know, about these earthworms. They're lucky that they can go on about their business of eating and procreating, and then that I'm fond of the slimy little things - wonderful kind of deflation at the end. But I'm fond of them, but they're still slimy little things. They're not human beings. They're not as conscious as I am. And, well, she doesn't really envy them.

MARTIN: I mean, I love what you picked because they're all - they all have very different things that they're working with. I think that's great.

DOTY: Very different voices, right? They look at the world in different ways, and yet they all manage to say something trenchant about what it is to be alive in a moment of deprivation, you know, either ironically or sincerely or quite imagistically (ph) and poetically.

MARTIN: It's been such a pleasure spending this time with you. Before we let you go, you've taught poetry both at the university level, in more informal settings. In fact, I think you're teaching right now. Any tips for people who want to write but don't know where to start?

DOTY: The great American poet William Stafford had a famous moment when somebody asked him, you know, what do you do when, you know, you're trying so hard to say something important to you, and you just can't get it right? And he said, well, you lower your standards.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DOTY: And that's actually very good advice. First, you have to say it however you can. Get it on the page, and then start making the language better. Make it more interesting. Make it more surprising.

MARTIN: Mark Doty is a National Book Award-winning poet. His latest book is, "What Is The Grass: Walt Whitman In My Life."

Mark Doty, thank you so much for talking to us.

DOTY: My pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: And if you would like to participate in our Poetry Month celebration, there are two ways. You can post your original 15-second poem to TikTok with the hashtag #NPRPoetry. Please keep it radio-friendly and 15 seconds or less. We're also taking your original Twitter poems. You can tweet those to @npratc with the hashtag #NPRPoetry. Even though Twitter's changed its character limit, we're sticking with the original rules. Poems must be 140 characters or less. And as you just heard, your submission may end up on NPR because every week we've invited a celebrated part to join us and talk about some of the poems.

(SOUNDBITE OF LACK OF AFRO SONG, "ONE FOR THE TROUBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.