How Can I Meet You? Knowing Each Other Through Poetry and Medicine

Good afternoon. I’d like to welcome you to
today’s Medical Center Hour. I’m Marcia Day Childress from
the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities and
really pleased to see all of you here today. We live in times when empathy
seems in short supply. At the same time, this
ability to imagine how it feels to be inside
the skin of another seems more needed than ever
to help us bridge difference, discover common ground, share
burdens, overcome aloneness, create community, refresh or
restore our humanity and that of others. As a writer of
poetry and memoir, Mark Doty believe
that literature is one of the most powerful
tools we have to foster empathy and to come close to the
subjectivity of another person. He appreciates as well that
the practice of medicine too is a work of profound
knowing of learning who someone is, what they need, and
how they might be healed, hence his coming to speak
at this Medical Center Hour. It’s been the University of
Virginia’s great good fortune this fall to have Mark Doty
on grounds as the Kapnick Distinguished
Writer-in-Residence. And it’s the medical school and
health system’s good fortune that he’s come
across Hospital Drive from the English department to
explore with our health care community the ways that both
poetry and medicine help us to know one another and
indeed can help us to heal. Having been introduced today
to Mark Doty and his work, we hope you can also
attend this trio of upcoming lectures that rounds
out his cabinet residency. The three lectures, which
are mentioned in your handout at the end of Mr. Doty’s
biographical sketch, are on compassion,
which I dare say is something we’ll encounter
with him now as he asks, how can I meet you,
knowing each other through poetry and medicine. Today’s program is
offered in partnership with the creative
writing program and the department of English. And we’re also pleased that
the UVA bookstore is here with a selection of
Mark Doty’s books for sale and for his signing
following the program. I’d also like to add that Mark
Doty had no financial conflicts of interest to disclose. So here he is. And I dare say you’re
in for a wonderful hour. We are in for a
wonderful hour with him. Welcome, Mark. [APPLAUSE] MARK DOTY: I can also tell you
that this program is entirely not approved by the FDA. It’s a pleasure
for me to be here. I feel enormously
fortunate to be a visiting writer at UVA this
term in part because of the strength of
the creative writing program, wonderful college
and extraordinary students, and in part because although
it might not initially seem to be so, to be in
Charlottesville at this moment seems to me to be standing to a
particular place in our history where I would like
to have my eyes open. So I’m grateful for that. I have always
thought that when we say that creative writing, the
writing of poetry or fiction or memoir, is expression, the
expression of something that we feel or that we think, that
there’s something not quite true about that, that
rather than self-expression, writing has always seemed to
me an act of inquiry where I could go to figure out
what I feel and figure out what I think. There’s a famous saying
in composition theory. How do I know what I think
until I see what I say? Until the words are
there in front of me, how can you get access
to an inner life? I was very fortunate
as a young man because I was
scribbling away, trying to make sense of a very
complicated inner life growing up as a gay boy in an alcoholic
family in Tucson, Arizona in the late ’60s. I met a poet who did
something for me that was far beyond mentorship. He was the director
of the University of Arizona Poetry Center,
which was a beautiful old adobe house. It was lined with books in
a non-circulating library. There were broad signs,
hand-printed poems. There were photographs of
poets, tape recordings. And he welcomed me
into that place. He talked about the
life of writing, the life of being part of
the community of poets, as if he were gossiping about
his friends, some of whom had been dead for 500 years. He lived in the
flux of their work, in thinking about
that language and how it describes experience. I felt that he was inviting me
in not into the Poetry Center, but into a community I
could join at a point when I felt there weren’t
that many communities available to me. So it was a great
support for the sense that writing could be an
ongoing practice of finding out how to say who you are,
finding out what you have to say about who you are. I learned later how useful this
notion was to me as a teacher, particularly when I was
teaching composition at a two-year community
college in Iowa. And most of my
students were nurses. I didn’t understand
that they would be people who would bring to
our expository writing class the greatest urgency, the
greatest sense of necessity. For them, there
really was no point in writing what was not
commensurate with the intensity and difficulty of their
experience, people who sort of stood in a brink, stood
as witnesses day after day, night after night. For them, writing to understand
what they were experiencing, writing to give shape to it,
to plumb the depths of feeling was not just something you do
for requirement, not simply an academic practice, but
really a door into a deeper awareness to living one’s life
more completely and more fully. I was never more grateful
for this practice when I stepped into the
deepest crisis of my life. In 1987, my partner
Wally Roberts and I were living in Vermont. We were the only out gay
couple in Montpelier, Vermont, a town of 8,000 people. It was a little tense, very
beautiful place, but, you know, homogeneous. We had been to this
event in San Francisco and learned that taking the HIV
test was becoming a recommended practice, although
in those days, what it meant to test positive
was really not very clear. There was not a
specific regiment of treatment available. There was no uncertainty
that you would develop an opportunistic infection. Well, the state was unclear. It was also clear that
if you were positive, the moral sword that
hangs over all ouor heads was that much lower. So when we came back from San
Francisco, we took the test. And I want to read you a passage
from this book, Heaven’s Coast, which is a memoir of Wally’s
illness and death and the year thereafter. “At 9 o’clock on a weekday
morning late in May of 1989, the public health
care worker who had come to tell
us our test results blasted the world apart. I can’t say I remember the
experience all that clearly, so much that it’d become
a kind of whirlwind. She was poised on the
edge of the couch. Practiced, friendly,
and rather formally, she told us our results– me first, then Wally. I remember going and
standing beside him. He was sitting in
a wooden chair. I don’t remember
if he was crying, but I remember the
stunned aura around him, the sense of an enormous
rupture, not surprise, but nonetheless, a
horror, an announcement– fundamentally, inadmissibly
unacceptable, shattering, but not a surprise, for we had
been thinking of anything else. And though she must have told
me my status first in order to deliver good news
before the blow, I remember thinking it
didn’t matter which of us it was, that his news was mine. At that time, testing
was offered by the state, and after a
three-week wait, would arrange to meet the
case worker someplace, often secretively in
parking lots or cafes to protect the identity
of the closeted people to avoid the brand of
difference and contagion. I think she offers
a few phone numbers, a clinic in
Burlington, the phone number of Vermont Care as
a fledgling support group 40 miles down the road. The phone numbers of
information flapped in the void, little
wings in a great tornado. Where were we then? In error? In limbo? In not knowing more darkened
by contingency than everything we’d ever known? We drove to Burlington. It was a glorious, dense,
green spring in Vermont, but it could have been anywhere. There wasn’t anything else
outside our known sphere. Inside the car,
we held hands as I drove, talking or not talking. I don’t recall. A blur of green
outside, shreds of fog, I think, on the mountains,
and the almost impossible green valleys between them, the
palpable wounded shock inside. We went to a support group
office that day, signed up, took home brochures. I remember crying in a Schezuan
restaurant, Wally’s hand shaking as he lifted
his water glass. We were inside a
zone of silence. We could talk and
still not violate it even in a crowded room full
of carved dragons, the people chattering other
business lunches. Perhaps we looked
as if nothing had changed so that no one would
know we had entered that mourning into the
rest of our lives, into the harrowing
forward-pouring next.” Well, there wasn’t a lot for
us to do in terms of treatment. But one thing we could
do is make some plans about how to live in
whatever time was remaining. At that time, there were maybe
seven cases of AIDS in Vermont. There were no services. We threw a highly
unlikely arrangement. I managed to get a job at Sarah
Lawrence College in New York. I could commute there. I could drive down once a
week, stay a couple days and teach, and drive back. We found an apartment in
Provincetown, Massachusetts, which was the most welcoming
community we could locate, a very large artist colony
for the last 100 years, and therefore, large
gay/lesbian population hardened by the epidemic. We moved, which was the best
decision we could possibly have made because there
was a community around us. There was help. And there was,
well, a considerable in being in a place of
less difficulty, less tension in the remaining
years of his life. So two things were happening
for me at the same time. The person that I
love, that I believed I would be with for
the rest of my life was beginning to disappear. And at the same time, what
I was seeing around me, if you read the newspaper
or you watched television, the narrative of what our lives,
my community’s life is like, didn’t match up. I saw there,
represented, abandonment, people who were socially
exiled, unwelcomed, diseased, often blamed. I saw in my community
incredible heroism, people coming together
to help strangers, raising money, making
services at a time when there was so little knowledge,
so little hope, really. So people did extraordinary
things to help each other out. So I want to read
you a few poems that come out of that time. I felt a great pressure both to
articulate what I was feeling, discover what I was
feeling, and also to represent some aspects
of the community that were not otherwise visible. So this poem comes out of
a story a friend told me. She was a woman who was
comfortably retired, wrote poetry, did birdwatching. and took a notion
that she’d like to be a volunteer for a guy
who was living with AIDS. So she began to visit
this fellow once a week, and then twice a week,
and soon every day. And when he died, she formed
another such relationship and eventually became a
director of volunteer training for the state. This is called “Brilliance.” “Maggie’s taking care
of a man who’s dying. He’s attended everything,
said goodbye to his parents, paid off his credit card. She says, ‘why don’t you
just run it up to the limit?’ But he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed. Though he misses the
pets he’s already found a home for, he can’t
be around dogs or cats, too much risk. He says he can’t have anything. She says, ‘A bowl of goldfish?’ He says he doesn’t want
to start with anything and then describes the
kind he’d maybe like, how their tails would
fan to a gold flaring. They talk about hot jewel
tones, gold lacquer, say maybe they’ll go
pick some out though he can’t go much of anywhere. And then abruptly he says,
‘I can’t love anything I can’t finish.’ He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole schintillant world. But what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore has
established this discipline, a kind of severe rehearsal. That’s where they leave it,
in looking out the window, her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something. Later, he leaves a message. Yes to the bowl of
goldfish, meaning, let me go, if I have
to, in brilliance. In a story I read,
a Zen master who’d perfected his detachment
from the things of the world remembered at the
moment of dying a deer he used to
feed in the park and wondered who
might care for it and at that instant was reborn
in the stunned flesh of a fawn. So Maggie’s friend, is he
going now into the last love object of his attention,
fanning the veined translucence of an opulent tail, undulant
in some uncapturable curve? Is he bronze chrysanthemums,
cover leaf, hurried darting, dubloons, icon-colored
fins, troubling the water?” Of course, one’s self
is a fleeting thing, a fragile thing. Then we have to ask, well,
what was it to begin with? What is this bundle of energy,
this nod of consciousness, this spotted brightness in a
field, a brightness that we are? Wally developed a
condition called PML, Progressive multifocal
leukoencephalopathy, which basically no longer exists. It is so controlled by
protese inhibitors to be gone. It is a bug in the liver that
would migrate to the brain and cause a kind of
gradual paralysis. And it, thank god, brings
with it a funny kind of peace. Why would– if I thought I could
walk if I was stuck in bed– he was never at the
hospital because there was really nothing to do. He was simply there at home
with his dogs and this cats, watching the same episode
of Golden Girls four times in a row and laughing
at the same jokes every time because he
couldn’t remember them. He was fine. His family couldn’t believe
he wasn’t in the hospital, but there was no reason to be. This is called “Reprieve.” “I woke in the night and
I thought it was a dream. Nothing has torn
the future apart. We have not lived
years in dread. It never happened. I dreamed it all. And then there
was this sensation of terrific pressure
lifting as if I were rising in one of
those old diving bells, lightening, unburdening. I didn’t know how heavy
my life had become– so much fear, so
little knowledge. It was like being young again,
but I understood how light I was, how without encumbrance. And so I felt both
young and awake, which I never felt
when I was young. The curtains moved. It was still summer. All the windows opened. And I thought, I can
move that easily. I thought my dream had
lasted for years, a decade. A dream can seem like that. I thought, there’s
so much more time. And then, of course, the truth
came floating back to me. You know how children love
to end stories they tell by saying, it was all a dream? Years ago, when I
taught kids to write, I used to tell them this
ending spoiled things, explaining and dismissing
what had come before. Now I know how wise they were to
prefer that gesture of closure, their stories rounded not
with a sleep but a waking. What other gift comes
close to a reprieve? This was a dream
that Wally told me. I was in the tunnel, he
said, and there really was a light at the end,
and a great being standing in the light. His arms were full of
people, men and women. But his proportions
were all just right. I mean, he was the
size of you and me. And people said, come with us. We’re going dancing. And they seemed so
glad to be going and so glad to
have me join them. But I said, I’m not ready yet. I didn’t know what to do
when he finished except hold the relentless weight of him. I didn’t know what to say
except, it was a dream. Nothing’s wrong now. It was only a dream.” So just one more
from this series. The characters you’ll
meet in this poem are some friends and two dogs. It’s called “New Dog.” “Jimi and Tony can’t keep
Dino, their cocker spaniel. Tony’s too sick. The daily walk’s more pressure
than pleasure, one more obligation that can’t be met. And though we already have
a dog, Wally wants to adopt, wants something small and
golden to sleep next to him and lick his face. He’s paralyzed now from
the waist down, whatever’s ruining him moving
upward, and we don’t know how much longer
he’ll be able to pet a dog. How many men want
another attachment just as they’re
leaving the world? Wally sits up nice and says,
‘I’d like some lizards, a talking bird, some
fish, a little rat.’ So after I drive to Jimi
and Tony’s in the village and they meet me at
the door and say, ‘We can’t go through with it. We can’t give up our dog,’
I drive to the shelter, just to look. And there is Beau bounding
and practically boundless, one brass concatenation
of tongue and tail, unmediated energy, too
big, wild, perfect. He not only licks
Wally’s face but bathes every irreplaceable
inch of his head. And though Wally can
no longer feed himself, he can lift his
hand and bring it to rest on the rough gilt flanks
when they are, for the moment, still. I have never seen a
touch so deliberate. It isn’t about grasping. The hand itself
seems almost blurred now, softened,
though tentative only because so much will
must be summoned, such attention brought
to the work, which is all he is now, this gesture
toward the restless splendor, the unruly, the golden,
the animal, the new.” So I thought that I was adopting
this unbelievably undisciplined golden retriever
for Wally’s benefit. Wally lived for about six weeks
after that after Beau came home with us. Beau was in the house. Wally had just been made a big
breakfast by the home health aide, scrambled eggs and bacon. And Beau leapt up and ate it. So it was a bit of work. And my friends thought I
was– what are you doing? You’re insane to be doing this. I realized when Wally died
that the dog wasn’t for him. That was for me. It was a creature who didn’t
know anything about grief and who needed a walk and needed
to eat and needed to play. And his lift kept going. So those poems tried to
talk about these experiences directly, telling stories
about the community and what happened to us. I want to read
you something that behaved a little differently
and uses a metaphor. There are a few things you
can’t say kindly, right, and you need to come at it– excuse me– from
some other direction. The children at the
elementary school in our town had a garden, a vegetable
garden, flower garden, outside school. And when school was out,
you could rent a plot. I had a garden plot there. “In the community garden.” “It’s all over now, late
summer’s accomplishment. And I can stand face to
face with this music, eye to seed-paved eye with
the sunflower’s architecture– such muscular leaves,
the thick stems’ surge. Though some are still
shiningly confident, others can barely
hold their heads up. Their great leaves
wrap the stalks like the lowered shields. This one shrugs his shoulders. This one’s in a rush
to be nothing but form. Even in their zenith, you
can see beneath the gold they’d come to. So what’s the use of elegy? If their work is this skyrocket
passage through the world, is it mine to lament them? Do you think they’d
want to bloom forever? It’s the trajectory they desire. Believe me, they do desire. You could say they are
one intent, finally, to be this leaping green,
this bronze haze bending down. How could they stand
apart from themselves and regret their
passing when they are a field of
lifting and bowing faces, faces ringed in flames?” So something
happened a few months after Wally’s death which was
profoundly disturbing to me, which was that I could
not picture his face and I couldn’t hear his voice. And I thought maybe it
was because, you know, when you’re with them everyday,
they sort of become a part of your subjectivity and you
don’t see them as separate from you exact;y. And I was so upset by
this because I thought that I’d lost him again. And then came a dream. And when I had
finished this poem, I sent it off to
an editor I knew. And he liked the poem. He said, and by the way,
I had that dream too. And he said, and I showed
the poem to by friend, John. And John had that dream too. I had no idea. And over the years of reading
this poem to audiences, I’ve discovered how
common this experience is and how profound it is for us. “The Embrace.” “You weren’t well or
really ill yet either, just a little tired, you
handsomeness tinged by grief or anticipation, which
brought to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace. I didn’t, for a moment,
doubt you were dead. I knew that to be true
still, even in the dream. You’d been out, at
work maybe, having a good day, almost energetic. We seemed to be moving
from some old house where we’d lived, boxes
everywhere, things in disarray. That was the story of my dream. But even asleep, I was
shocked out of the narrative by your face, the physical
fact of your face inches from mine, smooth-shaven,
loving, alert. Why so difficult, remembering
the actual look of you without a photograph,
without strain? So when I saw your
unguarded, reliable face, your unmistakable gaze
opening all the warmth and clarity of you,
warm brown tea, we held each other for the
time the dream allowed. Bless you. You came back so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you without
thinking this happiness lessened anything, without
thinking you were alive again.” There is a sonnet
by John Milton, I dreamed I saw my
late espoused wife, when he sees his wife in
a dream after her death. And when he awakes, he’s
devastated because there, she’s gone. And so it seemed that the
profound gift of this dream was knowing that he was
dead from the very beginning so that we could be reunited
but that loss would not return. So I want to– two things. When life changed, when
hope appeared in the from of new medications, an
incredible transformative time. And everyone I
knew who had been– basically, everyone I knew had
been a carrier of some kind. And suddenly, we could
set something down, completely shell-shocked,
numb, inarticulate. And during that time,
I wrote this book. I don’t know what
people who are mourning do if they don’t write books. I assume you have to make
something to contain this. So this book was written as
almost a daily meditation, watching myself in grief,
pouring it out onto the page. I let myself say
everything and then cutting it way, way
back because the thing was enormous at one point. I was very lucky that
a very good editor was involved early on
in the process, waiting to read it when I was done. When the book came out,
I went on a book tour. And the first one, the stop,
was in a big Barnes & Noble up in Hamilton. And I read from the book,
and I got through it without falling apart. And then it’s time
for questions. And the first
question was, so what do you think happens
to us when we die? I didn’t really prepare to be
a grief expert or [INAUDIBLE].. So I had to negotiate that. And then I went
to San Francisco. It was a book fair. It was held in a big expo hall. And I read from the book
and came down to sign them and was looking at a line of
hundreds of people holding the hardcover version of
this with such presence and emotional fixity
because we were living with this reservoir
of untapped grief. And I had never in my life
seen personally people so eager to take something, to take
a text that they could use. Poets do not grow up
believing that, A, anybody would want to
read them, much less make use of what they do. To grow up as a poet in
this country is to feel– it’s changing, but
to feel on some edge or doing a kind of
private practice. So for me to learn
that art of all kinds was something which
helps people live, which helps us to stand
through difficult times and think about how
we might step forward was an extraordinary thing. My work has moved on
in terms of content, but of course, the news is
evanescence doesn’t change. “We are poor passing facts,”
as Robert Lowell put it. We disappear. What we love vanishes. And that continues to be
a powerful current for me. I thought that I would end
with a couple poems that do some quite different things
than the ones you just heard. How are you dong? You good? We’re fine, yeah. One of the things that I
have wanted to talk about– and you could that in
some of those poems about the epidemics– is
talk about social justice, the ways in which
it’s easy for those from the margins and
the bottom to disappear. This is a poem
which wants to talk back to racially-motivated
violence on the part of our law
enforcement officials. We’ve seen such
horrifying evidence of that in recent years. The poem remembers Tamir
Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot, I believe, in Ohio. He was playing with a
toy gun in a city park. And Marcia very kindly mentioned
empathy in introducing me. This is a poem that is
struggling with empathy. What do you do when
you’re confronted with an act of violence? To what extent can you be
empathic to the perpetrator of that violence? “In two seconds.” “Tamir Rice, 2002 and 2014,
in two seconds, the boy’s face climbed back down the 12-year
tunnel of its becoming, a charcoal sunflower
swallowing itself. Who has eyes to see
or ears to hear? If you could see
what happens fastest, unmaking the human
irreplaceable, a star falling into
complete gravitational darkness from all points
of itself, all this– the held loved body into
which entered milk and music, honeying the cells of
him, who sang to him, stroked the nap of the
scalp, kissed the flesh-knot after the cord
completed its work of fueling into him the
long history of those whose suffering was made more
bearable by the as-yet unknown of him, playing alone
in some unthinkable future city, a Cleveland,
whatever that might be. Two seconds. To elapse– the arc of joy
and the conception bed, the labor of hands repeated
until the hands no longer required attention, so
that as the woman folded, her hopes for him sank into
the fabric of his shirts and underpants. Down they go, swirling down into
the maw of the greater dark. Treasure box, comic
books, pocket knife, bell from a lost cat’s
collar, why even begin to enumerate them when
behind every tributary poured into him comes rushing backward
all he hasn’t been yet? Everything that boy could
have thought or made, sung or theorized, built on the
quavering but continuous structure that had
preceded him sank into an absence in the
shape of a boy playing with a plastic gun in
a city park in Ohio in the middle of the afternoon. When I say, ‘two seconds,’ I
don’t mean the time it took him to die. I mean the lapse between the
instant the cruiser braked to a halt on the grass,
between that moment and the one in which the officer fired his
weapon, the two seconds taken to assess the situation. And though I believe
it is the work of art to try on at least the
moment and skin of another, for this hour, I
respectfully decline. I refuse it. May that officer be visited
every night of his life by an enormity collapsing
in front of him into an incomprehensible bloom
and the voice that howls of it. If this is no poem then– but that voice, erased
boy, beloved of time who did nothing to no one and
became nothing because of it, I know that voice is one of
the things we call poetry. It isn’t only to his
killer he’s speaking.” So this is– I’m going through a
strange transition. But I’ve read you a lot
of very heavy poems. And I thought I would
end on a lighter note. I have, as you know
from hearing about Beau, there are other dogs in my work. I’ve been with big
dogs most of my life. And in recent years,
a new relationship brought a terrier
into the family. And this is like a
Martian appeared. This is something
was beamed down. This is called “Little George.” “Barks at whatever’s
not the world as he prefers to know it– trash sacks, hand trucks,
black hats, canes and hoods, bicycles, snow shovels,
someone smoking a joint beneath the overhang of the Haitian
Evangelicals, anyone– how dare they– walking a dog. George barks, the tense
white comma of himself arced in alarm. At home, he floats and
the creaturely domestic, curled in the triangle
behind a sleeper’s knees, wiggling on his back
on the sofa, all jelly and sighs, requesting, receiving
a belly rub, no worries. But outside the
apartment’s metal door, the unmanageable day assumes its
blurred and infinite disguises. Best to bark. No matter that he’s slightly
larger than on toaster, he proceeds as if he rules
a rectangle two blocks deep, bounded west and east by
Seventh Avenue and Union Square. Whatever’s there is there
by his consent and subject to the rebuke of his
refusal, though when he asserts his will, he trembles. If only he were not solely
responsible for raising outcry at any premonition of
trouble on West 16th, or if, right on on
the pavement, he might lay down the clanking
armor of his bluster. Some evening when he’s
climbed the stairs after our late walk and
rounds the landing’s turn and turns his way
toward his steady sleep, I wish he might be visited
by a dream of the world as kind, how any
looming unreadable might turn out to
hold the April-green of an unsullied tennis ball? Dear one, surely future is
not entirely out to get us? And if it is, barking
won’t help much. But no such luck,
at least not yet. He takes umbrage this
morning at a stone image serene in my neighbor’s
garden and stiffens and fixes and sounds his wild alarm. “Damn you, Buddha, get out here. Go away.” Thank you. So that starts out
in a lighter place, but poetry’s character
is to keep diving. And so I thought that I was
writing a portrait of George. And then I realized after
while, oh, I’ve actually written a portrait
of my partner, which is a little
doubtful about the future. And then I realized, no,
it’s really about me. It’s really about what we
think the world will offer us. Is it possible at this
moment to dream of the world as kind, that the future
will be bringing us something we really want? I hope so. So I’m going to
stop there, and I’m happy to address any
questions or anything you’d like to talk about. [APPLAUSE] MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS:
Thank you so much for your poems and your
other wonderful words and your thoughts. We have a generous
amount of time. We have a couple of microphones. So please wait to
ask your question or make your comment until
a mic can be brought to you. And when you do have a mic,
please identify yourself. And so the floor is open, and
we have a nice amount of time for conversation with Mark. AUDIENCE: In the poem about– oh, I’m Jodie, [INAUDIBLE] nurse
practitioner and poet wannabe. In the poem about
Tamir Rice, was that a poem you felt you needed to
write, or you should write? MARK DOTY: I felt I
needed to write it. You know, I don’t know that
there is more of such violence that there has been in the
past or if the availability of technology to video tape
it is what has changed. But the visibility of
this in recent years has been so profoundly
disturbing to me. And the idea of
this child simply– two friends of mine, Marie Howe
and Tina Chang– both of them are poets– organized
an event which was to be at Washington
Square, and poets were invited to read poems
around this issue of violence that was called I Can’t Breathe. And it was a fascinating time. It was very cold. There were 60 poets together. There was no audience. We just read to each other. And while we were reading, this
young Latino cop comes up to me and says, what’s going on here? And I said, well,
we’re reading poems about racially-motivated
violence on the part of police. And he say, good. I so much wanted
to be part of that. And I wanted to
lend my voice to it. But the struggle for me was
I don’t know Tamir Rice. I have no connection, and
it would feel presumptuous to claim that I could. The candle to me– and I
struggled through days and days before I finally started
to get into the poem. I was thinking about time and
the way that when he died, all that had poured into
him comes to a halt. And everything that would
have emerged from him comes to a halt. It
kind of implodes him. I mean, any death is
like that in a way, but so much carrying,
that small body, carrying so much
of past and future. And my work is often
obsessed with time, what is it, how do we
contend with it, how do we think about it. And so that gave me
a means of approach. And in the poem, the
details about him are extremely generic– you know, bell from
a lost cat’s collar. There’s very little
about him as a person because he is, in
the poem, being an instance of what
happens to time when a life is interrupted. And in a way, I guess
the answer is both. I mean, I really needed to
write it, but I can still think, yeah, I’m really
wary of the idea of writing about race being
problem of poets of color. I think racism distorts
every life in this country. It damages us. It limits us. And we can share
the responsibility of addressing it. I don’t mean that poems change
it, but they do something. They provoke our
thinking, right? They serve as catalysts
for awareness. They make connections
between people who share a common pain or concern. AUDIENCE: Just a quick comment– in the Tamir Rice
poem, you describe him at one point as a
“dark sunflower.” And you read us an
earlier poem which included a beautiful
description of sunflowers. MARK DOTY: I love sunflowers. AUDIENCE: And I’m reminded
also that in your book, The Art of Description, you
work with about four or five different poets’
takes on sunflowers. And they obviously
means something to you. MARK DOTY: Well,
they’re so vibrant. They have such a– and
their presence is– there’s some echo
of a human, right? Like, the stalk is bilateral
symmetry and the great face that is so expressive. And sunflowers move to the art
of time almost like nothing else. And those are
little seeds in May. And then by September, there’s
that thing that’s 12 feet tall and that blazing great face. They’re just enormously
compelling to me. And I like the way, as in the
poem that you were referencing, the community garden,
there were sunflowers. They were hunched over and done. And there’s, oh, they’re
just coming to being. It’s as if we’d been seeing
a simultaneity spread out in front of you, all these
lines rising and falling. If we could stand back
from the world– well, we wouldn’t stand back very far. It’s what we see,
isn’t it, people coming into being, passing
away, flowering and fading. But there is a fabulous painter. And if you google, this
guy’s name is Jimmy Wright. He does mostly pastels of
sunflowers that express every emotion you can think of. There are furious sunflowers,
raging ones, utterly desolate ones, melancholy sunflowers. They’re totally fascinating. And of course, there
was that van Gogh guy who did pretty amazing
things with them too. AUDIENCE: Hi, Mark. I’m Debra Nystrom
from creative writing. So just before you made
the Tamir Rice discussion, that poem and what you
said about the writing was such a beautiful example
of managing the thing I want to ask about. But there’s maybe more than
ever recently a kind of anxiety on the part of writers
in terms of how to manage the continuum between
empathy and appropriation. And I just wondered if there’s
more you want to say about it. MARK DOTY: Sure. AUDIENCE: And I
Think it’s probably of interest in medicine,
just how much one can assume and how much one can’t assume. MARK DOTY: There is– it seems like you always have to
proceed with caution in saying, I know how you feel. I understand what
it’s like to be you. We don’t. The marvel of language
is that despite the fact that post-
structuralism teaches us that we can’t rely on words
to say what we mean, people somehow or another manage
to put them together in ways which convey feeling,
which we get something of a texture of another person’s
way of inhabiting the world. And when I’m talked about my
teacher who would gossip about [INAUDIBLE],, it
really was as if what had been made in language
as Walt Whitman said, “distanced availed
not, time availed not.” Those words could have such
a quality of life about them through their sonic textures,
their rhythms, their imagery, that they conveyed
a sense of vitality. And so you get Du Fu is talking
to you a thousand years later. How is this possible? I don’t know, but it is. So poetry does that. Our daily conversation does
that a lot less, right? And those of you who are
medical practitioners, when you ask somebody
how they are, they are not going to
answer you as if they were Robert Lowell
or Adrienne Rich [?] describing their condition. You’re going to get language
that’s less precise and less provocative. Maybe one of the uses of
poetry is looking for, helping us to find that
precision and detailed speech. So I think we have
to proceed carefully, but I also think
that it’s a mistake to be afraid of appropriation. That word seems to
be much overused. Like, what’s so bad about
trying to really put yourself into somebody else’s skin
and maybe failing at it? Maybe you failed and you
didn’t do it all, right? It’s also– this
is a hybrid world. And you show me something that
is not in some way blended or borrows from or
makes use of what comes from another culture
or another part before us. It just doesn’t exist, right? So here’s an example. I got very much taken to task
by a young Asian American poet for an essay I had written
about a poem in which there was a white man who has his eyes
surgically altered so that he can perform as an Asian woman. And it’s a celebration
of his character. So I’m just trying
to defend the poem. And then I saw that the
critic was doing drag videos in which he channels Beyonce. It’s like, wait a minute,
you can perform as Beyonce, but you can’t– so when people yell
about appropriation, I think they’re usually
protesting too much. AUDIENCE: Thank you very much. I’m interested in
the point of view of the speaker in your poems,
because whoever’s speaking seems to be inside and outside
at the same time, and more than 360 degrees because
there’s time involved. Is that deliberate,
or do you just let the poem figure that out? MARK DOTY: I think that
singular perspective in terms of if I am only
in the now looking directly at what’s in front of me, I
can only give you a dimension, right? And if I try and step
outside of that time frame a little bit and also– or
I can circle the subject, or I can be a you and an
I, something else happens. And that dimensionality, I
feel, is really important to me. Does that make any sense? Yeah, I don’t know how
else to explain that. It’s partly about how I
try to think about who I’m talking to in the poem. Because I want you to be
surrounded be an experience or step into an
experience that is dimensional in
time and in space. And that means I have
to spin a little. AUDIENCE: I mean, I
think if a poet is tyring to say the unsayable,
then it becomes necessary. MARK DOTY: You need
all your resources to do this impossible thing. When I was a teenager,
you could send off $5 to a commune in
New Mexico, and you could get back a book called
Be Here Here Now by Ron Doss. It was hand-printed
with rubber stamps. And it was the most
beautiful thing. And I still have this. And on the cover was a mandala. It was a ring of flame. And in the ring of flame was
an old-fashioned Bentwood chair, empty, meaning
you could come sit here, or for me meaning that’s
where the viewer is. When I try to picture
who I’m talking to, it’s who wants to come
sit in that chair. And I’m going to
address you in that. And it’s really crucial to me
because it allows for a funny, kind of open-ended intimacy. In other words, anybody can be
there who wants to, to listen, but it’s up to me to surround
them, if that makes any sense. Now you know how [INAUDIBLE]. AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for being here, Mark. My name is Liz. I’m a social worker at
UVA Children’s Hospital. MARK DOTY: Hi. AUDIENCE: Hi. A couple of things, I just– as you talk about
your experiences and it seems to me
that you were writing this kind of inner dialogue
all day long with yourself. And as a social worker,
I do the same thing. As I care for patients,
I find myself sometimes having some compassion
fatigue, if you will. So I’m wondering for
a poet, how do you reconcile that sort
of constant dialogue where you’re evaluating,
measuring, thinking, taking in your environment,
coming up with, this is what I write about? And then maybe, how do
you then turn it off? MARK DOTY: That’s a
really good question. Something happens to
poetry when you just get too deliberate about
it and too self-conscious. There’s a thing that Leonard
Cohen said which I love. When he said living well,
he imagined a candle wick. He said, poetry just
kind of burns off. It sort of appears out of
your engagement with life when you’re engaged, when
you’re fully involved. And I think that’s true, that
if I, can I make a poem out of this, do I want to write
about that, Why do I do this? Then I start contriving things. But if I can silence
that a little bit and just be paying attention to
what moves me, then it works. I think part of the dialogue
that’s really useful is challenging oneself. It works like this. But is it? Is there another
way I can see that? I understand that this person
feels x, but wait a minute. Is there another point
of view about that? And that kind of
internal questioning is really helpful to poets. It’s not helpful to kind of
wander around the world looking for your next poem. You just have to
let it find you. AUDIENCE: But
that’s that inquiry that you were talking
about earlier. So I just wonder, how do
you take care of yourself, that mental– I don’t know, that fatigue
maybe that comes about of immersing your world
and words all the time. MARK DOTY: Right. AUDIENCE: I don’t know if you
get what I’m trying to say. MARK DOTY: I think I do– really physical things, for one. If you exercise,
that’s a fantastic way to stop being in language
so much if you really can pour yourself into it. There have been times in my
life when that worked for me. Visual art, music, the
wordless is great tonic to people who live by words. It’s one of the reasons that I
love animals, because clearly there’s an awareness. There’s a sentience
there, but it’s not translated into English. And it’s such a relief. You look into a
dog’s eyes, and you can be very present with them,
and there’s no words coming out of there ever. It’s a great thing. AUDIENCE: Than you. MARK DOTY: Sure. I think hot baths are great. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS:
Other comments, questions? MARK DOTY: Well, it was a
pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: Would
you share one more poem– MARK DOTY: Oh, good one. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS:
–of your choice? MARK DOTY: Sure, OK. I have this brand
new poem, but I don’t think I’ve even printed it. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: Sorry
to put you on the spot. MARK DOTY: It’s OK. [INAUDIBLE] What kind
of mood are you guys in? Sort of wherever I want to go? MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: Mhm. MARK DOTY: Good. OK, I’m going to take
you to New Jersey. It’s where I teach. And I’m driving one morning
through Jersey City. And I came upon a beauty shop
which apparently had just been set on fire. There was a little
crack in the glass and a little lick of flame. Nobody around. It was Sunday morning. It was, like, below zero. I could hear sirens
in the distance, so I know they’re coming away. So I just looked and
I kept on driving, but I couldn’t stop
thinking about it. And this poem began
to assert itself. And it’s patterned after
“The House that Jack Built” where stanza ends
with a repetition or version of the same line. And each stanza is one line
longer than the one before. You can hear it
stack up, I hope. It’s called “House of Beauty.” “In Jersey City and Tonnelle
Avenue, the House of Beauty is burning. On a Sunday morning in January,
under the chilly shadow of the Pulaski Skyway, the
House of Beauty is burning. Who lobbed the firebottle
through the glass? In among the cremes and thrones,
the helmets and clippers and combs, who set the
House of Beauty burning? In the dark recess beside
the sink where heads lay back to be laved under
the perfected heads rowed along the walls,
the hopeful photographs of possibility darken now that
the House of Beauty is burning. The Skyway beetles
in the ringing cold, trestle arching
the steel river and warehouses, truck
lots and Indian groceries, a new plume of smoke joining the
others, billow of dark thought rising from the broken forehead
of the House of Beauty, an emission almost too small
to notice, just now, the alarm still ringing, the
flames new-launched on their project of ruining
an effort at pleasure, glass jutting like cracked
ice in the window frame. No one inside, the fire
department on the way. All things by nature, wrote
Virgil, are ready to get worse. No surprise, then, that the
House of Beauty is burning. Though whatever happens,
however far these fires proceed, reducing
history to powder, whatever the House of Beauty
made is untouchable now. Nothing can undo
so many heads made lovely or at least acceptable,
so much shapelessness given what are
called permanence, though nothing
holds a fixed form. Bring on the flames. What does it matter if
the house is burning? Propose a new beauty,
perennially unhoused, neither the lost things
nor the fire itself, but the objects and
addresses of disaster, anything clothed
in its own passage. Padded vinyl chair burst
into smokey tongues. Loose-eyed helmet
sag to a new version of its dome, a black bridge, a
charred rainbow on iron legs, two ruby eyes flowering
from its crown. If beauty is burning,
what could you save? The House of Beauty is
the house of flames.” [APPLAUSE] MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS:
Thank you so much. We invite you to join us next
week, the 15th of November. We have a combined
Bice Memorial Lecture at the School of Nursing and
the Koppaka Family Foundation lecturer for the
School of Medicine. We welcome Mary Naylor from
the University of Pennsylvania in a program called Stacking
Stones, the Art and Science of Improving Care
of Older Adults. Again, thank you to Mark Doty. And please note in
your handout, he is giving us a trio of
lectures on compassion, one on compassion for animals
on the 14th of November, one on compassion for
others on the 20th. These are all at 5 o’clock in
the Harrison- Small auditorium in the Special
Collections Library. The last one’s on the 29th
of November also at 5 o’clock on compassion for the world. You’ve showed us a wonderful
sense of compassion today, and it’s a lovely preview to
the trio of presentations. MARK DOTY: Those are about the
work of getting compassion. You don’t have to assume
you have to have it already. Try to find it. Thank you. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: Yeah. But thank you. This has been lovely. [APPLAUSE]

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