Literary Happenings: Mark Doty at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Thursday 10/15/2009

21 Oct

I’ve always been a big Mark Doty fan.  He’s truly a “beautiful” poet who understands how images work to convey meaning or elicit emotion far better than exposition and explanation, and he finds the beauty and wonder in the most insignificant or ungainly things.  Here’s a bit from one of my favorite Doty poems, “At the Gym”:

“…Who could say who’s //

added his heat to the nimbus

of our intent, here where

we make ourselves:

something difficult //

lifted, pressed or curled,

Power over beauty,

power over power!

Though there’s something more //

tender, beneath our vanity,

our will to become objects

of desire: we sweat the mark

of our presence onto the cloth. //

Here is some halo

the living made together.”

(Sorry, I had to add the double slashes to indicate a stanza break.  I can’t get WordPress to recognize my extra lines.)

I’ve been lucky enough to hear him read his poems a few times, and I can tell you that he is not to be missed.  He clearly relishes language, and his poems become fruity, luscious things in his own voice, full of rhythm and spark and inflection.  He is not someone who will bore you with a flat atonal reading—thank god!

But I had never been lucky enough to hear Doty the writer-teacher, until this past week at the wonderful Stella Adler Studio of Acting.  It was brutally cold for mid-October, with icy rain beating down New York City—I almost talked myself out of going.  But what a treat I would have missed.  Stella Adler itself is a quirky place to visit, located near Madison Square Park, just around the corner from the Museum of Sex (which I have yet to visit—don’t worry; it’s on the list!), and filled with rambunctious young actor-students, bounding up and down the hallways and stairwells.  I was afraid the reading was going to be a dud, since there was almost no one in the studio twenty minutes before 7pm, but just after 6:45, the room began to fill up, most noticeably with barefoot students fresh from some movement class (Brrr, cold floor, they noted).

Doty’s read here before (I believe he’s become friends or at least close acquaintances with the head of the Playwriting program) and he was obviously comfortable, stopping often to give some detail about how the next poem came to be or to clarify a point.  I don’t think I’d ever heard him talk so much about his writing process and aesthetic.

He began with a poem from his collected works, Fire to Fire, called “House of Beauty” (which takes its form from Elizabeth Bishop’s “house of Bedlam” poem), and then read all new poems, which he distinguished as being shorter and more focused than his past work.  But what really blew me away was the question/answer period after his reading.  I’ve never, ever, ever been in a more attentive, curious audience.  I don’t think Doty had to pause to wait for more questions; the hands just kept coming.  And the questions (and answers) were insightful, intriguing and thought-provoking.

A couple of things jumped out at me and I had to jot them down:

–       Doty strives for poetry that communicates to the reader “the energy of discovery”

–       the notion that terror is the beginning of beauty

–       Jean Cocteau, asked what he would save in a house fire, replying “The flame of course.  I would save the flame.”

–       Doty’s favorite playwright (the one that is the wellspring, although he admitted that there are plenty of other greats for him) is Tennessee Williams, which means I need to read me some Tennessee Williams.

There is such a generosity of spirit about Mark Doty.  He cares about poetry and language and he cares about you caring about poetry and language too.  So, the moral of the story is…if you get to see Mark Doty read, especially if it’s in a school setting, for god’s sake, do it.  You will love him—I swear it.

Happy reading!

Jho

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