A time of death and renewal. Talking with poet Mark Doty about AIDS, poetry … and his dogs.
By Brandon Wolf
Mark Doty, poet and memoirist, the first American to win Britain’s prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry (among a number of other literary honors), counts Houston as one of his three homes, each of which define a compartment in his career. In Houston, Doty holds a part-time professorship in creative writing at the University of Houston during one semester of each academic year. Recently, he sat down with OutSmart to reflect on the AIDS crisis and the wonderful spiritual gifts that our pets give so freely to us. He remembers Arden and Beau, his canine companions through the life-altering loss of his partner and the calamity of 9-11.
In retrospect, Mark Doty views the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s as transformative for both himself and for the GLBT community. “We were not helped by the larger community,” he says. “We had to join together as a community. We lived at the intersection of sexuality and illness, and we discovered that disease could be seen as people getting what they deserved.
“The mainstream narrative was condemnation,” he says, “but I saw sorrow, suffering, beauty, strength, courage, and commitment.” He alludes to his favorite drag artist, Randy Allen, who performed a show called PS Bette Davis, in which a post-stroke Bette Davis talked about her career. “She was a shriveled little woman in a chair, but she was so powerful and triumphant. In truth, Randy was acting out his own life. His body was falling apart from HIV, yet still he was up there on that stage.
“AIDS changed the way gay men look at their bodies,” Doty points out. “When I was a kid, I lined up to get polio vaccine on a sugar cube. I had forgotten about illness that was virulent and uncontrollable. Technology and the medical profession always had the answers. If we had grown up in Africa or India, we would have felt different. AIDS worked against our climate of privilege.”
Recalling the political atmosphere of the time, Doty bristles. “The sanctimonious memories of Reagan drive me up the wall,” he says. “He was a nightmare—he couldn’t even say the word AIDS. The epidemic was nowhere near him and he didn’t have to acknowledge it.”
In polarity with Reagan, Doty remembers with admiration people like playwrights Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner, poet Tom Gunn, writer Paul Monet, and novelist David Feinberg—and the organizations that sprang up to address the crisis. “ACT-UP was crucial for resisting governmental neglect and pressuring the health-care system to focus on medications,” he remembers. “It wouldn’t have happened by itself. And then there were local heroes who provided meals on wheels and who walked our pets.”
Mark Doty has published nine collections of poetry and five volumes of prose. In short, Doty is a literary somebody—which does not make him immune to star power.
“I was at a black-tie gala once,” he relates, “and a man walked up and told me he liked Firebird [Doty’s memoir of his childhood]. Suddenly I realized it was playwright Edward Albee!” Doty describes his feeling of amazement chatting with Albee, remembering how decades before he had gone with his father to see the film version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Doty’s best-selling memoir, Dog Years, was winner of the 2008 American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award. Dog Years pulls its readers into Doty’s painful experience of losing a longtime partner to AIDS in 1994. It also offers a warm and triumphant memory of how their dogs, Beau and Arden, gave them encouragement in the very darkest of hours. “They gave us unconditional love. They had absolutely no judgment; they were so completely accepting,” he reflects. “They were always happy to see Wally and me. We were God’s gifts to mankind, and they eagerly joined us and participated in our lives.”
One British reviewer called Doty “a vampire, feasting on the corpse of his dead partner.” Doty says he was speechless when he read that. “What material does any writer have except for their own life to use as a basis for understanding the world? If I didn’t have the right to talk about my experience, then who does? I was the person in that room when Wally died. It was as though I’d been told I had done something wrong for feeling too much.”
In late September of this year, Doty gave a book reading from Dog Years at the Houston Public Library, as part of their monthly “GLBT at the Library” series. During a question-and-answer period, Doty responded to a question about the best part of being a writer: “It’s the realization that by writing about my own experiences, other people see themselves as not so different and alone. They sense a connection and they feel encouraged.”
In Dog Years, Doty writes of the joy his two dogs displayed splashing in the Dandelion Fountain on Allen Parkway and the friends they made at the Dog Bowl nearby, where they could run and play with complete abandon. Doty recalls, too, worrying about Beau’s love for water and the nearby Buffalo Bayou. “I’d heard the popular legends about the bayou harboring alligators, and I feared that Beau would end up as a gator snack.” When they lived near the Menil Collection, Doty remembers how “Beau and Arden loved the urban wildlife in the area—lots of squirrels and possums.”
Mark Doty’s thoughts speak to gay and straight people alike, because of his keen awareness of humanity’s joys and sorrows. “The perennial problem of adulthood is loss,” he muses. “No matter what, we will always be disappointed. We have limits, and there is only so much we can do. So how and why do we continue to search again for love? Having pets is a wonderful way to deal with that.”
Look for a Mark Doty Poem at a Rail Stop Near You
Houston’s Metrorail System has indicated an interest in etching the lines of Doty’s poem, “Grackles on Montrose,” into the glass walls of a future passenger stop in the Montrose area. It is an ode to those noisy birds that fill the trees on the grounds of the Montrose Kroger. Doty says, “They are fierce and raucous. They’ve got a real edge to them!”
Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.