MYSTIC — Mark Doty, admired globally as one of America’s most honored poets, is also a beloved savior for Christie Max Williams, the artistic director of the Arts Café Mystic.
“He literally rescued The Arts Café ten years ago when the Great Recession came crashing down,” Williams explained.
Williams said it was a Friday in May of 2009, on the brink of what he was sure would be the final event in the poetry series. The funding sources had all dried up, Williams said, there was no way for the series to continue.
Williams said he had prepared his final remarks and was planning to make the difficult announcement at the end of the program that featured Doty as the guest poet. Williams said he shared the sad story with Doty at a pre-show dinner, but was taken by surprise at the turn of events.
“When he took the podium that night,” said Williams, “Doty astonished me by divulging what was happening and issuing a heartfelt entreaty to our audience to find a way to save what he described as a ‘precious and nationally regarded series.’”
“I was flabbergasted,” said Williams, explaining that the next morning he was “besieged by emails and telephone calls from folks who would help us make a 501(c)3 and who would become Board members and core donors.”
“The rest is history,” said the artistic director. “ If there existed a prize for the Greatest Living American Poet, it should be awarded to Mark Doty.”
“He would be on everyone’s short list,” Williams said last week in an email. “Doty is also, appropriately, one of America’s most honored poets.”
Next week, 10 years after he saved the day, Doty will be the featured guest at the 25th anniversary celebration of The Arts Café Mystic.
Doty’s masterwork, “Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems,” won the National Book Award, and his nine other books of poems have won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Poetry Series Prize, the Bingham Poetry Prize, Robert Creeley Award, and Lambda Literary Award. Doty is also the only American poet to have received Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize, which is the U.K.’s highest honor for a book of poetry. In addition, he has earned acclaim for his five books of non-fiction, including New York Times best-sellers “Dog Years,” and “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon.”
Doty came by his gift the long way around, said Williams in a statement. Born in 1953, the son of an army engineer, he grew up in a succession of suburbs in Florida, California and the Southwest. He has characterized his youthful self as a “shy sissy, uncertain and frightened of his sexuality.”
He married hastily at the age of 18 and struggled to find his way in and out of colleges, eventually completing a degree at Drake University in Iowa. Soon after, he divorced and moved to New York where he paid his dues as an office temp. It was during these years that he began to write poems and earned an MFA from Goddard College, doing part-time, non-resident semesters.
As every student of Doty’s great work knows, there is a central tragedy in his life, which was the death from AIDS of his first partner, Wally Roberts. The experience changed Doty and his work. His previous poems had been praised for their deep sensitivity to observed suffering — there was plenty of suffering to observe during the AIDS plague of the late 80s-early 90s.
Those were measured and meditative poems, whose careful observations achieved a thoughtful, transcendent detachment. But with the passing of his beloved, the poet found the big subjects that have marked his great work since, Williams said, “love, intimacy, tenderness, an alertness to beauty and an awareness of how ephemeral it is, an awareness of the shadow of death under which we must celebrate life.”
Doty’s acute sense of human mortality imbues his poems with urgency, said Williams. In the many great poems he has written since the passing of Wally Roberts, life matters in an urgent new way — beauty matters more in being ephemeral — and what is beautiful is found in all of life’s humble and ordinary manifestations. Rather than meditative, the poetic voice that emerged from the tragedy of loss is declarative. Life is affirmed; love is possible in a triumph of the heart.
“A Mark Doty poem is a moment’s document in the life of an intelligent heart,” Williams continued. “These moments are conveyed in a clear, unadorned, first-person voice; a voice that feels devoid of poetic tricks; a trustworthy voice whose honesty is meant not to shock but instead to reflect a process of learning and realization through observation and experience; the voice we might want and use to document our own heart’s story. And Mr. Doty trusts in, and depends on, the power of stories to convey the heart’s experience.”
Many of his best poems are worked out in long sentences, “whose sinewy syntax make them feel like thought, feel like feeling,” Williams continued.
“The paradox of a Mark Doty poem is that on first reading it seems uncrafted; but with each additional reading it reveals its craft as a subtle but accurate instrument for collecting and organizing observed detail — the kind of detail that makes music of ordinary life,” she said.
“Indeed, Mr. Doty also trusts in and depends on life’s details as the structure on which to found the epiphanies that are at the heart of his poems,” Williams said.
Also on the program Friday will be piano music from nationally known pianist Andrew Willis who will perform Bach's "Partita in G." The Opening Voice is poet John L. Stanizzi who will read from his just-published fifth book of poems call Sundowning.