Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Sarah Ann Winn reads “A Display of Mackerel” by Mark Doty.
Sarah, I’m having trouble saying this any other way so I’ll just say it plain: Mark Doty’s poetry is damn good. Do you remember your first Doty experience? What was it like for you to discover his work?
Sarah: My first Doty experience was during an Elizabeth Bishop class back in grad school. My mentor, Jennifer Atkinson, had mentioned that I “might like” him, and I sobbed my way through School of the Arts that night. It felt so close to the bone to me. I had recently lost my grandfather, who raised me, and who adopted me when I was 13, so those poems were painful to read at times, but they went bravely and eloquently down a road I knew I would be traveling. It was comforting in a time that I was feeling very alone to be reminded that grief can be expressed through beauty. I think that’s the job of poetry, and I was in the presence of a master.
Chris: Bishop is one of my favorite poets. I’m not sure how she does it, but all of her work feels fortified. That might be a weird word for it, but I think it’s the right one. I can sense that in Doty’s poetry as well. What do you think he’s expressing in “A Display of Mackerel?”
Sarah: I think that “A Display of Mackerel” is almost the outcome of the School of the Arts philosophy—the entire book seems to be posing the question of “Considering how brief our time on this planet is, what were we put on this earth to do with all of our might?” Not just as poets, but as people. The conclusion here seems to be Notice and Participate. I think what “A Display of Mackerel” points towards is that our job is to be part of the world, reflecting it, and doing our best to shine as a participant. Enter into your community seems like a big message in this poem.
Chris: You mentioned it’s the beautiful expressions of grief in School of the Arts that make Doty a master of poetry. What are the moments in “A Display of Mackerel” that incite those same notions?
Sarah: It’s hard to read a Mark Doty poem and not encounter an idea of how fleeting life is. He transcends the immediate reality quickly, conflating the fish with a Tiffany window, to the art made by a jeweler, to ideas of what beauty is for, which then takes us to what WE are for as human beings. (Fish markets are not places where I’d expect to encounter a discussion of mortality and life’s purpose, but clearly, any outing with Mark Doty can turn metaphysical.) As with his poems about grief, the poem is a meaningful exploration of how to reframe the idea of the lonely and suffering artist into something productive and beautiful.
Chris: “A Display of Mackerel” covers an incredible amount of ground. How is it that this poem handles all this complexity—the metaphysical, the quick transcendence, commentary on community/human interaction—and doesn’t lose the reader?
Sarah: I think that one of Doty’s strengths is showing how everything is part of everything else. We move seamlessly between the ideas of our temporary passage through this world and that of the mackerels’. It’s a natural conclusion to arrive philosophically where he does if we align ourselves with the fish—who doesn’t want to be a “flashing participant?”
Chris: I am, unfortunately, not very well versed in Doty’s poetry. I think I’ve only read parts of Fire to Fire and some of his other writing here and there. Does all of Doty’s poetry wrangle with the metaphysical?
Sarah: I think his grappling with the metaphysical is what makes him a great poet. He may not do it in every poem, but there is always an underlying idea that our time on earth is brief. Not every poem arrives at the same conclusion, of course, but there’s a definite urgency to his poems, which might be part of his appeal to me.
Chris: I know you recently saw Mark Doty and Aimee Nezhukumatathil give a reading. Would you like to gush and make all our readers jealous?
Sarah: Gush is the right word! I live close enough to DC that I can take advantage of some of the wonderful opportunities the city offers. The event was at the Philips Gallery, and hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Theater. They both read poems inspired by the gallery’s special exhibit, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks. (Highlights of which included poems inspired by paintings by Klimt, Van Gogh, Magritte, etc.) I’m fascinated by ekphrastic writing, and love art, so this evening felt like all of my favorite things packed into a two-hour event.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s work is so funny and personal. It distills huge ideas in moments, which makes her an excellent counterpart to Mark Doty, since his poems of the night seemed to focus on smaller details and magnify them into a universal truth. I stood in line twice waiting for them sign my books, like the fan-girl that I am, and I was the next to last person in line in Mark Doty’s signing line, as the night drew to a close. He was as kind and patient with me as if I had been the first person in line, showing no signs of being eager to be done with the night. I’m so grateful, because (of course) I was as impatient as anyone else to tell him what his work meant to me (and share a dog story.) It was a really amazing night. How often do you get to meet your poet heroes?
Sarah Ann Winn’s poems, prose, and hybrid works have appeared or are upcoming in Five Points, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Massachusetts Review, Passages North, and Quarterly West, among others. Her chapbooks include Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive (forthcoming Essay Press, 2016), Haunting the Last House on Holland Island (forthcoming Porkbelly Press, May 2016) and Portage (Sundress Publications, 2015). Visit her at http://bluebirdwords.com or follow her @blueaisling.
Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and has successfully survived his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.