recently attended a workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop
here in Denver in which poet Mark Doty
offered tips on how to “force a focus on the language.” My notes include the following gems:
-What you know and don’t say energizes your work.
-Allow your reader to experience a pressure or other outcome without knowing the reason.
-Figure out the relation of the self with what’s being observed.
-Try framing a bit of memory inside something else, as part of another whole.
-Create your own version of reality, your own subjectivity.
-Putting your best lines up front can shift a work’s emphasis and ending.
-When reaching for closure, set it aside.
Then I read Mark’s 1999 memoir, Firebird,
and was struck most by its closing, which completely surprised me as he’d seemed to purposefully stretch beyond potential endings involving his parents and his difficult relationships with them. Because this story is not about them, really; it’s about the boy who survived despite them.
When I first started reading this book I was simply amazed by the gorgeous prose. Soon bizarre school and playtime scenes and outings revealed that this child was very much on his own, and eventually his struggles as a gay preteen and teen were complicated by the many obstacles his troubled family constantly provided. Glimmers of hope arrived via music and art shared and appreciated, found beauty in simple things such as Petula Clark singing “Downtown” on The Ed Sullivan Show, steps made toward a life eventually immersed in art thanks to a few gifted teachers along the way.
Thankfully Mark Doty opted to become a teacher himself and continues to share insightful lessons with his own students...and readers. In Firebird, he offers this nugget: “‘What we remember,’ wrote the poet who was my first teacher of this art, ‘can be changed. What we forget we are always.’” Which, with the opening scene of his memoir, ties back neatly with his workshop advice to “frame a bit of memory inside something else, as part of another whole.”
I also treasure this passage, in which the poet celebrates a gift given to him by his mother, who introduced him to the possibilities of art, and by subsequent teachers, some encountered directly, some from an admiring distance:
“The gift was a faith in the life of art, or, more precisely, a sense that there was a life which was not mine, but to which I was welcome to join myself. A life which was larger than any single person’s, and thus not one to be claimed, but to apprentice oneself to. In the larger, permanent community of makers, you could be someone by being no one, by disappearing into what you made. In that life your hands were turned, temporarily, to what beauty wanted, what spirit—not your spirit, not exactly—desired: to come into being, to be seen.”