“I want people to write more like themselves.” — Mark Doty

Yesterday, Mark Doty came to Baltimore, and when I found out about the reading (from his Facebook post) about an hour before, I rushed out to see him. His work – particularly his book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon – has inspired my writing by making me be more bold in my language and deep in my intellectual inquiry. Plus, he’s my “friend” on Facebook, and we do these things for our friends. 🙂

I walked in right behind Mr. Doty and his husband Paul Lisicky, and I started to say hello (Mr. Doty and I have a mutual friend, the brilliant poet Eloise Klein Healy, and I always like to know people Eloise knows because she has such amazing taste). But then, this woman came up and started talking to him, and I took this as a sign to stay quiet. This was the first lesson I learned about teaching from Mr. Doty – sometimes it’s best to be quiet and listen. Just this moment of silence set me up for the reading, which I sat through without speaking to anyone and which I absorbed so much more fully because I was negotiating only myself then. I will learn to let those silences in class linger – Lesson 1.

The reading went off smoothly. Mr. Doty was debonair and witty. He clearly had prepared by reading about the series – a memorial series dedicated to a man who died young and coordinate by his family – and he had obviously put together a thoughtful list of poems to read – beginning with one on loss and one on Spring. But he also had not prepared everything. His banter, while it might have been practiced, seemed very spontaneous, very thoughtful and erudite but not scripted, and during the question and answer period at the end, he was clear and kept to the questions yet was clearly working through his answers as he went. Lesson 2 – prepare for class but not too much.

But by far, the best bit about teaching I learned from Mark Doty was when he was talking about teaching and how he guides students in their poetic process. He said, “I want people to write more like themselves.” That is the best expression of that idea I have ever heard, and it’s so simple. He went on to say that’s very hard because he doesn’t know what each student sounds like or what kind of writer each student wants to be, so he asks questions and gives suggestions and lets the students find their own way. Guide them, but let them find their own way – Lesson 3.

I learned one final thing – Mark Doty loves teaching. He doesn’t seem to see it as diminishing his writing, and in fact, it seems to fuel his thinking about his writing. Lesson 4 – Remember this, Andi. You love teaching, and it helps your writing.

I left the reading feeling full, like my well was flush with spring rain. I had ideas for teaching, and I had beautiful words to ponder. Thank you, Mr. Doty, for teaching me how to teach.

Mark Doty at Frank O'Hara's GraveMark Doty at Frank O’Hara’s Grave