Mark Doty, Cohen Award

by Don Lee

Cohen Awards Each year, we honor the best short story and poem published in Ploughshares with the Cohen Awards, which are wholly sponsored by our longtime patrons Denise and Mel Cohen. Finalists are nominated by staff editors, and the winners -- each of whom receives a cash prize of $600 -- are selected by our advisory editors. The 1998 Cohen Awards for work published in Ploughshares in 1997, Volume 23, go to Maxine Swann and Mark Doty:

Mark Doty for his poem " Mercy on Broadway" in Spring 1997, edited by Yusef Komunyakaa.

Mark Doty was born in Maryville, Tennessee, in 1953. His father was a civilian member of the Army Corps of Engineers, a job that necessitated move after move for the family. When Doty was seven, they left Tennessee for Tucson, Arizona, where his father worked on the Nike Zeus missile project, and from there, they were transferred to a series of towns in Florida and California. In the mid-sixties, Doty returned to Tucson, where the poet Brenda Hillman was his classmate in a high school creative writing class. He soon dropped out, however, and quietly enrolled in the University of Arizona, in part because he'd met a professor, the poet Richard Shelton, who was supportive of his fledgling work. It took some time before university administrators gleaned that Doty did not have a high school diploma, but they were surprisingly accommodating, only asking him to take an extra literature class. He studied with Richard Shelton until he got married and, once again, dropped out. "This was 1971," Doty says, "and dropping out was simply what one did." Eventually, he earned a bachelor's degree in literature from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and then, from 1978 to 1980, was a graduate student at Goddard College in Vermont, in the old M.F.A. program founded by Ellen Bryant Voigt. His teachers there were Jane Shore, Barbara Greenberg, and Thomas Lux. "It was a life-changing experience," he says. "I read a great deal of poetry I'd never encountered before, work that opened out new realms of possibility. Before long, I had an M.F.A. and a divorce certificate, and a new life began."

Doty is the author of a memoir, Heaven's Coast, and five books of poetry, including Sweet Machine (HarperFlamingo, 1998) and My Alexandria (Illinois, 1993), a National Poetry Series winner, selected by Philip Levine, which subsequently won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize, and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, Doty lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Houston, Texas, where he teaches in the graduate writing program at the University of Houston.

About "Mercy on Broadway," Doty writes: "Most of my poems begin in an experience of recognition, but I often don't know what it is I am recognizing. This poem's no exception. My partner, Paul, and I had been together just two months when we went to New York for a weekend; Robert Jones, my friend and my editor at HarperCollins, had loaned us his apartment near the corner of Eighth and Broadway, close to NYU. The building where Robert lived then had concrete balconies which faced onto Broadway, and since we were about three or four stories up, the noise of that particularly raucous intersection blared up and bounced off the concrete walls, so that the city seemed one huge seamless wall of noise -- New York mixed by Phil Spector! Out for a walk, we encountered the bowl of turtles the poem describes on the sidewalk in front of a tiny Chinese gift shop. They seemed startlingly green and alive, and weirdly out of place in the hustle and collision of that block, where there are countless street vendors, kids hanging out in front of McDonald's and the sneaker shops, a whole micro-universe, both social and commercial.

"When I went to write in my notebook a few days later, it was the memory of those turtles which emerged, seemed to insist on my attention. When I have that sort of feeling, I usually begin in description, to see where the process of saying what I've seen will lead, to see what clues my descriptive language will contain as to what I'm really writing about. The turtles proved to be inseparable from the noisy, unbroken life of the street. Probably that perception -- of unbroken life -- led the poem in the direction it eventually took, over many drafts, through a process half improvisational 'singing' and half meditation. It's such an exhilarating part of writing, that discovery of what the poem wants or needs to be. And in this case there was a particular pleasure in celebrating the street song, the ephemeral stuff of style, the flashing human stream of this moment.

"It's often in this exploratory process that I discover my poems are conversations with other poems, too. In this case, it's 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,' of course; I hope that the line 'Broadway's no one, and Broadway lasts' stands in that stream which pours out from Whitman's poem, the testament of one who saw the city as a great matrix of bodies, of the temporary self taking its place in the permanent stream. Hart Crane furthers Whitman's tradition, and Frank O'Hara -- poets for whom the city is a zone of permission, where we're shoulder to shoulder in the human enterprise, our aspirations made visible. Just a few nights ago I stood on Fulton's Landing in Brooklyn, where the ferry used to depart for Manhattan, and listened to Galway Kinnell read Whitman's extraordinary poem, which seems so alive and strange still; it's as if it comes to us from the future, not the past. It was twilight, and the lights on the bridge had just come on, and suddenly poetry did that old, still-startling thing: it made me shiver."

Copyright © Don Lee

Fall 1998 Cover
Cover art by Nancy Mladenoff

Guest-edited by:
Lorrie Moore
Photo by Nancy Mladenoff
Lorrie Moore