Dog Years, a new memoir from poet Mark Doty, tells the story of Doty's life with his beloved retrievers, Arden and Beau. It is a poignant, perceptive meditation on life, death, and the nature of canine companionship. Even as a non-dog person, due to hyperactive histamines, I was completely taken with this story. It transcends any categorization one might want to make based on its subject. Doty offers wisdom and insight beyond genre. So to help kick-off NPM, he kindly answered a few of my questions.
Michael Signorelli: You write both poetry and memoir. Why do you alternate between the two? What does memoir afford you that poetry doesn't?
Mark Doty: More space! I often write long-ish poems, but no matter the length, there's a kind of intense compression a poem requires, and there's a limit to the amount of narrative and of meditation that you can put into a lyric without it losing its tension and sagging. In memoir, I feel I have room to spread out, wander a little, and let that wandering deepen things. In Dog Years, for instance, there are a couple of Emily Dickinson poems and some talk about them, there's a little travel writing, and some consideration of the nature of the relationship between people and canines. I'd be hard pressed to do that in a poem.
But I respond to the intense focus of poetry, too, and the music of it, so I always find myself drawn back.
MS: In between each chapter of Dog Years you've written an "Entr'acte." What are these doing in the book?
MD: I like how in very old-fashioned plays there used to be these little side entertainments between the main acts -- little diversions or sideshows. I wanted to make a kind of breathing space, writing these little bits that behave kind of like prose poems in between the chapters.
MS: What of the "not-to-be-narrated cats"? You write that for dogs, "some of the terms we'd use to describe a human character (observant, thoughtful, desiring) are the best we can do to name their not quite knowable inner lives." Do cats not allow for the same type of emotional graphing? Or are they all just bitches?
MD: You know, I felt that I was already asking a lot of the reader to go with me on a full-length book in which I chronicled my relationship with two pets. So I felt if I put my OTHER two pets in there it was just going to be over the top. Then once I called them "not-to-be-narrated" it became a running joke. They're hiding in the background, which of course cats like to do.
MS: Were you worred that this book -- given the success of you-know-who -- might be automatically categorized as a "dog book"? Do you care if it is?
MD: I started writing Dog Years before the big dog book wave, and now it feels weird that there's about to be a dog movie wave, too -- with films coming out called Year of the Dog and A Dog Year. I am either right in synch with the zeitgeist or a pulse behind it!
In truth, I don't care too much. People will come to this book from different angles -- because they like dogs, because they know me as a poet, because they read one of my other prose books, and that's all fine with me. People who just want to read about retrievers may be surprised to find themselves reading about, say, Emily Dickinson and drag queens impersonating Judy Garland, but I'm guessing that a lot of them will enjoy the adventure. After all, dogs often take you places you wouldn't go otherwise.
Mark Doty will sign books this Saturday, April 7th, 2pm, at Three Lives Bookstore (154 W. 10th Street)