Tag Archives: Mark Doty

Thoughts on The Art of Description: World into Word, by Mark Doty (66/99)

The Art of Description

Taking a writing class with Mark Doty is high up on my list of literary wishes. I’m a fangirl of his work — poetry, memoir, anything that the guy writes. Even his Facebook posts are poetry. (Because of course I follow him on Facebook).

Who knows if I’ll ever be lucky enough to be in his company, but until then, there’s The Art of Description: World into Word.

Simply put, this small book is a must for any writer.

“It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see. But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes and it immediately becomes clear that all we see is slippery, nuanced, elusive.”

Sigh …

This is the type of book where I could have highlighted every sentence on every page, and I can tell you I’ll be consulting this one often, as description is not always my strongest writing tool.

A wonderful addition to every writer’s library.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #66 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.



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Best Books of 2016 …Thus Far (33/99)


That’s how many books I’ve read so far this year. That may sound impressive — especially when the average American reads 12 books per year and 27% of Americans don’t finish a single book —  but in the book blogger world, 19 books in six months is verging on pathetic.

(I know, I’m too hard on myself. This is true.)

At the midpoint of this current trip around the sun, I like to reflect on the reading year to date by sharing my favorite books of 2016 thus far.  Sometimes there’s a standout book that is a clear front-runner and sometimes there isn’t.  This happens to be a year when there is — and it’s a book that has landed among my all-time favorites.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon who, at 38, was diagnosed with lung cancer just as he was on the verge of completing a 10 year residency program, has much to teach us in his posthumously published memoir. When Breath Becomes Air is more than the journey towards one’s own lightbulb, a-ha, now-I-know-what-life-is-all-about moment of revelation that often accompanies a serious illness or tragic event. It’s about what it means when everything you have worked toward and planned vanishes at the precise moment when you are on the cusp of realizing all those dreams and aspirations.

Scorpion Tongues

Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in American Politics by Gail Collins 
This presidential election campaign is like nothing we’ve seen before … at least in our lifetimes. History tells a different story — and many of them — of political scandals that rival what we’re seeing today.

The Art of Description

The Art of Description by Mark Doty
Written by a true master of the craft, this is a fantastic book exploring how we use words to place the reader in the heart of our work.  Reading this is like taking a class with Mark Doty himself (something that is on my literary bucket list).  Until then, we have this gem.

Shades of Blue

Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue, edited by Amy Ferris
An astonishing anthology edited by Amy Ferris (her Facebook posts are gorgeously written and full of inspiring kick-assery), the emotions in these essays are raw and real. These are personal, true accounts of people who have struggled with depression, suicide (either their own attempt or that of a loved one) and mental illness. As a society, we need to do a better job of telling our stories in order to help break the stigma that fosters shame and secrecy.  Shades of Blue is a damn good place to start listening.  Don’t be surprised if you find shades of yourself between these pages.

The Best American Essays 2015

The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy
A fantastic collection of essays by some of our best writers, including Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, Margo Jefferson, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit and several others.

Boys in the Trees

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon
Carly Simon’s songs are ones that make her fans — of which I am one, very much so — feel as if we know her.  Here, we learn for the first time the stories behind the lyrics that we’ve been singing for years. It’s an eye-opening, often surprising, sometimes heartbreaking look at family dynamics, coming of age, betrayal, sexuality, motherhood and the publishing and entertainment businesses.

So there you have it.  The best books I’ve read this year (so far).  It’s interesting that there isn’t any fiction on this list.  This seems to be shaping up as a year dominated by nonfiction, especially essays and memoir.

How is your reading year going? Is there a standout book (or books) that will be among your favorites this year?

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #33 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

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sunday salon/currently: the waiting and reading room

Sunday Salon banner

Finally, some sun. Although it’s cooler than I would prefer (I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt AND a cardigan), I can’t resist the chance to sit outside on the deck after all the cloudy and damp days we’ve had this spring.  Like all good things, it’s probably not going to last; I heard it was raining at the Pirates game (PNC Park is within a half hour from here, depending on traffic and construction and whatnot).

It’s really something how the weather can have such an impact on one’s mood. Mine has definitely been affected. It doesn’t help that I’ve been spending much of the past several weeks in doctors’ waiting rooms, probably some of the most depressing places on Earth. I’m convinced the banality of the dreck that passes for morning TV has embedded itself into my brain. Seriously, I have no idea how the hell people watch that crap.

(Things are, physically-speaking, okay. Nobody needs to be alarmed. It’s follow-ups and regularly-scheduled appointments and answer-seeking still in progress.)

Of course, I never go to any of these appointments without my own reading material, so the positive side to all this schlepping and waiting around is that I’ve gotten through a few books, including some DNFs (Best American Poetry 2013 and Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn, which I really wanted to love but didn’t).

The notable ones, though, have been stellar.

The Best American Essays 2015

A fantastic collection of essays — most by writers who are well-known (Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, and others).  These aren’t gratuitous inclusions; this collection is a winner and these essays will stay with you.

The Art of Description

Being the huge fangirl that I am, I’ll read anything by Mark Doty. This little book was on display in the library’s poetry room (yes, we are lucky ducks here in Pittsburgh … our library has an extensive poetry section as well as its own room, which is rather grand). The Art of Description: World Into Word is a must for every writer. Doty examines description as part of poetry and the result is akin to being in a writing class with a master.

Tales of Accidental Genius

Yesterday I started Tales of Accidental Genius, a short story collection by Simon Van Booy.  I’ve read three of these and so far, so good. I would describe this collection as quietly surprising. (Short stories are, incidentally, great choices for waiting room reading material.)


And finally, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of LaRose by Louise Erdrich from the library, her newest novel.  I’m engrossed in this story about two families who are also neighbors; during a hunting accident, one neighbor kills the other’s five year old son.  To atone for this, he sends his own five year old son to live with the bereaved parents and to be raised by them.

Listening (Audiobooks) …

Sin in the Second City

It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to an audiobook (this will be only my second this year),  but when I saw Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott at the library this week, I realized that would qualify for #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks since I have the print version. This is a nonfiction account of Ada and Minna Everleigh, sisters and proprietors of the Everleigh Club, a famous high-end brothel in Chicago during 1900-1911. The audiobook is great. (I’m fascinated with their keen marketing sense and financial savvy!)

Listening (Podcasts) … 
For months now, the Pocket Casts app on my phone has been acting strange. As a result, I haven’t been listening to many podcasts.  I think I figured out the issue and was able to catch “The Accidental Gay Parents #3,”  and “The Accidental Gay Parents #4,” episodes #80 and #81 from The Longest Shortest Time. LST is one of my favorite podcasts and I love this series and this family.

My go-to source for all-things-podcast is The Timbre, a fantastic site. I suppose that should be past-tense, because the site’s creators announced that they are closing up shop. Their reasons are understandable but I’ll certainly miss seeing their recommendations in my news feed.


PeaceBang’s post about “Outliving a Parent” resonated with me.

For reasons I can’t and won’t get into here, Dani Fleischer’s essay in The Washington Post (“Friends grow apart all the time but we rarely talk about it”) is very much something I’m experiencing right now. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement, thankyouverymuch.)

This week was National EMS Week and my friend John (who writes the popular Pittsburgh blog Ya Jagoff!) explains why this is so important.   Because of our experience on Thanksgiving, we know all too well how valuable EMTs are and I’m so grateful they were there when we needed them. And thank you, John, for your service as an EMT to our community.

My Listen to Your Mother castmates have been writing some incredible stuff lately. Those pieces deserve their own post. Look for that later this week.

And now it’s raining. Of course it is.

Back inside I go.


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The Sunday Salon: On Poetry, Berlin, and Vietnam

The Sunday Salon

For whatever reason, I’ve been on a poetry bender. Almost half the books that I have checked out from the library are poetry collections. I’m also getting back into the habit of writing a few lines of my own. (Go figure: everyone’s in novel mode because of NaNoWriMo and here I am, all poetry all the time. Out of sync as always.)

School of the ArtsLast night, I finished School of the Arts by Mark Doty – you know how much I love him – and his sixth collection, Source, is next on the pile. I also have Everything Is Burning by Gerald Stern; Shattered Sonnets Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis; Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch; The Glad Hand of God Points Backward, by Rachel Mennies; The Nearness of You, by Carolyn Kizer (as well as Yin, Pro Femina, and Midnight Was My Cry) and all of Terrance Hayes’ books in the queue.

Going OverIn commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I want to spend some time today in the world of Ada and Stefan, the young lovers living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall in Going Over by Beth Kephart.  It has been on my night table for awhile and today, moreso than any other, seems to be fitting to read this.

Her Own VietnamI’d also hoped to read Her Own Vietnam by Lynn Kanter for a Veteran’s Day post. Like Beth, Lynn is a friend and her novel about a Vietnam’s nurse’s memories about her wartime service has been high on my list to read for while.

DroodOn audio, I’m still listening to the ever-so-creepy Drood by Dan Simmons. I am in the minority with my fellow #Droodalong participants and am still invested and even liking this story; however, at page 560, it’s getting time to move on. I don’t have the patience to spend more than a month listening to the same audio book, even though this is fascinating and the research that must have gone into this is incredible.

(That said, part of me will be glad if the phrase “my dear reader” or discussions of consuming laudanum don’t enter my reading life for awhile.)


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Book Review: Dog Years, a memoir, by Mark Doty

Dog Years

Dog Years: A Memoir
by Mark Doty
Harper Collins

I confess – I am not much of a dog person.

I am, however, very much of a Mark Doty person. Whatever that guy writes I will gladly read.

And the way Mark Doty writes of his golden retriever Beau and his black retriever Arden in Dog Years makes me want to go right out and adopt 10 dogs. One of every color and size, it doesn’t matter. I want them all.

I adore this book, just like I adore all of Mark Doty’s other books I’ve read. That’s because this isn’t a dog book in the traditional sense. Like Doty’s much-acclaimed memoir Heaven’s Coast (which may be the one book of his I haven’t read…yet), Dog Years is Mark Doty’s memoir chronicling his partner Wally’s passing from AIDS and beginning a new life. It’s about the healing power that Beau – who was adopted as a companion for Wally as he was dying – gave to him during his time of grief – and about how we find strength to look forward in the midst of sorrow.

“Can hope really be in vain, can you be harmed by hope? Obviously, there is hope that amounts to nothing, in terms of the wished-for result, the longed-for cure, the desired aim. But is that hope in vain, is it simply lost? Or can we say that there’s some way it makes a contribution to the soul – as if one had been given some internal version of those steroid shots, a dose of strengthening?

Hope is leaven; it makes things rise without effort. I have moved forward at times without hope, when Wally was sick and dying, and there wasn’t a thing in the world to do but ease his way. Without hope, you hunker down and do what needs to be done in this hour; you do not attend to next week. It is somehow like writing without any expectation or belief that one will ever be read – only worse, since a Dickinson secreting her poems away in private folios sewn by hand expects, at some unknowable time, her treasure to be found, her words to be read. Hopelessness means you do the work at hand without looking for a future.” (pg. 120)






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National Poetry Month Blog Tour: Paragon Park (Turtle, Swan; Bethlehem in Broad Daylight; Early Poems), by Mark Doty

National Poetry Month Blog Tour

My friend Serena from Savvy Verse and Wit is The Poet Laureate of the Internet. Of all the thousands of book bloggers out there, Serena is poetry’s foremost champion. Her passion for the genre is contagious and her enthusiasm has introduced countless of readers (including me) to new-to-them poets and the wonder of poetry.  In celebration of National Poetry Month, Serena is hosting the “Reach for Horizon” blog tour.

As the blogger for today’s stop, I’ve chosen to highlight the poetry of Mark Doty and some of his exquisite work. Mark Doty is one of those writers who could write anything and I’m convinced I would love it. He’s among my very favorites.

Paragon Park

 Paragon Park (David R. Godine, Publisher, 2012, 179 pages) includes the complete texts of Mr. Doty’s collections Turtle, Swan and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, as well as eight of Mr. Doty’s earliest poems. In an author’s note that precedes these poems, he writes about the process of self-discovery involved in re-reading them.

“That’s one thing I liked about doing this reading, seeing what have become familiar gestures or vocal strategies emerge – suddenly there I am, becoming me. This seems mysterious – wasn’t I always myself? Yes and no. Maybe the turn of voice was there, the habit of speech or the manner of thinking, but here it is in this poem or that appearing on the page, and thus in some way concretizing a self: a manner of speaking, a means of making meaning ….I can see a style emerging in them, but also ways of thinking, rehearsals for concerns and questions that will be given a larger form later on.” (pg. 158)

Honestly, the man even seems to speak in poetry, doesn’t he? If I’m ever lucky enough to get the chance, I’m pretty certain that I could listen to Mark Doty for hours.

It makes sense that these poems are included here with Turtle, Swan (the complete text of Mark Doty’s first book of poetry, published by Godine in 1987) as well as the full collection of Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, also published by Godine, in 1991. As I’ve come to expect from Mark Doty – have I mentioned that he is probably my favorite poet and one of my very favorite writers? – these are poems that are deeply personal, reflective of a childhood, of friends and lovers and places gone too soon.

Some of my favorite images and lines, then.  (I am not going to be able to go to the shore or the boardwalk again without this imagery from the poem “Paragon Park”):

“The music bounces from loudspeakers –
forties swing suggesting we might see our parents ,
freshly stepped from a snapshot, stepping
around the corner; unchanging fragrances
of sea wind, junk food, and the hot gears
of the ferris wheel.”

or this, from “A Row of Identical Cottages”:

“Traveling brings back every other summer
by the sea; our long, familiar conversations’s
all I remember …and Then …

Memory seems a kind of shoreline,
the edge between sleep and the world.
We’re never sure what we’ll wake to –

what form the past, which has no boundaries,
has chosen for its intrusion into today,
or how our random memories will match

or collide.”

My God, that’s gorgeous, isn’t it?

At times, Mark Doty’s verses seem to evoke Springsteen – or maybe it’s the reverse. Regardless, they both have that enviable ability to take what we think of a fun setting (“Playland”) and transform it into something fantastical, mythological and deeply spiritual.

“I’ve never seen anyone but us leave,
and I believe that everyone here
has been dead for years,
and that they not only don’t mind
but are truly happy, because here
there is no need to guard themselves,
no possibility of an aesthetic mistake,
and no one is too old, too poor
or mistaken.”

There were lines in these poems I loved and entire poems, too (“Tiara” and “A Box of Lilies”). From the latter:

“This is what I imagine it’s like,
Doug: once the mailman brought me
a box of lilies, by mistake
– shipping error, nursery packet’s
benevolent whim? –
twenty-eight pale and armored hearts,
spiky as artichokes.
Nothing was labeled
but I could guess their intentions
by their heft; some were twinned,
even two-fisted, and the instructions plain:
Dig deeper than you need to,
fertilize with a little bone,
allow to remain undisturbed for years.”

With each precise, perfect word, Mark Doty’s poetry has a way of doing that – digging deep, fertilizing those memories that may have been undisturbed for years. Quite simply, he’s a master.

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The Sunday Salon: Small Books for Short Summer Days

 The Sunday Salon

And the days dwindle down to a precious few (to borrow a great line from the even greater Frank Sinatra) and I find myself wanting to fill them with a bit more summer. A few more mornings of sleeping in, a few more afternoons of reading at the pool, a few more evenings of doing the same on the porch.

The time for reading chunksters has passed. During these mid-August days, I have a craving to consume as many small books as possible. Our church held an evening kids camp this past week (the UU version of Vacation Bible School) and each night my kids were there, I hung out at the gorgeous Northland Public Library (one that I have a job application into and would love to work at, if they happen to be reading this) and browsed.

(And secretly re-shelved about a dozen mis-shelved books, hoping my mitzvah would result in some much-needed good job karma being sprinkled my way. I don’t want the $448 million Powerball (well, OK, I kind of do) but something slightly more than minimum wage will suffice in the meantime. And what can I say? Once a library page, always a library page.)

While my kids learned about their place in space, I grounded myself – sitting in the plush chairs by the library’s unlit gorgeous fireplace (a fireplace!) and browsing through short stories (“Paranoia,” a newly discovered Shirley Jackson tale published in The New Yorker featuring Anthony Weiner on the cover); poetry (Swan, by Mary Oliver, not my favorite of her collections), plays and research books for my novel, and Mark Doty’s fantastic memoir, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. 

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

“Everything in our field of vision is passing. And some of these things will be here just the briefest while; these opened oysters, this already spotted quince are right at the edge of corruption even as we catch sight of them.

And yet, in the suspension these paintings, they will fade no more slowly than the hobnailed glass roemer, or this heap of rifled books; everything floats on this brink, suspended above the long tunnel of disappearance. Here intimacy seems to confront its opposite, which is the immensity of time. Everything – even a painting itself – is evanescent, but here, for now, these citizens of the great community of the disappearing hang, for a term, suspended.” (pg. 21)

Everything in our field of vision is passing. Sunday will be here just the briefest while.

Enjoy today.

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