By Emily J. Weitz
The Best American Poetry series, an anthology of 75 poems published annually, is now in its 25th year, and each year fresh guest editors have stepped in to sift through the countless poems created in this country to find gold.
This year, poet Mark Doty, who has garnered such accolades as the National Book Award for Poetry, the Whiting Writer’s Award, and Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize for his own work, took on the challenge, and proudly presents his findings at the launch of “The Best American Poetry 2012” at Canio’s Books on Main Street in Sag Harbor this Saturday at 5 p.m.
Doty’s passion for poetry began in high school.
“Like a lot of adolescents,” he says, “I had a very turbulent inner life, and I needed to give my anxiety and hope and fear some sort of shape. I came across poets, like Federico Garcia Lorca and William Blake, and I was compelled by these little constructions of words that somehow meant more than they said.”
This, Doty says, is the essence of poetry. It points to something larger that can’t be boiled down into fewer words. Each word is essential, complicated and nuanced.
As a poet, Doty has always looked to others for inspiration. In one of his poems, he addresses Walt Whitman directly, and in recent years Doty has been working on a prose book on Whitman that is about three-quarters done.
“Whitman was the father of all American poetry,” says Doty. “He was a great innovator, and an extraordinarily brave man. He took on issues of body and soul, individual and the nation, and he asked us to see things differently.”
The world is very different today than it was when Whitman was writing in the mid-19th century, but many of Whitman’s poems have stood the test of time, and many new poets are dealing with the same universal themes. As Doty sat down to find the best American poetry of 2012, he found a great sense of excitement.
“At first it seemed like this impossible task,” says Doty, “but I was so interested to see what was going on in our literary culture. It was a great pleasure. I looked at online journals, glossies like the New Yorker, and small publications. I read thousands of poems.”
Some of the pieces address totally contemporary issues, like Facebook and hip-hop. Some deal with the human connection to animals, some are obscure, and of course many deal with death and love and the human condition.
“I am so proud of this book,” says Doty. “Every poem selected spoke to me. We recently did a launch, and I was to read several poems from the anthology. I could have read any poem in the book. I chose work that I felt was unexpected, energetic, surprising, and work that pushed hard. I chose poems that caused me to think deeply about things that matter.”
One piece that comes to mind when Doty thinks back on lines, words or ideas that stayed with him, is a poem by Lynne Sharon Schwartz called “The Afterlife.”
“The speaker is in the next world,” explains Doty, “and she’s trying to find her mother, but when she finds her, her mother doesn’t recognize her because she’s trying to find her mother. Everyone is trying to find comfort.”
When asked what he learned by reading all these poems and choosing the ones he thought were the best, Doty says it’s more like being reminded of something.
“I often get worried in the process of writing a poem,” he admits. “I wonder if I’m writing something too private, or something that won’t make sense. These poems operate out of nerve. They give me courage and remind me that you have to trust your intuition as an artist. These poets were willing to follow their fascinations and obsessions. It’s exhilarating when someone makes something that isn’t safe or conventional and it really works.”
Through the selection process, Doty ended up with a range of poets, from Pulitzer Prize winners to younger poets who have yet to publish their first books. He started out asking himself whether he could create a diverse book and really be in love with every poem.
“The answer,” he says decisively, “is yes.”
Mark Doty reads at 5 p.m. on Saturday, December 8 at Canio’s Books (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor, 725-4926).