About Malta, dogs and staying safe... meet American poet and memoirist Mark Doty

Queer New York-based award-winning writer will be the special guest of the Campus Book Festival 2021

You were going to be our guest last March, in person, just at the time the world changed drastically and transport became much more difficult. How has the last year been for you?

Challenging! I’m fortunate to have remained healthy, and lucky thing that  no one in my life has perished or seriously sickened from the virus. However, I live in New York City, which at the beginning of the pandemic here was ground zero for Covid 19 in America. My city basically shut down, the famously crowded streets deserted, the local economy decimated.  I saw scenes like my parents remembered from the 1930s,  hundreds of people in line for food on the streets. In the midst of all this, a crisis of racial justice erupted nationwide, and New York’s police responded to dissent with unnecessary violence and creating a climate of fear.  Before and after our national election, American democracy was seriously threatened, and I was afraid I was living in a country I no longer recognized. Things are looking up, but we’re still shellshocked.

Mark Doty
Mark Doty

The recently appointed United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s seemingly unpronounceable surname will have placed Malta on the map of many U.S. citizens. Did you have relation to the island before accepting the invitation to be part of Malta’s Campus Book Festival?

Caravaggio! A favorite painter, a genius innovator and technician, a wild man  of great accomplishment, which is a combination I like. The Knights of Malta. The Maltese Falcon. Going to Malta seemed wonderfully unlikely away, an island unique to itself, a place I couldn’t quite imagine. And still can’t. I intend to change that, and not via Zoom, one of these days.

Dogs clearly mean a lot to you, your dog Ned gets a mention in Deep Lane, and despite dealing with human loss and grief, your memoir Dog Years does not shy away from celebrating the life-affirming qualities of their companionship. Has the source of their appeal become any clearer to you since its publication? Even tough you have compared pet stories to listening to others’ dreams we’d be very happy if you briefly share a particularly memorable one.

I live by myself these days, and in a pandemic this opens up new and further dimensions in solitude. At the height of the lockdown, I sometimes felt I’d fallen right off the edge of the world, and looked forward to the evening hour when neighbours opened their windows and saluted the brave First Responders and medical staff.  When that burst of cheering ended, I might well have felt more alone than before. But Ned, my 10 year old golden retriever, is good company – quiet when I need to work but always ready for a walk or his favorite game: we sit on the floor, 8 feet or so apart, and I roll a ball to him, then he rolls it back with his nose. He’s a witness, an audience, a friend who accepts my foolishness, a reliable devoted gaze. And he wants and needs to go for walks, thank goodness, taking me out into the empty at all hours and in all weathers, which does me great good.


In the meantime you published What is the Grass in which you pay tribute to Walt Whitman and who you describe as a persistent presence in your life. Has the past year brought forward new lessons from Whitman’s writing,  shared concerns you have since discovered?  Is there any particular passage you found helpful or kept returning to this year?

Whitman’s perennial message is that we are not isolated selves but participants in the life of the whole.  We are individuals with particular bodies and characters, but when viewed from a higher perspective we are flashes and specks in the great stream that being is. This is the foundation of his faith in democracy, and of his regard for all of life. Among poets, he is unique in the way he invites readers to come to his work, and addresses them directly.

“I considered of you before you were ever born,”  he writes, and “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” In my Manhattan neighbourhood, an overloaded hospital had the long body of a tractor trailer parked outside, last spring and summer, with an air-conditioning unit running all time, a temporary morgue for the ever-mounting numbers of dead, Across the street, in a small park, the artist Jenny Holzer had most of the text of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” carved into the cement pavement near. I found it sustaining, in those weeks, to think of  Whitman --  who loved New York,  who stood by so many of the dying during the Civil War – hear with us, is voice as confident and affirming as ever.

Mark Doty will be participating in a book-club session with University students lead by Dr Mario Aquilina on Thursday 25 March. Doty will be returning on Friday 26 March for an extensive interview with Head of English Department at UM Prof. James Corby. All Campus Book Fest events can be watched at ktieb.org.mt and on the National Book Council Facebook page.