Caitlin Doyle – a poet compelled to uncover the strangeness that lives within the seemingly ordinary.
Caitlin Doyle’s poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, The Threepenny Review, Black Warrior Review, and many others. Her poems have also been published in several anthologies, including The Best Emerging Poets of 2013, Best New Poets 2009, and The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. Caitlin’s honors include the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship through the Bread Loaf Writers’ conference, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, the Amy Award through Poets & Writers, and fellowships at the James Merrill House and the Kerouac House. She has held Writer-In-Residence teaching positions at Penn State, Interlochen Arts Academy, and St. Albans School, and she has taught as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Boston University.
How did you become a writer?
My desire to become a writer took shape from a series of early encounters with the mysterious pull of words. I trace my first delight in language back to a childhood ritual I shared with my father. Whenever he tucked me into bed, he’d ask: “Do you want a bedtime story?” I’d nod my head like a dog wagging its tail while he’d draw out my anticipation. And then:
“I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.
Shall I begin it? That’s all that’s in it!”
The same every time. Yet I couldn’t help squealing “yes!” in the pause between “shall I begin it” and “that’s all that’s in it,” as if this might be the night he would indeed begin it, the night I would hear – finally! – the story of Johnny McGory. The more he withheld the tale, the more I craved it. My ears relished the sonic buzz of the internal rhymes (“story” / “McGory” and “begin it” / “in it”) and my imagination crackled at the possibilities contained within the untold narrative.
When I learned to read, I discovered that I could access the same pleasures to an even greater degree through a physical encounter with words on the page. In middle school, I found myself carrying around a battered copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in my backpack. I started writing poems on my own, showing them to teachers and friends for feedback, and eventually submitting them to student publications and literary contests. At that age, I didn’t fully understand most of the poems in the Palgraves anthology, but I loved how so many of them allowed me to apprehend in music what I couldn’t yet grasp in meaning. It became clear to me that I wanted to spend my life striving to make that kind of music.
How do you write? What is your process?
My favorite way to write, both when generating new work and revising, is to sit in a large comfortable chair near a window, rather than situating myself at a desk. I like to prop a notebook on my lap and write with a pen, so that I can cross out words and phrases as I form my lines. Whenever I’ve tried writing on the computer, I’ve found that hitting the delete key during the act of composition or revision makes me feel too rootless. I am attracted to the tangibility of glimpsing hints of what I’ve crossed out, underneath the scrawls of ink, so that it’s as though I’ve left a trail of where I’ve been in my thought process.
It’s hard to say exactly what spurs me to dive into writing a poem. I constantly search my own life and the world around me for stories, ideas, and images that call out for language to give them memorable shapes. Many times, an event or individual from history will grab my fascination, and I’ll gather research notes that eventually culminate in a poem. I also frequently find my pen drawn toward probing elements of popular culture.
When it comes to entering more personal territory, I’m often stirred by an urge to explore how the uncanny aspects of human life operate within my own experience. I am compelled to uncover the strangeness that lives within the seemingly ordinary, and to examine the unease that lingers on the edges of even our most fixed certainties. My process is frequently driven by a desire to challenge readers’ sense of a stable reality – first by orienting them in a recognizable world when they enter a poem, and then by inviting the unsettled and the unaccountable to infiltrate their perceptions.
What authors have inspired you?
It would be impossible to detail all of the authors who have inspired me over the years, but I can highlight several poets whose work has lodged itself in my memory and changed the rhythms of my daily life: Christina Rossetti, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H Auden, James Merrill, William Butler Yeats, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson, A.E Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S Eliot, Richard Wilbur, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Oscar Wilde. One of the qualities that most draws me to these poets is the way that their language contains powers of enchantment beyond what we can fully grasp with our rational minds.
What books are on your bedside table?
Like most writers and word lovers, I keep an ever-rotating stack of books on my bedside table. Right now, I’m rereading Alice Munro’s Selected Stories. I’ve long been mesmerized by her ability to pack so much breadth into such tautly compressed language. I’m also immersed in a D.H Lawrence phase these days. As an admirer of many of his poems – “Snake,” “Bavarian Gentians,” and “A Young Wife,” to name a few – I’ve now decided to venture further into his fiction than I ever have before. His novel The Rainbow is currently on my bedside table.
The other book that’s presently in the pile is Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems. It’s a collection I return to often because he’s one of the first poets whose work made me fall in love with poetry. I’ve lately been relishing the incantatory pleasure of reading some of my favorite Wilbur poems, over and over, before bed, including “The Pardon,” “Wyeth’s Milk Cans,” “Two Voices in a Meadow,” “Advice to a Prophet,” “October Maples, Portland,” “Year’s End,” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.”
There’s also a copy of Simon Winchester’s Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on my bedside table right now. It’s a fascinating book about James Murray and W.C. Minor, two men whose obsessions led to one of the greatest achievements in the history of the English language: the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. As a poet, I love how Winchester’s book connects me with the strangeness, wildness, and mystery at the roots of the language I’ve inherited.
What writing projects are you working on?
I’m currently working toward the completion of my debut poetry collection Tea In Eden. Rather than orbiting around any single specific theme or aesthetic approach, the manuscript contains pieces that engage an expanse of subjects and styles. There are poems about history, politics, popular culture, visual art, and my own experiences and relationships. I relish reading poetry collections that combine gravitas and darkness with occasions of wit and play, and I’m working to create that kind of tonal range in my own book.
During an interview for the “Words With Writers” series, I said the following about one of the central ambitions guiding me as I develop Tea In Eden, which bears repeating as part of my answer to this question: I hope to reconnect readers with the primal ear-delight of their early years, bringing them back to their first pleasure in hearing nursery rhymes, lullabies, commercial jingles, and playground songs, while also feeding their grown-up appetites for intellectual depth, sonic complexity, and emotional resonance.
Another core interest informing my work in Tea In Eden is the relationship between myth and reality throughout history and within our individual lives. I like to play with narrative elements in my poetry, not often in a traditionally linear beginning-middle-and-end way, but as a means of exploring how we give and receive stories, both personally and culturally, as maps of human experience.
I’m working on several nonfiction writing projects right now as well, including reviews of recently released poetry collections and some personal essays. For example, I’m writing an essay about my experience as the Writer-In-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT, and the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL. Occupying the worlds of two such different authors has spurred me to reflect on the discoveries that come when one lives with the ghosts – whether real or imagined – or other writers. I’m also currently putting the final touches on a review of Maxine Kumin’s most recent and final poetry collection And Short The Season.
What advice do you have for young writers?
In my experience, young writers frequently give up on a piece too soon. My advice to them would be to remember that a first draft is just a seed. Most novice writers recognize this idea intellectually, but they often haven’t internalized it to a degree that lets them feel it as true in the context of their own work. I emphasize for my students that anyone who has had a chance to read archived early drafts of work by some of the best English-language poets knows that stunning poems often spring from unremarkable beginnings.
Of course, not all first drafts can be honed into powerful work, and another important skill for a writer to develop is the ability to eventually let go of a poem that just won’t bear fruit. But in my experience working with writing students, it’s far more common to witness them giving up on an early draft too readily than to see them painstakingly overwork a piece. So I’m always guided by a desire to help young writers grasp this truth: memorable work only takes shape when one has cultivated the patience and persistence to continue laboring on poems for long periods – hours, days, weeks, months, and sometimes years.
More Information about Caitlin Doyle
To read more about Caitlin’s writing and background, to see samples of her work, and to obtain further information about the books in which her poetry has appeared, you can visit her website.
Links to Interviews, Articles, and Other Features
Read Caitlin’s interview through the Identity Theory Emerging Poet Series, in which she discusses her writing process, her experience working with film, class issues in the poetry world, approaches to the teaching of prosody, and more.
Read Caitlin’s interview through the National YoungArts Foundation, in which she discusses her insights as a teacher of writing, her experience as the Writer-In-Residence at the James Merrill House, the Jack Kerouac House, and Interlochen Arts Academy, and several other aspects of the literary life.
Read Caitlin’s interview through the Words With Writers Series, in which she discusses inspiration, the relationship between form and content, notions of the ideal reader, significant formative moments in her writing life, and much more.
An article about Caitlin and her work, titled “Poetic Sparks In The Hooley Tradition,” has appeared in The East Hampton Star newspaper. The piece discusses her journey as a writer and highlights some of her recent literary undertakings. You can read the article here.
Caitlin has been featured for the Gwarlingo Sunday Poet Series. You can read the feature, in which Michelle Aldredge highlights Caitiln’s “highly original poems steeped both in meaning and musicality,” here.
Michelle Lewis of White Chicken Poetry and Poetics has written an essay entitled “Doyle & The Ersatz Life,” in which she provides incisive commentary on Caitlin’s work. Lewis describes Caitlin’s poetry as “keenly attuned to the haunting counterparts to the authentic.” You can read the essay here.
Caitlin has appeared in an article entitled “BU’s Literary Lions Read Tonight” in BU Today. She was invited to participate in the Boston University Faculty Reading (noted as “one of Boston’s most distinguished literary events”) as the Poetry Alumna Reader in 2014. She shared the stage with Robert Pinsky, Dan Chiasson, Leslie Epstein, Ha Jin, Sigrid Nunez, and Nell Stevens. To see Caitlin interviewed and profiled, along with the other readers, you can click here to read the article.
To see a video of Caitlin reading some of her poems for the Poetryvlog Series, you can click here.