As a child, Mark Doty often moved with his family (his father was a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers). During his high school years in Tucson, Arizona, encouraged by poet Richard Shelton, Doty began to consider poetry seriously. He has said that he believes such mentoring is crucial to a beginning poet’s development. Certainly Shelton and his household introduced Doty to an artistic world that was otherwise unavailable to him.
Doty received a B.A. from Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa, where he also taught for a year. During this time, uncertain how to deal with his sexual orientation, he was married for a short time. He also began to publish poetry, although he later repudiated his earliest volumes as being both immature and untrue to his still-closeted identity. (He now considers his earliest book to be Turtle, Swan.) After he was divorced, he moved to Manhattan, where he fell in love with Wally Roberts, a window dresser for a department store. The two remained together for the rest of Roberts’s life. During this time, Doty worked part time on an M.F.A. in creative writing from Goddard College in Montpelier, Vermont, where he and Roberts later lived for a time and renovated an old house. Doty later taught at Goddard.
Turtle, Swan was published by Godine in 1987. Early reviews praised its quiet tone in presenting the gay experience in terms of the general human experience, which includes suffering. In 1989, Roberts was diagnosed with AIDS; the same year, the couple discovered Provincetown, Massachusetts. Moved by the beauty of the place and reassured by the support of its gay community, they decided to settle there—the paternal side of Doty’s family can trace its New World ancestry to the pilgrims’ landing on Cape Cod in 1620. When Roberts died in 1994, the experience was wrenching for Doty, who for a time was completely unable to write or even read. He found a release from grief in writing Heaven’s Coast, the memoir in which he describes the experience of Roberts’s illness.
In the latter half of the 1990’s, Doty taught writing at various schools, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, the Columbia School of the Arts, and the University of Utah. When he began to teach one semester each year at the University of Houston, he and his partner, writer Paul Lisicky, started dividing their time between Texas and their two-hundred-year-old house in Provincetown. In 2009, Doty joined the faculty at Rutgers University in New Jersey.