In 1975, when David Mason was an undergraduate at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, his drama professor told him he’d never make it as a writer. Having just worked a season as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and then hitchhiked the perimeter of the British Isles with a twelve-pound typewriter in his backpack, Mason was not easily dissuaded. “I told him to his face that I would prove him wrong,” he remembers.
Four decades and more than a dozen books later, Mason is back at his alma mater, now a tenured professor of English and creative writing. He served as Colorado’s poet laureate from 2010 to 2014, during which time he made it his goal to give readings of both his own work and others’ in all of the state’s sixty-four counties. He says that the laureate’s function is to “remind the community of the universal value of articulateness, of beautiful expression, of poetry.” Whether as a teacher, a public advocate, or a writer, his aim is the same: to share the revitalizing power of words.
Born and raised in Bellingham, Washington, Mason traces his roots to the arid terrain of southeastern Colorado, where his great-grandfather settled in the late 1800s. His grandfather, father, and uncles all grew up there, and during family vacations as a child, Mason would walk the arroyos with them in search of arrowheads and listen to their stories. His maternal grandfather was also from Colorado. A coal miner who became a physician, he was known as the “last of the horse-and-buggy doctors” in the city of Grand Junction.
Mason’s writing has appeared in Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, and Harper’s, and has been featured on the PBS NewsHour. He is the author of six volumes of poetry, two collections of critical essays, two opera librettos, and a memoir about his forty-year relationship with Greece. (As a young man he spent eighteen months living with his first wife in a stone hut in the Peloponnese, and he’s returned many times since to teach and explore.) Ludlow, one of Mason’s more ambitious works, is a novel-in-verse about the 1914 massacre of striking coal miners and their families at the hands of the Colorado National Guard. His most recent book of poems, Davey McGravy, tells the tale of a young boy who loses his mother to a mysterious fog and finds solace in a forest filled with talking animals. The plot reflects Mason’s own mother’s struggle with alcoholism as well as his love for the natural world.
I’ve known Mason since 2007, when I was a student at Colorado College. In my senior year I sought a faculty sponsor for an independent study in creative writing, and he was the only professor I asked who was willing to make time for me. We would meet once a week in his office, which looked like a bookstore’s disorganized stockroom. Mason is a deliberate thinker and an impassioned talker, with a terrific memory for the many works he’s read. He wears hearing aids in both ears — he says he is “damn near deaf” — but the impediment seems only to have made him a more conscious listener.
For this interview we met outside a small cabin Mason rents in the foothills of the Front Range, seven miles from downtown Colorado Springs. (He splits his time between the cabin and a house in Newport, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, Chrissy, who’s also a poet.) We sat on the back patio beneath a ponderosa pine and watched the sun sink behind a mountain ridge as we discussed nature, travel, art, sense of place, and the relationship between hardship and a life well lived.
Tonino: You’ve said that you walk beside your death every day. Why this constant reflection on mortality? Is it a choice?
Mason: It’s not a choice for me, and it never has been. I’ve been aware of death since an early age. The first intimate death of my life was the husband of a nanny who raised my brothers and me while my parents were working. I still remember the shock that this man would not be around anymore. It astonished me. And later, growing up in the sixties, I knew a lot of people with drug and alcohol problems, and some who committed suicide. For a while it seemed the deaths just kept coming and coming. So a sense of the fragility of life and the absoluteness of death has been with me from early on.
The most profound loss of all for me was the death of my brother when I was twenty-four and he was twenty-eight. He died mountaineering in Washington State on Mount Shuksan, a gorgeous, glaciated peak in the North Cascades. He’d climbed mountains all over the world, but he made a mistake on this one and fell a thousand feet. It took the rescue crews a couple of days to find his body. By that time I’d arrived from New York, where I was living then. I remember the undertaker unzipping the body bag to show me the corpse, and how my brother looked as if he were asleep, except for a large contusion on the side of his head and a bloodstain on one finger. I didn’t see the whole body. Chances are there was a lot of damage hidden from sight.
The fact of my brother’s body really brought death home to me — touching his hair, remembering him when he’d been alive, how he’d slept so many nights with that same expression on his face.
Not long after that, I experienced two illnesses. One was a bad case of turista — or Montezuma’s revenge — in Mexico. The fever was so high that I was hallucinating. I had the sensation that I was physically decaying. The second was a case of sunstroke in Greece, where I lived with my first wife for a year and a half. I had a big vegetable garden next to our stone hut, and one day I worked too long in the heat without a hat. The village had an itinerant doctor who would come through, and she took my condition very seriously. I lost a lot of weight and was sick for a couple of weeks. There were days when the fever was dangerously high, and I thought I was going to die. So the sense of my own fragility as a body, as a person, really hit hard in my twenties.
Tonino: This awareness of mortality is an essential part of the Greek view of life, isn’t it?
Mason: Yes, that’s something I’ve come to understand by reading classical as well as modern Greek literature. Robert Fitzgerald, a translator of Homer, wrote in his memoir that when he was no more than eight or nine years old, it became clear to him that the fate of every living person is to be hurt and eventually to be annihilated. My view isn’t as dark as his, but Fitzgerald’s statement does resonate with me. Life is going to throw a lot of suffering at you. You have to endure; you have to stand up to these storms. And even then, ultimately, you will not prevail, because we all must die. So the way you behave, the way you live, the way you treat other people, the way you eat a meal, the way you conceive of beauty, the way you get through the day — all of this is colored by the constant knowledge of death’s nearness.
The Greeks will work hard when they have to, but they also know how to live life to its fullest, eating well, sleeping well, loving well, and enjoying nature. The Greeks understand that this moment right now is all you’ve got. You can’t live in expectation of something else. Of course we all do have expectations, but we need to learn to look at them askance. We need to understand that there’s nothing you can bank on, not one thing. The future is an abstraction. The only reality is this moment you’re in.
This view places responsibility on the individual to try to live well and decently and with joy. I am, on the whole, a pretty happy person. I have my ups and downs, and I’ve seen a lot of suffering, but I understand that suffering in terms of its brevity.
There are various Greek stories that touch on this, such as this one, which the Roman poet Ovid later picked up: An old couple is visited by two strangers who turn out to be the gods Apollo and Hermes. The man and woman don’t know that these strangers are gods but offer them hospitality anyway, unlike everyone else in town, who turned the strangers away. The couple is rewarded by being saved from a flood that is brought down to destroy the town, and at the end of their lives they’re rewarded again by being turned into two trees that will grow together in the garden of a temple.
The gist of that parable is: How do you know that any person you encounter isn’t a god? How do you know that Hermes isn’t walking through your doorway right now? You don’t, and because of that, it’s incumbent on you to live with the possibility that sacredness — that which is beyond human — is knocking on your door. You have to behave with proper respect toward whatever comes into your home, your life. The Greeks call it xenia — the culture of kindness to the stranger. It’s not done out of a moral sense but because you recognize your place in the world, and the brevity of life, and the value of the people you meet.
I see a lot to admire in this philosophy. It doesn’t hold out a promise of an afterlife; it puts the emphasis on the life you already have. In The Odyssey, when Achilles is in the underworld, he says something like: I’d rather be the poorest man on earth than the king of the underworld. He’s getting at the intense value of life in the body — the life of appetite, of sexuality, of beauty, and of suffering, too. They’re all tangled up together.
Tonino: I’ve heard you say that the avoidance of suffering is the avoidance of the soul, and of life itself.
Mason: That’s perhaps related to some things my wife is teaching me. She’s a great student of the psychologist James Hillman, who reminds us that the word psychology actually means “study of the soul.”
The Greeks understand that suffering is inevitable. Yet a great deal of American culture is predicated on an avoidance of suffering. We avoid it through material comforts, or by trying to have it cured by a psychotherapist, or by trying to have it fixed by a minister, or we just deny it outright, looking on the bright side all the time, sweeping pain under the rug. That seems to me a sort of living death.
Some of the suffering I’ve experienced in my life has been intense, and I wouldn’t wish it on another person. When going through a divorce, I felt for months as if I were living with an ax buried in my heart. I had weeks at a time when I was suicidal, when I could hardly sit up straight. But, by God, I wouldn’t give that up for anything. It fuels my writing. It fuels my empathy for other people. It increases the joy I feel when I come through it all, still alive.
When Hillman talks about “soul,” one of the people he quotes is the poet John Keats, who said that this world is not a “vale of tears,” as the Christians would have it. Some Christians believe that you’re better off not being born but going straight into the arms of God. Keats disagrees. He says you make your soul in life. Hillman, too, says the world is a vale of soul-making. Your suffering is your soul. Whatever screaming and crying and wailing we do, whatever anguish we go through that we think we can’t possibly survive — that’s what makes us a fuller, stronger human being.
There is a lot of art out there, a lot of poetry and literature, that avoids suffering in one way or another, holding it at arm’s length.
Tonino: To someone for whom pain already abounds, arguing that we should open ourselves to it might come across as unfeeling or even unfair. Think of the impoverished single parent with a mountain of debt, two jobs, mouths to feed, and a child with a medical condition.
Mason: I wouldn’t ever argue for an increase in pain. I’m just observing that this world is as hard as it is soft, and we can’t deny it. We need to accept the fact that we do suffer, and then let that acceptance become a part of our growth.
It’s also true that some people are happy even though they have the trappings of a miserable life, whereas others are unhappy even though they have the trappings of success. The poet W.H. Auden wrote, in a preface to a book called London Labour and the London Poor, that there is humor and delight in the world of extremely poor people, just as there is misery and disease and suffering of all sorts.
The way you behave, the way you live, the way you treat other people, the way you eat a meal, the way you conceive of beauty, the way you get through the day — all of this is colored by the constant knowledge of death’s nearness.
Tonino: As you’ve described it, the Greek view seems particularly fitting for a poet. I like the idea of poets as people writing from the brink, with the clarity and intensity of the about-to-die. It makes me think of the Zen Buddhist tradition in which a master often writes a final poem on his deathbed.
Mason: That happens in the Western tradition as well. Many poets write their own epitaphs. Take Robert Frost’s: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” That’s just a beautiful idea. We’re always a little at odds with the world, always wrestling with it, fighting it, beating our head against it. But we also love it very much. Elsewhere Frost says, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” You’ve got a body, and the body can love as well as suffer. Sometimes love is suffering, right?
I think poets as a group often do have an essentially Greek view of existence. I don’t mean they are all influenced by the Greeks. There are obviously Christian poets and Buddhist poets and many others with different theological standpoints. But the awareness of death seems common to all. It’s almost the nature of poetry.
Tonino: But obviously poetry doesn’t have to be only about loss, grief, and death.
Mason: Right. There’s a spectrum. Sometimes it’s about transforming loss. We are all transformed by grief. We change in the way a tree struck by lightning changes. Artists try to capture that in a poem or a minuet or a painting or a sculpture.
A student was asking me just today: Why is it so hard to write about happiness? I replied that it’s hard to write well about anything — it’s just damn hard to get the words down right — but it’s especially hard to convey the joyful aspects of life without becoming sentimental. Sadness, too, can be maudlin, but it’s particularly true of happiness.
And yet there are happy works of art out there, works that are brimming with gaiety, to use W.B. Yeats’s word. Even the tragedies often crackle with a kind of life energy. You feel revitalized by partaking in them. Somebody once speculated that the writer Flannery O’Connor must be a cynical person, because her short stories are so dark. Her answer, which I’m paraphrasing, was that no completely cynical or nihilistic person can write fiction. In a sense, the very act of creation is fundamentally an acknowledgment of life.
I read a lot of contemporary poetry and often find myself feeling that there’s no vitality to it. It’s as if the author were dead inside, or just writing for professors. There’s no human pulse there. The poem doesn’t beat like a heart. All the best literature has that pulse. It makes you feel alive to read it.
People are too wrapped up in the world of money and cars and computers and aren’t fully alive on earth. What does it mean that Americans have built endless suburbs in which you can’t easily step out and enjoy a simple walk? There are whole neighborhoods with no sidewalks!
Tonino: What about poetry pitting itself against death? Is literature subject to the same laws of change as the rest of the world, or is it trying to defy these laws and become permanent in some sense?
Mason: I think both. On the one hand there’s the notion of poetry as “the bread that lasts when systems have decayed,” as Derek Walcott puts it. You can trace that back to the Greek poet Sappho, who says that if you do not drink of the Pierian Spring, which is the fountain of the Muses, you will be nameless and anonymous, living among the shades in the underworld; that is, you will die and disappear. That’s the myth — that the poem outlasts you and somehow grants immortality.
But what do we have of Sappho? A handful of fragments, like blades of grass. That’s it. Everything else she wrote has been lost. So the notion of permanence in art is delusional, and yet it’s part of the reason artists create in the first place: to leave behind something that will persist even after your body has passed away.
Another great response to this question comes from Robinson Jeffers in his poem “To the Stone-Cutters,” in which he writes about the “fore-defeated / Challengers of oblivion,” the men who build things out of marble, thinking: There, that’s solid; that’ll last. But Jeffers bumps up the timescale and points out that even the “blithe earth dies,” and even the “brave sun” darkens. And yet, he says, “stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found / The honey of peace in old poems.” The honey of peace. It is a possibility.
Tonino: We might call that desire for the work to live on an attachment. Buddhists, among others, cite attachments as the root of much pain and trouble, but you’ve written that “attachments also make us human, and if a kind of sickness is to go with our humanity, maybe that is not entirely bad.”
Mason: I admire Buddhist thought, but I don’t want to be enlightened. I rather like Saint Augustine, who says, “Make me chaste, Lord, but not quite yet.”
Sometimes my attachments do make me unhappy, and at those times I look at myself and think, Ugh, this again; here I am expecting fame or a great review or a royalty check, and when it doesn’t come, I’ll end up pissed off at the world for not behaving as it “ought to.” On the other hand, the notion that something I write might, if the gods are on my side, be of value to someone is precisely what energizes me to pick up the pen.
Cyril Connolly, the great British critic of the mid-twentieth century, said, “The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication: that is why so many bad artists are unable to live without it.” I think he’s right. We get drunk on creativity. Our endorphins fire when we’re trying to make something beautiful, and we’re addicted to that. It’s the work that’s intoxicating, not the thought of reward. I mean, we want fame and success, but really they’re beside the point.
Tonino: Your friend the Greek poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke writes, “Human pain is the point where . . . philosophy, religion, and art meet.” Do you agree?
Mason: Yes, but I would add that it’s not only pain that has this universalizing aspect. Joy has it as well. Pure gustatory joy or sexual joy or aesthetic joy — these, too, need expression. Sometimes I can’t just sit here vibrating with my own joy; I have to write about it, share it.
Tonino: Is there a connection between loss as we’ve been talking about it and the state of being lost, of wandering and fumbling for an understanding of where you fit into the world?
Mason: Yes, that awareness of grief and loss is a cousin to being lost and not knowing exactly where to go. For Robert Frost, one of my heroes, reading and writing require that we allow ourselves to become lost. In his poem “Directive” Frost says that the poet is a guide “who only has at heart your getting lost.” We tend to think that poetry makes clear some aspect of life, but it’s only a momentary stay against confusion. When you’re speaking the poem, it feels as if you’re humming with truth and clarity, but two seconds later you’re the same jumble of nerves trying to figure out how to make breakfast — now I’m paraphrasing Yeats.
Tonino: You’ve said that accident and chance have shaped your life more than you care to admit. I’m interested in your relationship to these forces that knock us about.
Mason: Maybe I should just admit the power of accident and chance, but that’s easier said than done. When I look at some people’s lives, I feel as if they knew what they wanted to do and accomplished it, whereas I had to stumble in the dark for decades as a gardener, an odd-job man, a graduate student, and a teacher of literature and composition before I began to find my way as a writer.
I suppose I’m a little sheepish about the path I’ve taken, both professionally and personally. I’ve been married three times. My first two marriages failed, and a lot of people were hurt and are still hurting because of that. Sometimes I wonder why I’m not the sort of person who just knows his direction and sets course to get there, but I’m not and never will be.
Tonino: Speaking of setting course, you write a lot about travel. We don’t travel merely for a vacation. We also run away from things, and toward things.
Mason: At different points in my life I’ve run away, such as when I left my hometown at the age of eighteen and hardly ever went back. My mother’s addiction to alcohol was too much for me. Whenever she started drinking again, I would feel responsible for it somehow. I felt tied to her, chained to her. She made quite a few suicide attempts in my childhood, and though I’ve never tried to kill myself, I began to have suicidal thoughts when I lived with her. So I left to escape her addiction and because I feared my own death.
But travel is also an opening to life, a tool for seeing what’s really there, for experiencing the world. Often I can’t create while I’m traveling; it’s after I’ve come back that I’ll start to make some sense of what happened. Travel is like diving into the sea. You’re just swimming in it, finding your way in the moment.
I once took a train from Chennai — or Madras, as it used to be called — in India, up into the state of Andhra Pradesh, where I was meeting some friends in a village. The train’s windows were so clotted with grime that the landscape outside was like an Impressionist painting — glimpses of women putting out the laundry, men working in the fields. When I got to the village, I saw naked Jains and open sewers and all sorts of rich, complicated life. And then, for the journey back, I had to get up in the middle of the night and hire a car to take me to the train station. The driver stopped at a coffee stand on a dark road. Small fires were burning. I stood on the side of the road in the glow of the fires while men and women came out of the shadows and crowded around to see and touch the stranger. No one spoke a word of English. I was safe, of course, but in the moment I wasn’t so sure. Was this situation dangerous or not? Travel brings us into uncertainty.
Tonino: What’s the connection between the traveling you’ve done and your deep roots here in Colorado?
Mason: It’s the damnedest thing. I’m very much a poet of the American West, and yet I find myself writing about Greece and India and Australia and Ireland and Scotland. I guess I’ve got an insatiable curiosity that keeps me on the move. I’ve never been able to stay in one place for a long time. But when I’ve lived away from the West, I’ve rarely felt at home. Even in upstate New York and Minnesota, I felt like I was in a foreign country. Not that those aren’t beautiful places filled with wonderful people, but they weren’t my home. When I’m in western landscapes, I feel it in my blood. I know the birds and the mammals and the rivers and the mountains and the trees.
Some people never move from where they grew up, and that’s great, too. I would guess they know their world better than I will ever know mine, because I’m trying to know so many worlds at once.
Tonino: You’ve pointed out that in the U.S. today many people live on the “skin” of the land and rarely glimpse what lies beneath. What do you mean? What do you think is down there?
Mason: For starters, there’s geology, an ancient earthly reality that is too often obscured by human clutter and self-regard. And then there’s history, folklore, mythology — all of which many Americans never stop to consider, let alone learn about.
The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled in the U.S. in 1831, says in his book Democracy in America that Americans will always be destroying and forgetting the past. I think there’s an essential amnesia in our culture. Look at the city of Colorado Springs. When I visited here in my childhood, it had a population of about 150,000. Now it’s tripled in size. I’m willing to bet that a great number of residents in those sprawling suburbs don’t know the original Ute Indian name — Tava — for the fourteen-thousand-foot mountain on their western horizon that we call Pike’s Peak. And I’ll bet they don’t know that the Spanish army fought and defeated the Comanches just south of Colorado Springs, or that the Sand Creek Indian massacre occurred just 160 miles away, or that the Ludlow massacre of striking coal miners took place nearby. In other words, I’ll bet they don’t know that the land they live on is layered with stories.
There’s so much about this land that I’m still learning. Stories are one of the ways we locate ourselves in the world. To turn your back on this act of self-orientation is like opting for flatness over three dimensions.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” That’s how William Wordsworth put it. People are too wrapped up in the world of money and cars and computers and aren’t fully alive on earth. What does it mean that Americans have built endless suburbs in which you can’t easily step out and enjoy a simple walk? There are whole neighborhoods with no sidewalks! Are we really expected to drive our cars into our garages and call it quits? It creates a culture that is life-denying.
Tonino: “Life-denying” reminds me of what you said earlier about the avoidance of pain and suffering.
Mason: I’m not saying that some people can’t have a happy life without knowing a lot about where they live, but I am skeptical of someone who is almost willfully ignorant of the place he or she is living, who accepts some version of that place provided by the mass media and corporations and the limited interests of this one brief moment in history.
Take GPS. Mine is broken right now, so I’m keeping my wits about me when I drive and looking carefully for landmarks rather than just letting a disembodied voice tell me where to turn. If you depend solely on GPS, you’ve reduced the number of ways you locate yourself in the world. You’ve shut out possibilities that might be enriching. Why do that?
I don’t want to moralize. I just think maybe this country gets itself into trouble in the world because it doesn’t know what it is or even where it is. Why invade a country that most of your citizens can’t find on a map? Why assume that the misery of people half a world away is a problem you have to solve when you haven’t dealt with the misery in your own backyard? I don’t mean to be an isolationist, and I don’t have a formula for foreign policy in my pocket, but I do believe Americans have created problems for ourselves and others by being ignorant of place, in all its manifestations.
Tonino: You’ve written that change in the U.S. these days seems so rapid, your imagination can’t keep up with it. Can you contrast that with a different pace of change you’ve observed elsewhere?
Mason: There are places where people still live in relationship to the past. That has both advantages and disadvantages. Traditional societies can sometimes be imprisoning and unjust. Think of the Taliban’s treatment of women. So I don’t want to oversimplify this. I mean only to say that when I walk into certain cityscapes and landscapes, I feel at home, and in others I feel alienated. To me the most alienating are mass-culture, freeway-belt, corporate zones where the buildings have been slapped together in some gimcrack way with a total disregard for the topography and ecology.
One reason I enjoy living here in the foothills below Pike’s Peak — or Tava — is that it feels as if the place evolved more or less organically. This valley is a natural cul-de-sac, and the town of Manitou Springs fits snugly within it. By contrast, the suburbs out on the prairies seem to have no relationship to place whatsoever. The more I drive that interstate corridor between here and Denver, the more alienated I get — from my body and from the earth. It’s only when I turn into a little neighborhood that I can begin to feel at home in some way.
Your average European city now has all the corporate trappings and freeways we have in the U.S., but the city center is sometimes preserved. In Melbourne, Australia, the highways in and out are crowded with traffic, but the downtown is bikeable, walkable, and approachable in terms of public transit. The streets and buildings are arranged for you to have a genuine physical relationship with the place. London has horrific suburbs that go on and on, but it also has a relationship to its past through the architecture and street layout. One reason tourists love exploring these great old cities is because of all the narrow streets, dead-end alleys, textured stones, and diverse buildings. They feel good.
Tonino: You’ve described landscapes and weather as a core experience of life. Can you elaborate on that?
Mason: I write out of a bodily awareness of being in the world. Weather to me seems to be one of the primal, defining characteristics of a piece of writing. I love what Ernest Hemingway said: “Remember to get the weather in your damn book.” An awareness of the moment when the sun goes behind the clouds and a chill suddenly fills the air is absolutely necessary. I remember the descriptions of snow in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I remember the feeling of water in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In a sense, a book is an environment I read with my body.
Tonino: I’ve heard you align yourself with Wordsworth, who wanted to see “into the life of things.” That sounds very much like animism, the indigenous spirituality that regards all parts of the world as alive.
Mason: I’m not literally an animist who believes in, say, the god of the mountain, but to think that the mountain is a dead thing feels utterly wrong to me. A dead world doesn’t work. It’s not where I live, and it’s not where I want to live, and it’s not where I want anybody else to live. As a reader, writer, teacher, and person, I’m trying to acknowledge what’s outside myself, to honor its particularity.
Tonino: Is that a form of environmentalism?
Mason: I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist in the sense that I don’t believe human life ought to take precedence over all other forms of life. Human culture doesn’t deserve to exist any more than lizard culture or grass culture or butterfly culture or tree culture does. I love being among wild animals — not to touch or interfere with them in any way, but just to be present with them: The deer passing through the yard. The bears in the driveway. The foxes leaving tracks in the snow. When I was traveling in southeastern Australia last year, there were wombats and echidnas and wallabies and incredible bird life. I slept many nights in a tent, and the moment the sun rose, there was a chorus of birdsong unlike any I’d ever heard. I’m hard of hearing, so it means a lot to me when birds are loud, and these birds were loud. Think of our most musical birds in North America, our blackbirds and mockingbirds, and multiply that by another couple of dozen species, and you can imagine what that dawn chorus sounded like.
To wake up in Australia at sunrise with the surf pounding just beyond the dunes and to hear the birds start to sing as the primal light touches the treetops — it made me feel as if I were witnessing the dawn of time, creation itself. And creation is not me. It’s not the human species. I really don’t like the idea that the human species should dominate the world. I want to live in the world, not dominate it.
Tonino: In one poem you write of birds that are “hopeful without a thought of hope.” Is that a synonym for faith?
Mason: There’s an element of faith to it, yes. “Hopeful without a thought of hope” might suggest that a bird looks at a piece of food and experiences something like the expectation of eating it, but the bird can simply be in the state of desire, of hunger, without ego and worry and fear. It’s not the same as human hope, which is wrapped up in thinking. It’s simpler, more fundamental. It’s just being.
Now, I don’t know any of this for a fact, but that’s how it looks to me from the outside. Who knows what birds’ minds are doing? Who knows what language they’re speaking? I’ve often watched the birds gather at sunset in Newport, Oregon, when the tide goes out in the estuary. It’s like an old Greek village at the end of the day, when all the shepherds and goatherds are bringing their flocks back and locking them up for the night. In a way, the evening language spoken in that Greek village is no different from what the gulls are saying to one another on the mud flats: Now we’re going to gather. Now it’s the time of day when we’ve finished our feeding and night is coming. Let’s rest and await the sun, and then we’ll start again.
Tonino: Your poem “Saying Grace,” written for the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, concludes, “Give us this day more world / than we can ever know.” It sounds like a prayer.
Mason: It is a prayer. And of course my prayers have already been answered, right? If I want more world than I can ever know, I’ve got it right here. What an extraordinary thing that I get to see this — to be this — right now and for as many more years as I’m allowed to go on.
That’s what I’m going for with my poems — that moment of awareness. I want everything to stop for a second so that the reader can feel awe at the fact of the world. Because why piss and moan when we’ve got the fact of the world?
When I wrote “Saying Grace,” I was working from the thought that wilderness is not just out there somewhere, like the mountains of Alaska or some area that has received a Congressional stamp of approval. Yes, there are parts of the globe that are less inhabited than other parts — the center of Australia or Antarctica, the summit of Mount McKinley, even some woods here in Colorado — but, in truth, there’s almost no place on the planet that hasn’t been seen and touched and walked upon by humans. So, then: What’s wilderness?
Maybe wilderness is a place of isolation, of solitude. Maybe wilderness is a place where, through your solitude, you reach toward some larger power or mystery. You could be at the top of Mount McKinley, or you could be in a vacant lot in Colorado Springs, with weeds growing up around the broken bottles. What more do we get out of wilderness when we think of it as our own solitude?
Tonino: Some poets are more explicitly and aggressively political than others. How do you see poetry and politics coming together, given that you served four years as poet laureate of Colorado?
Mason: I’m skeptical of the political efficacy of poetry, but that doesn’t mean that poets ought not to write from a political perspective or with the intent to change people’s minds. The problem is that when you set out to change minds, as the politician does with a speech, you risk shortchanging the richness and complexity of the language.
There are many other dangers in political subject matter. Sentimentality is one. Oversimplification of human experience is another. Propaganda is also a danger. When I wrote about the Ludlow massacre, I made it clear that I was not telling a story of angels versus devils. There are good guys and bad guys in the book, but I hope that, first and foremost, they are all real people.
Tonino: Did being poet laureate force you to get involved in politics?
Mason: During question-and-answer sessions in libraries or schools or even prisons, I would find myself taking sides politically. If somebody asked me what I thought about public funding for education, for example, I would give my opinion, and my opinions are pretty left-leaning. Sometimes people took umbrage at what I said and were angry with me for advocating higher taxes for schools and roads. It was interesting to be reminded that giving one’s opinion isn’t always the smartest thing to do.
Tonino: Do you think poetry has become elitist?
Mason: I don’t think poetry is or ever has been elitist in essence. There are poems that have shades of elitism, and editors who favor them, but poetry has always had a kind of popular sensibility.
That said, poetry has been marginalized and isolated in the U.S. in recent years. Even a perfectly accessible poem doesn’t have all that much impact on the culture. There’s no American poet alive right now who’s going to make headlines when he or she dies, the way Robert Frost did in 1963. The death of Allen Ginsberg wasn’t even noticed all that much. So the individual poet doesn’t have real prestige. That’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just a fact.
Poetry moves in the world in strange and subtle ways. Everybody quotes Shakespeare: “Too much of a good thing.” “A wild goose chase.” These lines are embedded in our consciousness. I hear poems quoted all the time in movies and television shows, often at a moment when the plot calls for a particular resonance. People may not know they’re hearing a poem, but they’re feeling what language can do. To some degree it doesn’t matter whether they know the words are from Auden or T.S. Eliot. What matters is that they are moved by them.
Tonino: You might say we live in a prose culture, because prose is thought to be more lucid, more accurate. Are we missing out?
Mason: Some might argue that we don’t live in a language culture at all. Rather, we live in a visual culture. A lot of persuasion happens through the image in our world, especially in politics and advertising.
I sometimes hear people say that they don’t read fiction or poetry or go to the theater: “I’m a nonfiction man!” Fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. I love nonfiction, too, and I write it. I do worry about the imaginative life being marginalized, though. It seems to me that one of the duties of the artist is to combat that marginalization, to say that the imaginative life helps make us human. So many schools, when their funding is cut, ditch the art and music programs first. Do they think those programs are less important than the football program or the science program?
But getting back to your question about poetry and prose: Poetry, by moving from line to line, can create shades of meaning that prose can’t. So, whatever else it’s worth, poetry is valuable because it gives us a different experience of language. It gives us an experience that we cannot have by other means. And without that, we live a more impoverished life. I’ve been as moved by novels as I have been by poems, but I’ve been moved by poems in a different way. I’ve been brought to laughter and tears by a different route.
Tonino: You’ve said that our educational system causes some of us to question the validity of poetry. What’s going on there?
Mason: Sometimes, when we teach the arts, we turn them into excuses for analysis rather than moments of pleasure and mystery. We forget that the arts were around long before the classroom came into being, and the arts will remain even after academia passes away.
Our educational system is focused on material success: How do you get a job? How do you make money? Of course you’ve got to make a living. You can’t just depend on other people to take care of you. But that pragmatism goes too far when it denies a huge part of what it means to be human. Imagination, dreams, spirit, delight, craziness, goofiness, chaos, dance, song — they’re all important. Without them we’re hardly human beings. In a materialistic society the artist is always a bit of an anarchist, tossing the Molotov cocktail of the imagination into the bank foyer: C’mon! Wake up!
The arts have to be a presence in people’s lives. I had a great compliment paid to me about a year ago when a friend told me about a young man who had memorized a poem of mine. This young guy had recited the poem to my friend with tears in his eyes and said it was the kind of passionate poetry he wanted more of in the world. I’d never met him, and yet there he was with my words coming out of his mouth. That’s the greatest honor a poet can ever have: for someone else to memorize your work, or photocopy it and put it in his or her wallet, or hang it on the fridge, or just keep your book close at hand.
Tonino: Can that notion be expanded to include other acts besides writing poems? As your poem goes out into the world to touch a stranger, so might a random smile from the clerk at the supermarket.
Mason: That’s true. Every gesture goes out into the world and has a life of its own. The carpenter who framed the new windows in my house in Oregon comes to mind. He has made a new view possible for my wife and me. Bigger windows! Amazing! We can look out onto the woods and the ocean. We can see more. Any kind of making or doing has this potential to give someone a wider view. The supermarket clerk’s smile is a window. A poem is a window.
Tonino: The novelist John Nichols once said that even if all you do is paint pictures of sunflowers, great; you’re tipping the scales ever so slightly in the right direction.
Mason: And you don’t know how much you’ve tipped them. You have to learn to ignore your ego’s attachment to the efficacy of what you do. You have to pat your ego on the head and say: That’s very nice, but you can’t know. Now run along. All you can do is try to make the work as beautiful as possible.