Uche Ogbuji: Allow me to begin where I began with another Colorado Poet here on Kin. How do you think living in Colorado has affected your work? What does Colorado mean to you as a poet?
David Mason: Well, I am a westerner, born and bred. I grew up on the Puget Sound and in the Cascade Mountains, and my soul was formed by beautiful places. Indians and fishermen and lumberjacks as well as the professional folks my parents knew—there were all these ways of telling stories about the world, and stories seemed to matter. Words felt as much a part of the world as trees and animals, magic more than utilitarian.
I have always loved climbing mountains, and that was harder to do when I lived in Minnesota or New York. But some of the landscapes I love most in Colorado are not those seen by skiers and tourists. I love the area around Trinidad, for example, down on the New Mexican border, the ranch country and the Purgatory River and the town itself where my family history goes back to the nineteenth century on my father's side. It means a lot to me that I know the stories of the place, the lingo, the characters. Trinidad could fuel any number of books and movies, let me tell you. The place has soul.
And of course my best-known book, Ludlow, is very much a Colorado book. I wrote it to begin to name the place I lived in, if that makes any sense—to give it story and language.
Do you have a favorite mountain in Colorado? Whether for poetic reasons or not? Wendy Videlock wondered whether Parnassus is in Colorado. What do you think, shall we add an honorary, if rather stunted 14er?
That Wendy! She never has been a slave to geography—or anything else, for that matter. But I do have some favorite mountains. First, Mt. Blanca in the Sangre de Cristo Range. I'm thrilled every time I look at it—a mountain sacred to the Navajo. I first got up to about 13,500 feet on its east side when I was 18 years old. I remember seeing a herd of at least two hundred elk charging through a high valley up there, and I remember sleeping two nights in an old mining cabin.
Then a couple of years ago two friends and I tried to climb Blanca from the west. I planned the climb, and was overconfident about how much we could do in one day, especially since we didn't have a vehicle capable of making it very far on the road in. In the end we hiked about 17 miles round trip and didn't quite summit—we were close, but it was late in the day and the weather was coming in and it would have been foolish to push it. It's a glorious final ridge, though, and I wish I had been smart enough to plan on camping a night and summiting the next day.
There are more dramatic peaks in the San Juan range and the Maroon Bells, but I am also very fond of the Spanish Peaks, "The Breasts of the Earth," just north of Trinidad and visible near Ludlow. I walked up the western peak about a year ago, and it is a lovely climb. Only a 13-er, I know, but a beautiful area, very unspoiled, with splendid views from the top.
For me the most important thing about climbing is, in addition to a bit of exercise, getting away from the noise of our world. Even though I am seriously hard of hearing, I am sensitive to engine noise. I hate hearing motorized vehicles of any sort when I'm out in the mountains—it's just the ugliest sound, with the possible exception of gunfire, that I can imagine.
You've also traveled a fair bit, and we at Kin honor poetry that presents a battered passport. How valuable do you think it is for a writer to balance a tendency to wander with the sense of being of a particular patch of earth.
I love the idea of being "rooted in one dear perpetual place," as Yeats put it, but that has never been possible for me. I admire the local knowledge that can only be acquired through long experience of a place. Why couldn't I live this way? I tried to write about that in my memoir, News from the Village, a book with a big hole in it.
Travel for me is a way of re-energizing my life, just like learning anything new. At the same time, I don't like travel for travel's sake. I don't like the mechanisms of travel. What I do like is changing my view or a view that changes. I like change. Lately I've been spending time in Oregon, where my wife and I bought a wee house by the sea, and I love the constancy of change there, discovering what the tide brings in. It's wonderful to be able to stay in one place, to live quietly and write and still have the sea changing your view every day.
I'm glad I've been around the world, and I still hope to see more of it, and not just for poetry's sake. But there is a kind of travel poetry written by Americans that bores me to tears. The postcard poem or travelogue poem, or the poem in which one accrues virtue by writing about some famously beautiful place or some famously beautiful work of art. This kind of poem abdicates the responsibility to imagine anew, to give readers a new experience, and often amounts to nothing more than memoir or art criticism written in lines. A poem ought to be a new experience, an adventure in words.
Whether at home or abroad are there any patterns and rituals you've found important to your work as a poet? Do you find yourself curious about the writing habits of others, and if so, do you have any interesting anecdotes about the creative process.
I have virtually no curiosity about the writing habits of others. Writing is interesting. Writers are not, particularly. But now that I am married to a poet I regard as highly as anyone living, I do marvel at how she works. I'll call her Cally, since that's her pen name (Cally Conan-Davies). She did not start writing poetry until her late forties, but she has been steeped in poetry all her life. As an Australian, she has a cultural memory for language rhythms beggaring that of most American poets I can think of, so when a poem comes to her quickly, as occasionally happens, it comes fully equipped and musically alive and memorably made.
But I have also been amazed at her revisions. How often she arrives at a draft that would have satisfied me, but keeps pushing it, not just refining it but also going deeper into the wound or the life of it. She makes me realize how rare real poetry is, how wonderful it is to see the real thing. She's the most inspiring person I have ever known.
I had the pleasure of attending the adaptation of your verse novel Ludlow into an opera. An Opera from your libretto, The Scarlet Letter, will premier in Denver next year. How did you get into writing libretti, and were there any particular aspects you found in learning the craft of writing for poetry amenable to be set to music, whether in dramatic context or not?
I began to write libretti in response to commissions. My partnership with the great composer, Lori Laitman, is one of the most satisfying aspects of my writing life. She is a well-known composer of art songs, and has set poems by a variety of poets, and while I work almost exclusively for her as a librettist, I am currently stepping out to write a one-act opera for another composer.
There is so much to say about this work. First of all, every libretto demands a different attitude toward verse—this is due to story, to musical aspects of the commission, etc. When I wrote Scarlet I had Hawthorne's great story and characters in place. I had a dramatic structure that was perfectly suited to opera, and had only to see how I could adapt it. My verse technique there was influenced most by Auden, whose libretti I know very well.
My next project with Lori was an oratorio, Vedem, which we did for Music of Remembrance in Seattle (this work is out on CD from Naxos). We knew we had a boys choir to work with and two adult soloists and four instrumentalists, and the libretto I made was shaped with those things in mind, using the texts of a few poems by boys who had been interned in the concentration camp at Terezín.
Writing a libretto based on my own verse novel, Ludlow, challenged me in different ways. I had pretty much to throw my own book out the window and start from scratch with a new sense of dramatic focus and a new way of thinking about time in the story. That libretto is done, and Lori has scored Act One magnificently, so a lot of people are asking for the rest of it.
The best writing I know about verse technique in opera is to be found in the essays of W. H. Auden. Fundamentally, as with any dramatic writing, you have to become an actor/singer and perform in the theatre of your imagination and make sure the lines you write are singable. You have to imagine breathing and performing and pacing the whole thing. You have to think about how much time it takes to get on and off the stage.
It's quite wonderful when you see and hear real musicians taking up your work. Theatre people really are different from writers. For one thing, writers spend most of their lives working alone with no response from others whatsoever. Theatre people are used to getting notes or responses of some sort, so they are eager to hear from the writer what he thinks about their performance. I have had to learn that I actually have to talk to these wonderful people and tell them what I think. I have to encourage them. How different that is from the life of the writer, where encouragements are self-made or non-existent for the most part.
Verse Wisconsin's April, 2012 issue was on Verse Drama, which brought me in mind of your work. Here is a quote from the leader, "Our Expanding Dramaverse" by Vardaman & DuBois. "What does drama offer poetry? Do we even need verse drama? What is it about Shakespearian drama--or any good dramatic verse--that is so compelling?" A few paragraphs later it concludes: "Verse drama isn't just important because Shakespeare did it. Poetry is drama's native language. Performance is poetry's native state." What are your thoughts on this debate, and what are the added nuances of your work which brings together not only verse and drama, but also music?
I completely agree with these assertions about drama and verse. In much of my teaching, I concentrate on what I call "dramatic voice" even in the lyric. Frost said that "writing is un-boring to the extent that it is dramatic," and I agree. Glyn Maxwell's new book, On Poetry, has fine things to say about verse drama. He does make it seem as though he's the only verse dramatist alive, and I suppose sometimes it must feel that way. He's the only "successful" verse dramatist alive. I'm struck by the way some bits in his plays seem influenced by dramatic poets like Frost, as much as by the Greeks and Shakespeare. Yet Frost couldn't write plays worth seeing. I wonder why.
Anyway, I am a believer in live theatre and a believer in verse drama, and would like to do a lot more of that sort of thing myself. The poetry world feels so confined, so limited, so entirely subsumed by academic life on the one hand and what is often the mediocrity of the open mic on the other that it's hard to find a space for actual art. The theatre might well be one of the places that space can be made. I'm also curious about what can be done with movies and other media.
Are you currently working on one or more poetic projects? Tell us more about them.
Yes, I'm working on a one-act opera. Can't talk about it yet. And I've written what appears to be a verse novel for children, or for readers aged 8-80, that is probably the best thing I have ever done. And I'm writing new poems and planning a book of them to come out early in 2014.
I'll come back to Colorado to wrap up, not just because we have this remarkable state in common, but because you are Colorado's Poet Laureate. I've heard you say that your office has taken you to all but a couple of our counties, not just driving through, but actually engaging in some poetry-related event. I assume you're looking to collect the full set? What would you say about the health of poetry and appreciation of poetry across the many landscapes and communities of Colorado.
I'm not sure I can generalize about this. Virtually all the audiences I have encountered in Colorado have been enthusiastic, but what does that mean about poetry appreciation in the state? I do not know. I've only spoken to a few thousand people in a state of several million, so any evidence I have is anecdotal and incomplete. With Cally's help, I am refining a speech about "Poetry and the Public" that will some day be an essay on the subject. It is very well received by very different kinds of audiences.
But when I get off the road and walk through a mall or even go about my business in Colorado Springs, I might be forgiven for feeling that most people around me have no connection to poetry whatsoever. Or maybe they think they have no connection to it, and that's why I and others have to work our hardest to bring the best poetry to their attention. In my experience, when people encounter real poetry they generally respect it because it articulates things they know about or can imagine knowing about. The fact that so many Americans assume, or seem to assume, that poetry has no place in their lives, is one of the bafflements of the culture.
I wonder why poetry plays a greater role in other countries, some of which are worse off than we are politically or economically. I wonder what it is about American culture that so often devalues the imaginative life unless it makes money, the way athletics or pop music can make money. That would be a fair generalization about American culture, wouldn't it? Money-driven. Money-mad. And sad.
What is your favorite part of being a Poet Laureate?
I don't have a single favorite thing. Mostly it involves being surprised, either by other people who have a lot to offer poetry, or by extraordinary things about Colorado. I've already revealed a prejudice of my own against the open mic reading, which too often serves poets more than it serves an audience, yet on several occasions I have been glad to hear amazing things at those events—people reciting the poems of others, moments of musical grace, and even a great performance by an 8-year-old boy named Max who delighted in language he had found on the web. It's a privilege to be given the excuse to get around the state and learn where I live. And it's an education to try to say what I believe in an entertaining way to a variety of audiences. As I left a lecture in Denver not long ago I was stopped by a girl in a wheelchair who thanked me for reminding her why she tried to write poetry. She didn't say she wrote it. She said she tried to write it. She understood humility before the art, and I respect that.
And I must ask about what is probably not one of your favorite parts. Our state has had a difficult summer this year, what with the wildfires, the Aurora movie theater shootings, the overall drought, and more. You were personally affected by the same Waldo Canyon fire whose images of devastation reverberated worldwide. I listened to a couple of your poems and interviews on Colorado Public Radio in response to these events. How much of a burden was it for you to have to find poetry in so much nearby tragedy, to find poetry for the service of others?
Writing public poems is daunting and difficult, and while I have responded to commissions in the past with poems for particular occasions, these events in Colorado were particularly hard to face. For one thing, I was in Oregon all summer, resting up from years of intense work and personal change, enjoying the coolest weather in the country. So when the Waldo Canyon fire broke out and my neighbors in Manitou Springs were among the first to be evacuated, I was simply incapable of thinking I could write about it.
As you know, the fire ran east from its starting place, destroyed some 350 houses in Colorado Springs and killed two people. The situation was very grave. It was Cally who said to me, "You're the Poet Laureate of Colorado. You have to write about this." But I had no idea how to begin.
When you've got a nagging problem as a writer, it's sometimes best to let the unconscious work on it for a while. One morning I woke up recalling that children's verse: "Here is a church, here is a steeple, / Open the doors and out come the people." That gave me a way of approaching what became my poem, "The Fires." I sent it to the Denver Post, and then Colorado Public Radio asked me to record it with a brief, off-the-cuff essay, and I feel pretty good about the result. I think there's one really good line in that poem: "To dwell is not to shelter, we should know." And while the rest of the poem does not always rise up to that level, it served its public purpose.
The killings in Aurora were even tougher to write about. In fact, every time I tried a draft and showed it to Cally, she gently pointed out where I was off the mark. My anger about gun culture in America turned into hystrionics, my impotent grief into sentimentality. I literally could not have written anything without her help. Maybe because she's a foreigner, she can see America with more precision than I can. She pointed out to me the most important details of the news stories we had read and watched. One of these was that no one could recall having seen the face of the suspect in the shootings until we all saw him at the arraignment. That mask, that absence of identity, stood in contrast to the many faces of the victims we saw over and over again on the news. So I wrote about the faces. The resulting poem is rather dark, rather despairing about this aspect of modern life.
The producers at Colorado Public Radio were particularly gracious in allowing me air time for these poems and the commentary, and while I never foresaw this among my functions as a state laureate, it does seem to be a way in which poetry can help.
All photographs by Cally Conan-Davies
David Mason’s books of poems include The Buried Houses, The Country I Remember, and Arrivals. His verse novel, Ludlow, was also featured on the PBS News Hour. Author of a collection of essays, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, he published a memoir, News from the Village, in 2010. A new collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet, followed in 2011. Mason has also written the libretti for composer Lori Laitman’s opera of The Scarlet Letter, her operatic adaptation of Ludlow, and her oratorio, Vedem. In addition, he has edited or co-edited several anthologies and textbooks. He serves as Poet Laureate of Colorado from 2010 to 2014.