Clif Mason on writing as an intense, all or nothing, risk-taking experience

In his article “The Four Properties of Powerful Teachers” in The Higher Chronicle, Rob Jenkins sites personality, presence, passion, and preparation as qualities that make a teacher great. Could you describe a powerful teacher or mentor you admire? What writing skills did they help you hone? How did you apply that knowledge to the building of your chapbook?

I had many fine teachers in my years as a student, but the teacher who had the most influence on me and my writing was Paul A. Olson, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I studied Medieval literature under him and he chaired my dissertation. Paul was a big, charismatic man, who led each of his classes purely through discussion, pushing each of us to come up with our own original responses to and interpretations of the literature we were reading. Drawing from a nearly photographic recall of more than thirty years of study of the vast library of criticism of such classic works as Beowulf, Piers Plowman, The Romance of the Rose, Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Canterbury Tales, as well as his own best ideas and insights, he peppered our spirited dialogues with the kinds of perceptions that provoked me to deeper contemplation and more passionate discovery. Attending one of his classes was like taking a powerful psychotropic drug. I could feel myself growing new neural pathways in each class meeting.

Paul also read from the works we studied each week, and his readings revealed the depth of his feeling for those ancient texts. His relishing of each line taught us to honor the words we studied, to approach them with respect, passion, and reverence. At the time I was writing only criticism, but I learned to imbue my essays with as much heart as intellect. I strove to write with both fervor and rationality–and I rewrote my work until it was as crisp and expressive as I could make it. When I came to write the poems of my chapbook From the Dead Before, about 15 years later, I thought often of Paul’s profound love of words, a love so intense it was indistinguishable from awe. I attempted to write my poems with that same love and passion. I rewrote them again and again, sometimes making radical alterations in their forms, as the process of rewriting led to continual discoveries.

Writing was an intense, all or nothing, risk-taking experience every time I sat down with a notebook or at a computer. I was totally focused on each poem. I knew the poems had thematic and personal connections, but I was several years into the writing before I began to think more intentionally about the patterns of ideas and the ways in which I employed language in my best work. A friend said my work was “saturated with death,” and that is true. I think he missed, however, the joy and the zest in my approach to words. Paul Olson was not the only inspiring teacher I had. But more than any other he inspired me to seek incandescent new possibilities in words.

In Kay Henry’s essay “Go Thick, Go Deep,” in The Writer’s Chronicle, she explores the importance of thick descriptions that “can paint an entire universe,” even if to write such descriptions take “hard work and many revisions. Yet it is necessary if our readers are going to enter our world and make sense of it…” (84). She continues, “A thickly described artifact or behavior becomes a symbol, and may take on the resonance of metaphor” (85). The vivid descriptions in your long poems create unexpected, wild worlds that take readers on a journey, often by foot, through epic landscapes where surreal or magical experiences unfold. Talk about the importance of description that connects and resonates with readers in your work.

Kay Henry’s advocacy of “thick descriptions” rings absolutely true to my aesthetic sense, as well as to what I see as the poetic exigencies of our time. Thick description allows us, as readers, to feel the reality shaped by the writer’s creative imagination; the description’s verbal intensity, its deep mimesis, calls on us to respond with an equivalent act of our own empathic imagination. The poet’s language, her or his thick description, enables us to become more awake to the world we inhabit, to feel it more keenly, as if our blood had become saturated with oxygen. Every time that occurs, there is a gain in human awareness and in the possibility that we might approach the world with the curiosity and respect it deserves.

I felt this strongly as a young poet reading Keats, Hopkins, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop for the first time. Keats writes in “To Autumn” that fall, the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” conspires with the sun, “to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; / To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, / And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; / to swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells / With a sweet kernel . . . .” The same verbal density and richness is felt in Hopkins’ description in the final lines of “The Windhover,” of a plough’s turned furrow: “. . . sheer plod makes plough down sillion /Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, / Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.” Hopkins uses alliteration and consonance to intensify his lines nearly to the breaking point. This is risky writing, but the result is felt with an electric charge in the reader’s mind.

We see Moore use sound effects in similar fashion when she writes, “The Fish / wade / through black jade.” The pronounced assonance and the force and immediacy of the metaphor create the felt reality of these fish in a way that a more direct description—“The fish swim through dark water”—cannot hope to equal. In Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” we also see the visceral power of metaphoric writing: “Here and there / his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper: / shapes like full-blown roses / stained and lost through age.” As readers we gain an impression of this great fish that makes it almost photographically present.

These descriptions empower the reader to see as the poet sees, to feel as the poet feels. We approach the world with greater sensitivity and awareness, with greater respect and appreciation. And in a world that constantly threatens to overcome us with its cloying shopping mall sameness, to numb us with its kitschy artificiality, to deaden us with its suffocating commodification, the poet’s words can restore our felt connection to the world and can inspire in us real zest, real joy.

Each time I discovered a new poet who offered such robust, compelling, even fierce descriptions—Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Amy Clampitt, for a few examples—I felt challenged to attempt to create a reality, whether real or surreal, that would be equally palpable, equally real to my readers. Like Keats, my goal as a writer became to “load every rift with ore.” That has been my aspiration across the whole of my writing life. It is not my place to say if I have succeeded or not. Only the reader can make that judgment. As a writer, my job is to fashion the most mesmerizing worlds I can, through the thickest description of which I am capable.

In Sandra Beasley’s essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Voice” in The Writer’s Chronicle, she writes, “Structure has many dimensions. In poems, we focus on breaks between line and stanza; in prose, we focus on breaks between paragraph and section. We use parallel and refrain to create patterns within the text. Grammatical marks dictate breath and pacing, as does length of sentence.” You’re the author of two chapbooks, but are also at work on a new full-length manuscript of poetry and a novel. Talk about the ways you address structure in a poem, a chapbook or book of poetry, and a novel.

When the late Fred Zydek, of Lone Willow Press, approached me about publishing a chapbook of my poems, I told him I had two significant groupings of poems, those about death (in all of its forms) and those about joyful immersion in nature. He asked to see the poems on death.

I proceeded intuitively in the organization of the poems in the resulting chapbook, From the Dead Before, beginning with poems of my own immediate experience in visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in participating in an AIDS Candlelight Memorial Service, and in visiting the graves in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota, of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane Cannary. The sonnet on the last begins “Their bodies were made of time, like ours” and ends “Their markers—all that’s left of the famous dead.” This led by association to poems on the deaths of famous poets—Emily Brontë, Wilfred Owen, García Lorca, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. I used the Hughes poem to transition into a series of nature poems organized around death themes—hawks, bears, pumas, a dead raccoon and a dead bull snake on the road, an otter, a butterfly, and thousands of trees killed in an ice storm—which led me to human deaths in another ice storm, which led me to a series of poems about the subdivision I was living in at the time and the desire to protect our children from death, to teenagers hanging out at local Kwik Shop, and to the happily mundane act of washing dishes by hand. My neighborhood figured in the meditative poem on the death of the Sibyl at Cumae, which in turn led to the deaths of other literary figures, Shakespeare’s Mercutio and Cordelia. The chapbook’s final poem, “From the Dead Before,” related death to the progress of the seasons and viewed it as a natural process, which triggered in the poet the desire to create, to sing as a response to death’s presence in our lives—a circling back to the chapbook’s inception. One final comment on the structure of that chapbook is that 12 of the 21 poems are in traditional forms—sonnets, classical hexameters, and the glose. While groups of formal poems were inevitable, I leavened these with free verse poems, to give the book formal agility and suppleness.

My new chapbook, which I hope to submit soon, was much easier to structure. Titled Selfies in Which I Do Not Appear, it is a collection of “selfies” with famous figures, mostly literary—for example “Selfie with Miguel de Cervantes,” “Selfie with Pablo Neruda,” and “Selfie with Amy Clampitt.” I simply organized the poems in chronological order of the births of the individuals whom they celebrated.

I’ve recently finished a full-length collection, The Book of Night and Waking. This book opens with a proem, which is followed by two sections of 17 poems each and a final long narrative poem that treats, in surrealist and magical realist fashion, the speaker’s long walk from his home in the Midwest to the Scott Amundsen Station in Antarctica. The book is unified by motifs of walking and waking, and of walking as a catalyst for waking—and for singing.

How do you define chapbook? A book of poems short enough that one can read it in a single sitting but intense enough that one wants immediately to re-read it.

What makes a good chapbook? Tight unity of focus, continual surprises in language and image, thematic impact, and forward momentum.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Leslie McGrath’s By the Windpipe, Mary K. Stillwell’s Fallen Angels, Matt Mason’s Mistranslating Neruda, Zena Hashem Beck’s 3arabi Song, Cheryl Cark Vermeulen’s Dead-Eye Spring, and Frank Stanford’s numerous hard-to-find collections, now available in the Copper Canyon’s lovingly fashioned What About This: Collected Poem of Frank Stanford.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Federico García Lorca’s The Tamarit Divan (I’ve read this obsessively, dozens of times), Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Fredrick Zydek’s The Conception Abbey Poems, Gary Snyder’s Manzanita, Olena Kalytiak Davis’ On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed, and Ilya Kaminsky’s Musica Humana.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Poems that, when brought together, speak with new energy and force.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Constantly trying to re-connect poem siblings that were separated at birth. Reunions can be joyous, life-affirming occasions.

What’s next for you? I’m currently working on a fantasy novel and also on a chapbook of magical realist prose poems.

Current chapbook reading list: I’m thrilled that Anne Carson’s Float—comprised of 22 chapbooks in a transparent box—just arrived by mail. Carson is one of the most innovative poets we have today, and this unbundled bundling of chapbooks may well be one of her most daring experiments.

Number of chapbooks you own: About fifty (before Carson’s treasure chest arrived).

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Maybe twice that number.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I purchase chapbooks at nearly every reading I attend—and I frequently recommend or give them to others. And I do their authors the service of returning to their chapbooks again and again, feasting on each poem, holding each line on the tongue and savoring it.

Your chapbook credo: All poetry books are assemblages of the most intense language on the planet—and chapbooks are the most intense of the intense. We must drink continually of these waters. They give life.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: At poetry readings, of course. What’s been received must be given back.

Your chapbook wish: That every chapbook writer might find more and still more readers.

Residence: Bellevue, Nebraska

Job: Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bellevue University

Chapbook education: Scores of collections that have flowed into my life, sometimes shaking my hand, sometimes wrapping me in a bear hug, sometimes smacking me upside the head.

Chapbook Bio: Clif Mason’s poems have appeared in many magazines in America and England, including Evergreen Review, Southern Poetry Review, New Millennium Writings, The New Guard, Orbis, and Iota, and in From the Dead Before, a Lone Willow Press chapbook. He is fortunate that his work has been awarded prizes by the Joe Gouveia Outermost Poetry Contest, Writers’ Journal, SPSM&H, Plainsongs, the Midwest Writers’ Conference, and the Academy of American Poets. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and he has been the recipient of a Fulbright Award to Rwanda, Africa.

From the Dead Before Poems by Clif Mason

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    July 19, 2020 at 1:48 am

    Bravo, Clif! An astounding combination of clarity, passion, and intelligence. An unrivaled articulation, in my experience.

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