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Friday, April 24, 2020

Interview with Poet Clif Mason, pt 1 Beginnings & Influences

Knocking the Stars Senseless (Paperback)
Clif Mason is an English professor and a poet with four collections published. I reviewed his remarkable debut full-length collection, Knocking the Stars Senseless, here and here (part II of the review). Since then, we've been emailing back and forth the following extensive interview on the art, craft life and development of the poet.

This interview is (or will be) in four parts:

  1. Beginnings & Influences
  2. Process & Surrealism
  3. Technique & Progress
  4. Revision & the Future

When did you start writing?

I wrote a few decidedly juvenile pieces while in high school (including a wretched imitation of Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales), but it wasn’t until the summer after my freshman year in college when I became friends with a young poet. His name was Mark Porter, and he had been a member of the Classics honorary society, Eta Sigma Phi, into which I had recently been inducted. Until that summer, I hadn’t really gotten to know him very well. We both went to summer school and lived in the same dormitory complex. I learned that he was a devotee of Joan Baez, as well as many other folk singers and groups, and that he also loved opera and classical symphonic music. He introduced me to much music I had never heard before, and he shared with me his translations of Catullus, as well as his own poems. I was struck by their naturalness of tone and their beauty. His translations compare well, in my view, with those by well-known translators. The previous year, I had read widely in Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among other poets. I had been listening semi-obsessively to Bob Dylan for several years by then. I was struck by the surrealism of some of his imagery. The confluence of these influences and the encouragement and example of my friend (and now mentor) helped me realize by the end of that summer that I wanted be a poet. That is, I wanted to be in the world, thinking, feeling, and perceiving, as a poet—and expressing that existence through words.  

Which writers inspired you and what about them fired your imagination?
Their number is, of course, legion. However, if I had to limit myself to a handful, they would be Sappho, Shakespeare, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Plath, Lorca, Neruda, Merwin, and Clampitt. Sappho for her passion wed to her incomparable skill. Shakespeare for his vast ocean of original metaphor, delivered in a startling rhetoric that still leaves me speechless in admiration. Keats for his peerless lyricism and grace and for his sense of himself as an artist. Whitman for the breadth of his human compassion and for the robustness of his interest in the world around him, both the world of nature and of the city. Dickinson for the depth and genuineness of her (sometimes) melancholy and for her fearlessness in detailing it. Hopkins for the bold force of his poems’ sonic effects. Lorca for his tragic sense of life, expressed in a baroque language and surrealism that always leaves me in a state of wonderment. Neruda for his supremely fertile surrealism and for the depth of his imaginative involvement in the lives of the working class. Merwin for the stunning originality and power of his surrealism, delivered in the most simple and straightforward of language. Clampitt for the lush zest of her language and the precision of her knowledge of the natural world. I believe that, among contemporaries, she is the closest we have to Keats. Of course there are innumerable others I might mention—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Coleridge, Christina Rossetti, the Eliot of “Prufrock” and Four Quartets, Georg Trakl, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Paul Celan, Theodore Roethke, James Wright, A. R. Ammons, James Dickey, William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Rita Dove, Mary Ruefle, Matthew and Michael Dickman, Natasha Trethewey, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Ilya Kaminsky, Joan Houlihan, Nick Flynn, Diane Seuss, Jericho Brown, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ada Limon, Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, Tiana Clark, and Joseph Fasano are a few. And this is not even to mention the long list of the Nebraska poets—the late William Kloefkorn and Ted Kooser and an array of other exceptional living contemporaries. But I’ll leave it at my original list. 

Who are some of your mentors--in person or otherwise? What did you take away from them?

My college friend, whom I’ve already mentioned. Some of my English teachers, such as William and Dorothy Selz, Thomas Gasque, John R. Milton, Gervase Hittle, William Lemons, and Paul Pavich, from the University of South Dakota, and Linda Ray Pratt, Bernice Slote, Louis Crompton, Walter Wright, Elaine Jahner, Fran Kaye, Charles Stubblefield, and Paul Olson from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Each of them offered me an intense appreciation of particular writers or literary periods and helped deepen my commitment to literature as a way of both knowing and recreating the world and to criticism as a way of passionately experiencing literature in one’s nerves and synapses and of taking action in the world. I would be utterly remiss if I did not mention three other significant mentors from USD: Nancy Skeen, my philosophy teacher, who introduced me to the love of ideas and the desire to continually pursue the truth of things, even if that truth remains elusive; and Helen Fremstad and Frederick Manfred, my two creative writing teachers. Their approach was one of deep encouragement of what was best and fresh and distinctive in each of their students’ work, without imposing their own predilections. A writer who also studied with Manfred at the same time I did was the novelist Michael Doane, who primarily wrote poetry then. The well-known novelist Pete Dexter also studied with Manfred, as did my friend, Mark Porter.  

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