David Mason's Blog
October 14, 2013The Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago and home to one of America's best magazines, Poetry, has a superb website packed full of resources for poets and readers of poetry. Below you will find a link to a large number of Latino / Latina American poets.
September 24, 2013
AT THE SIGHT OF THE WATERS
by Cally Conan-Davies
(An Australian in Colorado relives . . .)
Bring your pillow, what comfort you can carry,
when you evacuate. You wont be home
any time soon.
Revise your estimate. You will be caught
in a matter of minutes.
Pontoons and yachts are breaking from their moorings,
mangled hulls are hurtling downstream,
battering at the bridges.
Although we sunk our sandbags in the heart
of city streets, and braced against the waters,
the city’s pride— its cafes, party-barges—
powers down the river to destroy us.
The river is collecting all our junk,
rushing away with bathtubs and backyards,
broom-handles, buckets, pots and picnic benches.
Things become missiles when they’re in the flow.
Never cry for what can’t cry for you.
Bury the thought of what waters might unearth;
forget what you’ll recall—
stench, stains, stuff you never thought
would have to be replaced; and despite all
the waters everywhere, we must preserve
our water from the waters.
Find high ground because you cannot know
what lurks inside the waters – snakes, car doors, bodies
wrapped in tarps and blue pool-linings.
Below, backwater bubbles up through drains;
disease will come this way. Sever everything
you thought you knew of water, except for this:
when all revising up and down is done,
and levels finally marked, and mess is cleared,
and rivers shrink from us, and we look back
to praise the volunteers, think of the dead,
and honor the man who held a woman’s son
when the line holding her in his other hand went slack,
we’ll only know how far this flood has spread
when boy and man (see his eyes! how wild the water!)
drown again in the dream where he had caught her.
Cally Conan-Davies taught and practiced bibliotherapy in Melbourne, Australia before moving to the United States in 2012. Her poems have appeared, and are forthcoming, in Poetry, The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Raintown Review, The Sewanee Review and The Southwest Review, among others. She lives in both Colorado and Oregon with her husband David Mason, Colorado's Poet Laureate.
Teaching Poetry Through Art: Notes on the Ekphrastic
October 4, 2012
These notes were originally written for a webinar on art and poetry sponsored by the Denver Art Museum. I post them here in case they can be of use to anyone else.
1. Museum Going
Each year I take my Colorado College students into the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. I do this for a number of reasons, not least because I think writers need to get out of the classroom when they can. I ask my students to spend a couple of hours wandering the galleries until they find a work that interests them. I want them to spend a long time looking at that work, describing it in their notebooks, paying attention to it and all the information they can glean—name and period of the artist, materials used, etc.
I want them to see the work close up and far away, in changing light if that is applicable.
And I want them to respond in verse to what they see (or in some cases touch, smell, hear, etc.).
Occasionally I get a good poem myself from this exercise. Here is one based on Arthur Dove's little painting, Fog Horns:
Notice that I never really refer to the painting itself, though a friend once guessed which painting I had in mind. This is one approach to the ekphrastic: using works of art as a launching pad for imaginative writing of our own. In this case I found myself writing rhymed syllabic verse and remembering my own experience growing up near the sea in Washington State.
This year it was folk art of the American Southwest that arrested my attention, and I surprised myself by writing a sonnet:
THE WOODEN EFFIGIES
Enter the room of the anonymous.
So many painted Christs with arms flung wide
float on the walls, each with a gaping side
you could wind a fist in. Blood has turned to rust.
A Christ as blue as Krishna hangs his head,
perhaps to catch a distant chord, or die
in choirless adobe under chalky sky,
a penitential image of the Good.
Dry sticks for bones, her carved ungainly hands
pulling an arrow in her bow, La Muerte
en su Carreta leans to apprehend
and never miss her targets. Buena suerte!
Found object of a desiccating land—
real human hair glued to her whittled pate.
Again, there is an effort on my part not to anchor the poem exclusively in the museum exhibit. In fact, I even lie, since the artist of La Muerte en su Carreta is not among the anonymous carvers in the gallery, but is known to be Nasario López (1821-1891).
Some of my students reacted to photographs of depression-era America. Here is part of a poem alluding to Woodie Guthrie:
This land is your land,
says the old Indian crone
whose bottomless eyes could tell you
of a home, surrender, and a vanishing.
This land is my land,
says the migrant mother with seven children,
looking over California's green promise
broken in the dust.
Another student responded to photographs by Robert Frank with more personal associations:
the boy who says he's in love with me
wants to take photographs just like you.
he wants me to stand in front of the lens
and look like a girl he is in love with,
berry mouth gripping her face, eyes hardened
from siren sand, the face of the girl
who will take him back to 1954 so he can meet
you and tell you how he buys her vanilla milkshakes
and she repays him in crooked smiles.
I am not quoting whole poems here because they are new and the students may wish to revise. But these are examples of a freedom of association that can take place in a museum—even touring a museum on line.
Essentially, one looks at art (or listens, smells, etc.) the way one looks at life—except the art is more apparently composed, so our focus collaborates with the focus of the artist. The ekphrastic tradition can educate our looking.
2. The Ekphrastic Tradition
So much has been written about this. The following website is a useful place to begin:
And this one is contained within:
Here are some questions you might consider when studying ekphrastic poems:
1. What medium is employed by the artist at hand (what sort of paint, sculpture, photography, etc.), and what role does that medium play in your reaction to the work of art?
2. What do you know about the context of the work—the artist's life, period, intentions—and does that have any impact on your reaction to the work?
3. Does the work at hand remind you of any other works of art?
4. Does the work at hand send you into associations about your own life? Or about the lives of others? Or issues you want to write about?
Lately I have been perusing Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art, edited by Tonya Foster and Kristen Prevallet (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2002). I find it a useful book with examples from and anecdotes about students of all ages.
Since the Denver Art Museum possesses a lovely work by Monet—Le Bassin des Nympheas—that recalls his famous waterlilly series, it might be useful to look at Robert Hayden's poem, "Monet's Waterlillies," collected in Third Mind:
for Bill and Sonja
Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene great picture that I love.
Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in irridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.
O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is an aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.
This poem moves me deeply, and not just because I am a child of the sixties and understand how art became a refuge in that decade. And also not just becasue I know a bit about Robert Hayden (1913-1980) and his personal struggles and triumphs. The poem moves me partly by not being about the painting at all, but about its effect upon us, and about the differences between life and art as well as what life and art share.
Great ekphrastic poems like this one and Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are often about that very dialectic, that irreducible relationship which is at the heart of why we write, paint, dance, sing, sculpt. At the same time we are admitting to and wrestling with our mortality, our very being and our nothingness.
If you go back to the first website cited above and find some poems and songs next to the reproductions of famous paintings, you will notice a more explicit relationship of poem to painting. Actually seeing the painting, having an image of it in front of you, makes the poem more comprehensible and becomes part of the conversation.
I'm rather partial to poems that do not need to refer to the work of art that engendered them, but that's just a personal preference.
3. Some Exercises
Since I am not the product of a creative writing program myself, I feel terribly inadequate as an assigner of exercises, and always steal everything I can from others: my colleagues at Colorado College, our guest faculty, and some of the many books on the market. It's a strange thing that so much of one's writing life can have nothing whatsoever to do with such assignments, yet they are useful teaching tools and often produce wonderful poems.
So I asked my students to give me ideas. What should we ask young people to do when they go into a museum or persue its collection on line? Here are some answers:
1. Have everyone in a class be required to write about the same work of art, so you can see multiple approaches, multiple points of view (I haven't tried this one yet).
2. Ask students to focus only on color in the work of art. To write about color alone. Dorianne Laux's beautiful poem "Ode to Gray" might prove a useful teaching tool in this case, though I do not read it as an ekphrastic poem.
3. Ask students to focus on subject matter in the poem. What is the work of art about?
4. Ask students to create a narrative. I can imagine lots of representational works of art that would be conducive to story. Perhaps abstract works could be as well.
5. Simply ask them to "tell me what you see," to be as accurate and fresh in their descriptions as possible, and to see if meaning doesn't come just from looking. See Elizabeth Bishop's "Poem" in her collection Geography III, for an interesting example: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/poem-2/
4. Winslow Homer's Two Figures By The Sea
Here is a painting I found in the Denver Art Museum collection on line:
You might have to scroll a bit to find it.
Now, I am going to insert a poem I wrote in my head while taking a shower. But before I do that, let's look at the painting and talk about it in relation to questions we have been asking in this series of notes.
[Here we open up to conversation about Homer and how we might approach writing about the painting—we can try writing about it together or separately]
Now that we have had this conversation and perhaps listened to your own responses to the work, here is what I wrote this morning in a motel room in Carbondale:
Gray of the clouds, gray of the sea, the beach,
gray of the women walking, facing the sea.
For some that openness begets a liminal fear,
for others the stuff of life when death is near.
Follow their wind-blown dresses, their tattered hair,
and find yourself on the edge of the breakers there,
there, where the sea has always measured time,
and life and death leap up in the stinging brine.
One thing you might notice is that I'm pretty inaccurate about the painting. That's because I wasn't actually looking at it when I wrote—I was remembering it, and thinking of associations from my own life.
That seems to me a perfectly legitimate way of approaching the ekphrastic, though it might not be the way you like.
Art requires discipline, of course, but the goal is freedom.
After The Last Shot By David Mason
August 2, 2012
So much goes by unseen: the parking lots,
the passing cars, the brick apartment blocks
and faces masked in shade or turned away.
How many faces did you see today?
After the last shot one face will appear
and then another--Here I am. I'm here--
but others are not there. Not anywhere.
Still you see them. See, they begin to blur,
a recurring nightmare jolting you awake.
You try to drown it in the TV talk
or take a walk where sad arroyos run
in waterless confusion through the land.
The Fires: A Poem By David Mason
July 8, 2012The American poet Ezra Pound once said poetry is "News that stays news," but in truth the art is not always adept at keeping pace with the rapidity of current events. It is made for the long haul. Still, I felt I should try to say what I could about the fires devouring so much of our state at this time. I dedicate the poem to those on the front lines of the fight.
Here is a house, here is a neighborhood.
Here is a street, a door, a window, a room.
Here is a drought, here a beetled pine.
Here is a wildfire leaping from limb to roof.
There is a law of lightning, law of wood.
There is a need to burn, to lose, to grow.
There is the charred scar, there the flying ash.
To dwell is not to shelter, we should know.
Here are the people packing their cars to flee.
Here are the photos in frames, the pets on leashes.
Here are the children bewildered, coughing smoke.
Here are the firemen climbing the hills in the heat.
We are the street, we are the neighborhood.
We are the garden living and dying to bloom.
We are the parched yards, we are the trembling deer.
We are the long walk looking to find our home.
The Audience for Poetry By David Mason
November 7, 2011A dear friend has said to me, "Things of no consequence are the only things that matter." Amen to that.
When you consider all the activities we usually think consequential--what Wordsworth called "getting and spending," for example--you can see her point. How often we spend our best energies on activities that do not sustain us fully. We persist in this despite a growing disappointment in ourselves for doing so. Poets have often told us we must change our lives, but we plod along like sheep in the weather we call reality.
"Things of no consequence are the only things that matter." I thought of this gentle provocation when trying to understand "the audience for poetry." My title is absurd in a way, but it arises from questions I am asked by such audiences wherever I travel. Is poetry an activity of no consequence, and is that perhaps why it matters?
I deal in semantics here. What is meant by consequence? In most cases poetry does not earn significant money, does not put food on the table or shoes on the shoemaker's children, does not end wars or chasten bankers, lend virtue to senators or dissolve the egos of the powerful or give backbone to the weak. It does not save failed marriages or provide clean water to distant villages or cure diseases. Poetry does not prevent our dying.
So to some it is an act of inconsequence, yet to my friend it is supremely worth doing. And to me, I should add. It is my privilege to live every day of my life in the company of great words, and to attempt to write some words of my own, though ownership of said words becomes moot, ultimately, because words are common property.
We reach for poetry when we desire articulateness, and we discover that it has always surrounded us. Poetry is there in the phrases of Shakepseare that have permanently entered our daily language. It is there in our best popular music and our best classical songs and opera. And it is there in our television shows and movies--quoted more often that you might realize to give moments of resonance or well-timed comedy to the scripts. Issues of copyright and compensation aside, poetry is essentially our common property because it is made of our common words used uncommonly well.
So what is the audience for poetry? Across Colorado I have met with audiences large and small--sometimes a few people who might have stepped into a library to get out of the cold, sometimes a few hundred people. In one county I recently held three separate events, netting a grand total of thirteen people for the day's work. To four women and a camerman I gave a lecture, for another four women and a man I conducted a workshop devoted to writing in lines. And that evening I sat knee to knee with a librarian, her husband and one other person, reading poems aloud. I can tell you truly, it is easier to read to three hundred people than to three, but the audience of three is every bit as rewarding. They were attentive, engaged, provocative--in a word, human--and I left that library with a feeling of consequence.
Poetry ceremonializes our lives in language. It creates moments of awareness, of presentness, and as such it is as consequential as anything we do.
The critic Harold Bloom has referred to "deep reading" as "the search for a diffcult pleasure." Mind you, I do not believe poetry is always difficult. It can be written and read on so many levels, in so many ways, and the difficulty it presents us is often a playful one, a pleasure. Real listening, real conversation, might lead to the same thing.
As an expression of the whole person, even a way of educating the whole person, good poetry is among the most consequential of human activities--like music and the other arts, like sport, like a well cooked meal. It's the rest of life that wastes our time.
And the audience for poetry is anyone who wants to stop wasting time, who wants to find articulateness in the little time we have.
Poetry and Grief By David Mason
24 September 2011Well, I did say I would be an infrequent and improbable blogger. Now you know I’m a man of my word—at least in some senses of that phrase, if not all. Since writing my first blog as Colorado Poet Laureate, I have undergone a major change of life in addition to losing my mother over the summer. I won’t go into these matters in detail, but I will say that a refining fire has burned me and others I love, and we have come out changed.
These experiences have caused me to think more about poetry and grief. First, I am thinking about poets who have worked as doctors, not only William Carlos Williams, but also contemporaries like Rafael Campo and Amit Majmudar. There are anthologies of poetry about Alzheimer’s Disease, or mental illness, or cancer, or AIDS. So there are many ways in which we associate poetry and healing. In fact, ancient Greek hospital complexes were always located next to theatres where verse dramas would have been performed. You could say this was only to entertain the sick, but I also suspect that the experience of great poetry and great dramatic spectacle involving the relationships of men and gods was thought to have a transforming power, perhaps even a healing power. Theatre is in this sense a refining fire we suffer as a community, and verse drama adds the charge of great language to the experience.
Does poetry heal? I’m not sure. Medical experiments have noted a connection between the performance of poetry and the health of the heart, as if the beating of one were connected to the beating of the other. Yet I remain skeptical. Healing is itself such a complex matter, depending on all sorts of emotional, psychological and physiological circumstances. Still, in times of need we so frequently reach for the articulateness afforded us by poetry. We want something well said, and we cling to lines and phrases for the understanding or solace or clarity they offer. Robert Frost called poetry “a momentary stay against confusion,” and sometimes that is enough to help us get through the refining fire.
The following poem, by the great Australian cartoonist, poet and philosopher, Michael Leunig, has been a help to me in recent months:
When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken
Do not clutch it
Let the wound lie open
Let the wind
From the dear old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt
And let it sting
Let a stray dog lick it
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell
And let it ring
I don’t mind telling you there have been a lot of tears. “No tears in the writer,” Frost reminds us, “no tears in the reader.” And it is not only my own tears that concern me, but the tears of others, and my culpability in such things. Grief is an experience we share as much as we share the rhythm of wind in the trees, the light in a window, the intense journeys of our dreams.
Living in Colorado, I have recourse to the mountains to deal with my grief. I like to climb and hike, to live outdoors as much as I can. In August, I joined the Fort Collins television reporter Major King and several friends on a hike to find the oldest bristlecone pine in the Rocky Mountains—the tree had been identified and tagged, but its location, which I will not divulge—was still a bit of a mystery. Well, we found the tree, and the tree taught me some things I ended up writing about:
If wind were wood it might resemble this
fragility and strength, old bark bleeding amber.
Its living parts grow on away from the dead
as we do in our lesser lives. Endurance,
yes, but also a scarred and twisted beauty
we know the way we know our own carved hearts.
In the coming months, as I return to my schedule of touring the state, speaking in libraries and schools and other institutions, joining other Colorado poets on the road, I’ll continue to think about poetry and community, poetry and healing, poetry and grief. I’ll also think about poetry and sport, poetry and the mountains, poetry and farms or cities, and I will try to bring more examples to this blog—perhaps a bit less infrequently than I have done so far. I would like to encourage readers and writers around the state to add their own poems, or poems they have grown to love in the comment section of this blog, and maybe something surprising and enduring will grow from that.
An Infrequent and Improbable Blogger By David Mason
22 March 2011
If people told me a year ago I would be attempting to blog (which my computer does not recognize as a legitimate verb), I would have told them they were crazy. My life was full enough with teaching at Colorado College and a range of freelance writing work, readings, etc. And if anyone had told me I would be appointed Poet Laureate of Colorado I would have shaken my head, having completely forgotten that the nomination process was still going forward. Well, here I am, a technophobic Laureate helped by the fine people at Colorado Humanities, putting words to the air or the ether or the blogosphere, or whatever you call the space these words will enter-improbably and infrequently.
Last June I was in Greece when I received word that Governor Bill Ritter had appointed me PL, and not long after I met this gracious, energetic man and his wife Jeannie at a small ceremony on the capital steps in Denver (where, among other things, he recited lines of Thomas Hornsby Ferril to me from memory). With us were out-going PL Mary Crow, who had served for 16 years, and a handful of the hard-working people who encourage the arts in our state, including Elaine Mariner of Colorado Creative Industries and Maggie Coval of Colorado Humanities. The new idea is that the PL should serve in four year terms, and I have agreed to serve ONE of those terms, letting someone else revive the post when I am done wearing myself out in it. I was amused to see some wag on a website complaining about my appointment, saying in effect Just what we need, another six-figure government bureaucrat. Well, just to be clear, I'm keeping my day job, as all previous Poets Laureate in Colorado have done, and in four years will probably break even in the post.
Yet the privilege is mine. Simply by tapping me with this magic wand, Governor Ritter gave me the excuse to go and find out where I live. I have promised to visit all 64 counties in our state, doing what I can especially to bring poetry and poets to schools and libraries. By next October-something I will have been in thirty or more counties-so the first fifteen months will have moved at a frenetic pace. Where possible, my hope is to be joined by other Colorado poets on the road, spotlighting not just our own work, but also the work of poets of multiple backgrounds and modes.
Think of it. How many of us ever really get a chance to poke around every corner of the state in which we live? I'm off to a good start, and have already learned so much about people and places. I've done library gigs in Salida, Nederland, Fairplay, Basalt and Vail, visited a correctional institution for teenagers in Greeley (joined by my old friend Bob King), and have visited all grade levels in schools in Evergreen, Colorado Springs, Longmont and other communities. I've been on hand for the opening of the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore in Boulder, joined poets for gang readings in a Greeley movie theater, a Trinidad museum, a Colorado College auditorium. I've done readings and talks for the new low-residency MFA program in Gunnison, co-directed by David Rothman and Mark Todd. I read a poem at the opening of the Senate in January, invited there by Speaker John Morse, then had lunch with a friend who introduced me to Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs. Justice Hobbs is a poet, and I very much hope he will be joining me on the road at some future date. He and I also judged the River of Words competition for young poets, and will be at their awards ceremony in April. And I have had the pleasure of hosting the state finals for Poetry Out-Loud, a program sponsored by the NEA and the Poetry Foundation. As someone who has always used memorization and performance as teaching techniques in poetry classes, this program remains dear to my heart. And this year's winner, an immigrant from Ghana named Samuel Opoku, is sure to impress them at Nationals in Washington DC.
I have met people of every political stripe and have learned I cannot guess a person's politics by his or her appearance-a valuable lesson, I must say. And there is more activity, much more of it, ahead-I'm booked through October and have a number of promised visits still to be scheduled.
Yet there is obviously more to be done. As much as I love racing around the state, meeting people and performing poetry, I would like after four years to leave some structures behind that might be of use to future laureates. I will collaborate with friends who want to get a collected Thomas Hornsby Ferril back in print, and with others who would like to see an anthology of Latino/Latina poetry made available to the schools. I'll join with Pikes Peak Poet Laureate Jim Ciletti in his prison work and other projects, and I am open to any good ideas that come my way-as long as people understand that I still have a day job and have to schedule my life carefully and well in advance. My freelance writing life, including collaborations with composer Lori Laitman, is also not slowing down.
While on the road, I have been honing a talk I'm calling "Poetry and the Public," which might eventually become an essay I could publish and then post here. If I get time, I'd like to make syllabi and teaching notes available here, so this website could continue to be a resource for teachers at all grade levels. And I'd like to think of a way to initiate conversation at this site about poetry in all its varieties. We can post links to readings and performances when possible.
All I ask is your forbearance when I am slow to get to postings because the rest of life is crowding me. And here is one more request:
If you can help me get the word out to underserved counties in the state that I am willing to come to their schools and libraries, I will be very grateful.
Enough for now. It will take me a while to get back here. Until then, Happy Trails.