Matt Mason has run poetry workshops in Botswana, Romania, Nepal, and Belarus for the U.S. State Department and his poetry has appeared in The New York Times. Matt is the Nebraska State Poet and has received a Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Nebraska Arts Council. His work can be found on NPR’s Morning Edition, in American Life in Poetry, and in several hundred other publications. Mason’s 4th book, At the Corner of Fantasy and Main: Disneyland, Midlife and Churros, was released by The Old Mill Press in 2022. Find more at: https://matt.midverse.com/
You’ve served as Nebraska State Poet since 2019 and the position is a five-year appointment. How have your efforts as the Nebraska State Poet shifted, evolved, or surprised you despite the challenges surrounding the pandemic?
Well, yes, the main challenge is right there: the pandemic. My plan as State Poet has been to bring poetry events physically into all 93 of Nebraska’s counties. That seemed reasonable at first and then a bit impractical. Even so, I’m catching up and still have a shot before I’m done. During lockdowns, I shifted a lot of what I do to online appearances, which was okay but I definitely prefer being in a room with people to talk about poetry: it’s much more rewarding and effective, but you do what you can. I also made a major life shift by leaving my salaried nonprofit position to try and make my living as a writer and speaker. One year in, that plan is still going but I’m not sure how far, ultimately, it can go. So wish me luck…
Are you looking forward to a second term as Nebraska State Poet and how do you see the Poetry Pen Pal Program evolving into your second term, or beyond?
Right now, I actually feel that I might only serve one term. This position has been good for me in terms of exposure and I feel more Nebraska poets should benefit from it. And even if I’m not a CURRENT State Poet, I’ll always have been one and have that credibility, so I feel it will still help me as I’m not about to stop this kind of work which I’ve been doing since way before being named State Poet. The Poetry Pen Pal Program is one I’d love to continue, but it will need a new funding source. The program allowed me to go into communities around the state for a couple days with 2 other poets traveling with me, and it existed thanks to funding from the Academy of American Poets and the Mellon Foundation along with help from Humanities Nebraska, but it was part of a one-time fellowship.
How was it getting the opportunity to share the stage and have a conversation with U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón?
Oh, you know my answer: it was fantastic. It was my first time meeting Ada and she was nothing but wonderful. Add on to that how her event packed the Holland Center, a huge venue in Omaha. On this side of lockdowns, poetry audiences have struggled, so that was encouraging to see.
Since we published your poem “Mistranslating Neruda” back in the Fall of 2001 in vol. XXII no. 1, how has your relationship with submitting to literary magazines changed as your career has grown and evolved?
It’s really waxed and waned, mostly depending how organized I am in that particular month or year. I still do it about the same: getting poems out in bursts, then not sending anything out for stretches. One good thing now is that I get more requests from magazines to send them work in the first place. That’s a real honor (and the acceptance rate is a LOT higher that way as even State Poets still get plenty of rejections).
Your collections The Baby That Ate Cincinnati (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013), I Have a Poem the Size of the Moon (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2020), and At the Corner of Fantasy and Main: Disneyland, Midlife and Churros (The Old Mill Press, 2022) are all very focused on their respective themes: parenthood, Nebraska, and Disneyland. When you’re compiling a collection, do you approach it with themes in mind or do you discover those themes as the collection begins to take shape?
Yes, having a theme helps me organize the poems. My first book was much more scattered, but I still worked in a loose theme to help me select the poems and put them together. Those next three were much more centered and it helps me to work that way.
Will Rock Stars (Button Poetry, 2023) be a departure from such focused, themed collections?
Nope, it’s largely around the theme of “Rock Stars,” mainly with poems about 80s rockers, English Romantic poets, and others we might call a rock star.
You have had a fairly prolific few years having published three collections since 2020 and two back-to-back in 2022 and the forthcoming Rock Stars expected in September 2023. What effect does publishing so many collections so quickly have on your writing?
Actually, not a lot. For more than 30 years now, I’ve had a deadline to start at least one new poem each week, so I have a lot of poems. And when I type up the handwritten poems, I sort them into files based on themes, so books like Rock Stars and I Have a Poem the Size of the Moon have poems written over decades collected together in those folders. So I’m writing probably the same amount but I’m now benefiting from having more recognition as well as a large number of poems consistently written and worked on. It’s all in the poetry long game.
There was a gap between publishing your second full-length collection The Baby That Ate Cincinnati and your third full-length collection I Have a Poem the Size of the Moon. How did you spend the seven years between publishing those two manuscripts?
Like I said in the last question, the writing itself followed about the same schedule. In those years, though, I did a lot of poetry education work around the state with the Nebraska Arts Council, Humanities Nebraska and others as well as also seeing the nonprofit Nebraska Writers Collective, which I led until 2022, expand incredibly with the work it does in high schools, middle schools and correctional facilities. I also had a 2-week residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts where, instead of writing new poems, my focus was to gather poems into manuscript shape. That’s where I Have a Poem the Size of the Moon came into shape as well as parts of Rock Stars and at least 2 others I’m working on now.
Your poems seem to be rooted in Nebraska in some way or another, has that been a conscious decision of yours throughout your career or has Nebraska just been a place that lets itself in while you’re writing?
Sort of, I tend to write about what’s around me, so Nebraska is what I tend to be swimming in. Even the Disneyland book has a good deal of Nebraska in it!
What advice might you have for emerging poets?
Let yourself reinvent what a poem is. Don’t worry too much about what you’ve been told poetry is supposed to be, let yourself write the poems you wish you read more of in classes or on your own (even if you’re not sure if those are even poems or not).
––Tyler Michael Jacobs, Mid-American Review