Matt Mason has won a Pushcart Prize and two Nebraska Book Awards; was a Finalist for the position of Nebraska State Poet; organized and run poetry programming with the U.S. Department of State in Nepal, Romania, Botswana, and Belarus; and been on six teams at the National Poetry Slam. He has over 200 publications in magazines and anthologies, including Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry and on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’ Almanac. He is executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective and is consultant for the Nebraska Arts Council with Nebraska’s Poetry Out Loud program. His most recent book, The Baby That Ate Cincinnati, was released in 2013. Matt lives in Omaha with his wife, the poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, and daughters Sophia and Lucia.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you regard yourself as a writer?
Matt Mason: The closest would be when I was accepted to UC Davis’ Creative Writing MA program. It was a first, big, “Somebody who’s supposed to know these things says I’m a writer.” It’s hard as I have great respect for many writer heroes, so it’s somewhat odd for me to put myself in the category of “writer” when I still feel I have a ways to go and so much to learn.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard writing as a real profession?
Matt Mason: Definitely. It is a profession. It is not so much a job as few make their living just from the essential part of it. But it’s a profession I’ve really put my life into and feel grateful for.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your main specialty: poetry or short stories or fiction or non-fiction?
Matt Mason: It’s all poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: You have over 200 publications in magazines and anthologies. Could you bet on any one of your pieces as the best ever?
Matt Mason: The best ever would be “Notes For My Daughter Against Chasing Storms” which made it into Pushcart Prize XXXVII (in 2013). It was a shock to hear my work had made it through thousands of submissions to get published there. I felt ridiculously honored.
Geosi Gyasi: Last year, you were in Romania for a State Department Poetry Program. Do you mind telling me some of the activities you engaged in?
Matt Mason: I spent two weeks there running a program for the U.S. Embassy teaching poetry writing and performance. We did a few 2-day programs in Craiova and Drobeta Turnu Severin where high school students worked toward holding a poetry slam. I also did talks and lessons in Bucharest. It was fun teaching poetry in a way which many of them hadn’t approached it before, adding delivery as an important part to understanding the poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you have any specific message to convey to readers when you wrote, “Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know”?
Matt Mason: Yes, the manuscript came together as a love story. A meandering, odd kind of love story, but all about the journey.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve run poetry programs for state universities and libraries in places including Gaborone, Botswana. Do you mind telling me about your experience in Botswana and what specifically you did there?
Matt Mason: This was another State Department program which centered on poetry slam. I was put in charge and asked to put a 3-poet crew together. I picked Dasha Kelly and Danny Solis, two poets I met through poetry slam and know to be strong writers and amazing community organizers. So this program’s focus was putting on a poetry slam at the end, but it was more about teaching writing and talking about organizing poets and poetry events to see more happen locally. Botswana was fantastic, we knew we were going to have a blast when we walked into the first classroom of college students and they were already wandering the room saying poems out loud, showing a real love for both the writing and the delivery.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you to write?
Matt Mason: I believe in any given day there are a number of moments which make you react bodily… by laughing, recoiling, raising an eyebrow, etc. These moments are kind of the moments of poems which, if we’re not looking for something to write a poem about, often dissipate a few minutes later. Right now, much of this comes from having two daughters, they’re the reason I have a second book (The Baby That Ate Cincinnati).
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family care about your writing?
Matt Mason: Yes, my wife is also a writer (Sarah McKinstry-Brown, winner of 2 Nebraska Book Awards). And my daughters both like showing up in my poems, to a certain extent.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best place for the writer to write?
Matt Mason: For me, it’s most anywhere. I hate to admit, but I write a lot in fast food restaurants. Those are the spots I tend to be by myself, with some time, so it’s kind of a few moments of peace. Though I don’t need all that much peace as I wrote my last week’s poem at the side of the room during a 2nd grader’s birthday party. After that, though, it gets complicated, as I need more specific peace to do the editing and revising. For that, being home alone is the best.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you consider as good writing?
Matt Mason: Writing that enlightens you and makes you feel something. I love, for example, a funny poem that also hits you in the heart at some point. Or a poem about something I’ve never experienced which brings it to life so well I feel as if I’m standing next to the poet as a scene unfolds. Poems like Bill Kloefkorn’s “Out and Down Pattern” or Natasha Threthewey’s “Domestic Work, 1937.”
Geosi Gyasi: Does one require special skill to teach poetry?
Matt Mason: Yes. Poetry, in America (and in all of the countries I’ve been to to teach poetry) is often taught in a way which rips the life from it, leaving a husk of vocabulary terms which students are pressured into saying they appreciate. I think teaching poetry well takes finding love of poems and letting that love show as you speak about it. It requires a lot of the teacher as they have to find the poems they love and appreciate so they can pass that on to their students.
Geosi Gyasi: Having won two Nebraska Book Awards and the 2013 Pushcart Prize, do you think prizes matter at all in the career of the writer?
Matt Mason: It certainly helps. Having those on my resume has opened doors which wouldn’t have otherwise. I feel the Nebraska Book Awards helped me get that first State Department job in Belarus as it showed my poetry skills were diverse in that I had a solid resume in both publishing and also in poetry slam, something not too many people had at that time.
Geosi Gyasi: Which writers of the past do you really admire?
Matt Mason: How long do you have? Let me just list the first ten who pop into my head: John Keats, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Dorothy Parker, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, and Bill Kloefkorn.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you revise as you write?
Matt Mason: Somewhat. I tend to write hurried first drafts with a small amount of revision as I go. The real revision comes a day or a week or three years later as I work on the poem more, move it from handwriting to type, etc.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that most writers need complete privacy to be able to produce great works?
Matt Mason: Maybe. I don’t need privacy so much when I draft a poem. After that, though, I definitely need it. My best revision requires time and space to myself. I’m amazed, though, at how different writers have radically different styles, so I’m sure someone out there doesn’t need privacy. Somewhere. Maybe.
Geosi Gyasi: How much time do you put into your writing?
Matt Mason: It depends on the year. Right now is hard as my work for the Nebraska Writers Collective nonprofit consumes my time as well as my mental energy. I still make myself start a new poem every week, as I’ve done for years now, but I’m far behind on editing these into 2nd, 3rd, 4th drafts, and getting manuscripts together, getting poems sent out to magazines.
Geosi Gyasi: How much of your travels do you put into your writing?
Matt Mason: A lot. I write about what’s around me and catches my interest or curiosity, and travel is full of that.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you define a great writer?
Matt Mason: Someone who continues to do noteworthy, original work over a span of time and who inspires others to read and to write.
Geosi Gyasi: You serve as the Executive Director of Nebraska Writers Collective. What is it all about?
Matt Mason: Good question. A lot. I started 7 years ago when it was a small thing, kind of a hobby. It’s since moved into a medium-sized nonprofit which gives part-time work to over 40 artists doing long-term writing projects in over 45 junior high schools and high schools as well as 3 prisons and a program for local professionals.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you sometimes regret being a writer?
Matt Mason: Never. Sure, the career path is pretty much unpaved, sometimes more overgrown-jungle than path, but it’s beautiful and I’m lucky to be on it.