Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Poetry Off the Grid

David Mason is the presenter for the WyoPoets Spring Workshop coming up April 28-29 in Buffalo, Wyo. We invited David to share some of his thoughts so you could get to know him a little better in advance.

By David Mason

The best poet I know is an Australian. You probably won’t know her name or even her pen name, but she is a rare thing—a poet steeped in tradition without being enslaved to it, a poet who pushes through to new insight and writes breathtaking lines. Here is a tiny poem of hers I have never been able to forget:

August Moon 
Grey- faced as worlds
flow fast away,
for worlds are done
with every day
for minds hot-wired
to the sun,

her news is blue,
her borrowed light
softens the truth.
The truth is night.

You can’t just read this poem. You have to re-read it, because in the history of literature no one ever said “The truth is night” before. How is it meant? Clearly, it is meant in many different ways, including the astronomical truth that, viewed from a distance, our blue planet is surrounded by an absence of light. Now read the poem again, one line at a time, and see how facets of meaning turn as you move down through it. The poem is utterly simple and utterly profound, like the best short lyrics of William Blake or Emily Dickinson. And it is easy to get by heart. It is unforgettable, which makes it counter-cultural—most contemporary writing just won’t stick in the mind.

Now I must confess that it might be unseemly for me to praise this poem, because I am married to its author. Her name is Chrissy Mason—pen name Cally Conan-Davies. But this poet is 56 years old and has lived off the grid all her life. She has no system of support in America, no MFA, no cadre of doting professors. She is an original in the best sense of the word. She tutored students in Australia, co-founded a school called “Lit for Life” in which people from all backgrounds could read and study the best literature from Shakespeare to James Joyce and relate it to their own lives. She never wrote poetry until her late 40s.

I hope you will feel heartened by Cally Conan-Davies. Remember her when you look in the literary quarterlies and see that every poet is from an MFA program and has some academic connection in America. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, though I don’t have an MFA myself. I got an old-fashioned scholarly PhD because I’d worked a decade as a gardener and odd-job man and wanted to teach, and was told I couldn’t get a teaching job without a degree. I wrote a dissertation on W. H. Auden, and haven’t looked at it since. In fact, I even mailed my PhD diploma to a friend and signed it over to him with a Sharpie. I’ve got the job—he can have the sheepskin.

My disagreement with the MFA phenomenon—which, after all, has also given us a lot of great writers—is only that it creates tight social cadres of people who seem to write for each other, edit each other, support each other, and I’d like them to connect to a broader world. Poetry shouldn’t be published just to further the career of the poet, but should offer moments of indelible language for any intelligent reader seeking it. Poetry should help us live our lives.

We all need systems of support, don’t we? There may be a few saints who produced poetry in isolation, but even Emily Dickinson wrote to an editor, wanting to know if she was any good. We all seek community when we need it. I’m simply saying that our communities can’t guarantee our writing will be good. We have to stay humble and hungry and keep trying to write unforgettable poems. That means having examples of what we think good poems are. That means reading all we can, however we can find it.

I’ve now taught literature and writing for 25 years, but I’ve been trying to write for more than forty. And I mean trying. One never masters this craft. Every new poem, story, book review or essay is a new attempt—a new “raid on the inarticulate,” as T. S. Eliot put it. If I wrote a good poem last, week, that doesn’t mean I’ll write a good one today. It’s the trying that gives meaning to my days, even a kind of intoxicating delight.

So here’s a poem of mine—perhaps not typical of my efforts, but one that seems to have pleased others. All I know is that the writing of it scared me. I didn’t think it had the polish and literary style of real poetry, so I was afraid to show it to others. Turns out I needn’t have been afraid at all:

Fathers and Sons 
Some things, they say,
one should not write about. I tried
to help my father comprehend
the toilet, how one needs
to undo one’s belt, to slide
one’s trousers down and sit,
but he stubbornly stood
and would not bend his knees. 
I tried again
to bend him toward the seat,
and then I laughed
at the absurdity. Fathers and sons.
How he had wiped my bottom
half a century ago, and how
I would repay the favor
if only he would sit. 
Don’t you
he gripped me, trembling, searching for my eyes.
Don’t you—but the word
was lost to him. Somewhere
a man of dignity would not be laughed at.
He could not see
it was only the crazy dance
that made me laugh,
trying to make him sit
when he wanted to stand.

Writing this poem took me off the grid, you might say. It took me to a place that was real, and that’s what I have tried to do in many different kinds of poems, from sonnets to longer narratives.

If you come to our workshop in April, we’ll collaborate in a community devoted to finding the real subjects for poems—and trying to find the best words for them too.


David Mason’s books of poems include The Buried Houses, The Country I Remember, and Arrivals. His verse novel, Ludlow, was published in 2007, and named best poetry book of the year by the Contemporary Poetry Review and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. His books also include essay and memoir, and he has co-edited several textbooks and anthologies. In 2014 and 2015 Mason published two new poetry collections: Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade and Davey McGravy: Tales to Be Read Aloud to Children and Adult Children. His next book, The Sound: New and Selected Poems, will appear in 2018. A former Fulbright Fellow to Greece, Mason served as Poet Laureate of Colorado from 2010 to 2014, and teaches at Colorado College. You can learn more from David by registering for the 2017 WyoPoets Spring Workshop in Buffalo, Wyo., April 28-29.


  1. Thank you, David, for this wonderful, thoughtful essay. It echoes what another fine poet, Ted Kooser, told me years ago, that we should be writing for people who want and need the joy of poetry in their lives, not for academics trying to out-obfuscate each other. "I love August Moon." It gets better with each reading. I love the phrase "minds hot-wired / to the sun." Could also mean hot-wired to their phones/tablets.

    And I think that last year some time, I wrote to you of the joy of reading "Fathers' and Sons' in Sea Salt. I look forward to the workshop in buffalo. Again, thanks for this wonderful and encouraging essay.

  2. "We have to stay humble and hungry and keep trying to write..." That about sums it up, doesn't it? And I share in your assessment of writing as "intoxicating delight." Sometimes I forget about that--and I appreciate the reminder. Think I'll go have a swig of it :-)

  3. Thank you for the inspiration!! Everything "off the grid" appeals to me, but never until I read this have I thought of writing in a way that is off the grid. Makes perfect sense.

  4. Thanks to all for these welcome comments. I look forward to meeting everyone!

  5. My father died from dementia, and I remember you had to laugh sometimes in order to survive.


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