Matt Mason is the author of At the Corner of Fantasy and Main: Disneyland, Midlife and Churros (The Old Mill Press, 2022). Mason is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and two Nebraska Book Awards. He lives in Omaha, and serves as the Nebraska State Poet. In 2022, Mason received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship to create the Nebraska Poetry Pen Pal Program, which will bring poetry and poets into rural Nebraska county schools, libraries, correctional facilities, cultural centers, reservations, museums, and other parts of Nebraska’s varied communities.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Nebraska, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in the state have?
Matt Mason: I would love to see Nebraska poets get more recognition. Around the state, we have poets like Neil Harrison, Stacey Waite, Deb Carpenter-Nolting, JV Brummels, Zedeka Poindexter, Sarah McKinstry-Brown, Gina Tranisi, and on and on (not to mention Ted Kooser and Kwame Dawes). When I go into schools and colleges in Nebraska, the writing done by students here is electric; there is something special happening here that I think demands to be more widely seen.
As for the support for future state poets, I hope they get more support to do the job effectively. Agencies like the Nebraska Arts Council and Humanities Nebraska make a tremendous difference in making funding available for schools and communities to bring me in, and that’s a great start. But I’d love to see this position also have a salary or stipend of some sort. I left my full time job last summer to see if I could make my living as a poet and a speaker, something there’s no good road map for here. Anything else which could help make this more likely, even a small cushion, would go a long way in expanding what a state poet can do for Nebraska. (That said, thank you, Academy of American Poets, your laureate fellowship is giving me the time I need to try and figure this all out!)
Poets.org: How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?
MM: That’s a hard question for me to answer. I write mainly for myself, as a way to examine my own emotions and figure out the world around me. I would be writing poetry whether I was known or published because it helps me live a better life. Being named state poet does force me to try harder to act as an advocate for poetry and poets and the arts. As the old Spider-Man adage goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” So I need to use this position to shed light on other writers, and to show how writing poetry benefits us all.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
MM: Poetry is the answer to that Socratic statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” because what’s at the heart of poetry is examination of life. There is a reason that poetry and the arts have existed for as long as human culture has: they add to our existence by shining a light on all aspects of who we are and what we feel, so poetry itself is one of the very real foundations of community. Granted, many communities ignore their poets and, instead, shower their riches on college football coaches and the like, but I like to imagine a world where the voices of our poets ring out more loudly. That alone doesn’t mean there will be nothing but success. There are countries like Belarus and Turkmenistan with grand statues of poets, parks, and museums named for poets, but no actual regard for what these poets stood for in relation to how the countries are run. It’s a matter of giving more than lip service to poets and poetry, to viewing the world with regard to what [John] Keats told us is all we know on earth and all we need to know: Beauty is truth, truth beauty.
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
I am most excited about getting into different communities and having discussions with people about what they think of poetry, what they like or dislike about it based on how they see it. I was working with high school students and adults in the Nebraska Poetry Pen Pal Program in Valentine, Gordon, and Chadron a few months ago and will be in McCook and a few other communities in a few weeks to work with high school students. Poetry is hard to teach in schools and is often taught without the joy or excitement I think is at the forefront of poetry, so I love getting out and showing my own love for what poetry can do, hoping it’s infectious.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
MM: Weather! My project requires me to travel around Nebraska to schools and communities. But when there are multiple snow days early in the year, that limits what schools can do later in terms of bringing in speakers. Nebraska has had a lot of snow, with a lot of days off, so a number of schools haven’t been able to fit me in, even for a program offered free to them. And even when we do get scheduled, on the first tour of my program, we had the last day changed due to an ice storm. Two other poets and I were supposed to speak with high school students, but ended up switching things on the fly. Instead, we ran into an open mic in a college’s student union with high school students who had come for events which were all delayed due to the ice, so hundreds of students were milling about looking for things to do. Some played pool, some joined us to write a quick poem and read it for the others in our loud, cramped corner.
Poets.org: In what ways are you hoping for the Nebraska Poetry Pen Pal Program to benefit rural communities in Nebraska?
MM: The Poetry Pen Pal Program is meant to give people more exposure to poets. All these communities have poets, of course, mostly working quietly, and they get to meet with poets like me who are working in a different environment. We all end up learning from one another, with me hopefully having some helpful things to say, in addition to seeing a brand new poet inspiring me with what they have to say.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work? How so?
MM: There are many poems on Poets.org that inspire me. My number one choice has to be Galway Kinnell’s “Oatmeal,” though. When I was a year out of college, I worked in a volunteer program in Des Moines, Iowa. While in college, I’d discovered my love for poetry, so I intended to keep studying and writing, but not in that school setting. I struggled to find poems, though, that I connected with and it started to make me question whether what I was writing was even poetry.
But then they had a new poetry festival in town, and one of the poets who was invited in that first year was Galway Kinnell. As he read, I found myself liking his poems. Then he read “Oatmeal.” “Oatmeal” is a weird poem, it makes inside jokes about John Keats; it makes digs at Wordsworth. It is a strange exploration of mental health and eating one’s oatmeal while in conversation with a long-dead poet.
This was the kind of poem I was writing—weird and fun, but struggling toward deeper meaning. And it showed me that what I was doing was, in fact, poetry because here was an award-winning, state laureate poet writing it. In the two months after seeing Kinnell read (and, briefly, talking to him and finding him incredibly kind and encouraging), I wrote all the poems which got me into graduate school at the University of California, Davis, where I really started to pursue poetry professionally. I owe Kinnell and that single poem more than I can express.