Deracination and identity

David Mason, American poet and philhellene, a prolific writer who has traveled widely in the Balkans, Asia and Oceania, recently wrote an article on Greece for the Hudson Review. Perceptive and with a keen sense of humor, Mason examines how identity and deracination help make sense of life. He teaches at the University of Colorado, and that is where we tracked him down. «Arrivals» is the title of your forthcoming poetry book. Does it signal a departure from your earlier themes or do you go further in exploring identity and self-realization? I think my most persistent themes have had to do with deracination and identity and the ways in which stories and forms help us make momentary sense of our lives. In that sense, the new book, which will be published by Story Line Press in the spring of 2004, extends and develops preoccupations I have always had. The book reflects my travels in recent years – Greece, India, New Zealand – and also my desire to root myself in the landscapes of the American West, my hope of contributing in some small way to the literature of this region. Both of my parents were from Colorado, and now that I am living here again after 20 years away, I’m quite conscious of trying to uncover the language of this place and use it in my poems. My father was born on the New Mexican border, in a town called Trinidad, where the river was named by conquistadors as El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio – the River of Lost Souls in Purgatory. That fact alone has given me plenty of thematic material. I have a sense of something purgatorial in our existence, something traumatic and unfinished in our sense of identity and our desire for lost wholeness. I also have a strong sense of the oldest of poetic themes, the fleeting nature of life and our need to ritualize the moment. I think of poetry as a means to awareness of our existence. No one does this better than Homer did it in scenes of hospitality. The Greeks and Turks share a great tradition of hospitality to the stranger, and this ritual sense of life is, for me, something essentially poetic in its connections. To say the poem and to lift the wine glass, these are much the same activity, acknowledging who we are, the fact that we are here now, but also that life is short and we cannot know what lies ahead. Right now I’m at work on something that excites me very much – a long poem or novel in verse that deals with immigrants, including Greek immigrants, and the WASP ascendency in southern Colorado in 1913-1914. There was a sort of war that began with a coal miners’ strike, and one of the leading figures of the strike was a Cretan named Ilias Spantidakis. He’s one of the historical figures in my novel, which is mostly a work of fiction. This work pulls together all of my obsessions – the Balkans, immigration (including my wife’s family from Scotland and my own ancestors, also from Scotland), landscape and identity, the violence and beauty of American life. I’m pulling language from all sources – Greek, Spanish, the jargon of coal mining, the placenames, and I’m trying to make a compelling story, a real page-turner, that climaxes at what is called the Ludlow Massacre. It’s also a personal story, since my ancestors were obliquely involved in these events. How did you come to know Greece? By accident, of course! My first wife and I lived in Kardamyli, in Mani, in 1980-81. First we lived in an American professor’s house, next door to none other than Patrick Leigh Fermor, who has always been a hero of mine. This was also my first acquaintance with the Greek language, which I love dearly. I have never had the luxury of studying Greek in a classroom, but when I returned to Greece in 1997 on a Fulbright Fellowship and had as my landlady the great poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, I undertook to work a bit harder on my grammar. Katerina was a stern taskmaster, to say the least, and remains a very dear friend. Another good friend, Giorgos Houliaras, a poet who at the time was based in New York, worked with me for years on translations of his poems, many of which have been published in magazines all over the world, and I certainly learned a lot of Greek that way. I love Greek and the Greek people. I love the compact variety of the landscape, the therapeutic sea. By writing these memoirs, I’ve discovered a conscious decision not to become an expatriate, to make my own home as a poet in the birthplaces of my native tongue, but Greece has always been a happy place for me. Do you feel resentful sometimes that so many Greeks know so little about the USA? Not at all. I’m pretty sure that Greeks know more about the USA than Americans know of Greece! In America, I’m a member of what I call the loyal opposition. That is, I love my country and believe it is basically a very great nation predicated on essential truths about human freedom. I’m also aware of a kind of dull-witted arrogance in American foreign policy, and this embarrasses me deeply. I don’t think we really are arrogant in our souls, and I think we’re bewildered when people hate us. Ultimately, I think cultural misunderstandings like these are a human universal – you see them in Homer and Herodotus. No human beings, no nations, are exempt from having to overcome these misunderstandings. Perhaps that’s one reason why I appreciate the opportunities I have had to travel and to live in other parts of the world. How would you describe the major trends in poetry today? Broadly speaking, I would say that there are two major trends: First, the populist trend, which accepts folk poetry, popular music, hip-hop and the slam scene; and second, academic poetry, which treats the art as a primary literary phenomenon and sometimes extols formal or intellectual difficulty as one of its preconditions for approval. Here I might list any number of postmodern American poets, the LANGUAGE poets, etc. Most poets I enjoy reading fall somewhere between these two broad camps. I myself would like to bring every linguistic technique I can muster to bear on poems; I would like to write poems that speak straight to the heart of any listener, yet on occasion I’d like to write poems that are more oblique and challenging. I try to write what William Butler Yeats called «passionate normal speech.» But I don’t want to place limits on what I can try. I don’t like generalizations about what poets should and should not do, frankly. The proof of the value of any approach is in the individual poems themselves. That’s why we need good critics, good readers.