Robert Masterson is a poet and teacher, and we are happy to present his interview here at PRATE.
1. Do you think that a formal education in the arts – i.e. Poetics, Literature- is important for an aspiring writer? What do you think a prospective student gains from an academic experience?
This question has bothered me for a long time. Prior to World War II and for even some years after, if one expressed interest in becoming a writer, the last advice in the world would have been to go to school. Writers need something to write about, experiences that will be of interest to a reader and, honestly, there isn’t much of that in college. Instead, aspiring writers sought out experience by joining the navy, becoming a lumberjack, hitchhiking across Peru, working as a bouncer in a whorehouse, and just about anything other than sitting around brooding about term papers and midterm exams.
The idea of the creative writing workshop as well as the actual birth of the creative writing workshop has changed that landscape considerably. The introspective, academic nature of much contemporary poetry was birthed in those workshops and has come to be the nature of contemporary American poetry.
I do think it is important to be educated in order to learn the craft of writing, in order to find out how others put words together, to find the magical power of the word. Does one find such things in the academy? Only if one is willing to leave the academy, even on vacation, to acquire experience beyond those confined within ivy-covered walls.
It’s double-edged, this razor, and I know many, many writers who would not be physically able to write without the time and the space and the comfort and the safety of college. As a teacher, I’m not bound to a menial job to put food on my table. As a former student, I was not forced to place my aspirations on hold until the time was right to sit and write.
2.What are your thoughts on your own history, preparation and background as a writer?
Gosh. I grew up in a scientific environment that was loaded with all sorts of intellectual activity. Not only were scientific pursuits encouraged, but also the arts, any of the arts, all of the arts, were valued as intellectual activity, as part of the life of the mind.
Even more than that, I am a small town kid and growing up in relatively remote parts of Colorado and New Mexico shaped the ways in which I view the world (I, for instance, truly loathe living in the East Coast Metropolis that stretches from Baltimore to Boston without a break or a respite from despoiled landscapes and overpopulation). I think that an appreciation of nature has been crucial to my understanding of the world, how we are destroying it, and how I interact with people, animals, and the landscape.
3.Thinking back on things that you have read, what or who has been a source of influence and inspiration? Creatively, personally?
Influences…holy cow…so many and the way they sort have piled unto each other. By my teens, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs…Steinbeck, O’Connor, Hemingway, Welty, Salinger, Fitzgerald…Richard Brautigan! Roald Dahl (the short stories, the really dark stuff)…everything usual and what you would expect from a small town library / school system in the 1970s…Edward Abbey (Hayduke Lives!)…Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe, James McPhee, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson…I was reading a book a day back then…keeping my head down and trying to stay off the radar while doing well enough to get through the day/week/month/year without threat of boarding and/or military school in a town dominated by the sciences. Our schools had computers before computers had screens or magnetic data storage. The science fair is unbelievable, and it’s a ton of fun…college just added more…Jerzy Kosinski, all these Japanese writers with Yukio Mishima at the top of the list, Jayne Anne Phillips, Raymond Carver, all the great American novelists like Theodore Drieser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclar, Norman Mailer, Sinclair Lewis…and poetry, always poetry, too, though, again, probably pretty much everyone you would imagine as the canon at that time spurred on by the workshops and workshop participants…reading from an international list of poets and listening to and writing for a local scene in New Mexico and, later, Colorado. Trying to rebuild and sustain that momentum after moving to New York…time spent overseas in The People’s Republic of China, Japan, and Ukraine…all influential and influences…the teachers, friends, and family who from grade school onward encouraged me to continue to both read and write…revolution and liberation as internal and obligatory action in response to oppression and repression…art as a useless enterprise meant only for aesthetic purpose…art as the means to freedom.
4.What drew you to Naropa? What did you take from that experience?
I was drawn to Naropa because giants walked the earth in those days and the opportunity to work with and learn from Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Ed Sanders, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Marianne Faithfull, and Hal Wilner was irresistible. And, honestly, studying and working at Naropa got me out of Albuquerque at an opportune time.
What I have carried with me from Naropa is a kind of mindfulness, care, and attention I have folded into my own life, both writing and “real,” as well as my teaching. I have noticed that, since Naropa, I am concious of the need to remove ego from the work.
In my teaching, even a short five minutes of attentive breathing can relax and calm a classroom. I’ve had students thank me for the only peaceful five minutes they have in their lives, and I’ve begun to use that kind of roundabout meditation in more and more of my classes as a relief for the absurd pace of life in Metropolis.
5. Can you share a story, anecdote?
About Naropa? Nope. Court orders, you know.
6. Do you feel limited by your geography?
Absolutely. I do not like Metropolis and I don’t like what it does to people. I am uncomfortable in large groups of people. And I have an anecdote about NYC:
Last August, I was down at school helping with registration on the day of the earthquake. When we felt the first tremor, I thought it was the person behind me kicking my chair. I turned around to see her looking at me as if I had been kicking her chair. The second tremor set the room to rocking and the Hudson River to sloshing around like a bathtub. By the third tremor, I think every adult in room pretty much just assumed we were feeling the effects of another terrorist attack. We started looking at each other with our big, round eyes and wondering how we could get all these kids outside and to whatever safety might be available.
The registrar for BMCC came charging into the room, yelling, “It’s only an earthquake, people. It’s only an earthquake.”
I got enormously depressed pretty quickly when I realized what kind of fear I was carrying with me to work every day, carrying with me all the time, so that a natural disaster of such monumental proportions felt like a relief. Only an earthquake…
7. Do you think, in general, that creative people thrive in communities or do you see creative work as a writer as a necessarily solitary act?
It depends, of course, on the person and the time and the place. I have found that living and working in a community of artistic people can be enormously inspiring and invigorating and motivating. However, as a writer, there comes the time when I just have to sit down by myself and write.
I used to live in an old store in Albuquerque with roommates and friends who were painters, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, dancers, and jewelers. Naropa was poetry poetry poetry 27 hours a day, 9 days a week, 64 weeks a year. I go to conferences and writing festivals. And still, evenutally, I have to go into my office, shut the door, and face the blank page all by my lonesome and just do the work.
8. Do you think writers need to be protective of their time, and limit social and other vocational pressures? Are you protective of your writing time?
I have found that, as a teacher, I can’t really protect my time from social and vocational pressure. I rarely write more than fragments or notes during the school semester. Summer, I write a lot, I write more, and I am barely able to submit work to journals, magazines, or publishers during the semester and winter break. All the energy goes into the classroom or the department, and I have to recharge to write my own stuff. This semester, though, since I am teaching a creative writing workshop, I have tried to do the exercises I assign my students. I have found that those exercises are both challenging and stimulating. I’ve also discovered that I ask an awful lot from my students, and it seems only fair that I rise to those challenges as well.