Returning to the sea: A conversation with David Mason

By Audrey Fong

A headshot of David Mason standing in front of an ocean and trees
A headshot of David Mason in Tasmania, Australia.

Raised in Bellingham, Washington and now living in Tasmania, Australia, David Mason is no stranger to the ocean and its restorative properties. From kayaking to sailing and sea bathing, Mason has engaged with the ocean on multiple levels and uses it as inspiration for his poetry. In fact, his latest poetry collection, Pacific Light, largely centers on the ocean and the lands that surround it. With its deep dives into the natural world, Pacific Light also tackles issues of home, history, and immigration.

David is also passionate about poetry and is the author of seven previous collections in addition to having served as Colorado’s poet laureate.

David Mason swimming in the ocean. He is in the center of the wave wearing a wetsuit and goggles.
David swimming in the ocean off the coast of Tasmania.

Audrey Fong: Given the title of your collection, we can take it that the Pacific Ocean influences your poems. Could you talk a little about your relationship with the ocean?

David Mason: I grew up on the Puget Sound, always aware of salt water and the tides and the volcanos of the Ring of Fire. I canoed, kayaked, and sailed in those waters. When I lived in Greece, sea bathing became a regular part of life, one of the most therapeutic exercises I know. I think there’s something primal about it, returning to the sea that gave us life. Now in Tasmania, my wife and I regularly swim in the sea, though we wear wetsuits in the colder months. From the shore where we most often swim we can see the Southern Ocean. Next stop, Antarctica!

But the Pacific has also been important to me as an identifier. I’ve seen it in Mexico and the west coast of the U.S., in Canada, and Alaska. I worked on ships in the Aleutian Islands when I was young. Though he was born in Colorado, my father was a Navy man and sailed the Pacific during World War II, so the sea is also history, a location of war and peace and the many cultures that surround it. When I made this new book of poems, I was aware of an effort to take in much of the Pacific Rim as an imaginal locale. The book has an epigraph from Moby Dick that speaks to all of this.

The Pacific is central to my environmentalism, my interest in indigenous cultures, my awareness of human tragedy, and my hope for the Earth.

AF: You currently live in Tasmania, Australia, which is known for its clean air, stunning scenery, and natural wonders. How does living in Tasmania affect your work?

DM: First, by being home. I’ve spent much of my life wandering and I hope to spend the rest of my life in one place. I grew up in a part of North America full of “stunning scenery and natural wonders,” so the World Heritage marvels of this island do not seem foreign to me, nor does the struggle to protect them against the usual rapacious powers. The weather and the light are much like the weather and light of Oregon, where my wife and I owned a house before we moved here. In fact, our Oregon house was exactly the same latitude north as our Tasmanian house is latitude south. Tasmania’s capital, Hobart, is one of the most beautiful small cities on the planet, and the state’s culture is less backward than it used to be. The terrible history of the treatment of indigenous people on the island is a constant reminder that history matters, that we do not live in a vacuum but in a vale of stories.

This is a place where I can have a cultural life, contact with other writers and artists when needed, and the solitude and peace I require to do my own writing. I’ve retired from full-time teaching now and still find plenty of freelance work. It feels like a balanced, productive life.

AF: That sounds wonderful to have found a balanced life and a new place to call home. Speaking of that, home and immigration are prevalent themes in the collection. How has the meaning of “home” changed for you?

DM: Great question. At the end of one of my early narrative poems, “The Country I Remember,” a character declares, “This is my home because I say it is.” I never felt like someone with a birthright, someone who would inherit a home. I always felt I had to make home wherever I happened to be. In my memoir I wrote that I could never become an expatriate, but fate has taught me otherwise. There is a kind of death in immigrating, a kind of letting go, but that only makes it a profound lesson in the nature of being alive. You let go of so much that you thought was important, only to discover importance in other things. You grow by losing, by paring away. I’ve always felt like a person who carried his household on his back. Now I can set the load down and stay a while. This is my home because I say it is.

AF: I know it’s probably impossible to choose, but do you have a favorite poem or one you’re especially proud of in this collection?

DM: We’re making a film to celebrate the book, and in the course of producing a shooting script I’ve grown more fond of the title poem, “Pacific Light.” I wrote that poem in our Oregon house, thinking of a friend of mine, a theatre director for whom I was writing a play, because he too grew up on America’s West Coast. At the very moment I finished the poem, I learned in an email that my friend had suddenly and unexpectedly died. I have never gotten over the shock of it. Yet there’s something talismanic in the poem, some odd way of sweeping up all the energies of a life in a single vision.

AF: You’ve written poetry, essay collections, a memoir, and libretti for operas. How does the writing process for each differ for you?

DM: On the whole, I don’t plan lyric poems, but wait for the unconscious to release some impulse I can go with, some image or line I can sail away in. Narrative and dramatic poems are another matter. They seem to grow inside me for years. I know they’re there. It’s like carrying a well-rounded pebble in your pocket. You can take it out and hold it for a while, then put it away for the right time. You know the story is there, or the voice is there, and you have to wait for the right build-up of energy before you can really begin to write. Then you work at it daily, like a novelist. Sometimes a poem sits around in draft for years, waiting to be rediscovered and finished. A good part of writing is waiting, listening, so it’s useful to have other kinds of work to do.

The memoir is a book about which I have some regrets. A memoirist must either be quite reserved about personal things, like one’s love life, or must bare all with abandon, and I compromised. I ended up lying about my love life, pretending to be happier than I was, so the book has a hole in it. The best part is the writing about other people and Greece. I wrote the memoir chiefly because I was surrounded by dementia patients in my family and became terrified that I would lose my own memory. I wanted to get it down before I lost it.

The libretti are commissioned. Sometimes I’m given a project, like adapting Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter. Or I get to make up a story, as I did with After Life, where Picasso and Gertrude Stein meet in the afterlife, their egos still going at it. I get to think about musical opportunities to give to the composer, and then step back and see what great musicians do with the material. It’s magic.

Grab a copy of Pacific Light and support an independent bookstore while doing so here.

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Nonprofit independent literary publisher aiming to amplify unheard and underrepresented voices and improve literacy in schools. www.redhen.org