I find phrases and images, and try to capture them: An online interview with Robert Masterson

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Poet and author

Lives in Bronxville, New York

Dupur Mitra: Why is poetry important?

Robert Masterson: Poetry is not important. It is crucial; it is central to all that makes us human. When we look back at ancient civilizations, at the artifacts they have left us, we aesthetisize the craft of their architecture and artifacts. It is art, however, that leads us to empathetic connection with our ancestors. It is our art, our poetry that will lead our descendants toward that same empathy. We study and display ancient or distant cultures’ weapons and cookware. We ikonify their engineering, their agriculture and animal husbandry, but it is the paintings on the walls of their caves, their sculpture, the fragments of their language and its poetry that connect our hearts and our souls with those long dead, long dust. And without that connection to those who came before, to those who are our contemporaries, and to those who are yet to be, how could we continue to exist in the world all by ourselves, alone and lonely on a rock in space? Well, we couldn’t.

Dupur Mitra: How does a poem begin for you – with an image an idea or a phrase?

Robert Masterson: Almost always, a poem begins with evocative phrase that leads to an image—an image of the complex tangle of emotion and perception that rule our lives. My job then, as a writer, is to take that imagistic phrase and create a form that will connect the reader all the way back to the evocative phrase, to the image. That phrase and its connotative image becomes the first stone in the bridge I am trying to build that allows the reader and I to connect and, together in collaboration as reader and writer, to meet in the center of the span.

Dupur Mitra: How do you edit your poems?

Robert Masterson: Savagely. I may mull over word choice, punctuation, and line length, but the real work of revision (re-vision) and editing requires my razor, my sharpest, keenest razor to slice away all that does not belong, that drags, that is redundant, that is vanity and ego, that keeps the poem from being itself.

Dupur Mitra: When and where do you write?

Robert Masterson: I write anytime and everywhere. I always have a notebook on hand, my camera, and a voice recorder. I find phrases and images, and I try to capture them in their own moment. Later, I will return to my keyboard and work it through. I listen to the poem as I read it aloud to examine how the phonetic expression works or does not work to carry emotion and meaning.

Dupur Mitra: Can you talk about the importance of sound in your poetry?

Robert Masterson: Nothing is so beautiful as a woman unaware of or oblivious to her beauty. Nothing is quite so ugly as a beautiful woman who, knowing she is beautiful, uses it to manipulate others. So, nothing is as beautiful as the song within each poem, the songs that unselfconsciously weave sound and air into image and meaning. It is a matter of harmony. Nothing is more tedious, no matter the subject, than the rasp and whine of dissonant squawk.

Dupur Mitra: What advice was most helpful to you when you first started writing poetry?

Robert Masterson: I was very young when I started writing, and my best teachers, my best mentors, encouraged me to work on the craft of my writing while waiting for experience to accumulate for subject matter. In years long past, if one expressed the desire to write, to be a writer, to be a poet, the last place to go was school. Become a worker, join the army or the navy, live in the forest or the city, push yourself and find the limits of your body, your soul, your mind. The work begins with craft – a matter of copybook exercises in language. When the heart has been broken, when the eye has seen the other side of the world, when the body has felt violence and love, the craft becomes the art.

Dupur Mitra: Why is poetry important?

Robert Masterson: Poetry is important because it is alive and distinct from the writer. Once written, the poem is freed to wander the world in search of an audience.

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