Peter Mason is a poet from Rochester, New York. He received a B.A. in English from SUNY Fredonia in 2014. He is the founder of |tap| literary magazine. His poetry has been nominated for the 2014 and the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology and has appeared in Muzzle Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, Rust+Moth, Red Paint Hill, and elsewhere.
BEFORE YOU KNOW THE NAME OF IT
To imagine her mouth as a peach,
is to say that her tongue was a pit sweet enough
for her to plant in my soil-
ed throat; that my skin was a forced bloom I did not know
I did not want—at seven I could only say,
yes, elder sister, my body can be whatever bed
you want to dig. Never mind all the holes
you will leave for me to fill.
When she asked for blood I poured
from my collar. Brought it to her bedroom
in a seven-year bowl. When she asked for my mouth
I gave like a good brother: unhinged
my jaw, stuffed gauze in the throated gape.
She said, look at how you can give in
so many ways, and like the dead I cannot recall
before the whole world smelled of copper
and her soft feeding breath.
Phillip B. Williams: Phillip: So I want to first thank you for allowing me the opportunity to read your incredibly moving poems. Sometimes, during a long day of reading many good submissions, something happens where an amazing set of poems arrives and it just moves you. Can you talk about how you got started with writing these poems? Are they part of a larger project?
Peter C. Mason: Thank you, for both the interview and the compliment. I have, in one way or another been trying to write these poems for about 8 years, or at least as long as I have been writing poetry. They are part of a larger project on trauma that I am working on, one that is still in its early stages, but that I hope produces a manuscript in the not too distant future.
I got started writing these poems in particular back in May–the result of coming forth to my immediate family about traumatic events, and the emotional backlash as well as overall feeling a need to talk about childhood trauma with a wider audience, and hopefully offer some kind of semblance of catharsis for myself and those that might read them.
PW: That makes sense when I read “catharsis.” Something about the lyrical rendering of this moment of trauma lifts it from the pain without taking all the hurt away. It’s not “easy” to look, to read, but it is welcoming in a way that says, to me at least, “I am sharing this with you so that we both may be changed.”
In your poem” Before You Know the Name of it” I was first taken by its brevity then its language. You write “[…] my skin was a forced bloom I did not know/ I did not want[…]” How does beauty play a part in this poem when juxtaposed to trauma? How does this rendering of experience make meaning to you?
PM: You know, I think, at least with myself, but also with many other survivors that I know and have talked to, there is this a long and difficult period of time where we see ourselves as some ruined thing, something intangible about our being feels linked to what was done to us, a sense of guilt or shame. The beauty that I attempt to write is a kind of need, a push-back against the trauma, but also I think, with that line, I try to attempt to get at what that feeling is. I may consciously know that my trauma is not my fault, that feeling of guilt is not reasonable per-say, but it is still lingering, and so you get that first line before the break, followed by the line after the break. If I can look at the guilt in the mouth, then I feel like I can conquer it.
PW: Conquering guilt is powerful because it is one of those feelings, I think, that is so difficult to pinpoint. It’s there but the reason why can be elusive or fleeting or difficult to even look at. When you say “If I can look at the guilt in the mouth,” I’m hit with the sense that seeing it is the first part. When did you discover that poetry could be a vehicle for you to explore your experiences, your trauma, and eventually look them in the mouth so to speak?
PM: I undoubtedly owe much of my ability to write about my experiences to Rachel McKibbens and Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Rachel, as a person but also with her work, was probably the first person that allowed me to feel safe enough with myself to dig beyond the just the surface in writing about trauma. What she does with language in relation to trauma is incredibly inspiring. And Sarah, she was a writing professor at SUNY Fredonia while I was in undergrad, gave me the encouragement and many of the tools to start writing more vulnerable work. More directly I suppose around the end of 2012, but it has been more of a growing assurance from several individuals that poetry has this power over the last four years than any time I could really pinpoint.
PW: So in many ways it sounds as if you found mentors in poetry who led you to this possibility. That’s fantastic. Rachel McKibbens is a poet whom I adore for her writing and her spirit. I will have to do my research on Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Thank you for sharing.
The final poem we’ll talk about is probably the most complicated to talk about because it is three poems all from the same source poem, a self-erasure, which I found to be both an amazing formal exploration/execution as well as itself being a kind of symbol that does double work of expressing how trauma can erase a self, rebuild a self that is not true to the person, then make room for the true expression of an “I” where agency has taken over and the person takes back their voice.
Just to speak to some words that appear in the poem:
“[…] A dead boy
was pulled out of the sea and forgot to die. A dead boy still
Then in the final section:
It’s brilliant how you got three poems from one, two of which I quoted from above where the large stretches of black represent what was erased. Can you speak to the process of creating a poem that was able to morph into so many shapes? What did it mean to you to see your own words become something new with each take?
PM: Well, thank you, I don’t think anyone has called a part of my work brilliant before, and coming from you that is quite humbling. But yeah, this poem started out as just the second part, it was a kind of exploration of self-reflection in the face of major depressive disorder in relation to trauma. After what would be the second part was written it felt dishonest, inasmuch as it was more depression talking than anything else. I wanted to then take that and do a something more, a kind of chronological and emotional shift with the work. I experimented for about a month with different forms and line breaks and such until I kind of stumbled upon self-erasure. And honestly it was quite a nice feeling being able to black-out pieces of the poem–that then gave me the third section, this kind of where-I-want-to-be in relation to it all. An attempt at realization of future self, but I also realized, or at least felt that I had a responsibility, to go back to the feelings and emotions that I could pull from memory of the beginning, and in the end the whole process felt necessary and fairly relieving as well.
PW: Thank you so much for speaking with me today! If people want to learn more about your work, where can they connect with you?
PM: It was quite an honor! I currently am terrible at social media and the likes, facebook always works well, I plan on coming out with a website at some point soon, and my email firstname.lastname@example.org I suppose. Thank’s again, I greatly appreciate your kind words, interest, and conversation!