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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

Selfie with Percy Bysshe Shelley; Selfie after Reading the Buddha’s...; Selfie with Robert Hayden

By: Clif Mason

Selfie with Percy Bysshe Shelley

Voices arise

from the vast miasma

of the distressed & depressed,

the recently deceased.

Laments arrive

from the deepest chasm

& chiasmus,

chiasmus &


asking us to speak the names

of the forsaken

into a feckless wind.

The moon is a tenebrous,

post-penumbral rust,

as if it has slept in oceans

for unnumbered years.

Millions of souls

have perished.

If we were, each of us, to become

the most tuneful

of tuneful birds,

would that be the metamorphosis required?

Tell me, is this super flower moon a forgetting or a remembering?

If a forgetting,

what is it we are so determined

to forgo,

and why?

If a remembering,

how can we be certain

we’ll bear up

under our bodies’ trembling?

The rose-smoldering,

moldering moon

weeps its blood, solders it,

into jet immensity.

Selfie after Reading the Buddha’s Fire Sermon

Mind is burning,

dust in the streets is burning.

Whales are aflame,

from blowholes to flukes;

coral is aflame.

What canticle can I claim

when millions

are determined to sing

the song of the anaconda

of grievance & cataclysm?

Their chant is long

& unbroken, & every note

is chaos & fire.

Dreams & memories

are stabbed by a thousand

fire stilettos.

Skyscrapers & shopping malls,

basketball arenas & football stadia

are erupting

in big muscular bursts of flame,


with delusions of grandeur.

Perfumed love letters

are kindling—

a burning desolation of ardor

& praises & heartbreak.

Governesses & accountants,

opera singers & farmers—

all are engulfed

in unbridled flame.

Cemeteries & mausoleums

& columbaria are burning—

rolling, roiling flames

of perpetual & imperturbable peace.

Corrosion & rust & salt & rot

& corruption are burning.

Cliff divers & bridge jumper

are burning—

fireballing like Icarus

as they plummet.

Aerosols & aggravated assaults

are burning.

Art museums & galleries

& botanical gardens

are burning,

incandescent hungers,

ancient & new, rosaries

& mute resurrections of fire.

Tent cities are burning,

canvas combusting fast

as the lace of moth wings.

Parasites & paragons

are burning—guttering

candles of sputtering flame.

Fire hydrants & fire trucks

& fire stations are burning—

thousands of backdrafts

eradicating everything.

Tax fraud & stock manipulation

are burning—vile, putrescent

tumors of flame.

Fire makes neon tubes shatter

& zip lines whip

through the air.

Departures without homecomings

are burning—

pierced by fire arrows

from endless bows.

Oil wells across the planet

are burning—

oh, the black acrid

carcinogenic smoke,

choking lungs,

making bowels boil

with flame.

Regrets & shame

& humiliation

are burning,

like liquid nitrogen

poured & pooled on the body,

blistering as it evaporates.

Poetry readings are burning:

narrative northern lights—

strings & streamers

& flaming green sheets—

& lyric bioluminescence

& epic fire tornadoes.

Public monuments

& personal shrines

are burning,

leaving nothing behind,

not even char.

Lethargy sinks into dull,

listless, irresolute embers—

lamentation into lambent

grief-stricken flickers,

heartsick flaming tears.

The canopies of virgin forests

& ten thousand beach umbrellas

are aflame.

Songbirds & raptors,

cattle & coyotes

are burning.

Hospital workers

& first responders

& gowned patients

are igniting—untold thousands

of instant immolations

that leave carbon shadows

on walls & floors

& gurneys & operating theaters.

Resentments & petty jealousies

& backbiting are burning.

News desks & yoga classes

are burning,

law & the social contract

are burning—

flames rising up

a towering wall, like the Red Sea

lifted by the fingers of God.

The entire world

is burning.

Everything corporeal

& incorporeal is burning.

Everything that can

& cannot burn is burning.

Selfie with Robert Hayden

We march with the derelict moon from one end of damaged night to the other, until that star appears, like a great incandescent stone, that makes shadow of every other star. As daybreak burns to ribbons of airy nothing the space round which, full-bodied, we stride, the star makes of us its torches, & the word Change is those torches’ lambent light. We chant the anthem of a meekness that will not, though humble, be humiliated. We sing it in the gutters & basements, the garbage dumps & C-suites, of the grief-born, post-apocalyptic, bleak, & wounded night. Starlight sings to & ignites the starlight in us, & despite the plaguey year, we burn.


Clif Mason lives and dreams in Bellevue, Nebraska. He is the author of Knocking the Stars Senseless and three chapbooks: The Book of Night & Waking (selected by John Sibley Williams for the Cathexis Northwest Press Chapbook Prize), Self-Portraits in Which I Do Not Appear, and From the Dead Before. He was a Fulbright Fellow to Rwanda, Africa.

Interview with the Poet:


How long have you been writing poetry?

Clif Mason:

Since my senior year in high school. The late Mary Jewel Ledbetter was my English teacher in Pierre, South Dakota, and she asked us to write about the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One of the options offered was to compose a poetic response. I wrote a brief modern update, complete with (sometimes wince-worthy) rhyme and (shaky) meter. Mrs. Ledbetter was very encouraging, however, seeing past the faults to the promise. I began writing poetry more frequently the summer after my freshman year of college.


Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?

CM: Throughout high school we read mostly prose, but also some drama and poetry. The poet whose work really inflamed my synapses was Shakespeare. We read three of his plays, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. His language created new neural pathways in my brain and forever changed my thoughts and feelings about the expressive capabilities of words.


Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?

CM: There are far too many to list, so these few will have to stand for the many (in no particular order): Marianne Moore, “The Fish” and “What Are Years”; Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage,” “Those Winter Sundays,” and “Runagate Runagate”; Ocean Vuong, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” “Aubade with Burning City,” and “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”; Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”; Pablo Neruda, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” “I’m Explaining a Few Things”; and “Love Sonnet XVII”; Federico García Lorca, “Sleepwalking Ballad,” “Casida of the Lament,” and “The King of Harlem”; Joy Harjo, “She Had Some Horses” and “I Give You Back” ; Li-Young Lee, “The City in Which I Love You,” “I Ask My Mother to Sing,” and “The Gift”; Ilya Kaminsky, “Author’s Prayer,” “Musica Humana,” and “In a Time of Peace”; Sylvia Plath, “Daddy,” “Tulips,” and “Lady Lazarus”; James Wright, “A Blessing,” “The Jewel,” and “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”; Georg Trakl, “Helian,” “De Profundis,” and “Grodek”; “Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and “Sea Surface full of Clouds”; Natasha Trethewey, “Incident” and “Native Guard”; D. H. Lawrence, “Bavarian Gentians” and “the Ship of Death”; Sappho, “Ode to Aphrodite”; John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and “To Autumn”; Ada Limón, How to Triumph Like a Girl” and “A New National Anthem”; Charles Wright: “Homage to Paul Cezanne” and “Black Zodiac”; Seamus Heaney, “The Tollund Man” and “Bog Queen”; William Blake, “London” and “The Garden of Love”; Lee Ann Roripaugh, “Ukiyo: The Floating World” and “Bioluminescence”; Gary Snider: “The Bath” and Rivers and Mountains Without End; Danez Smith, “not an elegy for Mike Brown” and “dear white America”; William Shakespeare, “Sonnets 29 and 55”; Agha Shahid Ali, “Even the Rain”; Du Fu, “Poem for Wei Ba,” “Thinking of My Brothers on a Moonlit Night,” and many others; “ Louise Erdrich, “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”; Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”; Emily Dickinson “I felt a funeral in my brain,” “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” and “Because I could not stop for death”; W. D. Snodgrass, “Heart’s Needle”; Robert Desnos, “The Voice of Robert Desnos”; Paul Celan, “Death Fugue”; Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”; Arthur Rimbaud, “The Drunken Boat”; Joseph Brodsky, “Great Elegy for John Donne”; Elizabeth Bishop, “The Fish” and “One Art”; Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and “Archaic Torso of Apollo”; Percy Bysshe Shelley “Ode to the West Wind” and “To a Skylark”; Amy Clampitt, “Beach Glass” and “Syrinx”; Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” and “Poem in October”; N. Scott Momaday, “Carriers of the Dream Wheel” and “The Gourd Dancer”; Anna Akhmatova, “Requiem”; T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish; Tracy K. Smith, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” and “Duende”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; Ted Hughes, “That Morning,” “Pike,” and “Gnat Song”; Anna Swir, “Building the Barricade”; Kaveh Akbar, “The Perfect Poem,” “The Miracle,” and “The Palace”; “Theodore Roethke, “Journey to the Interior” and “Elegy for Jane”; Natalie Diaz, “My Brother My Wound” and “It Was the Animals”; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The House of Life”; Joseph Fasano, “Mahler in New York” and “Vincent”; “and Jericho Brown, “Bullet Points” and “The Tradition.”


Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in

the zone?


I have no set process, but inspiration can come from many sources. I find long walks to be particularly generative of new ideas for poems. Sometimes I read favorite poets. I often set down a few thoughts before passing from the world of the waking to the world of the dreaming. These “poem seeds” become full poems the next day.


How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?


Form occurs as soon as the first words are hand-written or typed on the computer. If the poem’s first couple of lines emerge metered, I will consider an appropriate traditional form—or a traditional form reimagined (such as unmetered sonnets with (sometimes outrageous) slant rhymes and employing lines of any length). Or the poem will emerge in an organic flow. Sometimes, if I’m not satisfied with a poem’s lineation, I will translate it to prose (feeling free to make any edits as I go); if I’m satisfied with the prose, I may leave it, or I may translate it back into lines (different from the original lines) and then decide which version I prefer. I sometimes follow this same process with poems written in traditional forms. In all cases, I look for the form that feels integral to the music and meaning of the poem. I give myself permission in all steps and stages of the composition process to revise with radical freedom.


Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?


Always be open to editing suggestions, but ultimately you must trust your own judgment. Trust your own ear and voice. Commit to poetry with everything you have and hope that it is sufficient. Realize that the process to which you have committed is dynamic and fluid--Heraclitean: It both recognizes and participates in continual growth and change. Finally, write as if your life depends on it—because, if you are a poet, it does.


What is your editing process like?

CM: Incessant. I revise for music, clarity, precision, and concision. Poems usually go through 4-10 drafts before I send them out into the world. One recent poem is in version 15. I continue to revise after publication.


When do you know that a poem is finished?


One answer I might give is that a poem is finished when the changes I make to it begin to damage rather than improve it. A more accurate answer is that a poem is never finished. I have returned to poems after decades and revised them, sometimes radically.


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