INTERVIEW WITH NICOLE MASON
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The poem “Elon Musk stands at the edge of my bed watching me sleep wearing a mask of my mother’s face” centers around the well-known billionaire and entrepreneur. Why did you decide to use Elon Musk in particular? Is his role in the poem working to make a commentary on the politics of wealth?
Nicole Mason: I have to give my brilliant friend Julia Roth credit for the initial idea of using Elon Musk—Thank you, Julia Roth!
Elon Musk is a character (a performance) that has tons of metaphorical value: Yes, there’s the whole billionaire entrepreneur thing, but he’s also super complicated. On the one hand he exudes a skeevy, opportunistic privilege…and on the other he dated Grimes (!)—how does one reconcile these competing personas? Does one have to?
Ultimately, I see him as a Willy Wonka figure who participates in the most problematic, slippery elements of conspicuous progress, all under the guise of social uplift. He’s heavy with implication, so he makes his way into a lot of my work as a stand-in for the various powers that drive our desires.
Here, I wanted to focus on how he (and others like him) influence our perceptions of reality, just as our parents do while we grow up.
RR: Humor does a lot to build the character dynamic within the poem. Did you know from the beginning you wanted it to be funny?
NM: Humor is such a tricky thing to navigate that I almost never intend something to be funny.
Usually my intentions are to swerve towards the dark and unfortunate, and that’s where humor resides, I think. For instance, the early history of space programs using animals is so awful and traumatic for me to think about and its awfulness is compounded by the fact that we typically don’t discuss the nature of the animal’s sacrifice. I’m reluctant to Google this…but they all starve to death, right?
Many times my writing functions as a revisionist history and I really wanted to give these hapless space-dogs some agency. Their subsequent realization that life is meaningless ends up being this weird catharsis that is also very funny to me.
RR: We love the interaction of scattered white space and columns that can be read in multiple ways. How do you approach structuring a poem? Do you have a predetermined idea or does it unfold in the process?
NM: I like to experiment with form and white space. If I was left to my own devices, I would probably only write boxy prose poems, so I try to force myself out of those inclinations. The original iteration of this poem was a landscape of long, mono-stitched lines and for a long time I refused to take it out of that form, but the poem never felt right to me even though I held out hope for its potential.
I eventually dusted it off and started playing with it. I liked how exploding the form made the stanzas talk to each other and how it forced the eye to dart back and forth across the page which adds to the chaos.
RR: How does a poem get started for you? Do public figures or news often make it into your writing?
NM: I’m a slow writer. I am very envious of my friends who have a set routine and write so many words or lines a day, but I just don’t have that kind of discipline. Usually what happens is a kernel of an idea will roll around in my head for a few days and then I’ll have to write and I won’t have any peace of mind until I do. Perhaps writing for me is like lancing a boil; I have to get the poison out.
Pop culture, in general, figures pretty heavily in my writing because it figures pretty heavily in the production of my identity. I can’t divorce my lived experience of the world from, say, the influence the Little House on the Prairie books had on me, or the hours I spent watching music videos on MTV. The writers that we think of as canon did the same thing, it’s just that their notions of pop culture were history and mythology. Shelley has Ozymandias and I have Elon Musk, I guess.
RR: We understand you’re a poetry editor for Third Coast. Has your experience editing informed or changed the way you write?
NM: It’s made me think of writing as an end-product differently.
Of course, as writers, most of us want to get our work out there, and we’re all chasing that next acceptance high (and trying to mitigate those rejection lows), and I’ve certainly gone through some thirsty phases that played havoc in how I perceived myself as a writer. However, after working on Third Coast for two years I’ve realized that being published has very little to do with talent and everything to do with timing.
I am very proud of the caliber of work we are able to publish at Third Coast. Most of the work we get is objectively good and of very high quality, but in any given reading period, there are literally 2000 individual poems that we have to read through and we select maybe 25 for publication. This means that what I pick is very much dependent upon how it hit me at that moment…and at that moment I might be happy, or sad, or hungry, or angry at some inconsequential post on social media. Of course, we get multiple eyes on each submission, but my assistant editor and readers are also either happy, or sad, or hungry, etc. I don’t want to say that the publication process is largely based on luck…but it’s largely based on luck.
Nicole Mason’s work in Issue 7.2: