Steve Mason: Writing His Way Home
June 8, 2012
When he died at age 65 in May 2005, Steve Mason’s obituary appeared in newspapers across America. Virtually all of them noted that Mason was “the poet laureate of the Vietnam Veterans of America whose searching blank verse was read at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.” That line, repeated nationwide from the Los Angeles Times obit, set the theme for an outpouring of journalists’ tributes to a war veteran who wrote his way out of despair.
Nearly 20 years earlier, an astute reporter in Chicago described how Mason burst onto the literary scene several years after the end of the war in Vietnam with poems that seemed to speak for a generation of veterans—poetry that Bantam Books published in a mass paperback run of 50,000 copies of ``Johnny`s Song: Poetry of a Vietnam Veteran,`` which the Chicago scribe noted was “an extraordinary printing for a first book of poetry.”
“Steve Mason says his poems appear in print pretty much as they spilled out of his pen, undecorated by afterthought, uncleansed by revision. He calls them raw meat,” Chicago Tribune reporter Mary T. Schmich wrote in an extraordinary feature story published in June 1986. The title of her article was taken from a Mason poem: ‘A Lot Of Good Men Died In Vietnam. But Like Some Of You, I Was Born There. So Sometimes (like You) I Just Get Tired Of Waiting For Me To Feel Like Me Again...’”
And then she pulled from her interview with this raw poet, who professed not to read much poetry, essential details of his story:
“Once home, he discovered that Vietnam had become the only world he understood; he asked to go back. The Army sent him to officers` training school instead, with the promise of a return to the jungle later.
“In 1969, with the rank of captain and without having gone back to Vietnam, he left the military. ‘I got divorced, resigned my commission and went to live in a ghetto in Washington, D.C. I just smoked cigarettes and lived in the ghetto for six months and the newspaper boy brought me food.' ... He became a full-time Vietnam vet, obsessed with sifting sense from the confusion that had followed him home. His major occupation for almost two decades was the unpaid one of brooding.
“He decided writing might help, though he had done little of it. He chose poetry for its economy and intimacy, despite his inexperience with the form. ’I thought what I`d do was dehydrate the experience so that each person who read the poems would be adding the hot water of their own experience in Vietnam and could serve it up themselves at proper strength,’ he said. ‘I thought only poetry could do that.’”
Schmich summed up her insightful interview with a memorable detail that obituaries recalled when Mason died of lung cancer in Ashland, Oregon.
“He writes his poems in a single sitting, though that fact tells only half the truth. In the years before he found the focus to put the poems on paper, they had been inventing themselves inside him. His long poem ‘The Last Patrol’ took a mere 14 hours to write; he prefers to say it took 17 years and 14 hours.”
And then she added a zinger that propelled this story of a seemingly accidental poet into another realm:
“He had expected to find himself through the poems. ‘Instead of me,’ he said, ‘I found us.’ He discovered a collective conscience, a voice that transcended his private experience and became the voice of the generic veteran. The pleasure he derived from the poetry came not from a solitary exorcism but from the contribution he could make through his words.”
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