Matt Mason, Omaha’s Premier Poet

The poetry scene in Omaha is rich and diverse, with workshops and readings going on all the time. If anyone in the region—ranging from the site’s hub in metropolitan Omaha, to Lincoln, Vermillion, Des Moines, and Lawrence– needs to know when and where the next event is happening, they need look no further than poetrymenu.com.

Poetry Menu was started in 2000 by Matt Mason, the proverbial captain of Omaha’s poetry team. Mason is Executive Director for the Nebraska Writers Collective, Nebraska State Coordinator for Poetry Out Loud through the Nebraska Arts Council, and past President for the Nebraska Center for the Book.

Poetry is Mason’s passion, and he has traveled the world on words’ behalf–from Nepal, to Belarus, to all around America. Now, he lives in Omaha and shares his talent and passion with the Heartland.

Mason said that his affinity and affability towards poetry was slow and gradual. He had no interest during high school, but when he got to college a professor opened his heart and mind to language as art. The class was taught by “a Jesuit with the passion of the teacher from Dead Poets’ Society.” He started writing all the time—he now writes at least a poem a week–as it helped him process the world. Poetry has also helped him travel the world.

Mason traveled to Minsk, Belarus and Kathmandu, Nepal as part of 10-day programs through the State Department. While there, he worked with English-speakers aged 15-25 on their writing and performance in order to prepare them for a poetry slam at the end.

“In Belarus, it was just me leading it and everything was pretty amazing as US-Belarusian relations are not good.  I was allowed into state universities and libraries there, as poets have a much larger cultural place in their society,” said Mason. “So that was a real honor.  The students I worked with were fantastic and made for a great show at the end.”

In Nepal, Mason worked with Danny Solis from Albuquerque and Karen Finneyfrock from Seattle as part of the State Department program. He said it took them mainly around Kathmandu, but also to Eastern Nepal to work with students.

“The poetry slam at the end was jaw-dropping,” said Mason, “as a number of these students hadn’t really known what poetry performance was about and they took off with it impressively and have continued to hold poetry slams since.”

Mason said that the two nations are both similar to the US in that they have rich poetry traditions, but the children are essentially forced to read it in school, stunting their interest. He said that presenting the poetry slam approach worked well by “instilling more energy into poetry and making it more of a living language.”

Omaha was with him during his visits, and he said he left a little bit of his hometown in each country. For example, he took with him dry erase scorepads that the judges use when judging the OM Center (Omaha Healing Arts Center) Poetry Slams.  These relics of the Heartland were autographed by poets and fans from their poetry slam, and then donated to each nation’s students that he worked with.

Mason has settled down in Omaha with his wife and kids, and he said he has been back on the area’s poetry scene since 1995. Back then, there were mainly more organized readings like those at UNO and Creighton with the Nebraska Book Festival in a different city each year.  National Poetry Month (April) would bring out different things at places like the Bookworm bookstore, but he said there didn’t seem to be many open mics and no poetry slams.

Then things grew somewhat, largely around either colleges or coffee shops, and the first poetry slam he knows of in Nebraska happened at Wayne State College in April, 1999, one week before Omaha’s first which happened at the location formerly known Border’s.  Over the years, he said a lot more open mics popped up and a few poetry slams at places like the Dubliner, McFoster’s, and Caffeine Dreams while the universities seemed to cut back.

Mason said that his favorite experience as a poetry activist is last year’s Louder Than a Bomb: Omaha finals. It was a program he said they were just figuring out, but it had been going great.  The finals were scheduled for a 500 seat auditorium and, though they’d been playing to crowds of 100-200 for all the bouts, Mason worried the place wouldn’t be close to filled up.  Not only did it fill up, but the energy was high all night and all 4 schools did an amazing job with the quality of their writing and of their performance.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a lot of great projects, but Louder Than a Bomb: Omaha has quickly become my favorite and the most rewarding, Mason said. “With Louder Than a Bomb getting more high school-age writers interested in poetry, I’m excited to see what comes next in terms of our open mics, poetry slams, and other areas.”

Mason said the favorite part about what he does is being able to work with writers, young and old, and be useful to them.

“My model is to try and provide what either wasn’t available to me when I started writing and what, still, doesn’t seem available for writers but needs to be if we are going to cultivate poetry here in this part of the world,” Mason said.

Mason has just written a book, called “The Baby That Ate Cincinnatti.” He said the poems all came from suddenly finding himself in the world of parenting.  Growing up, he said he never wanted kids, so he never planned anything out or made mental notes of what a parent should do.  He is now married with children, and the book is dedicated to his wife Sarah and his two daughters, Sophia and Lucia.

“Sophia and Lucia are great kids.  They get compared to movie monsters now and then because, well, raising kids is hard and complex, we all drive one another crazy and there is a lot to learn,” Mason said. “So the title comes from just ridiculous monster movie kinds of titles.  Cincinnati just gets singled out as it seems to work for this sort of thing and sounds better than, say, ‘The Baby That Ate Omaha’.”

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