Dan Masterson could have retired from teaching English at Rockland Community College a dozen years ago, but the 77-year-old is having too much fun.
“Better to die with your boots on,” he says with a smile in his soft voice.
Masterson just re-upped for another term as Rockland’s poet laureate, a position he has held since 2009.
He’s hoping his just-completed fifth book — “That Which Is Seen,” a collection of 36 poems about paintings from all over the world — will inspire Rockland’s high-school art students to create art based on poems and its poetry students to write poems based on visual art.
Masterson has been teaching at RCC for 47 years, classes on screenwriting, poetry and poetry as literature. He won the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, two Pushcart Prizes and several national poetry prizes. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New Yorker and London Magazine.
Not bad for a kid from outside Buffalo who just wanted to be a disc jockey until he met a beautiful Syracuse co-ed named Janet and added English to his majors so he could be near her in class.
Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know about Professor Dan Masterson:
1. His father was a semi-pro boxer who taught young Danny how to hit a boxer’s speed bag when he was in third grade — after a run-in with a bully.
“I went to my dad and said ‘I don’t know what to do about this bully’ and he said ‘A brick would help.’ That was the first metaphor I ever heard,” Masterson says. “The next day when the kid came to get me I hit him right flush in the nose and the blood poured out and turned his T-shirt red and he went crying to one of the nuns.”
2. A self-taught drummer, when he was a freshman in high school, Masterson took three buses into Buffalo to play in jazz clubs, including the Kitty Kat Klub.
“I’d tell my folks I was going to hang out with the guys and I’d hide my drumsticks up my sleeve. When I got into Buffalo, I’d take out the sticks and walk around to the different clubs. I’d ask if I could play while the drummer took a break. And the drummers let me do it.”
3. Drumming and boxing help his poetry.
“There are 26 meters in poetry. I have all 26 written on a piece of cardboard behind my speed bag. When I get up in the morning, I put on my light gloves and start punching in iambic — soft-hard, soft-hard, soft-hard — and I go all the way down the list and then all the way up and all the way down until my arms fall off. And if it’s a day off from school, I go upstairs and do the same meters on my snare drum. Then I start to write, with all those meters jumbled up in my body.”
4. After college, he was a disc jockey on WBNY, “the friendly voice of Buffalo.”
He hosted “Mystic Midnight,” a jazz show from midnight to 3 a.m.
5. In the early ‘60s, he and his wife quit their jobs, gave all their money to Catholics for Latin America, gave their furniture to their friends and planned to be missionaries in Chile.
“We lived in White Plains at Religious House, waiting for Janet to deliver our first child, Martha, and then we were going to Chile. But when Martha was born, we decided we weren’t going to Chile. We moved to Rockland and I started substitute teaching.”
6. He has battled obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“It haunted me for years and I finally found a good shrink who helped me out of it. But I would be struck by these 15-hour whammies, terrible thoughts that were crippling. Long shadows were wrapped all around my head. You learn how to control it: pray it away, curse it away or laugh it away. And I replaced those whammies with 15 hours of writing.”
7. If you want to know what he’s writing about, check his pockets.
For months, he has been carrying around an old door latch to remind him of a poem he’s working on about a harrowing childhood event. It’s a habit he encourages in his students.
“If you’re writing about a house you used to live in, you carry a house key. It doesn’t have to be the key to that house, but it becomes the key to that house. The lie becomes the truth. Every time you reach in your pocket, that key has a voice, reminding you to think about the poem and get back to work.”
8. His daughter-in-law is ob/gyn Dr. Lisa Masterson from the syndicated TV show “The Doctors.”
“They’re four legit doctors,” he says. “And they outdraw ‘Oprah’ in most cities.”
9. When a surgeon told him he would need double rotator-cuff surgeries, Masterson threw himself into physical therapy. When he returned to the doctor, the surgeon said he no longer needed the operations.
10. Masterson edits two poetry websites.
One is enskyment.org, an anthology of American poetry with 350 poems by “well-known and not-so-well-known poets.”
The other is Poetrymaster.com (a play on his name), on which he offers free advice to people who email poems to him.
“I did it because there’s no place where a kid who wants to be a poet can send a poem to a real poet (not to pat myself on the back) and get a response. Every morning when I get up, there’s a poem from Dublin or South Africa or Spring Valley. Before I go to bed that night, an email is on its way back to their owners.”
11. He’s often scolded for writing sad poems.
“I gave a talk a long time ago and a woman looked at me angrily and she leaned over to Janet and said: ‘You poor thing. How do you live with this man. He lives in darkness.’ I just smiled and the man who introduced me at the talk said ‘Lady, poets live their joy and write their darkness.’ I liked that.”
12. He once did public relations for Broadway producer Martin Tahse, who would send four touring companies of hit Broadway shows crisscrossing the country. Tahse went on to produce “ABC’s Afterschool Specials.”
Photo by Ricky Flores/The Journal News: Dan Masterson, 77, at the speedbag in his Pearl River basement.