Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason's four-year road trip

Bringing poetry to an entire state, one county at a time.

  • Dave Mason

    David Mason (courtesy)

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In the first two years of his laureateship, Mason visited 40-plus counties and gave over a hundred performances, workshops and lectures -- all while teaching a full course load, publishing numerous essays and book reviews, finishing up a new collection of short poems, writing opera libretti, and getting married. He read alone, alongside fellow Coloradans, both professional poets and amateurs, and with his wife, Australian poet Cally Conan-Davies. He read in classrooms full of pampered students and a school where the kids looked malnourished, in prisons where pencils were banned because they could be used as weapons, and in churches whose names and denominations he never learned. He read in Colorado National Monument at the foot of soaring sandstone walls.

Mason recalls reading at the opening of the Senate in Denver to an audience of 300 people: "A handful seemed to appreciate the moment, though most seemed to wonder what the noise was about." Another time he drove six hours to the Ute Reservation town of Ignacio, spoke to half a dozen people in a library, crashed in a casino hotel, then booked it back to Colorado Springs to teach class. In Glenwood Springs, his audience was even smaller: the librarian, her husband, and a women who happened to step in off the street. (The four of them sat knee-to-knee in the library basement and talked.) "If you have an audience of any sort," Mason says, "it's as valid as any other."

But there is a difference between a small audience and no audience at all. With 12 months left to go and the "easy" counties like Boulder and Denver ticked off many times over, Mason is beginning to doubt whether he'll achieve his goal of bringing poetry to every nook, cranny, corner, canyon, valley, hillside and summit in the state. He asked an old friend who lives in sparsely populated Moffat County, in extreme northwestern Colorado, if he could help set up a gig, and the friend responded, "You might not find many people to talk to." The same seems likely of Montezuma and Mineral and Sedgwick and Lincoln, all counties that Mason is "dying to visit." Perhaps he'll have to fashion himself into that Yeats-loving trucker after all.

South Park, the Gunnison Valley, the San Juan Mountains, the San Luis Valley with the Sangre de Cristo Range rising to the east. Pronghorn antelope sprint alongside the car. Meadowlarks flit from fences, their song so loud it cuts across the engine noise. There's a sandstorm in the Four Corners, a cold snap in Fairplay. Sunset. Dawn. Sunset again. As Mason puts it in Ludlow: "I seem to force / my aging Subaru against the wind."

The miles are starting to take their toll, but he shows no signs of stopping. Wherever there are people, he says, there's a need for poetry, for that "necessary and universal form of articulateness" that speaks equally to children and their bone-tired mothers, to old folks and their eager sons. And he knows that he too has much left to experience.

"I've learned a lot about Colorado, to be sure. …" Picture him not just saying this but also thinking it, the words running through his head like lines of verse as he weaves through traffic or climbs another mountain pass. "I've learned a lot about Colorado, to be sure, but I can also feel how much of the state remains unknown to me. I think this is a condition of being Coloradan -- our life on this land is such a recent, superficial addition to it. We live on the skin of the state and never really know what lies beneath that skin. There's so much we don't know."

Indeed. There's a thickness here both social and natural, a bottomless layering of stories and soils and waters and peoples and words. All the more reason to slam another cup of coffee, crank up the volume, and point yourself toward the horizon, the next prison, the next kindergarten classroom or afternoon thunderstorm. Who better for the job than a poet?