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)
 

Colorado has 64 counties. Some are mountainous and often buried underneath snow; others are flat and dry, spotted with cattle and the shadows of clouds. One might be home to tumbleweeds, another to skyscrapers, and a third to hard-core libertarians, spandex-clad bicyclists, whitewater, gamblers, gold mines, poverty or black bears. Despite their diversity, every county in the state, from Arapahoe to Yuma, has one thing in common: Poetry. Or at least they will if David Mason can stay awake behind the wheel for another thousand miles. The poetry he's offering is not on the page but in the air, performed and shared and appreciated. In fact, it's Mason himself, a book in hand, a poem on the tip of his tongue.

Mason is not a trucker belting Yeats out the window of his big rig at diners and gas stations (though he'd likely do so given the chance). Rather, he's an English professor in an ailing 15-year-old Subaru Forester, his red-brown hair blown back, the stereo turned way up. In 2010, Mason was appointed Colorado's seventh poet laureate, a position that comes with a small stipend and 10 or so public appearances each year of the four-year term. Less an Ivory Tower academic than the Devils Tower sort, Mason upped the ante, committing himself to an adventure through the plains and ranges and towns and cities of the land he calls home.

"The laureate has a simple function," he explains, "and that is to remind the community" -- the entire community -- "of the universal value of articulateness, of beautiful expression, of poetry." Mason does this by reciting poems, his own and others, wherever he gets the chance. By the summer of 2014, when his laureateship concludes, he hopes to have tagged all 64 counties -- Broomfield to Baca and beyond. The stipend is fast disappearing into the Subaru's gas tank.

"The truth is, I have always been a traveler," Mason says. He speaks deliberately, slowly, holding each word before letting it go. Born and raised in Bellingham, Wash., he attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs for one year before taking a break to ramble. After working as a fisherman in Alaska and hitchhiking the perimeter of the British Isles, he returned to school, where a drama professor told him that he'd never make it as a writer. "I told him to his face that I would prove him wrong," Mason remembers. "It hasn't been easy."

Eighteen months living off savings in a small Greek village, a Ph.D. in English from the University of Rochester in New York, jobs working as a harbormaster, a gardener, a woodchopper for a Charles Dickens scholar, a teacher in Minnesota -- Mason's path to literary success has twisted and turned. Thirty-five years after graduation, he's now back at Colorado College, a tenured professor in an office so cluttered with books they form geological strata -- layers of volumes heaped and tilted and settled at odd angles. He wears a plain blue collared shirt open at the throat, sleeves rolled up. "I'm a Westerner, born and raised," he says. "I grew up without crowds, without men who wore neckties."

Mason's great-grandfather, George Mason, settled in Huerfano County in the late 19th century and ran, in Mason's words, "one of the notorious 'company stores' that cheated the miners near Ludlow." In 1914, the Colorado National Guard massacred striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, killing three men, four women, and 11 children; it's an event Mason wrote about with force and tenderness in his acclaimed 2010 verse novel named for the now-vanished town. On his mother's side, his grandfather, a coal miner turned physician, is remembered in Grand Junction as the "last of the horse-and-buggy-doctors."

Colorado -- the people and history and the physical place that holds the two -- is woven into Mason's life, and thus, his poetry. But more than Colorado finds its way out onto the page. "I have no real nature of my own -- only utter receptivity to what I am living in," he says. "I am permeated by the environment in which I find myself."

Mason is by no means a strict nature poet -- one of his best-known poems is about helping his aging father go to the bathroom -- but it's hard to overlook his reverence for the physical world in its infinite variety. "I respond to landscape and weather in the most intense, intimate manner imaginable," he says. "They are nearly the whole of life to me. No job or employment, no books or conversations have ever affected me in this way." No wonder he makes ass-numbingly long traverses of the state as if they were just a jaunt to the supermarket -- it's not only poetry pushing him along, but the view out the window as well.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.