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