« Return to this article

Know the West

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

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


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.

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?