Monday, August 2, 2010

Monday Muse: Colorado's New Poet Laureate

David Mason was appointed Colorado's seventh Poet Laureate on July 1, succeeding Mary Crow, about whom I wrote a post on March 29. A description of the history of the state poet's position appeared in the same post on Mary Crow.

* * * * *
The Greeks had it fundamentally right:
poetry is making, construction, fabrication.
It is the most active engagement with experience
possible through the medium of words.
~ David Mason*

A poet, essayist, memoirist, translator, and critic, David Mason has deep roots in Colorado (his family tree goes back four to five generations), although he was born in Bellingham, Washington, and has lived in New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Greece.

Mason has published The Buried Houses: Poems (Story Line Press, 1991), which was awarded the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize; The Country I Remember: Poems (Story Line Press, 1996), which received the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award; Arrivals: Poems (Story Line Press, 2004); and Ludlow: A Verse-Novel (Ren Hen Press, 2007), named best poetry book in 2007 by Contemporary Poetry Review and National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He also published, with John Frederick Nims, Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (McGraw-Hill, 2005); he plans to publish a new collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet, in 2011 (University of Michigan Press). His chapbooks include, most recently, A Walk in the Park (Aralia Press, 2002) and The Collector's Tale (Aralia Press, 2004). His News from the Village: Aegean Friends (Red Hen Press), a memoir, appeared this past April.

Mason doesn't restrict himself to poetry- and book-writing. He completed a libretto for an opera, "The Scarlet Letter", based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, set to music by Lori Laitman. (Audio tracks are available on the opera's site.)

In his personal "Statement About My Work" at the Colorado Poets Center, Mason describes his work as being "almost obsessively concerned with movement, deracination, and identity"; notes that his poems range across such diverse locales as India, New Zealand, Ireland, the Pacific Northwest, and Colorado; and admits that Ludlow, which addresses the Colorado National Guard massacre in 1914 of striking coal miners, "has strong social and political overtones."

Mason's poetry is evocative, highly readable, and dense with imagery — pictures, actions, sounds, as this short poem below shows. We don't know the source of "my grief abated like water soaking underground" but sense a healing in the poet's observation of all that nature offers:

Colorado turns Kyoto in a shower,
mist in the pines so thick the crows delight
(or seem to), winging in obscurity.
The ineffectual panic of a squirrel
who chattered at my passing gave me pause
to watch his Ponderosa come and go—
long needles scratching cloud. I'd summited
but knew it only by the wildflower meadow,
the muted harebells, paintbrush, gentian,
scattered among the locoweed and sage.
Today my grief abated like water soaking
underground, its scar a little path
of twigs and needles winding ahead of me
downhill to the next bend. Today I let
the rain soak through my shirt and was unharmed.
~ "In the Mushroom Summer"

These lines show how well Mason sets a scene that draws you into a story he wants to share:

When it was over I sat down last night,
shaken, and quite afraid I'd lost my mind.
The objects I have loved surrounded me
like friends in such composed society
they almost rid the atmosphere of fright.
I collected them, perhaps, as one inclined
to suffer other people stoically.

That's why, when I found Foley at my door—
not my shop, but here at my private home,
the smell of bourbon for his calling card—
I sighed and let him in without a word. . . .
~ From "The Collector's Tale" from Arrivals

And these few words from the book-length Ludlow reveal the careful craft in creating a sympathetic portrait of lives that daily hold danger and often end tragically:

The miners made widows too, when timbermen
or diggers deep inside the earth cut through
to gas and lanterns set it off, or when
the pillard chambers fell. You heard a slump
within, and some poor digger ran out choking
there was thirty boys still trapped in the seam.
And some days all you'd see was bodies carted
down the hill and bosses counting heads.

For additional excerpts from Ludlow, which Mason describes here as "a story about people who were being told they don't have a right to be here [and] fought for their existence", go to the PBS Poetry Series profile ink provided below. Mason talks on a 2007 Kacey Kowars show about the style and writing of Ludlow.

Featured in May 2008 on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, Mason's work also has been published in The Nation, TLS, The Hudson Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review, Light QuarterlyThe American Scholar, and numerous other literary publications. 

Mason teaches creative writing and literature at Colorado College. He was poet-in-residence at Santa Catalina School earlier this year. 


* Quoted in "David Mason: Meet Colorado's New Poet Laureate", July 1, 2010

All poetry excerpts © David Mason

Press Release on Appointment as Colorado's Poet Laureate

Colorado Public Radio Interview with David Mason, July 6, 2010 (audio)


Brighde Mullins, "A Person With a Name: Review of Ludlow: A Verse-Novel" in The Dark Horse, Summer 2007 (Literary Criticism)

Mason's Essays "The Two Minds of a Western Poet" and "The Form of Poetry: Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems" (Weekly Standard, December 20, 2004)

Selection of Poems Available Online: "Remains" ( and Light Quarterly) "Song of the Powers" (Poetry Out Loud), "The Picketwire" (audio), "Fog Horns" (Poetry Foundation; audio available), "Fathers and Sons" (The New Yorker, September 28, 2009)

PBS NewHour, Poetry Series Profile and "A Violent Moment in American Labor History, Captured in Verse", April 1, 2010 (Video with Transcript)

Ted Kooser, "Mason Succeeds in Telling Story of Ludlow Massacre Through Pages of Poetry", JournalStar. com, November 10, 2007


Audio of Interview on The Poetry Show, March 14, 2010


Glynn said...

If you keep doing these, Maureen, I'm going to have to get a loan to pay for the books of poetry I'm ordering.

Great feature (but that's no different from what you always do).

Joyce Wycoff said...

Beautiful! What a lovely man ... what a lovely introduction.

Cassandra Frear said...

Gorgeous writing.

S. Etole said...

I enjoy his work and I enjoy your work ... a winning combination.

Anonymous said...

he has a way with words, alright.

oh...the word verification is pretty cool this time...


Kathleen Overby said...

iLike his face as much as his words. earthy, fertile, loamy words that grow thoughts.