David Mason: Meet Colorado's new poet laureate

At 9:30 a.m. this morning, in a ceremony on the State Capitol steps, Governor Bill Ritter will welcome Colorado's seventh poet laureate. And no, he's not an ancient dandy in an ascot with an Auden-like pallor and a thirst for sherry.

This is Colorado, bub. Ritter couldn't have done better than his selection of Colorado College English professor David Mason.

Mason is a genial and deeply talented fellow who once unloaded crab boats in Alaska for a living. He's got an appreciation for brewpubs and has written with passion and insight about the tragic history of our state.

The job of poet laureate has traditionally been rather low-key around here. So low-key, in fact, that the post was vacant for eight years after the 1988 death of Thomas Hornsby Ferril -- and hardly anybody noticed.

That's not to take anything away from the effort put forth by Mason's immediate predecessor, Mary Crow, a Colorado State University emeritus professor who's been a strong advocate for poetry and literature for the past 14 years.

Mason promises to build on what Crow started. He brings an impressive record of first-rate work, including his bold 2007 novel in verse, Ludlow, which tackles the 1914 massacre of striking miners in the coalfields outside of Trinidad in blank pentameter (600 eight-line stanzas' worth). The book, which I raved about here, won the Colorado Book Award and was recently featured on the PBS News Hour.

Not to slight his formidable verse and scholarship, but Mason also brings a certain enthusiasm for the word that a world of poetry haters desperately needs. I have known him for several decades now. We were both students at Colorado College a couple lifetimes ago, back when that tiny campus contained an astonishing number of future poets, novelists and journalists, including New Yorker writer David Owen (My Usual Game), Gregg Easterbrook of The Atlantic, D.W. Fenza (now executive director of the Associated Writing Programs), New York Times Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker, and Michael (Goldenboy) Nava, to name just a few.

In the battles between mad free-versers and formalists, Mason has always been in the latter camp -- he's referred to Allen Ginsberg's Howl as a "crashing bore" -- without being stuffy or trapped in tradition. After much study and travel, Mason returned to CC as the mainstay of its creative writing program. Despite being enormously in demand with students, he remains impressively productive as a writer, working on librettos, a memoir (the recently published News From the Village) and God knows what.

"The Greeks had it fundamentally right: poetry is making, construction, fabrication," he wrote in a collection of essays called The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry. "It is the most active engagement with experience possible through the medium of words."

Perhaps he can get the rest of us to join in the engagement.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast