Whether he’s in a CC classroom or at a podium somewhere in Colorado, English Professor David Mason ’78 is sharing his love for the written word.
These days Mason may be best known for his award-winning verse novel, “Ludlow.” But this is no one-trick poet: Since July 2010, he’s been the Colorado Poet Laureate.
Mason admitted that he had qualms about accepting when then-Gov. Bill Ritter named him to the post.
“It did make me nervous all of a sudden,” Mason said. “I am somebody who has a bad habit of trying to be all things to all people. It’s an old neurosis of mine that results in overwork and exhaustion and so this post, in some ways, frightened me in terms of that prospect.”
But he took the plunge and hit the road with the mission of taking poetry to every county in Colorado. A snapshot of his schedule for April 2011: classes at a Colorado Springs elementary school, presentations in Denver schools and the Broomfield library, workshops at the junior college in Trinidad, meeting a junior high class in Evergreen, and a talk at the Center for the American West in Boulder.
As of October 2011, he’d crossed 30 of the 64 counties off his list, and he’s determined to bag the rest before his four-year term ends. It’s just a matter of finding time to travel to those far-flung, sparsely populated corners of Colorado.
Mason said his travel expenses will gobble up his stipend. But for him, it’s not about the money.
“I go into a community where people might tell me that poetry never interested them, they didn’t have it in school, they were always afraid of it, something of that nature. And they will respond to a performance of it very positively. They’ll say, ‘I never heard it that way before.’ ”
Mason also is laying a foundation he hopes will stand firm when his successor takes over as the state’s eighth poet laureate. Wherever he travels, he recruits a local poet to appear with him.
As he said: “I’m trying to cast the light as broadly as I can and make sure that other people are involved so there’s some kind of a social fabric in place that doesn’t need me to be part of it.”
Mason has learned from his predecessors, especially Thomas Hornsby Ferril (Colorado poet laureate 1979-1988). “I think he’s a wonderful poet of Colorado and one of the best this state has ever produced.”
Mason also admires the programs, including poetry activities for schoolchildren, that Mary Crow (1996-2010) instituted during her tenure as the state’s poet laureate.
When Alice Polk Hill took the post in 1919, Colorado was only the second state in the union, after California, to name a poet laureate. Mason isn’t surprised that states such as New York or Massachusetts weren’t among the first.
“They have a kind of smugness about their cultural value. And the West couldn’t afford that smugness, at least in the 20th century. We still had something to prove.”
The Western landscape plays a huge role in Mason’s writings. Although he was born and raised in Washington State and has lived in various locales, including Greece, his family has strong ties to Colorado.
“It’s very much in the fabric of my family life and I consider some aspects of the story of this state to be part of my personal heritage.”
His father grew up in Trinidad, and that connection planted a seed for one of Mason’s greatest successes. It was his uncle who gave him a book about the Ludlow Massacre, the 1914 battle between coal miners and the Colorado militia that left dozens dead in the Trinidad area.
That seed blossomed into “Ludlow,” a verse novel that has reaped praise from all directions, including the Colorado Book Award, the Contemporary Poetry Review, and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
That’s a far cry from his childhood attempts at poetry, which Mason admits were “awful.” As he matured, he knew his future lay with writing – whether as a poet, a playwright, or a novelist, he wasn’t sure.
Then he entered CC and immersed himself in campus life. Some of his favorite teachers, such as Susan Ashley, Peter Blasenheim, Dan Tynan, and John Simons, are now his colleagues.
“There was a constant interplay in the social life of the student and the social life of the faculty member,” Mason said. “That felt good to me when I was a student, it felt good to be part of the discussions of grown-ups in their houses. At the same time, I really understand how profoundly overworked those guys were in the 1970s. Overworked and underpaid for what they did.”
Mason earned his bachelor of arts in English and went on to a master’s and a doctorate at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. He returned to CC as a faculty member in 1998.
Jon Mooallem ’00, who graduated with a bachelor’s in English/creative writing, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
“He was my advisor for my thesis and someone to whom I’d show stuff I was working on even when not taking a class with him. In short, he was a mentor,” Mooallem said.
Mooallem welcomed Mason’s encouragement during his senior year and, as graduation loomed, he turned to his mentor for guidance about life after college. “I wanted to know what I was supposed to do to get better and how I could continue to learn, and I was also trying to wring some career advice out of him,” Mooallem said.
“He suddenly started burrowing around stacks of books in his office and pulling out ones that he felt I absolutely needed to read – new books by promising poets, mostly. Many were people Dave knew. And so I walked out with this heap of poetry books. It sounds horribly corny, but in retrospect, I really felt like all of a sudden something had changed: that Dave wasn’t exactly my professor anymore but had opened this door into a world of colleagues and was telling me to come on in.”
Mooallem rarely writes poetry anymore, but credits Mason for paving the way to his career in journalism, starting with a job at The Hudson Review literary quarterly.
“The idea that writing was work really stuck with me, as opposed to romanticizing it as some mystical calling; a writer’s more like a carpenter than a high priest. That’s probably the single most important thing I’ve learned about writing. I don’t think I would be as productive a writer if I hadn’t internalized that.”
Mooallem said he frequently hears from CC students nearing graduation and asking his advice, with Mason acting as the bridge between the fledgling and the experienced writers.
Ben Cronin ’11 also credits Mason with changing his life, saying he took “a whole bunch” of Mason’s classes, which he described as incredible.
“He was actually the teacher who got me interested in studying poetry at all,” Cronin said. “Before I met him and took his Beginning Poetry Writing class, I was incredibly challenged by poems. I didn’t understand most of them and didn’t know why I should care about them. I took the class because I wanted to unpack something challenging and Dave immediately was the classic teacher who helped me fall completely in love with a subject I had not been familiar with.
“Dave helped shape the person I am today in a big way. He obviously helped me to garner an affinity for writing and poetry, but he also helped me learn a lot about myself. His teaching went well beyond the classroom. Dave helped me relax about finding a job after college. He helped me to learn that ideas themselves are important and that things as simple as poetry can change the world in one way or another. He taught me how important it is to not only re-examine every word that I write but also the ones I speak.”