Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #5

Looking Back at Ludlow

David Mason’s Ludlow, a verse-novel about what’s been called the Ludlow Massacre, won the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry. In an afterword-essay, “Fiction, Fact, and Verse,” Mason writes about the formation of the characters, both actual and fictional, and defends the power of narrative verse, often more “cinematic” than prose in accomplishing its ends.

But anyone can read his stand on the combination of lyric intensity and “story” and it’s discussed, as well, in the various reviews Ludlow garnered. I wanted to know some other things about the book, and David responded.

David Mason

King:  What to you were the biggest challenges (obstacles, etc.) in taking on this task (or on finishing it)?
Mason:  I’m not sure how to answer this, since everything about the project was a challenge in one sense and a creative pleasure in another. I knew I wanted to try a narrative voice I had never used before--a sort of omniscience that could move about in time and space more freely than the first-person usually can.

I knew after a certain point that I wanted to use blank verse (with some rhyme), but needed to feel my way through the definition of line, how much variation to give and how often to offer that iambic chord. And I knew I had to fictionalize historical people and create purely fictional characters to interact with them.

Those were all challenges, but the liberation I felt in pursuing such challenges was pure pleasure.

King:  How long or in what form did the whole process take, the back-and-forth between research and writing?

Mason:  Research was minimal--I name the few books that helped, but I was quite clear that I did not want to write a book that felt like a documentary. I wanted the vitality and presence of a novel. The historical novelist can kill a project by trying to use all of his or her research, and I knew I had to cut out a lot of information and focus on the ground sense of the story.

I’d say I got a draft of the whole book done in nine months or so, then fussed over it for about three more years. It did occur to me that no one would ever publish a verse novel on such a subject, so I might as well relax and take my time about it. I tried the book on a few publishers who said no, then set it aside. When Kate Gale at Red Hen called and asked me for a book, I said “What the hell--how about Ludlow?” She read it and took it.

King:  The painting on the cover is a remarkably “pastoral” one, compared to the actual events of the book.

Mason:  Mark Cull did a beautiful job with the design. The cover painting, by the way, is a California scene, not a Colorado one. We got it for free--it’s hanging in the home of a friend in Los Angeles. I’ve come to think of it as a painting of my characters’ aspirations rather than their reality.

King:  Did you experiment with finding the form, the stanzas, meter? Or pretty much decide that was the way to do it from the start?

Mason:  I’ve used stanzas for dramatic and narrative poems before. The Country I Remember is in seven-liners with occasional one-line codas. One of my best poems, a sort of horror piece called “The Collector’s Tale,” is in two voices, one in obscene blank verse, the other in rhyme--I felt that Derek Walcott had done impressive character poems using rhyme and wanted to see if I could pull it off.

The eight-line stanza for Ludlow came about in part because I wanted something paragraph-like to help me guide the story and the verse--not too short and not too long. I wanted to enjamb stanzas on occasion so they wouldn’t feel lock-step. And I wanted to use rhyme for closure at key points, rather as Shakespeare does in his plays. It’s very interesting to me that most of the reviewers were unable to hear the rhymed bits. I guess some technical matters are always the poet’s private affair.

King:  What was the relationship between the role of your personal history with the subject matter and, more or less, public history?

Mason:  Walcott again:  where he has that golden diction derived from the King’s English and from pidgin and patois, I wanted to capture something of the linguistic richness of this part of the world--hence the layering in of Scots dialect, the Spanish and Greek.

I was writing this book in part to place myself in my ancestral home, to come to terms with my own roots. Introducing a version of myself as a character is of course something poets like Walcott and Leithauser have also done, not to mention novelists like Kundera. Not all readers felt I was justified in doing so, but I remain convinced that it was an enriching rather than a limiting strategy.

The fact that I have spent much of my life in southern Colorado, that I have known the ranchers, the businessmen and others in the Trinidad area, made the whole project feel personal as well as national. I’m glad the book has been reviewed in Greece and Scotland and Washington DC, but I’m also glad it has affected people in Trinidad and Walsenburg.

King: What was the greatest satisfaction in successfully taking on ‘history’ or ‘politics’ in a verse-novel?

Mason:  Well, a lot of contemporary poetry is about the contemplation of the poet’s own navel, and I get tired of that, no matter how well it is done. I feel some satisfaction that I have made a few lives vividly present to some readers, that I have made some people want to know more about where they live, that I have told a good story. That’s the thing: the story was there.

It was a real story before I told it. I knew I had some gold to work with, and I was free to work it any way I chose because I had no expectations that it would ever be published. The fact that it has been published and well received is gravy. Pure gravy.