The massacre in iambic pentameter
Poet and Ludlow chronicler: ‘On the whole, we are an amnesiac culture.’
David Mason, the son of Colorado natives, is a literature and creative writing professor at Colorado College and the state’s poet laureate. He grew up in Washington state, lived overseas for many years and moved to Colorado to teach in 1998, determined to write something that anchored him in his people’s landscape. Mason’s 2007 verse novel, “Ludlow” (Red Hen Press), is 600 stanzas of poetry about fictional characters’ experience of the Colorado Coal War of 1913-1914. It’s also a meticulously reported journalistic study about coal miners’ struggle against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, and the bloodshed and heartbreak that culminated in the state-led attack on the strikers, their wives and children 100 years ago this week. The book has inspired an opera by composer Lori Laitman. Mason recently spoke with Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene.
Colorado Independent: What made you choose this topic?
Mason: I grew up in the West and my family goes back to Trinidad for several generations. I had heard about Ludlow in my childhood, partly because my great grandfather owned one of the company stores. It intrigued me then, wondering how he felt about the strike. And it intrigued me as an adult for different reasons. I’ve lived in Greece. I was married to a Scottish woman, and now an Australian. I’ve had experience with immigrants and being an immigrant. I know what it’s like to dream in one language and live in another. Ludlow was full of immigrants. It’s the story about people who were told they didn’t have a right to exist. I think it’s partly a book about people who feel ungrounded, dislocated. And I think it was partly my way of grounding myself in this part of the world.
Most history books omit what happened at Ludlow, which was one of the longest and deadliest labor wars in the U.S. Why?
Mason: At the beginning, the story was actively suppressed by powerful people like the CF&I Company, which didn’t want the union’s side to get out. The story got out by other means – union-lore and folklore about it. But as unionism has diminished, stories like Ludlow have fallen by the wayside. The economy of our time is once again so uncertain and scary that a lot of people don’t want to rock the boat and upset corporations because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. So they don’t talk about things that are uncomfortable.
There’s also the fact that in our educational system we’ve been given one official version of American history that left out dark chapters that don’t fit into our idea of ourselves as a great nation. Ludlow is a prime example of one of those dark chapters.
There are families throughout Colorado, descendants of the strikers, CF&I managers and the National Guard militia who were involved at Ludlow. Some still won’t talk about it. What do you make of their silence?
Mason: There’s a lot of anger out there about what your ancestors did to my ancestors. It’s a legacy of anger and grief. There’s a lingering trauma that makes people take sides between the pro-union and anti-union look at things. I once met a man who said it wasn’t a massacre, but a battle in which they didn’t intend to kill women and children. People jealously guard their own version of history.
You have said Ludlow is a parable. About what?
Mason: Ludlow is an epic of America. We’re a country that constantly struggles with questions about who has the right to be here and who doesn’t, who has the right to marry and who doesn’t. The issues that America is still dealing with now are the same as they were dealing with back in 1914. Immigrants were told that they didn’t have the right to sit in a train station waiting room. The gun mentality and gun violence back then persist today. And the struggle against corporate power is as true as ever. But somehow this gets glossed over. On the whole, we are an amnesiac culture. I think it’s shameful. Why aren’t we angrier about Ludlow? Why aren’t we angry about what we’ve done to ourselves?
Much has been written and sung about Ludlow. Whose work has moved you? Whose hasn’t?
Mason: What people know best is the Woody Guthrie song. It’s not my favorite, mainly because it’s more sentimental than accurate. Given the weight of the topic, I felt Gurthrie’s song should have been tougher. There’s a poem by Carl Sandburg, “Memoir of a Proud Boy,” that did it justice, I think. It was tough in just the right way.
You’ve been teaching and speaking about Ludlow since your book was published in 2007. Are there things you still keep learning?
Mason: Frank Petrucci did a Colorado Independent panel earlier this month. He lost three siblings in the fire pit and his mother, Mary Petrucci, survived and lived to talk about it. Meeting Frank was one of the most gratifying experiences because it really brings home how close this is to us. Hearing his daughter read a quote her grandmother gave to a national reporter was about as moving as anything I’ve encountered You hear Mary Petrucci’s words and you look at photos of the hole in the ground where her kids died and you understand that this was not just a political cause, this was human life at its most intense.
You were named poet laureate by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2010 and your appointment ends this summer. What has it been like?
Mason: It has enabled and motivated me to get out around Colorado and find out about where I live. I’ve met people from all walks of life and discovered a great hunger for what poetry offers – a form of articulateness that is a universal human good. I think people reach for articulate language when the circumstances of their lives demand it.It’s been a pleasure to know more about the place of my art in the broader world.
Excerpts from Ludlow by David Mason
It seemed a camp of women to him now.
They ran the place. They didn’t quit their work
when husbands struck. He never meant to strike
but one day all the men around him dropped
their tools in one disgruntled clatter, and he
went with them, shared their bottle and got drunk,
and Lefty came and badgered them to join
the union. That night Too Tall met his wife
and she saw instantly what he had done.
‘You’ve joined the cause. Well and good. Well and good,
ya daft man, and fou as well. They’ll make us leave
and live in tents, and all the work ye’ve done
‘Aye,’ he managed.
‘Aye,’ she answered.
And now he took a step like a man learning
over again some new technique for walking,
another night’s bad whiskey splitting him
in two like the dull head of a broad axe.
. . .
He’d shoveled coke into the furnaces
of Pueblo’s mill until they made him lead
a crew, then moved him to the office where
he tallied loads of coal until retirement.
Three decades passing like a dust bowl cloud,
a long train wailing through the arid night,
freighted with lives he’d never see again.
That long train hauled the grief
mined from the mesas by the immigrants
into a silence like forgetfulness.
[Photo by James Brennan]
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