ELKO, Nev. His silver-tinged mustache, which bisects his face like a hirsute Mason-Dixon line and must require a machete to trim, is set in a permanent frown. So the only way to tell for certain whether Waddie Mitchell, cowboy poet extraordinaire, is smiling is by the crinkle of his crow’s-feet, the arch of an eyebrow, the rapid octave rise in his twangy growl.
Here he stands, microphone in one hand and thumb of the other hooked over a jean’s pocket, staring out at a packed auditorium at the recent 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and, momentarily, is at a loss for words. Hardly the archetypal laconic cowboy – more often, he flirts with loggorhea – Mitchell seems stumped. Was it a poem he was going to recite? Maybe a salty roaming-the-range story? A pun-puncuated joke?
Waddie’s train of thought clearly has left the station, with a high lonesome whistle perhaps only he can hear, and that’s when he smiles. The crinkle is there, so is the eyebrow arch, finally a big old guffaw erupts. Mitchell, 63, now speaks directly to the crowd, overflowing with admirers who look pretty much like him – on the far side of 50, wearing cowboy hats with brims the size of pizza tins, florid bandanas around their necks, droopy mustaches (the men, that is) and boots scuffed by work, not “distressed” by a designer manufacturer.
“How do you explain to people back home why you go in the middle of winter to the middle of nowhere to listen to these nobody cowboys spew poetic for four days?” he asked. “I even wonder why you do it.”
At a festival dedicated to rhetoric, his question obviously was rhetorical. But to those not versed in cowboy verses, those unaware of the long, proud oral tradition of shooting the bull and rhyming couplets round the campfire, it’s a query worth exploring.
Folks come, of course, for the stories and guitar-strumming, the rhymed meter and the freewheeling free verse. They come to converse and commune, kick up their boot heels and take a dance-floor twirl, renew friendships and forge alliances, dust off their leather vests and Sunday bests and represent their state, their ranch, their family name, and most of all defend a way of life from naysayers who call it a dying profession. Plus, as Mitchell said, it’s the dead of winter in the West, and there’s nothing else much to do.
Urbanites, who punch time clocks rather than cows, will find a trip to Elko in January not merely a chance to dine on the town’s trove of Basque restaurants but to glimpse a truly American (OK, western Canadian, too) subcultural both clinging to tradition and embracing change in hopes of staving off extinction. At the very least, it’s a fascinating anthropological exercise, seeing real cowboys not in their natural habitat but at ease among their own kind.
These are working cowboys, too. They may wax poetic, but they are about as effete as a snorting bull. Nearly all the 53 invited poets are current or former ranchers, packers, rodeo riders. You can tell by their wiry, V-shaped physiques, barrel-chested and slim-waisted even into their 60s, but often bow-legged and slightly creaky in gait. The cowgirl poets, too, exude a certain strapping vibrancy – no consumptive, fey Emily Dickinson types these women. Only a select few, like Mitchell and NPR regular Baxter Black and musical headliner Ian Tyson, make a lucrative livings versifying in public; the majority who left Elko at weekend’s end are back breaking ice at the ranch.
Such is the sideshow spectacle – hoards of folks strolling the halls of the Elko Convention Center or the nearby Western Folklife Center sporting salad-plate-sized belt buckles and every style of mustache, artisans giving demonstrations of dutch-oven cooking, hat making and leather tooling, experts debating a future with climate change and mineral excavation changing the landscape, ranch dancing and harmonica lessons – that it can be easy to forget the reason for the Gathering.
It’s the poetry, of course. And, as a supplement, the cowboy singers who essentially are just bards with six strings on their hips and ’staches on their lips.
And here’s the wonderful surprise for the uninitiated: The verse spouted is not necessarily the sing-songy, rhyme-every-other-line, git-along-l’il-dogie tearjerkers about some dear old dead horse or sappy sentiments about love gone wrong.
A cowboy poet such as Paul Zarzyski, who got an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana years ago while competing on the professional rodeo circuit, hardly rhymes at all. He tends toward stream-of-consciousness free verse musings on a world looked at from both atop a horse and behind the wheel of a “viper red” 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Or take an old-school bard such as Colorado rancher Vess Quinlan, whose rhyming days were done after studying with former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine. Even an inveterate rhymer such as Elko’s own Mitchell often tweaks traditional forms.
“There still are poems written about the old horse that died, but early on people started writing about their own experience on the land and what they are going through now,” said Charlie Seemann, executive director of the Western Folklife Center for the past 16 years. “You get poems about pickups and the trials and tribulations of everything from spotted owls to oil drilling. We get a lot of women’s poetry now, from the ranch wives’ perspective. It’s amazing how many people have been inspired to pick up a pen and tell their own stories in their own words. Everybody’s story is worth telling.”
True, but, as with other forms of poetry, the chasm is stark between finely wrought works in which every syllable, every caesura is painstakingly placed, and the dashed-off, well-thumbed rhyming thesaurus ditties. You only needed to sit through one open-mike session here – those whose participants weren’t among the 53 poets invited by a panel – to hear the difference between tin-eared rambling and polished poesy.
It’s this skewed perception that cowboy poetry is all cornpone that really sticks in the craw – or the handlebar mustache – of Zarzyski, who, at 63, has spent decades honing his works, reshaping words to scour away any unearned sentiment.
“When people hear the term cowboy poetry, they immediately flash to the doggerel,” he said. “Often times, it’s people like you (the media) that don’t help us. Somebody from The New York Times comes here one year and we have a serious conversation about living and dying on this earth and about art, and then the son of a bitch goes back home and I pick up the paper and the title of the piece is ‘Get Along Little Doggerel.’ We get a bad rap.”
Zarzyski studied under the late Pulitzer Prize poet Richard Hugo, who he said accepted his Western-themed works without judgment. Others in the literary world, Zarzyski said, simply dismiss cowboy poetry as the basest of genres. The irony is, of course, that Zarzyski, whose days of riding bucking broncos ended long ago, probably makes a better living off poetry than a New Yorker magazine-published poet who must rely on a teaching position to pay the bills.
“Yes, I have made a living, not a great one,” said Zarzyski, who lives in Great Falls, Mont. “I’ve made enough money to buy the time, nice big chunks of time, in which to stay home and work on these poems. And I work on them. It’s labor-intensive.”
Like Mitchell and Black, Zarzyski has book deals, releases spoken-word CDs and tours at smaller gatherings nationwide. And he has fans, too, adoring fans.
On a Thursday morning reading, organizers had to rustle up more chairs in the Turquoise Room, where Zarzyski and Quinlan shared the stage. As the crowd settled in, Zarzyski stood to the right of the stage in a long-sleeved turquoise shirt, tipped-back brown hat and his signature multihued cowboy print tie. He shuffled one foot to the other, pounding fist into fist. It was as if he were girding himself to tussle with a bronc, as in his rodeo days.
After being introduced and entertaining the crowd with both cowboy tales and wry, slice-of-life poems about everyday absurdities – driving to town to get mail from the P.O. box, wrangling with pneumatic tubes at a drive-through bank teller – Zarzyski launched into into a rambling stream of consciousness work called “The Coldest Place I’ve Ever Been,” which he wrote not about Montana but about visiting friends in Sacramento amid winter tule fog. An excerpt:
When Zarzyski left the stage 45 minutes later, fans descended like flies on a heifer’s hindquarters, to borrow colorful local parlance. Women hugged him and gushed, men asked him to sign his books. Most well-wishers were either ranch folk or those somehow connected to the equine or livestock industry. But then a middle-aged man, clearly a cubicle-dweller based on his khaki pants, a stripped dress shirt and lack of millinery for his bald pate, interposed himself.
“I’ve never been a fan of poetry,” Tom Wheeler, of St. George, Utah, told Zarzyski. “But I loved this. Thank you.”
Wheeler and his wife, Laurie, were making their first foray to the Gathering, accompanied by friend Geri Chuba, a veteran. The two women pored over the program, debating options. From 10 a.m. to beyond 10 p.m., there are readings, concerts, video documentaries, crafts demonstrations, open-mike competitions and lectures held on seven stages at four venues around town. Their problem was too many choices. Tough decisions had to be made.
“We can sit in the back and maybe pop out early to get over here,” Chuba said whispered to Wheeler. “Do you want to see him?”
“I’d like to, but can we get over there in time?”
“Maybe. Or we can just stay put here for these two performances.”
Attendance figures aren’t released because tickets to events are sold separately, but a Gathering spokeswoman speculated about 8,000 people attended this year, bringing in a yearly revenue hovering around $1 million. Nearly every venue, save the open-mike events, was well-attended, but the crowd surged when notables such as Mitchell, Zarzyski, Gail Steiger (poet and singer from Arizona), Bimbo Cheney (Arizona) or Dick Gibford (from Maricopa, southwest of Bakersfield) hit the stage Friday. And Black, who has a weekly syndicated column in addition to his periodic NPR pieces, is so popular that tickets to his Saturday reading were distributed by lottery.
It’s no coincidence the stars are men of a certain age. Most are veterans of 20 of more Gatherings. But in recent years, more women have spoken up, telling tales of the traditional women’s keep-the-home-fires-burning role and how they sometimes chafe from their options.
Three generations of cowboy women – some, but not all, sneer at “cowgirl” – performed at the Gathering, from 92-year-old Georgie Sicking to 32-year-old Trinity Seeley.
Sicking, enshrined in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and subject of a recent documentary, began riding at age 2 and never stopped. She grudgingly accepted her gender role as a ranch wife. Her frustrations show in a poem, “Housewife,” in which she tells of a meeting with a bank loan officer:
“He looked me up and down with kinda squinty eyes/And opened up his mouth and uttered a word that I despise: housewife/Now when I’m calvin’ heifers and haulin’ hay and doin’ other chores/To call me ‘just a housewife’ is enough to start a war.”
Carolyn Dufurrena, 60, a writer and retired geology educator who works a ranch south of Denio, Nev., with her husband, Tim, writes about becoming a cowboy wife after going to “a fancy school back east.” The crowd roared when she read a work about cooking for the hay crew her first summer long ago. She had the brilliant idea of serving up Potage St. Germain, a puree of peas and lettuce, and quiche Lorraine. The fare didn’t go over well with the crew, particularly a 6-foot-4 basque buckaroo named Ray.
“He looked incredulously at the smooth green surface and said, ‘It’s cold!’ ” Dufurrena told the audience. “He no doubt suspected (it was) pond algae or moss from the trough. Over the years, I’ve learned to make great masses of stew and sourdough biscuits. All my soups are hot now. Still, every once in a while, I can’t resist putting a soft-boiled egg down in front of a cowboy – in an egg cup.”
Seeley, mother of four and singer-songwriter from Alcova, Wyo., made her Gathering debut and spoke of the conflicting feelings a younger generation of women have about traditional roles. Her affecting song, “Kitchen Window Cowboy,” tells about a young wife and mother stuck inside with nosed pressed against the glass, longing to ride the range with her husband. She croons: “The horses are calling to me/Sayin’ in their own way/Come on girl/Come take a ride/Come get away.”
“There’s always a sacrifice,” Seeley said. “You feel that pull in two directions.”
Younger voices were heard throughout the weekend, hewing to this year’s theme, “Into the Future,” but the graying of the Gathering has some concerned about its long-term viability.
“All of us are 30 years older and look at the pictures of us when we first came and think, ‘Holy crap. We’ve gone silver,’ ” Seemann said. “But we have seen some positive signs from the younger generation. By younger, we mean 40 or under.”
But don’t count out the graybeards just yet. These cowboy poets, hardscrabble cusses all, have staying power. As Mitchell intones in perhaps his best-known poem, “Trade Off,” about aging buckaroos seen at the Elko County Fair: “Caring little for pop culture/The things he lives without/The outside world’s a century away/And the life he leads is keeping it that way.”