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Recently I was asked: Your poetry is about the west, but do you consider yourself to be a "Cowboy Poet"?
A few years ago, I would have said “Definitely not,” since my poetry rarely occurs in iambic pentameter or rhymes.
Today, I’d say, “Yes, but I usually do not write in traditional cowboy poetry form.” My poetry, like that of most of the best traditional cowboy poets, is about the daily working life of the rancher and cowboy, the people whose work helping to preserve America’s once-vast grasslands by raising cattle here.
Here’s some information on how I came to consider myself a cowboy poet, from a letter I wrote to the magazine Northern Lights in early 1999. The magazine is gone, but will be remembered for its quality. I was responding to an article by Charlie Craighead, “Cowboy Poets: A Study in Oxymoronism.”
I enjoyed the article, I said (and now I quote my letter:)
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. . . even the outrageous pun in the title. Of course some cowboy poetry is awful, but as a noted science fiction writer once said when asked why 98% of science fiction is badly written, “Ninety-eight percent of EVERYTHING is awful.” And I’m glad Craighead admits to a smidgen of jealousy-- why can these folks get published when he can’t? He’s flat wrong about the origins of cowboy poetry; the 14th and 15th annual gatherings in Elko explored the Celtic roots of the genre. And check out Gene Logsdon’s "The Whorehouse Bells were Ringing", among other sources.
But I sympathize with Craighead, who has clearly never been to an event like The Cowboy Poetry Gathering sponsored by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. I beg to offer a slightly different view.
Invited to my first cowboy poetry gathering, I marched in with a chip on my shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore. After all, I’ve been labeled as a “nature writer” (without my consent), I won’t shoot coyotes, and I gave up wearing “cowboy” hats because they blew off in a South Dakota wind on a bucking horse. Worse, I don’t use rhyme because I can’t do it as well as Robert Penn Warren and some of those other rhyming poets I studied in (shh!) graduate school. I know cows and horses, but I still expected to have to show the calluses on my hands and other anatomical features to be admitted.
Nope. I felt welcome when the first cowboy opened the outer door of the auditorium for me, slanting a glance under his hat brim. I said, “Thank you, sir.” He sighed and said, “I was afraid you was one of them liberated women who’d yell at me for opening the door.”
I said, “I’m liberated, but my folks taught me not to be rude,” and opened the second door in the series. He grinned, touched his hat in a thank-you gesture and we walked inside together.
I’m sentimental, under my leathery exterior, so when I hear a really good poem I often have tears in my eyes. I make most of my living speaking about writing in the world of academia where writers compete to show their brilliance by composing wordy sneers at each other’s work. They’ll love Craighead’s piece. If I dared to shed a tear at a poetry reading in that world-- if I was truly moved by a poem-- someone would provide an instant analysis according to preconceived notions before I could open my mouth.
“So,” the academic would say, “do you westerners and cowboy poets just sit around reminiscing about the old West that never existed anyway?”
Before I could shift my quid to say, “Nope,” he’d move on to the next question: “Are you really crying because the rhyme is so bad?”
Nope again. By contrast, at gatherings of cowboy poets, folks who tear up are given decent privacy. No one bustles up saying, “You really must progress to the next stage of your grief in order to maintain a progressive development of your psyche.” Or maybe, “May I share with you why I used to cry? Then I’ll give you the card of my therapist [or-- pick one-- shaman, priest, wellness consultant, financial advisor] who for only $20,000 will fix you.”
Since you didn’t ask, I’ll tell you. I cry at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering when a tall, thin man with a gimpy ankle reads a poem in the voice of my father when I was young. Before he lost his mind and told me my writing was garbage.
I cry when Wally McRae reads a poem about the best dang horse-wrangler he ever knew, how all the men revered him and spoke his name with respect. After ten years or so of hearing the stories, Wally thought he’d heard everything there was to know about the man called “Prock” by his elders. When Wally shook the man’s hand at last, he learned one fact no one had ever thought important enough to mention: that Proctor was black.
I cry when a white-haired cowboy finds me in the crowd and says, “Ma’am, your poetry is a blessing,” even if it doesn’t rhyme.
Go to a Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Mr. Craighead-- you should have done so before offering your opinions-- but it’s not too late. You’ll have a great time. No one will throw you out. You may get to read your own work and get compliments on it.
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My letter was published by Northern Lights in the Spring 1999, issue, Vol. XiV, No. 2, p. 28. I never heard from Mr. Craighead, so I don’t know if he followed my suggestions.
I’ve now been to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko many times and will appear again in January, 2011. (See the links below for more information on this and related events.)
I’m proud to call myself a cowboy poet. And I wear my broad-brimmed hat.
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For more information:
The Cowboy Poetry website.
The Cowboy Poetry website's page featuring me, with a sampling of my poetry.
The Western Folklife Center website with information about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
Where in the World is Linda M. Hasselstrom?
A list on this website of my appearances at upcoming events and in various publications.
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