Cowboy Poetry Is the American Art Form You've Never Heard Of
Cowboy poetry gatherings have been drawing thousands for decades, bringing together Americans from the left and right and all pastures in between.
Illustration by Emily Jureller
When the racket of whistle and applause wanes, Andy Wilkinson sets the ukulele at his feet, spreads a notebook across the lectern and—as he gazes into a 900-seat auditorium—launches headlong into the prologue of his keynote address at the 33rd annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. "Listen my kith, and listen my kin. Listen tribeswomen, and listen tribesmen…"
Wilkinson is a western savant in worn denim and a Patagonia vest: a poet, playwright, singer-songwriter, literary editor, music professor, and artist-in-residence at the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University. For the past two decades, he's been studying the creative process, steeping himself in French philosophy, quantum mechanics, poetry, and astrophysics—from Rukeyser to Costa de Beauregard, T. S. Eliot to Jacques Maritain. He also reads the news.
Barely two weeks have passed since Donald J. Trump pledged himself to the world's highest office, and yet for most, his presidency has already been dragging on, dogged by a partisan divide that grows deeper and darker with every passing day. Though he would not have wished for it, Wilkinson's thesis crawled out of the abstract after Election Day and now simmers palpably in the streets, manifest for his audience at the gathering, which is itself a microcosm—despite assumptions of a red-meat monolith—of a crazy-quilt democracy.
Relaying his rabbit-hole discoveries, Wilkinson repeats Rukeyser, that "the universe is made of stories, not of atoms," that time is measured by story, that time is story, that stories create us and in turn we create stories, and that—here's the crescendo—we "owe the world a sacred duty" to keep the universe in motion by telling our very own. For the first time in Elko history, Wilkinson performs his 40-minute lecture in verse, referencing everyone from Longfellow to Langston Hughes, Dickinson to Dylan Thomas, Bruce Kiskaddon to Badger Clark—the patron saints of cowboy poetry. He also mentions Paul Zarzyski, Amy Auker, and a handful more of notable contemporaries. The performance is heady and intellectual, interrupted only by a ukulele refrain that ends: "Time is our bloodline / bloodline, storyline."
After a final "amen, amen, amen," Wilkinson tilts the instrument toward the crowd and leaves the stage. The audience lifts to its feet in unison, everyone attuned—however briefly, however differently—to the fundamental power of story and its unique ability to accomplish what so often escapes us: "the art of reconciliation."
On March 7, 2011, Nevada senator Harry Reid, then Democratic majority leader, took to the floor of the Senate in a black suit and gold tie to oppose H.R. 1, a "mean-spirited" budget bill that proposed eliminating—among a slew of other programs—both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
"These programs create jobs," he argued. "The National Endowment for the Humanities is the reason we have, in northern Nevada every January, the Cowboy Poetry Festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist."
Never mind that Reid grossly exaggerated the Gathering's attendance—at the time, the annual event was luring roughly 6,000 to 8,000 people—or that federal grants represented less than three percent of the operating budget for the Western Folklife Center, the parent organization. The very idea of a cowboy poetry gathering was shark bait for a hungry shiver of Tea Party Republicans. Like the notorious and brutally misinterpreted "shrimp on a treadmill" study, the notion of subsidizing a rendezvous of rhyming cowboys perfectly showcased their claims of frivolous federal spending. That Reid defended the event in lockstep with Pell grants and Homeland Security investments likely didn't help. For months to follow, Republicans frenzied on the chum.
"We have the majority leader down here complaining that he might not get money for his cowboy poetry festival in Nevada. Give me a break," said Jeff Sessions, then senator of Alabama. "This country is headed on the path of great danger, and we need to turn around."
Congresswoman Candice Miller of Michigan addressed the House armed with a dose of Reid's own medicine, a poem titled "How to Cut Taxes" by Yvonne Hollenbeck of South Dakota, a regular performer at the national gathering:
So, I think if I was the President
of this home of the free and the brave,
I'd close up all those departments
and think of the money I'd save.
Today, federal funding for the arts and humanities seems poised once again for the chopping block. Last month, the White House Budget Office included both the NEA and NEH—in addition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—on its "hit list" to curtail domestic spending, despite accounting for less than 0.02 percent of the federal budget. Progressives will undoubtedly push back, but one can bet they won't again be citing the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in riposte.
But what if Reid—despite undeniably poor timing and a stunning tone-deafness—had a point? What if the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the hundreds of other gatherings like it all across the country are exactly what we need? When the Senate designated the Elko gathering the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in October 2000, the resolution acknowledged the gathering's keen ability to serve "as a bridge between urban and rural people by creating a forum for the presentation of art and for the discussion of cultural issues in a humane and non-political manner."
Today, with the number of hate groups on the rise and the chasm between left and right, urban and rural spreading further all the time, what could be more appropriate?
A few weeks after Trump carried Election Night, I sent a quick email to poet Paul Zarzyski, a former bronc rider and dyed-in-the-wool liberal who has been performing at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering since 1987. I'd been corresponding with Zarzyski for several months, hoping to scratch beneath the surface of a genre so easily dismissed as doggerel and so often laughed away. He'd made no attempt to conceal his politics, and knowing he considered Donald Trump synonymous with "egomaniacal sanctimonious evil," I was anxious to hear from him in the aftermath.
"The dilemma for me, at 65, Carson, is that I need to find a way to get a fuck-of-a-lot tougher—emotionally, physically, philosophically—at a time in my life when I'd hoped maybe I could relax a little," he wrote back.
Beaten by the news into seclusion at his home in Great Falls, Montana, the old stomping grounds of cowboy artist Charles M. Russell, Zarzyski questioned the very notion of reconciliation in an era of invective social media and the conscious proliferation of alternative facts.
"I used to place some faith in such interaction potential, on the most human level, between the two extremely polarized sides, but not anymore. What I'm experiencing since the election is veritable explosions of free-floating cyberspace words expressing the million and one liberal sensibilities that stick oh-so-lovingly to hearts and minds and souls that are in the least need of attracting and assimilating them," he wrote. "Several links to New York Times articles come my way daily from fellow-traveler friends, many of whom I've asked to take me off their CC lists. My neck vertebrae—what's left of them after a dozen years of riding rodeo broncs—cannot take the wear-n-tear of nodding my head up-n-down with approval to analyses that likely lock tighter, rather than open slightly, the channels of communication between us and them. Never before has that old adage, 'Actions speak louder than words,' resounded louder.
"Can the spirit of events like the Elko Gathering help to change this deadlock? I don't know—I truly do not know."
Zarzyski's question stuck with me as I traveled to Elko. I flew into Salt Lake City, the nearest major airport, and caught a bus full of other journalists for the remaining 230 miles west. Travel writers, mostly. An editor for Western Horsemen. Another for Lonely Planet. A freelancer pushing 70 in snow bibs. All of us enemies of the American people, according to the president. Interstate 80 cuts directly through the Bonneville Salt Flats. In the summer, the flats are cracked like a tortoise shell, but in the winter, lying below an inch of water, it's a colossal mirror reflecting the sky and everything passing through it. Where the salt pan crested above the water, overzealous Trump supporters had spelled out their leader's name in rocks and other debris. The same portion of interstate also roughly follows the Hastings Cutoff, a precarious shortcut for immigrants on the California Trail, the same cutoff followed by the ill-fated Donner Party in 1847. I imagined the pioneers snowbound in the Sierras, cooking the flesh of their dead; I pondered how desperate a group must become before it consumes itself.
"Yes, there's a lot of division everywhere, about everything. But these kinds of gatherings—they bring us together. And maybe it's just because we're being nice, but maybe not. Maybe our stories… can make a bridge between these horrible divides."—Amy Hale Auker
For three days, I attended various sessions at the 33rd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, listening to poetry and song and attending panels with titles like "The Lingo of Our Calling" and "All Creatures Great and Small." I talked to cowboys and poets and cowboy poets. I talked to urbanites dressed like ranchers and ranchers dressed for Sunday mass, retired miners and concessionaires and bored millennials ditching Reno for the weekend. I watched my own cousin, a conservative rancher and cowboy poet from central Nebraska, rap a poem on the stage while Dom Flemons, a Grammy Award–winning folk artist and founding member of the black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, accompanied him on the bones. People spilled into the hallways of the convention center after each performance, hugging and smiling and shaking hands, some strangers, some lifelong friends. Many wore cowboy hats, and more than a few slicked back thick chevron mustaches. I overheard conversations running the gamut, from cattle chutes to Leonard Cohen—but not once did I hear the name Donald Trump.
Unless, of course, I asked for it—and God knows, I tried. One after the other, I interviewed performers about their experience here, whether or not they've seen the country's partisan divide reflected in the gathering. In near uniform fashion, their body language—previously upright and giddy—withered, their smiles shot and their shoulders slumped. Merely asking the question felt inappropriate, antithetical, as if I'd proposed a toast at the AA meeting.
"Yes, there's a lot of division everywhere, about everything," said Amy Hale Auker, author of the WILLA Award–winning essay collection Rightful Place, in addition to several novels. Auker trumpets a strong female voice, both in her written work and here at the gathering, staking her rightful claim in what is still a male-dominated event. "But these kinds of gatherings—they bring us together. And maybe it's just because we're being nice, but maybe not. Maybe our stories… can make a bridge between these horrible divides."
Eyes welling with tears, she swallowed hard before continuing, the complicated cacophony or her own political fervor, and the fervor of all of those with whom she disagrees, rising again to the surface. She hasn't asked, but she knows many of her closest friends here at the national gathering voted for Trump. For the first time, she grew apprehensive about making the annual pilgrimage to Elko.
"But this isn't a festival, this is a true gathering. We don't all have to agree, but we do have to gather. We have to gather."
For the past 30 years, they've been gathering in Alpine, Texas, too. Though it's a direct descendant of the national gathering, many of the veteran performers in Elko say it's now the more "authentic" event, less focused on sponsors and ticket sales than real cowboys. As Don Cadden, president of the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering steering committee, wrote for its 30th anniversary, "We'll invite a working cowboy…with a song or poem to share, over a flashy group with smile-pocket shirts and big hats any day." Star power be damned.
Several weeks later, following their recommendation, I flew to Alpine for the 31st Annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering, hosted on the campus of Sul Ross State University. In many ways, they were right, though sometimes accompanying that authenticity were hints of the partisan aggression happily absent in Elko. During a Saturday afternoon show at the university's Marshall Auditorium, singer/songwriter Dan Roberts performed an original song called "Viva La Cowboy." The first time he recorded it, he explained, he took his wife's advice and edited a few lines to keep it politically correct. But when it came time to record it again for his "best of" album, he reverted to the original lines.
but the government's harassin' the ranchers
and PETA's givin' rodeo heck
I think they're all a bunch of limp-wristed wackos
Who couldn't make a pimple on a tough man's neck
Despite the nearly incoherent last line, the crowd erupted in applause. Roberts knew it would, grinning victorious beneath the brim of his hat. Later the same day, an older man standing behind me in the concession line claimed college students vote for liberals because they don't know what hard work means anymore. And a few hours after that, Russell and Roxanne Boothe, a middle-aged couple killing a few hours at the bar before the evening show, lectured me on the many ills of the inner city.
"A cowboy way of looking at stuff is all what nature and God give you. There's nobody to blame the drought on. There's nobody to blame the weather conditions on. The problem with the inner city," Russell tells me, "is they want to blame somebody for their problem. So they're sitting here, 'Well, we're living in poverty.' Hey! You don't have to stay there. You can get out!"
These moments notwithstanding, I often felt the same creeping sense of reconciliation in West Texas I felt in Elko, no matter how temporary it may prove to be. As Lubbock singer-songwriter Andy Hedges, a shy conservative, told me, "You know, if you tell a story, there's nothing to disagree with. It's just what happened. If you sing a protest song that's got a political agenda, then you're just kind of singing to the choir. People disagree, bow up, and feel uncomfortable. If you tell a story, it just helps people understand, and I think that's what can really change things and change people and change their perspective."
On the last day of the national gathering, Zarzyski shares the stage at the Western Folklife Center with three other poets—Levi Romero, Olivia Romo, and Ofelia Zepeda—for a morning session called, simply, "Western Poetry." Afterward, the two of us wander upstairs in search of an empty room for a quiet interview. I'm eager to know if the gathering pulled him out of his funk, if "the spirit of events" here offered even a modicum of hope. But first I ask about the show.
"I tried not to think about it on the stage very much," he says, "but I got up there, and I wanted to remind the audience that we're here because of their vaquero ancestors, the first cowboys, the lingo and skills of whom we celebrate in poetry and song. The session should've been titled, 'Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,' the opening line to Charles Badger Clark's poem, 'A Border Affair.' I stopped just short of losing it and saying, 'So fuck Donald Trump and his fucking wall.'"
For a moment, the room is uncomfortably quiet.
"Did it work?" I ask. "Did the gathering provide any relief?"
"It was especially tough this year… I've been in places lately where I've felt so alone that by comparison I could've made J.D. Salinger and Howard Hughes appear gregarious," he says. "But I'll go back home and maybe, because of the glimpse of hope I have been graced with here, step a little bit away from that seclusion."
The atmosphere of the gathering—that palpable sense of belonging—colored me, too. Flying home, I felt the come down, what several performers called the "post-Elko blues," knowing that what awaited me back home, what awaited all of us, weren't the open arms of community but the ugly alternative—not the earnest handshake of potential friends but the questioning of strangers. I'd seen what community looks like and doubted I'd find it again soon.
I wasn't wrong. My optimism waned quickly upon my return. Too much news. The worries of the world too many. But a few weeks later, flying high above west Texas, I opened Zarzyski's 2003 collection Wolf Tracks on the Welcome Mat to a poem called "Face-to-Face" and was reminded, however briefly, of what it takes to find beauty, to reconcile, and of what it took to fall in love with the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the first place.
Out of nowhere, you find yourself
placed daily before the fortress,
rustic logs throbbing
something from within
you vaguely recognize
as music—so primal,
so otherworldly in its purpose,
you are at once drawn closer,
cautioned back. Succumb
to ugly logic, to mean-spirited
reason, or religion,
and you, believing you shun
merely the unknown, will flee
unwittingly from beauty. Trust the blood,
however, waltzing to four-part harmony
within the heart, and you will be moved
to witness, through the chinking's
thin fissures, the shadows
of the enchanted. Then, and only then,
might you choose to follow
a force you'll lovingly call your soul
through huge swinging doors
thrown open to the glorious
commotion of it all.
Carson Vaughan is a freelance writer living in Nebraska. Follow him on Twitter.