Sometimes you don’t have to go far to experience culture shock. I first heard the term Cowboy Poetry in the tiny town of McCarthy, Alaska. I had struck up a conversation with a young woman about travel and she told me about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko as a festival that I “must go to”. “Cowboy poetry? There is such a thing?” I questioned in disbelief. But under that disbelief was intrigue and curiosity that had just been awakened. Yeehaw!
Cowboys and poetry were not two things I had considered putting together before. My limited images of poets were beatniks from the Lower East Side of NYC wearing berets, not cowboy hats. However, the whimsical side of me loved to believe that a serious, leathered cowboy could find their creative side while riding a horse into the sunset. I put the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering on my radar and finally 3 years later made it there to experience this intriguing new world of cowboys, creativity, and culture.
The Cowboy in Me
I’ve always had a thing for the cowboy culture. It’s this mystical world of danger, hard work, vastness, and simplicity. I think everyone at some point in life wanted to be a cowboy. It was the adventure that drew me to cowboy envy when I was a kid; however, now as an adult it’s the simplicity. I don’t even know how to ride a horse and I fantasize about a life where I ride off to gather up cattle and hang out by the campfire in complete serenity and simplicity, needing no one but my horse. No extra noise, no extra technology, no pop culture, no fake news, just doing a job and enjoying the land. On my quest to learning more about cowboy culture I even tried my hand at being a Hawaiian Cowboy a few years back. And last summer I spent a lot of time traveling around the Canadian Badlands to view and learn more about the rodeo culture.
I traveled to the Canadian Badlands Rodeos with my friend and photographer Susan, check out her incredible photo documentary going behind the scenes of a rodeo.
I had seen the rough and tumble side of being a cowboy, now it was time to see the sensitive, creative side.
Attending the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
In a feeble attempt to fit in, I packed my one flannel travel shirt, some bootcut jeans, and my Dad’s old pair of cowboy boots I had confiscated in a Jessie James-like heist this Christmas. I sort of felt like a Freshman in high school on the first day of school, excited and a bit intimidated at the same time to enter this new world. I flew off to Salt Lake City, rented a car, and drove through the surprisingly beautiful landscape of Northern Utah and Nevada to arrive in Elko. Elko is a pretty simple town, surrounded by mountains, railroads, and ranch land. It has a small population of 20,000 and the standard fast food joints, Walmart, and a random casino along the interstate that cuts through it.
I learned right away the ‘regulars’ just call it “The Gathering”. The Gathering celebrated it’s 34th year in 2018. There are 6 days of events including western poets, musicians, artisans, workshops, dancing, and storytellers; it’s western life celebrated in all forms. During the day there are multiple sessions with 4 poets or musicians performing in smaller rooms with specific themes. And at night there are larger variety performances that include a bit of poetry, music, storytelling, and dance all combined – like the variety shows from my youth.
In an attempt to learn more about the western cowboy culture, I sampled a little of everything they had to offer. I grabbed my press pass, signed up for a rodeo swing dancing workshop, and was ready to get my cowboy on. The first morning I got a schoolin’ in how popular this festival was, the line went out the door and the venue had already filled up 20 minutes before the show was about to start! I had to use my press pass to convince the cowboy bouncer to let me in. It was standing room only for the “Rumor of Humor” Session. In true gentleman fashion I watched as men gave up their seats for women to sit down, bringing a smile to my lips. I surveyed the crowd and realized I was definitely in the minority; I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat.
As a sidenote, if you were ever curious about Western fashion, you’ll get a good dose of it at The Gathering. I visited with custom hat maker Chaz Mitchell, and learned about the many different kinds of Cowboy hat shapes and styles.
I didn’t realize it but I had chosen to go to one of the most popular sessions as my first introduction to Cowboy Poetry. It had crowd favorites in it Rodney Nelson, Waddie Mitchell, Yvonne Hollenbeck, and Jake Riley.
The lights dimmed and the verses began. There was laughter, sighs, and then suddenly I heard it – the term “Punching cows”. Wait…did I hear that correctly? Why would you punch a cow? I dismissed it as something I must have misunderstood. And then I heard it again, and again. Once again – why on earth would someone punch a cow! Cow punching was a term used frequently in the poems. I did what any good writer would do – I Googled it. To my surprise I found the term “Punch Cows” in Dictionary.com listed as a verb phrase – to herd or drive cattle. Phew – I’m glad I cleared that up, and laughed at the thought of how new this world was to me. We all spoke English, but the culture was still foreign.
What is Cowboy Poetry?
I asked one of the performing poets, Betty Lynn McCarthy, what cowboy poetry was, “Cowboy poetry is a poem that a cowboy enjoys,” she replied matter-of-factly. Ahhh – simplicity, I love it. There really is not difference between mainstream poetry and cowboy poetry according to the experts wearing cool cowboy hats. She went on to say, “What I want to see in a poem now is crafting. If you don’t craft a poem it’s like hanging a garcia bit on a nylon headstall. It’s just not right.”
Stop right there. Garcia bit? Nylon headstall? I nodded and smiled as she said this, but I did in reality have to google this too. After my research, I learned that in my world – that basically translated to wearing Manolo Blahnik’s with sweatpants.
“Poetry is about condensing of thought,” Betty Lynn continued, “the words are scripted to bring the thoughts together. In the definition of poetry they talk about rhythm – and that’s your metering. If it doesn’t have meter you are riding a lame horse for Christ’s sake.”
“You should’ve heard her scream and you should heard her wail. The day I weighed the misses on the elevator scale.” –Rodney Nelson on Metering
Is it all About Horses and Happy Trails?
There was a dizzying array of topics, but horses, bronc riding, and punching cows were popular themes for sure. But the ones I loved were the poems with emotion and struggle of the day-to-day life on the ranch. “You are baring your soul and it takes a certain amount of nerve to do that. You are opening your pages to the world,” explained Betty Lynn. I liked these because I could relate to this in my own career; the best writing is always vulnerable writing.
I listened to poems about drought, putting down horses, favorite cowboy hats, rodeos, aging, mending fences, trees, fathers, mama cows, daughter-in-laws, and outhouses.
One of my favorite poems was one written and performed by Betty Lynn in which she exquisitely told the story of just a normal day on the ranch and how easy it is to get sidetracked; never really going as planned. Things unexpectedly take your attention and derail your day, such as a pesky goat that won’t cooperate, a tractor that won’t start, or a sick child. I could totally relate even though I had never dealt with a sick goat in my life!
Comraderie and Nerves
I watched in empathy as Annie’s nerves got the best of her. One of the youngest poets at the Gathering, she stood out; a beautiful cowgirl sitting among the old guys. As she stood performing her poem her hands started shaking so much that eventually she couldn’t read her paper. One of the veterans, Rodney, quickly got up and gave her a hand, holding her notes so the show could go on. She continued to wow me as the session went on eventually getting over her nerves and holding her own bringing ea frsh new perspective to what I had heard before. Now since I was getting hooked on cowboy poetry, it was important to see the younger generations are carrying on the cowboy poetry torch.
She wasn’t the only performer who struggled, there were people who forgot their lines, had stage fright, and rambled off track. But that’s what makes us all human, isn’t it? These were some of my favorite moments by far.
What Did I Learn About This Foreign Culture?
I learned creativity lives in all of us trying to get out; no matter how rough, tough, and hard we are. I think that’s what made me so excited about this festival, it was a chance to demystify the rugged cowboy life and see a more sensitive creative side I could relate to. It put me in touch with the land, animals, and the people of the ranching west.
One of my favorite introductions of the night was when a poet said, “We in America think we invented this cowboy thing but we didn’t. Its been around for thousands of years; Kazakhstanis, Bedouin, Mongols, gauchos, and Sioux.” I was reminded there are very few ‘new ideas’ in the world.
Just like my travel to foreign cultures around the world, attending the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering reminded me of how similar we are. I went into the Gathering thinking I was an outsider to this culture, but I was reminded of how all humans have commonalities. I didn’t have to wear a cowboy hat to relate to what the poets were saying. Sure, I had to look up a few phrases, but that’s the fun of learning about a new culture whether you are in Timbuktu or your own country!
Want to go to the next National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko?
National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Website – January 28-February 2, 2019
My advice is to get your tickets to the bigger nightly shows early as they seem to fill up fast! Go early and participate in the workshops. And don’t miss the Saturday night dances!
If you can’t make it for the Gathering, then you can still stop by the Western Folklife Museum in Elko!
I was a guest of Travel Nevada for this trip to Elko. However all opinions expressed here are my own.