See our review of Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion here.
Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion
There is a question often asked among cowboy poets and fans alike throughout the year as we look forward to that annual reunion known as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Wherever we might meet, at a festival in Wyoming, a ranch rodeo in California or eastern Oregon, or at one of the hundreds of smaller "gatherings" held across the West, the question is almost always the same: “Will I see you at Elko?"
This event, which has become something of a global Grange-hall meeting, emerged in 1985, after a group of Western folklorists, with Hal Cannon ridin‘ point, organized the first coming-together of cowboy poets. Just for the fun of it, they invited the public to the party. Gwen Peterson remembers her trepidation that first year: “Was I nervous when it was time to go on stage? Shoot, I don’t remember. I think I was in a coma.” When asked how many audience members attended that first year, Gwen recalls that feeling of anxiety as a poet stands before a body of strangers about to share words from her heart for the first time:
“How much audience showed up? I don’t know, but there were a jillion or so.”
Organizers chose the last weekend in January for their event, and I’ve heard it said that was done because those days would occur during a lull in work for ranchers. In truth, there is never a good time for a cowboy to leave his duties. Where we lived in the far north, cows were bred to calve in January and February so that the calves would be large enough to make the arduous journey in July to the high country for summer grazing. And cowboys and ranchers need to be attentive during those weeks of calving. However, some folks found ways around minor problems such as these. They simply put their bulls in with their cows later in the year, so that their calves would be born after “Elko.”
I was first invited to perform at the Gathering in 1990, and, as of this writing, have been back 11 times since. For me, the greatest gifts of those years have been the memorable friendships I’ve made. Friends like Jack Walther, an old-time cowboy and draft-horse teamster who I’d met in 1990 when we were both scheduled in a theme session at the Gathering. He later visited my family when we were holed-up in a little travel trailer (employee housing!) on a ranch in eastern Oregon. He and his wife Irene entered the tiny, steel tube that was our home, and sat elbow to cramped elbow in our “living room.” True to form, Jack lightened the moment by saying, “So....what are you going to do with all this room?” Jack and I continue to write and call each other, and I have visited him and Irene at their ranch south of Elko. I would have never met someone like Jack, who ranches over a thousand miles from where I lived, if it had not been for the Gathering.
One year, while at the gathering, I visited with poet Paul Schmitt. He lived in western Nevada and we had not seen each other for a few years. He asked with eyes searching mine for sincere answers: “Virginia, how are you? Where are you and Pete living now? You know, sometimes, I am out on my horse or riding on the tractor and I find myself thinking, ‘I wonder where Pete and Virginia are now and how they are doing.’ ”
This exchange prompted me to consider the treasure of these friendships we’ve made over time. I went home from the Gathering that year to the ranch my husband, Pete, managed in north-central Washington. As soon as I entered the house, I donned my old coveralls, snugged on a woolen cap, and with flashlight in hand, headed out to frozen pastures to check our calving cows. With aurora borealis forming columns in the luminescent sky, words poured forth from my mind as I thought of all those close to us, whom we miss.
...I will watch, with glances lingering, the rimrock trail above my cabin
And strain to see your silhouette against a midnight sky.
I will bide, in expectation, to hear your bit-chains jingling,
And hope to soon see northern lights reflected in your horse’s eye.
The year 2004 marks the 20th anniversary of the Gathering, and during that time, we have become a family. We’ve watched children grow up, get married, and come back to the event with their own babies in their arms. Some couples parted ways, and on the other hand, many more were wed. We’ve buried friends too soon, and often worried, as we’ve said goodbye on that early Sunday morning, if we’d see that old-time pard again the next year. And we, just as the listening audiences do as well, go home thinking about the words we’ve heard in poetry and song, words which linger long after the last truck or bus has pulled out of Elko’s Convention Center parking lot.
For cowboy poems have a life of their own. They are built with words that are spawned not only from labor, but also from an occupation in which the poet’s very existence is expressly linked. A cowboy or rancher lives where he or she works, and what they do in their work determines their survival. Therein can be found the essence of cowboy poetry, and the explanation for why its popularity only increases.
Let me share with you how I received the poems for this volume and how these words represent real lives. Nevada poet Deanna McCall mailed a letter with her poems, expressing worries over the effects of her area’s drought, and wondered if they would be able to hang on to the ranch. Dick Gibford of Bishop, California sent me his poems handwritten on lined, notebook paper, and since he did not possess a stapler, he clasped his treasured poems together with a safety pin through the binder-holes in the sheets of paper. Yula Sue Hunting’s work came to me in script, written with a shaking, great-grandmother’s hand.
Charlotte Thompson’s poetry was accompanied by a letter that had been scrawled upon her lap as she and her husband, Dave, traveled over bumpy ranch roads to a cow sale, she with her treasured poems ready to be mailed as they passed a post office.
In my opinion, a cowboy poetry gathering’s most important contribution has been the creation of a stage and audience for whom to present our words, and that sense of place has single-handedly nudged poets to produce thousands of pieces of work. Without an audience, without appreciation, the poet’s interest dies and with that, the genre withers as well. Fresh work flows freely after each gathering, where cowboys are newly-inspired by the works of other writers, and charmed by appreciative listeners who return year after year to hear beloved poems, greet poets like longtime friends, and be enchanted by words that are attached to a life few know first hand. Listen to poet Peggy Godfrey, a ranchwoman who lives and works on her isolated sheep and cattle ranch near Moffat, Colorado:
The pain of parting
Is like the drag
of barbed wire
Across my hand
Or a paper cut
It brings the blood
To the wound
For days I bleed
We salute twenty years of kinship at Elko and at all the other gatherings across our land. We recognize the intangible bonds that will outlast even the events themselves, and we most of all laud the poets and the words which resound throughout the West, at campfires and festivals and within homes, bringing us smiles and tears forevermore.
© 2004, Gibbs Smith, Publisher Reprinted with permission
Foreword by Charlie Seemann
Introduction by Virginia Bennett
Chapter 1: Hosses
Busted -- the Holaday and Hampton Poet (Bruce Kiskaddon)
Squallin' Balley and Diablo -- Wallace McRae
Remembering a Middle-Aged Bronc Ride -- Rod McQueary
If We All Rode Horses Like the Ones We Used to Ride -- Pete Bennett
The Retirement of Ashtola -- Larry McWhorter
Walkin' John -- Henry Herbert Knibbs
A Second Chance -- Tim Jobe
His Horses -- Laurie Wagner Buyer
Sally -- Tom Sharpe
Tempered Souls -- Darin Brookman
The Pearl of Them All -- Will Ogilvie
Equus Caballus -- Joel Nelson
Racehorse -- Jess Howard
Wanda Jill -- Ellis Campbell
Spirits Pure -- Jen Hilts and Debra Coppinger Hill
Ridin' -- Charles Badger Clark
A Good One -- Wylie Gustafson
Chapter 2: Jest Fer the Fun of It
A Different Point of View -- Dennis Gaines
The Parrot -- Dallas McCord
The Christian Horse -- Howard Norskog
Recipe for Rough -- Dee Strickland Johnson
Doctoring Worms -- Georgie Sicking
Charlotte's Cow -- Charlotte Thompson
Just Had to Run and Rope Him -- RW Hampton
Small Towns -- Ed Brown
Our 10th Anniversary -- Echo Roy
Dilly Wah Dilly -- Paul Steuermann
Ol' Smoke -- Jeff Streeby
Vera -- Carmel Randle
Chapter 3: Reflections on a Lifestyle
That No Quit Attitude -- Waddie Mitchell
Oh~You~Cowboys -- Sally Bates
Prayers -- Deanna Dickinson McCall
The Sound of Spurs -- Dick Gibford
Priests of the Prairie -- Linda Hasselstrom
Photographer's Eye -- Barney Nelson
One Moment, Please! -- John Dofflemyer
Old Age -- Yula Sue Hunting
Old Pets -- Walt McDonald
Loss -- Kent Stockton
We Were The Horsemen -- Andy Wilkinson
Rite of Passage -- Jesse Smith
Flying with the Eagles -- Janet Moore
Sonnet of the Sage -- Karen Brown
Skysailing -- Buck Ramsey
The Weir -- Linda Hussa
Midnights Are Mine -- Lyn DeNaeyer Messersmith
When the Calves Come -- Tom McBeth
Chapter 4: Family & the Community of Cowboys
Jerry Ambler -- Paul Zarzyski
Kitchen Window Cowboy -- Jan Swan Wood
Third Saddling -- B. Lynne McCarthy
Love is Blind -- Doris Daley
Hollyhocks -- Audrey Hankins
Traditions -- Sandy Seaton
Daddy's Bells -- Colen Sweeten
I Rode My Son's Horse This Morning -- Gary Robertson
Ode To My Lady, My Wife -- Sunny Hancock
A Scattering of Ashes -- Vess Quinlan
Lessons -- Dan Schmitt
The Last Fiddler at Frenchman's -- Paul Schmitt
Chapter 5: Lookin' Back Down the Trail
Behold a Pale Horse -- Mike Logan
To an Old Friend -- Red Steagall
Songs on the Nightwind -- Virginia Bennett
The Old Prospector -- Jack Hannah
How Far is Lonesome -- Yvonne Hollenbeck
The Rider That Never Made Good -- Rhoda Sivell
The Men That Don't Fit In -- Robert W. Service
Memories -- Ross Knox
Hallie Lonnigan -- Tom Russell
The Cowboy's Reply -- Wallace David Coburn
Tall In the Sidesaddle -- Gwen Petersen
Chapter 6: Characters
The Old Ranch Cook -- Jack Walther
Cook's Revenge -- Ray Hanzlik
The Stampede at Jenny's Cafe -- Chris Isaacs
Clancy of the Overflow -- Banjo Paterson
Banjo, May I Have This Dance -- Marion Fitzgerald
Share and Share Alike -- Howard Parker
Viejos -- Bill Wood
Texas Braggin' -- Andy Hedges
Grandpa's Early Mornin's -- Gary McMahan
Second Thoughts -- Pat Richardson
The Perfect Tool -- Darrell Arnold
About the Editor
Virginia Bennett has been performing cowboy poetry for the last 15 years. A regular reciter at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, Virginia has also shared her work at the Smithsonian Institute, and had been featured many times on PBS and NPR specials. Virginia has been working on Western ranches since 1971, alongside her ranch manager husband, Pete. She started colts for the public for 20 years, has shown hunter/jumpers, driven draft teams for a living, and drawn cowboy wages on big outfits. She continues to write for many publications as well as reciting original, traditional verse.
She is also the editor of Cowgirl Poetry, One Hundred Years of Ridin' and Rhymin' (see our feature about the book here) and three volumes of her own poetry, Canyon of the Forgotten, Legacy of the Land, and the most recent, In the Company of Horses.
Read more about Virginia Bennett her books, and read some of her poetry here.
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