After 30 Years of Growth, the Cowboy Poetry Festival Tries to Keep Its Pioneer Spirit
What started with cowpunchers has expanded to South American gauchos and more.
ELKO, Nevada—Rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski can’t help grinning when he thinks of the National Poetry Gathering’s early days.
In the late 1980s, the Elko Convention Center auditorium was filled to ranch folks on holiday and most of the cowboy poets were just off the range. Now finishing its 30th year, the poetry gathering has gained national prominence and a certain cache. It still draws its share of working buckaroos and ranch bosses, but take a seat at bars inside the Star Hotel Basque restaurant, the Pioneer Saloon or the venerable Stockman’s, and you’re as likely to strike up a conversation with a college professor as you are cowpuncher with calloused hands.
For Zarzyski’s part, he’s a little of both: a retired rodeo veteran who also happened to study with the great American poet Richard Hugo, is the recipient of national awards for his own pyrotechnic free verse and is the author of 10 books.
But bring up the gathering’s early days, and he’s ready a raise his shot glass high.
“It was jammed,” Zarzyski says following his seam-busting show at the G Three Bar theater inside the old Pioneer Hotel a short amble from the Stockman’s. “There was poetry, music upstairs, guys playing the slots and playing poker, guys were at the bar, guys were in the cafe 24 hours. I miss that, to be honest with you. Maybe because there are so many more of us performers as well as bands. We’re spread around town more, and it’s not as easy to bump into the people that you really feel you need to bump into, and that you want to spend a lot of time with.”
As the gathering picked up big steam, founding father Hal Cannon added eclectic surprised guests in poets and musicians—Hawaiian poets one year, South American gauchos the next—to the traditional rhyming ropers and ranch fiddlers.
What happened to the gathering over the years is common to a lot of organically grown festivals. If they last long enough, they run the risk of becoming victims of their own success.
The gathering has experienced its share of growing pains: an aging and changing demographic, the rising cost of airline travel for poets, higher room rates and a local economy inflated by a boom from the region’s open-pit gold mines. But after three decades it’s managed to keep its core values—and its sense of humor.
“It had to evolve,” Zarzyski says. “I don’t think you can package it and say, ‘This is the way we’re going to keep it.’ Everything changes. But the trouble with that is, it makes some people happy, and it makes some people really angry. “You can’t please everybody.… To get to the nut-cutting, it’s different, but it’s still here. And we hope that it’s still here five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. But in order to sustain that hope we have to have a willingness to allow it to evolve.”
No growing pains were present at this year’s gathering. Capacity crowds and a friendly party atmosphere pervaded frosty Elko. The sound of fiddles, acoustic guitars, and upright piano filled the air. Gathering veterans noted a focus on showcasing talented younger poets and musicians.
While acknowledging the challenges and the changing scene, cowboy-poet scholar and folklorist David Stanley adds, “I think it is still entirely possible to have a wonderful time at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering economically. Make your motel reservations in advance; don’t spend a lot on lodging. There are plenty of non-chain motels in Elko that deserve business and are run by people who donate rooms to the gathering for performers and who deserve to be supported. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on meals. You don’t have to buy any of those expensive tickets. I think it has more to do with perception than it does with reality.”
That reality includes themed recitals, music, exhibits, and programs that start at 9 a.m. and run past midnight at multiple venues. The gathering has plenty of cowgirl poets, too, and celebrates some abiding American traditions of hard work, a love of the land, and a fierce independence that defies political stereotype. Maintaining those traditions amid rising beef, feed, and grain prices and increased stresses on the land and greater pressure from agri-business giants makes laughing difficult at times.
“I think they’re conservatives in the best sense of the word,” Stanley says. “The politics is a very practical one. I think we should be cautious about generalizing too much because I know plenty of cowboys who are anti-war pacifist liberals, and I know plenty of cowboys who are extremely patriotic, military veteran conservatives. But what they do have in common, I think, is being told what to do: their antipathy to that. It doesn’t matter whether the Tea Party or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is trying to organize people in lockstep, they’re going to resist that with every bone in their body.”
And in their spare time, those cowpunchers, ranchers, and old rodeo riders will use their experiences as grist for cowboy poetry.