Likewise, with poetry. I taught a class at a local church this fall on The Joy of Poetry, and when it ended, I felt like I’d stumbled into a poetry dry spell. Thank goodness Every Day Poems still drops into my inbox promptly at 7 a.m. every weekday for me to enjoy with my morning oats. As if I’m a horse.
Horses — or rather, poems and songs about horses — took the stage for “A Cowboy’s Night in old Texas,” presented by the Western Folklife Center. That’s the group behind the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held annually in Elko, Nevada. This year’s conference will take place January 29-February 3. But I didn’t have to go out of state, just down the road a piece to the Steve W. Shepherd Theater.
It’s not entirely unusual to see cowboy hats serve as dress-up attire around here — certainly, boots are de rigueur, and I wore my red pair — but I saw more hats than usual that night. More bolo ties. More pressed jeans (it’s a Lubbock thing). Yee haw.
The stage was bare except for three stools, two guitars, and one Lone Star State sign in the shape of Texas. Three men took turns pickin’ and grinnin’ and recitin’. There was, truth be told, a little yodelin’.
Andy Hedges was the young ‘un. He’s a songwriter and host of the Cowboy Crossroads podcast. He was joined by Don Edwards, a songster of old cowboy ballads and basically a living legend. The third man was Waddie Mitchell, poet, storyteller extraordinaire and founder of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. All you poetry memorization peeps, spend some time listening to a master. Hedges has interviewed both Mitchell and Edwards on his podcast.
Country-western songs often tell stories in three acts, and many of these poems and songs did the same. Several were from the 1920s. There was also a lot of blues, which surprised me until Hedges pointed out that a lot of freed slaves found work as “cowpunchers,” leading to a lot of overlap between cowboy ballads, blues, and spirituals. I heard songs recorded by Leadbelly and Bob Dylan and artists I’d never heard of. Hedges performed one song for the first time, which was adapted from a poem by Mitchell. And, grab your hankies, Edwards sang Coyotes (pronounced cay-yotes).
The songs and poems were about cattle and drovers and the occasional mule. A dance in town. A blue norther off the plains. Boll weevils. Long johns. Just exactly where West Texas starts and ends. The call of a cowboy. Sundown and earthrise.
Up until that night it had hardly rained since Harvey. But that whole evening and into the next day, the rain hardly stopped.
A final note: Just in case you fear that women aren’t represented at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, this year’s female poets will include Amy Hale Auker, Carolyn Dufurrena, Maria Lisa Eastman, Patricia Frolander (Wyoming’s poet laureate), Yvonne Hollenbeck, Betty Lynne McCarthy, and Brigid Reedy. There are also women musicians represented on the 2018 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Spotify playlist, which has been bringing me joy ever since.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro