Cowboy Poetry & Writing Out West
Sep 28, 2016
By Emily Ziffer, Colorado Review Associate Editor
A few weeks ago I went rock climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park with two guys with whom I recently started training at the gym. I’ve been climbing competitively since middle school and because of this most of my life has been a series of balancing acts between academic pursuits and athletic ones and, for the sake of my sanity, I try to keep the two as separate as possible. Climbing is my respite from the world of the MFA, and vice versa. They’re kind of like my two children—I love them equally, differently, wholeheartedly, could never choose a favorite, would never want one to become like the other. For this reason, whenever I’ve tried to write about climbing, it’s been a total bust, and whenever I’m in the climbing community I tend to keep quiet about my writing.
And so a few weeks ago I set out for Rocky Mountain with my two non-writing friends, Roy and Tim, and as we sat in traffic in Estes on a beautiful fall Saturday, the car stuffed to the brim with our pounds and pounds of climbing gear, I dozing off in the backseat, one said to the other, “Dude, forgot to tell you. I totally finished another poem last night.”
Naturally, this took me by surprise. I knew, of course, that there were people in the world who simply “wrote for fun”—in fact, just one short year ago, I was one of them—but since starting the MFA program last fall, writing has taken on an air of seriousness for me. The short story, my chosen form of the craft, has developed a colossal weight. I see it in my mind in all caps—THE STORY—a thing to be revered, feared, tiptoed toward very carefully, worshiped. And while I still love writing, the act of my pursuing it now as a degree has somehow changed its meaning for me. I put so much pressure on myself to write well that I often forget that I initially started writing because it was fun.
For the rest of the car ride I asked Tim, a veterinarian in addition to being a climber, about his poetry. As it turned out, he had spent the past few years at work on a series of interlinked poems about a western hero named Lee, all of which elevated Lee’s life to a thing of legend, a sort of tall tale of the ranch lands. I was intrigued. “Which poets do you like?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t really read that much poetry,” he responded. “I just like to write it.” We chatted a bit about writing, I casually mentioning the MFA program but not going too in-depth about my own writing, he telling me of his process. I eventually asked him if he would mind sending me his poems, and he said he preferred to recite them aloud, and was prepared to do so that very minute, but warned me that he tended to recite all of his poetry in the voice of the piece. As we wound our way through the mountains, Tim adopted a Southern accent and began his recitation, and the rhythm of his words, the end rhyme, and the use of narrative and his confident, sonorous Texan voice all blended to create an immersive lyrical experience. When it was over, he asked me if I could classify his brand of poetry, and I couldn’t. I guessed that it was an epic of some sort, the Western adventure version of The Iliad or The Odyssey. Later, I did some research, and it turns out that there’s a whole category of poetry called “the cowboy poem” that mostly originated around the campfire as a way for farm- and ranch-workers to share their stories. Today, there are multiple cowboy poetry gatherings a year—next year’s national gathering will be held in Elko, Nevada, to celebrate the tradition of poetry, story, and narrative from the West.
I’m not sure if Tim’s poems completely fit into the genre of cowboy poetry. They seemed, to me, unclassifiable, part folktale, part legend, part cowboy, part urban, but wholly his own—and his ownership of them, his ability to share them with me that day in the car, reminded me of the reasons we tell stories: to connect with others. Sometimes, for those of us writing with the hopes of publication in literary journals and beyond, it’s easy to forget—at least easy for me to forget— that stories are for everyone, there for the telling, and that writing is more than an academic degree or publication or a conception of success. Sometimes, the simple pleasure of storytelling is enough.