(Reuters) - When long-time bronc rider Paul Zarzyski needed to rest his aching bones after an adrenaline-charged stint on torquing horseflesh, he often turned to the last thing most people would associate with cowboy life: writing poetry.
“I kicked that bucker crazy, now I’m laid-back lazy,” the Montanan writes in his poem “Riding Double-Wild.” He has left the rodeo circuit behind, but not the poetry, and it turns out lots of cowboys are just as fond of verse as he is.
Zarzyski is one of scores of writers gathered this week for the annual Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada, nearly in the middle of nowhere, which is just how the locals like it.
The ramshackle town with casinos, the Stampede Motel and coffee shops that play Hank Williams Jr., is sprouting an unusually large number of raw-boned guys in ten-gallon hats who call women “ma’am.”
Both veteran poets as well as newbie rhymers are welcome at the festival, which features open mike nights, live music, and workshops on Western crafts and skills, including silver-smithing, ranch cooking, and making pulled-wool saddle blankets...
The festival ropes in local ranch families as well as city slickers from hundreds of miles away seeking that Western soul expressed in poetry.
“The spirit of the West is alive. It comes from the wide open spaces that still exist out here,” said Zarzyski, who calls the festival the “cowboy Woodstock.”..."Cowboy Woodstock"--that's like "jumbo shrimp," no?
No matter. The Reuters article twigged a memory I had about reading a Mark Steyn piece a few years back about the abovementioned festival, and how, rather than being representative of the Old West--self-sufficiency and all that stuff--it was actually more in keeping with the government's modern approach of spending money like, well, a drunken cowboy. This Cowboy Poetry Festival was thus a simulacrum--a Potemkin village?--of the good old days, rugged individualism being deader than a tumbling tumbleweed in the Nevada desert. Anyway, here's what Steyn had to say in '11:
How mean-spirited are House Republicans? So mean-spirited that they would end federally funded cowboy poetry! Last Tuesday, Harry Reid, the majority leader, took to the Senate floor to thunder that this town ain’t big enough for both him and the Mean-Spirited Kid (John Boehner).
“The mean-spirited bill, HR 1 . . . eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts,” said Senator Reid. “These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy-poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.”
“Tens of thousands” would “not exist”? There can’t be that many cowboy poets, can there? Oh, c’mon, don’t be naïve. Where there are taxpayer-funded cowboy poets, there must surely be cowboy-poetry festival administrators, and a Bureau of Cowboy-Poetry Festival Licensing, and cowboy-poetry festival administration grant-writers, and a Department of Cowboy Poetry Festival Administration Grant Application Processing, and Professors of Cowboy-Poetry Festival Educational Workshop Management at dozens of American colleges credentialing thousands of cowboy-poetry festival workshop coordinating majors every year...Oddly enough, none of them get a shout out in the Reuters piece.
Update: There are 88--count 'em, 88--Cowboy Poetry Festival videos on YouTube.
Update: In the following cowboy poem, the "vad" in Nevada rhymes with "mod":
There once was a man from Nevada
Who spent money as if it was wada.
For his keen cowboy rhymers
To act like Old Timers
He needed the cash--a whole lada.