Thursday, March 24, 2011

Poetry On the Ropes: An Interview with Charlie Seemann, Director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

The 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering—a week-long "celebration of life in the rural West" featuring poetry and music by working cowboys and ranchers young and old—came to a close on January 29 in the town of Elko, Nevada (pop. 16.980), which has played host to the event and its tens of thousands of participants and visitors lo these many years.

Shortly before the first worker's voice was heard this year, U.S. House Republicans introduced a 2011 government spending bill that proposed increasing Defense spending by two percent (up $7 billion to a total of $533 billion) and paying for that increase in part by the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities ($171 million) and the National Endowment for the Arts ($161 million)—two organizations that have helped support the Gathering and cowboy poets for many years and whose combined budgets make up such a tiny fraction of the Defense budget that the
P&PC office accountant can't even do the math. The P&PC interns, who have been following the Wisconsin legislature's efforts to eliminate collective bargaining (and the Maine Governor's erasure of a mural depicting Maine's labor history) are convinced that this is yet another way the Republican party is finding to silence the voices of American workers.

With this year's gathering over, however, P&PC finally got a chance to catch up with Western Folklife Center executive director Charlie Seemann (pictured here) who, for the past thirteen years, has been instrumental in organizing and sponsoring the event. Here's what he had to say.

Poetry & Popular Culture:
How did the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering get its start?

Charlie Seemann: A group of folklorists interested in the oral tradition of cowboy poetry got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do fieldwork in the western states to identify and locate cowboys who still wrote and/or recited cowboy poetry. Folklorists at various state arts councils participated in that effort, and this led to the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985 in Elko. It was intended to be a one-time event, but everyone had such a good time they decided to do a second one. Next thing you know we've been doing it for 27 years.

P&PC: How has it changed over the years?

CS: It has gotten bigger, and the audience—made up mostly of ranching people early on—now comprises folks from all walks of life and parts of the country, people who like the authenticity of the event, the camaraderie and the values represented in the poetry and music.

P&PC: What makes it authentic?

CS: Participants are selected by peer committees of cowboy poets and musicians taking into consideration the applicants' ranching and/or cowboy backgrounds and connections.

P&PC: What surprised you about this year's Gathering?

CS: It was good to see more young folks participating, like the Marshall Ford Swing band from Austin, Texas.

P&PC: What qualifies someone to be a "cowboy poet"?

CS: According to legendary cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin (pictured to the left), first you have to see how well someone rides. It's pretty straightforward: first you have to be a cowboy, and then you have to write poetry about being a cowboy and cowboy life. [P&PC note: Ohrlin was a 1985 NEA Heritage Fellow]

P&PC: How about cowgirls? Do they write poetry too?

CS: Of course! There are some great women poets, like Linda Hussa, Doris Daley (first picture below), Yvonne Hollenbeck, Linda Hasselstrom (second picture below).

P&PC: Can you give me an example of a good cowboy poem?

CS: Buck Ramsey's "Anthem." (Listen to "Anthem" here.) [P&PC note: Ramsey was named a National Heritage Fellow by the NEA in 1995.]

P&PC: Awesome! What, for you, is the difference between hearing a poem aloud and reading it on the page?

CS: The personal connection with someone reciting is much more immediate and intense.

P&PC: What's the younger generation of cowboy and cowgirl poets like?

CS: There are young ranch kids and young working cowboys from local and regional ranches. Their tastes in poetry and especially music differ from older generations and are more influenced by popular culture.

P&PC: What happens to the Gathering if it loses Congressional funding through the NEH?

CS: That would be unfor- tunate, but that funding comprises only about 1.9% of our total organ- izational budget, so the Gathering would continue but we would need to increase fundraising from other sectors to make up for the loss.

P&PC: Um, if I plan on attending next year, do I have to wear spurs?

CS: Not unless you want some real cowboy to kick your ass.