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A Moveable Feast: USU’s Cowboy Poetry Collection Hits the Road

by Randy Williams

Mid-winter, when there is a break between the roundup in the fall and calving in the spring, ranch folks (and folks interested in cowboy poetry and prose) travel to Elko, Nevada, to participate in the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. This year (2004) marked the 20th anniversary of the Gathering and over 8,000 folks, from ranchers to educators, buckaroos to bankers, poets to veterinarians, gathered in Elko to fill their cups with intoxicating cowboy poetry and prose.

Amidst all the excitement is a small library of cowboy poetry housed in the coat check room of the Elko Convention Center. In this library are volumes of the classic cowboy poets: Bruce Kiskaddon, S. Omar Barker, Henry Herbert Knibbs, D.J. O’Malley, Curley Fletcher which reflect the early years of cowboy poetry in the United States. Also represented are contemporary poets: Baxter Black, Linda Hasselstrom, Linda Hussa, Wallace McRae, Waddie Mitchell, Paul Zarzyski who continue to put into verse and prose the folkways of ranch life.

This moveable feast, Cowboy Poetry Collection FOLK COLL 11, is part of Utah State University Libraries’ Fife Folklore Archives in Special Collections and Archives. Every year, since the first Gathering in 1985, these books have traveled to Elko to supplement the Gathering activities with the written artifacts of cowboy poetry. Many of the books in the collection were gathered and purchased with a grant from the Skaggs Foundation. This same grant helped fund the fieldwork that led to the first Gathering in ‘85. So, it seems only fitting that the books and their caretakers travel to Elko in late January each year to bring the books together with their constituency.

If these books could talk it would be interesting to hear the stories they could tell: the thrill a cowboy poet feels when he finally hunts down a long sought after poem for which he only knows the first three stanzas; the pride a grand niece feels as she reads her uncle’s poems about cowboying in Arizona at the turn of the last century; the laughter and joy a rancher/wordsmith chortles as she reads the poetry of one of her colleagues who has been dead over fifty years. This poetry collection provides important links between this generation of cowboy poets, ranchers and afficionados of ranching culture and poetry and the pioneers of cowboy poetry in the United States.

Of course books can’t “verbally” talk. However, readers do. It has been my great pleasure since 1994 to visit with the users of this collection at the Gathering and learn about their great love for the genre. Many sit quietly musing over the poems of yesteryear, others check their oral version of a poem with the printed work right before they go on stage to perform, and some run in after a poetry session wanting to get a copy of one of the poems that they just heard. To some the library is like a church where they come to commune with the “classics” that are the Bible of cowboy poetry. Whatever the purpose of their call in the library, all the library users seem delighted to find a place to read the genius of classic and contemporary cowboy poets and prose writers who represent, through their words, the experience of ranching people. For me, a city girl, it is a delight to be a part of something that shows first hand what a feast words can be.

This feasting continues year long, as does the cultivation of this important collection. Each year we add new titles to the Cowboy Poetry Collection through book purchases. However, one of the greatest opportunities for growth this collection experiences is through the generous donations of folks at the National Poetry Gathering and other cowboy poetry lovers who donate volumes of their own verse or copies of cowboy poetry from their library to the Archives. If you are a cowboy poet or a collector of cowboy poetry, please consider donating a copy of your work or volumes of cowboy poetry to the Fife Folklore Archives; I guarantee your donation will be a feast for many.