THOUGH she turned 8 only last July, Cora Wood is already a star. From her home in rural Wyoming, Cora’s been traveling round the West, performing as the youngest addition to the popular Cowboy Poetry circuit.
Dressed in classic cowgirl style — worn leather boots, blue jeans and pink checked shirt, her corn-blonde hair in neat braids — she’s part Carrie Underwood, part kiddie-pageant queen.
“In preschool, my teacher always read poems, and I thought that was kinda cool, so I started writing and doing poetry myself,” Wood explains over an iced tea in her rural back yard, 20 miles from the nearest town of Saratoga.
Wood and many others perform sold-out shows chronicling life in the West in verse: willful horses, wide-open spaces and whether there’s danger in birthing a calf (more on that later). The tradition in which they work is like C&W music without the fiddles and guitars. With its reassuring meter and playful rhymes, it’s unashamedly old-fashioned.
Such retro wholesomeness reflects on the endearingly articulate Wood herself, who offers sweet advice to any others who are keen to try.
“I’d tell them to perform in front of a mirror — you see yourself in the mirror that way,” she points out, with inscrutable 8-year-old wisdom.
“And if you have a brother or a sister, they can get behind you and dance around so you can practice concentrating.”
Though Cowboy Poetry might at first seem like just a twangier cousin to the urban-poetry slam, Wood’s live performances have none of the accompanying pretension you’d find in a Manhattan mecca like The Moth. Cowboy poets keep it clean and strictly G-rated, a wholesome tweak on stand-up comedy.
Cowboy Poetry’s heyday was the Wild West era, when chaps-clad ranchers would pass the long, boring fireside evenings telling stories and reciting verse at camp.
“In the 1860s and ’70s, guys on trails were so damn lonely, all they had to do was sit around the campfire, eating crappy meat and beans, so they came up with these huge stories,” one of the poets confides on condition of anonymity.
The last two decades, though, have seen an aggressive and enthusiastic revival of the genre. So much so, that 8,000 people attended the highlight of the circuit last January, the 25-year-old National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., where more than 50 people performed their verses (Miss Wood snagged a coveted spot for the 2010 event, to be held in January.)
Nevada’s Elko may be the most prestigious of the 200-plus annual Cowboy Poetry events. But it’s in towns and cities across Wood’s Wyoming, the state most synonymous with ranchers and rugged horsemen, where the revival has been most successful.
To find an impromptu fireside gathering of poets in action, take a trip to the Equality State — and try to make sure Chuck Larsen’s performing. Larsen is a neighbor of Cora’s and he’s a fan as well as a peer.
“Cora, living on a ranch, she’s unique — she knows from the core what it’s all about,” Larson raves.
Mustachioed and twinkly-eyed, Chuck is a formidable talent himself who’s been writing and performing for more than two decades. Larsen’s poems are waggish and winking, laced with double-entendres that stretch that G-rating; ‘Calving Out’ imagines what would happen if a pint-sized, know-it-all rancher reached inside a little too deeply when birthing a calf.
But they’re also wistful: ‘Blue Cowboy Moon’ is the story of a lifelong cowboy who realizes that modern economics have forced him to choose between his passion, ranching, and making enough money to support his family. Retro though the poetry movement might seem, Larsen’s work is a reminder that there’s a powerful contemporary resonance (and relevance) to much of the verse.
“The pain that cowboys felt when the fences were being put up to mark off the wilderness? That same pain is being felt now — the whole world is changing,” Larsen confides.
“People assume it’s just fluff, and a lot of it is, but it’s also truly felt and it’s how we can express the truth about a certain way of life,” says Michael Schroll, a poet and actor from Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne.
Schroll says that what distinguishes his state’s poetry from the rest of the West’s is that it’s not afraid of being serious and addressing the sadness in life. He sees the revival as a back-to-the-land-like reaction to the tech-heavy life that’s taken hold.
“People are desperate to get back to some roots, they need something to grab hold of,” he says.
Artist Bob Coronato sees such venting as intrinsic to the idea of Cowboy Poetry.
“People grew up on ranches and wrote about that with humor to make light of the hard way of life,” he explains.
Coronato’s a New Jersey-born artist who moved to the tiny town of Hulett in northeastern Wyoming twenty years ago. Today, there’s a lasso in a case outside his gallery with a sign taped to the front: ”Break Glass in case of Tree Huggers, Limp Wristed Liberals, and all other Sissy Types!!!”
Fascinated by cowboys since a trip to the Garden State’s kitschy Wild West City theme park as a child, he was keen to chronicle the culture accurately and took a job ranching as a result.
Today, Coronato’s the unofficial Leonardo da Vinci of ranching life and an astute observer of the culture. He credits the Native Americans with helping to create and maintain Cowboy Poetry.
“The American Indian history is entirely oral — they’re the best at storytelling. Cowboys have always admired Indians and most cowboys today hang about in Indian bars. There’s a kinship, they’re cut from the same cloth,” he explains.
But as his paintings also show, there’s a finicky dandyism to cowboys — fetishizing the perfect boots, spurs or hat, for instance — that naturally encourages exhibitionism. Certainly, the charming ranchers like Larsen or Schroll who moonlight as western balladeers are all hammier than a pound of pork belly.
No one embodies that knowing peacockishness more appealingly than Dick Hart, a 70-something scientist in Cheyenne who calls himself the Rexall Wrangler (aka the Drugstore Cowboy).
Like Cora Wood, Hart’s interest in poetry was sparked by his grade-school teacher, and he learned his stand-up skills via a stint working in radio at college.
Blinged out in a heavily embroidered black shirt with a chunky belt buckle as big a rapper’s, he’s now slightly deaf but as cheeky and impish as ever.
“I’m a show-off. I’m not timid in front of an audience,” he chuckles, “I’m an actor — I try to use a classic Western accent when I perform, slow and ungrammatical.”
While others might see Cowboy Poetry’s origins in the Wild West or its revival as a tribute to a vanishing way of life, Hart has a different theory. He thanks Kanye and Co. for its newfound popularity. After all, urban artists, like cowboy poets, leaven a tough life with a creative outlet.
Rap, says Hart, is “in the tradition of Cowboy Poetry. It’s in the vernacular.”
Hart may be right — after all, T-Pain and Taylor Swift dueted happily at the CMT Awards. Perhaps Cora Wood should expect a call from Lil’ Bow Wow.
For more information about travel to Wyoming, visit wyomingtourism.org.
6 COWBOY POETS TO KNOW
The clearinghouse for all things Cowboy Poetry is cowboypoetry.com, where events and performers are comprehensively listed. There are also several radio programs which spotlight the scene, like Clear Out West (C.O.W.) Radio, hosted by Andy and Jim Nelson. Download episodes at http://www.clearoutwest.com/.
8-year old Wood yodels and recites poetry of her own. Listen to a sample.
Waggish Larsen’s the ideal introduction to Cowboy Poetry. Listen to a sample.
Moulton runs the Grand Encampment Cowboy Gathering Outfit and is also a performer. Most of his poems are set to music, like “The Song of Wyoming.” Listen to a sample.
The Cheyenne-based Schroll is a former actor — and so his delivery’s especially compelling. His book is “Where the Mustangs Show,” and comes bundled with a performance CD. Listen to a sample.
NONA KELLEY CARVER
Though she dresses primly, like a pioneer schoolmistress in a long skirt and blouse, Kelley-Carver has a wicked, raucous sense of humor. Read a sample.
One of his signature poems, “Let Go of the Rope” is a warning to green ranch hands with slower than average reflexes. His two books of collected poetry are “Rhymes of a Rexall Wrangler” and “Return of the Rexall Wrangler.”
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Mark Ellwood wrote the following piece, "Spoken word, the wild, wild west way," in the Oct. 12 New York Post. It features Carbon County WAC roster artist Chuck Larsen, his eight-year-old neighbor, Cora Wood; Cheyenne cowboy poets Michael Schroll and Dick Hart; and others. Wyomingarts tried to click on the link but it wouldn't work -- the story may have already been archived. So, for your reading and rhyming pleasure, here's the article in its entirety: