Keep­ing cow­boy cul­ture alive, one poem at a time

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MAPLE CREEK, SASK. MARTY KLINKENBERG

Ru­ral pop­u­la­tions are fall­ing. Farms are fad­ing. But at hun­dreds of gath­er­ings, the cul­ture of the cow­boy lives on in verse

There is rhythm in the call of coy­otes, in the sort­ing of cows, in the wind and the whis­tle of a train. There is bal­ladry in boot heels that echo off dance floors, in haul­ing hay and in tall grass that bows in the breeze like a wave. There is po­etry ev­ery­where on the Prairies, and there are po­ets, too. They re­count the hard­ship and cel­e­brate the joy of Western life through spo­ken and writ­ten words. It is an art form that took root dur­ing cat­tle drives from Texas a cen­tury ago and is sus­tained to­day by cow­boys at hun­dreds of po­etry gath­er­ings across North Amer­ica.

The old­est in Canada takes place in Maple Creek, a town of 2,200 in south­west­ern Saskatchewan that prides it­self on Western au­then­tic­ity.

There is a wor­ship ser­vice in a cow­boy church in Maple Creek on Tues­day nights. There is a live­stock ex­change and agri­cul­tural grounds where three rodeos are staged in sum­mer. A grain el­e­va­tor, hard against the rail­way tracks, soars 10 storeys above maple-lined streets.

For three days in Septem­ber, the com­mu­nity arena, town ar­moury and Elks hall over­flow with fans of Western lore. Trans­ported back to an­other time, the cow­boy-hat and Sun­day-best crowds be­come en­grossed in po­etry about hired hands and home­stead­ers and love and death and cas­trat­ing bulls. They sway in their seats to the twang of gui­tars and two-step in the wings to clas­sic tunes by Ernest Tubb and Guy Clark.

Per­form­ers are paid a stipend and are of­ten bil­leted in the com­mu­nity. They don’t do it to get rich, but out of a sense of de­vo­tion to age-old tra­di­tions. Ru­ral pop­u­la­tions are fall­ing. Fam­ily farms are get­ting swal­lowed up by gi­ant com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions.

“It’s all about pass­ing down folk­lore and keep­ing the cow­boy life­style and cul­ture alive,” says Di­a­mond Doug Keith, one of the head­lin­ers at the 2018 Maple Creek Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing. “Cow­boys will ex­ist as long as there is beef, but their cul­ture might not sur­vive. That is what we need to pro­tect and hold on to.”

At the first cow­boy-po­etry ses­sion on Fri­day morn­ing, all 225 chairs on the floor of the ar­moury are full. Dozens more peo­ple line the back wall and watch from a bal­cony.

Farm tools and an old-fash­ioned milk can are set up as props at the foot of the stage. A rusted con­tainer of Rogers Golden Syrup, col­lected long ago, hangs be­side a kerosene lantern.

On stage, Ge­off (Poppa Mac) Mackay, a preacher, poet and for­mer chuck-wagon cook from Man­i­toba, is bathed in light.

He wears a cow­boy hat and has a ker­chief around his neck as he re­cites a poem called Calv­ing Time, about a young bull named Joe.

Step­ping down from the stage, he tells his life story. It sounds straight out of the pages of a Zane Grey novel.

“They claim your body is a tem­ple,” he says. “I treated mine like an amuse­ment park.”

Poppa Mac has worked as a ranch hand and a rodeo clown. He was a hel­lion, and dur­ing one con­fronta­tion in his youth had a shot­gun placed in his mouth. Now, he writes chil­dren’s books and po­etry and preaches in pas­tures and be­hind buck­ing chutes.

“I preach the Gospel, only in a cow­boy fash­ion,” he says.

He is 58 now and has lived all over Western Canada. He spends half the year on his acreage in Grande Pointe, south­east of Win­nipeg. The rest he spends in Brownsville, Tex., run­ning a min­istry.

“I got stomped on and kicked and should be dead,” he says of his reck­on­ing. “It oc­curred to me that I walked away from God, but He didn’t walk away from me.”

Soon, he will travel to Fort Worth, Tex., as a nom­i­nee for a Will Rogers Medal­lion in cow­boy po­etry. The awards are named af­ter the late writer and philoso­pher whose work em­bod­ied the tra­di­tions of the Amer­i­can cow­boy.

For three days, a ros­ter of 40 po­ets and mu­si­cians ro­tates among venues in Maple Creek, an hour’s drive east of Medicine Hat. They also en­ter­tain at a se­niors’ home and an as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­ity, and play at the Jasper Ho­tel, circa 1903, at night.

Along with po­etry and mu­sic, there is a fash­ion show where beaver-pelt hats and elk-skin gloves are fea­tured, and a Western gear and art sale where buy­ers can pe­ruse steer heads painted by Sum­mer Dawne Roasting.

“I am a banker and I paint skulls,” Sum­mer Dawne says cheer­fully.


Steam rises off the backs of big horses. The old Hol­stein in the sec­ond stall shifts her weight from side to side match­ing the rhythm of the milk­ing and flicks her tail at mem­o­ries of sum­mer flies.

Across the width of the barn

I stand with mouth open in my big­gest five-year-old oval catch­ing most of the milk squirted dead-eye straight by the laugh­ing hired man.

In the tack room kit­tens wait by a tin plate to put their morn­ing mus­tache on.

In my mem­ory, it is al­ways warm in the barn.

Neil Meili

One of the few art forms orig­i­nal to Canada and the United States, cow­boy po­etry be­gan as a way to while away the hours un­der starry skies at night.

With lit­tle else to do, hard-as-nails wran­glers would sit in a cir­cle around a fire and en­ter­tain each other by play­ing the har­mon­ica and telling sto­ries. When those tales be­gan to get stale, they added rhythm and rhyme to make them more ap­peal­ing.

Au­thors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour helped ro­man­ti­cize the Old West, and Rogers’s anec­dotes and folksy hu­mour made him a gi­ant of screen and stage. An ap­pear­ance in 1986 on The To

night Show by Bax­ter Black, the most fa­mous cow­boy poet of to­day, in­tro­duced the art form to a wider au­di­ence and opened the door for oth­ers.

Events are held in towns small and large, from Cartersville, Ga., to Walla Walla, Wash., with stops in Saskatchewan, Al­berta and Bri­tish Columbia in be­tween. The long­est-stand­ing ac­tive gath­er­ing has been held in Elko, Nev., since 1985. The mus­ter­ing in Maple Creek be­gan in 1989.

A United Church lay min­is­ter and Western pain­ter from Pi­nawa, Man., Di­a­mond Doug Keith has per­formed cow­boy po­etry for 22 years. He draws smiles with a poem called A Mal­lard’s Tale, about a ranch hand and his side­kick, a one-eyed duck.

As a child, his grand­fa­ther en­thralled him with sto­ries about cow­boys, and his mother re­cited verses by Robert Ser­vice to him in the kitchen. By the time he was 13, Di­a­mond Doug was round­ing up cat­tle at a beef and dairy farm. He, too, is 58 now and falls back on that ex­pe­ri­ence when he en­ter­tains.

From one to the next, the cow­boy po­ets in Maple Creek are a colour­ful lot. They are mostly older, and have lived fas­ci­nat­ing lives.

Bud Ste­wart is 86 and flew bomb­ing mis­sions dur­ing the Korean War. He grew up in south­ern Al­berta and drove a team of horses on the fam­ily farm at six years old. At 15, he had trou­ble find­ing work and headed south to Mon­tana, where he got hired as a ranch hand for $2 a day and all the food he could eat. Three years later, he reg­is­tered for the draft and caught a bus to Butte, where he was sworn in to the U.S. Air Force.

“So many went to Korea and didn’t come home,” he says qui­etly.

Noel Burles, an­other cow­boy poet, is 68 and once lived in a te­pee for a year in the Por­cu­pine Hills of south­ern Al­berta. He has worked as a me­chanic and a mill­wright, rid­den sad­dle broncs, op­er­ated a tow truck and did two tours of Viet­nam as a sniper with the U.S. Army.

His late un­cle, Ge­orge Burles, was a model in New York for a time and served as the orig­i­nal Marl­boro Man.

He comes from Cow­ley, Alta., a vil­lage with 200 peo­ple that’s best known as a shoot­ing lo­ca­tion for the film Broke­back

Moun­tain, and for Ge­orge and Noel Burles. At one point, Noel trav­elled the cow­boy-po­etry cir­cuit ex­ten­sively, bounc­ing be­tween burgs such as Chi­nook, Mont., and Slick, Okla.

“If you think Cow­ley is small, you should see Slick,” Noel says.

He has per­formed at 25 of the 29 gath­er­ings in Maple Creek, and has mem­o­rized nearly 1,000 songs and po­ems.

“If you tell some­one a story three times, they get tired of it,” he says. “If you put it to rhythm and rhyme, they will lis­ten 20 times.”

Also at the Maple Creek week­end, Pat and Char­lotte Gilmer are poet/mu­si­cians from Con­sort, Alta., home­town of singer k.d. lang.

Char­lotte’s great-grand­fa­ther Pierre Léveillé was a Métis guide in the 1870s for the North-West Mounted Po­lice. He is buried just out­side Maple Creek, where the cou­ple has per­formed as Barb’wire for 10 years.

“Ev­ery time you come here it is like go­ing to a fam­ily re­union,” Char­lotte says. “Only you don’t have any­body to fight with.”

A small woman who drives a big truck, poet Shelley Gold­beck grew up on a horse farm near Red Deer. She is de­scended from Saskatchewan home­stead­ers and serves as ed­i­tor of the Al­berta Cow­boy Po­etry As­so­ci­a­tion’s news­let­ter, the Barb­wire Dis­patch.

She has been a writer most of her life, but only started to cre­ate cow­boy po­etry a few years ago af­ter ac­com­pa­ny­ing a friend to a gath­er­ing in Lewis­town, Mont. “When I tell peo­ple I’m a cow­boy poet, they look at me like I have a horn in the mid­dle of my head,” Gold­beck says. She lives in Cal­gary and calls cow­boy po­etry a cel­e­bra­tion of the tra­di­tions of the West.

“These peo­ple shaped our his­tory,” she says. “We are do­ing these pre­sen­ta­tions so they will not be for­got­ten.”

Neil Meili is an­other cow­boy poet. He grew up south­west of Moose Jaw and has been a rancher, stock bro­ker and real es- tate sales­man, and lives in Ed­mon­ton.

He quotes Kinky Fried­man as he talks about cow­boy po­etry. The verses he writes are so cathar­tic that a U.S. psy­chother­a­pist, Bon­nie Bade­noch, used them to in­tro­duce the chap­ters in her book The Heart of Trauma: Heal­ing the Em­bod­ied Brain in the Con­text of Re­la­tion­ships. “Cow­boy po­etry goes right back to the very old oral tra­di­tions of the world,” he says.

In one ses­sion at Maple Creek, Phyl­lis Rath­well reads a poem about her fa­ther’s death called The Coy­otes Call. Some in the crowd at the Elks hall, where a mounted elk head flanks one side of the stage, are near tears when she fin­ishes.

“It was 10 years af­ter my fa­ther’s death be­fore I could write it,” she says. “It had to be far enough away.”

She was raised on a cat­tle and grain farm in Tomp­kins, a vil­lage of fewer than 100 peo­ple in south­west Saskatchewan. She met her hus­band at a cow­boy-po­etry gath­er­ing in Mon­tana and is now a rancher’s wife in Elk­wa­ter, at the western edge of the Cy­press Hills in south­east Al­berta. “I al­ways think ranchtar. women have the best sense of hu­mour,” the 68-year-old says. “They put up with an aw­ful lot. I tell my city friends it’s like hang­ing wall­pa­per with your hus­band on a daily ba­sis.”


I paused from cinchin’ my sad­dle’s rig­gin’ To feel the crisp wind out of the west Brush against my ex­posed hands and face Sendin’ my soul a shiver clean through my vest.

Its breath car­ried mem­o­ries in vivid colour From when I weren’t but a child half-grown Great sto­ries n’ tales that shaped my be­ing Of cow­boys, he­roes and horses I’ve known.

Di­a­mond Doug Keith

The po­etry gath­er­ing in Maple Creek ended with a cow­boy church ser­vice on Sun­day morn­ing. So many peo­ple at­tended that it had to be moved from the Di­a­mond C Cow­boy Church to the ar­moury to ac­com­mo­date them all. A third-gen­er­a­tion rancher, Ross Pol­lock, es­tab­lished the church in 2011 in a for­mer army bar­racks and chicken hatch­ery. “We went from hatch­ing chickens to hatch­ing peo­ple,” he says.

On the back wall is a photo from the early 1900s of his grand­fa­ther, Greg Pol­lock. Greg gath­ered a herd of wild horses in Win­nemucca, Nev., in 1883, and drove them to Maple Creek. “I’ve moved 15 miles in my whole life,” Ross, 75, says. He is not an or­dained min­is­ter but con­ducted wor­ship ser­vices at rodeos and home­com­ings for a half-cen­tury be­fore es­tab­lish­ing his own church. “I’m like Moses,” he says. “I spent 40 years in the wilder­ness and now I’m do­ing this.” Pol­lock and his wife, Claire, pre­side over the morn­ing ser­vice at the ar­moury. The build­ing is jammed as the ser­vice be­gins with the hymn What a Friend We Have in Je­sus. A yo­deller, Mary Re­sek, stands to the side of the stage and sings along, eyes closed and hands clutched around her gui-tar Poppa Mac Mackay comes up to pray and asks ev­ery­one to re­move their cow­boy hats. He ex­plains the ser­vice is a con­tin­u­a­tion of an­other old tra­di­tion: Sad­dle­bag preach­ers once trav­elled the West on horse­back to bring the word of God to cow camps.

“That is kind of what we are do­ing here to­day,” he says.

The ser­vice lasts 90 min­utes, with cow­boy po­etry and mu­sic in­ter­spersed with prayers.

“Even if you’re not a spir­i­tual per­son, you leave feel­ing bet­ter than when you came in,” Poppa Mac says. He muses that Prairie peo­ple largely have great faith. “When you rely on the weather and Mother Na­ture for your liveli­hood, it’s not hard to be spir­i­tual,” he says.

Re­sek takes the stage and sings Lord of

the Dance. No yo­delling this time. “Ev­ery­one is here to share what God has put in their hearts,” she says.

Cow­boy church con­cludes with the con­gre­ga­tion singing Amaz­ing Grace. The voices of cow­boys and ranch­ers bounce off the con­crete walls.


Noel Burles per­forms at the Jasper Ho­tel dur­ing the Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing in Maple Creek, Sask., on Sept. 14.

Poet Phyl­lis Rath­well stands at the Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing in Maple Creek, Sask., last month. Rath­well penned a poem about the loss of he ‘It was 10 years af­ter my fa­ther’s death be­fore I could write it,’ she says.

Right: Au­di­ence mem­bers laugh dur­ing a per­for­mance by John (Ol’ Ugly) Glaw­son. At the first cow­boy-po­etry ses­sion in Septem­ber, all 225 chairs on the floor of the venue were full – with sev­eral more peo­ple lin­ing the back wall and watch­ing from a bal­cony.

Above: Poet and preacher Ge­off (Poppa Mac) Mackay, who also writes chil­dren’s books, leaves the stage in Maple Creek. ‘They claim your body is a tem­ple,’ Mackay says of his life. ‘I treated mine like an amuse­ment park.’

Below: Poet Di­a­mond Doug Keith, one of the head­lin­ers, per­forms for the crowd. He has per­formed cow­boy po­etry for 22 years.


er fa­ther ti­tled The Coy­otes Call.

Left: A rider shows off her horse for auc­tion dur­ing the Maple Creek gath­er­ing.

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