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The Na­tional Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing turns thirty-five; pub­lish­ing po­etry in trans­la­tion; Con­tainer cre­ates books that aren’t books; an in­ter­view with Mary Gan­non, the new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Com­mu­nity of Literary Mag­a­zines and Presses; and more.

Ev­ery Jan­uary thou­sands of cow­boys, ranch­ers, mu­si­cians, and crafts­peo­ple jour­ney to the high-desert town of Elko, Ne­vada, for the Na­tional Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing. The fes­ti­val fea­tures six days of po­etry, mu­sic, dancing, and folk art ex­hibits, as well as nu­mer­ous work­shops on ev­ery­thing from sto­ry­telling and rodeo swing dancing to rawhide braid­ing and spit cook­ing. This year the Na­tional Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing turns thirty-five, and for many of the per­form­ers and par­tic­i­pants who re­turn an­nu­ally, it will be a time to cel­e­brate, re­flect, and honor the past—and, as usual, to share po­ems and tell sto­ries.

The first Gath­er­ing, co­or­di­nated by Elko’s West­ern Folk­life Cen­ter, was held in 1985—though many agree that cow­boys were meet­ing and shar­ing po­etry long be­fore then. “Some jour­nal­ists say it’s the most hon­est and open-hearted fes­ti­val in Amer­ica. Ranch­ers say these few days con­tain the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of lies in any one place at any one time,” jokes Hal Can­non, key­note speaker for the 2019 event and found­ing di­rec­tor of the West­ern Folk­life Cen­ter, on the event web­site. “The fact is, what we think of as the first Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing in Elko was hardly the first. The old Pioneer Ho­tel still echoes from a hun­dred years of po­ems, lies, and lost dreams.”

The 1985 Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing was orig­i­nally planned as a one-time week­end event by folk­lorists in­ter­ested in pre­serv­ing the voice of the Amer­i­can West. “There was so much en­ergy in the be­gin­ning that every­one wanted to get to­gether again,” says Meg Glaser, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the West­ern Folk­life Cen­ter and a long­time or­ga­nizer of the Gath­er­ing. “Peo­ple re­al­ized there were po­ets out there, folk po­ets, peo­ple who didn’t re­ally iden­tify them­selves as po­ets or artists—cow­boys, ranch­ers, horse­men, rodeo cow­boys, and many oth­ers. They were just writ­ing po­etry for their own personal love of writ­ing, as a form of en­ter­tain­ment, to com­mem­o­rate im­por­tant peo­ple in their lives, fa­vorite horses, or a beau­ti­ful place in the West.” By 2000 the U.S. Se­nate had given the an­nual fes­ti­val a “Na­tional” des­ig­na­tion, for­mally rec­og­niz­ing the event as a cul­tural tra­di­tion in a long his­tory of oral sto­ry­telling.

To this day reg­u­lar at­ten­dees, who some­times re­fer to the fes­ti­val as “Cow­boy Christ­mas” or sim­ply “Elko,” speak of the con­tin­ued ex­cite­ment, ca­ma­raderie, and wel­com­ing na­ture of the Na­tional Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing. Past Gath­er­ings have hosted well-es­tab­lished po­ets, mu­si­cians, and folk­lorists such as Wally McRae, Wil­liam Kit­tredge, Bax­ter Black, Bess Lo­max Hawes, Ram­blin’ Jack El­liott, Don Ed­wards, and Ian Tyson. “Some of the per­form­ers who have been in­volved in the Gath­er­ing since the get-go are go­ing to be in town and par­tic­i­pat­ing,” says Glaser about this year’s fes­ti­val, which will be held Jan­uary 28 through Fe­bru­ary 2. “We’ve also in­vited the photographer who has been do­ing por­traits of the po­ets for thirty-four years to do an ex­hi­bi­tion, and we’ve put a lot of ef­fort into dig­i­tiz­ing footage from the early years, footage peo­ple haven’t seen in a long time, if ever.”

Wad­die Mitchell from Twin Bridges, Ne­vada, a re­turn­ing poet and mu­si­cian who will be per­form­ing at the 2019 fes­ti­val, was in­ducted into the Ne­vada Writ­ers Hall of Fame

in 2011 and hon­ored in 2012 with the Ne­vada Her­itage Award from the Ne­vada Arts Coun­cil. He also helped or­ga­nize the first Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ings in Elko. “It has the feel­ing of a great fam­ily re­union where every­one likes each other,” Mitchell says, laugh­ing. “In those first bunch of Gath­er­ings, we were recit­ing old, passed-down po­etry, tra­di­tional po­etry, much more than we were recit­ing our own po­etry. Those times were life-chang­ing—not only for my­self, but for hun­dreds of peo­ple who have told me over these thirty years that the Gath­er­ing ac­tu­ally changed their lives.”

“It was magic; I learned what I loved,” says Brigid Reedy, a poet and folk singer-song­writer from White­hall, Mon­tana, who has been yo­del­ing at the Gath­er­ing since she was two years old. “It was such a thrill to see peo­ple get to­gether and share their art, and there’s still that over­whelm­ing feel­ing of be­ing able to meet peo­ple who feel just as pas­sion­ate as you. There will be a night that, with­out warn­ing, you’re sud­denly in a room play­ing mu­sic with every­one you’ve ever ad­mired and hear­ing their sto­ries and cre­at­ing sto­ries.”

For po­ets, per­form­ers, and at­ten­dees alike, the Gath­er­ing is a cel­e­bra­tion of the Amer­i­can West, a chance to con­nect to their West­ern her­itage and past gen­er­a­tions. “It’s a real broad cross sec­tion of peo­ple,” Can­non says. “By and large, it’s women and men from ranch­ing, peo­ple who live that life, who live in open spa­ces, and who have daily en­coun­ters with an­i­mals and work. It’s a great per­spec­tive for po­etry and sto­ries.” The fes­ti­val also aims to rep­re­sent the di­ver­sity of the ru­ral West by fea­tur­ing emerg­ing and es­tab­lished po­ets and per­form­ers from var­ied cul­tural and ge­o­graph­i­cal

back­grounds. Among this year’s dozens of par­tic­i­pants, many who ei­ther or­ga­nized the first Gath­er­ings or have fam­ily ties to past per­form­ers, are Henry Real Bird, who grew up ranch­ing on Mon­tana’s Crow reser­va­tion and was named the Cow­boy Poet of the Year in 2012 by the Academy of West­ern Artists; Amy Hale Auker, who cow­boys for a ranch in Yava­pai County, Ari­zona, and is the author of two nov­els, two books of cre­ative non­fic­tion, and a book of po­etry, Live­stock Man, re­leased in 2018; Paul Zarzyski of Great Falls, Mon­tana, the author of ten books of rodeo po­etry and the recipent of the 2005 Mon­tana Gover­nor’s Arts Award for Lit­er­a­ture; and mu­si­cian Tish Hi­no­josa of Austin, Texas, the daugh­ter of Mex­i­can im­mi­grants whose Amer­i­cana al­bum Cul­ture Swing was named the 1992 In­die Folk Al­bum of the Year by the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Record Dis­trib­u­tors. The Gath­er­ing also wel­comes emerg­ing artists, in­clud­ing For­rest VanTuyl, a song­writer who works at a pack sta­tion in East­ern Ore­gon; and Olivia Romo, a bilin­gual poet, farmer, and water-rights ac­tivist from Taos, New Mex­ico, who was named New Mex­ico’s Slam Po­etry Cham­pion in 2011.

“The Gath­er­ing is such a con­ver­gence of sto­ries,” Reedy says. “I don’t know if any­thing is more in­flu­en­tial to me and my art­work and the way I’ve grown up.” For Glaser, that con­ver­gence lies at the very heart of the Gath­er­ing and is ex­actly what makes the an­nual event so spe­cial. “Just like the hopes of the ranch­ing com­mu­nity in gen­eral, of want­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for the next gen­er­a­tion,” she says, “we want to ac­com­mo­date new voices, in­spire new voices, and help peo­ple ex­press them­selves in dif­fer­ent ways.”

Paul Zarzyski (above) and the Riders in the Sky band (right) at the 2018 Na­tional Cow­boy Po­etry Gath­er­ing.

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