Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you … the Ladies. (C’mon, gentlemen, scooch over a bit.)
“A few years ago, the cowboy poetry gathering wasn’t as open to women. And the women who were there often were writing poems about men—fathers and uncles and grandfathers we admired,” says poet and prose writer Linda Hasselstrom. “But a couple of the real originators of it started encouraging us to tell our own stories. Now you see a lot more women.”
Sorry cow-dudes. We know the title of the Western Folklife Center’s 31st annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, happening January 26-31 in Elko, does tilt toward you rugged prairie gents. Still, at this nearly weeklong creative embrace of the Western lifestyle—celebrated with 55 acts in a roster of poets, musical groups, solo musicians, storytellers and yodelers from more than a dozen states (plus Canada and Australia)—11 of the 31 poets scheduled to recite are women.
Whether writing as ranch co-owners, workers, cowboy spouses or daughters of the land, they’ve earned inclusion with evocative expressions of the cowboy aesthetic. Consider this excerpt from Hasselstrom’s “Autochthonous”:
… A thunderstorm leaps the hills, gallops toward me, rain riding toward the Badlands one more time. The grass that feeds those cows on the hill twines through my flesh; the water tastes of limestone percolated through my bones. This sun leathered my face; this wind wove the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes. Each day that wind erodes a little more.
“My mother married a rancher when I was 9 years old and I immediately became a working part of the ranch,” says Hasselstrom, 71, who resides on a Hermosa, South Dakota, ranch and has published 14 books of poetry and nonfiction.
“I started carrying scraps of paper and a pencil, and writing down things I saw during the day. The landscape, the animals, suddenly being out on a horse in the middle of five miles of grassland, with no car, no highway, no electric line, nothing around me. I was 10, my father would say, ‘Go on that pasture and collect those cows.’ I’d be riding by myself and see coyotes and eagles and prairie dogs.”
Tracing her writing back to her exposure to ranching, Hasselstrom recalls initially being inspired when her parents gave her collections of the works of Charles Badger Clark, late poet laureate of South Dakota and “kind of a god” to cowboy poets. “The rhythm of that iambic pentameter is right in the rhythm of the way a horse walks, so I could recite him.”
And if effective writing is rooted in life experience, Hasselstrom’s got the cred. “I’ve been kicked, bitten, stomped and defecated on—that’s part of the romance,” she says with a hearty laugh. “You picture the cowboy of whatever gender, looking nice on the horse and swinging the rope, but there are always the times when you’re in the chute and getting defecated on. It’s just part of the job.”
Taking a beating from ranch animals isn’t the only perspective women bring to the poetry gathering. Consider this excerpt from “The Truth About Cowboy Laundry,” by Yvonne Hollenbeck, who often takes a humorous view on tending to those who do the ranch’s down-and-dirty—emphasis on dirty—work:
… It might be a prolapse or pulling a calf, whatever the job that was done / most of the remnants ends up on their clothes, the urine, the blood, guts and dung. … So here they come in as you stand there in horror and hope that you don’t have the luck / of having to help ’em climb out of that mess but sometimes a zipper gets stuck / on their filthy old Carhartts, as your mind flashes back to the time that you fell for this guy / your mom tried to warn you of cowboy life, and now you can understand why.
“Some women write poetry about how, ‘there ain’t nothing a man can do that that I can’t do better’—well, that’s bunk,” says Hollenbeck, 69, who, with her husband, Glen, co-owns and operates a ranch in Clearfield, South Dakota, where they raise angus beef cattle and quarter horses. And though she does bail hay and look after livestock, “there’s very few women who can physically keep up with a man doing that outside,” she says. “But we have our role as a ranch partner, ranch wife. That’s where my poetry lies. A lot of time I’ll be [reciting] poetry and not only the wife is laughing, but her husband is too.”
Raised on her dad’s wheat farm in the Nebraska Panhandle, Hollenbeck was surrounded by her grandmothers who wrote poetry. “I thought in rhyme,” she says, adding that as an adult, she used poetry “to vent,” the venting morphing into something more when her not-so-busy husband failed to fix a faulty faucet.
“I come in after a hot, hard day out there, and the sink is full of water. I go looking for him. The boys and him were practicing roping, so I wrote this poem called ‘The Roper’s Wife’s Lament.’”
While Hasselstrom and Hollenbeck pour decades of ranch life into their work, another lady is working on only her second decade. But at age 14, Brigid Reedy, an ebullient, home-schooled fiddler/singer/songwriter/poetry reciter from Montana, already has a 12-year performing career to her credit. In 2003, she debuted at the poetry gathering as a 2-year-old saloon yodeler.
With her father, John Michael Reedy, she composes pieces such as “When the Snow Flies,” including these excerpted lyrics (see the video here):
… The smell of old Carhartts in the cold, stiff leather work gloves, cedar wood smoke, the feel of horse-hair that’s been sun-soaked—by the Montana winter. Gates run smooth and silent with the frost, ice shatters in the steel stock trough, silhouetted horses greet me with the dawn—saddled with snow. … When the snow flies his spirits rise, horses wheel to see him as he rides; in the moonlight the cabin’s bathed in white—in the cold Montana winter. When the snow flies my spirits rise, a glow in the tie barn tells me he’s all right; and his blue eyes laughing and bright, warm my soul—in the cold Montana winter.
“This has a real meaning, a real soul, you know? It connects to a real lifestyle. We have horses and a hay meadow and I go out every morning for the feeding and to look at the sunrise. Anything to be outside with my dad, anything I can be useful with—fencing [the horses] or handling, or exploring the mountains behind us—I love it!”
Adds her dad: “We live a real creative life, and we’ve connected it to living on the land. For Brigid, it’s natural for her to see a sunrise and write about it or do a painting or try to find something about herself in classic poetry that was written 75 years ago. We never had to force anything, she just fell into it.”
Hopefully, Brigid will remain passionate when she can look back from Elizabeth Ebert’s perspective. Widely admired among fellow cowboy poets, Ebert will turn 90 in February, soon after returning from Elko. While chronicling the challenges and pride of cowboy life, she still tickles the Western funny bone, as in “Real Cowboys Do Brush”:
Have you wondered how a cowboy out riding on his hoss / far from a dentist’s office and root canal and floss / eating beans and drinking coffee ’round a campfire every night / can keep his smile so charming and his teeth so pearly white? / gunpowder is the dentifrice of choice I’ve heard them say / and I reckon that’s why cowboys shoot their mouths off every day.
“My mother was a teacher and her family was great on poetry,” says Ebert, a widow who was married for 62 years and has lived most of her life in Thunder Hawk, South Dakota. “We always had to memorize poetry when we were kids. You couldn’t carry on a conversation with any of my relatives without someone quoting someone.”
And yet … Ebert was a closet poet for most of her life. “I wrote all my life, but nobody knew it until I was 65. Not too many people like poetry so I just did it for myself, I was embarrassed by it,” she says.
First stepping before an audience in 1989, she has since captured numerous honors, including the Academy of Western Artists’ Best Female Poet award. Decades of running tractors and chasing cows with her husband, S.J., informs her poetry, but it took her spouse to coax it into public view after attending a gathering in Medora, North Dakota.
“My husband said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ so the next year I got up and said a short poem. Then the next year I was asked to be at a show in Bismarck, a Baxter Black show. Baxter [a renowned cowboy poet/philosopher] took me under his wing and I got in at the national gathering. I owe a great deal to Baxter.”
And at nearly 90, inspiration has yet to abandon her. “I wrote a poem this morning,” she says.
Right on, Elizabeth.
Write on, ladies.
31st NATIONAL COWBOY POETRY GATHERING
Jan. 26-31, Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad St., Elko (approximately 430 miles from Las Vegas).
For directions, ticket prices and schedule of events, call 775-738-7508 or 888-880-5885; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit WesternFolkLife.org.