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Special Cowboy Poetry Feature

Spring/Summer 2004, Volume 21.3

Conversation

 

Mikel Vause

Word From the Great Basin: A Conversation With Waddie Mitchell


Photo of Waddie Mitchel with Mikel Vause.

This interview took place in the summer of 2003 in Elko, Nevada. After lunch at the famous Basque Restaurant, the Star, Craig Oberg, who was on assignment as photographer, and I followed Waddie from the Star to the visitor's information building. It's an old log home that obviously had been moved there from its original location. Upon exiting his Dodge 4x4 pickup, Waddie announced that this building was the home he had grown up in—it had been called Sherman Station. The city of Elko and some folks from the county historical society had managed to save this classic ranch home from wasting away by turning it into a visitor's center. It's complete with the tack shed and barn—a fitting place to talk to a "real cowboy" and America's most recognized "cowboy poet." The face and name of Waddie Mitchell have become synonymous with the literary genre called "Cowboy Poetry." Waddie has appeared in numerous television programs, from The Tonight Show to documentaries produced by educational stations. He is a regular at many western festivals and is one of the original founders of the world famous National Cowboy Poetry Gathering held each winter in Elko. His life as a poet is a busy one—he is "on the road" about 250 days a year.

Throughout his life, Waddie has been, first, a working cowboy and, second, a poet. But for Waddie the life of a cowboy and composing poetry are one and the same. His poems tell his story, which is that of a "real life" cowpuncher and ranch hand. He is representative of those hearty individuals who settled the West and established a way of life that fit in with the harsh yet beautiful landscape where it took root. As tough and hardy as the cowboy life was, it is now threatened by technology and overdevelopment. Because of his commitment, and that of others like him, twenty-first century America is again beginning to relearn the importance of the life of the cowboy and why holding on to it is necessary both historically and socially. The cowboy is a part of the fabric of America, set deep in the arid tract called the Great Basin. Nearly any family that has lived west of the Mississippi for more than a couple of generations can find a cowboy in its genealogy.

I first met Waddie about 15 years ago when he showed up at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University. He was with a friend who was a student presenter at the conference. I had just read an article in Outside Magazine that heralded a young, tough-looking buckaroo with a big handle-bar mustache as the voice of a dying breed. When he walked into the student union, I immediately recognized him. Before the week was over, I had been treated to many of his poems as well as several long conversations that centered on the structure and analysis of poetry, the craft and art demonstrated by several of its greatest practitioners, and even a bit of modern literary criticism. I came away feeling he should be the professor and I the student. We have become fast friends, and it was a pleasure to sit down with Waddie and catch up on some old stories and new ideas.

Check out these other works by Waddie published by Weber Studies:  Cowboy Poetry—That "No Quit" Attitude and Infraction Distraction,     Essay—Keynote Address: 2001 National Poetry Gathering

Mikel Vause (Ph.D., Bowling Green University) is Professor of English at Weber State University where he is co-director and founder of the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. His essays, poems, and stories have appeared in numerous publications including American Nature Writer, Popular Culture Review, The John Muir News Letter, and The Himalayan Journal. He is author of a collection of essays On Mountains and Mountaineers and editor of The Peregrine Reader, Wilderness Tapestry and two volumes of essays by women climbers, Rock and Roses Vol. I and II. He has recently published his first collection of poems I Knew it Would Come to This and is currently writing a biography of British mountaineer Chris Bonington.

An avid mountaineer, Mikel is a member of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club (Britain). He is a frequent guest speaker at national and international conferences such as The Mountain Literature Festival (England) and the World Wilderness Congress (Norway and India). He also enjoys a good cowboy poetry gathering from time to time.

 

 

 

Waddie, I have a list of questions here I want to ask you. You feel free to take as much time on each question as you want. I thought in order to set some sort of a paradigm for this I'd ask you, "What is a cowboy, both historically and socially?"

Well, a cowboy, historically, was a feller that needed to take an entrepreneur's idea and put it into the practical realm of getting the job done. The East had pretty well filled up with people, and there was a real need to feed those people. The local farming around the outskirts of different cities and towns could not keep up with the demand for beef—at least not in a cheap manner. But out towards Texas and this area—out West—there were these vast prairies and grasslands that were available, and at that time, thousands and thousands of wild cattle. Somebody thought, "You know, if we could just get these back East, we could make a killing." So that's really where the cowboy, as we know him today, came from. At first these cowboys were really pretty green—that is, they were the trail drivers themselves—the young guys right off the boats who were looking for maybe some wages but also a way to get from point A to point B. You didn't have to know an awful lot to get behind a cow and drive it from point A to point B. It just wasn't that much. The skilled cowboy stayed at the ranch and took care of the things that needed to be taken care of there—gathered the wild cattle and got them in shape to start on the trail drives.

 

In Nevada what most people refer to as a "cowboy" is known as a "buckaroo." Explain the difference between a cowboy and a buckaroo.

 

"Cowboy" is really a term that came from England. That's what they called the young kids—and they generally were young boys—who would take the cows out, graze them and then bring them back in at night. They just called them by what they were most closely associated with—cows. The "buckaroo" drew its tradition from a different source. It, too, is a European source originating with the Moors and passing through the Spanish who settled into early California. The Californio ranch hands were called vaqueros which is "cowboy" in Spanish. Americans have always been real good at bastardizing somebody else's language, so vaquero becomes "buckaroo." The Spanish land-grant owners, the original vaqueros, were fine horsemen and took a great deal of pride in their work and manner. As California filled up and the cowboys needed a place to go, the Great Basin was a natural place for them—just north and east of the old Californio ranches and missions. So that tradition is where we in the Great Basin draw the differences. The gear we use is more that of the vaquero—the fine silver mounted bits and tapaderos, the long rawhide riatas or ropes that we know as lassos or lariats—there's another word, lariata. That's really where the cowboy terminology out here comes from—from those Californios—at least for the buckaroo. It's been pretty widespread here of late. It used to be you could tell pretty much where a feller was from just by his gear. But with the onslaught of guys who came out and took pictures and put them in books, and the availability of different types of gear nationwide, we've homogenized. It's down to where it's pretty doggone hard to tell where a feller is from anymore, unless maybe it's a crease in his hat or maybe a little bit of an accent. Typically, and of course there are always rules to be broken in this stuff, the buckaroo in the Great Basin region looks a little different, works a little different, because it's a regional thing; but that regional thing stems from how things work best for the particular country you're from. If you're a brush popper in the brush country of Arizona, you are going to learn to work a little differently just because of the terrain you're working in. In the high basin region with the sagebrush country and millions of acres, typically, what the buckaroo uses has evolved over the years to be the best for this particular part of the world.

 

Why do you think it's important to tell the cowboy story? Why do you feel like you have to tell this story?

 

Well, I grew up amongst storytellers. If you think about it, it's a little bit sad that our lives in America have gotten where there are very few stories told anymore—even around the supper table. People eat in front of the TV or eat at different times of the day—oftentimes, not together. When America was young and pioneers were moving west, storytelling was a big, big thing—as it is still in the Ozark Mountains or about anyplace where people's lives are maybe a little more manageable. But I don't really feel a need, at least when I started I did not feel the need, to go out and tell the cowboy story. Those were the only kind of stories I could tell because they were all I knew. Until I was drafted in the Army in 1969, I thought everybody was a cowboy. You know, in the world I grew up in, everybody was pretty much a rancher, a cowboy, or worked in a business that facilitated that industry. Originally, I didn't have a mission that I had to go tell the story. But in the past twelve years I've done this professionally—and this is pretty much all I've done—I do realize that it is important, and it's probably the first time that the cowboy has really had a chance to tell his own story. We have a few examples of authors, your Will James and your Andy Adams, who were, sure enough, cowboys and who wrote about the cowboy life. But most of what America knew about the cowboy, written by novelists who had little or no connection to the cowboy lifestyle, had a great deal more romance in it than maybe what the rancher or the cowboy knew. The dime novel started out with bigger than life heroes. It made heroes out of outlaws as well as sheriffs. Of course, that evolved into the moving picture and, eventually, into the TV shows that we, in America, were completely inundated with throughout the `50s and `60s. About every other show on TV was a western. Television typified the cowboy as the strong silent type. I mean, we all know the cowboy through that story. The good guys wore white—the bad guys wore black. There was always a villain to go fight, and those guys seemed always to be in town at the saloon, readily accessible. But growing up, even as a small kid, I knew that wasn't the real cowboy because I was living amongst them. Don't get me wrong, I still fell in love with the cowboy that Hollywood and the novels created. But, when I was around real cowboys and the stories they told—stories full of dry wit and humor, not the mean kind of humor but the kind that is generally self-deprecating in some way or another—what I found was what I knew and where I came from—and that's what I enjoy. It was only when camera crews and writers from a magazine were out writing about the last of the real cowboys, which they had done for a hundred years prior, that they'd end up staying at the ranch and the stories and the poetry would come out. It got to where it fascinated them. Many people in America don't hear stories anymore—that is, they don't hear them told. The oral tradition is somewhat lost. I think this is sad in a lot of ways. It is still common amongst the rural people in America—to tell stories, to visit at night, the one-on-one entertaining of a group or group conversation. If you look back into our past, you see people who could tell stories. They were driven across the seas by the wind on small, closed boats; they were crowded together in lumber camps and mines; they were sheepherders and ranchers—and they were cowboys sharing the bunkhouses or the open range. The oral tradition survives, at least to a large extent, through Cowboy poetry. I like to be part of all of this.

 

How long were you a working ranch hand?

 

I don't remember a time I wasn't. As far as that goes, from the time I was a little kid I had chores. That's all I wanted to do. I wanted to hang out with the guys, and that was the life I grew up in. By the time I was ten years old, I was a good enough hand to draw a little wages on the ranch and be around with my dad. By the time I was thirteen, I didn't want to hang in the house anymore. I wanted to live out in the bunkhouse with the cowboys. I quit school when I was sixteen. It's not that I didn't like school, but I had to board in town to go to high school, and that took me away from the ranch. It was just too tough to get back and forth every day. It was sixty or some odd miles out to the ranch, and thirty-three of that was dirt road—fourteen miles from the nearest neighbor. The winter can be pretty bad around here, so taken altogether it was a bit too much. Boarding in town took me away from what I loved—absolutely away from what I loved. By the time I was sixteen, I was a good enough cowboy that I went and asked one of the cow bosses on one of the most prestigious ranches in Elko County if I could get hired on with them. When he gave me a job on the buckaroo crew for the Seven S, they'd still pull the wagon out—I was gone. I often look back now because I've had the opportunity to be around academia some, and I often wonder just what my life would have been had I pursued that kind of life. I've really found a fascination for it. But, in retrospect, I wouldn't change anything. I worked on some of the big outfits with some of the people considered "old-timers" now, and I rode those wagons and stayed on ranches as a working hand for twenty-six years. Until I went to telling cowboy poetry, I'd never done anything else in my life, other than the time I was drafted in the Army—and I still ended up running a ranch for the Army. It was pretty much all I'd ever known or done.

 

You ran a ranch for the Mormon Church.

I did. I ran a ranch for the Mormon Church out here in Elko County, down towards Jiggs. They had been having a lot of trouble with that ranch for a lot of years. A good friend of mine named Demar Dahl was on the committee over that ranch, and he kept saying, "You know, if we got somebody out there who knew how to run cows right, we wouldn't be going broke on this thing." He approached me and said, "Would you come and run this thing for me?" He said, "Typically it's run by a committee, but if you'll come and run it, I'll keep the committee off your back and we'll see if we can't turn this thing around." Well, it was a good deal. It really was. It's hard to find the right people in a given area, but I grew up in that area—I knew the neighbors. I knew who I could go and get grass from if needed or extra hay from if needed. It was just one of those things that really worked out. I had a nice seven years there.

 

They didn't try to turn you into a Sunday School teacher or anything?

 

Yeah, they pretty much did on a regular basis, and I'm very impressed with that whole concept of the Church. There were just a few things that didn't sit right with me, philosophically. It had nothing to do with the teachings that I was around or heard, but it had more to do with what I saw with the people—but that's just human nature. It never was really that easy for me to get around and take a day off anyway. As a young man trying to keep things going, that just wasn't part of my agenda.

 

Do you feel that you have to have hands-on experience to be a Cowboy poet? Can somebody who is not a cowboy be a Cowboy poet?

 

There again, that's one of those gray areas that a feller just would have a hard time having a pat answer to. I guess you have to figure exactly what a "cowboy" is. Nowadays the term has been used as an adjective to describe somebody maybe a little more freethinking or independent thinking. Some of those fellers who ride a motorcycle up and down the road often call themselves modern day "cowboys." I think that the term makes a definitive answer difficult. But in terms of Cowboy poetry as we know it—as a genre with a particular audience—that audience can only be fooled for so long. And I think that if you're going to write about being a cowboy, they're going to pick up on that right away—if you really are one or not. Sometimes it's a matter of lending credence to the work. Although, to me, Robert Service was a Cowboy poet in every sense of the word. I'm talking about any of his volumes, whether it be Rhymes of the Red Cross Man from his World War I experiences to—well, just any of them, actually. I believe he was a Cowboy poet because that's what we do—we speak in the language of the people. Robert Burns was a Cowboy poet. He talked in the language of the people he was portraying. He told stories of the human condition in a way that was recognized, understood, and accepted by his people—there's an example right there of a people's poet. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is one of my favorite poets, owns a wonderful bookstore down in San Francisco, California. I had one of my book openings down there one time—some reading and signing and stuff. I was bragging to him about how I'd loved his poetry, how I'd found it as a young man, a cowboy out in the middle of nowhere. People thought I was crazy, but I just loved the way he expressed himself. I think it's a little easier to appreciate that kind of poetry—Beat poetry—when you're a young rebel anyway. But he told me something a bit unexpected. He said, "My generation took poetry away. We helped to take poetry away from the American people, and I regret it." He told me that it started when poetry got too "foo foo" for people to appreciate, and so they took it to the extreme the other way. He expressed that he was very happy to see this medium—Cowboy poetry—giving it back to the people.

 

That brings up the next question I have. Many people credit you with the revival of the cowboy oral tradition. According to Ed Vogel in his article, "Rhyming on the Range," you got started in Cowboy poetry because of an art class that you took at Great Basin College. How did you really get started?

 

I had always recited. It came by just being around the old cowboys. It seemed that everybody who had been out to the ranch always had a poem or two. I started reciting—probably before I was ten years old. I just loved it, but I never considered it poetry because these cowboys were doing it. There was no name to it—it was just something I did. When I got back from the Army, I had taken a class from a wonderful lady named Sarah Sweetwater who was teaching art. I always enjoyed art, and I thought I'd like to get involved, maybe take a college class or something with art—see if I couldn't do something with it. I was out on a ranch and had a very hard time making it in to class. Sarah actually took her own time and would come out to the ranch. We sat and talked about my art, and she asked me what else I did. I showed her that I was a rawhide braider, that I twisted horse hair, that I did leather work, that I considered what I was doing with horses as being "art" in a lot of respects. When I mentioned the poetry, that really turned her on. We got to visiting about it, and through that conversation she contacted a guy name Hal Cannon who at that time was directing the Western Folk Life Center out of Ketchum, Idaho. It was one of those meetings. Hal, being a folklorist, was fascinated with the fact that a cowboy was writing poetry. I told him that I was not all that unique. But it seemed that I was the first cowboy they found—I seemed to be the guy. So they were writing: "This is the last of the real cowboys." Don't take this wrong in any way, but it got to be where I think—like any other occupation—the photographers and writers got somewhat lazy. Maybe not in their occupation, but in finding something to write about. So, as articles got written about me and pictures got taken of me, it got to where I couldn't put a cow through the gate without somebody taking a picture and wanting to write a story about it. The reality is that there are a heck of a bunch of guys out there. I've been trying to preach that from day one. When Hal Cannon came to me and wanted to study and stay with me and write about what I was doing, I told him, "Partner, there's a whole bunch of us out here still doing what I do. You just can't see us from the highway. So I'll introduce you to these guys." As he got to know more of us, he gave me a call and said, "Why don't we get a bunch of your friends and all come to town and have a little poetry reading?" I didn't think anybody would show up, but I thought it was a chance to get a bunch of my friends to town and have maybe a pretty good party for a weekend. They advertised in some rural newspapers around the west. My leads through Hal begat other leads, and then the articles and the different things that were written in the paper started getting people out of the closet who had been poets of some sort—maybe some of them never had shared it with anybody. We didn't have any idea what to expect from that first morning of the Elko Gathering. I remember we were setting up chairs in one room. We'd set out about a hundred chairs. I looked over at a gal who was helping me set up the chairs, and I said, "Who are we fooling?" She said, "Well, maybe not everybody is going to want to sit right together." Well, two thousand people showed up that first morning. So, since that time I've been given an awful lot of credit for helping this thing start out. This is completely wrong. I'll never change the story on that. Yes, I was one of the people who were invited. I happened to be one of the people they talked to first, but the reality is that it was of its own time. It was a freight train ready to go, but it was on level tracks just before it started downhill. All we did was get behind it and give it a little push and tug. Once it started going, we did nothing more than snap
an outfit on that locomotive. But it found its own momentum—found its own way. I do not deserve the credit that people insist on giving me.

 

Who were some of your role models and mentors who led you into Cowboy poetry?

 

The cowboys that I worked around, mostly. My dad, of course, and Kris Kristofferson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Robert Service, Edgar Allen Poe, Whitman, Badger Clark, the list goes on and on. I'll tell you what happened. When I quit school and was out on the ranch, the Seven S, I was one of the few cowboys that they kept for the winter. They were going to have me start a bunch of their colts for the next year. It was my first Christmas away from home and my parents. It was kind of lonesome in that old bunkhouse by myself. I was needing overshoes and a new coat and a new lasso rope—a dried cotton rope—I was needing everything that I didn't have. Just before Christmas, a box from my parents showed up, and I could not stand not opening it right away. It being my first year away, I didn't have to wait until Christmas. It was a small but heavy box, and I had no idea what was in it. When I opened the box, I really took the gift as an insult. It was two boxes of books of what they called The Harvard Classics, and I thought my folks were just rubbing me for the fact that they didn't appreciate me quitting school. Out of sheer boredom that winter, I flipped through the pages until I saw the title of a story I thought I might like, and I started reading it. To my surprise, I really got into it. Before long, I found out that every story in that set of 20 volumes they had given me was worth reading. I started with Volume One, and by the time I got drafted three years later, I had gone through the entire set two and a half times. I learned from the best. I never got into Louis L'Amour, and I never got into those Zane Grey novels, although they are both well known. I had been told the best stories by the best storytellers, and I took it very serious—I had just gotten spoiled.

 

I remember looking at a Norton Anthology and being amazed to find Bob Dylan's lyrics for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" parked right next to John Donne's meditations. If you had to place your poems in an anthology of great world poetry, who would you want to have your poems placed next to?

 

That's kind of like the feller who said if he had to pay for a particular feller what he thought that feller was worth and then sell him for what he really was worth, he'd go broke pretty quick. I would like to think, in my fondest dreams, that people like Robbie Burns might accept me next to them. Robert Frost would be too much to ask for. Kris Kristofferson feels like a friend, so I'll stick his name in there. To me, Kristofferson is a great poet [Waddie recites Kristofferson's "Casey's Last Ride"]:

Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down
The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below;
Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors,
Of silent desperation, never speaking to a soul.
The poison air he's breathin' has the dirty smell of dying
`cause it's never seen the sunshine and it's never felt the rain.
But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes
Of the clickin' of the turnstiles and the rattle of his chains.

I had a sister who was going to college in Boulder, Colorado. For my birthday that same year that I quit school, she sent me an album of an unknown singer/songwriter named Kris Kristofferson. I was out on the wagon, so I didn't have a record player—didn't have any electricity. In those days it was vinyl. But he had written out the lyrics to his poetry on the back of that album cover, and I fell in love with this guy and his writing, right then, as a seventeen-year-old kid.

I used to tell my students that country music was the music of intellectuals because Kris Kristofferson was a Rhodes Scholar. He's an amazing lyricist—a well-trained poet.

 

I learned every single one of those songs as poetry. I was hungry for poetry. I couldn't carry books on the wagon—I just couldn't. You had only your bedroll and enough to carry with you, so that album cover was my book for that summer after I'd spent a winter with the Harvard Classics. I learned every single line he'd written.

 

How about literary criticism? In the academic world we're always dabbling in some form of criticism, whether it's Lionel Trilling and Cleanth Brooks' "New Criticism" or post-structuralism or Marxist or deconstruction—all those `isms and `ists—those sorts of things.

 

Sometimes I'm giving a seminar or sitting around with a bunch of other people who are well-read in literary criticism, and they'll want to get into that. I tell them a story about a friend of mine named Mike Vause, who years ago had me come back to speak to a couple of his college classes. He said that he'd given his students some of my poetry to read and find some meaning to it. That feller, Mike, told me he had one student come back with something like 18 different meanings for one of my poems. When I wrote it, I had one. I think we can go overboard on that stuff. But I do think that it's interesting. I think there are earnest people out there finding remarkable things in all forms of art. But basically, if people can't look at a painting and say, "I like it," or a sculpture and say, "I like it," or hear a symphonic piece and say, "I like it," or hear a folk tune and say, "I like it," then the artist has not done his job. No matter how much you look into it and try to explain it to me, I have a hard time really enjoying Picasso. Picasso is not for everybody—and neither is Waddie Mitchell. What I like is not for everybody. If I can move somebody, then I don't need it picked apart. If we start taking ourselves too seriously, then art becomes too serious—and that is what almost took art away from common people.

 

I guess this is a question that everyone has to ask, even a fan of Robert Frost. Robert Frost's poem "To a Thawing Wind" talks about a poet who has his own little chamber or closet in which he composes his poetry. How do you compose yours?

 

I often think of that. I often think that I need that "closet," whether it be driving along in the pickup, solitary time at 4 o'clock in the morning before everybody else is up and life gets busy, or that 2 o'clock in the morning time just before you go to bed. But none of these times are absolute. What we need is time to ourselves to put our thoughts together. I find that the only way to put my thoughts together is to put them down on paper. People keep telling you that organized people keep lists. Why? Because it's hard to keep and check off in your mind what is done and what isn't. You'll find that organized people do that. Poets and authors get to write their stories by putting their thoughts together through language. Whether it be simple or complex, we get to use language to express our thoughts—and we can only come close. But, if you think about it, the human mind is infinitely capable. How many love songs have been written, and how many will be written? Love is one emotion. There are only so many emotions and so many names for those emotions that humans have come up with. The human experience only entails so many. As you get around the world and read African folk tales, read Native American folk tales, read Chinese folk tales, or read folk tales from Iraq or Turkey, you see that we are the same. The human family is one, and we all experience as one, basically. It's only through our frailties and stubbornness, and through our political or religious beliefs that we draw separations. But we can learn from everybody else's combined experiences. Being a lover of history, I wrote extensively about that last year. It just amazes me how we have the ability to write and look at history, from the time man first started making symbols to preserve what was going on, yet we make the same mistakes over and over and over again. In that same vein, we can learn how we can take care of problems. We can learn if a political or a religious or a philosophical idea holds water, and we can refuse to follow it. Maybe it's this way so that we all have a full experience of life. Things like warfare, to me, are just so ridiculous because we can learn that it has never done us any good in the larger scheme of things.

 

According to Hal Cannon, your friend and founder of the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering, "Cowboy poems are parables for shared values and emotions—the reluctant man in the modern world." Do you agree with that?

 

I think that maybe some could draw that conclusion from reading what cowboy poetry is available out there. Maybe it's because my background is a little different from many of the guys I've been around, but, then, it's very much the same as others. I don't really consider that to be the definitive definition. Maybe it fits in there, looking over certain poetry, but the reality is that I draw a lot of my inspiration and conclusions from authors who are two hundred and three hundred years dead. I draw a lot from my kids who have yet to write anything but a school essay. I draw my conclusions from a horse that outweighs me and makes me think him out—know where he is at. I draw from cattle that are unruly and unpredictable. I draw from the changing of the seasons and the moods that I'm in and the moods that I notice other people are in. Someone once asked Robert Frost when it was that he realized he was a poet. Frost replied something like, "I really don't know when that happened, but I'm sure it was a progression—I can tell you this, you cannot be a poet before you're fifty years old, but you'll never be a poet if you don't start before you're twenty." I have to say, "Alright, how cool is that—and maybe really accurate."

Drawing poetry from the things round you—often from animals and your interaction with them—makes me think about your poem "Cat Tastrophy." I remember when you first wrote it and we were talking on the phone, and you said, "Hey, I just finished a poem. I'm going to Atlanta and I want to read it on TV. Tell me what you think." And then you recited that poem to me. You were a little concerned about whether it was politically correct or not. It seemed like in that poem you learned a thing or two from a cat.

When I wrote that poem the first time, the one you're referring to, I heard that story from an old man in Santa Rosa, California. It was really neat the way I heard it. He was a little, old, short man who spoke very, very quietly. It really worked to his advantage because as he was talking, he would lean against his cane and never raise his head. So he was always talking down towards the ground, which drew you down underneath him. And because he talked so low, you had to get close—so he had your full attention. He pretty much told me that story, verbatim, the way I wrote it. I went around the country for three or four years giving that poem. A lot of audiences really liked it, but invariably, some little old lady or some city-dwelling man would come up to me and say they had been offended by the poem. So, eventually, I did quit doing it. I rewrote the poem two years ago, and I put it on my last album. I had the cat become friends with the old guy in the end. So it is more politically correct. Now, I hate to admit that I've given in to political correctness, but the reality is when you're making your living and you're going around the country, the last thing you want to do is offend people. I like to make people think, question some ideas, yes—I never back off that. But I would not blow up a cat, and I probably related to their anger more than maybe I should have.

 

Could you recite the poem?

 

I could, but I could also give you another example of what I did observe and learn from animals. I was commissioned by the Olympic Committee to write this poem and it became the official poem for the Salt Lake Olympic Games. [Waddie recites his poem, "That `No Quit' Attitude,"]

 

This is a real good place to make a little change in direction here, talk a little about politics. In a keynote address you gave at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. [reprinted on page 22] you express concern that the decline of ranching brought about by federal and environmental interference might lead to the demise of cowboy culture. At the end of your speech you asked, "Are we here to celebrate this lifestyle or to eulogize it?" Is cowboy poetry a form of politics?

 

Is poetry a form for politics? Historically, it has been. It meant a lot more in the sixteenth and seventeenth century than it does now, but yes, it has always been a forum for political and philosophical beliefs.

 

There's probably not a poet you can think of who hasn't had some political involvement—Wordsworth, Shelley, or Byron, or whoever. e. e. Cummings refused induction into the military during World War I and was imprisoned as a prisoner of conscience. Hal Cannon has called the Elko Gathering politically important. A few years ago you got involved in a conflict between the local ranchers and the BLM. So, does being a Cowboy poet provide you with the opportunity to be a political activist?

 

I suppose it does, but I take that very seriously. I don't just use my ideas. If I see injustice of any sort, whether it be in family matters or in human matters or political matters, when I see injustice, I feel it's important to go study it out and find out who's really on what end—the receiving or the giving end of this injustice. Is it retaliatory? Is it reactionary? Does it have a purpose? Is there an agenda in the back or the front of it?

Believe me, nobody is more patriotic than I am. But I know the flaws of the woman I chose to spend my life with, and knowing those flaws does not make me love her any less. I know the flaws of my own father, who I idolized when I was a child, thought knew nothing when I was an adolescent, and finally became my hero again when I became and adult. I think we, as a country, did develop a credible philo
sophical, religious, and political belief that all men are created equal. I believe it is up to a government to let a man or woman find his or her own destiny, and that the government should be there to do the business end of the deal—but not dictate the idea. At the same time we were condoning slavery, we were running the indigenous people off this land. We were not the only ones—all around the world, indigenous people were deprived of their own birthright. In America we condoned it with two words that sicken me when I hear them—"eminent domain." It was eminent domain that justified our taking people's birthright lands and enslaving them—and even killing them. I love the Indian people—and they have been wronged. I grew up around them. I did not know there was a difference until I boarded in town to go to high school. That's where I saw prejudice. When I see that we are consistently going on in the same mode today as we were a hundred years ago, I think it's time to stand up and cuss about it. It is not done on an individual basis through bigotry, like it was for years and years, but it goes on through governmental policy—and it is still going on. We've made progress to make things right with the Japanese Americans we interred, and we've tried to put that behind us. We've tried and are constantly trying to make right the injustices we did to African Americans, but Native Americans are still brushed under the rug and treated in a way that is and was predetermined to fail and get rid of a wart that was getting sore on our big toe. And, yes, I was mad about it—I am mad about it—and until things change I will
stay mad about it.

 

John Christensen writing for the High Country News quotes Teresa Jordan, author of the history Cowgirls: Women of the American West, as saying that she once saw the cowboy resurgence as the last cry of a dying culture. Now, she sees the Elko Gathering as the vector in a community for new ideas that challenge old assumptions. From your perspective, what are some of the challenging new ideas that come from Cowboy poetry?

 

Well, I can't speak for her, but I know what I gained from it, and I was in total agreement when I first read that. Teresa is a very good friend of mine. She's an intellectual, and I love the time I get to spend around her. I think that at all times we've got to question old assumptions.

I use a stupid thing I said as a young man an awful lot on stage because it is so ridiculous, but it actually happened. My dad had an old guy working for him on the ranch who we called "Booger Red." Booger Red was one of those guys who didn't treat me like a kid. He taught me. I'm sure he watched out for me more than he let on, but he also talked to me as a person—not as an adult to a child. I began to start horses at a fairly young age. Red said something to me through the coral one day when I kept trying something that wasn't working. The more I tried, the more the colt and I were fighting. He said, "Waddie, question everything," and I said, "Why?" Well, my response pretty much showed how much I had to learn.

Yes, I do think that we have to address some of the assumptions we have. I remember—it was around the early '80s—people were calling me an environ mentalist, which at that time was not a word that was used for any one group of people. It was an individual label. Now, if you claim to be an environmentalist, it immediately puts you into a group of people who have to be opposed to another group of people who have to oppose you. With today's mass media and with the monies available to turn political thoughts or philosophical thoughts one way or another, it's a dangerous thing. But people have become more evironmentally aware. Many people in the United States are now looking to purchase rainforests in South America, just to protect them. They ask where lumber is coming from. Many people will look, and look twice, at a dam proposal. Many people will think twice before using reams of paper for inter-office messages. Many people will think before leaving a sprinkler on their lawn all day long. But some things are a result of incomplete, shoddy, or unsubstantiated science, and they verge on tipping into the realm of the ridiculous. I want to look at each case and go from there. I don't like the idea of being on one team or the other—believing or backing one idea or the other, simply because I'm on that team. I don't like being pigeon-holed. I think that each of us should look at things in our individual capacities. We should take what we know and put it into making concerned and discerned decisions. I think we're slowly going to get there. For instance, the total ban on livestock in some of the national parks has proven suspect after the big fires got started. I think that some of the fisheries and some of our waterways are being cleaned up because we saw the adverse outcome of many years of misuse. I think that there's going to be good and bad on
all sides.

When Larry King had me on his show, the segment was titled "The New Range War." I had to sign a piece of paper saying that what I was going to say was, to the best of my knowledge, true and correct. I was on with a fellow named Jim Fisch. During the course of the show, he said a few things that I considered ridiculous, but because of time constraints I knew doggone well I wasn't going to get to talk about them. As he was talking, I could look up at a monitor and see "Jim Fisch, environmentalist" written below his picture. So I glanced up at the monitor when I was answering, and it said, "Waddie Mitchell, cattle rancher." So after they'd asked me a few questions and asked me to comment on a few things, I said, "If you don't mind, can I just ask one question here?" I said, "I notice up on the monitor there that every time this feller talks, his picture is accompanied with his name followed by `environmentalist,' and when I talk it says my name followed by `cattle rancher.'" I said, "Now, I can prove I'm a cattle rancher, and I'd like to consider myself an environmentalist, but can you please explain to me why you call him an environmentalist and not me?" When the question was turned over to Mr. Fisch, he said, "Well, I spend a lot of time out on the range." I butted in and said, "Well, so do I." He said, "Well, I'm concerned with what we're doing to the environment." I said, "Well, so am I." Then I asked, "Will you answer me a question, Mr. Fisch? What do you do for a living?" He said, "That has nothing to do with anything." But Larry King says, "I think that maybe that's a pertinent question." So Fisch says, "Well, I'm a chemical engineer." And I said, "Okay, I make my living on the range. The only way I'm going to improve my station in life is to take better care of that range. You guys come out and say you want to take this land away from the ranchers because you want to keep it pristine. Who the hell do you think has kept it pristine, as you know it. And why, if you're a chemical engineer, doesn't it say `Jim Fisch, chemical engineer'? Why does it say you're an environmentalist when, in fact, I consider myself an environmentalist—and one probably more knowledgeable than you on this issue." That really turned the show around. After the show, Larry King told me, "You kicked his butt, big time."

So really, where that goes is that people only know so much. Those who read know a little more, but society as a whole knows more about more things now than any other generation on this earth. I believe it's going to keep being that way as generations grow, and I think that we are going to learn a lot of things that will give us a better understanding and help us turn many of our practices around. I really believe that a lot of the first things we are going to address are in corporate America—too many dollars controlled by too few people right now, and that is a political hot piece of coal that no politician wants to grab hold of.

The reality is that the best thing for open range is for its use, cloven hoofed animals out there spreading the seeds, spreading manure, fertilizing, aerating the soil and keeping the fodder for uncontrollable fires to a minimum—just keeping the cycle of life going. All you got to do is look back. Ask somebody to give you a map of the United States. Then ask them to put a piece of tracing paper over it and draw what's called "America's Corn Belt." Then lay over that the buffalo migration trail, the historical migration trail that was used for thousands and thousands of years by the American Bison—it will all line up. Now, tell me that's not what Mother Earth needs. She needs more blacktop parking lots out there, more condominiums built, more farmland going to supermarkets and malls? She needs more houses built in the fertile valley and fewer of them up on the hillsides where not much is going on anyway? She needs a nuclear disaster in the Great Basin? The truth is, we need what cattle are out there—it's the only way to utilize much of this land until something better comes along.

 

It's sort of terrifying to think that our grandkids are going to grow up and not know what a dairy farm is or a legitimate forest or an orchard or any of those sorts of things because they're all being gobbled up and used up for housing and industry. Another little shift. You've spent your life in the Elko area, never actually lived right in town, but we're sitting in town conducting this interview on the grounds of what is called the "Sherman Station." It now houses the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Elko, but it's the house you grew up in. How do you feel about your house being moved from the old ranch to downtown Elko—and have you written a poem about it?

 

No, I haven't, but I think sometimes maybe some of the feelings find their way in. Some words have come to me about this. It was strange—very strange, at first—to think of how many times we used to travel an hour and a half to get from this house into town—and now the house itself has come to town. Of course, my dream always was to obtain this house and get the old ranch back, but that wasn't to be. It had been sold off, and it wasn't the same. But then the house became my focus, and it was given to me, but I could not find the piece of property that suited me. And then the historical society and preservation people came in. The town got behind the effort, and it's now here and been restored. It's being enjoyed by a lot more people in one month than probably ever saw it in its hundred-year existence before it moved into town. And so, yes, it's probably for the best—just one of those romantic things that you hope to have some day, but it is just not to be.

 

One last question and we'll wind this up. You've been at the forefront of Cowboy poetry—probably the most recognized cowboy poet in the country. Where would you like to see Cowboy poetry be in ten years?

 

I don't have aspirations for where it should go, as long as it stays true to itself. We've all worried. Twenty years ago when the first Gathering was a success, we all questioned what we were going to do to it. Were we going to ruin it? But we have become quite the little community, and the writing has improved twenty-five fold since those early years. It keeps making those leaps and bounds. Some things that I don't like come in, but they seem to be short lived. If it stays true to its heart, if it keeps entertaining, if it keeps making people think, if it keeps making people feel, then it will be fine. I've had people come up and say this has changed their lives—not so much just the poetry but getting involved with it and learning more about the people. They tell me that this is what they are looking for. And these are the people I've been looking for. If it helps keep ranchers on the ranch and does nothing more than draw a little attention to a great way of life, it is worth it. If it helps people understand the people who live and work this land, it is worth it.

You know, Mike, I've gotten letters over the last decade—lots of unbelievable letters. Oftentimes the constant travel and pressure to entertain really gets to you. Sometimes you wonder if you shouldn't just go sell shoes at Penney's or flip burgers at McDonald's or become a brain surgeon. Or maybe you should just get back to your roots—get horseback as much as you would really like to. But then you get a letter from a person who says, "You know, my dad had to spend the last year of his life in bed. He wasn't interested in watching TV. All he wanted to do was hear Don Edwards sing and hear your tapes. He listened to every one of your tapes at least twice a day, and that's the only thing that gave him enjoyment." When you hear something like that, you go to bed at night and say, "You know, it's worth it."


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