Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers #122
August 22, 2009
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Cowboy Poet Paul Zarzyski
This issue is made up mostly of contributions from readers, including Morris Older on left-wing cowboy poetry! Don’t miss Neva Bryant on giving readings when only a few people show up, and also responses to Debbie Carter’s piece in Issue 121 on book doctors- and much more.
GUEST EDITOR: MORRIS OLDER ON COWBOY POETRY OF THE LEFT!
Pretty much all genres of music and poetry span the gamut of politics. Soul, for example, back in the day, included the ChiLites singing "(For God's Sake) You've Got to Give More Power to the People," and Freda Payne, singing "Bring the Boys Home," even while James Brown was singing "It's A Man's World." And don't forget the Coasters, who in “Wake Me, Shake Me” talked about how their boss was a big flat slob, and they couldn't be a minute late for their jobs driving the garbage truck. Similar examples can be found across the wide spectrum of rock , rap, new wave, heavy metal—or opera.
Cowboy poetry and music comes from a very different tradition, of course, derived from the life experiences of settling the West, growing up on ranches, living with horses and cattle in a struggle for survival, but with the beauty of the natural world ever present. Humor is a common thread, and story telling is both suspenseful and meaningful. Lots to explore at sites like sites like http://www.cowboypoetry.com/ .
Like other genres, cowboy poetry runs from right to left also- there are poets who belittle environmentalists and hate the government telling them to do anything, even the right thing. But there is also a group that talks from the heart about the environment, about class, and about racism, usually without using those labels. Check out some of the poems of Waddie Mitchell, who writes in one poem about mining companies despoiling the landscape, or Wallace McRae, who writes about all aspects of ranch life. In Cowboy Curmudgeon (1992), [McRae] compares the Ranch Wife to the fashion plate and beauty queen, noting that
There’s a loveliness in rough, stained hands
Making jelly from wild plums.
The simple tears of pain and grief
When birth or death each comes
So don’t sing to me of goddesses
Larger (and falser) than life
Or degenerate the beauty
Of the solid, strong ranch wife.
Actually that is a common theme, echoed in song by Wylie (singer of the original “Yahoo! Yodel”) Gustafson, in the Carrhart Song on Wylie and the Wild West’s 2007 music CD, Bucking Horse Moon, and in the poetry of women like Susan Parker, who has also resurrected the hundred year old verses of ranch women crossing the west in covered wagons and settling the west.
Wylie has collaborated with Paul Zarzyski, perhaps the only free-verse cowboy poet and one of the finest poets of any genre. A rodeo rider for years, Zarzyski somehow graduated with his parts intact to write poems about rodeo. In “Rodeo to the Bone,” set to a heavy rock beat on Wylie’s album noted above, Zarzyski writes of his buddies...
He’s a chiropractic snafu
An orthopedic wreck
Of spinal column fusion
From his tailbone to his neck…
A tie rod in each femur
Ball joints in each hip
His doctor and mechanic
Had to form a partnership.
Zarzyski, who just loves the sound of words, is an extraordinary oral performer—you can get a sample by scrolling down to the end of the alphabetically listed poets who perform at the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering at http://www.westernfolklife.org/site1/index.php/2009-NP-Performers/ and clicking on the word Listen, which takes you to his paean to Butte, Montana and the Polish names he finds there.
Zarzyski, an amazing story teller and great performer, who can be humorous and insightful, really understands a bit more than just performance art. In Wolf Track on the Welcome Mat (2003), he writes about Polish poetry and cowboy poetry the day before he visits the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, in his poem entitled Shoes- yes, the mildewed shoes recovered from Auschwitz:
What I ask now is
that each of the world’s soldiering poets writes life
back into one shoe of the persecuted—softly
as a mother’s fingertip to her teething child’s gums,
rub olive oil into the leather until you feel it
breathing again. Choose your most truthful
words, your most vital music…
…Now I must sing
to you of the bugle-
Sioux moccasin, so tiny against the black
mountains of shoes—one baby’s bootee found
frozen in the snow at Wounded Knee.
In the same collection, he writes in “The Hand” about a white South African who yanks the hand of a black cowboy sitting on the ground, thrusting it into the face of a reporter, claiming that they are not the same species; Zarzyski describes the “landscape of canyons and arroyos, buttes and mesas…shaped by pistol grip, lariat and reins” on the working cowboy’s hand
Alongside the aristocrat’s
Tissue-paper appendage always reaching to take
Even another man’s hand, and own it,
And hold it open, because he knows that the fist
Is as big as the man’s heart
And this is the difference he fears
In another poem he writes about a legendary old cowboy that he has never met, who everyone totally respects as the best horse-trainer ever, and he finally, shakes the man’s hand, and is quite surprised to find it is black—nobody had ever thought that important to mention.
The annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held in Elko, Nevada in January, is a week long with four or more workshops going on all-day, with concerts and readings in the evenings, the essence of folk art preserving traditions that many in cities might assume no longer exists. Each Elko Gathering has a theme, which different years been themed has been the poetry of Ranch Women, Native Americans and Vaqueros. And look for regional gatherings across the country usually a long weekend celebrating cowboy culture.
And of course with the poetry there is also great music, from Vaquero songs with accordions, to the cowboy folk of Ian Tyson, Michael Murphy and Dave Stamey. Cowboy music is quite different than commercialized country and western, focusing instead on the realities of life, and sometimes going as far as this song from James Talley Touchstones CD released in 2001, shortly after Bush took over:
So you've never picked no peaches,
You never rode no box car trains,
Never worked out on the road gang,
Or slept- out in the rain,
But when you see a good man
Have to struggle sweat and strain
And when a man can't feed his children
Don't it make you stop and think...
Are they gonna make us outlaws again?
Is that what it's coming to my friends?
Well I think I see why Pretty Boy Floyd
Done the things he did-
Are they gonna make us out- laws again?
Now there's always been a bottom
And there's always been a top
And someone took the orders
And someone- called the shots-
And someone took the beatin' Lord
And someone got the prize-
Well, that may be the way it's been
but that don't- make it right!
RESPONSES TO DEBBIE CARTER’S PIECE “HIRING A BOOK DOCTOR”
Sondra Olsen writes, “That was such a valuable statement in your update! Both my children are now novelists, and I feel sorry for them because it's such a wilderness out there in publishing now. It was nice to see a frank and useful appraisal (which writers' magazines probably wouldn't run.)”
Another reader, one of my former students who went on to get an MFA, wrote the following in response to Debbie Carter’s piece:
"Last May I graduated from The New School University with an MFA in creative writing (fiction). I learned a lot, and most of all I enjoyed the aspiring writer’s life for two years. I feel it was worth paying the tuition of $55K....Today I am sending a response to the article of Debbie Carter, whom I know.
"I fully agree with Debbie's opinion, warning, and suggestion, as I have used several editors and book doctors in the past. Some are mediocre, and others are even dubious, in spite of their impressive resumés. A book doctor I hired said, "Your writing is so bad, I rewrote first page for you. See, how it is improved." I read it, and I was disgusted, because her rewrite was much worse than my original. She did not know some words I used (which were reasonably common in American culture), and criticized as a "wrong word". Many times she criticized my writing without understanding my intention, so her criticism was off-track. So, on, just to give you a few examples. ... And she charges money for that lousy work. What a nerve! But this is not an isolated case.
"Yes, Debbie is right. One should shop around and get referrals from writer colleagues before choosing a book doctor who suits one's own needs. What one is really looking for may not be a book doctor, but a tutor, who would guide him/her to develop and polish his/her work in several sessions.
"I am fortunate to have found an excellent book doctor. I'm going to stick with her."
MORE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS
Ardian Gill says the “last BOOKS FOR READERS column struck a chord when you mentioned ‘Holocaust: The Ignored Legacy’ which asserts that the real holocaust was in the Ukraine, etc., where some 20 million are believed to have been slaughtered. The same conclusion is asserted in an afterword in George Steiner's THE PORTAGE TO SAN CRISTOBAL OF A.H.- The A.H. standing for Adolph Hitler, who is believed to be alive in the jungle in South America. A group sets out to find him and bring him to San Cristobal. Their story is intermingled with the beliefs or non beliefs of the outside world. As Steiner flips back and forth between these two worlds, he utilizes a stunning array of writing styles ranging from staccato no punctuation, incomplete sentences, unidentified speaker in the jungle search to rigid or loose formal prose depending on whether he is dealing with the French (formal) the Americans (sloppy), Russians (course), Germans (precise) etc. Aside from the story, it is a wonderful example of ‘you can do anything in fiction.’”
Jeffrey Sokolow writes: “I just finished reading "THE BIELSKI BROTHERS: THE TRUE STORY OF THREE MEN WHO DEFIED THE NAZIS, SAVED 1,200 JEWS, AND BUILT A VILLAGE IN THE FOREST" by Peter Duffy (2009, Harper & Collins). This gripping narrative tells the story of the Bielsky partisans, a Jewish guerilla unit that fought the Germans, punished collaborators, and saved Jews in the Belorussian forests during World War II. Their story was also portrayed in the recent movie DEFIANCE and in an earlier book, DEFIANCE: THE BIELSKY PARTISANS by Nehama Tec (1993, Oxford University Press), which I also recommend. Not read by me but recommended by the author are FUGITIVES OF THE FOREST: THE HEROIC STORY OF JEWISH RESISTANCE DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Alan Levine (1998, Stoddard) and THE JEWISH RESISTANCE: THE HISTORY OF THE JEWISH PARTISANS IN LITHUANIA AND WHITE RUSSIA DURING THE NAZI OCCUPATION 1940--1945 by Lester Eckman and Chaim Lazar (1977, Shengold). Once you pick up this book, you will find it hard to put it down until you finish it.”
Ingrid Hughes recommends THE WASTED VIGIL by a Pakistani Brit, Nadeem Aslam. The book, she writes, “is set in Afghanistan in the present day. Characters are caught up in the Soviet Invasion and the CIA's promotion of the Taliban and al Quada to oppose it, and the current war. They suffer losses of those they love, one loses her mind, one a hand, and in parts the book is painful to read. But the writing is dense and beautiful, not didactic. Aslam is interested in the history of the region and the ways that people treat others of different religions, races, nationalities, without being very interested in the character of individuals He holds the Soviet Union, the US and fundamentalist Islam equally responsible for the devastation of Afghanistan. A sad book but an interesting close-up of Afghanistan.”
NEVA BRYAN: DOES A SMALL AUDIENCE CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM?
(Found on Neva’s Facebook page – see her webpage at http://www.nevabryan.com/)
Recently a writer I know remarked on his deep disappointment that so few people had shown up for one of his readings. He said he felt “pathetic” and mentioned low book sales.
I advised him to treat three attendees the same as he would have treated 300 and it would still be rewarding. He agreed that he always mustered genuine enthusiasm for the audience no matter the size, but admitted that he did not feel as gratified when there were fewer attendees.
I would argue that size doesn’t matter. (Get your mind out of the gutter.) I’ve spoken to standing-room only crowds and to an audience of one. Both were satisfying, but in different ways. When I read to a room full of people, there’s an energy there that rouses the performer in me. It’s fun to read the different expressions on the faces in the crowd. They give me cues as to how to proceed. It’s large-scale interactivity.
On the other hand, when I’ve had only one person show up to a reading, I find myself connecting on a deeper level with that individual. It’s only happened to me twice, but both times I did the same thing. I came out from behind the podium, pulled up a chair to face the visitor, and gave the reading. Afterwards we sat and chatted: small-scale interactivity, but very meaningful. On one of these occasions the attendee told me that I was very likeable. It tickled her to death that I sat down with her to read and talk.
While literary readings are great opportunities to sell books, I don’t look at them as serving just that purpose. To do so is to diminish the importance of the spoken word. Yes, I want to sell books. However, I also want to enjoy the shared social literary experience.
The act of reading a book is one of isolation and interpretation. When I’m allowed to read to an audience- even an audience of one- I insert myself into someone else’s world temporarily. And, hopefully, I provide clarity to the story. I give it a voice.
Peggy Backman’s new book DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN is just out, and she’ll be reading from it Friday, September 4, 2009 from 4:00 p.m. to 6 p.m.at Canio’s books in Sag Harbor. For details, go to http://www.caniosbooks.com/events.asp .
Of the new book, Dee LaDuke says, “Peggy Backman has served up a collection of stories that introduce us to an exotic world by way of its geography or out-of-the- ordinary experience and just as we get our bearings, flips the psychological location on us, O. Henry style. These stories pull us under and leave us doubting what others might call reality.”
ONE STORY’s editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti's novel THE GOOD THIEF has just been released in paperback! THE GOOD THIEF was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Podcast with MaryLucille DeBerry, whose new book of poems BERTHA BUTCHER'S COAT is just out.
Peggy Backman reading Friday, September 4, 2009 from 4:00 p.m. to 6 p.m.at Canio’s books in Sag Harbor. For details, go to http://www.caniosbooks.com/events.asp .
For something completely different, and very interesting, take a look at a multi-media short short story (I think!) that uses visuals and sounds (essentially Youtube technology) to tell a story- and the amazing thing is that it works! Jay David’s hilarious piece is about how a couple breaks up. Find it at http://jdsmanstories.blogspot.com/2009/08/perils-of-travel_09.html . More of Jay David's stories at http://www.jdsmanstories.blogspot.com/
Winslow Eliot’s webpage has lots of interesting things, including some writing exercises and discussions of interest to writers. See http://winsloweliot.com/home/
Interview of Stefan M. Bradley in INSIDE HIGHER ED about his book HARLEM VS COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY at
Thanks to Norman Julian for suggesting this site with free books: http://www.feedbooks.com/publicdomain .
Barbara Crooker’s poem, "Vegetable Love," will be read by Garrison Keillor on THE WRITER'S ALMANAC on Sunday, August 23, on NPR. To listen online, go to: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/08/23
NARRATIVE MAGAZINE is at http://www.narrativemagazine.com/
The August Issue of the INTERNET REVIEW OF BOOKS is up at http://internetreviewofbooks.com/
NEWSWEEK magazines says... Read Trollope! And others: http://www.newsweek.com/id/204300
Visit WRITING LESSON OF THE MONTH NETWORK at: http://writinglesson.ning.com
Also take a look at the National Council of Teachers of English’s NATIONAL GALLERY OF WRITING at http://galleryofwriting.org/ and also their National Day of Writing at http://www.ncte.org/dayonwriting