How Cowboy Poetry Pulled Me out of the Abyss
If I’m being honest, I fell for the idea of rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski well before I fell for his verse. Knowing nothing of the genre, I flew to Elko, Nevada, in January 2016 to report on the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering for The New Yorker. Judging by the number of empty seats at his performances—zero, roughly—Zarzyski had achieved celebrity status in this gold-mining casino town. Just watching him attempt to leave the room gave me anxiety. The bags beneath his eyes exposed his weariness after a bare-knuckle performance—spit flying, arms flailing, boots rattling the stage—but he refused to shortchange his admirers, often shaking hands for nearly as long as the show itself. From a distance, I’d catch him finally sneaking away, stealing a quiet moment for himself at the casino diner or outside the convention center, his breath rising in a cold Nevada sky. Even then, I understand now, I was building his narrative. He often talks of living viscerally, but a quick glance in these moments revealed a pensive soul, I thought, a picture more cerebral than he’d painted for himself.
But more than his popularity, I was charmed by his history. Unlike most poets at the gathering, Zarzyski formally studied his craft, completing his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Montana under the acclaimed poet Richard Hugo. Though he doesn’t trumpet it—not in Elko, anyway—he’s published poems in Poetry and Prairie Schooner and other esteemed literary journals. Making the rounds that first day in Elko, multiple performers and administrators—intuiting I wanted something “literary” for The New Yorker—ultimately steered me toward Zarzyski, often referring to his free verse poetry, exceptional in a genre still heavily dependent on traditional rhyme and meter. Though I wouldn’t speak to him at all during that first trip to Elko, I left with a portrait of Zarzyski I’d built from scraps: a deep thinker, an iconoclast, a fish who’d grown comfortable out of water, sprouting legs without losing his gills. An amphibian coolly straddling the line between what he calls “the literati and the lariati.”