The cowboy, that icon of the American West, proves to be more than the strong silent type at the 14th annual Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering. Sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, the gathering brings together some of the West's best cowboy poets. Wanna-bes in shiny boots and 10-gallon hats need not apply -- the 14 featured poets are selected for the quality of their verse and their authenticity as ranching folk.
Ranch hands reciting poetry may seem to play against type, but the tradition goes way back among working cowboys, says Warren Miller, jigger boss at this year's gathering. ("Jigger boss," a roundup term, means second in command.) The question is not so much why cowboys did recitations -- they were a popular form of homemade entertainment in Victorian times -- but why the tradition continued.
One explanation may be the simplicity of the form. No equipment is needed out there on the range, just a good memory and a knack for storytelling. Plus, Miller explains, "if you had the ability to entertain the fellows out on a roundup camp, you were a little bit more desirable as a ranch hand." A boost to the résumé, if you will.
Not all of the performing poets are men. Female cowboys -- not cowgirls in satin shirts, thank you very much, these ladies ride the range -- make up about a third of the participants. Watch for a performance by invited poet Georgie Sicking, a Wyoming cowhand who spent decades rounding up mustangs and broke her own horses until she was 81.