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Cowboy's the word 

Waddie Mitchell makes you want to listen to him for hours, maybe days, on end. His personal tale is inspiring. His thoughts about writing, heartfelt. And, his voice, well, it's soothing — he's not an internationally recognized cowboy poet for nothing.

The 60-year-old, who has recorded with Warner Bros., and more recently with the local Western Jubilee Recording Co., has been written up in the New York Times, National Geographic and Fortune, and in 2002 was commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad to write a commemorative poem for the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Between Dec. 9 and 24, Mitchell, with fiddler Randy Fisher and local actor Tom Paradise by his side, will present The Cowboy Christmas Carol at TheatreWorks — the first half of the performance a series of his poems, the second half the holiday story. "It's gonna be campy but fun, you know?" Mitchell says. "We're just gonna have fun with the retellin' of that Christmas Carol."

But Mitchell's much more than a guy adding twang to Charles Dickens, as the Independent learned during a rehearsal break last weekend.

Indy: You grew up on a Nevada ranch, outside of Elko. Is that where you still live?

WM: That's right. Outside of Elko, Nevada. We were 60 miles from town, 30 of that was dirt road. Fourteen miles from the nearest neighbor. We, of course, were way out beyond electricity, so we didn't have TV, and we didn't have things like that, so we did the strangest things at night.

Indy: You talked.

WM: We talked. [Both laugh.]

Indy: That is strange, though, unfortunately.

WM: Well it is, you know. A good visit with a good friend, everybody enjoys. But just visiting and telling your stories is becoming a lost art. ... We're the only animals on Earth that do that. We can not only live in time with each other, but we can live through the stories on different continents, and we can live in different centuries, and we can explore different worlds. Storytelling is limitless.

Indy: Tell me the difference between reading someone's work and hearing someone's work.

WM: Well, as far as the poetry goes, Americans haven't learned to read poetry. Americans [and] poetry — starting with the Beats, the Beat poets of the '40s and '50s, we took away the storytelling element and we put it into a form to where wonderful use of words and manipulation of language [was] still there, in free-verse poetry. But there's something very basic about language, rhyme and meter, that, I don't know, it's like a rediscovering of it to most people that hear it. And they say, "I love that! I didn't know I liked it, but I love it."

And it's because, I think — what do kids like the best? I mean, Dr. Seuss didn't get to be America's child- and baby-sitter for no reason. It's because of the simple storytelling through rhyme and meter.

It's like Homer with the Iliad. You know, you go on down through the ages. You have your Robert Burns from Scotland that was, you know, the people's poet. And we had Robert Service during the Yukon gold rush times to tell us stories. We had Edgar Allen Poe. We had those storytellers that did use this medium. And for some reason, we lost it. Or, almost lost it — I shouldn't say we ever lost it.

Through these [National Cowboy Poetry] gatherings we started, we are finding that although people didn't hear it, people were still writing it. They never stopped writing it. And when we put the call out for the closet poets to be seen, they came in droves. And what a wonderful feeling that was.

Indy: I did read that you've said, the cowboys around you, if they'd called what they did poetry, you probably wouldn't have liked it.

WM: Well, you know, poetry is somethin' that especially boys, when the teacher said, "OK, now, turn to Chapter 6, to the poetry section," you were obligated to hate it. But the guys that were telling me these stories, it was just, they were the manliest guys that I knew. They were sure enough cowpunchers that were out there. And it seemed like they all knew one or two poems.

Indy: What's at the heart of cowboy poetry for you?

WM: You know, people often ask me, "What is cowboy poetry?" and I've got to be honest there and say that's really a label. Because we as humans tend to label things. Like, rock music is, it can be completely different in its sound, in its approach, in its melody, in its beat. Everything. But it's labeled [rock music] ...

Cowboy poetry to me is just poetry from a cowboy's perspective. I don't think that you have to at all — let's see, how does a guy say that —

Indy: The topic's going to be different?

WM: The topic — I don't have to write about cows, horses, livin' on the range. I can write about my kids. Or I can write about a friend in trouble. Or I can, you know, most anything is there, it's just maybe from a little sicker perspective than most people. [Laughs.]

Indy: On the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering website, just looking at the names of who's performing [at the 27th festival in January], I have to admit I was really surprised to see the first person listed was an 18-year-old woman. ... Have women always been doing cowboy poetry?

WM: There's where labeling becomes a problem. Because when you say cowboy poetry, you think it's a gender thing, but no. There are as many female cowboy poets, and many, many that are right up there at the very top of the heap.

[Our interview breaks for a few minutes for photographs, during which time Mitchell mentions his service during the Vietnam War, opening the door for questions I had about his stint at Fort Carson.]

Indy: After you were drafted and went to Vietnam, you spent some time at Fort Carson?

WM: I did, when I got back. I was stationed in Fort Carson. They let me go out and work at Turkey Creek Ranch. So I didn't have to wear a uniform the last 19 months, I guess, I was in the Army.

Indy: Were you crafting verse even then?

WM: Yes, but generally I was taking a popular song or somethin' and making it bawdy. I didn't really start serious writing until I got back — I didn't come back from Vietnam all that healthy in my mind, I guess you could say. And, so it was a good thing that I was a cowpuncher and I could go out, and I did. I went out in the desert and I stayed there 26 years, and had lotsa time, 'cause we didn't have electricity, so I started writing.

Indy: Do you think that helped you "in the mind"?

WM: Yes, oh yeah. It was very healing. Oh yeah. ... It's the only way to get it out. The ones that don't get it out, a lot of them just never made it home. I mean they came home physically, just never mentally.

kakens@csindy.com

  • Waddie Mitchell explains why poetry can change your life — and may have saved his.

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