How the West Is Fun
Baxter Black, the first full-time cowboy poet, gives away his formula for great poetry.
texasmonthly.com: I spoke with someone in your office, and they told me that you grew up for a short time in Lubbock.
Baxter Black: That was like when we were little.
texasmonthly.com: Like little itty-bitty?
BB: I went to the fifth and sixth grade in Lubbock, and then Mother said, “We’ve got to get out of here before these boys talk funny.” So we moved to Las Cruces. I don’t know if that helped any.
texasmonthly.com: Rumor on the circuit has it that you are the world’s first full-time cowboy poet. Is that true?
BB: Well I could imagine that that is probably true, but a better way to put it is that I was probably the first one of this generation who made a living doing this. When I started writing poetry when I was in my mid-thirties—and I am 57 now—I didn’t know exactly what I was doing because I had never learned a poem. I imagine I was exposed to some in English class, but anyway, I started writing poems because I told stories. I was a veterinarian and I was in the cattle business, so I went from ranch to ranch and feedlot to feedlot, and I would tell stories. Somebody would get bucked off, and I would get to the next place, and I would tell them. Then by the time I got it straight, it got to be a pretty good story. I thought I was a songwriter in my twenties and early thirties, so I wrote lots of songs, and I was used to writing in verse. So somewhere along the line, I turned one of those stories into a poem. I can remember that the effect it had on the cowboys I worked with was sort of impressive, because you tell a story and then the next guy tells it and the next guy tells it, and it keeps changing.
texasmonthly.com: Like a fish story?
BB: That’s right. But the story changes, and jokes change. Everybody tells it their own way, but a poem is not like that. It’s not a fluid thing. You weld the words in place, in my mind, and that’s why the writing is so critical. It’s all done with the idea that it is going to be performed or done out loud. I can’t remember the seminal moment this happened, but when I first started writing poems and when I told the cowboys, they realized the difference between being the butt of a joke and being enshrined in a poem. That poem was not going to change. It was not just going to be a joke. They were immortalized.
It is an odd thing. People look at it differently, and they still do. So for someone like me—and this probably applies to a lot of cowboy poets—we do this for attention. We have something to say, and we want someone to listen. That’s it. We want someone to listen, and in my case, I want ’em to laugh. And when they had that reaction, they did listen. It was like, “Gosh this is great. I’ll just do this.” So I started writing poetry. But I’ll admit I didn’t call it cowboy poetry because it didn’t sound right.
texasmonthly.com: What do you mean?
BB: [higher voice] Cowboy poetry, oh really? When I first started, and as a matter of fact, I still have cowboy humorist on my business card, but when the cowboy poetry gathering came along, it was so outlandish that it made it okay. It took the sissy aspects out of poetry because it was so outlandish. It’s like if Jesse Ventura wants to put on a dress and wear a wig, no one is going to bug him. That is maybe the same corollary: If a big, tough, blood-and-guts cowboy is going to say a poem, nobody’s going to say anything. It’s going to be okay.
I do agricultural banquets for a living, and of course, I do my poems, but I can imagine that wives are the ones who bring their husbands to shows like I do. The wife is saying, “We are going to hear some cowboy poetry,” and he is saying, “Not on your life.” But they drug them to my poetry, and as one guy put it—and he meant it as a compliment—he said, “Hell, I didn’t even know it was a poem till you were halfway through it.” If they are conversational, which mine are, then it’s okay.
texasmonthly.com: If it’s conversational, it’s okay. That’s a good rule to go by.
BB: Well, they can’t all be that way, but there’s a difference between telling it and reading it. Poetry is hard to just read when you pick up a book. If it is written well, then it is meant to be done aloud, and so you should at least move your lips when you are reading the poem. We go to a lot of trouble to pick just the right word, weld it into place, and search for perfect meter. We go to a lot of trouble so that when you read, it sounds the way we intended it to sound.
texasmonthly.com: So how do you go about writing your poetry?
BB: Inspiration is the first that has to come. You have to have an idea. I am not a person who gets up every day and writes something. I write a weekly column, but I don’t get up every day and write a weekly column. I wait for something to inspire me, and the poems are part of that column. Every now and then, a line will lay itself out to you or someone will say something. I’ll give an example. In the old days when I was a vet, I worked with a lot of cows. I’d be out working the cows in the fall, and one of the vet’s job is to call a cow. You know to see if her teeth are bad or if she doesn’t have a calf in her or she’s got a bad foot, so you gotta squeeze her into trying to give her her annual physical. This old rancher was in the back pacing on horseback. He went clear up to the front, and I opened the gate, and I cut this old cow off to the left. Who knows why I cut her off. He looked at me and said, “What’s the story on that good ol’ cow.” He had a personal relationship with her. I don’t mean that as a joke. He knew that cow. What’s the story on that good ol’ cow. That’s your first line. The bow-legged cowboy asked. Well she’s sort of gimpy on her left hind leg and her breathing’s kind of flat. So they come like that.
texasmonthly.com: You’re amazing. You cover like three of my questions in one of your answers.
BB: Well I told you we don’t quit talking.
texasmonthly.com: That does help.
BB: Yeah. Maybe I should just ask you the questions?
texasmonthly.com: All righty.
BB: I am going to make this observation, and then there are different things you can sort out of it.
BB: Poetry and songs are not the same. I also write songs, and I am not as successful a songwriter as I am a poet. That doesn’t mean that you can’t write songs like you write poetry, but rhyme seems to be a whole lot less important. And you can fudge bad meter with a tune, but when you are naked up there with your poem, you can’t do that. There are no little dots that say that you can speed up or slow down. You are just reading. So you can slide bad writing into a song, but you can’t slide bad writing into a poem.
There are three things I look for in my own poems when I am trying to write a poem well. The first one is perfect meter and perfect rhyme. You notice every now and then that songwriters will try and write poems, and they think things like “love” and “enough” rhyme. Well they don’t, but you don’t have a tune to cover it up. In poetry people expect it to rhyme, and when it doesn’t, it is like somebody just goes “clank,” and it stops everything. The second thing—and the most important—in evaluating a poem is original thought.
texasmonthly.com: Isn’t that another thing that cowboy’s are supposed to have lots of?
BB: They do.
texasmonthly.com: Doesn’t that go with the talking?
BB: I think so. Yeah. I have a couple of poems about a fire, and a friend of mine called up and said, “You know, I had a great idea to write a fire poem, but you already wrote it.” And I said, “How can you ever say that. How many songs are there about love?” Oh, I had this great song, and I was going to write it about love, but you know it’s already been written. No, you can always write. The one thing that I have noticed about original thought—and all poets, including myself, are guilty of it and it’s not something that we should be proud of—is that we use old jokes. I used to tell jokes before I started writing poems, and I have seen many, many of them wind up in poems, and somehow the poem writer concludes well I must have written that. Well anyone else can take that same subject from that same joke and write a poem from it. The guy who wrote it first has no gripe because it wasn’t an original thought. He took it right out and plagiarized an old joke and wrote a poem and somehow thinks it’s his own. And all of us do it.
And the third one for me, because I do everything out loud—that’s the way I write everything that I am going to perform—is a strong ending. Because when you come to the end of your poem and you’re talking to a crowd, and then you stop, the crowd sort of is silent for a couple of seconds. They start looking at each other, and then they go, “Oh, okay, it must be over.” You want a strong ending so they know the poem is over. I know some guys just take their hat off or step back or . . .
texasmonthly.com: Stare down at their feet?
BB: [laughs] That’s what you do when you forget—as if your answers are down there. I will tell you this. Most of us take great pride in memorizing our poems and the poems of the—I call them the dead guys and I don’t mean any disrespect. There was a whole swath of cowboy poets that lived almost a hundred years ago, and three or four of them, their work still lives on. People are doing them.
texasmonthly.com: It’s amazing how these poems have lasted so long without being written down.
BB: That’s because the meter and the rhyme are good. It’s an oral thing. It’s in your brain. And people keep telling it. We take great pride in being able to memorize our poem to the point of obstinacy. This speaks to the essence of cowboy pride. It’s an introduction to one of my poems: “If it can’t be done a horseback, I ain’t interested. Many a cowboy’s gone down the road after speaking those words to the boss. It is the essence of cowboy pride where survival, good sense, and regular meals all take a back seat. He’d rather go hungry.” In other words, cowboy pride is a funny thing. I don’t know how many of us were on Johnny Carson—a big deal for poets ten years ago. I was scared to death that I was going to forget my poem. I was pacing back beside the stage, and a lady— one of the people who worked there—came up said, “Are you all right?” And I said, “Gosh, I don’t want to forget my poem.” Of course, I had done it a thousand times, but you know how you get. She said, “Oh, we can put it on a TelePrompTer for crying out loud.” And I just gave her this look of disdain. We would not consider putting it on a TelePrompTer, and I don’t know a single person who did that. How stupid is that! “Where survival, good sense, and regular meals all take a back seat. He’d rather go hungry.” I would rather stand out there and try and screw it up in front of twenty-five million people and know I did it the right way than to sit there and read it off a card. And I think that speaks for all of us. It’s one of the magic things about going to a poetry gathering—to see people reel off these long stories and poems for hours on end. It’s part of the cowboy pride of cowboy poetry.
texasmonthly.com: I was going to ask you about the aspect of performance and how important it is to the tradition and everything.
BB: Well, I make a living so I’m not sure how to answer that. I am not a traditional person in the sense that—I don’t want to say I am not a fan of the Old West—I write about the non-romantic side. I’m not writing about a vanishing breed. You just can’t see them from the road. In a whole poem that is the gist of it: You just can’t see them from the road. You can drive from one end of the country to the other and never get off the freeway, pull into the same QuickStop and the same gas station, listen to the same canned radio from one end of the country to the other, and never roll down the windows or never smell air or touch dirt. So how would you know if there are any cowboys out there? You can’t see them from where you are. They are just over the hump there . . .
texasmonthly.com: What do you think the purpose of cowboy poetry is?
BB: In my case it is to get people to laugh. There is nothing deep about what I do. I’m just here to make you laugh.
texasmonthly.com: And have a good time.
BB: And I do, and they have a good time. There are historians and folklore people who can . . .
texasmonthly.com: Debate about that?
BB: I hope they don’t debate that I’m having a good time. But they can debate the influence that cowboy poetry has on representing the West.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think cowboy poetry distinguishes itself from other poetry? Does it?
BB: Of course it does. Here is the single most obvious distinction. It is popular and it sells. I have sold more than half a million books and an equal number of tapes. It’s poetry. I mean I have stories in there too, but it’s poetry. The only poetry that really sells that way is Robert Service, Banjo Patterson from Australia—just a handful of poetry sells like that. Now you can get Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe. But the kind of poetry that I call academic poetry—that’s not meant as a derisive comment at all but that’s the only way I can describe it—the books sell in much smaller quantities, and the audiences they speak to are small. That doesn’t mean that the poetry isn’t good, and it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good writing. It just means that it doesn’t reach as broad an audience.
It’s an observation about being on Johnny Carson again. I don’t know how many stars of his caliber—talk-show people—could have had us on and made it work. I wasn’t on there the first couple of times, so someone else was leading the charge. But we went out there. We were on there because of the term “cowboy poetry”—just like Jesse Ventura in a dress—that was why we were on there, because it was so odd. This was about six years after the Urban Cowboy craze. And then suddenly walking out onstage was the real thing, and we sat down. Johnny Carson did not ridicule us because we were not professional entertainers; we were regular people. We just happened to be cowboys. He gave us that respect, and he let us do our thing and present our stuff. Another thing that clinched it was that the poetry was clever, and it was completely like all of the humor that was on television, which was basically about sex and still is. But these were poems about getting bucked off, and so it was completely different and it was clean. I mean it was biologically correct. It had manure and blood in it, but it wasn’t lewd. It was real, clever stuff to the point that the response was so good that every year they just kept having people back on. That was cowboy poetry. You couldn’t have gone on there with any other kind of poetry and made it work—and you still can’t.