Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA
Joel Nelson: A lot of cowboys get tickled because people ask ‘em what their horses name is and I’ve ridden horses for years that didn’t have a name. But Stony is a horse that has done so much work for me. I can’t imagine being without him. We have a pretty good understanding between us and he gives me a lot and he doesn’t ask for much. I don’t know, it’s a partnership just like my wife Sylvie and me have. We can’t imagine being apart from one another.
NEA: That was cowboy poet and 2009 NEA Heritage Fellow, Joel Nelson. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed. A native Texan, Joel Nelson is the quintessential cowboy poet, who’s known for his words almost as much as for his horse-training ability. Joel was one of the founders of the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas, which is now in its 24th year. After working with the U.S. Forest Service and serving in Vietnam, Joel returned to Texas and has made his living with horses and cattle ever since. When Joel Nelson was named a National Heritage Fellow in 2009, I had a chance to speak with, no surprise here, poetry and horses. Here’s our conversation.
NEA: Joel, I’d like to begin, if you don’t mind with you defining what most people mean by cowboy poetry.
Joel Nelson: It’s poetry that is closely connected to the lifestyle and the work of the working cowboy, the philosophy maybe of the working cowboy—their community with nature, their closeness with nature, and the work that they do with their livestock. So, a lot of it is humorous but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. I think a lot of people when they hear the term cowboy poetry automatically think they’re going to hear something funny or entertaining. It can be very deep and very introverted also. My own, I think is fairly introverted and fairly serious. I very seldom do humorous pieces. I have a few that I do but I tend to want people to listen rather than to laugh. I do it to inform or maybe get people to think rather than to laugh. I’m not particularly fond of the term cowboy poetry.
NEA: That’s just what I was going to ask you, what do you think about that term and that classification?
Joel Nelson: Well, I think that that term being used might tend to draw some people in to listen and it might turn some people away. The ones who are maybe thinking they’re going to entertained or get a good laugh might be drawn in to listen when they hear that term used or see it on a poster. But other people think maybe they’re not going to hear much worth listening to when they see that term. And they’re very wrong in that way of thinking. And cowboy poetry, if you want to use the term, can be very much worth listening to. It’s expressive of the values that America was built on and I tend to think poetry is poetry. Good poetry is good poetry and it spans oceans. It spans cultures. It spans working styles or lifestyles and has a general appeal to anyone and everyone if it’s written well and if it’s presented well.
NEA: Did you grow up in a house where there was a lot of poetry, a lot of storytelling?
Joel Nelson: My mother read poetry to me when I was young. I remember her reading poetry to me when I was six, seven, eight years-old, poetry of Eugene Field. I remember probably when I was seven or eight years old she read a poem to me called “Little Boy Blue” and that’s a very serious poem by Eugene Field. It deals with the loss of a child and I couldn’t really understand why she had read that poem to me because I was accustomed to her reading poems like “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” and, you know, entertaining little poems. And it wasn’t until later on where she took me out to a cemetery and showed me the grave of what would have been an older sister who died in childbirth and then I understood why she had read that poem to me. And it’s a poem that I still remember and still recite upon occasion. But I did have poetry in my life when I was a child and then later on when I was in school I grew to love poetry very much.
NEA: You recite other people’s work beautifully. Can you talk about the process you use or what makes you decide yes, this is a poem I want to perform, I want to recite?
Joel Nelson: Well, I never go to the trouble of memorizing a poem unless it affects me very deeply. It has to be one that has a great deal of appeal to me for some reason. And when I stumble across one like that, and I memorize it first for myself, maybe not even thinking of performing it anywhere, but I want to have that at my fingertips at any time that I want it without the need of going to a book to find it. I have the need to memorize one before I present it to an audience. I think something is lost when someone reads poetry. I hear of poetry readings – someone, some people call our poetry gatherings or poetry performances “poetry readings.” They don’t mean it in an offensive way but usually the people who I do poetry with recite rather than read and to see someone stand and read poetry is somewhat like maybe going to see West Side Story or Phantom of the Opera and have the actors and the performers reading their parts rather than knowing them and performing them from their heart, from the inside. I just don’t think you can read something off a page and have it be as effective as if it comes from deep inside you.
NEA: Where did you grow up?
Joel Nelson: My wife says I’m not. But I was born and finished high school in a little town of about 3,000, Seymour, Texas. S-E-Y-M-O-U-R. It’s in north central Texas not too far from the Oklahoma border, very hot country. It’s kind of borderland country between strictly farming and ranching. There’s a lot of both. And I had a lot of relatives, cousins and uncles and aunts who farmed and also ranched and a very rural little community, and not a place I would ever want to go back to because it’s so doggone hot up there.
I live near Alpine, Texas. We’re a mile high in the mountains and the whole year round climate appeals to me so much more, but I didn’t know there was anywhere else when I was a kid growing up there.
NEA: Did your father ranch or did he farm?
Joel Nelson: He did both. My dad was a ranch cowboy. He worked on some big Texas outfits when he was young, like the Pitchfork Ranch between Guthrie and Benjamin. He lived in bunk houses and was a sure enough, old time cowboy. Whenever he was released from the army after World War II, he tried to lease a little bit of country and farm and ranch together near Seymour and that’s when I was born. And my very first vivid memory is sitting in front of my dad, he was horse back and I was sitting in front of him with the saddle horn between my legs and we were riding down a dirt road and he was showing me tracks in the dirt explaining to me how I could tell a horse track from a cow track. And later on, we moved to a bigger ranch, the Boone Ranch, and some of my fondest childhood memories are from the Boone Ranch, riding with my dad when I was six or possibly seven years old. I helped the Boone Ranch cowboys drive a herd of cattle to the railroad to a little siding between Seymour and Wichita Falls and we loaded those cattle out on cattle cars and sent them out on the railroad. That was probably the last time anyone shipped by rail out of that particular part of the country. The next year when the cattle were ready to be shipped, the cattle trucks rolled into the ranch headquarters and I remember being totally furious because times were changing and we weren’t going to drive them to the railroad anymore. I don’t handle change very well.
NEA: Did you always want to be a cowboy?
Joel Nelson: No. My grandparents on my mother’s side were of German and Swiss descent, both came from Germany and Switzerland to this country in their youth. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a forester in Germany and I decided about fifth grade that I wanted to be a forester. And by that time, my dad had taken a job as a deputy sheriff and on occasion I would make a trip with my dad to deliver a prisoner to the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, which is deep in the pine timber of east Texas. And it was on those trips that I thought I was falling in love with the pine forest and so I focused on becoming a forester. And for a while, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service marking and cruising timber. And I found that the timber was closing me in and I needed to get back in open country. And it was about then that I decided that I wanted to pursue the cowboy way of life and I pretty much done that ever since except for a brief stint in Southeast Asia with the 101st Airborne Division.
NEA: Since you bring up Southeest Asia, you really changed what is known as cowboy poetry because you began reciting poems about your experiences in Vietnam. What made you decide that you were going to do that-that you were going to broaden this?
Joel Nelson: You know, I had a number of friends who started writing poetry from their Vietnam experiences, one was Rod McQueary from Elko County, Nevada, and another was Bill Jones. Rod and Bill coauthored a book of their poetry from their Vietnam experience titled Blood Trails. And I really think that that is what inspired me to write from my Vietnam experience. They beat me to it. I don’t know for sure that I would have had it not been for hearing their work first, but that happened about 20 years after we came back from Vietnam and there’s something about that 20 year mark that seems to be rather universal. A lot of World War II veterans didn’t open up about it for 20 years and a lot of the Vietnam veterans didn’t open up about it and start writing verse or literature about their experience for a good 20 years after they came back. I don’t know what it is about that time lapse but it seems then you’re able to kind of get it out. And so I have to credit Rod and Bill for helping me find the time and the place to get it out and I admire their work very much and for several years there at Elko, Nevada, we had sessions of poetry that was war related from our Vietnam and other war experiences. And they were very well received and very emotional. A lot of people gave us some good feedback from the poetry that we did there.
NEA: How did you start writing poetry?
Joel Nelson: I had a good background in poetry. I had two wonderful literature teachers in high school who caused me to really fall in love with the sound of the words written in rhyme and meter, just the way that poets like Robert W. Service and Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling assembled their words just fascinated me. They had such command of the English language and they could express an idea so eloquently and do it in rhyme and meter without detracting from the thought. And that takes a great command of the language to be able to do that. And I think the way to learn to write is to read. And I had read a lot of poetry. I had a roommate in college and he and I would get out a book of Robert W. Service poetry and turn off all the lights and light a kerosene lamp and put it in the middle of the table. And we’d read by the light of the kerosene lamp Robert W. Service poems to one another. And later on when I was serving in Vietnam I had a pen pal or two at home and would write letters rhymed and metered and maybe just to get my mind off of what was going on or to just express myself in a little different way. And that’s where I really began writing poetry, was in Vietnam. But I kind of laid it aside after I got back and it was 10 or 15 years before I picked up a pen to write any more poetry. And a lot of that was because of the Elko Cowboy Poetry gathering. I thought, “Gosh. There’s guys here doing the same kind of work I’m doing and they’re writing poetry about it. I believe I’ll give it a shot, too.” And then that kind of spurred me on to do it.
NEA: Talk about that Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
Joel Nelson: It was spiritual. The Elko experience is spiritual every year. I didn’t go to the first gathering there in 1985, but I went to the second one. And just to be in the company of working cowboys and ranch people who were seriously writing poetry about themselves and what we do was spiritual. And a lot of it was not great poetry but over the 25 or 26 years that Elko has been going on, some of that writing has gotten better and better. Guys that started out just doing some pretty simple poetry, they’ve gotten deeper and deeper and put a lot of effort into it and have grown. John Dofflemyer is one of my poetic heroes. I just am thrilled any time I get to read a John Dofflemyer poem and it’s a real spiritual experience being there. I’ve often said that we sometimes get a little bit tired of maybe of doing what we do occasionally. Everybody gets maybe a little bit bored or a little bit burned out with what they’re doing. Maybe it doesn’t last very long but there’s always a little bit of boredom in practically any type of work. But when we go somewhere with words that we’ve written about our lifestyle and share them with other people, we come back from that with a little more pride in what we’re doing and a little more enthusiasm for what we’re doing. The poetry comes from our life and without the life we lead; we wouldn’t have the experience to write that poetry. But then the work that we do is reentered with a freshness that we wouldn’t have had we not gone and shared that poetry with our contemporaries. So, it’s a symbiotic relationship. The poetry feeds the work and the work feeds the poetry.
NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about that life you lead, the life of a cowboy?
Joel Nelson: It’s a life of love. It’s a life of passion for the outdoors. It’s a life of passion for horseback work and taking care of cattle. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to explain why we have that passion but I can’t imagine without the horse in my life and I love taking care of cattle. I love seeing those baby calves when they are born and seeing them bounce around and running and playing around and finding their mama and nursing and it’s just so gratifying and so rewarding. And being in the outdoors all day, every day doing that is the only place I can imagine being. I have from time to time done other things but I can’t stay away from it very long. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be managing a ranch and we do 90% of the work ourselves, just the two of us and occasionally have to get someone to help us move some cattle or work cows. But we’re there every day and we’re partners and we love every moment of it, even the 100 degree moments or the 20 degree moments.
NEA: You write about horses a lot in your poetry.
Joel Nelson: I do. I recite a lot of horse poems that are written from, you know, a hundred plus years ago. I recite a lot of horse poems written by Australian poets like Banjo Paterson. It seems a common theme with the stockman and the cowboys and the drovers and any kind of livestock related work. Men tend to write about the horses they’ve ridden and so I do have a lot of horse poems that I recite, both my own and other people’s poetry. I have such a passion for the horse that I can’t help that.
NEA: would you recite one of your own poems for us?
Joel Nelson: Sure. You told me on the phone a few days ago, you’re very fond of horses. Well, this poem is a tribute to that great animal that I ride. I titled it “Equus Caballus” which is the genus of species of the horse.
“I have run on middle fingernail through Eolithic morning
And I’ve thundered down the coach road with Revolution’s warning
I have carried countless errant knights who never found the grail
I have strained before the caissons, I’ve moved the nation’s mail
I’ve made knights of lowly tribesmen, kings from ranks of peons
I’ve given pride and arrogance to riding men for eons
I am roguish—I am flighty—I am inbred and lowly
I’m a nightmare
I am wild I am the horse.
I am Gallant and exalted—I am stately I am noble
I’m impressive—I am grand—I am
I have suffered gross indignities from users and from winners
And I’ve felt the hand of kindness from the losers and the sinners
I have given for the cruel hand and given for the kind
Heaved a sigh at Appomattox when surrender had been signed
I can be as tough as hardened steel—as fragile as a flower
I know not my endurance I know not my own power
I have died with heart exploded beneath the cheering and the stands
Calmly stood beneath the hanging noose of vigilante bands
I have traveled under conqueror and underneath the beaten, I have never chosen sides. I am the horse. The world is but a player’s stage, my roles have numbered many. Under blue or under grey, I am the horse.
So I’ll run on middle fingernail until the curtain closes
And I will win for you your triple crown and I will wear for you your roses
Toward you who took my freedom I’ve no malice no remorse
I’ll endure this is my year. I am
NEA: That is very, very nice. How has cowboy poetry changed?
Joel Nelson: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know that it has. There are good poems. There are good poems written by authors like Charles Badger Clark that are just as timely with a cowboy of today as they were when they were written – Banjo Paterson’s poems, Henry Lawson’s poems, Henry Herbert Knibbs was a great poet. I have read every piece that he ever wrote, Will Ogilvie’s poems… are just as appealing to a modern day cowboy as they would have been to the stockmen and drovers the day they were written and I would like to think that some of the better poetry that’s written today would be just as appealing to them back at that time as their own poetry would have been. So I don’t know that it’s changed that much.
NEA: Let’s talk about the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering that meets in your hometown of Alpine. What’s your involvement with it?
Joel Nelson: I’ve served on the committee that hosts it and puts it together for many, many years now. We just celebrated our 23rd Annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering. We like to think we’re the second of its kind in the country; Elko being the first. But we began this one in 1987 and it’s held on every year and we’ve had some incredible entertainers and poets and musicians here every year that we’ve had it. And it’s a big draw for the little town of Alpine. It takes a lot of dedication to put it on. We’re fortunate enough to have some really, really good committee people who have been with it for a long, long time and without their dedication year after year, it never would have survived the economic ups and downs. We have quite a bit of trouble sometimes funding it. Other years are not quite so hard. But we believe it’s worth struggling for. I would like to see more young people involved in it. We do have a young people’s contest connected with it. And the public school students throughout the area submit poetry that we judge and the winner’s of it come and recite at our evening performances. So we hope we’re inspiring a little bit of interest in poetry that way and our musicians and poets all visit the public schools so we hope that maybe young people will get kind of drawn toward the poetry enough to come and listen or pursue it later on.
NEA: Thank you Joel, I appreciate it.
Joel Nelson: Thank you.
NEA: That was cowboy poet and 2009 NEA Heritage Fellow, Joel Nelson. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the assistant producer.
The music is “Canadian Waltz” performed by 2010 National Heritage Fellow, Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor. The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, Basque writer Unai Elloriaga and his translator Amaia Gabantxo, discuss his novel Plants Don’t Drink Coffee.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Additional credit: “Canadian Waltz,” from the album The Best of Texas Shorty, composed, performed, and used by permission of Texas Shorty.