As the manager of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, it is rare that I get a chance to have extended conversations with any of the poets or musicians during the Gathering. I am always getting called away to put out one fire or another. Today I got lucky and had a chance to sit with Vess Quinlan for a while. Vess was talking with Keith Ward, a poet from North Carolina who participates in the Gathering's open mic sessions. Keith is still somewhat new to the world of cowboy poetry, and he's eager to learn from an "old hand" like Vess. Keith and I listened attentively to Vess as he described his writing process and what he's observed from other, more academic poets. Vess talked about learning to move his rhymes into the body of the poem, rather than leaving them all at the end, and how the meaning of the poem is more important than forcing a rhyme. He talked about how some poets (not cowboy poets) are forced into a certain form or style because of the institutions they work in or the positions they want to hold.
Keith told Vess that since he's started coming to the Gathering and sharing his work, he has been trying to figure out the rules himself. Vess told him that the beauty of cowboy poetry, and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in particular, is that the poets are allowed to take risks. Each and every poet who performs at the Gathering supports every other poet. They don't compete with one another, and that's why Elko is good. If Jerry Brooks (who joined the conversation at this point) does a poem that has a sad mood, then Vess will adapt his plan to do a poem that brings the mood back up. If Vess does a long poem, then Jerry will do a short poem. Vess says that is what sets cowboy poetry apart: there are no rules and everyone supports one another.
Vess also mentioned the audience, and Jerry agreed that the audience in Elko is sophisticated. They allow those risks and make it possible for the poets to break the barriers between the performers on stage and the audience.
I can't wait for the sessions to start on Thursday. Sure, now is the chance when I can sit for a minute and listen to some great stories, or even spend most of an evening performance in my seat, but I love the end of the week best. Vess Quinlan and Jerry Brooks are performing each day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; check the schedule for times and locations. Also, take a moment to listen to the open mic sessions in the Cedar Room. You might get to hear what Keith Ward learned today.