Here’s a double-header:

wallypaul2018jblxphoto © 2018, Jessica Lifland

by Paul Zarzyski

A boy thrilled with his first horse,
I climbed aboard my father hunkering in hip boots
below the graveled road berm, Cominski Crick
funneling to a rusty culvert. Hooking
an arm behind one of my knees, he lifted
with a grunt and laugh, his creel harness creaking,
split shot clattering in our bait boxes.

I dreamed a Robin Hood-Paladin-Sinbad life
from those shoulders. His jugular pulse rumbled
into the riffle of my pulse, my thin wrists
against his Adam’s apple—a whiskered knuckle
prickly as cucumbers in our garden
where I picked nightcrawlers, wet and moonlit,
glistening between vines across the black soil.

Eye-level with an array of flies, every crayon
color fastened to the silk band
of his tattered fedora, the hat my mother vowed
a thousand times to burn, I learned to love
the sound of words in the woods—Jock Scott,
Silver Doctor, Mickey Finn, Quill Gordon, Gray
Ghost booming in his voice through the spruce.

At five, my life rhymed with first flights
bursting into birdsong. I loved
the piquant smell of fiddleheads and trilliums,
hickory and maple leaf humus, the petite
bouquets of arbutus we picked for Mom.

I loved the power of my father’s stride
thigh-deep against the surge of dark swirls.

Perched offshore on boulder—safe from wanderlust
but not from currents coiling below—
I prayed to the apostles for a ten-pounder
to test the steel of my telescopic pole,
while Dad, working the water upstream and down,
stayed always in earshot—alert and calling to me
after each beaver splash between us.

I still go home to relearn my first love for words
echoing through those woods: I caught one!
Dad! I caught one! Dad! Dad!
skipping like thin flat stones down the crick—
and him galloping through popples, split shot ticking,
to find me leaping for a fingerling, my first
brookie twirling from a willow like a jewel.

© 1998, Paul Zarzyski
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission
(Originally printed in Blue-Collar Light (1998) and Wolf Tracks On The Welcome Mat (2003)


by Wallace McRae

Critics claim we write doggerel. To them that’s a curse
As we whittle our ditties in tired meter and
Rhyming’s old fashioned—we’re stuck in the past.
Gotta strike for new heights to make our craft


How many rhymes can you unearth for “horse”?
We must find fresh pathways—carve out a new
Forego out worn metaphors—retire tired cliches
As unnumb cerebrums will uncover fresh

Of retelling the tales of our untrampled West
Like Vess, Paul, and Linda we’ll leave all the
In the dust of the drags in their quest of the muse
We’ll ride at the point and no longer

Those sound-alike words at the end of the line.
Our poems will sparkle, shimmer and
Ah! The critics will love us. We’ll be the rage
Academics will praise us as we mount a new

To convert the whole West to the joys of free verse
Oh, some will resist. They’ll grumble and
As they cling to tradition, bog down in the mire,
Get rimrocked, rough locked, or caught in the
——————————————-……Gallagher electric fence.

But it’s “Root hog or die,” as the old-timers said
As reps with credentials sort the quick from
——————————————-……those who gather celestial ranges
——————————————- and are now gone but not forgotten.
Yes! Convert! You wranglers who once tangled with rhyme
‘Cause rhyming ain’t worth a tin Roosevelt
——————————————-……social program.

© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission


Watch Paul Zarzyski recite his poem in a 2019 Western Folklife video.

When we asked Paul Zarzyski to share his poem, he suggested that we pair it with Wally McRae’s poem and he also shared this account:


Wallace McRae and I first read our work together in the Student Union Lounge at the University of Montana in 1986—perhaps one of the earliest close poetic encounters of the wild-west kind between traditional rhyme-n-meter and free verse, between the literati and the “lariati.” The event inspired English Professor
Bill Bevis to write the following in his introduction to the poetry section of The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology (1988):

“One of the best readings I’ve heard in years was in Missoula, with Paul Zarzyski, modern poet and bronc rider, and Wally McRae, cowboy poet and rancher, sharing the stage. But while both poets were excellent and the shared reading a success, I
was also aware of how difficult it is for the ear to move from cowboy poetry to modern poetry….”

“The rest,” as they say, “is history.” Wally and I became fast friends and have orchestrated our stage presentations at dozens of festivals and gatherings over the decades, our “Paully-Wally-Doodle-All-The-Day” duets often including a hearty dose of (cow)poking fun at one another over our very different approaches to the page. When I’d proclaim, for example, that my poems do, in fact, rhyme, but “in the middle of the lines, rather than out on the ends,” Wally would counter, via his hilarious delivery of “Let’s Free Up Our Verse,” how silly such might sound to the cowboy poet’s traditionally trained, and superior, ear.

“How do I even know it’s poetry if it doesn’t rhyme?” he’d inquire.

“Hell, it’s jagged on the right, ain’t it?” I’d fire back, and then emphasize how I, at least, had never succumbed, as had he, to what I’ve dubbed “The Mister Ed syndrome”— rhyming “horse” with “of course.”

And so evolved—thanks to the Western Folklife Center and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada—this symbiotic friendship fueled by our mutual love for recounting our narratives via musical words rendered into lines and stanzas, both rhymed-n-metered, and otherwise.

Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana. He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a recipient of the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts, and has served on the National Council of the Arts.

In a conversation with him last year, he mentioned that he thought this poem was one of his best poems. He’s probably best known for his own least-favorite poem, “Reincarnation.”

This poem, “Let’s Free Up Our Verse,” appears in The Anthology; Celebrating 30 Years of Wrangling Words from the Western Folklife Center, edited by Charlie Seemann, published in 2014 in celebration of the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Find more about Wally McRae at cowboypoetry.com.

The inimitable Paul Zarzyski defies description. Visit paulzarzyski.com for his bio, blog, and more.

This photograph of Paul Zarzyski and Wallace McRae is by respected photojournalist Jessica Lifland (Instagram), taken at the Western Folklife Center’s 2018 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where she is one of the official photographers. See her recently-posted 2020 Gathering highlights.

The subjects she has photographed for her Cowboy Poetry Project work-in-progress include Wally McRae, the late Elizabeth Ebert, Sean Sexton, Andy Hedges, Jerry Brooks, Waddie Mitchell, Amy Hale and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, Henry Real Bird, DW Groethe, Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, the late Jack Walther, and others.

(Request permission for any use of these poems or photograph.)

Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, December 2, 2017


Via Paul Zarzyski:

Golden State Theatre, December 2, 2017
Monterey, California

There’s a new, young hot Rodeo “Poet” named Ned LeDoux (yup, son of the GREAT Chris LeDoux) coming to town—not to be confused with the old (rhymes with cold) Rodeo Poet with the unpronounceable Z-name (not Jay Z, but, you know, the other Z?) who has appeared at The Monterey Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival for at least 15 go-‘rounds over the past couple decades.  Oh, incidentally, he’ll be there again, as well—passing the mantle on to Ned and his rollicking “Ned Head” fans, and joining virtuoso singer-songwriter and local horseman extraordinaire, Mike Beck, along with one of the top trios ever to fork the cowboy stages, New West. You cannot, however, gather such a herd of reckless-abandon buckin’ stock together in the same theater without a Chute Boss who savvies how to ramrod all of the moving/working parts of such a wild-bunch pitchin’. You got it—we’re talking a silver-tongued emcee with the presence of, say, Richard Boone playing Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel, Sam Elliott playing Conagher, or maybe even Slim Pickens playing Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove, and, well, now that Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp are daisy fodder, there’s only one such ex-lawman-turned-top-hand-at-the-microphone who can pull this superhuman feat off, Mick Vernon! Or, as his friends affectionately refer to this former director of the Festival and notable cowboy poet and singer in his own right,  “Slick Mickey.”

So, if you’re indeed tuned-in to my pitch here, you just know that some good ol’ jump-n-kick, rock-n-rowel Saturday-night fun will be had by all in the ol’ town of Monterey on Dec. 2 at the Golden State Theatre— both on stage, and, especially, in the bleacher seats! And if you’re still not jacked-up over this newsflash, then you must be bunkin’ in some Boot Hill bone-yard out of earshot of my astoundingly loud megaphone announcement to either be there or else live with the tormenting regrets of all those of us who chose to skip the Monterey Pop Festival, 50 years ago in ’67, and/or Woodstock in ‘69!  Trust someone in-the-know on this sorrowful note, such deep-seated decades-long remorse over life’s missed opportunities will run your bar tabs up through the pressed-tin bullet-hole-riddled ceilings of your favorite waterin’ troughs.  And…say what? “You weren’t even here to attend Monterey Pop or Woodstock, cuz you were not yet born?!” ALL THE BETTER! Here’s your chance to make up for your tardy arrival in this dimension—to boast, “I was there, however, at The Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival to hear Ned LeDoux and his band performing hits from his newly-released album, Sagebrush, back in ought-seventeen!”

To cut to the proverbial chase, (cow)boys and (cow)girls, ladies and gents, aliens and E.T.s, those of you who choose to be in the audience at the Golden State Theatre on December 2 will be the honest-to-God stars of this event. Which is to say, we won’t be performing to you or for you, as much as we’ll be celebrating the spiritful presence of all of us creative beings magically gathering in the same microcosmic wild-west time-n-space. Because that’s how such “Close Poetic Encounters of the Otherworldly Cowpoke Cosmos Kind” transcend the expected and soar toward celestial, magical places of story and song that we yearn to visit, always with our kindred spirits, our fellow soulful travelers.  In advance of your joining us, I offer this Thank You! from “the other Z”:


In the height of this poetry moment
Right people, right place, and right time,
The universe stirs to chevrons of words
While The Zenith Cathedral bells chime.

In the heat of this poetry moment,
Hoist your grails to Beauty and Truth—
Through fire and smoke, wild not broke,
One more round from The Geyser of Youth.

In the heart of this poetry moment,
To your tempo, your rhythm, your flow—
With ink from my veins, Three Cheers! in quatrains
For the spirit you’ve brought to this show.

© Paul Zarzyski

More about the Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival at montereycowboy.org and on Facebook.

Find more about Paul Zarzyski at CowboyPoetry.com and at his site, paulzarzyski.com.

Theodore Waddell: My Montana—Paintings and Sculpture, 1959-2016


Montana native Theodore Waddell’s works have been said to have “immense, poetic dignity.” A new volume, Theodore Waddell: My Montana—Paintings and Sculpture, 1959-2016 from the University of Oklahoma Press looks at the life and experience that informs his work. Rick Newby relies on letters, journals, and interviews to profile the artist and his craft in this eminently readable work.

It’s not possible to label Waddell’s style, beyond “modern.” Large, impressionistic, abstract, full-yet-minimalist-inspired landscapes dominate his painting. In a foreword, former Montana Congressman Pat Williams writes, “The sparsity of his painting, what he leaves out as well as what he puts in, restores the memories of our visions.” The artist is quoted, “The traditional artists don’t like me because I am not realistic enough, and the contemporary artists don’t like me because I am too realistic.”

A number of essays by critics and friends are included in the book, and rodeo poet and lyricist Paul Zarzyski is one of those friends. In a piece titled “From Captain Woodrow Call to Captain Kirk to Captain Teddy-Bob Waddell of the Wild Cowpoke Wild Brushstroke Wild Cosmos West,” he celebrates Waddell’s contribution to “…what’s left of the iconoclastic un-cloned cowboy West…”

Zaryski appreciates the scale and sense of the work, and comments that “…landscape rules the Western roost for me as a poet, especially as a ‘cowboy poet.'” He describes the impact of the first time he saw the 10’x5’ “Sun River Horses.” He writes, “Instead of my drinking ‘it’ in, the painting swallowed me into its being like a T. Rex ingesting a no-see-um.” An image of the painting later appeared as one of Zarzyski’s book covers.

Waddell’s family history as well as his artistic influences are explored. A generous chapter, “The Ranching and Painting Years,” is a candid look at twenty years of ranching near Molt, Montana. An understanding of the artist’s use of space, texture and color, and the influence of weather come to fore from its pages.

The book is lavishly filled with glorious color images and photographs. The reader is left with a satisfying sense of what drives this unique artist and why his canvases and sculptures are impressive and important.

The book’s many-page index of publications by and about Theodore Waddell follow his career and its reception by the art world. An impressive exhibition history is included, which also lists the numerous permanent collections that hold his art.

Theodore Waddell’s painting, “Sheep #12,” was selected as the poster art for the Western Folklife Center’s 2018 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.


Find more about Theodore Waddell at theodorewaddell.com. There’s more on the book and order information at the University of Oklahoma Press and other booksellers.



by Paul Zarzyski

After grand entry cavalcade of flags,
Star-Spangled Banner, stagecoach figure 8s
in a jangle of singletrees, after trick riders
sequined in tights, clowns in loud getups,
queens sashed pink or chartreuse
in silk—after the fanfare—the domed
rodeo arena goes lights-out
black: stark silent
prayer for a cowboy crushed by a ton
of crossbred Brahma.

……………………………………What went wrong —
too much heart behind a high kick,
both horns hooking earth, the bull vaulting
a half-somersault to its back—
each witness recounts with the same
gruesome note: the wife
stunned in a bleacher seat
and pregnant with their fourth. In this dark
behind the chutes, I strain to picture,
through the melee of win with loss,
details of a classic ride—body curled
fetal to the riggin’, knees up,
every spur stroke in perfect sync,
chin tucked snug. In this dark,
I rub the thick neck of my bronc, his pulse
rampant in this sudden night
and lull. I know the instant
that bull’s flanks tipped beyond
return, how the child inside
fought with his mother for air
and hope, his heart with hers
pumping in pandemonium—in shock,
how she maundered in the arena
to gather her husband’s bullrope and hat, bells
clanking to the murmur of crowd
and siren’s mewl.

……………………………………The child learned early
through pain the amnion could not protect him from,
through capillaries of the placenta, the sheer
peril of living with a passion
that shatters all at once
from infinitesimal fractures
in time. It’s impossible, when dust
settling to the backs of large animals
makes a racket you can’t think in,
impossible to conceive that pure fear,
whether measured in degrees of cold
or heat, can both freeze
and incinerate so much
in mere seconds. When I nod
and they throw this gate open to the same
gravity, the same 8 ticks
of the clock, number 244 and I
will blow for better or worse
from this chute—flesh and destiny up
for grabs, a bride’s bouquet
pitched blind.

(In Memory of Joe Lear)

© 1996, Paul Zarzyski. Used with permission.
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission.

Iconoclast poet and songwriter Paul Zarzyski tells the sad story that inspired this tribute to his friend, bullrider Joe Lear, in a recent StoryCorps segment recorded at the Western Folklife Center’s recent National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Listen here. Find other stories at that link and learn how to record your own Storycorps piece at the Western Folklife Center.

His book, All This Way for the Short Ride: Roughstock Sonnets, 1971-1996: Poems, received the Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. See the poem on his web site. Read artist and writer Teresa Jordan’s introduction to the book here.

Paul Zarzyski and Tom Russell collaborated on a lyric based on the poem, and you can listen to the popular tune. Find another version here.

Paul’s latest release is Steering With My Knees, an enormously dazzling double CD of music and poetry with an accompanying and likewise engaging “digibook.”

It is described, “Featuring a Veritable Symphony of Esteemed Musicians Playing Electric/ Acoustic / Lap Steel / Bass / Slide Guitars, Alto and Tenor Sax, Piano, Cello, Drums, Trombone, Trumpet, Tuba, Jaw Harp, Didgeridoo, String Bass, Flugelhorn, Fiddle, Flute, Keyboards, Accordion, Pizzicato Viola, Blues Harmonica, Banjo, Mandolin, Theremin… as well as the application of Electric / Foley / Bell Sounds, Voice Impersonations, and, last but not least, The Singing of Poetry and Lyrics.”

Like most things Zarzyski, the entire project is a singular experience.

Find more about Paul Zarzyski at CowboyPoetry.com, www.cowboypoetry.com/paulzarzyski.htm; at his web site, paulzarzyski.com; and on Facebook.

This is a photo of Paul riding “Whiskey Talks” in Great Falls, Montana.