Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering started Thursday and runs through Oct. 8. It’s a weekend filled with music, poetry, a cowboy parade and other events that celebrate the American West.
This year, the focus of the gathering is on humor – an important device used to cope with the dangers and day-to-day life of being a cowboy.
Traveling to Durango from Custer County, Nebraska, for the gathering will be cowboy poet and humorist R.P. Smith. Smith will be hosting one of the evening performances of Cowboy Poetry and Music at the Henry Strater Theatre.
We talked to Smith about how Johnny Carson played a role in his development as a cowboy poet, the importance of cowboy gatherings and laughter.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself. You are out of Nebraska?
A: I’m a fourth-generation rancher out here. I have a cow/calf operation, a few horses and a few sheep; just kind of a mom-and-pop deal.
Q: How did you get into cowboy humor? Do you consider yourself a humorist?
A: No, not really. I’ve got to get quite a ways from home before anybody thinks I’m very funny. I like taking a trip to other places once in a while and am always amazed at how people react.
Q: How did you get involved in cowboy gatherings?
A: I’ve been performing poetry in front of people now for about 26 years, and it’s just kind of snowballed. I had an opportunity to go to a cowboy poetry gathering up in Valentine, Nebraska – the first one they had – they’re having their 26th one. I’ve only missed one of them and that was because I was in Durango. It’s been a big part of my life.
Q: Why do you think they’re important?
A: For me, it’s just a chance to get together with people that appreciate the craft. (It’s) kind of an outlet for some of the energy I put into it, so it’s been a great deal for me.
Q: Why do you think humor plays such a big role in cowboy culture?
A: Well, I guess laughter, to quote Reader’s Digest, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Sometimes, the agriculture industry can bounce you around a little bit, and the humor helps you get healed up.
Q: How did you end up doing poetry?
A: I had sold a cow at the sale barn and hadn’t come out very well on the deal – thought I was about $50 short of where I should have been or a little more of that. I had happened to stay up and watch Johnny Carson that night on TV and there were a couple of cowboy poets that were going to be on it, and they kind of inspired me.
I had a friend getting married the next day way out in the western part of the state, and he was a cattle buyer, so I wrote a derogatory poem about cattle buyers and gave it to him for his wedding present. That’s how it all kind of started. The Lord can use some strange events for his purposes, and I think he had a hand in it.
Q: Is it a pretty large network of cowboy poets, gatherings?
A: There are a lot of people doing cowboy poetry, and there are gatherings, especially in the western United States. I haven’t been to a huge amount of those, but I’ve been to the state gatherings in Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Wyoming. (I) just had a really nice show up in Fort Pierce, South Dakota, last weekend in commemoration of their bicentennial of Fort Pierce, so that was neat to be a part of.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about the gatherings?
A: Getting to visit with people – old friends and people I haven’t met before. It’s just a lot of fun.