Ropin' and a-rhymin'

What in tarnation is a Cowboy Poet? And what exactly are they doing over here? Nick Coleman went on the road in middle England to find out about the lasso lyricists
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The Independent Culture
There are cowboys in Grantham tonight. The fish and chip restaurant has been kept open late so that they can dine after their recital. They are the only ones in the place. Their cowboy hats are on the adjoining tables, like pies. Their napkins are on their laps. And their textured plastic leather-look menus are not getting the message across.

"Tell me, please," says one cowboy. "What is had-dock? And where is this plaice with an `i'?"

"And what are these peas?" says another. "What do they mean by mushy?"

Randall J Rieman, Paul Zarzyski, Sue Wallis, Rod McQueary, and Eloise - mother, mother-in-law (to Rod and Sue) and mascot - comprise the Cowboy Poet posse. They are criss-crossing the country in a nine-seater Nissan bringing cowboy poetry to rural subdivisions of the poetry- and cowboy- loving masses. They've done Alnwick, Boston, Ipswich and Gainsborough. Tonight there were two dozen of us in Grantham Guildhall Centre. We were all pretty smitten.

The poetry is good. It's not Yeats, but it's good. It has density, friction, rhythm and jokes, and it dances when recited in a real cowboy voice. They stand, the cowboys, with their thumbs in their belt loops and address the assembled Granthamites as though they were cousins. "Making personal contact" is a big thing with them. They thank "you nice folks for visiting with us". Sometimes it's hard to tell where chat ends and poem begins.

Rod McQueary is elegiac and sing-song. He wears a domed pearl hat and buttons his shirt to the top beneath a speckled jacket. He is a Vietnam vet, which means he has gravitas, and he's descended from the crofting McQuearys of Ulva, off Mull, which means he has bottom. He has a taste for the meditative. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" sounds like a rogue thought, the way he tells it. In fact all of his poems sound like mental spindrift; even "Dangerous Beef", which is a short piece about how cholesterol levels are the least of your worries when a heifer has a mind for a kerfuffle.

McQueary is married to Sue Wallis, who is a perpendicular rancher of shining eye and stately metre; she is certainly the most contained stylist of the four, perhaps the most interested in the details of human affairs. Whereas Paul Zarzyski - Polish/ Italian ex-pro bronc-rider in a black hat - is interested in that dynamic place where human affairs blend with those of horse and land. He is now a full-time writer and he has little patience with the imperfections of the writer's life. Cormac McCarthy is admired as much for his stroppy attitude as for his use of language, much less so for his stories which are deemed excessive. Zarzyski is the closest poet on show to a showman. He cleaves the air and makes old ladies giggle. He's particularly good with pieces like S Omar Barker's poem about the distinction between horses and hosses, and his own "April Showers", which is the tale of a bronc of forthright temper and lethal bladder whose tail-spume will melt your hat at 40 paces.

Finally, Randy Rieman: colt trainer and classicist of cowboy poesy. Rieman is an archive on legs. He doesn't write so much himself, but knows the cowboy poetry canon inside out. He is lanky, of lambent eye, and his moustache hangs south of his lower lip.

In the fish and chip restaurant, Rieman tips his chair back to talk, hooking his boots in the cross-brace of the table. If you ask him what, if any, kinds of fish cowboys get to eat as a rule, he will begin by explaining that he cowboyed recently in Hawaii (cowboys like to use "cowboy" as a verb; cowboy poets like "to poet", too) and there he ate many kinds of fish, and he will name them all and spell them. Then he will name all the other kinds of fish he has known, from the common, whiskered, sour old catfish to marlin and other, unpronounceable, North American fish. He will tell you how they sit in the pan, how they taste, and he will bring his forefinger and thumb to within a foot of his lips in an O-shape for the good ones. It's a litany. It takes him 10 minutes to run out of fish.

"Well," says McQueary, looking politely puzzled. "These here mushy peas might look like Christmas, but they sure don't taste like it." He turns to the waitress. "Excuse me, ma'am. These mushy fellas - how do you make 'em?" "D'ya stomp on 'em or what?" asks his mother.

The cowboys have amazing manners. They tip their hats and call everyone ma'am or sir, and occupy their space with shifting modesty, laconic in body if not in word. Walking slowly back to the van at close to midnight, a knackered XR3 grinds past, windows down, occupants yelling "raw-HIDE" fit to bust, unaware that the guys in Stetsons with big moustaches are not English loonies. "Well, that's progress," says Sue Wallis, who is greeted with this kind of thing wherever she goes in England. "They know two cowboy words now: rawhide and yee-hah. That's kinda gratifyin'."

Next morning we drive to Chelmsford. I am on the middle bench beside Randy Rieman again. Beyond him the flatlands of East Anglia scroll by without feature. There is a feeling of anxiety in the vehicle. Wallis is up front as a measure against her car sickness, and where she grips the door handle her knuckles are white. The company is not accustomed to purling along two-lane motorways at 80mph a matter of inches from the neighbours. Randy Rieman's right eye, the only one I can see, has a burst blood vessel in it. It is comet shaped.

I enquire after the state of agriculture in the West. And between Peterborough and Bishop's Stortford I am favoured with another magnificent disquisition: on responsible stewardship of the land; on how to get wolves back into the ecosystem where they belong, and on what makes bears happy; on the ideas of the progressive agricultural guru Wendell Berry; on brisket disease; on what to do when a cow shoos a porcupine off a calf and comes up with a noseful of quills; on the arrogance, ineptitude and stupidity of the federal government; on how US agricultural policy is determined by the expediencies of point-to-point crisis management.

"Everything is viewed with a short-term perspective," he says. "Their idea of policy is to stick a Band Aid on a missing limb." Agriculturalists in the US are regarded as just another bleating minority interest group. "In fact," adds Rieman, without adjusting his face, "we are a minority interest group." Above all things, it seems, Randy is concerned to demonstrate that there is a prairie of difference between the agribusiness regulated by centralised governments all over the world and what he and his kind do as a way of life: agriculture, with a capital C.

We are heading for an Essex "equestrian centre", where the Poets are to do a brief piece for Anglia TV. They are happy enough to be seeing horses again and are content to be filmed with the beasts. However, they do not want to ride them and do yee-hahs for the camera, nor pantomime what Rod McQueary calls "the urban view of us". We drive up Hoe Lane. The sky is tolerably big and there's wind in the barley. "Must be the site of the original hoedown," says Rod. "Oh, I thought we were just gettin' into the red light district," says his mother.

Not unexpectedly, the interviewer from the TV company is clad in cowboy jacket and riding boots. And she is quite frankly staggered that the cowboys aren't prepared to go for a ride with her. This is a complete waste of her time, she shrieks. Her piece won't really be worth transmitting, you see. It'll probably be cut down to a few seconds and shown at the end of the programme. What do cowboys do, after all, if they don't ride horses?

It is explained that these are cowboy poets, that they don't do cowboy clowning, that they are not prepared to compromise their culture for the sake of television, and that if she'd like to talk to them about cowboy poeting among the horses they'd be more than happy to oblige, ma'am. They stand weighted on one leg, thumbs in belt-loops, cool-eyed. After about half an hour, the TV woman gives up and interviews them where they stand, snorting between takes.

"We seem to have a failure to communicate here," says Paul Zarzyski, darkly.

"How can you say that?" is the reply. "We're in the communication business."

"Well, ma'am, I'd beg to differ about that. Sometimes you're in the communication business."

The Cowboy Poets see themselves as vessels; as great steaming pots of the stuff they live by: words, the sound of words and the richly stewed way of life that gives rise to them. It's a thick, wholesome soup of immutable flavour - you might just as well mush peas by stomping on them as try to dilute it.

A few days after Chelmsford I spoke to the cowboys' English promoter in Wales following their Swansea gig, just to check some spellings. There had been 150 to the show that lunchtime and she was in good spirits. And the cowboys?

"They've disappeared," she said. "We got out of the van to get some air on the Gower peninsula, I turned round and they'd gone. Last I saw them they were right out on the headland in the drizzle, and they were frisking."

n The Cowboy Poets play the Purcell Room, London SE1 tonight at 7.30pm (0171-960 4242) and the Tabernacle, London W11 tomorrow (0171-243 4343)