Poetry? Jeff Carson thought he hated poetry. All he remembered were those boring poems he had to read in school. Then, since he lives in Heber, he attended the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair.
"I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair," he says. "I'd cowboyed all my life, so I knew this. It wasn't poetry, it was storytelling that rhymed."
That was eight years ago, and he's been hooked ever since. He's even started writing his own cowboy poems. This year, Carson will again be among the participants in the 14th annual gathering, which takes place in Heber Tuesday through Nov. 9.
In addition to Carson and other local cowboy poets, the gathering will feature some of the top performing acts in western entertainment, including Michael Martin Murphey, Ian Tyson, Red Steagall, Tom Russell, Wylie & The Wild West, the Bar J Wranglers and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell. There are nine major concerts in all, and nonstop cowboy poetry.
There will also be a ranch rodeo and horse versatility show, Eddie Deen's famous East Texas BBQ, multiple Cowboy Express Trains, and a dinner and show at Zermatt Resort. Clinics will be offered on colt starting, horse and mule driving and fiddle and guitar playing, not to mention a vendor's fair with arts, crafts, cowboy gear and more. There will be a Mountain Man camp, and things will finish up on Sunday with a Cowboy Church.
This year's souvenir poster was done by Robert Duncan, and there will be a souvenir CD with poems and songs from all the artists.
What started out as a one-night event at the Midway Town Hall has grown into a major gathering that attracts national attention.
"It was named last year by some magazines as the best in the country, even above the national gathering in Elko," Carson says. "We get visitors from all over the country."
And for good reason, says Mike Kirkwood, who is in charge of putting together some performances by selected members of the Cowboy Poets of Utah, an organization of local writers and performers.
"We have some very, very good local poets," he says, "and this is a good venue to showcase them." The whole phenomenon of cowboy poetry "that's what we call it because that name is instantly recognized and you know just what to expect, but it's really much broader than that" is growing, Kirkwood says.
There's even a group of youngsters who will be featured Saturday morning. "You'd be amazed at what those little guys can do," he says.
There's something about cowboy poetry people connect to, he adds. "It's part of our culture, a nice way to keep the message alive of the Great American West. Like a good movie, it makes you laugh and it makes you cry, and it talks about days gone by."
That's a big part of the appeal for Carson, too. "I've had horses and mules since I was a kid. Now I own some mules and take people on back-country trips. I just love to ride. I'm in the saddle as much as I can be."
His own poetry is mostly humorous, he says, based on experiences of his own or ones that other people have shared, or even jokes he heard.
What is so great about cowboy poetry, he says, is that no one takes themselves too seriously. "You can sit down and make up a bunch of lies and it can be about anything," he says somewhat tongue-in-cheek. "But I also try to make people think. I try to include some life lessons."
Over the years, he's learned that raising horses is a lot like raising kids, and that if people lived life the way they trained horses, we'd all be better off. He's learned, he says, "that if the horse isn't doing what I want, it's my fault. If I want them to be soft, I have to be soft. If I want them to give, I have to give. If I want to improve the horse, I have to improve myself."
But the work is worth it, he says. "I love to see that transformation from wild to soft and willing."
And that's kind of how he approaches his poetry. "I love to see people having a good time. Laughter is good medicine."
Who knew that Carson would ever like to write poetry, he says with a laugh. But it's a process that he really enjoys. "I try to paint a picture, like a TV show. I try to visualize a scene in my mind."
Contrary to what you might think, riding a horse is not the best time to write. "I don't want to write while I'm so relaxed. The best time to think about poems is when I'm doing some 'idiot-proof' chore."
Some poems come in 10 minutes, some take weeks, he says. "But I always have one in the oven. Usually, I create the story and then I try to make it rhyme."It's an honor to take part in the Heber gathering, Carson says. "Tom Whitaker, who started all this, brings in the best names in the genre. They might not be as commercially known as some, but anyone in the business knows how good they are. They are tops."
If you go
What: 14th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair
Where: Heber City
When: Tuesday through Nov. 9
How much: $10-$43, depending on the eventPhone: 435-654-2352