Wally McRae is a cowboy poet. Not only is he a third-generation Montana rancher, he served on the National Council of the Arts after a presidential appointment from Bill Clinton. He was the first cowboy poet to receive the National Heritage Award and he was also awarded the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts. He was one of the original poets and a consistent attendee of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada. He writes and recites poetry regularly and has published five books of poetry and prose. He even has a video anthology of 32 of his poems.
McRae will perform Wednesday at The Roxy Theater. The poetry recital starts at 7 p.m. and will include light drinks and refreshments. The cover charge is $15, but the proceeds go to the Rosebud Protection Association.
Here’s what the cowboy poet has to say about his art.
Q: How did you start writing poetry?
A: My start with poetry came before I ever started writing. When I was a little kid, I was read to a lot and a lot of the simple pieces I was read by my parents and older sister were in meter and rhyme. Because of that I was always kind of attracted to poetry. I had a little picture book probably when I was four years old that I loved and they read it to me a lot, in fact so many times that I had it memorized. The book was "Muggins Mouse," and it was all of these adventures that this little mouse had, and it was all in meter and rhyme. When company would come, I’d go get my book and show off and demonstrate that even though I’d never been to school, I could read because I’d heard it so many times that I had it memorized. It’d start out, ‘Muggins woke one morning feeling very big and in his striped pajamas he danced a little jig. He also sang a squeaky song, which woke his father too and every little mouse knows that’s not the thing to do.’ Then I’d turn the page. They’d say, ‘wow that little four-year-old, he’s smarter than hell. He hasn’t even been to school and he can read!’ If that don’t attract you to poetry, I don’t know what will.
Q: What is the difference between cowboy poetry and regular poetry?
A: Most cowboy poetry is absolutely atrocious. For the most part, cowboy poetry is very traditional. It tells stories about who we are and what we do in strict meter and rhyme. That’s not 100 percent true — we’ve branched out and are a little more forgiving, not quite as narrow-minded as we were at a time. It’s mostly done orally. Almost all cowboy poetry is done by recitation rather than reading. That’s one of the reasons that it’s meter and rhyme — it’s easier to remember. Shakespeare is tough because even though there is a lot of rhyme in it, there’s very little meter. It’s hard to memorize because it’s not regular meter and it’s not regular rhyme.
Q: What makes a person qualified to write cowboy poetry?
A: The first thing is you have to know something about the business. You’ve got to have the right terminology, you’ve got to have the right jargon. I’ve always said that one of the reasons why cowboys write poetry is because we’re bored. We don’t have cell phone service. A lot of times we can’t get television unless you put up some kind of inverted mushroom in your yard, so cowboys write out of boredom. They have something to say and no way to say it. They’re also fiercely proud of who they are and what they do. And there’s no one to speak for us. Almost every other occupation has an organization or a union or something like that to tell their story.
Q: What was it like serving on the National Council of the Arts?
A: I was in over my head. I was kind of intimidated by the whole thing. I know quite a lot about folk art and that was the ticket in there for me. Also previous to that I had received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts for having been a cowboy poet, so I knew a little about the organization, so I was on the council for a couple of years, but I don’t know, it got to be one of those political black holes. It wasn’t about art — it was about money and it was about politics. There were people that were opposed to the very concept of giving money to starving artists.
Q: What is the Rosebud Protective Association?
A: There are several things to understand. First of all I use the term EOB a lot. You can do almost anything you want in Montana as long as it’s ‘east of Billings.’ There was an effort to have a coal mine up on the Canada-Montana border that would possibly affect the North Fork of the Flathead. Every politician in the world just threw a fit. They said, ‘We’re not going to do that — it will ruin a lot of beautiful country — but you can go down to southeastern Montana and you can mine. We have laws that will protect the environment, but it really doesn’t make much difference because after all it is EOB. So about 30 or 40 years ago they came in and started leasing up land for mining coal, which is OK. I thought, ‘If they’re going to mine the coal this time, maybe they should reclaim the land.’ At that time, it was an unreasonable suggestion. For the most part we didn’t own the coal under our land — we did own the surface but we were muscled by lease brokers who were coming in and putting coal strips. I said, ‘We’re going to have to do something alien to ranchers and livestock people and that’s communicating with one another, find out what our neighbors are doing and hearing.’ It was kind of a stretch of cultural ethics for us to start meddling in our neighbor’s business. But in order to protect ourselves, we did and we formed the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Rosebud Protective Association is an affiliate.
Q: What do you love so much about poetry?
A: It’s a way of expressing yourself on things that you would be uncomfortable just doing in regular conversation. If you handle it correctly, it’s a way of making it memorable for people rather than using prose. I also have a prose book out — it was a bunch of things that were too complicated and too long to fit themselves in poetry. It was a lot of dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t fit into poetry particularly well because you have to set up who is saying these things. You can do it in a play, you can do it as prose, but it’s very, very difficult to do in meter and rhyme poetry.
Q: Is there anything you dislike about poetry?
A: It’s become too popular. Especially cowboy poetry. There’s all kinds of people who are absolutely not qualified. I went to the cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nev., one year and one of our members was down there passing out little buttons and it said ‘save cowboy poetry — stop writing.’