The Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Pincher Creek

Last weekend, at the Pincher Creek Cowboy Poetry Gathering, I heard the word ‘genuine’ pronounced gen-u-wine and ‘seed’ used as the past tense of the verb to see. I heard the word ‘cowboy’ used as a verb, as in “you can tell by my lily-white hands that I’ve never cowboyed.” I learned that the grass is “comin’ good” this year, that a wolf can bite a hole in the side of a cow the size of a volleyball, and that the names of singers are never mentioned at cowboy church. “This service is not about glorifying ourselves,” said a man named Sharky on Sunday morning. “It is about glorifying God.”

The Gathering assembles cowboy (and cowgirl) poets and musicians from around the Canadian prairies and and the northern Plains of America. The weekend featured readings and musical performances along with a ranch roping competition, a commemorative buckle auction, a song contest and two barbecue beef dinners. Unlike the upcoming Calgary Stampede – which gilds ten days of alcoholism, gluttony, and lust with a thin lacquer of ‘western heritage’ – the Pincher Creek Gathering is an honest celebration of the ranching life. The Gathering, one might say, is gen-u-wine.

I was struck most by the earnestness of The Gathering and the complete absence of irony. There didn’t seem to be any ulterior motives in the Horseshoe Pavillion or on the Community Hall stage. There was no posturing or posing. Occasionally a performer jabbed at the absurdities of city life. One poet mocked the tattoos and body-piercings of city youth, for example, and speculated on the degradation of such body art over time. (A sagging ring of tattooed barbed wire around a bicep might require a fence-stretcher, and a ladybug tattooed on a butt cheek will resemble a fly trapped in cottage cheese.) Most of the poetry and music, though, honoured ranch life through rhymes and puns and gentle, gentle humour.

But there was something darker going on, too. Every now and then the performances hinted at sort of existential angst. Some of the poems revealed that the ranching life is endangered. One writer reminded the audience that only fifteen percent of Canadians live rural lives. “We are outnumbered,” he warned. Another man worred aloud that the next generation will not want to inherit the family ranch and flee to the big bad city instead. The poets may deride the city’s foolishness, but they fear its draw.

The Gathering, then, is as much a celebration of a culture as it is an act of cultural survival. The rhymes and puns. The campfire guitars and Sunday hymns. Perhaps it all represents a circling of the wagons. This fascinates me, and I hope to return to Pincher Creek next year to learn more.