Cowboy poet Clark Crouch writes from experience about life on the range
Cowboy poet Clark Crouch talks about the Western upbringing that colors his books, "Western Images" and "Views from the Saddle." Interview by writer Tom Keogh.
Special to The Seattle Times
Clark Crouch has been many things: a Richland, Wash.-based manager for the Atomic Energy Commission for over three decades; a management consultant whose strategic planning model is used internationally. But at age 81, he is now a writer who derives wisdom and humor from childhood memories of ranching in Nebraska during the Great Depression.
Crouch is a cowboy poet, practitioner of a genre with roots in 19th-century rural America and perennial themes about Western life and the way of the world as seen through a cowboy's eyes. His last book, "Western Images," won the 2008 Will Rogers Medallion Award for Cowboy Poetry. His new work, "Views from the Saddle," is his fourth published collection. Crouch will pull on his cowboy boots to do a reading from "Views" at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
Q: Could you describe what cowboy and Western poetry is?
A: The setting is usually Western or rural, or if it's a contemporary setting or subject, it's related to how a cowboy would view the situation. For example, I wrote a poem in which a cowboy is resentful that George W. Bush practiced what came to be known as "cowboy diplomacy." In real life, cowboys aren't feisty like in the movies. They love to talk, they love to palaver. The ones I know are just good guys.
Q: Your poems have a definite meter and rhyming scheme.
A: I usually write in four-line verses. The first and third lines have eight beats, the second and fourth have six beats. But I often depart from that. A lot of the original cowboy poets didn't know how to write. They wrote things in their mind. They wrote to the clip-clop rhythm of a horse on the trail. They used rhyme to help them remember the poem when reciting. Q: You started writing poems when very young, then stopped and didn't resume until the age of 73.
A: When I was about 11, I met Charles Badger Clark, who was then poet laureate of South Dakota. I heard him read his western and cowboy poetry, and I was tremendously enthused. I wrote my first poem at that point, then never wrote anything else of significance until I was 73, when I met [author] Sherman Alexie and heard him speak and share some of his poetry. That got me excited about writing my autobiography, so to speak, with family memories and myths about the family. Sherman got me enthused, and then I reread Badger Clark's book, "Sun and Saddle Leather," and got excited about western poetry again. Looking back, my memory is very clear about the things that happened when I was a young cowboy. So, I just started writing about that.
Q: Talk about those formative, childhood experiences. A: I was born at the beginning of the Great Depression, and raised in the 1930s. My parents lived in a small city, Broken Bone, Neb. They had a dairy there, Crouch Dairy. I started school, went through second grade. My father wanted to move back to the Nebraska Sandhills, where he was raised. So we moved onto a 360-acre ranch. Our house was a one-room, sod structure, with an earth floor and earth roof over the top of poles. The ceiling was cheesecloth, strung under the roof to catch dirt, insects and maybe some serpents.
We lived there for some time. I was about 8 at that time and helped my father take care of the cattle. Our heat was from a potbellied stove in which we burned cow chips. I attended a series of one-room, country schools. By the time I was attending sixth through eighth grades in the town of Cottonwood, I was starting to work for ranchers around the area. Later, I went to four different high schools in towns wherever I could get a good job. I worked ranches during the summers.
Q: What was it about your experiences as a cowboy that took hold of you?
A: It was hard work, very demanding. You get up with the sun, you go out and work three or four hours. Come back in and have a breakfast fit for Goliath. Go back out and work again. By the time dark came, and you had your evening chores done and supper under your belt, you were glad to go to bed.
But so far as poetry is concerned, it's tradition and heritage that's exciting. The influence of those people who moved west, the pioneers, traveling through the Cascade Mountains or the Rocky Mountains. It's amazing how people got through those things, with their wagons. Think of how dedicated they were, how much they must have suffered. Study has made me excited about those times. The military activities in the west, and the interface between ranchers and the military and ranchers and Native Americans.
Native Americans have had a bum rap ever since we got here. Every time they found something of value, it was taken from them. All those things, in my mind, are tied together. Western culture existed in its prime between about 1850 and 1900. But there are still cowboys, though they're driving Jeeps and operating from helicopters. They're still cowboys and they still value that heritage.
Q: Do you worry about younger Americans not having interest in the old west?
A: No. I think cowboys are right up there with firemen. If a boy can't be a fireman, by George, he has to be a cowboy.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
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