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Paul Zarzyski Interview, Part Three

Published: 3/9/2015
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Editor’s Note:
Paul Zarzyski racked up years on the rodeo circuit riding broncs AND has a Masters in Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing. (He studied with poet Richard Hugo at the University of Montana.)
Zarzyski, 64, also happens to be one of my favorite performers at the Western Folklife Center’s annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. The Great Falls, Montana man brings free verse and wild performance energy to cowboy poetry, a genre that’s usually rhymed, metered, and what some might call polite and traditional.

Visit Paul Zarzyski website here.
We chatted by phone last month. It was a high-spirited, fast-moving, casual conversation, excerpts of which are printed here.  -- Maddy Butcher

Why is the Western Folklife Center your church?

PZ: Because that’s where I’ve met 90 percent of my heroes. Those staff and audience members and volunteers who’ve participated over the decades have become my saints and angels--just as much my heroes as are the likes of a Wally McRae or Buck Ramsey or a good number or other poets and musicians I won’t risk listing in light of the sin of omission. They have changed my life in so many positive ways. I don’t like the word ‘blessed.’  Therefore, to invoke the title of my very first chapbook, Call Me Lucky.  Call me gifted by the old Cowpoke Cosmos. I don’t know what I did to deserve such good fortune. Dumb luck. Right place, right time. With the right words, the right story or poem or joke or whatever.

[at right, Wylie Gustafson, a frequent collaborator]

I’m not afraid to be honest about who I am: I wouldn’t make a pimple on a real cowboy’s ass. The reason I’m in Elko for the Gathering year-after-year is because I got on a thousand head of bucking horses and I wrote about those rides, and non-rides, and how I loved them all. That was the West at its wildest for me. I lived it. Because of that tiny glimpse, those minor and miniscule moments of what it might feel like to make a hand, my work has been embraced.

It’s been a serious struggle for me. But I think I’ve finally come to the resolve that what’s most important is to leave this dimension on a giving note. As long as I believe that people are receiving my words wrapped as humble gifts, I’m going to show up and try to deliver to the best of my ability.

MB: The energy required for writing seems at odds with performance energy. Do you switch easily between the two?

PZ: No. Terrible transition. In mid-January, I was counting down the pre-Elko days and I could feel a twinge of depression, a touch of nervousness, that soon I would have to get on a plane and be thrust into the commotion of it all. In years past, I always had the same room at the Thunderbird Motel. Room 231. It was a sanctuary of familiarity. I could use it as a stepping stone to transition from the reclusive life into the crowds. And this year, they couldn’t give me that room. I was at a different motel. I got there and sunk into the abyss. I wanted to take a cab back to the airport and come home. It was hard. My first appearance was five nonstop hours with high school writers. On stage. You talk about draining your reservoir.
The transition for me is brutal, grueling, depressing.
It’s like getting on a bucking horse for the first time in months. There were years, we’d ride the late fairs into October. I wasn’t good enough, nor did I have the money, to go down south. So, we might go from October to May (without competing). That’s a long time without shaking your face for the gate on a bucking horse.

The first year I went to Elko, I was teaching creative writing to graduate students in my mentor’s chair at the University of Montana. I was in Richard Hugo’s office, with all of his books and his stuff. And that same year, I made the top 10 in the PRCA Montana Summer Circuit finals (Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association).
The big Elko stages became an extension of that rodeo finals. In my mind, there was very little difference: “Ladies and gentlemen, in Chute Number Eight on Kesler’s Three Bars,…Paul Zarzyski.”   Versus, at the Gathering, “Ladies and gentleman, from Missoula, Montana, rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski.”
It was the same dynamic.
In the early cowboy poetry years, the stages more and more took the place of the arenas. It meant I didn’t have to quit rodeo. I extended the metaphor. It was all about spurring the words wild. Get screwed down, shake your face for the chute gate, spur wild and win a prize--  win the crowd’s approval. That’s what delivering a poem was akin to.
Now, it’s hard for me to remember that I even once rode buckin’ horses (luckily there remain a few good  8 by 10 glossies), or was once that enthusiastic about stepping out on stage from behind the curtain.

MB: How goes the transition (after Elko) back to the quiet, writing life? Do you run to it like a thirsty cowboy running to a well? Or is it awkward?

PZ: It feels very organic to me. It doesn’t feel awkward or difficult. I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. I think some non-writer made that up as an excuse for not being drawn with fervor into the craft. Don’t forget, that’s how I bring home the bacon and beans. And beer! When I come home from a gig, I have money with which to pay bills and, thus, to buy time. I look at the calendar and see that I have two weeks, or a month, or two months before I have to go and punch the clock again, before I have to get on a plane again.

Most of the time, I come home with this incredible gratification. I can get up the next morning and hit the poetic ground running. What gives me the juice, what gives me the mojo, what gives me the fuel are these two blessings (there, damnit, I said it):
•    I have a check, with which to pay my bills and allow me to buy a chunk of time. That time is priceless. I live for it.
•    And I  oftentimes have such a heavy dose of gratification thanks to  audience appreciation of my work,  that it’s difficult to resist calling Bill Gates to hire him to shovel my driveway or muck out my corral. That’s how wealthy I feel.

When I coach students, I say, “I wish I could give you something tangible—a magic formula that will assure you the passion that goes into writing poetry. I can’t. It’s not tangible. Do you want to be a great poet like Richard Hugo? Easy. No Rules. Well, just one—approach the page madly in love with the sound of words. Okay, maybe two rules, Hugo would admit: …and don’t be boring.    

Writing a poem is like cooking, without following a recipe, an epicurean dish never before served.  One small trick that works for me—a sprinkle of sex (sexy syllabics) and copious splashes of energy folded into the lines. That’s what I attempt to bring to the page, and then hope it translates to the stage. And that sex-n-energy non-recipe has more than a little to do with my drawing my ingredients from the visceral make-up of one Paul Zarzyski.

I’ve coined a new title I’d like to aspire to earning. I’d like to become an “Extreme Creativist”. (Yup, I exercised poetic license with the word “Creativist.”) I want to put even more sex-n-energy and physicality into my poems. They’re bucking horse rides. That’s my metaphor. Spur the words wild. Every line is, at its best, an eight second ride. I wrote a song lyric, Hang-n-Rattle, that became the title cut to a Wylie Gustafson CD:  The hook or whatever sings, “Did you come to ride or did you come to hide”?  The mantra a roughie might repeat to himself as he strolls behind the bucking chutes with his war bag, while being bombarded, all five senses, with visceral stimuli. It’s akin to opening up your notebook to a blank page. Get rosined up. Get your motor running. Get your mind in the middle for a wild word-spurrin’! It’s that “simple.”

Visit Paul Zarzyski website here.

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