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Paul Zarzyski Interview, Part Two

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

MB: One of the comments I’ve read is that you’ve undoubtedly influenced the trajectory of cowboy poetry. Have you? In what way?

PZ: I don’t know. I’m not the one to answer that question. That’s not what I set out to do. If someone told me that I did, I’d be very uncomfortable because I don’t want to mess with other people’s religions.

MB: But you like to get people thinking.

PZ: That’s not my intention when I write a piece. But if people tell me that the piece I wrote got them thinking about some important stuff that they would not have thought about otherwise, I’m honored.

MB: My observation was that Shadd Piehl (a younger poet who performed at this year’s NCPG) sounded a bit like you.

PZ: Yeah. He’d been writing that way, though, before he discovered my early book, Roughstock Sonnets (The Lowell Press, 1987). It’s free verse and there’s some concentration on making words ring and ricochet. So, there would be a modicum of similarity between our styles.
But I listened to him and I thought, “I especially like his style because it doesn’t sound too much like mine. I thought he owned it. It was unique.

MB: Has your audience changed over the years?

PZ: I think my audiences are more at ease with the possibility that I’m going to do something outrageous. I think maybe 30 years ago, they were a bit confused or uncomfortable with some of the stuff I did. Once they gave themselves the freedom…My Four F’s: Freedom, Fearlessness, Fierceness, - Gretel Ehrlich wrote: ‘To be tough is to be fragile, to be tender is to be truly fierce.’- and Fun. Once they allowed themselves to get tapped off with my Four F’s mantra, I think they became relaxed and enjoyed my work with more ease, without looking over their shoulders or looking up to heaven with fear that God’s going to judge them poorly for having been in my presence…I don’t know. They seem more willing to travel with me through different dimensions of space and time. Creativity rhymes with infinity.
You have to remember, so many of those early cowboy poetry audiences had not been around poetry of any kind in their lives and so the whole experience was fresh on a number of levels.

MB: You also gave a writer’s workshop at this year’s Gathering.
[Photo at right by Gordon Stevens]

PZ: As far as teaching goes, I have a philosophy that you can’t really do much more than to teach, or coach, students to be their own best teachers. Wouldn’t you agree that that philosophy projects into the approach of contemporary horsemanship? Can you actually teach riders to be at one with their fellow being?  Most of that has to come from within. The only way to stimulate or accomplish that degree of “feel” is via your own voice and your own excavations of your heart and soul into the innermost essences of who you most truly are? So I hope I’ve prompted my poetry students to teach themselves to be better listeners, to open themselves up and allow themselves their keener perceptions of poetry.

MB: Could you say you’ve prompted them to be more open-minded in general?

PZ: No, I don’t know that to be the case.

Is the Gathering a typical audience for you?

PZ: Yes. It’s become a typical audience for me. I am so fortunate because of my 29 go-arounds at the Gathering…My most receptive audience is a mixed audience, and that’s what we get there. Young people. Old people. Conservatives. Liberals. Blacks. Native Americans. Whites. Asians. They feed off of each other in ways an audience of totally the same mindset and heart set would never be able to do. My work sings most melodically to an audience that’s mixed. That’s Elko.
I have stood in front of pure cowboy audiences. It’s tougher. I have to choose my material carefully. I have stood in front of pure liberal audiences. They seem more willing to bend…I have had people come up to me and say, ‘I never thought I’d ever want anything to do with cowboy poetry. But the work you did tonight amazed and amused me. You busted down the stereotype for me.’

But on the other hand, it’s been difficult. I read The Hand (a poem addressing apartheid in South Africa) in Nevada and a guy who walked out after I’d finished the piece told the woman at the ticket desk in the lobby that he didn’t pay money to get lectured to. That hurts.

MB: What do you think about liberals, conservatives, and their relative open-mindedness?

PZ: The metaphor I always use is quintessentially cowboy: when those first cowpunchers who drove the big herds north from Texas first encountered the stringing the wire, they loathed it. That was the end of the West as they knew it. You take that metaphor and apply it to creativity…you can’t call yourself an artist, a lover of creativity - Creativity rhymes with Infinity - and be willing to remain fenced in, in your little, tiny pastures and little conservative plots of thinking. Creativity is the open range. Creativity is before they strung the wire. Creativity is what Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist, definitively understands, and lives.

Public speaking seems the opposite exercise of writing. One requires being an extrovert, one requires introspection. You excel at both. How?

PZ: That’s a very keen perception. When I approach the page, I’m entirely fearless. I’m invincible. When I approach the stage, I’m scared to death.

MB: Really?

PZ: Yeah. And the older I get, the more difficult it’s become because I feel I have the capacity some day soon to make the likes of JD Salinger and Howard Hughes, by comparison, seem gregarious. I feel like I could become a recluse and just thrive.

MB: What’s stopping you?

PZ: For some of us men, the ego kind-of thins with our hair, I guess. After I put a big boulder on top of my interred ego—far more connected to the stage than the page, or so it seems-- I got to thinking about all of the people who’ve made it possible for me to make a life and a living, sort of, with poetry. I think it might be an extremely egotistical gesture to just slam the door in the faces of so many who have supported, and found joy in, my work over the years?
I feel this powerful debt of gratitude that gets stronger as I age and hopefully become wiser, more in-tune with my fellow beings.  How ironic, however, is the flip-side to it all: when its time to finally pull the plug on the stage—no ifs, ands, or buts about it—I truly do not believe it’ll be much noticeable that another poet has filled in the performance void I leave behind.
You’re right. My desire for a more ultimate solitude contradicts and/or conflicts with my need to give back. In the last couple years, I’ve begun to recognize that from the stage, as my poetry gives some people gifts of laughter, enjoyment, contemplation. It’s really difficult to talk about. I haven’t put all the pieces into place. But in essence, I’d like to leave this dimension and go into the next one on a giving note. Maybe I’ve deemed reclusiveness as a very selfish effort in light of how much my audience, my friends who’ve become my family, have given me over 64 years. It’s why, when I go on stage or teach, I give everything I can possibly give. I don’t want to leave that stage or that classroom with a single drip left in my reservoir. I want to be running on fumes. It can be misconceived as a reveling in the spotlight or as egotistical, but I’m scared to death. I don’t want to be there for any other reason than to do my best to deliver the goods.

In terms of Elko, the Western Folklife Center is my religion. That’s as close as I come to entering-up in one of God’s fan clubs or attending the clubhouse events/Gatherings. We don’t have to talk about my stance on religion, other than to say, again, the closest I’ve come in decades to a belief in a church is the Western Folklife Center. When they pass the collection basket I want to empty into it my wallet, my hat, my boots, my pockets, my heart, mind, and soul, all of my poems, and, yes, even my entire vintage hand-painted cowboy necktie collection, otherwise regarded as my 401 K (NEED I SAY MORE?)! They can gladly have it all.  I feel that much gratitude and reverence toward that “holy land” of cowboy poetry.

Visit Paul Zarzyski website here.

Part III: "An Extreme Creativist"

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