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Utah State University Grad Students Volunteer as "Loggers"

Tuesday, Mar. 02, 2004


LOGAN — Every year since 1985, approximately 8,000 people brave winter roads in the last week of January to travel to Elko, Nev., for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a celebration of ranching culture and its creative traditions of poetry and song. This year, a group of eight current and former Utah State University department of English graduate students traveled to Elko to volunteer as “loggers,” whose task is to create a written record of each performance. These records will be archived in the Western Folklife Center.

The Utah State group was recruited by Sally Haueter, Utah State folklore grad student and manager of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Over a total of six days, Haueter oversees the presentation of dozens of workshops and performances, featuring close to 100 cowboy poets, musicians, craftsmen and visual artists. The English department volunteers signed on to log four to five shows per day over a three-day period. The Utah State volunteers included Sharon Seminario, Kevin Davis, Mary Ellen Greenwood, Liz Harvey, Darcy Minter, Rachel Rich, Brooke Smith and Sarah Vause.

Harvey said the opportunity to experience folklore outside of the academic setting was the most significant aspect of the gathering. 

“I can study culture and folklore all I want, but it will never give me possession of the folklore of a culture,” she said. “I appreciated the opportunity to sit humbly and learn from those around me about life and love and the land.” 

Greenwood found that the gathering enhanced her perspective as a writer. 

“One of my interests is in the individual’s relationship with his or her environment,” Greenwood said. “By participating in the gathering, I observed — through music and readings — multiple connections people have with their landscape and how it forms identity.”

“The thing I most enjoyed about the Cowboy Poetry Gathering was the people,” said Vause. “The poets and musicians were real people speaking and singing about real life, but more importantly, they were happy to include you in their experience and in some small way make it yours.”

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was started by western folklorists who rediscovered a long-standing oral tradition still practiced by the cowboys and cowgirls of the contemporary West. These folklorists saw an opportunity to bring cowboy poetry and song to a larger audience and, in the process, strengthen and maintain the art form, and support the men and women who practice it. 

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering outperformed all expectations, growing from a small regional festival to an event that was awarded national status by the U.S. Congress in 2000. The gathering is produced by the Western Folklife Center, a nonprofit organization in Elko that preserves and presents the folk arts of the West. In addition to producing the gathering, the center conducts folklore research, produces media and presents public performances, exhibits and educational programs. 

Utah State University associate professor of English Steve Siporin was involved in coordinating the gathering in its very early years, and he returned this year to conduct a writing workshop called “Transforming Memories” with his wife, Ona, and to host several performances. 

“In the early days of the gathering, I think even we were surprised that people came and stayed and loved what was happening,” said Siporin. “The event has been the inspiration for many more gatherings on a local level not only throughout the West, but practically everywhere in the United States.” 
According to Siporin, this is evidence that cowboy poetry is only one category of a thriving vernacular poetry writing tradition in America, including loggers, sailors, housewives, rap artists and more. 

“My personal experience is that when you spend time around the people who recite cowboy poetry and spend some time listening to it, you’ll find all that you want out of any kind of literature — laughter and tears, enlightenment and discovery, despair and hope over human effort and desire,” Siporin said. “You’ll be entertained and encouraged. You’ll be reminded that art isn’t the monopoly of the wealthy or the educated: art is a human universal.”

February 27, 2004
Contact: Darcy Minter (435) 797-0265,

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