Cowboy poets round up laughs

ELKO — Paul Zarzyski is a Montana poet at home in this Northern Nevada town, but he has been to Las Vegas, too.

That’s where he, shall we say, did the research for his poem called “Pomes.” He’s a studious guy, that bronc-busting, rhyme-wrangling fellow that folks affectionately call “Whiskey Zarzyski.”

“Yes, ladies and gentlemen,” Zarzyski says to a packed house at the G Three Bar Theater during the 30th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, “Paul has written a poem about breasts.”

Titters are heard throughout the room.

As with so many things in Zarzyski’s creative ride, humorous inspiration was pulled like needles from life’s prickly pear.

“It was triggered by having had one of the worst bombs in my life in Las Vegas,” he says. “I was out on Fremont Street one time. I had to follow an Elvis impersonator. I was supposed to do a half hour. I did two-and-a-half poems, and they pulled the plug on me. The mike went dead. And the guy said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a round of applause for Paul Zarzyski.’”

Crapped out in Glitter Gulch?

Sounds like the makings of a Paul Zarzyski poem. With time on his hands, he found a way to write a poem about his varied Silver State experiences and play them mostly for big laughs. He’s the gathering’s undisputed, all-around champion of the free-verse rodeo.

Although he calls his latest book “Steering With My Knees: Zarzyski Lite,” he is capable of drawing tears from the dry gulch of a miser’s dark eyes. He can also make you think.

That is, if you can stop laughing long enough to contemplate the nuances of poetic topics that range from his dog Zeke’s obsession with a blue racket ball lost down a gopher hole, a quite possibly demon-possessed and thoroughly agitated ’65 Maytag washing machine, the dressing down of a phone telemarketer, his recalcitrant father reincarnated as a backyard woodchuck, and, well, the wonder of the bodacious breast culture in our little Mayberry on the Mojave.

Poets, guitar pickers and fiddlers have converged on Elko for 30 years, and Zarzyski has been a fixture at 28 gatherings. What began as a party of a few hundred ranch folks and wranglers has over the years gained an international reputation with a following to match.

Those early days were something special, and he clearly misses them, but the gathering had to change in order to survive.

“It was a different dynamic way back then,” he says following his show and an autograph session. “I remember all of us for years being in one place, at the Stockman’s. It was jammed. There was poetry, music upstairs, guys playing the slots and playing poker, guys were at the bar, guys were in the cafe 24 hours. I miss that, to be honest with you.”

The gathering has expanded to several venues with sessions and music from 9 a.m. to midnight. There are plenty of ranchers and cowpunchers in the audience, but almost as many city dwellers visit these days.

Still, Zarzyski says, there’s something about the annual roundup that breaks down barriers and brings people together.

“This event is probably one of the greatest ambassadors for the preservation of the West and the culture of the people living in it,” he says.

“People come here to be entertained. They’re surprised when they leave here, and all of a sudden it hits them 200 miles out of town or 30,000 feet in the air above, ‘I was entertained, but that was secondary. Boy, was I ever educated.’ ”

Maybe it’s the sincerity and humorous sensibility of the poetry. Perhaps it’s the wonderfully American music, or the fact that the party remains a kick in the pants.

“There’s something subliminally that happens to people who come here,” he says. “I think they leave with an infusion of wisdom. Not only about West and the cowboy culture, but wisdom about the capacity of their fellow human beings to give. Everybody leaves here feeling wealthier than when they arrived. They leave here feeling like they’re bearing incredible gifts. And so many of those gifts are in the form of friendships.”

He’s absolutely right about that — though that last passage might be the longest time I’ve ever listened to Whiskey Zarzyski without laughing out loud.

As for that hilarious and almost G-rated poem about the breasts of Las Vegas, pardner, you’ll have to buy the book.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.