Western Poet Doris Daley: Notes From the North Country

Petticoats, pistols…and now poetry! I”m honoured to add my voice to the talented women at this wonderful site who write about the west.

I make my living as a western poet; the page and the stage are my two workplaces. The “page” is wherever you find me working with notebooks, coffee cup and rhyming dictionary at hand. The stage can be in Elko, Nevada; Alpine, Texas; Valentine, Nebraska; Calgary, Alberta: I go wherever the gig is. With the re-birth of cowboy poetry in the 1980s, this rhymed and metered form of storytelling is enjoying a popularity that shows no sign of waning. And in my experience, the west is not only a geographical and/or historical concept, but is alive and well and thriving in hearts and imaginations all over North America.

My own performances have taken me to the Smithsonian Institute, the eastern townships of Quebec, private girls” schools in Virginia, and the national library in Ottawa. My attitude? No road too long, no campfire too small, no convention stage too big…my privilege and passion is to celebrate my own western heritage and lifestyle with audiences who want to listen.  And what a delight to recently be at the fabulous Santa Clarita Cowboy Gathering in California which is where I met Margaret Brownley and participated in panel discussions about women writing the west.

Research for my work is simply an extension of the skin I”m in. I come from a gene pool that includes Irish stowaways, pioneer ranchers, petticoated bushwhackers, English homesteaders, sorry team ropers, fancy two-steppers, rough and tumble bronc peelers, and great cooks: the perfect pedigree for a cowboy poet!

I grew up on a cattle ranch on the edge of the Porcupine Hills in Southern Alberta. My great grandfather came west with the North West Mounted Police (the Mounties)in the 1870s. His wife Mary wrote about the great adventure of being a pioneer ranch couple forging a life under a big western sky before Alberta was even a province. But she also wrote about the terrible loneliness. Jim gone to Fort Benton for supplies, Fort Macleod 18 miles away, a Chinook wind howling relentlessly out of the south west: “If it weren”t for the knowledge of winter coming, and the certainty of so many rivers to cross, I would start tomorrow to walk back home to Ontario,” she wrote in her diary. But she stayed and stuck it out…so did all the grandmothers who did the heavy lifting for my generation.

My mother”s mother was born on Dec. 15 in the middle of the Saskatchewan prairie, surrounded by nothing but a frozen world of white blowing snow. They kept her alive by heating grain in the oven and scooping it into a butter box. Into the improvised incubator went the new baby…oblivious to her dramatic entry into the world. Meanwhile, in South Dakota, the Weber family…Mother, Father, 9 kids (one of whom would grow up to marry and give birth to my dad)…were making plans to make the long wagon trek to Alberta where good farm and ranch country was still available for homesteading. So many disparate stories and threads of stories waiting to be woven together beneath Alberta”s Chinook Arch.

And here I am all these generations and decades later…the product of risk-taking, adventure-seeking  men and women of ingenuity, fortitude and good humour.  Stories like this were the norm at the turn of the last century. Every family in my town would have similar family stories to tell.


Your Cowboy Poetry Primer:

Cowboy poetry is rhymed, metered verse with themes and stories that celebrate the heartbeat of the historical west and/or today”s working west.

The cowboy poetry world in general honours authenticity and honesty. What it”s not: actors or literary writers dressing up in costume to roll-play a cowboy story on stage. What it is: real people, men and women, young and old–auctioneers, ranchers” wives, feedlot cowboys, veterinarians, farriers, rodeo cowboys, buckaroos, saddle makers–telling their own stories about their own patch of the west.

Cowboy Poetry and Music Festivals are held all over the west, often to crowds numbering in the thousands. In keeping with the oral tradition, poems are memorized and recited (not read).

My own inspiration comes from the working west and from the English language. I am a stickler for perfect rhyme, marching meters, clever metaphors, interesting word play. If my name goes on it, I want it to be the best I can write.

Website: the best website for all things cowboy poetry (essays, classic writers, contemporary profiles, news and announcements, a calendar of poetry gatherings) is www.cowboypoetry.com. My own website (www.dorisdaley.com) has a link.

What I”m excited about: my latest book, West Word Ho! is a compilation of my most recent work, with poems chunked into categories like Fun and Nonsense, Grit and Grace, Christmas on the Range, and tributes to western icons Dale Evans, Charlie Russell and Will James.  My brand new project (released June 1, 2012) is a collaboration CD called 100 Years of Thunder: a salute to the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede. The CD contains 10 original poems and 10 original songs by internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Bruce Innes, himself a native Calgarian who followed his own musical star to a lifelong career in the music biz based out of Los Angeles and Sun Valley, Idaho. We pay tribute to the rip snorting, hell-bent-for-leather, gritty and grand traditions of The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

I love what I do. I love my two offices: the page and the stage. I”m living proof that if you love to write, and write about what you love, then there”s a trail waiting for you to follow. It”s not without risk…but I think back to pioneer women who nestled their babies into butter boxes full of warm grain and realize that risk taking just comes with the territory. Happy trails and happy rhyming!

Doris has a copy of West Word Ho! for one person who leaves a comment today.