Poetry from Powder River Breaks, including the cowboy reply to Whitman, Williams and Frost.
Author's Preface from Powder River Breaks
Author page at barnesandnoble.com
David Romtvedt ______
Email David Romtvedt
Powder River Breaks
An E-view with David Romtvedt
By Rebecca Seiferle
***** David Romtvedt's newest book, Powder River Breaks: A Cowboy's Introduction to American Poetry, is a collection of replies/homages/parodies to great American poets like Whitman, Frost, Dickinson and Ginsberg. To write these poems, Romtvedt invents the persona of a cowboy who becomes interested in poetry after reading The Mirror and the Flame an anthology which is left to him by "The Old Man," his deceased father.
From his first collection, A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know which won the National Poetry Series, Romtvedt has been preoccupied with the American West, not only as a geographical area but as a place of intersection with the world and human psyche. Born in Oregon, raised in Arizona, Romtvedt has travelled widely throughout the world–Alaska, France, Spain, Tanzania, Kenya, the Pyrenees–only to come "always home again to the Western US." He has written essays, Windmill:Essays from Four Mile Ranch about his life as a rancher in Wyoming, fiction Crossing Wyoming, two poetry collections–A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know and Certainty–as well as Yip, A Cowboy's Howl which is a parody/homage of Allen Ginsberg's Howl.
***** Yip, which was published in 1991, contains within it the seeds of Romtvedt's latest project. In Powder River Breaks: A Cowboy's Introduction to American Poetry, Romtvedt expands the approach that began in Yip's look at Ginsberg's poetry to look at the canon of American poetry.
***** In this issue of The Drunken Boat we have the Author's Preface, the introduction to Powder River Breaks written by the cowboy persona and a selection of poetry: "Not Rushing the Dance" which is a reply to William Carlos Williams's "Danse Russe," "Fixing Fence" which is based upon Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," and an excerpt from "Singing to Myself," a reply to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."
***** This 'interview' is an 'e-view', conducted entirely by email in an exchange over a couple of weeks. When it began, David Romtvedt was at his home in Buffalo, Wyoming, and, at its close, at the Centrum foundation where he gone as a musician with his band.
Seiferle: Your new work in Powder River Breaks is interesting, providing a "cowboy's look" at poetry. How did you develop the idea for the project?
Romtvedt: I originally wrote a parody/homage to Howl called Yip One day I was working moving cows and I had had a long day and got to thinking what if Allen Ginsberg were a cowboy. That made me think about Ginsberg–communist, Jewish, New York, Gay–and the stereotypical cowboy–Wyoming, rural, Baptist, macho, Republican party by birth. Then I wondered what would happen if the cowboy character somehow came into contact generally with American poetry. Another event made me want to write this book. Some years ago, I was a member of the Wyoming Council for the Humanities Speakers' Bureau. I gave a talk called Cowboy Poetry and Poetry: A Meeting. This talk tried to think about what makes a cowboy poem and makes a poem, and what it means to have a kind of poetry that is hyphenated–cowboy-poetry–versus a poetry that is simply poetry. Cowboy poetry was and is very popular in the northern Rockies. I disliked most cowboy poetry and wanted to understand the roots of my dislike, so I went around talking about the two forms and asking people questions and listening to what they said. I came to feel that cowboy poetry dealt explicitly with the landscape and historical work of the interior west. With this in mind I started talking about a poem by Gary Snyder called "Hay for the Horses." In this poem a young man is working on a ranch. An older man delivers a load of hay and the two men stack this hay. It is hard, sweaty, dusty work and when they stop at lunch the old man says something like, "I first bucked hay when I was eighteen. That day I said I sure as hell wouldn't want to do this all my life and damned if that isn't what I've gone and done." That was the end of the poem and it seemed to me the perfect cowboy poem. But when I read this poem to cowboy poetry fans they universally agreed that "Hay for the Horses" is not a cowboy poem. This was amazing to me. What people told me was that it couldn't be a cowboy poem if it didn't have regular rhyme and meter. After much more talking with people, I ended up believing that the most distinctive feature of cowboy poetry was its longing—a longing for an imagined better time and place, a happier, simpler world.
Seiferle:That cowboy poetry, perhaps, shares in the tradition of the pastoral, which has always idealized, sentimentalized, the rural life?
Romtvedt:Yes, it seemed to me a sentimentalized vision of our history, a view that believed the forces of modernity had wrecked a kind of arid garden of eden. Thinking about all this made me want to write western poems that arose from a sense of place, a vision of rural work, a belief in community and yet which was conversant with the outside world, and could embrace both change and continuity. So I began to write a book called Powder River Breaks: A Cowboy's Introduction to American Poetry.
Seiferle: Do you plan for a book including many poetic replies to many American poets?
Romtvedt: Yes, it's a booklength work with the maybe oddball conceit of being written by a cowboy who has no previous experience reading poetry. He tries his hand at "imitating" the poets included in that anthology his father had — The Mirror and the Flame. I plan to write a kind of response, homage, criticism of many of the poems that are included in the American poetic "canon." The poems that the speaker in the book responds to are by William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound. Pound was the hardest for me and for the speaker to deal with–the complexities of his personality and the often opaque quality in some of his poems.
Seiferle: Kunitz said somewhere that one of the first jobs of the poet was to "create the person who would write the poems." In this project, you must create the persona, the cowboy poet, who will write the poems. I guess that the persona both draws upon your experiences (living in the West, working as a rancher and cowboy) and taps into that sense of being an "outsider?"
Romtvedt: The speaker of the poems is indeed a person who has lived and worked in the ranching west. I am a not a native of this west and am often surprised by that. I was born in Oregon and raised in southern Arizona and when I first came to Wyoming in 1984, people would sometimes find my views distasteful to them. A comment I sometimes received in such circumstances was, "Why don't you just go back to the east where you came from." I would protest saying that I was a born westerner. "Oh, yeah," people would say, "Where you from?" When I answered that I was born in Oregon, people scoffed and said,"That's not the west. That's just the east coast on the west coast." I'd never before run into the idea that the west coast was not the west. So I was suddenly alienated from the region I thought was my heritage. I give some of that outsider tension to my speaker in the poems. He's born and raised in Powder River country (the traditional "cowboy" area of Oregon) but he's still got an edge. Maybe only because he's begun reading all this poetry and is thinking about the ideas and the language in these poems.
Seiferle: Do you intend to reply to all the poets in The Mirror and the Flame or just those for whom you have a lot of enthusiasm? Or do you find the character, the persona, of the cowboy poet influencing the choices? For instance he seems to have a great deal of fondness for Whitman, to the point of altering the order in which the poets appear.
Romtvedt: When I began I didn't know which poets the speaker would respond to. I found that he wanted to reply and work both from poems and poets he admired and loved and from those that troubled him or annoyed him. The one big surprise was that he refused to write a poem from Ezra Pound. Later he found himself going back to Pound, wondering, looking. He felt forced to deal with Pound and so he did write responses to Pound. But I noticed that he was dissatisfied with those poems and that he didn't even attempt anything that grew out of the Cantos. Instead, he chose the "station in the metro" poem–the tiny image about black petals–and he also responded to "The River Merchant's Wife," an earlier and more popular poem of Pounds's. It's both weird and logical in that his response avoids the problem of the canto and yet is logical in that the two poems he wrote from are very often included in high school and college textbooks that introduce poetry.
Seiferle: Some of the poems are quite lovely, and yet at times, for instance in the Whitman, I notice after a time the cowboy poet seems to lapse into Western Slang. Do you ever feel a conflict between your own desire as a poet to create a poem in its own right and the demands of the cowboy persona who may be more garrulous or prone to slang?
Romtvedt: I find in writing the poems that the speaker does drift in and out of writing the way he might speak while out working with fellow ranchers and trying to write in the voices or styles of the poets he's "imitating." At first I was troubled by this: I thought, "Hey, come on, this guy isn't going to talk as if he never went to school and then in the next breath speak in a kind of elevated literary tone. But the more he wrote, the more I thought this is perfectly believable to me.
Seiferle: Yes, I've lived a long time in the West and it seems believable to me as well. The person who never went to school and yet who reads extensively on his or her own, using a vocabulary, terms, that he or she has never heard pronounced, and whose language veers back and forth between dictions.
Romtvedt: Yes, the guy has a language he uses every day and he has a language he is coming to based on the reading he's doing. Sometimes, just as all poets, he tries to take something from the poets he reads. And sometimes he is directly responding–talking the way he talks, working his way through what the poet he's read is doing. I've come to really like the movement between the two languages and I think most of us do this every day—shift our language style according to context. I talk a little differently, for example, when I am out working on a windmill with my father-in-law than I do when I'm at a BLM hearing on coal bed methane development than when I'm teaching a creative writing class than when I do a music program in a public school. It's a pleasure to participate in a bunch of different language worlds and it was a pleasure watching this "cowboy" speaker in my book shift his language around. Still, I know what you mean about his garrulousness. Sometimes, I wondered if he was going on too much. Sometimes, I tried to rein him in. Sometimes, I thought that he knew what he was doing and I just let it go. . .
an excerpt from Author's Preface to Powder River Breaks: A Cowboy's Introduction to American Poetry
88888 I guess I got myself a little sidetracked here but there was one other poem I come across. It was after I found The Mirror and the Flame. I was up to Sheridan for a brand registration problem I had to sort out and I saw a little used bookstore—I never seen it before though now I'd guess it musta been there all along. I felt a little nervous but I walked right on in, even took my hat off there with all them books. I went over to the poetry section and pulled the first book I saw offa the shelf—it was British Romantics is what the title said. There was a poet name of John Keats and his poem which was "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." It was about the Greek poet Homer and how he wrote these famous books that all educated gentlemen in Keats' day would read. Only Keats never did cause he didn't know no Greek. Him and a lot of other folks I'd bet. I sure don't know no Greek. Then this fella Chapman translated those old Greek poems into English that was Chapman's Homer, and Keats could read that English. Well, John Keats felt like some great big old curtain had been lifted up and suddenly he could see, everything there was there in Keats. It was like a door opening to another world, and wham, you just can't believe you never saw any of it before. I felt that way too. That's my real introduction so you can see that this counts for something for me, and I think it can count for something for other folks too and that's why I tried to write this.
To read the entire "Author's Preface" to Powder River Breaks
To read the "cowboy's" poetry, including replies/homages to William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman.