As It Happens

What inspires this former bull rider to write cowboy poetry

Todd Nakamura is one of more than a dozen cowboy poets and performers who gathered at the Wild Wild West Event Centre over the weekend.

Todd Nakamura says the genre hearkens back to songs and stories told by the campfire

Todd Nakamura is the vice-president of the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC News)
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Todd Nakamura says you don't need much equipment to be a cowboy poet. An instrument can help — but if you need to plug it in, you're probably not one.

Nakamura is one of more than a dozen cowboy poets and performers who gathered at the Wild Wild West Event Centre near Calgary over the weekend for the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association's annual Trail's End Gathering.

Nakamura, the association's vice-president, spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about what inspires him to write cowboy-themed poetry. Here is part of their conversation.

I guess the image people have [of] cowboy poetry is something from being on the range, being outdoors, under a sky full of stars — someone's got a harmonica sitting around a campfire. But that's not what's happening, right?

Well, that's where it came from. And we've sort of developed it from there to reach a wider audience where we'll actually have a sit-down festival where folks will sit in the audience and listen to these stories and the music.

And it's a little bit different than country and western music. Let me put it this way: The way that that we tried to have it is if you can't sit around with a campfire without a huge amount of amplifiers and whatnot, it's probably not our genre.

What is the genre?

It's very simple. Like, there might be a guitar. There might be a harmonica. It's all the instruments that you might have found on the range back in the old days.

A lot of the new country music is all about percussion and horns maybe and amplifiers and electric guitars. Most of our stuff is done acoustically.

Dressed-up onlookers laughed, clapped and cheered watching performance artists onstage. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC News)

What are some of the themes, some of the stories that are told [in] cowboy poetry?

Most of them are a celebration of our pioneers. They may be based on ranch life, in dealings with horses. Some of the stuff that I deal with might be a story that I've actually experienced while working as a trail guide. You know, things like that.

And we try to expand on it and make them humorous. There's always a punchline in the end.

How did you get into cowboy poetry?

Working for some of these outfits that take tours on horseback in the back country. And there was just another ways of me to get to know people and tell them stories and entertain folks, essentially, is what it all boils down to.

And so you've been writing it for some sometime?

Probably about six, seven years now.

Todd Nakamura recites an original poem about a cowboy named Charlie. (Originally aired Sept. 23, 2019) 1:10

Do you have to be a cowboy to be a cowboy poet?

It helps. All of our material is based on "cowboy-ism" and the things that we do, and horses and cows, and rural life in Alberta, or the west in general. Most of them are from an agricultural background.

My family has farmed down in southern Alberta for quite some time.

I understand you were a semi-pro bull rider at some point?

That's correct. Let's just say I found all my marbles again. And getting a little longer in the tooth, I figured out that I break now instead of bounce.

Can you be a female cowboy poet?

Absolutely. In fact, the president of our association ... is a female. Her name is Phyllis Rothwell. 

Do you think that this is still going to continue — people are still going to be going to cowboy poetry festivals into the future?

Absolutely. And we're doing everything we can to keep keep that genre alive and to keep the old west alive.

Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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