While millions keep the flame of Western poetry burning brightly, what lone cowboy still tends the campfire of western — small “w” — poetry?
That job falls to the Western Writers of America, an association of about 700 members based in Encampment, Wyo. Every year, the WWA confers Spur Awards on the best western literature, and since 2001, one of the organization’s prizes has gone to the best western poem. No, it may not be the Pulitzer Prize or the Yale Younger Poets Prize, but the Spur Award for Poetry recognizes fine verse that addresses some of the oldest themes in American literature.
“The poems amaze me,” says Johnny D. Boggs, editor of Roundup, the WWA’s magazine. “Most people think of western poetry as the Cowboy Poetry, typically humorous, that you’ll hear at Elko, Nev., and at cowboy events — and it can be — but we also see a number of poems in literary journals. I’ve said that to write fiction or nonfiction, you just go to your computer and open up your veins. But to write poetry, you have to cut much, much deeper, into your heart, your soul. I’ve never not been moved after reading one of our Spur-winning poems.”
That soulful, deep-cut quality is especially true for this year’s winner, a poem called “Chamise,” by Amy Glynn, who lives in San Francisco. It was first published in Orion magazine last fall and is included in Glynn’s new collection, “A Modern Herbal” (Measure Press).
For Glynn, whose work has twice been included in “The Best American Poetry” series, the Spur award was a complete surprise, and she still seems to be getting used to the news. “I’m no cowboy poet,” she says. “What I think of western poetry is a bit like plantation music or chain-gang songs — extemporaneous, possibly illiterate and group oriented — exactly the freaking polar opposite of me. The only thing western about me is my address.”
But she appreciates the recognition and acknowledges that her poem “is kind of a western” because it addresses scarcity, drought and barrenness. “Wilderness is a touchstone concept for poets, and I’m no exception. Natural history is a huge part of how I look at things. The landscapes I grew up with are a big deal to me — both wild and cultivated ones.”
Her poem is built around a description of chamise, a shrub found on hillsides all over California. Something special about this tough plant appealed to her: “It has an interesting reproductive strategy. It creates two different types of seed. One ‘normal’ seed that germinates when it rains. One that won’t unless the achene (the name of the seed type on this plant) is burned. I thought there was a cool metaphor in that adaptation to abusive conditions to the point where you learn to thrive on them.”
Her poem concludes, “Rather than being meager in return/ for meagerness, why not agree to burn?/ Say there is nothing you cannot withstand.”
“I assure you,” she tells me, “it has nothing to do with my divorce.”
Newly interested in “eco-poetry,” Glynn is planning a panel on human-plant relationships at the Mill Valley public library on April 4. “My panelists are a seed bank guru, an ethnobotanist and a watershed/rain garden hippie,” she says. “They all have incredible scorn for the built landscape and especially agriculture.”
Will Glynn attend the Spur Award ceremony in Sacramento in late June? “I’m considering it,” she says, “maybe taking my girls. They love old town Sacramento.”
The appeal of the Old West never dies.