BRAWLEY — On Tuesday night a number of interested parties made their way to the Stockmen’s Club here to get an earful at the 29th annual Cattle Call Cowboy Poetry Revue.
It is a classic night of western-infused entertainment that is one of the more folksy entries among Cattle Call Week’s many diversions. All that’s missing is a campfire.
Actually it may not have been the 29th annual Cattle Call Cowboy Poetry Revue that the club was hosting. It may have been the 28th. Or maybe the 30th.
Karen Ayala, who together with MC Leonard Vasquez organizes the event each year, said the precise date of the inaugural slam is a matter of dispute — something she and Vasquez “still argue about.”
Regardless, the event — now in its third residence after initially being held at the Planters Hotel (before it succumbed to fire) and later at the local Elks Lodge — has been about as timeless as the ranchero culture it seeks to celebrate.
It has soldiered on year after year, its informal format largely unchanged. Locals get up on stage and show off their inner cowboy poet one after another, while Vasquez connects the dots with a folksy patter in between acts.
Ayala estimates that it typically draws 75-200 people, with this year’s edition being on the high end of that estimate.
The event proper was preceded by an appearance by this year’s Cattle Call Queen and her junior associates, each of whom had a little something say (or, in Little Miss Abigail Childers’ case, sing) to prime the pump for the weeklong slate of “ridin’, rockin’ and livestockin’” to come.
Of course the question remains, what exactly is “cowboy poetry”? Is it just any old poetry, as told by a cowboy?
Well, kind of.
Cowboy poetry is almost less a specific genre of poetry than a general state of mind, with roughhewn sensibilities that can inflect just about anything. At least here in Brawley.
Tuesday’s performances included a good number of musical acts, covering several country-folk bases. There was a “jugless” jug band, a country-blues duo called 36 Bridges, John Howenstein giving a lonesome troubadour rendition of a Townes Van Zandt song, and more.
Then there were the readings one might expect from a poetry event. Some were rustic in content as well as tone — Ayala, a board member for the county’s Pioneers Museum, did a reading of a poem entitled “Retrace” commemorating the Juan Bautista De Anza trail — but there were others that were more about an attitude.
Brawley city councilman Sam Couchman did a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Eldorado.” Edgar Allen Poe was notably not a cowboy.
There actually is a semi-fixed definition for cowboy poetry proper, and indeed a whole community around it. Every year an annual national cowboy poetry gathering is held in Elko, Nev., which Vasquez has attended.
“Really, it’s very simple poetry. It’s not formal by any means,” Ayala said. “In the early years, it was written by people who weren’t particularly well-educated, and it doesn’t necessarily rhyme. It’s usually stories of people’s experiences. A lot of cowboy poetry was written out of boredom. What do you do with your evenings if you’re out on the range? You sat around a campfire and you talked and you gossiped and you told stories, sang songs, and some people wrote poetry.”
It’s that campfire spirit that Brawley’s cowboy poetry event seeks to emulate. That glow of camaraderie and tradition. “It’s just a community event where people get up and share their favorite, story, poem or song to celebrate the Cattle Call,” Ayala said. “There’s no entry barriers … no requirements to meet.”
It’s just a good, down-home time, every time.