Cowboy poet Joel Nelson
in Northumberland

Joel Nelson has a degree in forestry and ranch management, is a respected ranch-hand and horse trainer and equally famous for his part in the revival of cowboy poetry in the American West.

Background

A cowboy poet from Texas was invited to live among the farming communities of the Coquet Valley for a month, as part of a developing relationship between the poets, singers and farming families of Coquetdale and the American Cowboy Poets whose gathering in Elko (Nevada) each year attracts over 10,000 people. This poetry placement is meant to stimulate poems and ballads recording local traditions and celebrating the Northumbrian countryside.


Excerpt from Poetry Review, spring 2000

From Texas to Northumberland: a Cowboy poet takes up residence

By Nicholas Baumfield

In autumn last year Joel Nelson from Alpine, Texas came to Rothbury, Northumberland to take part in the Poetry Society Poetry Places scheme. Joel Nelson is a rancher and stockman, but also a leading light in the revival of Cowboy Poetry in the Western states of America. Rothbury is a small market town in the Coquet valley in Northumberland - rural, remote, bordering on Scotland, very different in some ways from the plains of Montana but with much that matters in common.

Cowboy poetry dates back to the epic cattle trails of the 1800s when long, lonely hours were spent contemplating the landscape, the elements and nature itself.

Joel Nelson
Sundown in the Cow Camp

That strong and silent type -
The one you read about -
He's kinda forced to be that way
When the drive's all scattered out.
 
But he'll get downright eloquent
When the evening chuck's washed down,
And it's sunset in the cow camp,
With the crew gathered 'round.

Of course the work of ranch-hands, packers, fencers and horse-trainers has continued and in the mid 1980's working cowboys began to revive the recital and writing of poetry. Now huge annual gatherings of cowboy poets take place with audiences of thousands. One of the largest is at Elko, Nevada - if you visit the Western Folklife Centre website you can hear some of the events for yourself (www.westernfolklife.org).

In 1995 the Northern Poetry Library hosted a visit by four cowboy poets who were making the first ever tour of the UK. Rather than present them purely as exotic and larger than life characters their show in Northumberland included two poets and a singer from the Border Shepherd tradition: Alan Wood, a retired sheep-shearer; Graham Dick, a shepherd and singer; and Andrew Miller, a poet, National Park Ranger and mainstay of the Coquetdale community. What emerged was a celebration of common ground and shared experience of working on the land and with animals. The event was a success, not least with the visiting cowboy poets. In the following years all three Northumbrians were invited back to Elko together with Katrina Porteous, another Northumberland-based poet who was asked by the Western Folklife Centre to research the roots of cattle droving poetry in the Northumberland hills.

The Poetry Places scheme provided a wonderful opportunity for putting a Cowboy poet into the special place that is Coquetdale. The aim was simply to encourage poetry: recital, writing, reading and listening to it. MidNorthumberland Arts Group took the lead with help from Graeme Rigby, writer and enthusiast for tradition, Katrina Porteous and Andrew Miller. Joel Nelson was delighted to accept the invitation and he arrived at Newcastle airport on a fine autumn afternoon.

Joel Nelson proved to be a remarkable man. He is a very experienced horse-trainer and one of his first visits was to a horse breeder in Thropton. He got up onto a horse straightaway and cut a figure against the Simonside Hills, perfectly at ease, completely in control of his steed. His poetry displays the same composure. He is a man, also, of quiet but great charisma, infinitely courteous and gracious. At every public event he appeared in - the back room of the pub at Alwinton, the young farmers meeting in Thropton, the final show at Alnwick, he completely captivated his audience. His voice, of course, was pure Texan and he was recognisable in any crowd by his large black cowboy hat, which he never, ever takes off (except when eating at table). As an inspirational force for poetry he is incomparable.

Joel spent a month in Coquetdale meeting the farming families of the valley, visiting schools, attending marts and shows such as the Rochester show and the Rothbury Calf Sale, taking part in the numerous societies, clubs, groups and meets that make up the rich cultural life of the valley. Everywhere he went he started by exploring what was different and what was the same, and ended up with poetry. People who had never revealed their own writing brought it out for the first time, others who wrote or who recited (recital remains a vital part of the village shows and fairs in Northumberland) delighted in sharing their verses; new poems were composed by some; others just listened to the poetry and revelled in it. The effects are still being felt.

In Thropton First School Joel talked about a friend of his called Henry Real Bird. The Year 3 children thought about new names for themselves which had an association with an animal: Jonathan Giddyabout, Andrea Tigger-Bounce, Sarah Hamster Sleep-All-Day. Then they wrote poems in which they had imaginary conversations with an animal. This is Daisy Lazarus' poem:

My name is Daisy Goatbirth.

I talk to the fox,
Fox, I hate it when you scoff my chickens.
You can come to my house
If you don't scoff my chickens.
 
The fox says:
 
I'd like to be your friend -
But I like your chickens better.

Joel hadn't worked much with young children before but they were spellbound by him, and there were many other striking poems written (as well as many young people intending becoming cowboys later).

As Joel was waiting in the airport cafe to leave a very small boy came up to him to say hello, his mother having ascertained that this was the cowboy poet they'd heard about. Joel bent down to speak to him but the boy had only one burning question: 'Where's your horse?' Somehow it was a telling moment: two people brought together through poetry, a place and their connection with the natural world.

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