Paul Zarzyski is a hard rock miner of the imagination. He keeps drilling, hoping to punch into a vug.
"My dad worked in a hematite mine up here for 20 years," says the poet, who's calling from the house where he grew up in Hurley, Wis. "He came home one day and told me how they blasted into a vug. I said, 'What's a vug?' Right away I loved the word. It's a big chasm, a big cathedral underground. They'd walk in with their miner's lamps and the ceiling was covered with crystals."
The poet, who was once known as Whiskey Zarzyski, goes back to Hurley every year to mark his birthday and visit his folks. This year he's visiting their graves.
"I just finished mowing their lawn," he says. "Not far from where I'm sitting there's a big chunk of grape ore my dad brought home in his lunch pail."
After a couple days of reminiscing ("The football field where I played in high school is still here"), the 63-year-old poet will be heading back home to Great Falls to begin promoting Steering With My Knees, a new book of poetry illustrated by his longtime friend and collaborator Larry Pirnie.
The unpredictable and sublime manipulation of language on which Zarzyski has built a career is on full display in the new book. He seems to pluck words from the vine almost at random and juxtapose them in ways that are not only visually provocative, but very pleasing to the lips and the ear, as in this sample from "Super-Grooving in the 'Voodoo Lou'":
"Rocking to the lewd lyrics in the rolling 'Voodoo Lou'/ we name Her for Her black magic knack to make it to the next station/ nothing sloshing in Her tank but a gasoline flashback."
"I chose that phrase because of the A and the L sounds together," he says. "Words put shoulder to shoulder that have never been together before. I heard a good one recently: Lettuce headache. What a great pairing of musical notes!"
Music figures pretty heavily in Zarzyski's creative universe. He's written with several big names in the singer-songwriter world including Wylie Gustafson, Tom Russell and Ian Tyson, and he includes lyrics to several of his songs in the new book. He once even received acknowledgement—in the form of a letter—from Chris LeDoux after LeDoux's song "Rodeo Moon" was a monster hit for Toby Keith.
"LeDoux said he'd been influenced by my poem 'Bucking Horse Moon,' and wanted to share his good fortune," he says. Ledoux, another rodeo cowboy-turned-songwriter, enclosed a check for $8,000. Zarzyski says the letter arrived just as he was preparing to break open his Green Bay Packers coin bank to cash in his change.
Zarzyski has published 12 books and five spoken-word CDs since making the unlikely career transition from rodeo cowboy to poet. He enlisted in Richard Hugo's infamous poetry program when he found himself "toothless in Missoula" in 1973.
"It's what I do," he says. "Thanks to cowboy poetry, I've been able to make a living at it. Bucking off all those horses in the '70s and '80s, getting my head drilled into the ground, I never once thought that kind of lifestyle could translate into being able to walk onstage and get paid several thousand dollars. I got lucky, I got so fuckin' lucky. I was writing those poems about rodeo, because that's where my heart and my head and my soul were at the time. I didn't know what cowboy poetry was, and here I am to this day, and I can still get paid a lot of money for a gig. It's just dumb luck."
Steering With My Knees is subtitled "Zarzyski Light," and works as a companion piece to his 2011 book 51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, and 1 Self-Interview, which the poet calls "Zarzyski Heavy."
"In some ways," says his publisher, Allen M. Jones of Bangtail Press, "I resist thinking of Steering With My Knees as a collection of light verse, although that was the principal criteria for Paul's selections. But these poems are so much more than a category. If you pay good attention, almost every one of these poems can break your heart even while it's making you smile."
Zarzyski listens to a lot of music to the point where musical cadence slips into his free verse. Mojo Nixon's show on Sirius XM Radio is a favorite.
"I love what he plays," he says. "I haven't heard of 90 percent of those bands, and they're extraordinary. It's great music."
He's had several of his songs recorded by some established country acts, but he can't stand the music being played on country radio today.
"They come up with a cheap-ass refrain that I can teach my goddamn dog to write, and they sing it six or seven times. I mean, if it's a two and a half minute song, 90 seconds is this cheap-shot refrain. Give me some verses with some meat, for chrissake."
Zarzyski spent a decade or so in Missoula during the decadent and incandescent heyday of the mid-1970s literary scene known as Montana's "Paris of the Twenties." Some of his fellow writers didn't make it out alive.
Today's scene, in comparison, is sterile. "Young poets are so involved in making some serious literary statement; they feel like they have to put a lot of thought into what they think they have to say. I let go of that long ago. Now I just make a lot of noise. That's where the fun comes."