Write ’em cowboy 

Cowboys aren’t your average poets—and when cowboy poets get together, it’s not your average gathering. “It’s just about more fun than you can stand,” says cowboy poet and writer Gwen Petersen of the fifth annual Montana Cowboy Poetry Wintercamp to be held Jan. 14-16 in Big Timber. “You generally don’t plan to sleep.” What you plan to do, she says, is gather together at the American Legion in Big Timber for a weekend of open-mike poetry sessions, chuck wagon dinners, nighttime performances and a cowboy church service on Sunday morning. “We don’t have a hired minister,” says Petersen, “but we have a couple guys that like to preach.” This year, there will also be a raffle for an 1874 C. Sharps Hartford Sporting Rifle and “an angus beef on the hoof and a freezer to put it in after you’ve made it edible.”

Petersen herself was one of the first poets to go to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering hosted by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev., in 1985, the Gathering’s year of inception. In 1986, she started the annual Montana Cowboy Gatherings in Big Timber; that event has since moved to Lewiston, and so Petersen started Wintercamp five years ago. Her official title at Wintercamp, she jokes, is “Hey, Gwen!”

“The basic premise of a gathering is to gather and hear poems and music,” she says. “You don’t compete. If you compete, you lose the spirit of the gathering.”

Cowboy poetry, she explains, draws upon being “out on the range, you’re riding cattle on the trail, and what else do you do? They started doing poetry in songs, telling stories about life outdoors.”

This year, up to 70 poets and pickers from around the state will participate, including poet and musician J.R. Strand from Missoula and musical performer Stephanie Davis, who has regularly appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Last year’s Wintercamp had standing-room-only crowds at the nighttime shows; 400 tickets will be sold this year (call 406-932-4227 for info). Says Petersen: “A lot of guys have to hire guys to feed their cattle so they can come to this.”

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