Wyoming’s Poet Laureate Robert Roripaugh – Main Street, Wyoming


– Main Street, Wyoming
is made possible by Kennecott Energy Company. Proud to be a part
of Wyoming’s future in the coal and
uranium industries which includes exploration,
mining, and production. And the Wyoming council
for the Humanities, enriching lives
of Wyoming people through the study of Wyoming
history, values, and ideas. – Western writers used to say nobody understands our
work and appreciates it because they don’t
know our life. And they say who
would be interested in yews giving birth to
lambs, for example, and yet, it is a
unique way of life, and maybe we’re becoming
more away of what it offers that is valuable. – In 1995, Governor Jim Geringer appointed Wyoming’s
third poet laureate, Robert Roripaugh. Join us on Main Street,
Wyoming to meet this novelist, poet, and teacher whose family
ranched in the Wind Rivers, and whose words
speak for all of us who know and love Wyoming. (rock ‘n’ roll music) Welcome to Main Street, Wyoming. I’m Deborah Hammons, and my
guest today is Robert Roripaugh. Bob will be showing us the ranch where his family lived
outside of Lander, and sharing those stories
which helped lead to his being named our
State’s poet laureate. Bob, you’ve had a
distinguished career as a writer and as a professor
at the University of Wyoming, but this is where your life
in Wyoming really started? – This is essentially is it. And this is where my
parents bought a ranch. My father was an engineer. My mother had been
a schoolteacher, but mostly a mother
raising my brother and me. And they came up to Wyoming
and looked at ranches, and this is one the one
that they decided to buy. And they both came here,
and bought this ranch about the time that we had the
big blizzard in ’48 and ’49. – [Deborah] Oh,
that’s a history. Were you here for that? – Uh, no. I was here just before that. I had gone back to school and I just heard about
the results of it. – Well, how many people
were there in your family? Your mother, your
father, yourself, and? – And I had an older
brother at that point who’s about three years older, and he was off in college,
and I had started college. And as soon as my
parents bought the ranch, that’s where I began
to spend my summers. And when I became a student, transferred to the
University of Wyoming, which is about 1950, then I began to come back
here as much as I could and worked on it in the summers, and holidays, and what have you. I’d spend as much
time here as I could. – Now, I know you’ve
written very eloquently in essays about what ranching
life was like back then. But you as a young man,
what were you involved in? – Well, I was involved in a number of different
kinds of things. (laughing) – Okay, just the ones that
we can have on this show. (laughing) – Okay. I of course was
going to college. I was under the watchful
eye of my draft board, so I knew that I was going
into the service fairly soon, which was common
in the early 1950s. The Korean War had started. I became involved in writing while I was at the
University of Wyoming. And I began by starting
to write fiction, and I began to study with
a poet named Joseph Langdon who helped me a great
deal with my fiction. And I don’t know
whether he thought I was going to amount to
much as a poet or not, so I may have surprised
him at that point somewhere along the line. – So, there you are writing, majoring in English at
the University of Wyoming, but meanwhile in your summers and when you’re home with
your family, you’re a cowhand? You’re a sheep person? What all were you doing here? – A fencer builder. A lot of fence that
we’re looking at here, I and my father worked on. And we did build a lot of fense because it was always
in need of repair. And I worked a lot
in the hay fields. Usually mowing, and buckraking, and stacking from time to time. I enjoyed working with horses, and usually had
about three, four, sometimes a few more
houses around the place. I had a friend
named Johnny Prido who was also interested in
rodeo and horse breaking, and we worked for a time
out on the Sweetwater for a rancher named
William Scarlet breaking horses out
on the Sweetwater which I much enjoyed
because I’m very fond of that part of the country. And in the course of
this, I became involved in college rodeo for a time. And this was a very
interesting sort of experience on the whole, but it tied in with
my beginning to write, and the kind of fiction
I was beginning to write because one of my subjects
early on turned out to be rodeo. And so that more or less
tied together to a degree. – Now, as I look at this and I think of your life
with horses and all of that, there was a really important
person in everyone’s life and that was the person
that shod the horses. You have a beautiful
poem about that. Could you share that with me? – Sure, I would be glad to. The horse shoing would take
place down in the corrals or just outside the corral area, and the horses usually had
to be shodden in the spring. And that was always
an interesting event, and one that we watched
with some interest, perhaps in part because
we were concerned on how it would all come out, and
which horse would misbehave, and whether they would
all get shod or not. This is The Old Horseshoer. It’s about this time of year. The old horseshoer. In late spring, the horse
shoer navigates our soggy road. His Studebaker truck,
clanging an anvil, tools of the trade, iron
shoes, and a barrel. Stooped, days work
mixed with mustache, he sets up under cottonwoods, keeping one eye on the
corral where sugar, pee wee, wary Shorty are waiting. Their coats are patchy, winter hair shedding unevenly, bellies a little gaunt. He hasn’t come for small talk. Remembering the last time
he picked out Shorty first, ties him high by a
heavy halter rope. Wearing leather apron
with pouches for nails, the old man lifts
a foot, swears, wields his curved
hoof knife, spits, neatly clips the edge with
rusty pinches, rasps at level. He bends the cock
shoe by a squint, pounds, fits, re-fits, gauging the ellipses
against soft blue and Shorty’s cautious eye. His mouth bristling with nails, he works under the
raised front leg, a circus act. Gray cap on backwards. Hammers near the quick, twisting and
clinching nails down, mutters to himself, the light green
morning opening to sun. Shod in muddy boots,
he limps around Shorty, picks up one hind foot
easily as a tired lover, asks if we’ve heard
the first meadowlark. – Oh, and now bird is supposed
to sing on cue. (laughing) – Right. And it’s just about time, but the snow may be a
little daunting for them. But that was always nice, too. It’s one of the sounds of
the red-winged blackbirds that were down by the river
was another nice sound. – Bob, that was wonderful. Now, what I want to do is
let’s go in some place warm and sit down, and I want to
visit with you about your life as a poet and a
writer in Wyoming, and you can share some
more poems with us. – Okay, that sounds fine. (relaxing piano music) – Bob, we did a
show on Owen Wister, and my guests were talking about if you were to read just one
novel about the American West, they said the book that
they would recommend would be Robert Roripaugh’s
Honor Thy Father, which I know it won the
Western Heritage Award as the Outstanding
Western Novel in 1963. Can you tell me about the book? – Well, I sometimes laughingly
describe to my classes the book as a novel that
I wrote about Wyoming, and ranching, and the cowboy. And my intention, I said,
was to correct all the faults that I had found
in The Virginian. I doubt that I’ve achieved that, and I’m not sure the Virginian
has that many faults, but I was interested
in doing materials that come out of a
similar point in time. 1889 is the setting
for the novel. It’s set out on the
Sweetwater River Country, a country that I like
and know fairly well. And what I was interested in was seeing what I could do
with a family ranching there, a father whose wife has
died, he’s raising two sons. There’s about three
years difference in age between those sons, and the
sons are quite different in terms of temperament,
and attitude, and the way people
respond to them. So that was the basic situation
that I had to start with, and then played against that
is the background of 1889 which is about the time
of the Johnson County War, the lynching of Cattle Kate
Maxwell, and Jim Averell, and all the problems
that came out in that particular
bad period of time in the Wyoming
ranching industry. So, the historical part
came in through that. – [Deborah] Well I know
I absolutely loved it. I found a copy in
our county library and I’m sure there are copies in every Wyoming county library. And what I found
particularly good was I felt like you
understood that world. You described it in a
way as if you had lived during that period of time. I don’t know how you
were able to do that. Had you heard stories from
people about what it was like? – At that particular point, I thought at least I
knew ranchers very well, and I assumed that I
understood something of what they would
have been like at that earlier point in time. But I did know enough
about ranching, and cattle, and horses, and so forth to
be able to make that part what I assumed would be
reasonably authentic. And then I did an awful lot
of research into the period, life of that particular
point in time, the Wyoming
Cattlemen’s Association and the problems that
they were having, and the incidents that
surrounded that point in history in 1889. So, there was a lot
of background work
that I had to do. But there were other
things like Wyoming itself that I had I thought
a good grasp of, and some of those things
purveyed the novel. Background, setting, what
the country looks like. – [Deborah] Well just to give
my viewers a sense of it, can you read a little bit? A little cutting for us from it? – Sure. – [Deborah] So they can
the Wyoming that they know. – Sure. This is just a very short
little piece of description from early on in the novel that shows Wyoming
coming through. In March, the wind usually
blew hard from the West feeling like it was sharpened
on the Wind River Mountains and the edge of Beaver Rim. The wind was what made
the Sweetwater Country good for cattle. Most winters, it
blew the snow off so the cows could
live without any hay. And usually, there
would be a warm chinook when you needed it most. There was none in the
worst months of ’87, and the cattle drifted
south toward Red Desert and starved until
they ganted up, humpback and bony as sage roots, and piled into ravines
or creek bottoms to die. But the March wind
was laying today. I heard a meadowlark flute
from a coss, a far draw, and I was glad to
be riding somewhere listening to old
Blackie snort as he did whenever he wanted to jog trot, and smelling the rain
so clean and sharp like it always was
at green-up time. – [Deborah] Although Bob
has written two novels and numerous short stories, most of his time now is
spent with his poetry. We asked how his
poems come to him. – I think they sometimes
come in different ways, but initially I think
you have something that triggers a memory, or you see something,
or talk to someone and it reminds you of something
that’s happened to you in your past. And you think, well
that is interesting. That is, I think our
lives are made up of certain high points as far as the more obvious
events are concerned, but it’s also made up
of a lot of small things that become important to you, and those are the
things that may make ultimately good poems. But you don’t really know
until you work with the idea. So you have an image,
you have a memory, you have a sense of
something that’s happened that you think
might be interesting certainly to yourself, and more
importantly to other people, and then you begin
to work with it, try to get something
down on the page, tinker with that, change it, and hope that ultimately you get a poem to
come out from that. (country music) This poem that I’m going to read is one that is about rodeo
and how we feel about it, and the fashion in which
most Wyoming communities respond to it at least. I think this is true everywhere. As in Lander, the
rodeo’s on the fourth. So, it’s called The
Rodeo on the Fourth. I feel at hane on
hotter afternoons the way that sun
hangs there forever while downtown streets brighten, bloom into flags and penance, beer cans, and the air at night
promises another go round with excitement,
girls, old widow maker. The carnival arrives, a dirty canvas mood I recognize. An Arapahos dance for tourists who pitch them silver
spinning through the neon. A cowgirl picking
from a truck bed cries her last cruel love away. Bars fill with hope and booze. Women, beautiful
as Wrangler ads. Our neighbor packs off to
the mountains, fishing. Bud’s nerves go bad
on parades and drunks. Ask me to come. But I’m already
there with a Coors dreaming of softer skin, better days coming
back like bison. On the fourth of July, I might
get lucky riding barebacks, take day money, and
find her along the bar at the American Legion Club. Bareback rock
guiding was the event that I competed in mainly, and when I finished college, I was drafted into the Army, and I had to give up that
facet of my interest. When I came back from the Army
which was two years later, I rode in one more show at
Laramie with the rodeo club. I was a student again. And that was more or less the
finish of that short career. – [Deborah] (laughing) And the launching of your
mining that, those experiences for your poetry. – Yes. – [Deborah] And your writing. You know, you write so
beautiful about horses in Honor Thy Father. It’s obvious. I mean, in that, it’s not a
sport, it’s a way of life. That’s one of the things
that you have in there is that disagreement about
how do you break a horse. – Yes. That particular kind of argument is one that certainly
at that point in time went on in terms of how people
wanted to break their animals and the way that they
would approach it. But, that was the sort of
thing that adds information, that is useful to someone
who wants to be a writer. And one of the things that
I would tell my students is that their problem
isn’t just writing, their problem is also in
developing the materials that they’re going
to use as writers. And also, in that,
that the materials that are most useful to them aren’t necessarily the most
unusual, unique, exotic things that they can think of, but were more apt to be
ordinary kinds of things that almost anyone
might go through, but that they would think
about in more sensitive and interesting ways. There aren’t that many
completely new things to write about, but there are a lot of things
that can be written about well if the person approaches
it from that vein. So, it doesn’t have to
be unusual material. – You’ve worked with
hundreds of students through your years in teaching
and different workshops. What do you think it takes
to be a successful writer? – I think it’s a mix
up of several qualities that they can bring, and they may bring
different qualities. One of the things that
goes into teaching students of creative writing is trying to decide where
that student is in his work, or her work. And also, maybe what
the student most needs. A student, for example, may most need some
kind of confidence. Or a student may be
too overconfident and unwilling to
revise his work, because most work is
revised very extensively. Just for example, the poem
that I was just reading is pretty short,
but if I went back and looked at the
drafts that I’d done, I’d probably have 20 drafts
that it went through at least before it came to the
shape that it had now. – [Deborah] Time wise, would you say how long would
it take you to write it? What you consider
a finished poem. – Probably several
months, at least. And that would be pretty
typical of the way things go. And I would simple hold onto it until it did seem to satisfy me. And then I would send it out and see whether periodicals
were interested in it. And I might then go back
and revise it some more. And even after a
piece is published, in poetry, one might
choose to revise it more, which is not true of my attitude toward a novel, for example, or necessarily toward a short
story that’s been published. – [Deborah] Now, I know
as you were describing the qualities that a person
might need to be a writer, you were talking about
that ability to work, some of the natural abilities. – Right. And I think there’s a need for the imagination of the
student to be fairly strong, at least in creative work. Poetry or fiction. There needs to be that interest in things not necessarily
as they literally are, although that’s often
a beginning point, but what things might become, what might happen if
such and such happened, what might happen if
some elements of reality were changed in certain ways to bring about a
different sort of result. And I think one does need to have a fairly
strong imagination. I think you need to
have a good memory. If you can’t remember things
that have happened to you, then you’re not liable
to be able to pull those well into your writing. And one thing that
your memory does is sift out things that
may be important to you from things that aren’t. That is, you simply lose
track of some of those that are less significant and
that you can’t make use of. (relaxing music) This poem came out
of an experience over south of Saratoga
along the Platte River. There was a yellow willow tree that impressed me very much. I went there with my wife and
my daughter many years ago, and this is a poem
for my wife, Yoshiko. It’s called Yellow Willow. October is a time
of yellow willow after green of aspen turns away. We must wait through cooler days when alders harden
into red or brown falling toward eons as willows
yellow Wyoming foothills. I think your fingers
have the shape of willow like your eyes. Perhaps it’s just the
slowness of the way you turn and quiet fire still, or something yellow as the leaf that holds the green skin
darkening into brown and gray. Above brush creek
watching willow burn I return to days in
yellow matted rooms, the rainy season mist. Yellow blossoms never
touched by yellow. I could tell you all
of this and more. I won’t. My eyes are filled with fall, and willows slow to yellow. This was a poem that
came out of an incident that was fairly
concrete as an image, and it started from there. But what is behind that
probably is the emotion of the particular stage of
life I was in at that point, and how that could connect up with the scene
that I was seeing. And willows are slow to turn so they last longer
into the fall. And that led into maybe
the material content being transformed into
a theme of some sort. – [Deborah] Bob, that
poem is from your book Learn to Love the Haze, and I understand that’s
going to be reissued. But I’m afraid we’re
about out of time, and I’d like you to conclude
with one last poem for us. – Sure. I think I know the
one that you want. – [Deborah] And
this is going to be from your new collection
called The Ranch? – Yes, I think the collection will probably be
called The Ranch. And this is a poem that
I worked over quite a bit at different points. It’s called Sleeping Out
on Sulfur Creek in Autumn. For John R Milton. John Milton was a poet, and an editor, and a
writer in South Dakota. He taught at the
University of South Dakota and edited the
South Dakota Review. And he died a little
over a year ago. But it’s about a
lot of other things that relate to thinking
about life and death. Sleeping Out on Sulfur
Creek in Autumn. West of Coyote Lake, the
sun meets granite hills. Light sharpens over snakeweed
and sage brush in the flats. Cattle wandering off the
water lazily inspect my Jeep. Bedroll in a grassy draw. Behind mitten spring,
the rock turns red. After 30 years, a weathered
hump familiar as my aging hand. All afternoon, I’ve hiked along through grama grass and sage. Sheep summered here. The herders trailing them
home to the Sweetwater. His lead yew black, drifting
north ahead of fall. Now (mumbling) of sheep,
running cows and calves. I remember his house on alkali, bringing him apples
from our orchard. The way flocks of sage grouse
shredded up from the water, headed for feeding
grounds in morning light. And the sign he made
for his front door, “Welcome hunters,
make yourself at home, “and please close gates.” I hope he’s well, friendly as
ever, gate stretched height. All things seem possible
here on Sulfur Creek. The lone hawk hunts,
a sage brush drops, rising empty handed. Do older eyes see more loss? Or does the mind,
like evening sun, heighten memory before
it’s all we are? What matters, I hear you say, is how lost family,
friends, the solitary hawk, remain in remembered lives,
images, words we share. Tonight in a higher sky,
the stars will be hard. Already, horned larks are still. Quiet has fallen
down in shadows. The last heavy truck
from a drilling rig spreads dust along the
road to Picket Lake. Sage grouse have moved
up brushy draws to roost, and eagles silently make their
final sweep along the flats. It should be easy to sleep. An early snow kept hunters home, though now it’s melted except
for patches on Beaver Rim. One old antelope buck
watched me at sun down from a distant ridge, then went to water
below the spring. Drilling rigs are
too far away to hear. And with the moon,
coyotes will be calling. If I wake up. – [Deborah] Robert Roripaugh,
Wyoming’s poet laureate. Thank you very much. – Thank you. (relaxing orchestral music) – [Deborah] For a copy of this
or any Main Street, Wyoming, send a check or money order
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Mastercard, and Discover. – [Narrator] Main Street,
Wyoming is made possible by Kennecott Energy company. Proud to be a part
of Wyoming’s future in the coal and
uranium industries which includes exploration,
mining, and production. And the Wyoming Council
for the Humanities, enriching lives
of Wyoming people through the study of Wyoming
history, values, and ideas.

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