ELKO -- "I'm a student of the West and its many and varied stories," Randy Rieman says of his entrance into the world of cowboy poetry. "I have always loved poetry in general and the spoken word resonates with me."
Reading the stories and history of the West and discovering its unique body of literature, especially the story poems, led him to be invited to Elko and the second National Cowboy Poetry Gathering 31 years ago. He has attended each one since.
“The Gathering is a huge part of my life,” Rieman said. “It is where I met some of my best friends and is a rich cultural experience that I would not want to miss."
“The Poetry Gathering is a celebration of the West, the music, poetry and trappings that are associated with the ranching and cowboy culture,” Rieman explained during a phone interview from his ranch in Dillon, Montana. “It does not just stop with the American West, but embraces poetry, music and storytelling traditions from horseback cultures around the globe.”
It is not just cowboy poetry that gets shared and enjoyed at Elko, but many forms of poetry both traditional and contemporary, according to Rieman.
He said his time at the Gathering “is a privilege” where he recites poetry and teaches recitation in the workshop “From Page to Stage,” with fellow poet Joel Nelson. The youth education program is for local teens who are involved with a national poetry competition in the high schools called Poetry Out Loud.
Rieman’s friend, Paul Zarzyski, conducts “Poetry Writing for Teens,” and the two mentorship programs have become an annual event at the Gathering. The Teen Poetry & Music Slam held Wednesday at the G Three Bar Theater gives the students the opportunity to recite before a live audience.
While Rieman has earned recognition as a cowboy poet, he explained that it is his career as a horsemanship instructor that "puts food on the table.”
Rieman started his career as a working cowboy in Montana over 35 years ago. He “cowboyed” in several states including Nevada, California, New Mexico and Hawaii and eventually began to specialize in starting young horses.
"I was very fortunate to work with and be mentored by some really great hands,” Rieman said.
His list of respected mentors includes Bryan Neubert, Joe Wolter, Bill Askew and Bill Dorrance.
"These guys really changed my life with horses and helped me develop my skillset,” he said. “They showed me a better way, a practical non-adversarial approach to the horse-to-human relationship that is effective and efficient."
In time, Rieman, like his mentors, began teaching the skills associated with the cowboy and ranching culture to the public.
“I teach colt starting, horsemanship, ranch roping and livestock handling seminars around the United States, the South Pacific and in Switzerland, France and Germany,” Rieman said.
"I try to get my horses to be willing and compliant and handy to do a job to give them the chance to learn with as little pressure as I can and to be aware of their individual personalities,” he said, explaining his training philosophy. “I want to be respectful of the horse and its point of view. It's an open-ended learning process that never stops, for me as well as the horses, and that process is the best part of it all."
Rieman tells his horsemanship students to “be respectful of the animal’s dignity and their point of view because they certainly have both. Then find a way to communicate where both the human and the horse can use their individual strengths to build each other up.”
Most importantly, he emphasizes, “enjoy the journey in learning to work with horses, not just the outcome.”
According to Rieman, this is something that is equally important in writing or reciting poetry.
"We need to be in love with the process,” Rieman continued. “Whether it's getting something done with horses or writing or reciting poetry, the pleasure is in the process and that is where we will spend most of our time. If you are only focused on the outcome, you will miss the best part of life."
Rieman sees his duties as a horsemanship instructor and as a recitation coach for high school students in a similar light. In each function, he believes he is there to help people learn to be better and more effective communicators.
Rieman, Nelson and Zarzyski each share their own experience with poetry to encourage high school students and give them the elements for writing a good poem or giving a good recitation.
“We want the students to find their own voice and use it well, both as writers and reciters,” Rieman said. “We work with the nuts and bolts of good writing and good reciting, but mostly we encourage them to be passionately invested in what they choose to write and recite. It is that passion for and the intimate knowledge of the topic that really counts.”
“The pieces these young adults write and choose to recite will knock your socks off," he said proudly of the students he has worked with over the years. "These students are truly amazing and we all love working with them. We believe this mentorship program is something real special for the community and one more element that makes the Gathering so unique."
The art of the spoken word and its delivery to a wide audience has guided Rieman through his distinctive career as a cowboy poet, horse trainer and mentor to high school students learning oratory skills.
"I am not a professional entertainer or an actor," Rieman said. “I don't own the poems I recite, but I am their steward. I have the great privilege of sharing them and I want to do that as skillfully as I can. The poem or the story is the message and I am just the messenger. My job with the poem is the same as my job with my horses or my students and that is to handle them as skillfully and respectfully as I can, so that in the end everyone is lifted up.”
Rieman is featured to appear Thursday in “A Glimpse into the Letters of C.M. Russell,” reading a selection of Russell’s letters at the G Three Bar Theater and “99% Free Range Poetry” at the Elko Convention Center Auditorium. Appearances Friday include the “Western Folklife Center Member’s Show, the Legacy of Glenn Ohrlin” and “Old Time, Good Time” at the G Three Bar Theater.
Zarzyski’s “Poetry Writing for Teens” will be held Tuesday. Rieman and Nelson will present “From Page to Stage” Wednesday.
To register for one or both workshops, contact Kelly Moon at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Teen Poetry & Music Slam will be held at the G Three Bar Theater at the Western Folklife Center, 5-6 p.m. Wednesday. Admission is free.
For information on these events or other programs, call the Western Folklife Center at 738-7508.