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Paul Zarzyski Interview, Part One

Published: 3/9/2015
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Editor’s Note:
Paul Zarzyski is one wacky Renaissance Man. Who else has racked up years on the rodeo circuit riding broncs AND has a Masters in Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing? (He studied with poet Richard Hugo at the University of Montana.)
Zarzyski, 64, also happens to be one of my favorite performers at the Western Folklife Center’s annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. The Great Falls, Montana man brings free verse and wild performance energy to cowboy poetry, a genre that’s usually rhymed, metered, and what some might call polite and traditional.

Visit Paul Zarzyski website here.
Aside from his books of poetry and prose, Zarzyski has also excelled as a lyricist. Most notably, his contributions have enriched the song inventories of Wylie Gustafson, Ian Tyson, Tom Russell, Cowboy Celtic and others. Zarzyski wrote or co-wrote eight lyrics, including the title track, for Wylie & The Wild West’s Hang-n-Rattle! CD, for which their title track received the 2010 Spur Award for best song from the Western Writers of America. Zarzyski has been awarded several additional Spur Awards and, in 2005, received the 2005 Montana Governor’s Arts Award for Literature.
We chatted by phone last month. It was a high-spirited, fast-moving, casual conversation, excerpts of which are printed here.  -- Maddy Butcher

MB: Western Folklife’s Darcy Minter had a great interview with you in which she admitted she was a bit intimidated since you had so many good questions and good answers from the Self Interview in 51.
I’m kind of intimidated, too, but probably for different reasons. You’re so passionate and forceful with your writing and presentations, I feel I’ll offend you or embarrass myself.

PZ: No, no, no. A few years ago, I started digging a hole in the backyard in which to bury my ego. I got ‘er done. I just did it with a No. 2 spade shovel. Hard work. But I got it done. I put a big pile of rocks over it and it’s never going to escape. You know, you have to have a certain amount of confidence and that’s what I think I exude, as you suggested, in the midst of my passion. And I live life very viscerally. I don’t live life as much intellectually. It has to do with my upbringing. I grew up in a blue collar, working class family. My Polish father was an iron ore miner—hematite, a mile underground. My Italian mother was conceived in the Old Country…Processed in utero at Ellis Island and went directly to Hurley, Wisconsin, because of the mine, because of the work potential. The Italians worked in the mines in the Old Country, too.
She spent her first 27 years at 507 Poplar Street with her parents Romano and Angelina—my Noni, who I knew. Mom married my dad after he got out of the Navy, after the war. 89 years on that block. It was a different time and generation.
But what I’m trying to say is what I recognized as a young kid was the power of hard work and of living a physical life. I think what I bring out into the open is a real physicality, if that’s a word, and a love, a need for the visceral, for the emotional. I hope it’s not misconstrued as egotistical or any kind of an uppity-ness, because I don’t feel that at all. I am perpetually humbled and honored by every little nuance of ability that I’m able to muster to do most anything.

MB: But you are intellectual.
[Photo by Kenton Rowe]

PZ: Yes, maybe—if intellectualism is commensurate with thinking too much. I don’t feel I have a very strong foundation of learning. Of book learning. I’m self-critical of my capacity. It’s been beaten into me that if you’re going to be an artist, a thinker, then you’ve got to know what all the thinkers who came before you thought. If you’re going to be an artist, then you’re going to have to learn about all the artists that came before you. I haven’t. I’m starting from scratch. I’m just looking at things and processing them through the very unique and original make-up and chemistry of Paul Zarzyski.
If people feel that my perceptions, my poems, my emotional and intellectual responses to the world are fresh. Boy oh boy--more dumb luck, because I’m just shooting from the hip. But I pay attention. I process. I continually take things in and try to find a semblance of order or placement during my pittance of a time, my speck of a time in this universe.

MB: Does there have to be a balance between experiencing life and knowing what artists have come before you?

PZ: I think I lean heavily towards the former. Everybody probably has a unique ratio between the two. I think I’m 90 percent interaction and encounter. Close poetic encounters of the otherworldly kind is the phrase I’ve coined this year. I have to be careful what I say to young kids because I’m willing to tell them, “This is not about school. Writing or making art is not about school. It’s not about a formal education. It’s about engaging the planet.” I have to come just short of telling them to start riding bucking horses or to buy a fast motorcycle or whatever it takes to live with reckless abandon. That’s what I did and somehow I lived through it.
So, I get back to that word, visceral. It’s one of my favorite words. Ninety percent of those close poetic encounters of the otherworldly kind are visceral and the remaining percent are things I learned from other people’s experiences, other people’s thinking.
You know, it goes back to what I talked about in 51. During the Vietnam War, I had a deferment because I was in college. I was tormented because there was a part of me that wanted to be in the patriotic mix of the fight, as was my Dad in WW II. After a couple years in college, I realized the error of my ways and the errors of this country’s ways. I have nothing but great respect for those soldiers, but it was a very tumultuous time to be an 18-, 19-, 20-year old on this planet, whether in Nam or back here in the homeland.
And a big motivation behind (leaving) my very serious study of the sciences was that I wanted to shine some kind of light on my own feelings and thinking, my own responses. Against all the wishes of my advisor, I took an introduction to poetry class during my junior year. I revolted against being in a position in which everything I did, everything I was learning, was regurgitated from other peoples’ first-hand learnings and experiences and encounters with the earth.

To this day, I reflect back on that often. If it comes down to reading a book or splitting firewood prior to my tryst with the Muse, I’m going to split firewood. Or I’m going to shovel out the corrals (wrote a pretty fair poem titled “Rodeo Poet Horse-Manure-Forker”) or I’m going to go down into the basement-- my ore mine, I guess--and pump iron or hit the heavy bag.  I have damn fine writer friends who get up in the morning and feel the impulse to read before they can write. They use other writers’ words as a springboard to their own.  Whatever works— “different strokes for different folks,” as the saying goes.  But that’s so far removed from my experience. The last thing I would do in preparation for a writing shift is to read someone else’s work, or, if I were a visual artist, to look at a coffee table book of great American painters in order to get inspiration to do your own. Man, I can’t think of anything worse to creatively muck-up my head and heart. My writing stimuli, my synapse electricities or incitements, are tripped by first-hand encounters with the planet.  Not that I’m unimpressed, mind you, when I do, mostly late at night, read the works of others.  And, moreover, not to suggest that the writings of others have not influenced my own work. On the contrary, we’re all connected out there in the Storyville of literary heaven, where the degrees of separation, rather than 6 or 4, are likely zero?

MB: In college, you were on track to study science. I read that you studied organic chemistry. It surprised me.

PZ: Yeah. That was a turning point for me. 1972. I got the lowest score out of the whole organic chemistry class. 115 students and my grade was an 18 per centile. I remember walking levitated out of the lecture hall …. I had stayed up all night working on a poem, “Zarzyski, Not Exactly Wild Bill Hickok.” (published finally 42 years later in my 2014 collection,  Steering with My Knees). It was magic. I had found my genie-granted wish out of Aladdin’s lamp. That experience was my Eureka! moment. It was seminal to how I would spend the rest of my life.

Visit Paul Zarzyski website here.

Part II: Zarzyski gets folks thinking.
Part III: The Western Folklife Center is his church.

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3/14/2015 Lucinda L. Langford
The tapestry of Paul Zarsyski's words are woven with hay, manure, and ink. The colors jump alive with his passion in the telling. It is my privilege to devour his written word to feel his visceral explanation of whatever story he presents. It is a great high for this old hippie.

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    "Practice sharpens, but overschooling blunts the edge. If your horse isn't doing right, the first place to look is yourself" - Joe Heim