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Review: Paul Zarzyski’s new double CD "Steering with My Knees"

Published: 1/23/2016
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Paul Zarzyski will be one of the highlighted performers at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. The Montana man, who juggled bronc riding and the pursuit of a masters degree in fine arts, just released Steering With My Knees, a double CD of music and poetry. Read a three-part interview with him here.

By Maddy Butcher

If reporting is walking and creative writing is dancing, then poet Paul Zarzyski is a man of colorful, rhythmic seizures.
His seizures are tickling to the ear, tasty to the brain, and on full display in his just released double CD of poetry with music, Steering With My Knees.
It’s proof-positive that the 64-year old Montana poet, despite having crafted his own eulogy (Disc Two, Track 15), is in his artistic prime, not past it.

[photo by Gordon Stevens]

The work - which features Zarzyski’s recitation suffused with the sounds of 26 different instruments and nearly as many musical genres - is the result of an 18-month project that pushes the envelope, no, blasts through concrete medians of how poetry is produced, defined, and delivered.

It takes his comedic poetry, published in book form as Steering With My Knees: Zarzyski Lite (Bangtail Press, 2013) and adds clever, dazzling accompaniment to the already tuneful verse. The two elements dovetail splendidly. (Not surprising, since several of his poems already have become lyrics for Wylie Gustafson, Cowboy Celtic and others)

Despite the substantial talents accompanying him (guitarist Scott Sorkin, cellist Renata Bratt, singers Terrie Odabi, and Gustafson, to name a few), the 34-track performance is a decidedly one-man show. The former bronc rider and Richard Hugo student has a penetrating voice and autobiography is his favorite exploration.

[Photo at right, Zarzyski's dog, Zeke, as seen through Disc One]
Visit Zarzyski's website here.

How best to enjoy it?

  • With lights off, slow-sipping beverage in hand, and a disco ball spinning overhead and spotting your kitchen floor.
  • Or, on a long, clear stretch of interstate travel, with your dog riding shotgun and the Rockies up ahead.

I tried listening whilst multi-tasking, but soon realized the recordings do not cotton to half-baked attention. So, I hunched over the CD player, stared at the cover (which features an old Monte Carlo cruising through fantastical space), listened keenly, and laughed out loud.

Observational comedians are folks like Jerry Seinfeld, who take random, everyday happenings and make them funny.

Zarzyski is observational, too. His experiences start out mundane, but swerve quickly towards bizarre. His insights are original and witty. He’s a kid coloring outside the lines before progressing to a full-sized, wacky wall mural.

My favorite tracks concern feeding the birds, picking up the mail, tasting pie, going after a dog’s lost ball, and talking to a fellow air traveler.

How basic can you get?

But the resulting narratives, aided and abetted by song, had me alternating between gaffaws, reflection, and nods of knowing.

Take Disc One’s opening track: "Monte Carlo Express – P.O. Box 258, 15.3 Miles Home"
After picking up a week’s worth of mail, Zarzyski (accompanied by a driving, titillating tune that sounds like a speedy version of Joe Cocker’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On”) recites:

—I shuffle through the stack and gamble
once again on 8 miles of 2-lane
straightaway. I Frisbee bills and all business
glassine-windowed envelopes,
in which we poets never receive checks,
over the suicide seat headrest, toss
junk mail to the floor-mat collage
on the shotgun side, stick love letters
between my teeth, and maybe I’m better off
not having tasted perfume
for years…

"The Heavyweight Champion Pie-Eatin’ Cowboy Of The West," in contrast, swoons and gyrates with the supposedly simple naming of pie varieties.
The Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets,” and D’Angelo’s Untitled (How Does It Feel) don’t got nuthin' on the slow keyboard and guitar accompaniment. Zarzyski’s slow and dreamy tone fits the instruments like hand in glove.

Are we really talking about blue-ribbon mincement here? Listeners decide.

My favorite track, "Zeke Zarskyski: Beckons His Master To Fetch" becomes a convincing weekend drama thanks to Dan Robbins’ acoustic bass and a whimsical didgeridoo loop. It concerns the human trials of retrieving a dog’s ball, lost down a gopher hole.

Zeke cherishes his bucketful of blue
racquetballs, like his very best one
that rolled, slow-motion, down a gopher hole –
the 60-foot putt, replay after replay
after reply, the only footage
on the JumboTron screen of his canine
mind. I know all too well
how he feels. I also have lost friends,
family, youth, wealth, good looks,
down similar deep dark holes
into the underworld unknown – not
a rubber ball’s bouncing prayer
in melting hell of ever retrieving
what was once so dear to me…

To listen is to appreciate the lengths Zarzyski travels for his dog’s satisfaction, to embrace canine companionship. Is there something else to it? Yes, of course. When we laugh, it’s not at him, but with him, since we, too, have occasionally chased down those dark, not-so-logical paths.

Next week, Zarzyski will lead a creative writing workshop and take the stage at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

Can't make it? Get the CDs and transport yourself. Visit Zarzyski's website here.

Read a three-part interview with him here.

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"The ears never lie" - Don Burt