KT Sparks on Accidentally Discovering the World of Cowboy Poetry
In Conversation with G.P. Gottlieb on the New Books Network Podcast
On this episode of New Books Network, G.P. Gottlieb talks to KT Sparks about her debut novel, Four Dead Horses (Regal House, 2021).
On May 1, 1982, 18-year-old Martin Oliphant watches a horse drown off the shore of Lake Michigan—the first of four equine corpses marking the trail that will lead Martin out of the small-minded small town of Pierre, Michigan, onto the open ranges of Elko, Nevada, and into the open arms—or at least open mics—of the cowboy poets who gather there to perform. Along the way, he nurtures a dying mother, who insists the only thing wrong with her is tennis elbow; corrals a demented father, who believes he’s Father Christmas; assists the dissolute local newspaper editor; and serves stints as horse rustler and pet mortician.
For 30 years, Martin searches for an escape route to the West, to poetry, and to his first love, the cowgirl Ginger, but never manages to get much farther than the city limits of his Midwestern hometown—that is, until a world-famous cow horse dies while touring through Pierre, and Martin is tapped to transport its remains to the funeral at the 32nd Annual Elko Cowboy Poetry Confluence.
G.P. Gottlieb: What intrigued you about cowboy poetry?
KT Sparks: Nothing, initially. When I wrote the first short story about Martin, he was at a dude ranch, and he was very jealous of the dude ranch’s resident cowboy poet. And I thought I made it up. I didn’t think there were such things as cowboy poets; I thought I had made up this sort of funny thing, that the dude ranch would hire a guy who would be paid to be a cowboy poet. And later, after the story was done and I was workshopping it, somebody said, this is a great character, this guy who is jealous of a cowboy poet but he’s from the Midwest and he’s just as little cowboy as possible; you should write more about it. And I started looking into it and discovered there’s this huge world of cowboy poetry—and I’m really embarrassed to say this, because I have fallen in love with the world.
It’s a sort of performative folk art. The NEA recognizes it. There’s Baxter Black, who’s a national cowboy poet, who people might have heard of. But it’s a really rich folk art culture that’s based around Elko, Nevada, but in all the ranching communities. It has a history that goes back to right after the Civil War, that’s when it got started, and then had a big heyday at the turn of the century, and then sort of disappeared once the singing cowboys came along—the Roy Rogers of the world—until the 80s, when a group of ethnographers and professors, they started finding a few of these guys who were still writing. And they pulled together the first what’s called the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which is what the National Cowboy Poetry Confluence that Martin is so obsessed with is based on. It’s an actual thing. It’s happened every year since 1985.
The very first one, there were all these guys who were writing cowboy poetry, but they weren’t talking; they didn’t know that other people were doing it. And it’s an incredible art form. I’ve come to love it. When I did it initially, part of it was I thought I was making up something funny. And the other part was, I’m not a big fan of research. So I thought, if I make this up, I don’t actually have to research it. I can just make up what cowboy poetry is. Turns out it has a rich history, and I’ve become kind of an expert on it, from outside the cowboy world. And gladly so, even though research isn’t usually the thing I want to do. I’d rather make stuff up.
KT Sparks is a writer and farmer whose work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Pank, and elsewhere. She received an AB in Politics, Economics, Rhetoric, and Law from University of Chicago, an MA in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford University, Brasenose College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University in Charlotte, an educational grounding that matches her lifelong interest in everything and mastery of nothing. She spent twenty-five years in Washington DC, most of it in the US Senate, as a policy analyst and speechwriter and continues to be involved in progressive politics. When she’s not reading fiction (all types) or trying to banish weeds from the vegetable garden, she practices Zen Buddhism, binges British detective series, and cooks stuff grown on the farm (or by her more talented neighbors). Her greatest passion is her large distended family, which includes children, stepchildren, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, siblings, parents, in-laws, exes, and seemingly unending concentric circles of spouses, partners, fiancés, more exes, and more spouses—shining bright and swirling outward, like the rings of Jupiter, but less dusty. KT lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, dog, a fluctuating population of barn cats, and no horses, dead or alive, waiting for the kids to come visit, or at least call for God’s sake. Four Dead Horses is her first novel.
G.P. Gottlieb is the author of the Whipped and Sipped Mystery Series and a prolific baker of healthful breads and pastries. Please contact her through her website (GPGottlieb.com) if you wish to recommend an author (of a beautifully-written new novel) to interview, to listen to her previous podcast interviews, to read her mystery book reviews, or to check out some of her awesome recipes.