While serving in the Vietnam War, native Texan Joel Nelson began his poetry writing career by sending letters to friends and family back home.
Today, Nelson is considered one of the most celebrated cowboy poets, with 25 years of poetry writing under his leather belt. His distinct resume includes a degree in forestry and range management, work as a custom saddle maker and horse trainer as well as a Grammy nomination for his album The Breaker in the Pen, the only cowboy recording ever nominated for a Grammy.
Nelson works full time as a rancher in Alpine and said he doesn’t designate a specific schedule for writing.
“I have absolutely no discipline in my writing,” he said. “My wife and I ranch full time and we’ve always got work to do. Occasionally a thought will hit me, and I’ll just quit what I’m doing, take some time and write it down.”
Nelson said he sometimes takes brief sojourns to get away from the daily responsibilities and focus on writing poetry, and time passes quickly when he does.
“I might wake up in the morning and start drinking coffee and writing, and all of the sudden it’s three in the afternoon,” he said. “That’s a treasure, when I can get loose and do something like that. Time just blows by.”
And while Nelson is famous in the genre of cowboy poetry, he said he feels the term limits the audience that could potentially enjoy the written work. Much of his work deals with other topics, he said.
“It’s just more poetry from life, from wisdom gained,” he said. “It could be about hummingbirds or about the day unfolding.”
Nelson was born and raised in North Central Texas and has lived in a variety of other places, including Montana, Wyoming and Scotland, but said he’s found his home on the Texas plains.
“I found a fascination with West Texas, and this has just always been where I wanted to be,” he said. “But every place I’ve ever been holds a fascination for me, and I would love to go back to every place I’ve been.”
Last week, Nelson took a seat on stage at the Blanton Museum before an eager audience, clad in his signature cowboy hat. He not only presented a variety of poems he’d written, but also recited the works of his favorite poets by memory.
“I do a mixture of poetry that I’ve fallen in love with over the years,” he said. “I read a tremendous variety of poetry, and there’s so much really good poetry out there that I just can’t resist performing that along with my own. If it really means something to me, the memorization is really no obstacle.”
Nelson said he estimates he has memorized around 150 poems, each of which he can pull from memory and recite.
Aimee Chang, manager of public programs at the Blanton Museum, said Nelson’s signature Texas drawl encompassed the poems he presented to the audience.
“He’s incredibly engaging,” she said. “Really kind of understated, but funny, and he was a beautiful reciter of poems. Just very much kind of what you would think of as a cowboy.”
Nelson’s mode of presentation offered the audience a fresh opportunity to listen to poetry, art education graduate student and Blanton intern Katy Wilson said.
“He sat the whole time, but despite that, he was very engaged with his audience, just because of his powerful speaking voice,” she said. “He captured the attention without standing.”
Printed on Monday, April 30, 2012 as: Cowboy poet recites personal work at UT.