Sunday, April 08, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: David Harrison

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with an interview with David Harrison about his new poetry book, Cowboys. Graduate student Shandra Harrel offers this interview (plus) with David.

About David Harrison
David Harrison’s first book was published in 1969. Since then, he has published over 70 original titles, and sold over fifteen million copies of his published works. He has been anthologized in over one hundred books, and has also written articles for various journals. David’s work has been translated into twelve languages, and it has been presented in different ways such as television, radio, CD-ROM, and cassette.

David Harrison is an award-winning author. He has won numerous awards over the years for his writing. David’s Sky High On Reading program was an award winner in 2001. David has also written professional literature on the topic of poetry. His poetry also inspired Sandy Asher’s school play, Somebody Catch My Homework.

David has received degrees from Drury and Emory Universities. He has also received honorary doctorates from Missouri Sate University and Drury University. David is the poet laureate for Drury University as well. David also has an elementary school named in his honor. For the past fifteen years David has become a keynote speaker and presenter for conferences in numerous states. David lives in Springfield, Missouri with his wife Sandy.

David Harrison’s official website:
David Harrison’s official blog:

David Harrison’s newest book, which is expected to release April of 2012, is titled Cowboys. This book is a collection of 22 free-verse poems that tell of how life was like for cowboys who rode the Chisholm Trail. The Chisholm Trail was the route cowboys would take when driving cattle beginning in Texas and ending in Abilene, Kansas. Harrison’s newest book is a true telling of life experiences of rough and tough cowboys. This is the second time for Harrison to collaborate with the illustrator Dan Burr. Burr’s paintings are truly life-like. Cowboys allows the reader to see real hard workingmen and the battles they faced on the open trail.

Publisher’s Weekly
“In a companion to Harrison and Burr’s Pirates (2008), first-person poems from the perspectives of several cowboys create a candid portrait of life out west, following a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. Harrison’s work includes traveling songs with a lullaby lilt (“One thousand miles/ of burnin’ sun,/ swollen rivers,/ stampedes, wolves/ three thousand cows,/ fifteen men,/ one thousand miles to go”) and upbeat poems in peppery dialect: “Ha!/ My granny’s quicker’n you/ and she’s eighty!/ Reckon that grizz’d/ be pickin’ his teeth by now.” Burr’s dramatically lit, realistic digital artwork nails the determined expressions of hard-working cowboys while creating a character in the sweeping prairie landscape. Readers who long to ride and wrangle should be entranced.”

Kirkus Review
“Free-verse cowpoke ruminations on the trail to Abilene, with paintings of long-horned dogies and grizzled riders beneath big skies. Saddle up, pardner, leave the bunkhouse (where "[bugs gnaw plugs right outta your hide") behind and look fer dusty days, freezing nights, rattlers, storms and meal after meal of beef and beans from Cookie. Harking back to cattle drives of yesteryear, Burr portrays leather-skinned figures with near-photographic realism. "You need sand in your gizzard / to wrangle wild cows, / chaps for fendin' off thorns / or horses with a taste / for cowpoke leg." They pose in full regalia, branding a calf, mending barbed wire, gazing up at the stars, trying desperately to stay on horseback amid a stampede, lazing around the chuck wagon, riding at last into town and ruefully bidding hard-earned wages goodbye at a poker table. Two saloon floozies at the end, a dark-skinned trailhand ("I'm on a journey of my own / figuring how it feels / to be free") and a spirited filly in blue jeans left back at the ranch to fulminate are the only ones here who aren't typecast Marlboro Men. So git along, there, anyone with a mind to share cowboy dreams in romanticized, Old West style.”

Questions for the Author
Recently I received the privilege to e-mail David Harrison, questions concerning his newest book Cowboys. Here are my questions followed by Harrison’s responses.

1. What led you to decide to write and dedicate a whole book to cowboys?

“When Stephen Roxburgh was my editor at Boyds Mills Press, he introduced me to artist Dan Burr and asked if I would write poetry for a book about pirates that Dan wanted to paint. After I agreed and the work began, Dan and I became friends. He’s enormously talented and we got along well as collaborators. After Pirates came out in 2009, we agreed that we wanted to keep working together so we brainstormed for other ideas that would feature strong groups of people. Eventually we settled on cowboys for our next subject.”

2. Was there any research you had to conduct to write the book Cowboys?

“There is always research. One of the best parts of writing is reading about your topic. That’s true of poetry and fiction as well as nonfiction. Pirates required a lot of reading too and was selected by VOYA for its list of best nonfiction books for 2009. I took that as a good sign that I had done my homework. I approached Cowboys in the same way. There is a lot of excellent literature on the subject of the men (mostly young) who worked on cattle ranches and took the cows to market across hundreds of miles of open country during the two decades from the end of the Civil War until the late 1880s. I was also privy to the personal family histories of a good friend. One of his grandfathers was a cowboy and the other was a buffalo hunter. You’ll read some true stories about the first one in our book.”

3. Why did you choose the format of poetry to convey information to children about cowboys and the Chisholm Trail?

“Poetry worked for Pirates so we decided to stay with a winning combination. So far Pirates has been selected for the Master Reading Lists for Kansas Reading Circle, Texas Bluebonnet, and Indiana Young Hoosier awards, chosen as an NCTE Notable Poetry Book, and nominated for a Cybils Award. Poems capture a moment, a feeling. A poem feeds on raw energy without the need for formal introductions of characters or establishing a plot or narrative benchmark.”

“When you write about a category of people – pirates, cowboys . . . – there’s really no central plot anyway. What you have, after reading about your subject, is a file of notes on a variety of aspects about their existence. Meanwhile Dan Burr is doing his own research and he’s very good at it. He and I keep a running dialog when we’re developing an outline for a new book. I ask him if he can see painting a particular scene that keeps running through my mind. He asks me if I can write a poem about a scene he’d like to paint. There’s a certain amount of give and take. The outline changes as new thoughts emerge. Gradually we settle on those moments in time that will tell a story within the larger framework of our total concept.”

4. What is the most important concept or idea about cowboys that you want children to learn and remember from your book of poetry?

“After I agreed to write Pirates and began reading about them, I complained to Stephen that pirates were awful people given to rape, mutilation, even murder. His response was to remind me that we couldn’t have violence in a book for children. My flippant reply was that I hoped he’d let me write about serial killers next time. With a straight face he responded that writing about such villains without including their nasty deeds was my problem to solve. (I did solve it.)”

“So when Dan and I turned to cowboys, I was delighted to be talking about a population of gritty men and women who helped settle the west and were about as far away from the thieves of the sea as I could imagine. Sure there were a few killers among the men of the west, too, but few of them ever wrangled a longhorn when there were gambling halls and easy pickings available. Most cowboys rarely carried a gun except in photographs to impress their women. They worked hard in all kinds of weather. I loved the chance to write about decent people doing a dangerous job. I could even find occasional humor, a true blessing when writing for a young audience.”

5. Is there a particular cowboy or cowgirl famous or not who has influenced you in some way?

“There was a frail, stooped old man (probably younger than I am now). I met him in Arizona when I was six. As a child I lived in Ajo, Arizona and each summer my parents and I escaped the heat of the desert floor by fleeing to the mountains around Flagstaff and camping in a tent on the banks of White Horse Lake. The old man was there with his son’s family in a nearby tent. He was missing the first two knuckles of his “trigger” finger. As if that weren’t excitement enough for a boy my age, one night the guy related that he lost that part of his finger in his one and only gunfight! Just two young drunks in a bar. An argument over something foolish, a challenge, drawing and firing. Both men were injured and no charges were filed. Our guy lost some of his finger and all of his interest in further bloodshed. He settled down and became a barber.”

“In Arizona I learned to sing about the west, love the west, and think of myself as a young cowboy. I met prospectors. One took my parents and me on a prospecting trip. I played with Indian boys on a reservation near Ajo. I’ve slept under the western stars, watched storms approaching across the desert, come across rattlesnakes and bears on mountain trails. I visited relatives in Amarillo, mined for uranium (okay, only a couple of afternoons ()) in Colorado, and spent weeks at a time in Mexico. My artist friend Dan lives in Idaho. In short, I loved writing this book!”

Sneak Peak
Here is one poem I selected from David Harrison’s book Cowboys. I thought this poem painted a true picture of the feelings cowboys must of felt when leaving and traveling on the Chisholm Trail.

Headed to Abilene
First day out, fifteen miles,
one thousand miles to go.

One thousand miles
of burnin’ sun,
swollen rivers,
stampedes, wolves,
three thousand cows,
fifteen men,
one thousand miles to go.

Up from Texas headed north,
next hot bath two months away.
Half-wild longhorns graze the trail,
not too fast, not too slow,
cows are money, pounds are dollars,
make the rancher rich and happy,
one thousand miles to go.

Someone has to walk these critters,
lead the way, guard their rear.
Someone has to round up strays,
watch for danger in the night,
work till horse and rider drop,
one thousand miles to go.

From Texas through Indian lands
clear to Abilene.
We can’t wait to get there,
and we’ve only just begun.

Sharing the Poem
Start off before sharing the poem by writing the word “feelings” on the board. Then allow students to think about the different feelings we all feel. Brainstorm out loud as a whole group and write the feelings students call out on the board. Next discuss as a whole group the different situations we go through that cause these certain feelings.

After discussing feelings write the word “cowboys” on the board next to the word “feelings”, and ask students to share as a whole group the facts they know about cowboys. Next ask students, “Have you ever thought about the feelings that cowboys might have had?” Allow time for students to think and then have them share some of their ideas.

Next, give students some basic facts about the Chisholm Trail and introduce and read out loud to the whole group the poem title “Headed to Abilene.” Challenge students to listen for clues within the poem that allow the reader to know what the cowboys are feeling. Read the poem out loud to the students 3 or 4 times.

After reading the poem ask students to share any feelings they heard expressed in the poem. Write the phrases from the poem and the feeling it expresses next to it. Discuss and compare both list of the cowboys feelings and their own feelings. Allow students to see the similarities.
For a fun activity students could draw or create their own cowboy or cowgirl that looks like them and write the similar feelings around their cowboy or cowgirl. This activity is a great way to show students that even though cowboys that rode the cattle trail are from a long time ago and come from a different situation than we do we all can share in having the same type of feelings.

Biography information retrieved by:
Book cover retrieved by:
Book Reviews retrieved by:
Harrison, David. 2010. Cowboys. Ill. By Dan Burr. Honesdale, Penn: Boyds Mills Press, Inc.

Image credit:;


Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.


Mary Nida Smith said...

Thank you, for this wonderful interview with David and a peep into his book Cowboys. I have always loved cowboy poetry.

laurasalas said...

I adored Pirates (it's one of my top 10 all time poetry collections, I'm sure), and I can't wait to see Cowboys. Thanks for featuring this. David and Dan are a winning combination!

Anonymous said...

My students and I really likes Pirates so I look forward to reading Cowboys and sharing it with the kids. Thank you for this interview as it's always a pleasure to learn more about David.
Ken Slesarik

David Harrison said...

My thanks to Shandra, Sylvia, and to those who read the interview about COWBOYS. I'm grateful for the comments and for the chance to talk about the new book!