"Anything'll set you off," says garage-door repairman Jerry Sutliff.
It was a conversation in a restaurant that set Sutliff off one day last December. Another man was talking about his mother, who'd just died. "What got me," Sutliff remembers the man saying, "was that Mom's house was full of rooms we couldn't go into, furniture we couldn't sit on. And now I never will." Sutliff thought this was terrible. And in between his next two jobs, he took out his trusty pencil and notebook and began work on a poem he eventually titled "The Saddest Thing That I Have Ever Seen":
About the saddest thing that I have ever seen
Is a Grandparents' house so spotless and clean
That Grandchildren don't feel welcome there,
The sound of their laughter not heard anywhere.
Sutliff continued on for five more stanzas, then did his usual search for "using the same word twice, which I don't like to do," had his poem typed up, and sent it out as a Christmas card.
The response was swift and positive, but then, Sutliff's friends and family have come to expect poetry from him. His poems are as much a part of his personality as the aluminum extension ladders he carries in the back of his truck.
It wasn't always this way. Sutliff unexpectedly became a poet in 1970, when he heard that the one-room schoolhouse he'd attended in rural Wisconsin was closing down. Suddenly and unaccountably--after all, he had never been much of a student--he felt compelled to write a stately, fifteen-verse ode. Twenty-six years later, poems appear to him all the time: on the job, sipping a cup of coffee, contemplating his past or his grandchildren. At the moment, he has three different poems in the works.
"The first one is called 'Jerry's Diet,'" Sutliff says while unraveling a cinnamon roll at a Golden McDonald's. "Here's what I got so far: 'I try to diet but I don't get far/'Cause my hand's always in the cookie jar.' I am also working on one about the cars of the 1950s. Which I love. I got this part put into the middle: 'We had curb scrapers all around/But there weren't any curbs in our hometown.'"
The third verse-in-progress is firmly rooted in the cowboy-poetry tradition--arguably the only respectable poetic form if you are a Western garage-door repairman who does not hold with the more effete side of literature. "It's about a friend of mine who tried to ride a Brahma bull," Sutliff says. "His friend dared him. He had to."
Sutliff pronounces it BRAH-ma, as opposed to the true cowpoke BRAY-ma, but that makes sense, as he is "only a pretend cowboy," he explains. "I listened to a lot of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as a kid. I can't write a whole lot about real cowboys, except the basic things--do what's right, that sort of thing. Get by with what you have."
Such basic things certainly inspired Sutliff's "Outhouse, John, or Biffy," an ode to outdoor plumbing that he had carefully printed up, complete with the logo of his business, Foothills Door Company. Sometimes he will hand this poem to a surprised garage-door customer, who will usually read it long after Sutliff and his repair truck have disappeared around the bend:
It was called a biffy, toilet, or backhouse
A two-holer, Outhouse, John or Can.
Sometimes you took a leisurely walk,
Then other times you ran...
You could plan great things for your life,
As you tarried on a hot night in June.
Or sing and whistle your cares away,
While peaking out through the quarter moon.
While Sutliff sits in McDonald's, thinking about the sort of drawings he'd like to illustrate his poems--the way he sees it, a cowboy poet has to have cartoons printed next to his poems or he's just not trying--a top-secret committee is considering the top-secret matter of Colorado's next poet laureate.
This state has been without an official poet since Thomas Hornsby Ferril died in 1988. But sometime in late August, the committee will send the names of its top three finalists to Governor Roy Romer, who will choose the poet who best captures Colorado in verse--for the next four years, at any rate, since the new poet laureate, like Colorado's elected officials, will be subject to term limits. During his four-year reign, the honored poet will have an office in the newly restored Denver home of Thomas Hornsby Ferril, soon to be headquarters for the Colorado Center for the Book, as well as a $4,000 annual stipend, funding permitting.
"Really?" Sutliff asks, when he learns of this. "That sounds like a nice deal."
Too bad Sutliff wasn't among the poets nominated for the job. But even if he were eligible for the honor, he says, he's not sure he would serve. "I met this ex-teacher a couple of years ago, doing her garage doors," he says, "and she calls me up all the time and says I should take one day off each week to write. That's easy if you don't have bills to pay. Plus," he muses, "I'm not sure if I could just sit there and write poems all day."
You'd be surprised at how many Coloradans could.
"That's what I've loved about all this," says Bonnie Sutherland, the Colorado Center for the Book staffer who's been working on the poet-laureate selection process since early this year. "There are all these people across the state thinking about poetry. Places you might never expect. Towns like Rye and Hesperus. People like an old farmer, like an executive at Coors. We have a very literary state. They care about reading and writing."
Which means they are on the same page as the Colorado Center for the Book, which promotes reading through literary drives, festivals, summer book programs--and the hunt for a new state poet. Sutherland has been working with an eclectic committee of volunteers--including Rocky Mountain News police reporter John Ensslin, Tom Auer of the Bloomsbury Review, Beat poet spokeswoman Catherine O'Neill and several more official arts-funding types--to cull through the list of nominees for the next poet laureate.
"It will be a very different kind of thing," Sutherland warns. "In the past, the poets all just kind of got themselves appointed."
Alice Polk Hill, Colorado's first poet laureate, had to practically beg Governor Oliver H. Shoup to appoint her. And when he finally did, in 1919, he officially proclaimed the 65-year-old woman just "one of the poet laureates of the State of Colorado." Hill did not get to enjoy her fame for long; she died soon after her appointment.
Next up was Colorado Springs' Nellie Burget Miller, who reigned from 1923 until 1952, when she died at age 76. She was followed by Margaret Clyde Robertson of Boulder, who liked to write about her childhood in Leadville and Caribou and published several books of poems during her short tenure, which ended when she died in 1954. Her successor was Milford E. Shields, a Durango film projectionist. Shields versified for twenty years, cranking out a poem for the start of every legislative session as well as odes for many politicians' retirements and quite a few little girls' birthdays. Somehow he still found the time to write letters to 142 world leaders, and in turn received replies from the likes of Haile Selassie and Winston Churchill.
For the five years between 1974 and 1979, Colorado was again laureate-less, until Governor Richard Lamm appointed Thomas Hornsby Ferril, then 83. Ferril was a well-known and well-respected newspaperman and poet who didn't find it necessary to write official verse for official occasions--but kept producing wonderful poetry nonetheless.
The role of the next poet laureate will not be so free-verse. Among his or her official duties: "being available to give readings and residencies in schools, libraries and bookstores," "providing the governor with an annual narrative account of the success and impact of the position on the community," and "serving as an advocate for poetry, literacy and literature."
For the first several months of this year, Sutherland's poet selection committee accepted nominations from third parties. They then contacted the poets and asked for samples of their work, as well as references and honest consideration of whether, if selected, they were up to the official duties.
"The impression I've gotten is that nomination is an honor," says Sutherland. "So far, no one has turned us down."
Sutherland's working list of fifty poets is copiously marked with pink highlighter, and its edges are dog-eared. The names on the list are not a matter of public record.
"I wouldn't want to poke fun at any one person, but there are some funny people in here," she says, tantalizingly. "People who rhyme, people who don't, every kind of poet you can imagine. Not even necessarily grounded in the West, and that's okay, too. Even cowboy poets."
Not, however, weight-room supervisors who are itinerant preachers writing about God and Life. But even so, poetry is getting quite a workout at the Washington Park Recreation Center.
The doors here open at 6 a.m., and on weekdays they are always opened by 65-year-old Raymond Wright, a retired engineer/technician for the Colorado Department of Highways who has worked at the rec center for the past six years. "I'm a recreation facilitator," Wright explains. "What I really do is open the doors and watch over the weight room, fixing any controversies that may occur."
What he also does is write poetry--a habit he's indulged for thirty years. "I'll stop in the middle of anything to scribble down a sentence," Wright says. "I've written at the rec center--one poem recently that didn't even rhyme. I call it 'Denver at Dawn.' I wrote one called 'I Wanna See Some Sweat.'"
"Didn't you write one about 'Look at all those buns'?" asks Wright's wife, Harriett, who has read just about everything in the "boxes and boxes and boxes" of poems her husband has written.
"About 1,500, I bet," Wright confirms, "and some of them I just leave down at the rec center when I'm done with them. I don't even keep track."
Other poetry lovers do. Anyone who frequents the Wash Park weight room knows that Wright can handle words as easily as most people there handle weights.
"I'm not the only one," he insists. "I've met several other poets down at the center. A lot of the ladies and, just lately, one fellow came up to me and stood there reciting. What he had to say was awful raunchy, and I reprimanded him. I said, 'You appear to have some talent, but you write too many foul words and foul thoughts.'"
There is no room for such things in the poetry of Raymond Wright, who continues to write verse because one day, 28 years ago, he was saved.
"What happened," he says, now relaxing in a recliner in his south Denver home, "is that I started smoking at the age of twelve and began trying to quit at thirty. I found it so hard I ended up writing a poem about it."
Harriett produces a copy of that first poem:
I tried to quit like everyone else, sure didn't have much luck
And every time I think of it, I almost run amock
I light a smoke or pack my pipe or even try a stogie
Do I enjoy it? Oh no I don't! I'm like a malcontent fogie.
Wright's struggle continued--without benefit of further poetic inspiration--until four years later, when he heard a voice saying, "It's either today or never." He threw himself on the mercy of Christ and instantly, he says, his craving to smoke disappeared, never to return.
The grateful Wright immediately dedicated his non-working hours to Jesus, praying with his family at a Salvation Army-affiliated church, compulsively reading the Bible, writing religious poetry and even becoming "an itinerant preacher. I preach and read poems every Tuesday night at the county jail," he says. "I've been going there a long time, and I've gotten to know some of the inmates quite well."
"I hate it," Harriett says. "Too emotional for me."
"But seeing the men as they accept Jesus. What about that? That's a good feeling," Wright assures his wife.
"I'm still glad it's you who has to go, not me."
One year away from retirement, Wright has threatened to use the computer he bought years ago and put his poetry on disk, thus eliminating the drifts of paper that cover the Wright household. But Harriett doubts that her husband will be able to part with his brand-new typewriter, bought on sale at Office Max.
"It allows you to erase words. I'm tickled with that," he says. "Most of my poems I write out longhand at first. I use a pencil but seldom erase. If I am unable to use a sentence, I save it for the next poem. Then I type it all out. Will retirement affect my writing? Nah. I'll just write more."
"And that's the truth," Harriett affirms.
Some of Wright's poetry has the ring of genuine gospel:
As long as I'm anchored to the rock,
And choose to listen to Him talk.
Then, having listened, I walk the walk.
My life is not futile.
Some of his poetry is more personal, especially the poems he writes for Harriett, including "A Godly Mother," which he composed for Mother's Day, 1995:
Sometimes she uses the rod in love,
To show that she really cares.
At other times she'll correct you,
With one of those "awful stares."
Over the years, Wright's oeuvre has wandered away from religion into the realms of simple observation--"Smiles are so much prettier/Than a frown is, any day!"--and humor, as in his "Cowboy Bubble Bath," which concerns the effects of beans on bathwater, and "Gunfight," a Western thriller that turns out, in the dramatic denouement, to concern a six-year-old and a couple of deadly water pistols.
Wright reserves a certain acid wit for pagan holiday figures. "I like to write poems poking fun at Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, as a way of showing people that all that is just one big fat farce," he admits. Accordingly, in time for Easter 1993, he wrote:
I think the Easter Bunny is really a big fat myth.
He's supposed to bring us all those eggs.
Now how can just one bunny do all that work alone.
He must think we're all a bunch of yeggs.
But now Wright is quietly sobbing as he reads a poem he wrote about walking through the snow with his then-two-year-old son. Occasionally, he will stop between couplets to let the emotion subside.
"He does this all the time," Harriett whispers.
"Bear with me," says Wright, producing a pocket handkerchief. "My son is a big hulk of a man now, getting ready to be a pastor on his own, and we're just so proud. I read that poem, and the memories get me--the normal things, riding a bike, walking in the snow, praying. Memories. I guess I get carried away and start in to bawling."
"You sure do," Harriett says.
In the evening, Bob Dougherty works behind the bar at Theresa's Holiday Bar in Morrison. Dressed all in black, his long gray hair pulled back severely from his face, a cigar clamped between his teeth, he will look up from the taps and say something terse and Western, such as: "Hello, trouble." He will say this with an Australian accent.
Dougherty is a mass of details: tattoos, earrings, the Three Tenors on CD, an ability to converse in Thai, wine snob, baseball fanatic, extra in the film The Man From Snowy River--"my derriere, anyway"--and, sentimental fool that he is, a tendency to shower women with red roses and Swiss chocolate. His conversations circle the globe:
"...she was Sri Lankan, and another one of my adopted daughters..."
"...growing lonesome in Japan, I began to spew out verbiage..."
"...and there, lying in the jungle, I first had the sensation of Agent Orange drifting down onto me through the trees..."
Once, while working as a full-time character actor in an Australian theme park--"pistol duels, sabre duels, that sort of thing"--he appeared in drag as understudy for an actress who failed to show up. He wore his neckline high, his bonnet brim low, and he spoke in a falsetto, but no one was fooled.
Although he usually manages to curb his strong desire to use big words, sometimes they come tumbling out anyway. Instead of announcing that he's going home to a hot tub and a beer, for example, he'll say: "I believe I will displace some water with a strong libation in hand."
And sometimes those words come tumbling out and arrange themselves into a poem.
"My next outpouring will be called There's a Cowboy in Left Field, which reveals my status as an Aussie outsider, as well as my love for baseball," Dougherty says. Like his previous outpouring, Things I See From My Veranda, Cowboy will be available on cassette at Theresa's, and at Dougherty's few-and-far-between poetry-recitation gigs.
"This year, I've been on stage at the Arvada Center for their Cowboy Poetry Gathering," he recalls. "I've performed in the extremely small lounge at the Buckhorn Exchange. I've done some poetry in a tiny entrance foyer at a bed-and-breakfast in Ouray, and they had people pay, which was wonderful."
In performance, Dougherty lays on the Aussie cowboy persona as thickly as he deems necessary, and his acting background stands him in good stead. If you have not heard him recite "Bill Carpenter and the Elastic Brace," your life has been too tame. The convoluted story of an 1860s Australian frontier inventor whose extremely stretchy mono-suspender sends a friend careening into space by the seat of his pants--literally--it includes these lines:
It sent him hurtling toward town at twice the speed of sound,
Which is pretty bloody fast when you're only ten feet off the ground!
Bill held his arms out, just like wings, to aid him in his flight
And the wind caught underneath his coat, and gave him extra height.
He sailed over the blacksmith's shop and soon became aware
That half the travellers in the street were pointing in the air.
Is it a bird? Or Superman? Why don't we have a bet!
At least we know it's not a plane--they're not invented yet!
Dougherty occasionally waxes nostalgic about life in the Australian bush, as in "Great Mates," a poem written from the point of view of a country man who has lived in Sydney for exactly one day and is already homesick for:
Long days and longer nights
Beers, and barbies, and friendly fights
And a girl I loved, who said she loved just me
And great mates, and feeling strong and free
But when he's not expected to be the Cowboy From Koolewong, Dougherty writes whatever he feels like, and this ranges widely, from children's poems:
You wanted me to make you laugh,
So think of a great big giraffe;
With purple spots upon his nose
And in his ear a bright pink rose.
to verse of an almost drippily romantic nature:
a special friend
gave me a rose...
There is fire in my belly
My brain is sharp and true.
My knees get weak as jelly
When e'er I think of you...
Although he is not the type of writer who believes in forced hours in front of the computer screen, Dougherty still considers poetry to be what holds his life together. Which is odd, he says, considering his lack of training. "I was an extremely reluctant student," he recalls. "I never wrote a poem until 1985."
Now fifty, Dougherty was born in Sydney and spent his youth at a boys' boarding school in the outback--hence his ties to the bush town of Koolewong. Upon graduation, he took a government job to please his parents but left within the year to travel Australia with a rodeo-rider friend. "I fought in boxing tents," he remembers. "I was part of a bunch of fighters who challenged the locals. You'd allow them to win the princely sum of ten pounds. The people who managed us had no intention of us ever winning, and the more blood the better."
Dougherty was sent to Vietnam one year later and got married upon his return to Australia at the age of 21. He believes his exposure to defoliants during the war made him infertile; when they couldn't have children of their own, he and his wife decided to host foreign-exchange students. A stint at journalism school followed, then a character acting career, then divorce. Poetry entered the scene driven by the dual forces of loneliness and Colorado poet Baxter Black.
"Some U.S. friends had sent me his tapes, which I thought were bloody marvelous," Dougherty recalls. "Then I heard him on a mid-day talk show in Australia; he was on some kind of tour." Inspired, Dougherty fired off a poem of homage and sent it to Black, who invited Dougherty to stop by whenever he was in the American West. (Dougherty still hasn't worked up the courage.)
Seeing Black on stage persuaded Dougherty that "poetry is a performance, a story you're telling in a poetic way," he says. "People who pay to see you do that have a right to see a real show, instead of that intonation, that bloody rhyming meter, line by line, line by line. Pretty near everybody in the world of cowboy poetry does it that way," he says. "Not me. It gets me at odds with some of the traditional people."
But Dougherty finds that quite appropriate. "You need to be marginally unsettled to be a poet," he says. "I have a lot of highs and lows. It comes with the territory."
Dougherty moved to Colorado territory in 1990, a little late for him to really qualify as poet laureate for the state--not that he was nominated. And not that he minds the oversight. "I enjoy my life at the moment," he says. "I tend bar, I read--lots of mysteries and Robert James Waller, who strikes a romantic chord in my soul. He's one of the few I really admire."
Another person he admires is Rockies radio announcer David Campbell, "because he never says a bad word about anything in baseball," Dougherty points out, "and why should he?" Merely thinking of Campbell's rightness inspires him to impromptu free verse:
Baseball is like fine wine
It ought to be ingested
Swirled around and singing in your mouth
While you're sitting
In front of a fire
With a dog
Lying across your feet.
"Every now and then," Dougherty says apologetically, "a certain amount of verbiage will escape me. Which isn't necessarily bad. I like what I write. It's part of me. Besides," he adds, "there are a squillion poets in this world. Look around you. Everybody does it.