Gary Penney spent more than two months training for his first rodeo, his eye on the glint of that championship buckle.
Every evening he’d head to the back porch in Lorena with his coach and wife, Donna, a retired schoolteacher. There he would stand looking over the prairie and recite his own cowboy poetry.
That work paid off in the arena earlier this month, when he competed at the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo in Abilene, Kansas.
He performed a mixture of classic and original poems, including his own “Cowboy in a City Church,” “Coyote Control,” and “Reflections.”
Judges awarded him several awards, including the “Best of the West” buckle in the division for first-time presenters.
The big win took Penney by surprise, given that his experience had been limited to performing for friends and Waco nursing and retirement homes. But the win has inspired him to consider competing next year against the seasoned cowboy poets in the poetry rodeo’s “Silver Buckle” division.
“There were some really good poets there, especially in the Silver Buckle division,” he said. “I mean, they were salty, they were tough.”
Penney has been writing cowboy poems since the mid-2000s, some of which have been published in livestock journals. He and Donna have for years been regulars at cowboy poetry gatherings around the American West, but it was this year that he decided to participate onstage.
The cowboy gatherings for decades have kept alive the historical memories, lifestyle and humor of the American West, and often involve modern-day working cowboys. The “poetry rodeo” in Abilene is one of the few gatherings that offer a chance to compete for prizes.
Penney, 67, is the first to tell you he’s never been a cowboy. He retired a few years ago as a food lab worker from Waco’s M&M-Mars plant and now spends his days tending to Boer goats on his eight-acre spread off Bullhide Trail.
But Penney said he’s never strayed far from his rural roots in Central Texas.
“Both my grandfathers had farms with cattle, and that’s what got me into livestock,” he said. “I’d go out and help work cattle. I always enjoyed being around cattle and chickens and such. In high school, I got involved in FFA, and I absolutely loved that.”
The Corsicana native got a college degree in agriculture, thinking he’d be working with livestock, but he ended up working at the Butterball turkey plant in Marlin until it closed in 1980 and he moved to M&M Mars.
His poetry mostly comes from his imagination and his fondness for the Old West.
In “Cowboy in a City Church,” he imagines a prim pastor telling a rustic cowboy to seek God’s advice on how he should dress the next time he comes to church. In the cowboy’s next visit, the pastor remarks on his dirty clothes, and the cowboy said he had sought guidance on what to wear to church.
“God told me he didn’t have a clue — he’d never been in there,” the poem ends, in a line that usually draws laughter.
In “Redeemed,” he describes claiming a gelding horse from a neighbor, a poem that leads into a comparison of Christ’s love for sinners.
He’d throwed the little daughter
Of the man who run this spread.
Jake had no patience for him;
Said he’d like to see him dead.
In “Reflections,” he depicts an aging cowboy on his pony, reflecting on what has vanished from the landscape — the herds of buffalo, the mustangs, the tipis of the Plains Indians, the wagon trains and the longhorn herds of Charlie Goodnight.
His character wistfully notes the sound of fences being built and the sight of old cattle trails paved in concrete.
That Old West nostalgia — which Americans have held since the frontier was declared dead in the 1890s — is an unapologetic theme of cowboy poetry. The form also embraces plainspoken language and old-fashioned versifying that’s as regular as a horse’s cantering hoofbeat.
“Cowboy poetry is composed about the lives of cowboys, and in a certain kind of rhyme and meter,” Penney said. “Usually, I use seven beats per line.”
Cowboy poetry emerged just after the Civil War, showing influences of Mexican corridor ballads from vaqueros, songs and poetry from the British Isles and popular American culture. It reached national popularity in the early 20th century in works by poets such as Charles Badger Clark, S. Omar Barker and Bruce Kiskaddon — works that Penney has studied and recited.
The tradition emphasizes the spoken over the written word, and cowboy poets are expected to work from memory and engage the audience with drama. Penney said he has learned to perform poems from other poets and has passed those tips along.
“It’s a big community, and you learn from them,” he said. “If you listen, you can soak it in.”
Along the way, he learned how to play harmonica from a woman in her 80s, and now he incorporates it into his act.
He said he met a cowboy poet at the rodeo this month who asked him how he could improve.
“I said you’ve got some great poems, but what you need to do is own it,” he said. “You can’t just go up there with a monotone and recite it. Let them know how you feel.”
At a reading Tuesday in Hewitt, he drew an enthusiastic crowd of about 30 people, including some old co-workers and friends.
“I like any poetry that speaks from the heart,” said Ben Hagins, an audience member.
Hagins said Penney has performed his poems at a writer’s group he attends at First Baptist Woodway.
“Gary has a message that he really believes, and it speaks to everyone in our group,” he said. “He’s going to be invited back.”
Hewitt librarian Waynette Ditto said she has been trying to get Penney to do a reading for several years, but scheduling conflicts have prevented it. She hopes to bring him back again.
“I was very pleased,” he said. “The audience was engaged and enjoyed it very much.”
Penney plans to perform at a cowboy gathering in Lubbock in September, then rest a while before he considers where he wants to go with his second career as a cowboy poet.
“I just want to keep history alive and make people feel good,” he said.