A fews thoughts from NPR's barnyard bard

When public radio called, Baxter Black answered, and hasn't stopped talking yet

Conversations

May 07, 2000|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

Baxter Black.

The name sounds as if it belongs to a lasso-swinging cowboy, the type of guy who drives a muddy pick-up and gnaws beef jerky for breakfast. OK, so that last part is wrong -- on the morning we chatted, Black had just finished his usual repast of chocolate chip cookies and See's candies -- but the rest fits.

Maybe you've heard of Black. When he's not roping steers back home in Arizona, he writes a little poetry, and does a regular gig on National Public Radio news programs like "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," where he treats listeners to his wacky verse and straight-on sensibilities. He's in town this weekend for a pair of performances: yesterday at the 27th Annual Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds (it continues today from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but without Black), then at Center Stage today. (Sorry, the latter, a benefit for local NPR affiliate WJHU-FM, is already a sellout).

But if you couldn't catch his act this weekend, you can always catch up with him online. Even cowboys have Web sites these days. His is www.baxterblack.com.

How did you first get hooked up with NPR? I'm a self-promoter, and it's illegal in the United States to publish poetry. If I was to send a poem into The Baltimore Sun, I'd get back a mimeographed note, and it'd be on one of those machines that's old and blue and rolls up -- that's how long this policy has been in effect -- and it'd say, "We're sorry. We don't publish poetry."

That means if you're a poet, you have to publish your own poetry, which is what I've done. ... So I sent [NPR] one of my poems, and they called back and said, "Could we run this?" And then they said, "Do you have anything else?" And here I am, sitting on 10 years of stuff.

Give us a little sample of your poetry.

Well, I have to divide my stuff into "cow-y" and "generic." If my stuff is too cow-y and I'm talking to a group of urban people, it's like reading a Tom Clancy novel. You can skip huge chunks of it because you don't understand it anyways and it doesn't have anything to do with the story. It's like reading a lot of women's novels where they tell you what the weather's doing and what people are wearing -- just skip that and get to the next titillating scene.

Anyway, what was I -- oh, I was going to give you a taste. Let me preface it by saying I drive a 1969 Ford pickup: three-quarter-ton, four-speed, with a manual choke. I should also say I've never washed this truck.

Here's the first verse:

I like a pickup that looks like a truck,

And not like a tropical fish.

Or a two-ton poodle with running lights,

Or a mutant frog on a leash.

Talk a little bit about your background. I'm originally from New Mexico, ... went to veterinary school in Colorado, and I've been in the feed-lot and ranching business as a veterinarian before I became an entertainer.

When NPR said, "How should we introduce you?" I said "Well, I'm a cowboy poet and used to be a vet but worked only on large animals." So they introduced me as a "cowboy poet and former large-animal veterinarian." And they had no idea what that meant. My first inkling was the first time I went back and visited with them. One of the NPR people met me and had this quizzical look and said, "We thought you'd be ... bigger."

What are your some of your favorite stories from your work?

The reason cowboy poetry is funny is because if you work with livestock, you get hurt. A lot. You really do. I've got bandages on two hands right now. And you laugh to keep from crying. Say you're in the corral and you get bucked off and everybody rides over to see if you're all right. And if you're alive, they start telling the story right away. And if you're dead, they wait a couple days.

If a guy gets run over by a car, everybody says, "Gosh, how awful." If he gets run over by a cow, they laugh. And I make a living telling stories about wrecks.

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