By Myers Reece
Explore Big Sky Contributor

It’s a cool summer afternoon just outside of Great Falls and Paul Zarzyski wants to talk about his stuffed mink. Respectfully christened “Mister Mink,” the animal sits glassy-eyed in the poet’s cluttered studio among colorful neckties, photographs, and trinkets.

“Mister Mink gave me a poem,” Zarzyski says. “I have an old washing machine that gave me a poem, too. I guess I feel an obligation to them?”

Currently one of the West’s most acclaimed poets, Zarzyski was born in Hurley, Wis. in 1951. He drifted westward 40 years ago and landed in a poetry workshop taught by the University of Montana’s Richard Hugo. Though his vision extends across the globe, Zarzyski’s heart is firmly rooted in the West.

For a period after receiving his M.F.A. in 1976, Zarzyski taught Hugo’s classes, and Missoula remained his home for years. He remembers colorful anecdotes of wild writers having wild nights. Authors such as Jim Crumley, James Welch, and Rick DeMarinis make cameos, going about the hard business of staving off sobriety.

“This was a time,” as Zarzyski quotes author Jim Harrison, “when writers behaved badly.”
Zarzyski had only a handful of poems to his name, but under Hugo’s guidance he learned both the mechanics and music of poetry. Zarzyski now has a photograph in his studio of his mentor smiling and holding a freshly caught trout, captioned by newspaper headlines that Zarzyski collected during Hurricane Hugo: “Hugo Bears Down,” and “Hugo Rages On.”

Since leaving Hugo’s classes, Zarzyski, a self-described “Polish-Mafioso-Rodeo-Poet,” has penned some of the finest rodeo poetry ever written, and performed at venues including Washington, D.C.’s Library of Congress and Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. One of those rare poets who has been able to make his living through poetry, he’s just coming off a pair of projects that he says both broadened his literary horizons and scared the heck out of him.

Zarzyski’s 2011 book, “51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, and 1 Self-interview,” represented his first endeavor at memoir, and 2014’s “Steering with my Knees,” a collection of “lite” poetry, collected over 70 poems, more than 40 of which had never before been published. Despite the book’s tendency toward the humorous, the gags never trump compassion. Black and white illustrations by Missoula artist Larry Pirnie, a longtime Zarzyski friend and collaborator, grace each of 13 section breaks.

Among Zarzyski’s various books, “Steering” is perhaps the most thorough reflection of his sensibilities and talents. For readers who are just getting to know his poetry, this is the place to start. And for those who are already familiar with his work, this is an essential addition.

Even with eight previous books under his belt, Zarzyski is finding he has a special relationship with this duet of newest efforts, both published by Bangtail Press. Considered to be companion books, each offers a distinct yet compatible approach to self-therapy: serious reflection and playful nostalgia.

Zarzyski dedicates the poems of “Steering with my Knees” to friends, lovers, colleagues, acquaintances, mentors, and of course, Mister Mink. The poems celebrate the depth and breadth of a life well lived in the West, with titles that, while often extravagant, point to larger meanings.

The song lyrics in “51” reflect Zarzyski’s zeal for life, and they’ve been recorded and performed by a host of notable musicians, including Ian Tyson, Tom Russell, David Wilkie, and Betsy Hagar. Wylie Gustafson and Zarzyski won the Western Writers of America’s 2010 Spur Award for Best Western Song for “Hang-n-Rattle,” which asks the “quintessential western question: Did you come to ride? Or did you come to hide?” Zarzyski always comes to ride.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Zarzyski is as excited about the future as he is reflective about the past. He’s been fortunate to be graced by what he calls “Big Medicine” at every turn in his life. He’s thankful.

Yet it seems like we should be the ones thanking Zarzyski – for offering us his words, for asking the tough questions and not hiding from the answers, for giving us the gift of poetry, for sharing his Big Medicine.

“You just live and you write about living,” he says. “And then you hope against all hope that the poems you raise into adulthood and send off into the world have something to offer other people’s lives. That’s what I’ve done and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

Myers Reece is a freelance writer, whose journalism, essays and fiction have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. He was a founding member of the award-winning Flathead Beacon and most recently was the publication’s senior writer. He lives in Kalispell with his wife and two dogs.