Joe Kreger, who dubs himself a “cowboy poet,” has been appointed as Oklahoma’s state poet laureate for 2021-2022. It will be the second time he has held the position.
In April, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Kreger, 81, to the honorary position 24 years after he was named poet laureate in 1997 by former Gov. Frank Keating. Stitt said in a press release that Kreger’s journey to creative writing shows it is never too late for new ventures.
“Over the next two years, school children and other audiences across Oklahoma will have opportunities to find themselves absorbed in the stories Joe conveys in his poetry,” Oklahoma Arts Council executive director Amber Sharples said in the release. “His connection to the land we call home and the inspiration he draws from it are defining trademarks that will speak to the heart of Oklahomans everywhere.”
Kreger is a farmer and rancher who was born and raised in Tonkawa. He began writing when he was 56 years old. Since then, he has published two books of poetry, Lookin’ at Life and Still Lookin’, along with several audio albums. While most are unavailable now, his publications sold out after multiple reprints.
In this Q&A, Kreger reminisces about his life growing up on a ranch with his father and his journey as a cowboy poet. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
This is the second time you’ve been appointed as poet laureate of the state. What does it mean to you to be recognized at a high level again?
I am honored to receive appointments from two different governors. This is a first in Oklahoma. The time span between these appointments exceeds 20 years. I view this as an affirmation that my writings have some level of value that a number of Oklahomans can relate to.
Being a farmer and rancher, how did you come to love poetry? How do you balance it between your trade and all other tasks you take on?
Having spent my childhood days in the “pre-television” days, our family spent evenings reading or listening to the radio. My dad loved poetry and had some books of American poetry. I guess dad’s affinity for poems rubbed off on me. I was particularly drawn to the works of Eugene Field, Joyce Kilmer and cowboy poet Omar Barker. Many years later, my favorite poet is Carlos Ashley, who has influenced my style of writing poems.
I read that, in 1994, you recited your first poem on a radio show during an open discussion on the topic: “What is the meaning of happiness?” What compelled you to call in? What was that like for you?
During the winter months, I spent much of my day in my feed truck feeding cattle. I was a regular listener to a show entitled AgriTalk, hosted by Ken Root. They covered topics ranging from markets and technical agricultural issues to rural lifestyle topics. On that particular day, the guest was a noted rural psychologist. His focus centered on the achievement of “happiness.”
I had written a poem, Small Pleasures of Life that I thought addressed the subject pretty well. I had never called in to a talk show before, but on an impulse, I called in that day.
After I read the poem on the air, they had the most call-ins that they had ever received. The callers were requesting copies of that poem. Later on, AgriTalk approached me about doing a book, which we did.
I had a several-year association with AgriTalk. We did several radio shows, some of them broadcasted before live audiences in various Branson, Missouri, theaters. The first book, Lookin’ at Life, sold out of the initial printing, was reprinted and sold out again. It is currently out of print. We followed with an audio album, Small Pleasures, which sold out and is no longer available. We did a second book, Still Lookin’, and two more audio albums.
Rustin Hamilton, AgriTalks’s very talented producer, served as a booking agent for personal appearances at various functions. We also ran a poetry column in the High Plains Journal for several years. Other publications have run selected poetry over the years and continue to do so.
Being born and raised in Tonkawa, what was it like growing up with your father on the ranch? How much has that influenced you as a poet? Is there anyone you get inspiration from?
Our family home was in the small town of Tonkawa. My dad was a medical doctor in general practice. He came from a very modest rural background but was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Dad was a true “Cowboy Doctor,” delivering babies in remote farm homes, making house calls at all hours on bad country roads and seeing patients at all hours of the night in our living room. He had an office which he shared with one of my uncles, also a general practice physician.
Dad volunteered for the army during World War II. I really missed my dad and was worried if he would make it home. He served on the front line (of the European Theater) as a battalion aid officer, patching up wounded soldiers and sending them back to hospitals.
My dad was a farmer and rancher at heart. Prior to World War II, he raised horses and belonged to the Tonkawa Roundup Club. I was already in the first grade when dad got back from the war. We had land near Tonkawa, and when dad got home from the office, he and I headed out to tend our cattle.
I always had horses, and during the severe drought of the 1950s, I would gather the cattle out of our burned-up pastures and herd them on the roads to gorge the ditches. Those were some of the great times with dad and our livestock.
Both sets of grandparents were farmers and raised livestock, as well as my uncles and cousins. I stayed with them at every opportunity. From the time I was a small child, I wanted to be a cowboy and a rancher.
The work ethic, dedication and resilience of my parents and extended family made a deep impression on my life and the values that I attempt to portray in some of my poetry. As I got older, I worked on several ranches, got to associate with cowboys and ranchers of the “old school” and usually found something from their character that I wanted to emulate. We are all products of our experiences and associations. I guess that some of those influences come through in the stuff I write.
If you could go back in time to any period, where would you go and what would you do?
If I were to go back in time, I would choose the time when our kids were small and the family was all together. Memories of life with those three kids are the most cherished ones that I have. Money was tight, and challenges were great, but it was a blessed time.
The kids broke so many bridle reins tying up horses in unorthodox ways that I used to say I needed to buy reins by the groves.
When I was working on the ranch or making equipment deliveries across the state, I usually had one or more kids with me.
Christmas, Easter and birthdays are vivid memories.
As this will be your second tenure as Oklahoma poet laureate, what will be your plans moving forward?
Admittedly, age has slowed me down a bit. I haven’t done many appearances in the last four years, however, I will make every effort to fulfill the Oklahoma poet laureate role. The Oklahoma Arts Council will administer the poet laureate program for the governor’s office.
It is my understanding that the council will arrange a number of appearances for poetry readings for public school students and possibly other venues, perhaps in underserved areas. My goal is to inspire people, young and old, to appreciate poetry and, if as inclined, to begin writing thoughts, beliefs and experiences that are important in their own lives.
In this age of high-speed electronic communication and immediate access to entertainment, introspective thought and shared experiences still have value and provide nourishment to the soul.
(Correction: This article was updated at 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 2, to correct reference to the age of Joe Kreger.)