Communicating Western Rural Culture Through The Arts
At the National Poetry Gathering in Elko, the arts in all of its forms take center stage. Western rural artists understand how music, poetry and storytelling seem to communicate more intimately than by any other means. They use this to their advantage to share both the charms and the challenges of rural living.
Rural Sociologist and Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University, John Allen grew up on a cattle ranch in Baker, Oregon. His unique perspective combines academic research with real-life experiences to create a different take on what it means today to be a rural American.
“In a rural area you wave to everyone and you say hello, whether you like them or not you just go ahead and do that. In an urban area you’d look down and you don’t make eye contact,” Allen said. “I think it was really stressed to me, I was in an elevator one day and there are all these people and they’re touching you! And you have to ignore them! I can’t even drive down the street in a rural area and not say hello, but to have you leaning on me? There’s a real difference between how we look at interaction in a rural area vs. an urban area it has a personalization in a rural area that you don’t necessarily get.”
He said one of the biggest concerns for rural Americans is youth-out migration. Our modern society, both urban and rural, has become increasingly dependent on technology. So, in order to participate in the information age, we’ve had to have technology in our lives, increasing the costs of living. However, rural income has not necessarily increased at the same rate, so many youth now face a tough decision: find a way to increase your income or move away.
“We get roles differently in rural areas. In sociological terms, it’s an ascribed process. If your mom did that for the church board you did it. Not necessarily because you knew how to do it, but just because they passed it down along those lines. Then in urban areas it’s about your certification. You get a degree and that is how you get your role. I see young people leaving rural communities, get their degree, come back and say ‘I have a master’s degree. I should be boss,’ and they go, ‘No, I don’t think so. Have you been an EMT, were you part of a volunteer fire department?’ and they’re going ‘No, but I have this degree!’ and so it’s really a different way of looking at how people get roles in society. I found that fascinating, but that is just part of the differences between rural and urban areas,” Allen said.
In addition to learning about and celebrating the traditions of the West, many who attend poetry gatherings such as the one in Elko come away realizing that, in fact, we have many more similarities than differences.
“I think it is really important to humanize,” Allen said. “I think part of what I‘m seeing right now whether it’s urban-rural, red-blue, political party to political party is that we’ve dehumanized. I used to do mediations on reservations, and somebody said that ‘It’s harder to kill somebody if you’ve eaten with them.’ And what that really is, once I know you as a human being, those stereotypes we’ve created about each other disappear. Child, income, tensions in our lives, goals dreams… and that reaches across urban and rural. So if we don’t have this discourse, then we allow those stereotypes to be enhanced.
“I think it’s important to have a conversation that about the humanness of who we are that allows me now to value you.”
In a world that is constantly overloaded with the latest new methods of communication, poetry and music still stand out as the most genuine and organic. Art speaks to both the heart and the mind, bringing understanding and compassion to those it reaches.
“Art speaks right to the heart. Gets to the heart of the matter. Music is a universal language as we’ve talked about before. It can get someone out of their element for a moment and move them to the perspective of the artist,” Allen said. “I was told one time that the difference between somebody who becomes a star, and somebody who is always a starving artist is that the star wants to be seen by many eyes, and the starving artist wants many eyes- to see the world through their own.
“If you go to Elko, and you go to the gathering and you listen to the poetry and music there you will see the rural west through the eyes of horsemen, ranchers, and the artists who basically make their living out of the land. That is what Elko offers, that is a very unique experience. Art in its best form can change someone’s perspective immediately.”