Cobble Hill cowgirl-poet lassoes 2012 Will Rogers Award

Mag Mawhinney is Cowichan
Mag Mawhinney is Cowichan's cowgirl poet.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland

Mag Mawhinney can't really explain her fascination with the hard-bitten culture of the west.

She lets her pen do the talking in poetry and songs about cowboys, settlers, miners, trappers, loggers, ranchers and homesteaders.

"It's something intangible; I'm just drawn to it."

Mawhinney's muse is heard and seen in her poetry book and CD Western Spirit that lassoed her 2012 Cowgirl Poet of the Year honours with the Will Rogers Award presented by America's Academy of Western Artists.

"There were 17 on the list and they picked me," the Cobble Hill wordsmith said, yanking muffins out of the oven.

"This award is based on my work. The academy looks at how you're promoting the western genre, and western heritage," the Duncan-born artist said of her award being presented in Texas in February.

Mawhinney's not going. Beside travel tabs, she just doesn't travel much during winter.

Still, she was humbled.

"Someone got hold of my book down there and Rick Huff of the Western Music Association reviewed it, and published it in Rope Burns newspaper in the states."

Western Spirit follows her previous three books.

It's a collection of poems, photos and songs heard on a 13-track CD comprising eight artists — from Canada and the U.S. — who created melodies for Mawhinney's stirring lyrics.

She has plenty of fodder for imagery capturing the lonely, determined lifestyle of living and working on the land now, and more than a century ago.

"How far west can you get?" she said of her Cowichan roots, that included Bliss Carmen's poems as a kid.

"We lived in Camp 6 Caycuse, and we lived in the Cariboo for awhile as my dad was a horse logger and homesteader," said Mawhinney, 71.

"I met quite a few cowboys and ranchers, and went to ranches — that's when I took up cowboy poetry."

But Mawhinney's work also puts plows, axes, and crops in her meaning of heritage.

"Western culture encompasses people who broke through into the land," she said, citing Alberta's B.J. Smith among Canada's best poets.

"I call myself a western-roots poet."

That label shows in some 100 poems, 37 songs, plus magazine and short stories, she's penned in the past 14-odd years.

While many see the west through Hollywood's lens or Yankee novels, Mawhinney's work probes life in Alberta, B.C.'s Interior around Kamloops and Vernon, and in the Carbioo.

The far north too.

"Western Spirit has a picture of me sitting outside Robert Service's sod cabin in Dawson City," she said, familiar with legendary poet's spell in Cowichan.

When Mawhinney's muse speaks, she listens.

"I just write about what I see; or perhaps about stories I've heard. I write of personal experience a lot.

"My rhythm is very much like Service's, I've been told by other poets.

"Rhyming poetry's always been my favourite style, but the (Spirit) book has some free verse in it," said the visual writer.

"People say I have a real knack for making a poem come to life, so the person feels they're also involved; maybe it's from experiences they've had."

And most folks could write poetry too.

"Why not? All you have to do is want to write," she said.

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