Local cowgirl poet wins Rising Star award

Erin Perkins
By Erin Perkins
March 28th, 2012

For some writing can be a daunting process, for others, like cowgirl poet Jill Gunnarson, it is a gift.

And it is Gunnarson’s gift for inspiration — which often comes to her in the middle of the night and keeps her up until morning — that won her the B.C.Cowboy Heritage Society Rising Star award at the cowboy western poetry competition in the international Kamloops Cowboy Festival March 8 to 11.

“My poetry comes to me in the early hours of the morning or at night,” said Gunnarson, who lives in rural Grand Forks on a small farm she shares with her animals and rescue dogs. “Sometimes it just comes and I have to get up and write. It’s something I don’t have to work at ….When it comes, it comes. I hate it when I’m driving because I can’t stop to write!”

Gunnarson began writing poetry as a child to help her through difficult times.

She hadn’t written poetry for years when the Les Follies Jambettes, a Grand Forks based Can-Can dance troupe, approached her in 2006 to be their Madame and provide entertainment between their dance routines.

“At first I said no because I’m kind of shy but as I got into it I felt more comfortable,” said Gunnarson, who really does have a flare for the stage as a singer, musician and even a clown.

It seems a shame I didn’t do (poetry) for so many years.

The jump from singing to poetry reading wasn’t a hard one. Both are about memorizing words, rhythm, story telling and an engaging stage presence.

After deciding to join the troupe as their Madame, Gunnarson began researching the gold rush era, specifically the one to the Klondike, and the dance hall girls to keep in theme with the dance troupe. She became fascinated with these women, who, like herself, had a true pioneering spirit.

“There were 30,000 men and only 1,500 women and of those only 500 made it,” said Gunnarson. “Everything was expected of them — to carry a one year supply of their own provisions they would hire men to travel with them and then the women would do their cooking for them … They had to find employment and that often took different faces. A lot didn’t make it, but those who did were stronger for it.”

“They went for adventure and financial gain. It was the early days of the women’s movement and they could prove themselves.”

Gunnarson has also felt the urge to “prove” herself. In 1985 she moved to Grand Forks from Maple Ridge to a rural homestead with no running water.

Prize money for publishing

This was the second time Gunnarson had participated in the cowboy western poetry competition. Last year she’d placed fourth and walked away with some new ideas for this year.

The panel of judges she faced through the semi-finals and the finals not only listened for good poetry, they wanted to see a memorable presentation, so that’s what Gunnarson gave them.

“I love to dress to costume,” smiled Gunnarson.

During the final leg of the competition, Gunnarson recited seven original poems, by heart, in 12 minutes. Those poems included, To the Gold Rush and the Girls, Not a City Gal, Sluice Box Hattie, Oh, to be a Cowgirl, A Miner’s Life, Tough Being a Woman Out There and A Cowboy’s Life.

The award includes a paid mainstage performing position at next year’s Kamloops Cowboy Festival and $1,000.

The prize money will help Gunnarson publish her poems. Right now the only way a person can see her work is through her performances.

“Lots of people asked to see my poetry,” said Gunnarson. “Now I’ll have the funds to (publish).”

When not writing poetry in the wee hours of the morning, Gunnarson can be found rescuing dogs for her Kootenay Collie Rescue organization or silversmithing her latest jewelery masterpiece for her business, Ripple Creek Creations.