KT Sparks on Cowboy Poetry and “Four Dead Horses”

From her 25-year tenure as a policy analyst and speechwriter for federal agencies and the US Senate, to her sustainable farming venture in the Shenandoah Valley, the Michigan-born, Virginia-based KT Sparks has gone to great lengths — and traveled far — to leave her mark on whichever road her career shifts have led her to. Her nonfiction pieces and short stories have been published in The Kenyon Review, Electric Lit, and Citron Review, netting Sparks recognition from the New Millennium Writing Awards, The Moth short story competition, and the Bath and WriterHouse flash fiction contests.

This through line of wandering and seeking one’s fortunes beyond the horizon found its way into Sparks’s debut novel Four Dead Horses, a road paved in lyrical prose, eclectic cowboy poetry, and equine demises.

Kicking off in the 1980s and finding itself at journey’s end in the 2010s, the narrative follows Martin Oliphant, whose ennui from being tethered to familial dysfunction is only outweighed by his burgeoning gut, leaving little room for any sense of purpose or slice of joy to be taken out of life. That is, untilachance encounter with rodeo personalitiesat Jimmy Sneedle’s Tennis and Dude Ranch embeds in Martin an appreciation of cowboy poetry that speaks to his aimlessness in life and desire to redirect his course.

Determined to make a man of himself and break free from the confines of Pierre, Michigan and his family’s indifference towards him,Martin makes it his goalto one day travel to Elko, Nevada and partake in the annual Cowboy Poetry Confluence to not only find his voice and place among the cowboy greats, but also his unvarnished self. All in the name of “[inhabiting his] own version of the American dream.”

Such a far out, and Far West-bound, premise can entice readers to take a gander at the level of imagination, societal consciousness, and introspection Sparks relays via her prose, which we recently discussed.

You’ve had quite the journey of a lifetime, what with your working as a speechwriter and policy analyst in DC before heading down to Virginia to run a farm. I’ve sensed a similar vibe in Martin’s own journey from familial black sheep to budding cowboy poet. Did your career shifts and personal story help influence the structure of Martin’s story?

My life path and Martin’s track pretty closely until the point he leaves University of Chicago to take care of his crumbling and supremely ungrateful family. I too left a small Lake Michigan town for the U of C, excited about the opportunities a classical education and big city life had on offer, although my family was both encouraging and undemanding, and my memories of my hometown all fond ones. Martin and I both have off-kilter (or maybe unexpected) dreams based on our backgrounds, but everything about my launch from Michigan supported me in following them — everything about Martin’s failure to launch frustrated him in trying to do the same.

Martin struck me as someone who initially felt like he didn’t fit in anywhere before he found his calling in cowboy poetry. What are the essential traits of a character who sets their sights on spiritual goals rather than materialistic ones (like the rest of Martin’s family)?

I love that you use the word “spiritual” for Martin’s attachment to cowboy poetry, because that’s exactly what it is: the lens through which he tries to find his place and understand his duties in a world that seems constantly both to test him and to discount him. Unlike the rest of his money-grubbing, status-seeking family, who are deeply incurious people, Martin is always asking the bigger questions: What is right in this moment? What is true? What is noble? Martin, an equinophobic Midwesterner, stumbles into an unlikely answer key in cowboy poetry, a performative folk art, obscure but still very much alive in the ranching communities of the West. His revelation comes to him in a moment when great doubt stews with great personal trial in a broth of sexual frisson, desert winds, and the tang of horse dung. Odd, sure, but no odder than other famous enlightenment experiences, say, Newton inspired by his concussive apple or three wise men trailing after a bright planetary conjunction.

The “Interlude” chapter stood out to me because it highlights how one’s dreams can be stuck in a cycle of being sacrificed at the altar of familial obligation and other commitments that can hold one back from realizing their potential in life. The short paragraphs further underline the dread of elapsed time and how that can make life seem more fleeting. What does the lack of initiative on Martin’s part say about the fear of traveling? Do you see that reflected at all in our current state of affairs in light of the pandemic and our being literally and figuratively fenced in?

Change is hard and scary, and most of us will do what we can to avoid it. There’s always a reason to stand still, usually a good one (and the pandemic is a particularly good one). But life is constant change and constant movement, and if you don’t keep up, it will leave you in the dust. I think that’s what that chapter is meant to illustrate.

Also, even though life is an ever-flowing river, it is not an endless ever-flowing river. There is a story I love about a terrible, greedy Bernie Madoff type who, in his dying days, begins to practice meditation with a Zen monk. As they sit together, Bernie begins to understand the suffering his lifetime of grasping and selfish actions has caused and the wonderous freedom in letting all that go. After a particularly liberating session, he says to the monk: “I see and reject what I was and want to become what I can be — is it too late for me?” The monk answers: “Yes.”

Life, and the shot we get at living it, is a finite proposition.

Of all the relationships you’ve depicted, the one between Martin and his friend Julie Newport stands out to me in the way that Julie thinks about winning in life, going as far as to tie her self-esteem to Martin’s on his cowboy poetry journey. This, however, means that whenever Martin mucks it up, Julie feels wronged. Did any real-life examples spring to mind when penning this relationship? Especially in this time of social distancing, do you think this kind of relationship reflects people’s craving of connections and belonging, of — in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words — seeking oneself outside oneself?

I think it’s less that Julie feels wronged because Martin mucks things up. She knows him as well as anyone, and he pretty much always mucks things up. She’s smart enough not to be surprised. I think it’s more that he deceives her. He doesn’t take care of their friendship after they part ways, and in that sense, it’s very much like what’s happening to friendships during the pandemic. How do we stay emotionally close when we are necessarily physically distanced?

Some of your past works — including “Saving Luna” and “Charlie Needs Teeth Out”centered around animals and caring for them. This time, you went with horses. Four make major appearances, keeling over at Martin’s discretion. What do the number of horses and their deaths symbolize for you?

The horse deaths are a steady reminder that it’s the weird, random, sad, ridiculous, and unfair stuff that happens all the time — and how we react to it — that’s the biggest determinant of what sort of life story we end up writing for ourselves. The randomness of everyday life is something I am endlessly interested in, and the most random, absurd, and tragic part of everyday life is that it ends, usually badly, despite all our fervent efforts towards a different outcome. Animal deaths are purer than human deaths, at least on the page. There’s no, or at least less, detour into whodunnit, whether they deserved it, what could have been done to stop it, whose fault it all is, as if we could reason death out of existence.

As for the titular four horses, that wasn’t planned out in advance. In fact, the novel was initially titled Road to Elko. Four Dead Horses was suggested by the wonderful author, CJ Hauser, who read drafts of my book. She emailed me after one read-through to discuss how many horse corpses appeared in the pages, how they always popped up at key moments, and how Four Dead Horses might be a better title. “Not everyone will pick up a book with that name,” she said. “But the ones that do are your readers.” Since I was also struggling with organization and pacing, that “four dead horses” worked as a structural guide was an added bonus.

What do you think is the foremost life lesson that you wish readers to get out of Martin’s story?

When I was done with Four Dead Horses and asked myself what the point of all that prose might be, I initially came up with a lot of unsatisfactory answers: Follow Your Dreams! The Only Shot You’ll Never Make Is the One You Don’t Take! Slow and Steady Wins the Race! But Martin does follow his dreams, takes a bunch of long shots, creeps toward his goals with the speed of a lame box turtle. Still, his results are at best inconsistent and most of the time, well, wacky. That’s because I wrote Martin as a real human living in the real world. That is an incredibly messy proposition, no rules, no guarantees.

In rereading and thinking about Four Dead Horses over the last few months, however, I realize that maybe exactly that is the point of Martin’s story — and that I did include a couple of clues to the (horrors!) theme in the text. One is in the epigraph, one of my favorite modern cowboy poems, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, by Shadd Piehl. The last lines read:

…To say that you’re scared,
Ain’t nothing wrong in that. But to flee
In the face of chance? C’mon, cowboy,
Roll ‘em! Shake your face and let them have you!

In other words, we, and Martin, meet well the world in all its wacky vicissitudes when we meet it head on. I again state something like this near the book’s end. It’s one paragraph, the only one in the novel written in the present tense, which, now that I’ve become a more serious student of Zen Buddhism, makes some sense to me. Because it is a description of an enlightenment experience, a moment when Martin sees the world and his place in it as it really is, unclouded by self-centered desires to control and interpret and change, and so he is able to act with complete nobility and honor.

With the pandemic having made folks wary of stepping out of their comfort zone, your book makes the case for the doctrine of life being far too grand to fence oneself in. Do you have in mind any other books, movies, and works that can inspire readers to take metaphorical leaps in times of uncertainty?

Stories that follow the “hero’s journey model,” from The Odyssey to Star Wars to the latest installment in the Dogman series (I have a seven-year-old grandson), are all about protagonists who choose the riskier road. And at a more basic level, most stories (books, movies, whatever) deal with a character or characters facing significant upheaval in their lives and having to do things differently, to grow, to get through it, or not. What we get out of those stories is not so much inspiration but information. We watch — and feel — from inside our safe bubble how other people (or aliens, or superheroes, or half-man-half-dogs) navigate this often tragic, often wacky, rarely just, and everchanging world. And in doing so, we learn a little more about what it is to live a fully human life.

Four Dead Horses
By KT Sparks
Regal House Publishing
Published April 19, 2021