Interview by Vicki Palmquist · Bookology Magazine
When you conceived of Cowboy Up! was the poetry format a part of your plan? If not, when did that occur?
I was standing next to the fence watching a young girl riding her horse barrel-racing, speeding around the arena, kicking up dirt and smiling from ear to ear. I thought, I want to do that. I want to be a rodeo-rider…and the first poem came to me, right from that yearning. I once raised and rode horses and there is nothing like galloping across a field with the wind in your face and the feel of the horse moving under you. On the Navajo Nation I have enjoyed the “back-yard rodeos” watching kids with their families groom their horses, braid tails, shine hooves and get ready to ride. I wanted to capture and share the experience with others. From the poems developed the book.
Did you work from the photos or did Jan Sonnenmair select photos from her collection based on your poetry?
I had never met Jan but discovered her photo gallery online while I was researching about rodeos. She captured the feelings within the rodeo riders. The editor and publisher agreed and contracted with Jan to come to Arizona and shoot the images for the book. She did. First as strangers and soon as friends we traveled together with her young son, Eli, for a couple of weeks across the Navajo Nation going to small junior rodeos to the bigger ones searching for the images that complemented the text.
Did Jan specifically take photographs for this book or does she regularly photograph rodeos?
All the images in the book—and several thousand more—were taken for Cowboy Up! Jan was usually in the rodeo arena, wearing boots, jeans, western shirt and cowboy hat—all required—with several cameras slung over both shoulders, shooting close-ups. Once a bucking bronco charged toward her. She snapped the image (on the book’s back cover) and I ducked to the ground with arms around her son and my grandkids. It was an exciting moment. Another day we both stood in a howling sandstorm, tears streaming down our faces from the grit and wind, as she tried to take photos of little ones competing in the Wooly-Riding event. And then there was the morning we stood in ankle-deep mud at the Junior Rodeo Champion Competition, rain pouring, wind blowing, wishing we could quit and go home. The sun came out and Jan took many of the photos of young rodeo riders that you see in the opening and closing “gallery.”
You’ve captured the inner dialogue of these rodeo participants in such an effective way. Do you know these children? Have you talked with them about their lives in rodeo competition?
Some of them, yes. I do wander the “back areas” of the rodeo grounds listening and watching. I’ve talked with the parents and grandparents sitting in the bleachers or standing along the fence, watching their kids compete. I can’t imagine watching my own child compete in bull riding. But I’ve also had the opportunity to watch the children practice—like any athlete—on mechanical bulls or roping goats, leaping out of a chute, going from standing still to full gallop, turning tighter around a barrel—practicing all the skills that are essential to getting better, stronger, faster. And also the other part of working with animals, taking care of them. Carrying bales of hay, mucking out stalls, filling up water tanks, pail by pail, cleaning tack, scraping hooves, bandaging cuts, washing and brushing your horse, talking to them… They love their horses, feel such pride about wearing a champion belt buckle, and a strong sense of “this is my family and I’m part of it.”
Do you have a rough guess (or an actual statistic) about what percentage of children participates in the Navajo Rodeo in these communities?
Good question and I have no idea. When I do school visits at a Navajo school, I ask, “How many of you are rodeo riders?” Always more than half the children raise their hands (with big grins on their faces).
Do you recall your planning for “Woolly Rider”? There’s a sense of time in that poem, which is very hard to do in print. Was this format present from the first draft?
I knew I wanted something different for this poem, something that conveyed the feeling of being on that bucking, dodging sheep and how long eight seconds could be. When I’m watching a child (imagine, sometimes only three years old) come shooting out on top of a bucking sheep, in my head I am always counting the seconds, hoping the little one can hang on just one more, one more…until that buzzer rings. That became the structure for the poem. I wrote what I “saw” as my mind clicked the seconds. At first the seconds were done “backwards,” from eight down to zero, and the editor pointed out, that didn’t make sense.
Adding the announcer’s voice gives the reader a sense of being present at the rodeo. When did it occur to you to add this third voice to the book (the other two being the poem and the factual narrative)?
I give credit to our amazing editor, Marcia Leonard. We were struggling with what to do about titling each poem, how to indicate a shift to the next event, etc. I don’t quite remember how the idea unfolded but I did have a poem about the announcer—such an important part of any rodeo and also a person who has been a champion rider. He knows not only everything about the events, but the riders, the horses, even the bulls. Then Marcia suggested we keep his voice guiding us through the day, as it is at any rodeo.
You chose to have the last poem speak in the voice of a child who did not win at the rodeo. What felt right to you about that?
This poem was important to me. At first the editor, Marcia, was concerned it was too much a “downer.” I did shorten the poem but this poem is the “heart” for me. Whatever we do, whatever our age, we experience again and again, “nope, didn’t come in first.” What’s important is not the winning, but the getting back up, dust off your jeans, and try again.
What is your connection to the children who take part in the Navajo Rodeos?
I watch them, cheer them on, and wish I was one of them.
I know you teach on the Navajo lands, but do you teach children? Of what ages? And are you currently teaching?
I was teaching teachers for Northern Arizona University Distant Ed and also teaching undergraduate classes for Dine’ (Navajo) College. I also did short writing workshops with school children, all ages. Currently I am writing and doing author visits with a bottom line message of read, read, read.
Our book club often talks about authenticity: it’s a bewildering topic for us as we see many sides of this challenging topic. I know our groups will ask, so I include this question: are you of Native American descent?
I am not of Native American descent. I do have a grandchild who is. But this question is important. How does a writer create an authentic and honest book—and a book with a good story? This doesn’t happen quickly or easily. For myself, I need to listen, listen, and listen even more deeply. Research involves libraries and books but it also involves feeling the dirt, smelling the air, eating the food, being with the people. Again, asking questions, talking, taking time, and then eventually, asking for feedback. Did I get it right? Part of my motivation for writing Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo is that the kids I was talking with at their schools, wanted to see themselves in books. Not Indians in teepees waving tomahawks and wearing buckskins. Where were their stories? I feel strongly that the heart of “we need diverse books” is that every child should find their people, their stories, on the pages of a book. And contemporary stories, not just historical or “past tense.” Navajo people have an amazing culture with rich traditions. Rodeo is part of that. And rodeo is also part of universal feelings we all share. I wanted to celebrate both. When I get discouraged and not sure about “slapping off the dust and getting back up,” I think about the kids who come up to me with a big grin and say, “I am in this book.”