Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Nancy Bo Flood: Creating Cowboy Up!

Cowboy Up!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?

Photography by Jan Sonnenmair.  Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Jan Son­nen­mair.
Used with per­mis­sion. All rights reserved.

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?

Photography by Jan Sonnenmair.  Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Jan Son­nen­mair.
Used with per­mis­sion. All rights reserved.

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.” 



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