Tales of the West center on the iconic cowboy, riding the range in his chaps and Stetson, wrangling cattle and sleeping out under the stars.
But what about the women who also journeyed into wild and unknown territories to start new lives? Have they been forgotten in these stories of our past?
“Not by me,” says Sam DeLeeuw, a self-described “cowgal poet” who adds a feminine perspective to much of the rhymery she writes.
Maybe it’s a story about the hard work of a rancher’s wife, or the tale of an independent woman living the “Cowgirl Code.” Or it might be the comical adventures of a fictional 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound trail-drive camp cook named Hilda.
When DeLeeuw first rode into the cowboy poetry arena some 15 years ago, she realized it was primarily a male genre, but: “I wanted to see how I stacked up with the guys.”
Another poet advised her to find her own niche: “You can’t tell about what the men did — but the guys can’t tell it from the women’s point of view either,” she recalls.
That advice stuck as DeLeeuw continued crafting her own poetry, which earned her the Female Poet of the Year award in 2011 from the Western Music Association.
As the former ranch wife explains how she researched the role of women in settling the West, she easily slips into the resulting verses of her poetry.
“Men alone didn’t open the West, but women in lace or in suede,” DeLeeuw recites in her low and melodious voice, in the living room of her Roy home. “In a time when women were women, they came west, they settled, they stayed.”
Crazy for horses
From her childhood days riding bareback, DeLeeuw has lived the Western lifestyle she writes about. Little Brenda Merkley, as she was known then, grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho, where her father gave her her first horse, Stormy, when she was just 4 years old.
“Kids in Blackfoot rode horses like kids now ride bikes — everybody had a horse,” says DeLeeuw, who acquired the nickname “Sam” during her college days.
Her family moved to “town” in American Fork when DeLeeuw was 8, and she remembers thinking, “There were no corrals, there were no chutes, there were no pastures — and I thought I had gone to hell. .... Where are we going to put the horses?”
They found a place for the horses, and DeLeeuw continued riding and rodeoing as she grew up. She says her father used to say, “I’m the only fellow who’s sent a daughter, two horses and a dog to college.”
DeLeeuw says she always enjoyed reading anything about horses — Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, the Golden Stallion series — and began writing her own stories and “ditty-do rhymes” back in junior high and high school.
Eventually, she tried her hand at cowboy poetry, along with studying the poems of others, and by the 1990s, was performing and traveling with her own works.
“I liked it because it was talking about the West and cowboy people,” says DeLeeuw, who raised sheep and cattle with her former husband in Manti. “You don’t have to be a cowboy, but you have to understand what this way of life was.”
This way of life, for DeLeeuw, meant branding cattle in blistering heat and checking birthing cows in the freezing cold. She pulled calves from hip-locked mothers and received her share of kicks while working livestock in squeeze chutes.
Her website touts that she can “construct a perfect stack of hay .... and keep the scour medicine in her fridge separate from the salad dressing she made for last night’s supper.”
That authenticity is what has made DeLeeuw an award-winning artist, says friend and musician Brian Arnold, a Hooper resident and a member of the band Saddlestrings.
The Roy poet is not only a talented writer but a talented performer as well, says Arnold, citing DeLeeuw’s poem “Spreadin’ Sunshine” as an example. In this piece, DeLeeuw speaks alternately in the voices of a proper lady from back East — wearing a hat with a pretty flower — and a rancher, complete with “Bubba teeth.”
“It’s not just the Bubba teeth, or the hat, it’s the face — she literally transforms herself into her characters when she’s doing it,” Arnold says.
Although DeLeeuw usually performs only her own poetry, she once asked Arnold to write a piece for her so she could enter a competition that required reciting the works of others. “The Heart Ain’t Always Home” was the result, a tale of a rancher’s wife left at home, waiting for her husband to return from going off to market to sell the stock.
“That poem won that section for me,” DeLeeuw says, adding, “I could identify with that. (Poems) don’t all have to be 17th or 18th century to be classics.”
DeLeeuw recently took part in the Bear Lake Cowboy Gathering near Montpelier, Idaho, one of the “true” gatherings, she says, where, instead of being invited, “you just let them know you’re coming and they will find a spot for you.”
“That’s where I kind of debut the new poems. I get to practice in front of a very friendly crowd,” says the poet, who will judge at the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo in Kanab in mid-August and perform at the invitation-only Heber Valley Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair in Heber City in November.
Much of her poetry is humorous because DeLeeuw likes to make people laugh. A sign hanging outside her kitchen proclaims, “Blessed is he who can laugh at himself for he will never cease to be amused.”
However, DeLeeuw also enjoys a challenge and has penned some serious poems, too, like “The Long Haul,” a look at persevering through the ups and downs of ranching life.
Also new for her was the setting of “The Long Haul” to music, by her singer boyfriend, Bill Barwick of Colorado, who features the tune on his 2012 album “The Usual Suspects.”
This Utah poet’s inspiration comes from everyday situations and people; the former rodeo queen and retired schoolteacher says she does a lot of her writing and rehearsing on her daily walks.
“I’m talking to myself and I’m gesturing — people will look at me ....” she says.
A poem isn’t properly “seasoned” until DeLeeuw has performed it for a couple of years.
“Poems are never done really — they just sometimes take on a different slant at the end or you want to change a word,” says the author of hundreds of compositions.
And despite her years of experience onstage, DeLeeuw admits to occasionally bungling a poem a bit, explaining, “Just because you wrote them don’t mean you remember them.”
She used to worry about forgetting until she performed in a show with well-known cowboy poet Baxter Black and he blanked out in mid-poem, announcing to the audience, “Well ... that one’s gone.”
“Now I don’t worry about it,” DeLeeuw says. “I just try to turn it into a funny — ‘Well, if anybody out there knows the next line, will you please tell me?’ ”
THOUGHTS FROM SAM DELEEUW
• On the appeal of cowboy poetry: “It’s down to earth, it’s real people,” DeLeeuw says. And it’s also “keeping the way of life alive ... it’s a history of where we come from, especially in the western United States.”
• On turning real events into poetry: “Poets don’t lie — we might exaggerate.”
• On subjects she won’t tackle: “I don’t do politics, and I do references to God, but I don’t get off on religion. I have mine and I’m sure everybody has theirs. ... I’ve just never found the need to express to anybody what I think in those two avenues.”
• On being named 2011 Female Poet of the Year: “My joke is that I’m the Susan Lucci of cowboy poetry,” quips DeLeeuw, who received the 2011 award from the Western Music Association on her sixth nomination.
• On her future: “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. If it didn’t get any better than it is right now, I’d be happy.”
“They are in it for the long haul.”
What does that cliché really mean?
Just for the years when things go well
Until years become dry and lean?
Just during times when crops grow high
Or just when cattle prices soar?
Not during times when prices drop
And the banker is at the door?
The long haul means the endless months
When there’s no income and no gain.
The long haul’s when your body aches,
When springs go dry from lack of rain.
The long haul’s when you’re losin’ calves
To a harsh winter’s frozen ground.
When huntin’ strays and aging cows
And only skeletons are found.
Yes, they’re in it for the long haul
When they look on toward next year.
They wipe away the blowing dirt
And wipe away a child’s tear.
When forced to move and leave behind
The only life he’s ever known.
Look in eyes of youthful sorrow
Mixed with the sorrow of your own.
The long haul means a second chance
Where they’ll not leave, but stay instead.
Rebuild their lives and make ends meet
Workin’ on someone else’s spread.
The long haul starts again each day
That hot sun breaks across the crest.
When once again they’ll gather up
And again give this life their best.
This is the life they’ve grown to love.
Where there is pride and they stand tall.
This life’s what makes them who they are.
Why they’re in it for the long haul.
— Sam DeLeeuw, 2011