ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
“Son, live your life as if it were your own,” Michael Leonard said slowly and carefully as he delivered the last line of his poem by the same name.
Leonard, a cowboy poet from north of Walton, lives the words he speaks.
Like many artists whose greatest work has its beginning in pain, Leonard’s poetry evolved from his need to express himself after his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.
“I started writing for fun in about 1990-just to give my friends a hard time,” he said. “And then as MS hit, I really started writing more seriously.”
Before the diagnosis in 1992, Leonard was a rodeo cowboy and traveled to rodeos all over the country.
“I team roped,” he said. “I roped the back feet.”
To support the cowboy life he loved, he worked at Boeing.
As the disease progressed, both the job and the roping had to go.
“I started writing poems that were rodeo related or working cowboy related,” Leonard said. “The poetry was a good way to stay in the cowboy way of life. I’ve been a cowboy the biggest part of my life.”
Leonard still attends rodeos, brandings and chuck wagon dinners, but instead of roping calves, he reads his poetry.
Cowboy poetry has been around for as long as there have been cowboys, Leonard said.
“Like music, it was an art form they would use,” he said.
“A lot of people think the cowboy way of life is gone,” he added. “But it’s not. It’s the farthest thing from being gone.”
Leonard said the cowboy life “is exactly the same as what it used to be, except for the fact that it’s more scientific.”
Leonard said the movie image of cowboys sitting around a campfire singing is pretty close to the way it still works today.
Brandings are a prime time for cowboy music and poetry.
“They’ll gather up all their neighbors and friends to help with it because it is such a big operation,” he said. “They’ll run all the calves in and one guy will rope its feet and drag it to the fire and they’ll vaccinate them, doctor them, brand them and get them ready to turn out on grass.
“Then they have a chuck wagon come in and feed dinner.”
And that’s when the guitars come out, the singing begins, and the poetry is read.
The difference from the movies is that it’s authentic.
“There are working cowboys, day-help cowboys, rodeo cowboys and wannabe cowboys,” Leonard said. “I’ve got a friend who says it better than anyone I’ve ever heard. He says, ‘I’d rather be a cowboy that wants to sing than a singer who wants to be a cowboy.'”
Leonard said the inspiration for his work usually comes from his life experiences and his friends.
“The funnier ones are usually from my friends because they are characters,” he said.
He also writes poems about people he meets or that he particularly respects.
The poem “Memories” was written for his folks’ 50th wedding anniversary. Another is a tribute to his grandparents.
“They all come from within,” he said. “Poetry is kind of an extension of yourself.”
Leonard said ideas often occur to him at odd times.
“I carried around a mini cassette recorder, and I would keep it in my truck because I couldn’t stop and scribble notes,” he said. “Of if I couldn’t sleep at night, I had a big claw foot tub and I’d kick back with my recorder and a cup of coffee.
“If I would think of a line I liked, I’d put it on the tape.”
That one line or phrase often serves as the basis for the entire poem, Leonard said.
“That will be my opener, and usually my opener is also my closer,” he said. “Once I come up with a line, then I’ll come up with several more lines and sequence them. Then I’ll get it all laid out and see what flows.”
The poem “Live Your Life As If It Was Your Own” took a long time to write, Leonard said.
“I really missed rodeo, and when I started writing the poem, it was gloom and doom,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t what I want to write.’ So I used a lot of the same lines and turned them into something positive.”
Leonard said the hardest poems to write are about people he loves.
“Regardless of how you word things, it doesn’t really say what you want to say,” he said. “It just has to come to you.”
He hopes someday to be able to express in poetry his thanks to his girlfriend, Diana, for helping restore his zest for life after his MS diagnosis.
“She came into my life at a really good time because I was ready to pack up and go somewhere,” Leonard said. “When I am in a bad way, she never complains. She has made my life complete.”
He knows the right words will come someday. In the meantime, he writes her notes and an occasional limerick like the one he gave her for Valentine’s Day.
Leonard’s powerful words, deep voice and carefully timed delivery stir something deep in the listener’s soul.
The delivery of the poem is as important as the words themselves.
Leonard recites all his poems from memory.
“I don’t like it when people get up and read something,” he said. “I know a lot of fantastic poets who cannot present their work.”
“I keep reciting it until I have it memorized,” he said. “Sometimes when I am memorizing, I will try to picture how someone else would say it.”
Leonard strives to paint a mental picture for his audience and make the emotion come through.
His mastery of meter, form and rhythm has earned him awards. He won prizes in both the serious and humorous poetry categories at the Shepler’s Poetry Roundup at the Kansas Cowboy Symposium in Dodge City.
“It was the first time a poet had won two things,” he said. “I was really honored.”
His goal is to someday be invited to Elko, Nevada for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
“If I can get an invitation, I will have done everything with this that I want to do,” he said.
Leonard’s poetry appeals to a broader audience than just cowboys, he said.
He considers the poem “Scars” his strongest work.
“You don’t have to be a cowboy to appreciate any of that,” he said. “Everybody can relate to that because everybody has a scar.”
Although Leonard frequently performs at cowboy events, he also shares his poetry at other venues.
When he first started writing, his friends urged him to go down to a restaurant/bar in Wichita.
“After dinner, I’d do my poetry before the band started,” he said. “It blossomed from there.”
Churches have also been a popular outlet for his work.
“That’s another way I really got started,” he said. “It seems ironic-I would do barrooms and I would do churches.”
Touching lives of kids
Leonard has also taken his poetry into the classroom.
“I visit a lot of schools when they are teaching poetry and English. When I was in sixth grade, I thought poetry was for sissies,” Leonard said with a laugh.
No one seeing this tall cowboy would ever call him a sissy.
“I get a really good response,” he said. “I figure out who is going to be the smart alecky ones and I make them a part of it.”
Leonard often asks the kids to write a poem and gives them the first line to get them started.
“I’ve always thought it would be funny if dogs would have hands,” he said.
So a starter line might be something like, “If my dog had a hand instead of a paw…”
“If my dog had hands at the ends of his legs… he would open the refrigerator to get him some eggs,” Leonard quipped.
By the time he leaves the school, the students have a new appreciation for poetry.
“It makes me feel real good,” Leonard said.
Leonard loves working with children and volunteers for offender-victim ministries in Newton where he does mediation and anger management, and works with juvenile delinquents.
Leonard is scheduled to play a concert with Michael Martin Murphey and Fred Hardgrove on July 17 at the Fox Theater in Hutchinson.
“I’ll do my poetry, Fred plays cowboy music and Michael Martin Murphey does cowboy music,” he said
Leonard first hooked up with Murphey when he agreed to play at a benefit Leonard organized for a friend who was in a coma.
“He said, ‘If there’s a cowboy in trouble, I’ll be there.’ And he came up here and we raised $15,000. It turned out fantastic,” he said.
Leonard’s poems are published in his book “Reality and Rhyme” and are available on tapes and CDs.
“I’ve got quite a few more poems that I need to get polished,” he said. “I want to try to break out a few of those at one of these next concerts.”
Leonard also writes songs, but he says he isn’t a singer.
“I sing at church, because I know I will be forgiven,” he said. “That is as far as I dare take it.”