Cowboy Poet pens winning book
Not only has Tualatin poet Tom Swearingen's book of poetry, "Reflection," been named Cowboy Poetry Book of the Year, but his latest CD, "Language of the Land," was a finalist for Cowboy Poetry CD of the Year.
The 106-page paperback book includes 46 of his most popular poems, along with 32 illustrations drawn by Salem artist Elizabeth Zimmerman.
"I've been doing this for, not a long, long time, but for 10 or 12 years," said Swearingen.
In 2019, Swearingen was named Male Cowboy Poet of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists, which led to him performing at various venues around the West.
He said he was riding the wave for his poet of the year recognition — along with a CD that was a finalist in 2019 — when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
"Then the world shut down," Swearingen said. "I've been doing 50, 60 performances a year and had a full schedule."
While the idea to write a book that included his poems started about book four years ago, the pandemic helped him focus on the project more fully. Cowboy poetry, said Swearingen, is slightly different from other poetry genres.
"It's recited from memory, generally, and you entertain and share these stories — rhymed-up, rhythmic stories of cowboy poetry," said Swearingen, who once worked full-time writing advertising copy, as well as being a self-employed writer and producer.
Having grown up on farms and ranches, Swearingen said he carries a Western point of view and an appreciation of the Western lifestyle. As he recalls, it was in the 1980s when he began developing an appreciation for the cowboy poets who would sometimes appear on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
One of those was Waddie Mitchell.
"I was like, wow, that's really entertaining to me, and it speaks to the tradition and the heritage and the funny stories and the serious stories and whatever," Swearingen said.
Swearingen has since had the opportunity to meet and get to know some of the cowboy poets who impressed and inspired him more than 30 years ago. Mitchell, who is a co-founder of the National Cowboy Poet Gathering, even wrote the back cover blurb for Swearingen's book.
"He sprung into the poetry world seamlessly and has taken a seat among the best appreciated and enjoyed of the cowboy poets," Mitchell wrote. "I've enjoyed watching him grow as an entertainer and writer."
Soon, Swearingen started attending cowboy music and poetry festivals. When a horse-riding friend of the family died early not quite a decade ago, he wrote his first poem about his late rancher friend and read it during a memorial horse ride.
"I shared that little poem, and people appreciated it," Swearingen recalled.
Then, one day about nine years ago, the St. Paul Rodeo called him and asked if he would perform some of his poems. Even though he had the job, he insisted on an audition to make sure he was what the rodeo board was looking for. He did and they loved them.
"So, I found myself on stage in front of the microphone and that was my audience in front of an audience," Swearingen said. "I was terrified. But it felt great."
Swearingen said the push to produce his first poetry book came after being approached so many times at cowboy poetry readings where fans would ask if he had a book of his poems available. Initially, he found the request a little strange because of the cowboy poetry oral tradition of reciting in front of an audience. But he later reconsidered it.
"Why would you want Bruce Springsteen lyrics if you can get the album, right?" Swearingen quipped.
The quarantine meant he had no more excuses, so he sat down and began selecting the best out of about 70 poems. Those included funny ones, serious ones, and ones that audiences seemed to like especially well.
While the time it takes him to write a poem is all over the place, Swearingen said there are very few poems he's written quickly. Although some have come in a matter of hours, he's more likely to start them and then put them away for days, weeks or months. He has poems he started three or four years ago that he revisits.
"Some of them will never get finished because they don't deserve to be finished, and some will turn into something," Swearingen said, adding that his goal is always to write meaningfully and intentionally.
"I try to pick words and say things in a way that isn't predictable," he said. "For me, it's an enjoyable, creative challenge to keep the meter going and make it all work out."
Tom Swearingen is not the only writer in the family. His wife, Carla Swearingen, has published several children's books inspired by the couple's granddaughter, Flora. The books include "Flora is Curious About Squirrels" and "Flora is Curious About Horses."
Swearingen's book "Reflection" and his CDs are available at oregoncowboypoet.com.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.