Imaginations at Work: A Saddle Maker and a Poet

Imaginations at Work: A Saddle Maker and a Poet
Photo: VOA - S. Babits
Carving patterns into the leather is a skill saddle maker Nancy Martiny first learned as a teenager, while watching her father tool leather.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Christopher Cruise.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I'm Faith Lapidus. Some jobs require little or no creativity. Other jobs are all about creativity. This week on our program, we meet two Americans who put their imaginations to work in very different ways. One is a saddle maker. The other is a poet.


CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Nancy Martiny has worked with horses all her life. She learned riding and roping when she grew up on a cattle ranch.

NANCY MARTINY: "From whenever I was a little kid I was always doing what the men did. And then as I got older and rodeoed and then, producing rodeos, I've always worked with men."

Ms. Martiny started making western saddles for fun as a hobby. Now, she has a waiting list. People have to wait up to three years to buy one of her saddles.

NANCY MARTINY: "I've had people ask me that they think you have to be big and strong and tough to build saddles, and you don't. You have to have a sharp knife."

FAITH LAPIDUS: A sharp knife is just a tool. A good saddle maker also has to have an artistic sense for carving and shaping designs into leather.

NANCY MARTINY: "Like here, at the start, I'll hit it pretty hard and then I want that to look like there's some contour to that petal."

She cuts the leather into complex patterns of flowers and leaves. This is a skill she first learned as a teenager. She watched her father tool leather.

NANCY MARTINY: "So when I was fifteen, I talked him into helping me start tooling. And then I kind of took his tools and made myself a belt and of course my friends at school they had to have a western belt and it kind of started just like that."

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: She began by making things like belts and purses. Then she met one of the best saddle makers around, Dale Harwood. He made her a saddle tree. A tree is the form for a saddle that all the leather gets attached to.

Nancy Martiny builds her saddles from the ground up, eventually carving and stamping intricate patterns into the leather.
VOA - S. Babits
Nancy Martiny builds her saddles from the ground up

Nancy Martiny had tooled saddles before. But she had never made one herself. She worked on the leather design at home. Then she would go to Dale Harwood's shop for advice.

NANCY MARTINY:"He'd walk me through things and I'd make little notes, and then I had my little notebook after I got through this first saddle."

That notebook became her best tool.

NANCY MARTINY: "I got my nerve up and I started on a kid's saddle and [I would] look at my notebook. And when I'd get in a real wreck I'd call Dale, and when he had time he'd help me and I'd get through. Well, I got them saddles built, and then somebody would say 'Hey, why don't you build me a saddle?'"

FAITH LAPIDUS: That was how Nancy Martiny got into the saddle making business twenty years ago. People usually learn about her from others. She does not have a shop. She lives and works in the Pahsimeroi Valley near May, Idaho. She lives on a ranch that has been in her husband's family for one hundred twenty years.

The ranch has a barn where she keeps her own saddle and the ones she has made for her family. She says most of her customers are ranchers and cowboys and cowgirls who live in the area.

NANCY MARTINY: "I guess that's probably part of my success as a saddle maker, and why men don't hesitate to order a saddle from me. Because a lot of people who order from me know me, or know of me, and know that I can rope a little bit, you know. And when we're talking about horns, I know what you're talking about, and fitting your horse."

Many of Nancy Martiny's saddles are simple with the rough part of the leather exposed. Others, such as the one in this picture, sport intricate flower designs.
VOA - S. Babits
Many of Nancy Martiny's saddles are simple. Others, such as the one in this picture, have complex flower designs.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Some of her saddles have silver and detailed flower designs. But many others are more simple.

NANCY MARTINY: "I want a plain saddle to be considered beautiful as well as a full-flowered saddle, so if someone says, 'Oh, your work is beautiful,' I want that to mean all of the work. I hope that's what it means. That would be my goal."

Nancy Martiny also makes other leather goods, including purses. She may work with cowboys, but she says that does not mean she cannot make something more feminine once in a while.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Robert Pinsky was born in nineteen forty. He grew up in New Jersey, in the working-class town of Long Branch near the Atlantic coast. He found happiness playing jazz in the high school band. That experience also led him to find happiness in poetry.

ROBERT PINSKY: "When I was a teenager, just about the only thing I could do right was play music. In my graduating class, I was certainly not voted most literary boy. I can assure I was not voted most likely to succeed. I was voted most musical boy. And one thing led to the other."

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Mr. Pinsky says jazz and poetry are similar.

ROBERT PINSKY: "Jazz and poetry both involve a structure that may be familiar and to some extent predictable. And then you try to create as much surprise and spontaneity and feeling and variation while respecting the structure."

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: For Robert Pinsky, poetry is not just an emotional experience but also a physical one. He moves back and forth as he reads one of his poems, called "The Want Bone." The bone is a shark jaw that he found on a beach. Here is part of that poem:


The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,

A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.

The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving

And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.

The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.

But O I love you it sings, my little my country

My food my parent my child I want you my own

My flower my fin my life my lightness my O...

FAITH LAPIDUS: Robert Pinksy says poetry is also like dance -- an art form where the medium is the human body itself.

ROBERT PINSKY: "And that makes it very intimate on that human scale. It's my advice for people who have, alas, somehow learned that poetry is difficult or think they've learned that they don't have a taste for it, say it aloud. You feel what it's like to say it with your breath and your tongue and your voice box. And, along with that intimacy, there is something social about it.

"I try to make art out of something that everybody uses all day, like dollar bills and quarters and credit cards. We use words all day long. 'Is that your car? I think it's blocking mine.' 'I love you but not that way.' 'How good is the soup of the day today?' You're using words!"

FAITH LAPIDUS: Mr. Pinsky has a doctorate from Stanford University. He taught at Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, before coming to Boston University. He is a professor in the creative writing program.

His books include poetry collections, criticism and translations. His honors include awards for his nineteen ninety-four translation of Dante's "Inferno" from Italian.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: In nineteen ninety-seven, the librarian of Congress named Robert Pinsky as poet laureate of the United States. Mr. Pinsky is the only laureate to have been reappointed twice. He served as the nation's official poet until the year two thousand.

The position at the Library of Congress has existed under different names since the nineteen thirties. The current poet laureate is W.S. Merwin.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Robert Pinsky is proud that something he started called the Favorite Poem Project is still popular. That project invites everyday people to introduce a poem that is meaningful to them, and then read it on video.

The videos can be found online at

In one video, a United States Marine officer named Steve Conteaguero reads a poem. He reads "Politics" by William Butler Yeats, who died in nineteen thirty-nine.


How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about.
And there's a politician
That has read and thought.
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms.
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: A new collection of selected poems by Robert Pinsky will be published in April. Here he is reading part of a poem first published in nineteen ninety-nine. The poem is called "Samurai Song."


When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir...


FAITH LAPIDUS: Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake, with reporting by Sadie Babits and Adam Phillips. I'm Faith Lapidus.

CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: And I'm Christopher Cruise. You can find transcripts and MP3s of our programs at We'll post a link to and show you pictures of Nancy Martiny and her saddles. You can also stay in touch with us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.