Recently friends and family of Prescott Valley poet Mary Carvell Bragg, who passed away on July 27 at the age of 90, gathered at the Highlands Center for Natural History to pay tribute to her long and generous life. Mary was a fixture in the local poetry community, co-founder of the Poets Open Circle and a founding member of the MAD(McCormick Arts District) Women Poets in 2003, which is dedicated to preserving the oral tradition in poetry. The group has performed for many audiences over the years. Mary’s influence and inspiration as a writer, critic and friend is captured in the words of her friends and fellow poets.
Cynthia Loucks: “I first met Mary in a workshop, where I was immediately impressed with the elegant and grounded quality of her poetry. Her style is clear and not ornate, and at first glance her poems seem simple, but it turns out, deceptively so. Mary mastered the art of spare — not a word or phrase that wasn't needed. This style adds to the power of her poems, which relay poignant narratives from her life experience. When not telling a story, Mary's poems tend toward the lyrical and spiritual, where not unlike a poet she much admired, Rumi, she expresses a powerful message with few words. More than once I heard Mary say, ‘poetry is my life, ’and she made good on that, not only in her own substantial body of work, but in her tireless shepherding of other poets. Through the Poets Co-op she brought guidance to many poets over the years, myself included. From Mary I learned to cultivate the art of critiquing a poem in a gentle manner that never usurped the poet's ownership of her poem while offering invaluable insight about how it was written. I know I am among many when I say that Mary Bragg made me a better poet.”
Connie Johnson: “When I joined the Poets Co-op, I quickly understood Mary’s depth of poetic knowledge. Mary could point out a misplaced word, a line too long or a verb tense that weakened the work. She believed in word conservation and taught me to cull the fluff while inspecting the purpose and strength of each stanza. Mary was a master of prose, interspersing characters whom you felt you had known for years. Mary was an accomplished poet and sensitive friend.”
Sharon Seymour: “Am I ready to write about Mary? Eyes fill as the pen journeys across this page. Scenes unfold. Sitting at her dining table over cold cups of tea, two hours into another exploration on inner life. What a gift to this lonely wanderer. To be met with open arms, to be held unconditionally in that fierce, kind gaze. Another gift.”
Marilyn Bowden: “When I first came across Mary Bragg during a poetry reading at the library, I knew nothing about her or the MAD Women Poets. I tend to be a loner, not a joiner, but hearing these women read, I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t know Mary for long. Her health was already declining when I met her. But the few workshops I did spend under her tutelage were exhilarating as well as instructive. Mary wrote poems that sang with the joy of being alive. Her voice was no longer strong but it imbued her poems with a quiet authority. I remember the focus she brought to each poem presented, and how insightful her comments were. I miss her.”
Donna Meyer: “Like Mary’s poem ‘Ships Passing in the Night,’ from the moment I met her, she wasn’t a stranger. Her interactions genuinely made me feel as if my poetry were the most important thing to her at that moment.
In a soft and gentle tone, she would suggest trying the poem in present tense or perhaps more active verbs would do instead of so many gerunds. Her suggestions opened my eyes, and her poems opened my heart. The wisdom of her poetry rang through phrases that used few words, but said much.”
by Mary Bragg
I should be grieving
but when I looked out this morning
the trees were doing their wind-dance
and when I drove to McDonald’s
for a sausage egg mcmuffin
the ravens gathered in their brilliant blackness
looking for handouts as usual
but their cry had lost its knife-edged urgency
the scraggly flowers below the call box
flashed neon magenta and purple
and in a split second between smiles
the woman at the window
laid bare the harshness of her life
I remember reading in Castaneda
when Don Juan took an incorrigible boy
to view a child’s body at the morgue
the boy straightened right up
Maybe that’s what happened to me
when I saw death up close
Now I can’t suppress the joy
of being alive on this planet
a part of the tree-dance
the loveliness and suffering
the passion and loss
I suppose I should be grieving —
perhaps I am.
Every August Prescott hosts the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering, where cowboy poets and musicians entertain packed audiences. A star of the gathering is poet Amy M. Hale, who cowboys for Spider Ranch, a local 50,000-acre cattle operation.
Amy doesn’t have to go far to find inspiration. The natural world and hard work are her biggest motivators. “The very best writing comes from a life well lived, from passionate reflection of that life. And a life well lived very often involves meaningful work, work that is hard and has value, that contributes to the greater community.”
Although she is primarily a novelist and essayist, sometimes poetry “chooses” her. “Poetry is an extract, a concentration on the page, of life and observations. When I put my pen to the page, I am just writing, not writing a poem or an essay or a story. If it distills down to the essence, it is a poem.”
Amy stumbled on her success as a cowboy poet. In 2011, at a gathering with her now-husband, musician Gail Steiger, the organizers discovered her essays and signed her up on the performance schedule. Taken aback, Amy asked Gail what she should do. He answered, “If I were you, I’d get busy and write some poems!” For Amy “It was a huge gift to discover that distillation process.”
Many of Amy’s poems focus on our interconnectedness with nature. “We are not apart from, but spring from the Mother. Separateness is what causes harm. By the recognition that I am one of those wild things, that you are one of those wild things, we can have a clearer lens into our roles and our impact.”
Amy works as hard on her writing as she does on cowboying, finding time every day to create. “No matter where I wake up …, in cow camp, on a sandbar in the bottom of these canyons when I am backpacking, in a hotel room, at home …, I write, … and once in a while a dollop of magic falls from my pen.” From there, she “pares something down to its bones, tearing out any superfluous ideas by the roots.” Cowboy poetry comes from a long oral tradition, and she often “ends up with a poem that I can further hone by performing it aloud over and over until it has power.”
Amy’s poems contain many of the usual touchstones of cowboy poetry: horses, cattle, ranches, etc., but she also unearths powerful instances of deep connection.
Amy’s poetry is plain-spoken, her words uncovering profound significance through simple experiences and observations. In describing her poem “Sir Bull,” Amy says, “It was a dawn tailgate communion, a gift from the universe.”Yes, a simple encounter that encourages the reader to think about our deep connection to the “wild things” that surround us.
by Amy M. Hale
Thin and old, ears edged with gray —
He sticks his head around the tailgate as I put coffee on the camp stove, 5am.
An old shipper bull, volunteered into camp last night,
Singing an ancient ballad in a forgotten key.
He wears a year brand; we’ve done the math,
Bought fromWebs when he was two, so that makes him fifteen now.
Whipped out by the young bucks,
He’s been living solitary off in some lonely canyon —
Drawn now to the sounds of social,
Babies bawling over the roar of branding pot,
Perhaps even the distant memory of hay thrown out
Into dusty pens.
He hung around overnight.
Perhaps he finds me odd, this woman frying Spam and eggs,
Smelling of burnt hair and horse sweat, black coffee and sleep,
The blood of his great-grandsons splattered on my shirt,
This woman, feral around the edges,
For whom luxury is ice in her evening drink,
The promise of a shower three days from now.
Whatever this old bull thinks,
Or what I think,
Life moves on from our dawn tailgate communion.
Someday I’ll ride home …
Someday he’ll get on the truck …
Unless he disappears again,
Singing his rusty old song.
Amy M. Hale is author of Rightful Place, Winter of Beauty, The Story is the Thing, Ordinary
Skin, and Livestock Man. You can find her work at amymhale. com. Photo by Gail Steiger.
The 2021 Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering happens August 12-14 at the Prescott Rodeo
Grounds. For tickets visit azcowboypoets. org or call 928-776-2000 for information.
For former Prescott resident Jim Natal, good poetry emerges from a kind of cognitive flexibility. “Poets see the world in a different, more closely observed, way. They make leaps and links between sometimes disparate things and cause them to seamlessly blend.” Uncovering these connections requires a good deal of attention. “I’m influenced by what I see around me … as well as my inner voice. Sometimes it only takes a snippet of overheard conversation or a stunning image to get me off the diving board.”
Jim’s poetic themes are varied, but many are grounded in the natural world. “I live near the beach in Los Angeles, so there’s quite a bit of ocean imagery. For many years I taught an outdoor writing workshop in Joshua Tree National Park, so the desert landscape appears frequently, like a mirage. I have a whole chapbook coming out featuring poems with ravens and crows.”
Jim lived for four years in Prescott, where he taught writing at both Yavapai College and Prescott College. During that time, he helped found The Literary Southwest reading series, which brings noted writers and poets to Yavapai College. Although he left Prescott in 2011, he still directs and hosts the series, so his influence in the local arts community endures. In addition to publishing several collections of poems, garnering much praise and many awards, he runs a small press with his wife, graphic designer and book artist Tania Baban.
Ultimately Jim writes poetry as a means of self-actualization. “I think we all crave personal expression — to make sense of our lives, to be understood and have our personal journeys mean something. My way of achieving that came in the guise of poetry.” It is equally important to him that he connects with his audience. “I want to make bridges between my experiences and those of my readers. If my work can help someone see the world in a new way — or put words to a fleeting feeling — then I’ve succeeded.”
Jim finds that poems often communicate what form they choose to take. “I rarely get a poem ‘right’ the first time. Usually, I get the words down and then go back and put in the images and music. In the process of doing that I let the poem tell me its shape, if I need to explore deeper or if I need to cut or condense. And sometimes I have to wait until I become the poet who can write the poem I want to write.”
Jim’s most recent books have concentrated on haibun, a contemporary interpretation of a classic Asian form that combines crafted prose and haiku. “In order for a haibun to work well, there has to be a dialog between the prose section and the commentary haiku. The images and implications of the haiku have to reverberate back up through the prose portion and make the reader see the haibun as a whole in surprising, resonant ways.”
Besides incorporating natural themes, Jim finds that haibun are well suited to current events and social commentary. “They come right out of the headlines and news reports and, thanks to the magic of the form, allow me to express my opinions in a poetic way.” The following striking pieces reveal the poet’s gift for that cognitive flexibility, his skill at juxtaposing dissimilar forms while also combining them to create innovative pieces of art.
Jim Natal is the author of two collections of poems in contemporary haibun form, 52 Views: The Haibun Variations and Spare Room, as well as three previous lyric collections: Memory and Rain, Talking Back to the Rocks and In the BeeTrees. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. A former NFL creative executive and multi-year Pushcart Prize nominee, he is the founding director of The Literary Southwest literary series at Yavapai College and co-founder of indie publishing house Conflux Press (contact: jimnatal.com).
For more on the Literary Southwest Reading Series: yc.edu/literarysw
We’ve been given a date for the Afghan pull-out. As if the patient tide won’t roll back in the second the final NATO transport is airborne. My money’s on the fundamentalists of any stripe — skullcaps and keffiyehs, black frock coats, spotless dishdashas — all so afraid of pleasure boats cruising the birth canal. The new dark ages are upon us, gaining momentum like a ranting midnight freight, its one eye tightly closed. And the rustlings in dawn branches? Only crows. Vultures and crows.
Dormant in the snow
yuccas await their moment
ruthless in their faith
My student writes about his last day in Iraq, the one that ends with his getting blown up by an IED. I try to separate form from content the way the insurgent separated my student from much of his blood and nearly his life. His essay needs a lot of work — spelling, punctuation, flow. Point and support, point and support, I drone to the class. No argument without example. No blast without detonation.
The rules of grammar
dispassionate as a bomb
each wire connected
From 52 Views: The Haibun Variations (Tebot Bach 2013, 2019)
Phoenix poet Joy Young hopes to “spark compassion/empathy/understanding through narratives that resonate across our many differences.” Joy’s performance work as a spoken-word artist and storyteller “focuses on transgressing borders, both real and imagined, and entering social justice topics through poetic personal narratives.”
Joy believes that “poetry/story holds transformative power to heal ourselves and the world around us,” and provides lectures, workshops, and curriculum development designed to help usee storytelling to expand our understanding of social justice and embrace marginalized voices.
As part of the LGBTQ+ community, Joy says, “My queerness really guided me toward investing in working toward equity and inclusion, and understanding that all forms of oppression are tied together and harmful to all of us. Much of my work in writing, teaching, and organizing is approached through a queer politics or, as I prefer to explain it, a politics of kindness in which we deconstruct hierarchical thinking and the ways these things are embedded into institutions and processes, and try to make more space for more people’s voices.”
Joy’s poetic topics are plentiful. “I write a lot about unlearning what I grew up with. I write about family, love (in its many permutations), identity, home, how great my dog is, and just all sorts of things. Sometimes I am writing to my younger queer self, who was desperate to see myself somewhere or imagine a future worth growing into.”As a spoken-word artist, Joy concentrates on connecting with the audience. “I want my poems to serve as a doorway to conversation, … to speak across differences and highlight emotional truths.”
Although Joy’s poems are political at heart, they have a light, conversational tone that contains small personal observations. “I love poetics based in the concrete reality of our lives, that serve a purpose beyond the aesthetic.” Joy looks for “moments of authenticity,” everyday experiences that pull back to reveal a bigger picture. Joy writes about “concepts like family, home, identity, and challenging many things we believe are static.”The poems deftly move from the personal to the political, taking these ideas and generalizing their meaning to the larger world.
The following poems are part of a collaboration with Joy’s partner, photographer Bri Noonan, which they describe as “a photographic, literary collaboration between two queer humans who love storytelling and wearing sweatpants.” These touching poems focus on issues of identity, love, family, and yes, dogs too.
What if we could change our identity as easily as we change our hair? What if things that didn’t exist suddenly come into being? These poems make the leap from personal to political in a lovely way as the poet reminds us to “call everything temporary and every moment beautiful.” You can find Joy’s work at joyyoung.org.
A poem in which the word hair is replaced with identity
Bri’s sisters come over to change their identities.
They bleach all the way down to the root of identity.
Strip away, drain themselves
of what perception
Switch between ways of being
in the world
as gentle hands comb
open identity boxes
and apply excitedly what suits them today,
call everything temporary,
and every moment beautiful.
Our dog loves bubbles
more than food
and it is wholesome as fuck,
this queer thing about her:
how her eyes light up,
how she leaps,
how she pursues her joy
and I think how about a year ago
she did not exist
and I think about how three years ago
neither did the concept of home
or family or something both
queer and wholesome
and I am grateful for puppies
and bubbles and love
and the way the world can give
birth to things we never expected.
“Most poems begin with an external spark,” she says. “An overheard line, a sound, an image that tugs at something internally that wants to take form.” Her poems often arise from everyday life: “Even the most mundane experience has something to offer.” Her work touches on many subjects and themes, from birds nesting on her property to the challenges of motherhood and the heartache of grief. All are “threads that make up my life and become part of the fabric of the poem, whether I am consciously paying attention or not.”
She doesn’t always have time to pay attention. As the mother of two boys, one with special needs, she often mentally creates poems as she goes about her day, postponing their final formation until she sits down and writes. Even though poems are simmering right below the surface, she can be surprised at what develops. “I think of my mind like a junk drawer of random images, sounds, facts, etc., one I pull from when writing. In this way, it becomes a game to try and figure out how things relate, or are interconnected.” As the writing of a poem unfolds, she discovers “a dialogue between where I am in the world and what I am in the world. The external sparks help me to understand my internal world.”
As a writer and reader, poetry resonates deeply with Megan. “Poetry helps me to understand what it means to be human, to develop a greater sense of empathy and connection to other people through shared experiences.” She also loves being floored by a poem; “that little sucked-in breath of awe that happens when a poet writes something beautiful, true, or profound.”
“I wrote ‘Every day I draw a different bird’ at the beginning of lockdown, and was really feeling stuck, so I started drawing for the first time in my adult life. I wrote ‘Forget-Me-Nots’ when I was helping to care for my mother, who had a misdiagnosed brain tumor and had lost a lot of her memories and sight. At that time, writing is what helped me to be present navigating her heartbreaking decline and loss.”
These poems are examples of Megan’s gift for beautifully unsettling language. Her unique descriptions push the reader off balance in ways that reveal unexpected layers of meaning. Don’t be surprised if you react with “that little sucked-in breath of awe.”
a heron — lanky, keen on watching, from a far-bank.
The crow not swept behind, whispers things I was
always meant to recall, but have shed — how to make
a slip knot from a bra strap, how to uncork a bottle
with a stone, gut a fish with an ink stain. The ravens —
bend light. Bats tendril the load-bearing walls of my
chest. They are pockets secreted in night. Hummingbirds
teach me F-minor. Then F-minor breaks me apart.
And maybe the bird is the ache is the joint, and maybe
it swallows the room with flight even when it looks,
from the window, most like a cage. Or, maybe I am
meant to sustain by envy — the slurry of gnats that
funnel from an empty can, the sweet licked all-clean.
“Every day I draw a different bird,” 2020 Michelle Boisseau Poetry Prize Winner, Bear Review
Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott with her husband and two children. She is the author of three full-length poetry collections from Glass Lyre Press: Gravel Ghosts (2016),The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, 2017) and Grief Flowers (2018), four chapbooks, and a children’s book, These Words I Shaped for Y ou. Her latest book, Before the Fevered Snow, was released in April 2020. She won the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera, the 2018 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize, second place in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and most recently the Inaugural Michelle Boisseau Prize. She is an editor at Pirene’s Fountain and The Comstock Review. You can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet.
Today, my mother forgot the word for bathroom
while she was in one. She said, Dry room, no — wet room, no —
tell me, then what are the others called? I’d like to walk them.
At one point, someone taught me a word I’ve forgotten.
A room I was already inside. A marriage. A country. A war.
A man’s fingers cuffed around my wrist. Someone promised —
it is common, when learning another language, to lose
pieces of your mother tongue. Where the bar lights are also
a call to prayer, and the flowers aching the field are no less
yellow, the spider’s bite still poisoned, when I cannot
say their name. My mother will soon lose
my own and even though I understand the way of things,
I will hear the horses, in mourning, nip
at the electric fence, and I will not have the word for shock.
“Forget-Me-Nots” received an Honorable Mention in the Peseroff Prize Poetry Contest and was published in Before the Fever Snow.