Dee Cohen on Poetry

June 2021
Joy Young

Sometimes poems are opportunities — to change minds, open hearts, or rethink our assumptions about each other.

Photos by Bri Noonan

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.

Photos by Bri Noonan

A poem in which the word hair is replaced with identity

after NicoWilkinson

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
crowned them;
Switch between ways of being
in the world
as gentle hands comb
through identity,
open identity boxes
and apply excitedly what suits them today,
call everything temporary,
and every moment beautiful.

Photo by Bri Noonan

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.

May 2021
Megan Merchant

For Prescott resident Megan Merchant, the world is filled with poetic possibilities.

Megan Merchant, photo by Dee Cohen

“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.”

Every day I draw a different bird,

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.

Forget-Me-Nots

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.