Prescott artist and poet Debra Owen considers ‘art’ to be a verb meaning “to focus or compel.” She believes that “successful work has a tension urging resolution of intellect, voice, and emotion.” She creates in many media, allowing each project to unfold in its own distinctive way. “I find all artmaking to be endlessly compelling and a satisfying challenge. In every piece, I find insights and the exhilaration of highs and lows. The media, the process, the layering, clarity, and spontaneous energy are a unique parallel to human complexity and life’s experience.”
Debra became interested in writing poetry while in high school. “As a teenager I wrote as a coping mechanism for instability. There was something soothing about loosely stringing words together.” She continued to express herself in words over the years, finding solace in the free-form nature of poetry. “Poetry doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t ask for proper punctuation, a beginning, middle or end. It’s a living thing. It’s honest with us. It only asks for honesty in return.”
Debra starts each day ready to create. “I have a routine of journaling each morning: three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, one page of affirmations, a haiku, and a quick sketch. I think they both settle my mind and jump-start my creativity.” An important aspect of her artmaking is the abilityto remain receptive to the direction a piece takes her. “I’m focused on exploring a subject, shape, palette, character, story or gesture. With little preliminary planning, my approach is to develop a composition with story and feeling.”
Debra goes through periods where she focuses primarily on poetry as an artistic expression. “I have creative cycles: visual, poetry, stitching. I just follow my muse. Different media reflect my journey and its lessons and visions. They are all tools and platforms of my creative voice in all its forms. Writing poetry is another act of affirming my journey.”
Debra spent her career working as a fashion designer, and she’s been an arts advocate for many years. “I’ve founded, directed, and facilitated many creative adventures: executive director of a community art center, wearable-art designer, community organizer, e-magazine publisher, writer, promoter and speaker.” She moved to the Prescott area in 2010 primarily for its vibrant arts community. In 2021 she established Prescott Arts Journey (PAJ), “an inclusive umbrella of support for the whole arts community, its many voices, and resources.” The organization promotes local artists and connects them with resources through a community website, classes, programs, services, scholarships and events.
PAJ launched several artistic events last year, including My Life Story, Poetry Live!, Sketchers, and Café Chat. It also sponsored a poetry contest, attracting submissions from many local residents. Debra found the caliber and depth of the poetry gratifying. “The contest revealed the heart and soul of our poetry community. It affirmed my own experience of poetry being a door to the soul.”
Debra’s life has taken another turn recently. She will soon be leaving Prescott and moving to Maine. PAJ is now in the capable hands of Breeanya Hinkel, owner and publisher of Prescott Woman magazine. “I loved hosting programs that celebrated and connected the creative community, “says Debra, “I’m proud of PAJ and its mission. Breeanya will do wonderful things with it.”
Discussing the connection between her fabric collage “A River Runs Through It” and her poem “The Thread,” she says, “Stitching and writing poetry are the same process in that they’re fluid. There’s a vision, a feeling, a goal. Each has needs to be filled.” Debra’s art strives toward the same end no matter what medium she employs. “All my work is about life experiences, lessons, realizations and questions. I am attempting to express a story, a reason, a feeling, an emotion.”
In this respect, visual art and poetry have much in common. “Same process, just different tools. They both require the willingness to let go of your own needs and follow their voices. In the end, it’s always a mirror. I peel away the layers of a story into the essence of a mood, character or gesture to reveal a fleeting impression that mirrors the soul.”
To contact Debra: email@example.com
Follow the threads
Of the butterfly wings
on the sounds
(the colors) entwined
To a particular hue.
Travel the ins and outs,
Thread the needles.
Paint the movement.
Piece and separate.
Hands that shake.
Alison Hawthorne Deming creates poems that explore the natural world and enlighten readers as to the dangers of global warming and other environmental threats. Her work can be described as ecopoetry, characterized as poems with a strong ecological emphasis. “I’m interested in how poetry can bring emotion, reflection and even ethical regard into the science of climate change. As a poet, I want to have science’s back when it comes to understanding and caring for our gorgeous and beleaguered planet.” Her many books of poetry, essays, and nonfiction cover many interrelated aspects of our relationship with the natural world, from scientific to cultural to political.
Alison’s love of nature started early and later developed into writing about environmental issues through poetry. “I grew up in rural Connecticut and spent summers in the Canadian Maritimes, so I’ve always been close to nature and astonished at the diminishment of nature by human hands. Poetry has been a way to try to reestablish an intimacy with the natural world and to understand myself as a creature of nature, as a way to heal the wounded relationship between people and nature.” When she moved to Tucson in 1990 to become director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, she confronted markedly different landscapes and the cultural implications of political policies in the area. “I’ve come to love the Sonoran Desert and all the tough critters that survive its intensity. I’ve also come to understand how the desert can be weaponized to serve an inhumane political agenda.”
At UA Alison founded the Field Studies in Writing Program, which brings grad students to the borderlands to write about both social justice and environmental issues. “I’ve led my students to write about the region through this cultural lens as well as through natural history. I love teaching and working with emerging writers honing their skills. They continue to astonish me with their brilliance and bravery. This has been among the most gratifying outcomes of my thirty years of teaching.”
Although Alison also publishes memoir, essays and other writings, she has a special connection to communicating through poetry. “I love the compression and music and intensity of poetry and how it gives form to complex emotions.” Her poems often begin as quick notes, “usually images, language, something that catches up my brain. I make a rough draft, sometimes doing research to make sure I have details right — how does a bird’s wing work? what’s the name of the mountain? what history or science can help me understand what I am seeing?” She also works with scientists to expand her knowledge. “One of my favorite things is to be out in nature with field biologists and learn from them and try to turn their scientific talk into some kind of a song.” Making the leap from idea to finished poem takes time and patience. “I work through many, many drafts, trying to see what the poem wants to be. Intuition is the guide. You cut, revise, cut, revise, add new lines, cut them, revise, until the sense that the poem realizes itself makes you jump up from the chair in joy.”
For Alison poetry is a way to “create something beautiful as counterweight to the moral ugliness that is gaining traction all around us.” She has just completed a new book of poems, The Excavations. She continues to write daily, staying receptive to new ideas and poetic images as they appear. When discussing the creation of the adjacent poem “National Forest,” Alison says, “I came to Sedona for a weekend of hiking, and every single trail was closed due to wildfires. It was a shock and disappointment for me. But I wanted to give voice to the land and what it might experience, to get past my human-centric view and see how language might bridge the human with the land in a way that expressed an ethic of care.”
For more info about Alison, visit alisonhawthornedeming.com.
Bell Rock. Courthouse Rock. Devil’s Bridge.
Time has made the land forms
and they grow more beautiful with age.
Names come from the human world,
possession bleeding into perception.
What if the land had its own language?
No alphabet but steady drone
of grasslands, groan of mountains,
drought-fire’s scream — a drawn-out cry,
hiss of rain, simmer of seeds
stirring restless in the soil
pure presence and process
breaking into the place
made new by cataclysm.
That’s the planet speaking
and she cares about the fissures
in the dry river bed, about the lack
of ripe cherries in Washington
and blue crabs in Maryland,
savannah lions down by half.
She cares about the sunrise, dandelions,
and PCBs. She embraces whatever
we give her — blood, bone, rust
become her. She invented us
to do the work the word “care” implies,
invented us to invent words,
the thicket of endless possibilities
so death does not get the last word,
so groan and hiss could be accompanied
by our chatter, dirge, thesis, and psalm.
(First published in About Place Journal)
For Tucson poet Linda LaVere, a love of writing began early. “In second grade, I would sit and imagine being the bird or squirrel in the tree and looking through the eyes of other beings. I would focus on stars until the light seemed to suck me inside of them. That’s when I began to write about the things I saw and how they felt; a sort of spiritual awakening.” Books became her constant companions. “I built a very strong inner world and read a great deal. I climbed into books and the other worlds they represented. I think poets feel different somehow and have a lot of curiosity about why things are the way they are.”
In college at San Diego State she continued writing, studying with poet Glover Davis, who encouraged the technique of Show, Don’t Tell. “That fit in great with my desire to be aware and present to all that is sensory in my own poetry.” Then the 1960s brought her to UC Berkeley, where she immersed herself in the counterculture, which included hearing Alan Ginsberg perform HOWL. She was drawn to the Imagist work of poet Denise Levertov. Imagism is characterized by a clarity of expression through precise images. “Denise had a profound influence on me due to her imagery that appealed to my natural direction.”
Linda wrote and published poems in journals and served as poetry editor for a small publication called Eye Prayers. She has written two books of poems: Bridge of Bones and Shadowlands.
Linda finds inspiration everywhere she turns. “I love magic, and I see it all around me in nature. The things that people seem to take for granted astound me. Thematically I tend toward many kinds of loss and grief, of beauty and the saving grace of nature.” She also finds poetic inspiration from a lifelong love of music. She sings Celtic folk songs and show tunes, and performs in choirs. “Many songs are simply the poetry of different times put to music. Knowing actual music very much drives the ear, often unconsciously, for poets who have internalized its significance.”
Poems do not come quickly for her, needing to percolate in her mind while they work themselves out. “My poems often come from experiences that have recycled in my subconscious. I cannot sit down and punch up meaningful poems on Monday morning. My best take reflection, and even dreams.” When she finds the poem's truth, she's satisfied, at least for a while. “A good poem is like something that slips into a certain groove of your heart and brain and you hear a kind of click as it settles into a hungry spot. You feel full for a moment, and don’t have to do anything else for hours and hours except share it with another poet. Then, you have to do it again.”
In recent years Linda has become an active member of the Arizona State Poetry Society, Tucson Chapter. The society has events for writers, publishes a poetry journal, and sponsors readings. Linda enjoys meeting with other members to share and critique work. She has also given readings online during the pandemic, and taught a poetry-techniques class at a local library.
Of course there is her writing, her search for personal truth. “I am fulfilled by a poem when I can find the right word and unpredictable images that resonate with the truth of what I see. I always try to tell the truth.”
Linda shares these lovely insights in the poem below, “Going Home to Mt. Lemmon.” “I was working as a teacher there, at 8,500 feet in a one-room schoolhouse. My husband and I were the first allowed up the road after a storm. The clouds had broken apart, revealing a huge full moon. There was no longer a visible road, and we had to trust that it even existed. I wanted to share that hour drive up the mountain and the overwhelming beauty of what I encountered. The images are inspired by Earth’s profound beauty and the feelings I held priceless as her witness.” Remaining true to her Imagist influence, she adds, “As always, it is the imagery that carries the story.”
To contact Linda: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our truck is the first
to climb the mountain
late that winter night.
The road has long
and we must travel blind:
no familiar landmarks
warn of precipice or define
the long way home.
We roll on the pale
skin of the mountain
feeling our way on
her unmarked face.
Stick figures of trees
stand hunched and frozen:
wooly-feathered with snow,
ice draping their wings
with beards of glass.
The wheels shush
the powder as they turn,
the beams of moonlight
so intense, we shut
the headlights down.
The call of trees is curled
like breath in hollow tubes
of wind, then set free as ghosts
from broken shells
to ride upon the air.
There is nothing more to want.
The windshield whitening,
the tailpipe puffing,
the heater trying to keep
our feet and noses warm,
are the ordinary things we use
to see the miracles done.
For Phoenix poet June Powers, writing poetry is about remaining receptive. “In a poem, your innermost thoughts can wander the page, can teach, can draw images with words. I see poetry as a very strong connecting force between what we see, what we think is expected of us, and what we really feel.”
June believes it is essential to follow what a poem is trying to communicate. “The most important thing for me is to let the words come through without force. Then go back and adjust, revise, tweak, to make sure the words hang together and make sense. The poem will tell you if it is finished or needs more. It took a while to learn this. I used to pick a subject and go after it. Now, I still pick a subject or phrase to start, and then wait for the words to come.”
June experiments with varied poetic techniques and styles. “Writing becomes an exercise in stretching — stretching in different directions, stretching to limits I didn't know existed.” She often writes narrative poems, which integrate elements of storytelling. She also writes dialog poems that incorporate contrasting voices. She credits the work of other writers with influencing and expanding her work. “I make a point of reading short stories and poetry from all over the world. This assists me with a global perspective, cultural information, and new writing styles.” Her favorite poets include Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Victoria Chang, Billy Collins, Camille T. Dungy and Joy Harjo. “These are poets who give us a new way to view the world, who help move us toward constructive anger, who give us laughter and peaceful tears in the same breath and the time to unravel them. Gorgeous writing by other poets and authors continually lifts me.”
Besides exploring diverse methods, June has wide-ranging inspirations. “I am greatly influenced by art and the beauty of ordinary things. Photography, film, dance, and a beautiful day all help me construct a poem. I am drawn to the intersection of what we do to the environment, what we do socially, and mental-emotional health. I write about relationships from all angles, and I enjoy presenting global perspectives to bring us closer.”
June’s written three chapbooks: CHILD/poems of consciousness, SOUTH/poems of passing through, and HEART/poems of love. She approached each book with a distinct topic in mind: CHILD covers issues of social awareness; SOUTH concentrates on history and family; HEART celebrates romance and love. She found that the books overlapped and influenced one another. “This was an exploration, a series of paths to follow, and the words and emotions they brought were in charge of the process.”
Ultimately for June, poems are means of finding common ground with others. “I want to accomplish connection. I want to share possibility. I want a shakeup, an unexpected moment where the reader or audience says or feels, “Aah, yes, that’s it!” Poetry is about bringing images and emotions to life, be it love, anger, history, abuse or a long walk in a gentle breeze. They all have a place in the narrative, waiting to be shared.”
In discussing the following poem, June describes “a loving point of view and a feeling of lightness that goes beyond sharing, into the realm of becoming.” She captures a beautiful moment where people in love “become part of one another.”
She encourages readers to “consider a poem as you would a walk in a beautiful garden or the new section of a city that will soon become your favorite. Let the poems embrace and capture you. Hold on and don’t let go.”
To contact June: PowersJune8@gmail.com.
A Part of You
If I stand next to you
will I become as beautiful as a summer storm
that can’t determine the color it should be the
force, it should have or not have and so continues
at a back-and-forth pace
until the sun taps in as reminder to stop now
just stop. It’s enough to see clearly the pink haze,
the horizon in between the buildings — skyscrapers
and houses holding the laundry trying to dry
for the umpteenth
time we forgot — we forgot to take it in and so left it
waving the same
way I see your hand when you reluctantly board the train.
I cry for not seeing you.
I am not going to see you for days which will seem
like “neverness” that long
until I can stand next to you
and breathe again the freshness of your smile again
and grow more beautiful again —
as a part of you.
For Kathleen O’Halleran, Prescott is where she is meant to be. “I tell people that it was in Prescott that for the first time in my life I felt at home in my own skin, both figuratively and literally.” Although she has twice moved and returned to the area since arriving in 1988, “it was as though I’d always needed to be here.” And like Prescott, poetry is another place Kathleen is meant to be. “Through it all, poetry has been a lasting thread—a constant. I think that’s because it balances me. It provides a vessel for me to process and grow from my life experiences.”
Kathleen has an impressive resume that includes a long career of professional writing in both journalism and the academic world. She has worked as a reporter, newspaper editor, news director, and college instructor, plus lent her expertise to think tanks and forums on complex topics including social justice issues, violence and conflict, climate change impact, and environmental sustainability. She finds that the best way to work through these weighty topics is to return to her roots in poetry. “People might never know that these are the specific things I am trying to process, but that isn’t necessary. The reader will find poems that cover the fallout from what we each experience in our lives that creates anxiety, fear, sadness and heartache, a need for simplicity, for love and compassion, or for connection with what brings us comfort or peacefulness.”
Through poetry, Kathleen tries to make sense of life. “I am most interested in writing poetry that helps to sort out the human experience. A poem often creates the opportunity for processing, healing, illumination, and growth.” She views poetry as a means of discovery, an uncovering of truths, even if these revelations are difficult or upsetting. “Poetry is so necessary to me, in the most personal of ways. It is the hard things about and within life that I tend to gravitate toward, and that inspire or compel me to write. It might be in matters of our personal lives or in terms of the large, profound human experiences we go through.” Ultimately, poetry is a path to self-understanding and acceptance. “Poetry is my sanctuary. It’s where I hope to become a better being.”
In her work, Kathleen attempts to match a poem’s technique with its message. “I strive to create sensory and rhythmic aesthetics in each poem that best connect with the mood, theme, pace, and progression of the poem. My goal is that the combination of these features is in such close union that they cannot possibly be extricated from one another, without loss of effect or meaning.”
And although poetry can appear to be a solitary endeavor, Kathleen finds “an intimacy between writer and reader. Each poem invites us to an experience with the author: a shared truth, a shared sense of comfort, or of sorrow, of acceptance or resistance, of awareness, or of the mysteries that continue to confound us. There is a sense that this moment of self-growth is shared; that a person is not alone in their searching, or in feeling this way.”
The following poems demonstrate Kathleen’s gift for approaching topics “subtly and symbolically, gently tugging at an idea and/or feeling,” rather than openly confronting it. “We are so overwhelmed at all we're going through collectively with the pandemic, political strife, fear, trauma and prolonged isolation that I try to come at a topic from the side, so that we process it as we are able.”
Kathleen’s life has evolved over her years in Prescott. She fondly recalls the early days of living in town. “Raising my two children here, where I felt they were safe, where we could enjoy the small-town atmosphere and activities on the square, the climate, and the surrounding natural beauty. I don’t think I could’ve asked for more. As a single mom, it was tough financially. I had lucrative offers in journalism elsewhere, but I wanted to raise my son and daughter here. They grew up with a strong sense of identity, a love for the environment, and long-lasting friendships.”
Now, years later, she lives with her daughter and grandchildren. Recently, they’ve all moved to a farm outside Prescott. “The views, with the foothills and mountains as a backdrop to the broad five-acre spread of open land out here and the big sky sunrises, sunsets, and starry evenings, are both peaceful, and spectacular. It’s so inspirational—especially for writing poetry—and for spending more quality time together as a family.”
Ultimately both Prescott and poetry are where Kathleen feels she is most fulfilled. “I am where I want to be, close to nature, close to family, with time and inspiration to enjoy the many facets of my life and, of course, to write.”
To contact Kathleen: email@example.com
For Phoenix poet Rosemarie Dombrowski, poetry is therapeutic. “I use poetry as a portal for processing my trauma, distilling stories into their essential details, and healing.” She is a single parent and primary caregiver to her adult son who has nonverbal autism and other disabilities. She teaches courses on women’s literature, medical poetry, and editing at ASU Downtown Phoenix. As a literary advocate she’s launched many community-based projects, and in 2017 was selected as the inaugural Poet Laureate of Phoenix. She created a nonprofit called Revisionary Arts in 2020 that provides therapeutic poetry workshops for vulnerable populations.
Rosemarie feels that these workshops help participants understand and express their emotions and experiences. “Poetry can facilitate the processing of trauma, grief, illness, stress, etc., which can lead to individual and collective healing.” The workshop leaders share poems that inspire participants to open up in their own writing. “I like to say that we use the art of divination to select the right poems for the population we’re working with, poems in which they’ll recognize themselves, maybe find a community of sufferers. Poems that encourage/incite them to reflect on their past and present, their mental, spiritual, and physical realities. The poem does the work, and it’s a wondrous thing to witness.”
From there attendees craft their own poems. “The page doesn’t judge. It’ll never be shocked by a confession or disclosure. And once we’ve articulated our suffering outside of our heads, we have the ability to reread it from a new perspective, reflect on it, analyze it, (truly) see it. Purging even a thin layer of trauma gets us a little closer to the source. This is really the essence of poetry therapy: the poem is both a container for our suffering as well as a portal to a deeper understanding.”
Compared to other genres, Rosemarie finds that poetry has a unique ability to get to the heart of the matter. “It’s always about the brilliance in the brevity. The depths that a poem can explore in 20 lines. Like any form of writing, poetry is a means of articulating our experiences, but unlike other genres, poetry requires us to focus on the most critical elements of our story. You can’t grapple with a memoir or a novel or even a short story in the space of a 60-minute class/workshop/session, but you can cover the landscape of a poem, even connect it meaningfully to your life, even begin more deeply exploring some aspect of your life.”
Rosemarie’s experiences as Poet Laureate of Phoenix were both challenging and rewarding. “I thought I was already pretty invested/embedded in the community, hosting a lot of public events, but the requests for me to speak (and read) really ratcheted up quickly! Some of the most nerve-wracking ones — which were also some of the greatest honors — were the poems I was asked to write and perform for civic and political events. It was a pressurized whirlwind and something I wasn’t exactly prepared for, but it certainly catapulted poetry into visible spaces in the community, and it made many new things possible for me, so I have nothing but gratitude (and a lot of gray hairs)!”
Besides her workshops and teaching, Rosemarie is the faculty editor of Grey Matter, the school’s medical poetry journal, and Write On Downtown, an arts and culture journal. She’s published three collections of poems and is founding editor of rinky dink press, which publishes micro-poetry. The following poems reflect Rosemarie’s talent for uncovering and articulating the core of traumatic experiences.
Lately Rosemarie has been working as a poetry and yoga therapist at the Maricopa Reentry Center, a facility for formerly incarcerated men who are dealing with addiction. “It’s been the greatest gift and biggest challenge of my life thus far.” She continues to find fulfillment in sharing her work and guiding others to do the same. “I’m most comfortable in medical spaces, writing medical/disability poetry, plumbing my own trauma, or working with vulnerable populations. That’s who I am as a human, so it makes sense that that’s who I’d be as a poet.”
The windows are portals
into another world.
The ice blankets the freeway
like the layers of bloody linens
they strip from my bed.
The bathroom light
is a beacon for a ship
that can’t make it to harbor.
They bring me bacon
that I refuse to eat.
I realize there’s nothing here
to recognize—not the face
wrapped in pinstripes,
not even the one in the mirror.
Their eyes look like antiseptic.
Their voices sound like
my swollen womb,
the taste of rot
and no toothpaste.
I am a stuck pig,
a bleeding bitch,
an unfit mother already.
The wheelchair in the bathroom
is like the feeling you get
when you’re clinging to the precipice.
Once, the Grand Canyon
almost swallowed me whole.
They say that the hole in his heart
is the size of a dime.
The surgeon is speaking in hands —
no contact … no running … no longdistance
anything for life.
I wonder who I will become
without my legs.
Today, I am the beeping monitor,
the churning machine
that’s attached to my breasts.
I see the face of sin in NICU window.
I pray to the saint of perpetual lactation,
the wide-eyed mother of despair.
Prescott resident Cynthia Loucks is a great appreciator of poetry. “I love to study poetry, and I love the craft.” She admires the “economy of poetry, the ability to say more with fewer words,” which makes it uniquely challenging. “It is about cutting out what is unnecessary, but without losing the music and beauty. That process of thinking about every word, what to add and what to take away, is one of the things I truly enjoy about writing. I want to write poems that are well crafted and succeed in communicating something that moves me. I especially like when I can make someone laugh at the same time.”
She is surrounded by inspiration for her poems. “I am continually engaged with the natural world and with my own inner process. I write poems on a wide array of subjects, from personal and interpersonal to global, nature to science, politics to spiritual, and sometimes much of that mixed together.” And she is often moved by reading the work of other poets, which she sometimes does aloud. “There is a great sensuality in the way some poems enter my ears as sound, and thrill my tongue as I pronounce the words. Combining that with content that means something to me is a fullness beyond what either captures alone.”
Cynthia feels poetry in one form or another has been a constant thread in her life. She can trace its roots back to her childhood, when her mother recited poems to her. As a young adult she was captivated by the rock poets of the 1960s and ‘70s. Later, as a practitioner of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, she studied the poetry of Rumi and other sacred poets. Many contemporary poets influence her work, especially Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. To improve her skills, she has taken poetry classes at Yavapai College and joined local critique groups. “I feel that studying poetry enables me to gradually learn to craft poems more effectively and more beautifully. It is, after all, about beauty, isn’t it?” She was also a member of the MAD Women Poets, where she publicly performed many of her poems. “We had great audiences, and it was a wonderful experience to be able to share my poems.”
She feels that poetry is a means for sharing insight. “As someone with a lifelong habit of exploring my own psyche and that of others, I find perceptions are often most effectively expressed poetically.” She trained as a therapist and worked for years as a bereavement coordinator for a local hospice. She found that poetry “could be effective in making an emotional connection for people experiencing grief, expressing something they may not be able to find words for. In the most difficult times for people, a poem can express what is needed.”
For Cynthia, “poems are a way of saying things when nothing else will quite do. I encounter things that astonish me all the time, everywhere — in nature, in my reading, on the news. While what astonishes and amazes invokes wonder, I also often encounter horrifying things. The sorrow is as great as the wonder. These are not things that necessarily need to be analyzed or even described, as one would with prose. They want to be sung! So what enters me via my senses and amazes me comes out as poetry.”
Cynthia’s lived in Prescott for 20 years. In her leisure time, she enjoys “hiking and playing with my dog, along with writing poetry, drawing and painting, just being here on my little piece of Earth.” When it comes to writing she is able to create “pretty much anywhere, anytime. When I find the words jamming up in my mind, I try to quickly find some way to write them down before they slip away.” After the initial burst of inspiration “comes the work — the work I absolutely love — of shaping, refining, revising. Writing a poem can be like sculpting — start out with a block of words, and removing everything that isn’t the poem.”
About the following poem, Cynthia says, “As someone who follows the news and chooses to witness what is happening in this world, my gratitude for living some place as peaceful and safe as Prescott is considerable and genuine. But at this point in time, I believe we all need to do a whole lot more than be grateful. If anything, that could be a path of complacency.” Cynthia captures the simple beauty of a summer morning coupled with the knowledge that it could easily be taken away.
rosy brush stroke across the sky
the color of healthy cheeks
the color of dawn signaling
we’ve made it through another night
not such a tenuous prospect
in this small city in the mountains
if the minions of the latest unholy war
ever decided to savage it out here
— no, I’m not going there
it is enough to be grateful
that the sounds of this city waking up
don’t include rumbling tanks or mortar fire
strolling in cool morning air is especially sweet
knowing the temperature
slogging a load of humidity
will march into the nineties by afternoon
coyotes singing along
with the inevitable early morning siren
will soon be sleeping off the night
and the cottontail who can’t decide
whether to hop away or pretend to be a rock
will likely live another day
this is just the beginning of what I’m grateful for
but it’s a good place to start
For Prescott writer and teacher Michael McLaughlin, “the function of an artist is to bear witness to truth.” Poetry is “personal, but it only works if it’s also universal. I want to find the essence of something, its emotional truth. Such is where the real poetry lies.”
Michael worked for many years as an artist in residence with incarcerated youth and adults. “Teaching poetry, screenplay and fiction writing in prisons, juvenile detention centers and mental-health facilities has been one of the highlights of my life. I wanted to creatively help people who seemingly needed help the most. It was an enormous privilege to be working with them.” There too his emphasis was on enabling students to find personal truths they could share with others. “It’s not easy to craft an honest poem, to get up and read it in front of a group of strangers. What resulted was a sort of fearlessness that I learned to draw from and embolden people with.”
In his own poetry Michael draws from a range of inspiration: “the conflicts and incongruities I encounter, the incredible amount of injustice in the world, the nature of all creatures, including human, and, as I grow older, the repositories of wisdom in the world’s religions.” He also credits diverse poets and authors as having profound influence on his work: “Keats, Vallejo, Sexton, Whitman, Lorca, Plath, Bishop, the novelist Celine, to name a few.”
For Michael, poems are “usually spun out of a catchphrase or an experience or a journal entry.” While he enjoys the practice of writing — “It’s great fun tinkering away in one’s little word factory” — he acknowledges that poems can often take their own surprising paths. He describes himself as “just a victim of enthusiasms, always caught between seeing where poems will take me and reining them in. I’m both standing my ground and surrendering to experience.” When a poem works, it’s almost a transcendent experience for him. “Every once in a while you’re gifted into a kind of understanding. And if you’re open to the call, you may be able to articulate it. Beyond meditation and therapy, poetry is the only real-life way I know of making peace with perplexity.”
Michael and his wife moved to Prescott in 2019. He currently teaches English and creative writing at Yavapai College, including a Poetry Writing Workshop coming in August. He’s written two novels, Western People Show Their Faces and Gang of One, and three books of poetry, Ped Xing, The Upholstery of Heaven and Countless Cinemas. His accomplishments include being named Poet Laureate of San Luis Obispo County, California, and hosting a long-running poetry and performance series in Santa Maria, California. Pre-pandemic Michael also did poetry readings all over the country. “I love reading out loud, the sound, sense and suggestion of poetry — it’s both a thrill and a surprise when you can pull a poem off and move people a bit.”
The poems here demonstrate Michael’s keen ability to tackle complex themes through subtle imagery. Isolation, loneliness, fleeting moments of both clarity and loss populate his thoughtful lines, culminating in realizations that enlighten. Michael says, “In awe as I am of the different eastern and western wisdom traditions, all the mind-bending platitudes and maxims, what always strikes hardest and truest is poetry.”
To find out more about Michael, visit mycalmac.us/poet.
with thanks to Donald S Lopez Jr.
the yogacara speak
of a form of consciousness
where all the seeds
of past deeds
one by one these seeds
come to fruition
creating a person
and a private world.
a universe of closet sized cinemas
each occupied by a single person
eternally viewing a different film.
everything is of the nature of consciousness
the product of one's own projections.
ignorance and suffering
believe the yogacara
result from feeling
the movie to be real.
Summer Eve South of Stockton
the yogacara speak
of a form of consciousness
where all the seeds
of past deeds
one by one these seeds
come to fruition
creating a person
and a private world.
a universe of closet sized cinemas
each occupied by a single person
eternally viewing a different film.
everything is of the nature of consciousness
the product of one's own projections.
ignorance and suffering
believe the yogacara
result from feeling
the movie to be real.
Summer Eve South of Stockton
One hundred well-behaved right lane trucks.
Fast Lane I-5. 80 mile per hour
twilight toasting the minds of bugs.
Phone pole hawk. Beak tucked.
Crop duster Christmas time green. Envying
the guy whose first kiss must
have just taken hold in rich rye
of such an instant just passed.
Ah, the heat of it! We’re no more than bread!
Back seat my son, you’d think
the upholstery of heaven.
For an instant so righteous
I’m entrusted with so much.
Night’s just a nestMy job’s just to driveFor an instant so righteous.
During quarantine a Flagstaff business called A Dog’s Walk Bakery sustained customers by selling baked bread from a filing cabinet. For poet Katie King, the trips to the bakery were a “needed sanity walk with a destination … something to help balance our freshly unbalanced lives.” The menu changed constantly; there was no predicting what breads would appear or whether they were destined to be “one-time wonders.” The experience inspired Katie to write poems using bread as a metaphor for the challenges and unexpected comforts of this difficult time. Ultimately she published Bread Poems, which she describes as “21 strangely vulnerable pieces about my early quarantine, in bread.”
While she is also a songwriter, actor and photographer, poetry was the natural creative choice for Bread Poems. “I wanted to write simply about something simple, during really complicated times that were also very simple, in a sense. Poetry was the obvious answer. The bakery’s menu itself sounded poetic to me.”
Katie believes art is an avenue for communicating inner emotions, even painful ones. “I write what hurts so that I can understand the weather of things like love, loss, and confusion. It feels like being a nerve-historian the more I do it, like mapping out the sense of things.” She gives credit to her mother for inspiring her poetic honesty. “The ghost of my literature-loving mother haunts me. I was always encouraged to feel anything at all, and I never chose to numb out.” When a poem works, she knows it: “For a moment I feel like I’m at the right temperature in the gut.” It’s important to her to convey that truthfulness to readers. “I want people to feel like someone is being honest with them.”
Even though she tackles painful topics, her ironic sense of humor also shines through the work. “I love writing about men and bread, two things I love but do not understand, and two things that aren’t exactly good for me.”
Katie has written for as long as she can remember. “I guess you could say my first word was a poem. Juice. I was thirsty, and I’ve been extremely dehydrated ever since. All my writings ask for water in one way or another. They are prayers to quench me.” Still, she resists a poem’s pull till she has no choice. “A poem is like a bored child who just needs to be held. With the bread poems, I felt like I was making a recipe book in reverse. As if, in reading just the poems, the bread could be replicated by any baker, without a traditional recipe.”
Katie has lived in Flagstaff since 1996 and is currently a grad student. After ten years unattached, she and her son moved in with her boyfriend and his two children right before the pandemic began. “We crash-created an instant family during an historic time when so many were alone. I wanted to capture that strangeness and the celebration of something nice within such sad times. I hoped the bread would tell the story.”
Katie is grateful to A Dog’s Walk Bakery for providing comfort to her blended family during the pandemic, and for its generosity in the community: 18% of profits go to the Flagstaff Family Food Bank. She also believes that publishing these poems has allowed her to be a voice in her hometown. “The culinary and literary communities can be somewhat intimidating. I wanted to challenge those realities by making something very accessible. I like non-stuffy vibes. Poetry is for everyone — everyone to read, and everyone to write.”
Katie beautifully captures both humor and tenderness in the following poems, expanding on the simple metaphor to share her thoughts on love, loss, motherhood, and finding solace and community even during isolation from her neighbors.
Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and Banana Scone
It’s a light love
Not like the way you love a dog because you can’t
hear their judgments of you as a person
Not a one-sided love
But a love that says, Hey, I’m here if you need me
A shoulder stroke
You look nice in that dress
I brought you tea
I was expecting a tough chewy scone
One you had to work for
Not sure if I’ll ever be one for light love
I like to rip you apart
Be ripped apart
Leave the guts of you in my teeth
Still taste you tomorrow
Remember how hard it was to get rid of you
Fight through the different textures
You’ll remember my bite
But this was a good scone after a fight
When you just need some air.
White Corn Green Chile3 (Stomping Grounds)
Because my mother served food to me for 28 years.
We made bread together with a bread machine
in the ‘90s. You and bread Katie, she would say. Look
Robert, she would say in a shrill but sweet voice —
she dug her hand inside again and only ate the
dough. Inside I sense a scant sense of some of my
own identity. The girl raised by the woman with the
father from South Carolina. The daughter of one
who moved to the west for Montessori jobs and
rocky mountain men. The one who loved bread till
childbirth changed what I could and couldn’t eat.
I breathe it in like the night my mother died and
I slept in her sheets and smelled everything she had
ever sacrificed for me — but sweetly so.
Sometimes I wonder
Is the white corn green chile a bread or a blanket
laying over me on the noticing of a calm-weathered
Katie will be featured at Peregrine Book Company this month: https://www.peregrinebookcompany.com/event
Bread Poems is available at Bright Side and Bookmans in Flagstaff, and Peregrine Book Company in Prescott.
Prescott spoken-word artist Jeff Daverman has a mission. “Our work in this life is to contribute to the collective conscience by doing the individual internal work it takes to gain wisdom and grow in mindfulness.” As both artist and activist, he strives to share his message with others. “When the internal work is the focus, the individual grows wiser, and thus the collective grows wiser.”
In addition to poetry, Jeff is a visual and graphic artist. He finds that different media present unique challenges, but also have much in common. “In all my creative endeavors I seek to convey an authentic expression, as closely aligned to truth and the nature of reality as I can.” Poetry challenges him to approach art from innovative perspectives. “Poetry gives me a way to stretch my creativity and apply entirely different processes. Using language, cadence, rhythm, rhyme and metaphors to paint a lyrical picture is a great complement to my visual art.”
Spoken-word poetry has its roots in oral traditions. It also requires the performer to have a good memory. “Mastering a poem well enough to recite it on stage pushes my comfort zone and helps me redefine what I am capable of creatively. Using succinct language to express ideas that have depth is a beautiful challenge.” Jeff feels honored to join other artists who express themselves through spoken-word poetry. “I love the courageous souls who step into the arena to dare greatly and become vulnerable in hopes of sparking connection.”
Political and social justice struggles are often themes in Jeff’s poetry. “The work of being an activist and the work of being an artist help me plug into a cause greater than myself, and present opportunities to put my beliefs into action alongside kindred spirits in a like-minded community.”
Recently Jeff performed the following poem, “From the Front Lines of the Nonviolent Revolution,” at the Prescott Courthouse in front of an appreciative crowd. Unlike other poems he’s written, this poem came easily. “It just flowed out of me, as though the universe was giving me this message to present to the world. I had tapped into a creative expression that instantly became alive in me.” He is pleased that the poem has received such positive acclaim. “This poem represents who I am and what I believe about as well as any single work of art I’ve ever created, so collaborating with the universe on such a high frequency alone feels mighty successful. The fact that it has struck an emotional chord with some of the folks who have heard me recite it is a pretty sweet bonus.”
When discussing the poem, he says, “This poem is a reminder that the struggle always begins within the heart of each individual working to better themselves and the world around them.” For Jeff, change starts from within, then grows to connect with the larger community. “Acting from a foundation based in love and applying a consciousness that considers the wellbeing of others and the planet we share is how we best contribute to the true revolution; the evolution of consciousness.”
From the Front Lines of the Nonviolent Revolution
In every moment, GRATITUDE
Forget the farce and platitudes
Align instead your attitude
To all vibrations positive
Rejecting fear, and pledge to live
A life whose wealth is what you give,
A heart whose health… imperative
May wisdom guide the narrative
Through all this present lucid dreaming
The universe not so gently screaming,
“Appreciation, Consideration, Empathy and Compassion
These are the things you do not have to ration!”
Transcendent egos called to action
The law of love is gaining traction
Heed the call, oh Mortal Conduit!
Feel the flow and know to roll with it
Feed the soul, let go the bullshit
Cut those ties and recognize the lies
The illusion of separateness
Is but a disguise
When you see through
that what’s true has been defaced
Negativity displaced, the need for violence erased
And when there is space to ponder grace
Yourself reflected in another one’s face…
Yourself reflected in another one’s face
The place to embrace simultaneously
To agree to see common humanity
To share the same air and dare to be
Inspired by the mystery
Beyond him or her or them or me
In order to be free we already hold the key
Applying awareness on the conscious frontier
With a deep understanding that love is greater than fear
Empowering voices and subsequent choices
This guidance is strident and abundantly clear!
With no reservations, this revelation’s
A distinguished creation of reciprocation
Shout it out, I’ll say it to every nation,
“Your behavior is your best illustration.”
By being the light in the night of unknowing
With hope as the scope of consciousness glowing
Harvesting love from the seeds that we sow,
Nonviolent Revolution continues to grow
Nonviolent Revolution continues to grow
Nonviolent Revolution continues to grow!
This poem is dedicated to Nonviolent Revolutionaries past and present.
When Arizona resident Susan Vespoli discovered poetry in a community-college classroom, she never looked back. Her long marriage had just ended, her children were grown, and she was ready for a change. She sold her Montessori School business, bought a cabin in the forest of Prescott, and “ran away to poetry school.” Susan is “a devout believer in the power of writing to heal, transform, illuminate.” Through many life challenges she’s used poetry to understand and grow from her experiences. Poetry is a way for her to “access truth, speak truth, get it out of my body. I like the condensed form, getting rid of extraneous words, boiling it down to the nugget of truth.”
Poems come to Susan in several ways. She writes her “morning pages” every day, and participates in writing groups and writing circles where new material is worked on. “After I let it all hang out in my notebook, no editing or judgment, I feel lighter, and can just let it go and move about my day or gather insight and clarity.” Poets get together in her writing groups to give feedback and support. Her writing circles are based on a technique called Wild Writing, which she practices and teaches through workshops. Participants write nonstop for 15 minutes, which helps push them past their inner critics into a more creative mentality. The writing technique “allows me to get out of my swirling head and drop into the stillness except for the pen I keep moving as fast as I can.” At other times, she uses poetry specifically to work through problems. “I will write poems to figure something out, or make peace with a confusing event or situation. After writing a poem, I so very often have an aha! moment, and find peace and clarity.”
Since graduating with her MFA in poetry Susan has taught at several schools, including Prescott College and Phoenix College. She works now at Writers.com, which offers online writing classes. She’s published many poems, essays, and two chapbooks. She’s recently published the poetry collection Blame It on the Serpent.
The month’s poem, “Food Bank,” explores a topic close to Susan’s heart: drug addiction in her family. She writes, “My son had found his own sort of recovery by volunteering in this food bank. I am more of a nature-and-writing-as-spirituality person, yet I saw how his work in this church’s food bank was transforming him.” In the poem, the listing of actions and items take on an exalted status, beautifully mirroring the religious fervor of the son. “I believe everyone has their own path to light,” Susan adds, “and in this place, he had found his.” Sadly, her son, Adam Vespoli, passed away unexpectedly on March 12, 2022. For Susan, writing poetry and sharing it with others is her path to light.
To find out more about Susan: susanvespoli.com.
Susan will be reading at Peregrine Book Company in April: peregrinebookcompany.com/event
After a summer of living in his car,
after the DUI, the stint in Tent City,
decades of denial, fits of angry texts,
shakes and sweats over a barbecue grill,
a broken window. After near-death drug
deals, lying passed out in a fellow junkie’s house,
his sister sobbing into her phone, me behind
a bathroom door in another state trying to calm her.
After years of 12-step meetings (mine), tying my life
to mantras like let go or be dragged, letting grief
be a marinade to soften me a la some paraphrased Rumi poem.
After praying to my dead friend Jamelle, asking her to look
for him, look after him, wherever he was. After searching
strangers’ faces for his for over a year, he resurfaces,
altered. After he found in a black sack in his dad’s garage,
the book, Message to a Troubled World, written by my great
grandmother, channeled through an Ouija board in the 1940s.
After he could quote passages from the book like scripture.
After the methadone clinic. After looking for a church.
After handing water bottles to those holding cardboard signs
at street corners. After scavenging backpacks from bulk trash,
gifting them to those he met along the canals, those who carried
their belongings in plastic bags, he now stands in a place where
he tells me he’s never been this happy, serving others, the answer,
a place where he finally feels he fits — in a room stacked with milk
crates and boxes with graphics of bananas, metal shelves piled high
with iceberg, red bell peppers, striped melons, cukes and squash,
row upon row of Kashi, Kraft mac and cheese, Campbell’s cans, jars
of Skippy and grape jam, the crew of volunteers clad in khaki pants
and Pure Heart t-shirts, their arms and legs in wheel-like motion, food to box,
box to the next arms in a line that forms outside the door. My son grinning,
his open hand sweeping the room, pointing to produce, day-old pastries, dairy,
meat, eggs in the walk-in fridge, beams of Tuesday sunlight scattering through
the glass, falling on all in the scene, his face and eyes wide, effervescent, lit.
“Hard times, hard writing, and whole hell of a lot to be thankful for.”
Dee Cohen on Poetry
Arizona poet Jesse Sensibar is at home on the road. He lives in both Flagstaff and Tucson, but travels frequently through the deserts, forests, and changing landscapes of the Southwest. “The places I call home are very important to me, but at the same time I always need to get out and get away.” Through his work as a tow-truck driver, he’s documented his journeys, taking photos and writing poems and essays that capture forgotten towns and people. His poetic work is gritty and direct, with an ability to highlight and heighten everyday struggles. For Jesse, poetry can “boil something much larger down to its essence, its few most important ideas, images, actions, or events.” Pulling from a lifetime of experiences “in tattoo shops, pizza parlors, corner bars, speed shops, and motorcycle clubhouses,” Jesse creates poems that reflect hard-won gains and heartbreaking setbacks.
Jesse has written two books: a collection of essays, My Disappearing West, and a memoir, Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway. He is involved in many aspects of the writing community, including as a visiting author at ASU and former executive director of the Northern AZ Book Festival. His work has appeared in over 40 publications, and he performs in many venues throughout the state. He switches from essays to poems to flash-fiction to photos, depending on what he wants to express. “I choose the medium that works best to tell the story I am trying to tell. That’s primarily what I am, a storyteller.”
Jesse says he often visits and revisits repeating themes in his work. “I chew on them like a small dog with a large bone.” These recurring ideas include “documenting the passing of a rapidly disappearing American West and pondering the fleeting nature of memory, sin, spirituality and forgiveness.” Jesse relates that he can both “simultaneously hide in a poem and use it to reveal all sorts of secrets, feelings, etc., that might otherwise be difficult to give voice to. It’s also a great way to depart from the truth of an event without ever actually being a liar.”
Besides his familiar themes, Jesse’s work is influenced by other factors: “Personal experience, of course, but also things and people I hear and read, the work I do, and the landscapes I inhabit all influence my work. I’m never writing in a voice that’s not my own.” His honest voice leads him to create poems that demand to be expressed: “I write about whatever it is that’s stuck in my head that needs to come out. I write the poems of the life I’ve lived so they can’t help but come across as honest, or as honest as my experience allows them to be.”
It’s important to him to communicate with his readers. “I want you to feel what I feel. I want to impart to you some of the hard lessons I’ve learned.” Included in Jesse’s hard lessons are memories of years spent caught in the outlaw drug culture as a drug abuser. Nowadays, Jesse considers himself lucky. “I’ve lived a long life, much longer than I deserve given the things I’ve done. These are my bonus years. I count every day above ground as a good day.”
The following pieces are from a collection of six linked poems called Fire in the Bottom of the World that was published as a microzine by Rinky-Dink Press. “This collection has throughlines of family, fire and the Inland Empire of California, a place that reflects for me in my rear-view mirror my own damaged soul.” Reading Jesse’s poetry means traveling alongside him as he reveals a weathered world of damaged souls, fading highways, roadside memorials and beautiful sunrises.
For more visit jessesensibar.com.
Hear Jesse read these poems at youtu.be/CLNiTDrjEdo.
Light Changes Everything
If it’s a car bomb
or a sunrise
A stripper strobe
or a Polaroid flash bulb
A partial eclipse
or lung burning smoke
If it’s a forest fire
or a sunset
Light changes everything
The Last Will
I’ll leave all my pain to
twenty-three Saints and the Virgin.
I’ll leave the road to
my ghost in a butterfly-hood Kenworth.
I’ll leave my treasure to
my lovers and children.
I’ll leave my guns
on the ground where they fall.
Return From Kandahar
Every photo needs
a bit of sky
Especially the one of me
outside The Torches Motel
At dusk or sunrise
I don’t remember which
Whisky bottle in one hand
your waist in the other
Where I finally broke
Here in the bottom of the world
Mesa poet Austin Davis is a poet and activist, currently studying creative writing at ASU. He runs an outreach program called AZ Hugs For the Houseless through the organization Arizona Jews for Justice. His writing covers many political and social issues, ranging from gun violence to homelessness to equal rights.
For Austin, poetry is a way to “connect with people. I want to help people feel less alone. We’re all moving through this life together, and being a human can be hard.” Through his poetry, he hopes to “show people new perspectives, inspire progressive change, and help the world heal, even in a very small way.”
Austin was drawn to poetry early on. “In sixth grade I discovered some contemporary poets, and I fell in love with how much emotion and feeling could be conveyed in such little words.” His connection with poetry never dimmed. “Poetry has always felt like magic to me.” Creating poems brings him great satisfaction and joy. “A poem makes me feel like a kid. And that’s pretty damn nice. It’s like being understood and seen and hugged and human and together across time and space all at once.”
In his work with vulnerable populations, Austin’s organization provides essential supplies and services. Through these interactions he’s “learned a lot about the fragility of life, the complete and terrifying randomness of existence, but also about how important it is for the people around us to know we love them, for us to be there for one another.”
Besides political and social themes, Austin makes room for other varied topics. “Sometimes it’s depression or intrusive thoughts. Sometimes it's my favorite SpongeBob episode. Sometimes it’s wanting to claw out my brains with the miniature rake from a Zen garden.” Poems appear out of “quick bursts of energy. I feel a certain image or a line in my bones, and I need more than anything to get up and write it down.” And he seems to be able to create anywhere: “I write in the streets, in my van, on my front doorstep, in a McDonald’s parking lot, or wherever inspiration hits me.”
Austin enjoys sharing his work with others, on the page and in person. “Performing makes everything I feel sad or stressed about melt away. My aim is to try to give audiences the kind of performance they’ll think about later when they’re falling asleep, when you think about whatever as made you feel something throughout the day. That’s the dream.”
Austin’s written two books of poetry, The World Isn’t the Size of Our Neighborhood Anymore and Celestial Night Light. The following poem is from his upcoming book Lotus & The Apocalypse. Lotus is a continuing character in the book. “Lotus is all the bad thoughts you shove inside the back closet in the empty room in the darkest part of your brain.” In the poem “Lotus & Fear” Austin manages to juggle both desperation and hopefulness, recognizing darkness and depression, yet finding solace in connection with others.
Throughout his poetry, Austin returns to what inspires him most, both personally and in working with vulnerable populations. “Love is what helps us survive those nights when your head is stuck in the storm clouds and you’re choking on darkness. At the end of the day, love is all that really matters.”
To find out more about Austin, visit msha.ke/austindavis.
LOTUS & FEAR
there’s a yellow balloon, the color of autumn after snow,
bouncing around my chest
i often mistake its rhythm for my heartbeat,
so trust me,
i know i can’t be trusted
let’s play a party game
where we have to take turns telling each other
about all of our fears and mistakes
and take a shot each time we wish we had a time machine
we’ll be blackout drunk before the guests start ringing our doorbell
last night i broke into my old elementary school
and left a coffee mug full of wet dirt and seeds in the janitor’s closet
to see if it’s possible for a flower to grow tall and bright
under the glow of a lightbulb on a string
i’ve always thought of happiness as being tangible
the most brilliant mango hanging from the highest branch
but if we can’t even find the forest how are we supposed to climb the tree?
each day numbs me into dismissiveness
until my lips are purple from wine
and i’m sitting on the patio
watching the rain darken the red brick tiles around my feet
fill my lungs with hot breath
and we'll blow out the candles together
sing that familiar tune
learn how to pop without a sound
Good poems sneak up on you. You move down the page expecting, well, the expected, and suddenly there’s a twist or a surprise, or the double meaning of a word transforms humor into heartbreak. Tucson poet Jefferson Carter is always on the lookout for original ways of interpreting the world. “It’s the unpredictable phrase, the words and thoughts that come out of nowhere, that I esteem. My job is to be receptive to them.”
Jefferson calls himself “an opportunist, not a poet with a plan.” His subject matter includes anything that “catches my fancy. I write about an engaging image, a political or environmental issue, a bit of zoology, an overheard conversation, and, of course, love.” He’s published eleven collections of poems with striking titles such as Birkenstock Blues and Diphtheria Festival. Throughout his work he rethinks everyday experiences, turning menial tasks like cleaning the litter box or eating last night’s leftovers or unfriending people on Facebook into meaningful moments. His distinctive voice is both matter-of-fact and ironically humorous.
Even as a child, Jefferson was strongly moved by poetry. “I remember in the fifth grade reading Keats’ ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ and being blown away. I wanted to do that! I knew I’d write poetry someday, but I put if off because I was afraid I’d be no good.” His early influences were Jonathan Swift and John Donne. “Swift still influences me, though I must be careful to temper my satirical tendencies.” While studying for his PhD in English Literature at the University of Arizona he received an assignment to write 50 heroic couplets. “I had fun writing the piece, and became confident enough to write a few poems of my own. I submitted one to a journal in Houston. It was accepted, and, voila! A ‘career’ was launched!” Since then his work has appeared in many journals, and he has performed in venues across Arizona and beyond. He also taught at Pima Community College for 30 years, 18 as Writing Department chair.
There are many reasons Jefferson is drawn to poetry. “I love the expressive possibilities in line breaks, the challenge of heightening the conversational, colloquial diction I favor.” For him, writing prose is a chore. “As department chair I dreaded composing memos, even short ones. I wrote a 300-page dissertation for my PhD. That may have scotched forever my interest in writing prose.” He’s selective about what he likes in the work of others. “Most of the poetry published today is competent; I’m tired of competent poetry.” But he lists Rae Armantrout, Dean Young, Marvin Bell, Tony Hoagland and Mary Ruefle as recent strong influences. “I love good poetry, work that, as the sainted Emily once said, blows the top of my head off!”
Since retiring Jefferson has concentrated on writing and performing. He’s also dedicated time and energy to Tucson’s Sky Island Alliance, an environmental organization. He approaches poems about environmental and political situations in his usual straightforward manner. “Starting, I’m never sure what I want to communicate. I try never to predetermine a piece’s ‘meaning’ or direction. So many poems published currently are socially engaged, about justice and injustice. I have trouble with such poems, too often experiencing them as self-pitying or preaching to the choir. I do admire serious poems, but not solemn ones.”
Jefferson feels that his style is evolving. “I’ve always allowed myself to write about whatever catches my attention, but lately I’m conflicted. I feel I’m in a rut. I don’t want to write any more poems about cats or domestic life. These seem to be my most successful works, or at least the ones editors accept and audience members applaud. Sometimes I sound more like a sit-down comedian than a poet.”
About the following poem, Jefferson explains, “In a reading, I’ll introduce ‘Life Partner’ by dedicating it to all couples in the audience whose relationship has lasted more than six months. So I’m apparently communicating my respect for the difficulty of staying coupled.” The poem presents a jaded romanticism, as if the speaker would like to joke around but unintentionally reveals the pain hidden within this relationship. And, watch out, that last line really sneaks up on you.
For convenience, I & my life partner
(the woman formerly known as my wife)
have numbered our arguments. Number 3,
you’re so negative. Number 8, you’re
naive. Number 11, another beer already?
Number 13, you don’t listen to me.
But I do. I just don’t agree. Now
my life partner’s on the couch, watching
Live P.D. She’s pleased with the police,
so kind to the miscreants & trailer trash
they apprehend. Of course, they’re
kind! They’re on camera! Without
looking at me, she holds up three fingers.
My life partner wants to make a deal:
she’ll stop storing our broken pepper mill
upright in the spice rack, pepper everywhere
like coarse soot. She’ll store the mill
on its side if I stop switching off the light
over the dining room table whenever
she’s in another room. Why? Why
does she need that light on all day?
She raises both fists & opens each one
twice. Number 20, you don’t love me.
You can find Jefferson Carter’s work at jeffersoncarterverse.com.
Jefferson Carter, photo by Bill Moeller
"What happens on the page, happens to the poet."
For Prescott writer Michaela Carter, “writing a poem is an act of creation and evolution, which reaches beyond the words themselves. ”While writing she is consciously aware of the symbiotic relationship between poet and poem: “how you translate a feeling, or an impulse into language and listen to it at the same time, and how the language leads you toward a deeper way of seeing yourself or others or the world beyond.”
Many of her poems originate from sensory responses to her environment. “My greatest influence is my somatic experience as a human animal on this breathing, animate, teeming-with-life planet. Writing a poem can be such a visceral, lush experience — the language becomes almost tactile.” Her themes frequently revolve around female growth and metamorphosis, often through reimagining folklore from a feminist perspective. “I’m deeply fascinated by the ways in which women evolve, how we can become more than we were, more even than we thought we could be. ”At times these recurring themes hit very close to home. “When I was pregnant, I lived by the Pacific Ocean and I wrote all about the ocean and growing a child and birth — it all merged together, both for me personally and in my poems.”
Michaela was always drawn to poetry. “Before I could write, my mother jotted down my rhymes. In that way she validated the act. I wrote for myself during my first years of college, and then I took classes in modern poets and poetry writing. I was assigned metrical, fixed-form poems…. The formal restrictions made the poems feel like puzzles. I was grateful for the chance to learn the craft.” From there, she continued to study writing in graduate school.
In addition to her acclaimed poetry, Michaela is a painter and novelist, recently publishing the novel Leonorain the Morning Light, an historical fiction about surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Michaela usually writes poems when she is between novels. “Novel stake me such a long time to write, and I tend to focus on them myopically.”
She has lived in Prescott for almost 20 years, choosing the small town because it felt like a good place to raise her two children. She’s taught writing at both Prescott and Yavapai colleges, although she is teaching less lately. “I spend my time buying new books for Peregrine Book Company, which I helped to found, and writing novels.”
In this poem Michaela touches on her themes of metamorphosis andre-envisioned folklore, creating “a kind of fairytale magic and a sense of defiance: a young mother enters a jungle, which transforms her into a creature with wings and a tail. She is free to become her fully wild, creaturely self.”
For Michaela, poems are “born from a place of listening. I’m a firm believer that poems come through more than from a poet.” Much like the surrealists she admires, Michaela’s poems spring from the subconscious mind. “The language itself tends to lead me toward meaning.” She trusts that the words will reveal their intention, noting, “the poem is always smarter than I am.”
There’s a pond in the mud
and the moon shines in it.
Not on it, as if the pond were no more
than a mirror, but in it, the moon
a heart inside its dark body,
illuminating the pond from within.
My husband goes there
in the heat of the day to fish, but I
goat night, through the valley of the language
of children, a little jungle of mangrove
whose roots are serpents,
whose trunks grow eyes & mouths.
Sometimes, I stay among them.
I crouch in a shadow
and listen to their pale-green
songs & the taste of salt &magic
sticks to my skin &hair for days
though no one notices.
Other times, when the moon is full,
I move quick as a river through that jungle.
My wings &tail sprig
through my nightgown &bloom,
snapping twigs & leaves,
and I flap & coast & enter
another kind of music,
the pulse of light through silt
and silence bleating &repeating.
Mudsucks at my fingers & toes
when I lower my face to the pond
and open my eyes inside it &look.
The moon has its terms.
Understand, some night soon, I will not resist.
I will drink &lose discretion.
The slender weeds curl &uncurl;
milky, burning tongues, their dance is torture.
The fish circle & spiral downwards
to where the moon must feed
the roots of the weeds. Soon I will be certain.
How long could any woman only watch?
For part-time Prescott resident Janet A. Hopkins, writing poetry “allows me to put words to my emotions. It paints a picture that weaves together feelings and visions.” She’s been drawn to creative writing since childhood. “I was a voracious reader, usually five to seven books a week, and I kept a diary from the age of 14. The process came naturally to me.” She wrote occasionally through high school and college, but put writing aside for most of her career. “I picked it up again after retiring and joining a small writing group in Prescott in the early 1990s.”
Janet has written many nonfiction historical articles and spent a number of years as editor-in-chief of In Recovery Magazine. She recently began hosting a genealogy column in the Humboldt Historian. With two friends Janet established AZ Wordsmiths, a popular open mic for local writers that met monthly at the Elks Theatre. Although the pandemic forced the venue to close, they are hoping to restart the series next year. For the last two years, she’s also been working on a mystery series. “Learning a new genre has been challenging, but I love the imaginary world my mind has created.”
The natural world is a constant theme in Janet’s poetry. “I explore the interface of my emotions with the world around me. I love being outside and naturally feel the rhythm of poetry there.” Janet’s early years in Prescott on a ranch are also reflected in her poems. “I became a cowgirl of sorts. I had my own little ranch in Chino Valley with dogs, chickens, ducks, sheep and a few horses. It was a grand adventure!”
For Janet, lines of poetry can appear at any time or place. “They just pop into my head. Sometimes they start with an observation, other times they arrive whole-cloth. Sometimes I record them on my phone because I’m outside somewhere. I was once on a break from a poetry class at Yavapai College when an entire poem presented itself. I ran back to class and wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget it.”
Janet and her husband David winter in Florida. The rest of the time is spent in Prescott. Since retirement she writes quite a bit. “I have the luxury of writing all day, all the time,” but she concentrates on writing for the love of it. “I’ve never been one for wanting to make myself a professional writer. I don’t want the joy of it to be ruined by that pressure. I really just want to write, even if I’m the only one who enjoys it.”
About the featured poem she says, “I have walked the Skull Valley powerline road many times since moving to Prescott. This particular walk was just before leaving for Florida. David and I sat on a rock, remembering different parts of our lives as our dogs lay on the ground beside us. We both had a sense of melancholy. I wrote the poem when I got home.”
We climbed to a ridge and sat at the edge of nowhere. What a lovely way to capture the vastness of the vista in front of her! The poem immerses the reader in an early-winter scene and recollections of days past.
You can contact Janet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That winter-edged morning,
we walked the power line
to Moosley Spring.
Coatso n, then off, as we
warmed to the steep ascent.
Lines buzzed overhead.
The humming wires tuned memories
of other coffee-heated,
glove-warmed, frigid mornings
on this rock-ribbed trace.
We climbed to a ridge and sat
at the edge of nowhere,
high above the autumn-painted
vale, waiting as our dog and
the wilderness settled at our feet.
We spoke quietly of the people
we had known. The managers
of a ranch over there — the owners
of a house shimmering on a distant
mountain slope across the valley.
As the crumbling granite outcrop
cooled our backs, three black does
wandered in upwind. Suddenly,
heads up and tails flicking, they
melted into the chaparral.
Overhead, a contrail cut
the cold-frosted sky
with a silver blade,
breathless air upon the earth.
We heard the bawling
of a distant calf and stood,
startled by the creature’s misery.
We turned, too chilled to stay,
and walked in silence to the car.
Prescott resident Carol Levin’s meditative poems find the calm center in the midst of turmoil.
“Times of solitude and being near nature have always offered me an increased sense of insight and understanding,” she says. Her later experiences in the practice and instruction of Tai chi, an internal Chinese martial art, have also helped her develop a greater awareness of the relationship between interior thoughts and exterior expression. “My work is influenced by my connection to what I feel and have gained from acquired knowledge. I worked on a feature story about T’ai chi ch'üan. After interviewing instructors of longstanding and research from The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, I felt a greater cognitive sense in my own practice with awareness of its history and origin.”
Her poems usually progress from “scattered words with meaning that eventually come into format. It’s a right-brain process which filters through a left-brain outlet.” Carol has published fiction and works mostly in nonfiction now, but she finds that “poetry allows for a deeper expression. I get into a muse, usually gazing out my window to Granite Mountain, and words just come through. At midmorning light, perched on my recliner, is my best writing time. Longhand helps begin the flow. It’s more like a channeling.”
Her themes are varied. “I’m drawn toward expressing inspirationally, with multiple themes, including the natural world. Inspirational themes can offer motivation and/or healing.” The poetic forms she chooses are also diverse, to suit her mood and intent. “The formats I work in vary from free verse (rhyming and non-rhyming), to tanka and haiku. I like the simplicity and concise manner which haiku presents.”
Over her thirty-year career Carol (aka CL Lynne) has published many feature articles on health and wellness, nature, and the arts. She also teaches and consults on writing for diverse groups, from elementary-school to postgraduate levels. She’s facilitated many writing workshops, including at the Prescott Public Library since2011. Her experiences in teaching and workshopping have had a profound influence on her own writing and her outlook on the world.
Carol has been fascinated with poetry since her teenage years. “In high school we studied Longfellow, and ‘Evangeline’ grabbed me with murmuring pines and the hemlock, bearded with moss, and in garments green. Wow, I thought, can trees really murmur and moss look like beards?” She found Robert Frost’s lines memorable and inspiring: “The Road Not Taken,’ written in iambic tetrameter, spoke to me. His lines I shall be telling this with a sigh and I took the one less traveled by tells the message that whichever path one takes in life, therein lies the question of ‘what if’ re: an alternative route.” It’s easy to draw parallels between Frost’s reflective questions and the thoughtfulness of Carol’s work.
Carol’s search for expression is often articulated poetically. “I find fulfillment in knowing that I said what I needed to from within, in poetry.” In the following poem, Carol visits one of her familiar themes, self-understanding through peaceful reflection. “I came to a place of connecting with a universal life force during a transformative time in my life, and was led toward expressing the element of faith. This message felt soul-originated.” Much like meditation, Carol’s poem engages our full attention, creating a space that allows the reader to be singularly focused. Her carefully chosen words encourage us to deliberately slow down and concentrate on her simple yet profound message.
For more information on Carol Levin (poet and, as CL Lynne, photographer)visit carollynnelevin.com.
Spirit Speaks by CL Lynne
When Spirit speaks
It’s Truth at Work
Through head and heart
through every quirk
When Spirit speaks
I look around
I touch the earth
heed every sound
When Spirit speaks
it’s time to cease
take on Peace
A time to silence
vacate at will
Now be still
A time to feel
Respond in Light
Stay there through all
Embrace, keep sight
When Spirit speaks
through all the glisten,
Be Quiet — Listen
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.