July 2021
Dee Cohen on Poetry
Dee Cohen

Jim Natal

Jim Natal

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

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

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)

Dee Cohen is a Prescott poet and photographer. deecohen@cox.net.