March 2023
Dee Cohen on Poetry
Dee Cohen

Mike Casetta

Finding the saving grace

When poet Mike Casetta was discharged from the Air Force in 1970, his life was in pieces. He’d had difficult experiences in the service, many friends didn’t come home from Vietnam, and his dreams of becoming an RN fell by the wayside. “I was far from being mentally and/or emotionally healthy.”

Mike Casetta

He was living in Tucson at the time, and a friend introduced him to the work of poet James Tate. “I found joy and wonder in his unique voice that turned the classics on their ears for me.” For Mike, the poetry of Tate and other Iowa writers of the time was a door to self-expression and “a way back into society.” He found inspiration and acknowledgment in their writing styles and subjects. “Free form/surrealism/absurdity/magical thinking, always presented in simple language, were all there for me to immerse myself. I felt soul-nourished by poetry.”

Mike began studying poetry at Pima Community College in Tucson, where he credits exceptional writing teachers and artist friends with encouraging his writing and finding his voice and style. “Basically I am a surrealist at heart, and I am often prompted to begin a poem by something I find absurd. I have attempted to explore my childhood, military experiences, relationships, recovery issues and spirituality through poetry.” One teacher had a small press that published Mike’s book of poems, The Certainty of Looking Elsewhere. The title poem won an honorable mention in a contest judged by poet Mary Oliver in 1995.

Mike can trace his interest in poetry back to high school. His childhood wasn’t easy, in an alcoholic home and even experiencing suicidal ideation as a teen. He could barely finish his homework assignments and almost didn’t graduate. His senior English teacher caught him passing a comical poem to a friend. “I felt inspired to write it after watching Tommy Smothers recite a poem on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I loved his humor.” The teacher asked him to read the poem to the class. They loved it. “He said if I wrote and read a poem to the class every week, he would excuse me from doing my homework.” In his yearbook Mike listed English Teacher as his career choice. He also had a poem published in the yearbook. Worried that his fellow students would find it too emotional, he used a nom de plume. “Jebediah Yssup’s only published poem!”

Mike worked for years as a stonemason and landscaper while writing and publishing poems with small presses. Through this time he acknowledges that his drinking was problematic. He got sober  in 1993, but feels he wasn’t “clearheaded enough for at least three years before a semblance of an authentic voice surfaced.” Being sober helped his writing by “finding balance in my voice and consistency in my focus.” He returned to school majoring in social work, and became an addictions therapist. Over the years he’s worked at rehab centers and VA hospitals, and says working with others in recovery has deepened and expanded his writing. “My ability to appreciate wild, crazy and painful stories from people trying to recover helped me to put more life into the words of my own struggles.”

In writing and in life, Mike is on a personal spiritual quest. He recalls a pilgrimage to India a few years after getting sober. “I was in a small village not far from railroad tracks when it rained and I smelled the creosote used to preserve railroad ties, which wafted me back to the Sonoran Desert, where Tucson is located, where I called home. I then began to realize the journey to ‘self ’ is wherever I am.” He feels that his poem “Raphael” focuses on this familiar theme. “I have a deep spiritual longing, but an incapacity in this life for enlightenment.”

Currently Mike is retired, living in Prescott Valley. He belongs to a few online poetry forums. “I find reading others’ work and posting mine for review is a creative outlet that keeps me inspired and writing now almost daily.” Sometimes he shares his work in public, though he doesn’t feel he’s a good reader of his own work. “I would love it if Christopher Walken read my poetry for me.”

Mike is grateful for “the saving grace of writing poetry. By finding my voice through writing and sharing poetry, I’ve found the joys of expression and self-exploration, and the sense of humor needed to put things in their crazy perspective. I believe this has ultimately saved me from some very dark places.”

To contact Mike:


the Archangel

with the power to heal,

hovers over the roof

of my house.

He’s been up there

since you left.

I went to a Catholic school.

I tell myself

my guardian angel

was happy to be reassigned.

Raphael keeps my house

safe inside,

me & the dog tame,

neither of us going feral.

My dog lies

like a pile of clothes

on the rug in front

of the hearth

where you & I cast

our shadows & glistened;

where later, alone,

I felt laid bare to the heavens,


looking into the void,

but much less so now,

Raphael perched

on the chimney,

the sparks like stars.

Dee Cohen is a Prescott poet and photographer.