besmilr moore brigham (1913–2000)
aka: Bess Miller Moore
Besmilr Moore Brigham was an award-winning poet and short-story writer who lived in Arkansas for decades. She came to prominence during the women’s movement of the 1960s, and her work is noted for its innovative structure, sound, and rhythm. Like poet e. e. cummings, she used a lower-case version of her name for her published works.
Bess Miller Moore was born on September 28, 1913, in Pace, Mississippi. Her grandfather was Choctaw. She later changed her name to the more phonetic spelling “Besmilr.” She graduated from Mary Hardin-Baylor College in Texas and later studied at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she met and married Roy Brigham, who worked for a newspaper.
Brigham’s poems have been published in Best New Poems 1970, 31 New American Poets, New Directions, Ann Arbor Review, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and Thomas Merton’s Monks Pond. She also published short stories, including, “The Lottery Drawing,” in the anthology Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth. Brigham corresponded with several of her contemporaries, including John Gould Fletcher, and her letters with Merton are housed at the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Brigham published an anthology of poetry, Agony Dance: Death of the Dancing Dolls, in 1969; only 450 copies were printed. In 1970, Brigham received a Discovery Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The accompanying NEA grant led to another collection of her work, Heaved from the Earth, which was published by Knopf in 1971. A posthumous compilation of her work, Run through Rock, was selected and edited by Arkansas poet C. D. Wright, who published it through her imprint, Lost Roads Press.
After a flurry of publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, Brigham dropped from the eyes of the publishing world and lived in relative obscurity with her husband in Horatio (Sevier County). Though she lived in Arkansas for many decades, she considered herself a Mississippi writer. In 1993, Brigham was rediscovered by C. D. Wright for Wright’s Lost Roads Project and was included in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting documentary United States of Poetry, which included Brigham and her son-in-law, poet Keith Wilson. Wright described Brigham and her husband as “the last free people. They hadn’t been broken by the life they had chosen, which was itinerant and subsistent. They treated their life like an adventure and her work like a staple, like beans.” Wright also described the Brighams as having about thirty cats and storing poetry books in old, broken appliances in their shed.
Brigham told Wright that she opted to spell her name phonetically: instead of Bess Miller Brigham, she used the more colloquial “Besmilr” because it was closer to the way people spoke.
According to a 1973 interview with Thomas Linn, the Brighams had owned a newspaper in a small town in Texas but sold it because they “didn’t want to live that way.” Her husband worked setting type, and Brigham taught school—when they worked, which was periodically. “They wandered,” Wright says. “Brigham wrote most of the time, most of her life.”
According to the Brighams’ daughter, Heloise Wilson, Brigham did not pursue publishing until other writers entreated her to. She published in journals edited by friends, colleagues, and those who invited her to send work. Her writing was experimental, often seeming to migrate across the page in the same way Brigham and her husband liked to migrate in life. She employed erratic, though purposeful, punctuation, which produced a rhythm instead of following the rules of grammar.
Brigham’s husband died in 1996, and Brigham died in 2000 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
For additional information:
Martin, Meredith. “An Interview with Heloise Wilson.” The Aux-Arc Review 1 (Fall 2002): 29–40.
———. “A Sentence is a Snake: Discovering Besmilr Brigham.” The Aux-Arc Review 1 (Fall 2002): 22–28.
Wright, C. D, ed. Run through Rock: Selected Short Poems of Besmilr Brigham. Barrington, RI: Lost Roads, 2000.
C. L. Bledsoe
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