As a writer, Bragg explored a range of genres, from essays to autobiographical narrative to scripts. But like his drawings and paintings, his poetry remained largely a personal passion. While his early interest in theater and art stemmed from watching his father at work and play, his literary talents were nurtured at school, especially under Robert F. Panara.
Born in 1921 and deafened by spinal meningitis at the age of ten, Panara became a well-known professor, first at Gallaudet, and then NTID, where he retired from active teaching in 1987. Panara’s first job was at the New York School for the Deaf (popularly known as Fanwood) in White Plains. It was there that Bragg and Panara first met.
The young English teacher and the bright student worked together, soon becoming mentor and mentee. Not long after Panara joined Fanwood’s faculty, an event occurred that stoked Bragg’s interest in poetry. As Helen Powers recounted in Signs of Silence: Bernard Bragg and the National Theatre of the Deaf:
Several weeks after Panara arrived at the school an assembly was called in the auditorium. The lights flashed to call the students to attention, and after the customary preliminaries by the superintendent, Panara was brought to the stage. The superintendent read a letter from the president of Gallaudet College in which Panara had been awarded the Teegarden Prize for poetry while attending the college. He was the first recipient of this honor, which has been awarded annually to a Gallaudet student ever since.
Bernard was spellbound to think that a deaf man could write poetry. That day he stayed after class and asked Panara if he might see the bronze medal and read the inscription.
“I would like to write poetry,” Bernard said.
“Then why don’t you?” Panara asked.
“How can I? I don’t know how words sound.”
“You can learn to write poetry. Start with free verse. Don’t work for rhyme. Use your dictionary, and a thesaurus. Try it.”
Bragg began to write poetry, and as he practiced and learned, he wrote more and more. During high school at Fanwood and later at Gallaudet, he garnered attention for his work; several of his poems were printed in various student publications. As a freshman, one of his poems was published in an anthology of college poetry, America Sings. The increased recognition for his poetry culminated in his senior year, when he was awarded the Teegarden Prize for Creative Poetry. On stage to help present his award was his mentor, Bob Panara, who had won the award seven years previously.
After his college days, Bragg concentrated his artistic efforts on acting and the stage, putting aside his poetry. He has since returned to writing poems, and continued to do so to the present, but it is now largely a private indulgence. The following poems are examples of Bragg’s work.