On the Value of Literary Communities

Because I am a teacher of poetry, an editor of a regional literary journal, and a poet who sometimes gets published, I am often asked about publishing. My basic advice: Write what matters to you. Learn and use the craft to write it well. Be a generous participant in a generous literary community.

Why community? First, and most selfishly, that community is a listening ear for a poet’s work. Workshops, readings, critique groups all provide information about the ways in which poems do and don’t work, and can help a poet to judge the viability of her poems outside of the nest of the notebook. Clearly, discernment is necessary; as Naomi Shihab Nye has written, “Some ears are tunnels./Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.” But if nothing else, reading your own writing aloud to others and hearing theirs is important training for your poet’s ear; you begin to hear what sings and what clangs.

I have never been the lonely poet in the garret. For me, the solitary act of writing happens within a community of other writers, each of us, to paraphrase Rilke’s definition of human love, protecting “the solitude of the other.”

Nearly a dozen writers read my latest book of poems, Palindrome, from start to finish before it went to press. I sent it to one friend very early in the manuscript process asking a dangerous question. Palindrome is a single subject book; some might call it a poetic memoir, written in response to my mother’s dementia. I asked my friend, “Does the subject matter overwhelm the craft?”

I am not entirely sure why this question seems to matter more in poetry than in prose, but I think it does. Memoir, especially, is still a more populist literary form. A good story will hold our interest to a degree from which even a poorly-made container does not completely distract. And we seem to want stories that connect with our lives, that make us feel less alone in our bodies. There is a much smaller audience for poetry, and that audience has strong, if often conflicting, views of what makes a good poem. Perhaps, too, it matters more if the poet is a woman, and if the subject matter is one that is traditionally a “women’s issue”: my poems about caring for my fragile mother left me feeling vulnerable for both of us.

Portrait of My Mother as a Discarded Birds’ Nest

in my hand unraveling.
Pieces crumble
to my page. I can see
the seam, the two sides knit together,
but I can’t make it hold.
A softness at the center remains.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

A most crucial reader was, of course, the book’s ultimate publisher, Robert Murphy, himself a fine poet. Other writers were kind enough to read the manuscript in order to compose endorsements. Two poet/teachers gave their time to do copyediting for grammar and punctuation. Others responded to a last minute call to help me choose which poems to remove from the almost final manuscript when I decided it was too long. Beyond these readers, there have been dozens of poets in my workshops who have read early or late drafts of poems on their way into the manuscript. And beyond readers, there have been listeners of individual poems or, as the work progressed, substantial sections of the manuscript at public readings. In each of these cases, I listened carefully to the feedback I received, always weighing it against my own goals for this particular work and my own passion for both the subject and the craft.

I have come to think about myself and my poems as part of a literary ecosystem. We, too, are necessary for its health and ultimate survival. Editors and publishers are part of this ecosystem. So are teachers and students and readers. So are bookstores, libraries, poetry readings and audiences and the young woman who reads the poem she wrote on the napkin while waiting for her turn at the open mic. So is the guy in the critique group who only likes poems that sound like his. But unlike traditional biological ecosystems, we are always trading places. Sometimes I’m that guy, and I need to have my ears opened to the light. Sometimes the napkin girl’s poem can show us the courage that ours are missing. Sometimes my editor is publishing my poems. Sometimes I am writing grants to help keep his press going. Sometimes your friend is singing your praises on Facebook. Sometimes you are introducing him at the reading series you started. Not tit for tat, but nurture for our community of words to thrive. It can be messy, but it does not need to be lonely.

I hope you will join me for my last public program as Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate on Thursday, March 29, 2018, 7 pm, at A Panel on Publishing Poetry at Chase Public, 2868 Colerain Avenue in Camp Washington. I’ll discuss my theory of the literary community as an ecosystem, as further discussed in my post called Publishing Tips, as well as my own experience as editor, editee and sad rejectee.

Until then, I leave you with a blessing for whatever community you might create or find:

A Blessing for the Feast of All Poets

For words, for vowels, for syllables
that purr off my tongue,
I give thanks.

For black ink on a page,
for margins and lines which,
like rules, beg ignoring and for all
punctuation, especially the dash—
forgiving and constant—
I give thanks.

For poets who like miners
go down underground
with only the light
of their own unknowing
to guide them,
I give thanks.

For the ones who do not come up again,
who lay broken beneath
fallen pillar and beams
of the lives that chose them—
though I turn my face
from those cratered lives,
hold their words like a candle
too close to my skin,
then too far from my eyes—
I must still give thanks.

Oh, but those who go down
and come up every day;
who plumb mystery, pull weeds
from the garden, the poem,
the dark path underground;
who sit with me at tables,
hold my words in their hands—
you who are constant as dashes,
as forthright as ink,
I would bless you with light
for your journey,
as you have blessed me.

(Pauletta Hansel, from What I Did There, Dos Madres Press, 2010)

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Author: Pauletta Hansel

Pauletta Hansel is a poet, memorist, teacher and editor. She was Cincinnati's first Poet Laureate from April 2-16-March 2018. Pauletta is author of six poetry collections, Plaindrome (Dos Madres Press, 2017; winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award), Tangle (Dos Madres Press, 2015), The Lives We Live in Houses (Wind Publications, 2011), What I Did There (Dos Madres Press, 2011), First Person (Dos Madres Press, 2007) and Divining (WovenWord Press, 2002). Her poetry has been featured recently in journals including Talisman, Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, Appalachian Journal, Atlanta Review, Postcards Poems and Prose and Still: The Journal, and anthologized in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia; Motif: Come What May; and Motif: All the Livelong Day. Pauletta leads community poetry workshops and retreats in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond, and has served as Writer-in Residence at Thomas More College in her native Kentucky. She is a co-editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Pauletta received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

3 thoughts on “On the Value of Literary Communities”

  1. Again, you brought tears. This post really spoke to me — sometimes I feel more comfortable being alone in the tunnel, but it’s better (for all the reasons you shared) to come out into the light (at least some of the time!). We’re lucky to have a great community of poets here.

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