The Poet’s Craft Blog

A Review of Palindrome by Linda Parsons

It is a gift when any careful reader enters your poems and infuses them with her own life. I am many times blessed that poet Linda Parsons chose to craft her response to Palindrome into this review, published in  Still: The Journal. The review begins:

“The word palindrome was coined in the seventeenth century from the Greek palin (again) and dromos(way, direction). In her sixth poetry collection, Palindrome, Pauletta Hansel gleans layer upon layer from this term for words and phrases read the same in either direction. Both poet and caregiver as her mother spirals into vascular dementia, she expertly uses the metaphor of a palindrome’s reversal as mirror, teeter-totter, braid of past with present, even as a needle’s eye passed through to examine that most complex of relationships, mother and daughter, complicated further in the lens of loss and debilitation. ”

I also invite you to read Linda Parson’s moving poem about her father who, like my mother, suffered from dementia, in the same issue of Still, entitled “Pie Lee.”

(While you are there, check out my poem, Morning, Loretto Motherhouse, Late November and all the fine work by writers such as Karen George, Michell Castleberry, Kari Gunter Seymour, Melissa Helton, Thomas Alan Holmes, Keith Stewart, Robin Talbert, Lana Austin and more!)

Advertisements

The Circle of (Literary) Life

If we want to eat, we have to tend the garden—and our poems are not the only things growing there.

A month or so ago I was asked to take part in a panel on publishing one’s poetry. No, take that back—I asked a local creative writing organization if they would sponsor a panel on publishing and let me be on it as my last public appearance as Cincinnati’s Poet Laureate. I had some things I wanted to say. Here’s how I started:

“If we want to eat, we have to tend the garden—and our poems are not the only things growing there.”

As a metaphorical vehicle for the literary scene, the necessity of the vegetable garden is admittedly inaccurate. We can go to the grocery store or McDonalds, eat a frozen Lean Cuisine, or the pickings from our neighbor’s trash can.

But still, as a metaphor for the kind of literary scene I want to be part of—local, and yet part of larger ecosystem—it’s not too far afield. (Pun intended.)

I recognize that I have a very particular philosophy around publishing and being published, at least in part because my first experience of both was within a community of writers, the Appalachian community, where both writing and publishing was seen as something that we do not just for ourselves but as a political act—to counterbalance commonly held misbeliefs about the region and its people.

And just as I have been the beneficiary of that community—brought along by writers, teachers, publishers, organizers of readings and workshops – I knew that most of us at that presentation on publishing, whether speakers or listeners, had also been the beneficiaries of the multiple communities of writers in this city and region, if only by virtue of showing up on that night.

There is a larger market for books about writing poetry than there is for poetry. (And for that matter, for blogs about writing poetry: more people read, or at least clicked, my first post, Too Personal: On Writing About My Mother’s Dementia, about writing Palindrome than have bought the book—though I am forever hopeful!) There are people who sign up for my classes on writing poetry and memoir who have never read my work.  Everybody wants to write poetry; reading it, or buying it, not so much. There were more poets in attendance that night than at many poetry readings I’ve been to. My main message: it is up to us, the poets, to cultivate the community of both writers and readers, of speakers and listeners, of publishers and poets. We have to both grow the poems and be the market for them. Here are the highlights of what I shared:

• Publishing begins at home, with the reading and workshop scenes where our work can be heard by audiences of peers. And at the best of those readings and workshops those peers include a —wide swath of the ecosystem of our particular writing community—those who have been published, and those who are just beginning, as well as poets who are also editors, publishers, teachers—and who, like me, feel a commitment to give as we were given to along the way.

• It is in everyone’s best interest to be a generous part of a generous community. Show up—not just to be heard, but to hear. Readings and open mics give a sense of the broader scope of what poetry and poets are writing and publishing today, and a chance to interact with folks who may be way over there in the asparagus patch, so to speak. Skipping the featured reader, if there is one, to get to the open mic is not only rude, it is also a missed opportunity to interact with someone who is doing what you probably want to do too. And if you are a featured reader, well I hope it goes without saying that you owe your audience of poets the gift of hearing their words too. And it helps to set the standard for that particular reading, to show that we are a community, each of us part of something larger than our own words.

• I also am the editor of a small literary journal, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. I am always taken aback by the submissions we get from people who have never read the journal, some who have never even gone to the website to read the submission guidelines. (I recently had one writer who was offended when I asked him to go to the website and resubmit his poems following the guidelines.) If I’m not going to read other people’s work in a journal, why do I think anyone will read mine?

• Similarly with submitting a book length manuscript to a publisher without ever having read a book—or at least online material—from that publisher. And beyond the principle of the matter, there is the practical—what if I hate it? What if the book falls apart in my hand?

• Think local. Sure we all want Knopf, or at least Graywolf, but smaller presses often work harder to promote their work, sponsoring journal launches and readings and using social media to get the word out about their authors. This provides exposure for you and the opportunity to connect with other writers and editors. And look for multiple points of connection to increase your chances of publication. For example, a journal that publishes poets in the Ohio River valley, and is asking for work touching on the themes you address in your poems.

I was one of five panelists—two of us were journal editors, several volunteered as jurors or in other roles with small poetry presses, all of us were writers (mostly poets) with book credits to our names. One of the things that became clear as we were conversing with each other and the audience was that when people say we want to publish, what we really mean is we want our work to be read. Maybe there is a way for a poet to have her poems read without connecting with her community of readers and potential readers, but if there is, I don’t know it, and I’m not sure that I want to.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that there are readers of my work whom I will never meet. And I am not wild about the marketing aspect of having a book—in fact it triggers all sorts of my baser impulses, including at least five of the seven deadlies. But connecting with others through writing continues to be one of the joys of my writing life.

For more practical advice on publishing and on tending the poetry community, I suggest checking out these posts:

Publishing Tips 

22 Ways to Be a Good Literary Citizen Without Spending a Dime (reblogged from Sundress Press)

The Blessing (The Real Story, Part 2)

In my writing classes and in my own writing practice reading other poets’ poems and then choosing a line or more to (in jazz parlance) riff on is a very useful starting place for new poems. One of the poems in Palindrome, my book written in response to my mother’s dementia, is called “The Real Story.” Interspersed throughout there are phrases I pulled from poems in Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things. “No one tells you the real story,” my poem begins,

No one tells you how old you’ll be someday, old enough to be mother to your mother. Your father, meanwhile, left the party early, before the need for pulling down the rafters, boxing the whole thing up—ash now in his own last box, died with his last book sliding out of his lap, and it’s come down to you to figure out the real story—did the flu shot really give her the flu that year, you away living your child-free, parent-free life, and somebody wants to know, now she’s in a nursing home, pulling off her shoes, putting them on again.

(Pauletta Hansel, from “The Real Story” in Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

I used my poem as a prompt in a recent workshop I offer (with my colleague, the writer Annette Wick) for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati called Writing Our Lives as Caregivers. I have found that my own “real story” is an ever changing one. Here is the version I wrote alongside other caregivers that day:

At the beginning, all you can think about is loss: what will be gone, what might be left, and sure, as with any grief there is bargaining. “Okay, we’ll try this drug, this doctor. Mom, you’ll need to give up a little independence, but you can stay in your house, so that’s okay, right? At least you get to stay here.” And then, “You have to leave your house, but see these big wide halls with rails on either side you can walk safely down. See, you can still walk.”

 “But no, here is this wheelchair, you need to use it now, so you won’t fall again, but it’s okay, we’ll come every day and take you out from these four walls…”

And here, on the other side of the walls: “At least she still knows me. Well, at least most of the time she knows me, and if she is sleeping most of the time, well, at least she is not crying, and if she is talking about me, even when she is talking to me, well at least she is not sleeping, she is alert, see, and if she is crying, well, at least she will not remember this sadness, right? She will forget.”

 And what is it I want, the asleep, or alert, the remembering or forgetting, and what I want is all of it, all of it (except for the crying) for as long as I can have it. Because when it is over, it is gone, and all that is left is a hole where my mother was, and what was all this for, this running hither and yon, this weeping, deciding and trying and loving more than I ever thought would be possible, what was it all for, when she is gone?

I wrote this on October 14, 2017, my mother’s 85th birthday, not knowing that I would mark that day as the beginning of the end: my husband and I arrived after my writing workshop to take Mom for her birthday lunch and found her and her wheelchair drenched in urine. A change in staff at her nursing home resulted in a series of toileting “accidents” that week, and the resulting urinary tract infection set the stage for what felt and still feels like a rapid demise. Mom died on January 7, 2018.

And what is the real story now? I am still living—and writing—my way into it.  Palindrome was written in the present tense of my years of caring for my mother with dementia. As I have said in the Preface to that book, “Not Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ but crafted within my ongoing experience of a mother in the midst of a devastating change.”

Once the book had been accepted for publication, it was important to me that it be released while my mother was still living. Because the poems themselves were an extension of the complex relationship of care, I wanted the book, too, to be part of that present tense, at least for a while. To not move immediately into elegy, but to be a document of the ongoing nature of familial love, and an expression of the imperative of creating art from life.

How much I will write of the sweet and difficult days of her active dying is yet unknown. Where will the process of grieving will take me and my writing? When my father died, much more suddenly, in 2006, I found that new memories opened to me, even “memories” that were not my own, in the exploration of his childhood. With my mother, much of that work—though surely not all—was done while she lived, traveling with her through dementia’s fractured time.

But the answer to the question I asked in October, on the eve that final stage of my mother’s life, “What was it all for, when she is gone?” comes clearly to me. It was for me. All that love, the grace of that particular and infinite love. It is still mine.

The Blessing
“If you are going to die, why don’t you do it all at once and not this little bit of dying every day.”
Participant at a Dementia Caregiver Workshop

But Mother, it is that bit of you, that stuttering spark
only those bent close enough can see, lighting
the dark around the you I never would have
known had death blazed full and hot
and gone, no charred pieces left
to quietly burn throughout
our bundled days,
the bellow of my
breath against
your skin.

Pauletta Hansel © 2017

Note: this is the final of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome, winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry.  The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia,  The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love,  The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, Her Words and On the Value of Literary Communities.

Dos Madres Press’ publication of Palindrome was funded in part by the Ohio Arts Council. For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

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)

Elementz Voices of Freedom

 

One of my final community workshops as Cincinnati Poet Laureate was a visit to a remarkable group of young poets who write together at Elementz. Led by Jamie-Lee Morris, Elementz Voices of Freedom meets Tuesdays, 5-7PM to enhance their creativity and broaden their capacity for self expression. Experience these poets in person at the Louder than a Bomb semi-finals on March 17, 9:30 am in room 5401 in the DAAP building at the University of Cincinnati. Here is the poem we made together.

We Are Elementz Voices of Freedom

I am what I am.
I am that I am.
I am a banked fire, not
blazing hot, but made to last—
the ashes of the fallen
rebirthed
in the phoenix. I am
the beat beneath the melody,
the broken lock on the front door.
I am the wolf with no pack.
I want to bind you with poison
so you hear the deep cry
of my heart’s happy despair.
Have I scared you yet?
This hectic world that is my body—
thinking, believing, judging and creating.
I found something that is not temporary
but forever.
I am the center of all these worlds
ever changing and morphing, impermanent,
exponentially, beautiful. There is
something everlasting, never changing
and that is the essence
of what I am.

Elementz Voices of Freedom
Adanya, Carlos, Destiny, John, LeVan, Noah and Pauletta

Women and girls of all ages are invited to join me for my very last Cincinnati Poet Laureate workshop as part of the Artistry of Women Street Fair indoors on Saturday, March 10 at The Sanctuary, 2110 St. Michael Street, Lower Price Hill is offering two free literary events, a reading and a workshop (with a MUSE concert in between!)
3:00 – 3:45 p.m.—What She Said—Join writers Luz Villeda, Gwyneth Stewart, Karen George, Desirae Hosley, Kate Fadick and Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel for a reading of their work.
(4:00 -5:00 p.m. MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir Concerts, Tickets for $15 are available online)
5:30-6:30 pm—She Persists: An Intergenerational Writing Workshop— Women and girls of all ages are invited to join Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel to write and hear each other’s stories of women’s wisdom and strength.

Her Words

When we moved Mom from the small ranch house she bought after our dad’s death into the dementia care unit of a nursing home, my sister got the job of cleaning out her papers from the maple desk that had been in every house I remember. It was, like the Tardis, bigger on the inside. My sister’s voice was shaking when she told me that she had found 500 plus pages of handwritten letters from Mom to Dad, all dated the year after his death. I knew that Mom was writing some; even after her diagnosis of vascular dementia she attended many of the community writing workshops I led. She had written a sort of prose ode to her family’s old mule, Sam, and some beautiful first draft poems about her mother and about our father. She never wanted to give these to me to type for the group anthologies after she read them to the group, and would instead keep the original and copy another for me by hand. She always brought her own notebook to class.

These letters began as her grief journal, cycling through her anguish at Dad’s death, her loss of independence (she had moved from small town Kentucky to be near me in Cincinnati, and she had never learned to drive) and of the beautiful, sprawling garden she had left in Somerset, Kentucky. But later, as she moved through those grueling early months of grief, the letters also became her memoirs. She wrote in one of her last letters that she hoped her children would someday find and read them, and know something of our parents’ lives and love. And I have to think she knew that if I found them I would use them in my own writing, as I did pretty much everything else she gave me. My siblings certainly knew; no one questioned that these papers were going to me, and when, for Christmas that year I had them typed up and copied into spiral bound books for the family (Love, Larnie, I called it, as this is how her almost daily letters were signed), my brother said, “Good, now they will be easier for you to use.”

But what do you do with 500 pages of letters (260 typed, with photos included)?

I had been writing poems about my mother’s decline since before her diagnosis. I write poems about everything, but family, and my mother in particular, are top among my poetic obsessions. But though I did not, then, think that I would be writing the “dementia book,” less than two years after Love, Larnie, Palindrome, a book of poems and prose in response to my mother’s dementia, was published by Dos Madres Press.

These poems and prose pieces were mostly written from my own perspective as daughter learning to care for her declining mother. I have discussed in an earlier post how approaching this often harrowing topic in form (primarily blank verse sonnets and other syllabics) provided me the poetic and emotional distance necessary for the crafting of art from life. But as the title suggests (palindrome means something that is read the same backward and forward,) there was a fair amount of time travel in my mother’s new interior world. Working with Mom’s memoirs while being with her was a sort of time travel for me as well, back into the days after my father’s death with my grieving, but articulate and self-aware mother, and into my own childhood with a young, remembered mother, and on back into the past before me with this feisty girlchild who still lived inside my demented mother’s mind, as well as in her letters. The frightened child who was calling for my attention both on and off the page.

I began the first poem from her memoirs about a year after Mom’s move to the nursing home. It started as a prose poem telling the story of my mother being sent by the missionaries from Cutshin, Kentucky to Buffalo, New York during the latter days of World War II for school. In this first draft, I used her story, but not many of her exact words, choosing instead to craft a younger voice for her, one I imagined she might use as a child of twelve. But as I continued to work with her letters, I found a number of passages about Buffalo, and her ultimate return home, and then away again. I pulled all of this material into one document and tried to figure out how to shape it. By this time, I had already begun my work with sonnets, and had also read Tony Barnstone’s essay on sonnets, including his description of how he crafted his book, Tongue of War by shaping firsthand narratives from US and Japanese soldiers into this form. I shaped the prose poem into a double sonnet, and then just kept going. As the poem progressed (it is six pages,) there came a merging of the voice I crafted and my mother’s own written voice. Here is a passage from the middle:

At home my brothers knew for sure I’d died
or maybe Dad had sold me. When I’d send them
store-bought things, a truck with wooden wheels (we shipped our rubber to our boys across the seas)
they thought Mom charged the toys on time from
Dewey’s store to fool them. Jimmy’d gone and come
back dead. My sister Becky was the only
one who said I’d never leave them, not for good.
Bea was a baby when I left, still was
when I came home, a crybaby at that.
Mom couldn’t nurse her anymore with Helen
on the way and gone were all the summer jars
I’d helped her fill. We lived on Dewey’s
goodness—beans and fatback tasted fine to me.
(Pauletta Hansel, from “My Mother Remembers Buffalo, 1944-45” in Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

This poem was the longest of the three I eventually wrote from her memoirs, and it is the one that holds the most of my own language (though the story and much of the phrasing is my mother’s.) By the second poem, about my parents’ meeting and ultimate marriage, I had learned to trust the process of letting the counting of syllables and lines (roughly ten syllables per each line, fourteen lines per stanza) guide the compression and language choice. Mom’s voice was sassier in these passages, which suited me just fine. Here is the opening stanza:

I remember the first time I saw you.
I had only been at Southland Bible
Institute three days. At supper, we new students
tried to size you old ones up. You in your
Combs High jacket, black and orange, teasing
everyone and I thought several things about you,
but mostly I thought you were a smartass.
I was not looking to find a boyfriend.
I had one I didn’t much want in
Korea and anyone knew that a
girl didn’t leave a soldier off at war.
And anyway we were there to become
good Christian girls, go out and spread the gospel,
not to find a husband, “Oh no, not that.”
(Pauletta Hansel, from “After My Father’s Death, My Mother Tells Him of Their Life Together” in Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

The third of the memoir poems, called “My Mother Tells Me What She Really Thinks” is all hers. Though I compressed the language, and moved passages around (in addition, of course, to line and stanza breaks) I added nothing of my own, in tone or description. Mom wrote this letter when she was angry at me for something I had written and read at a workshop she attended. I don’t remember what, and she never said. Here is the final of the two stanzas:

I did not want to do to you what had
been done to me. By aged seven, when a new
baby came, I cooked and did whatever
else was needed. I could never do enough
to please my dad. I’m sorry, Pauletta.
I think you had it pretty good. I hope
I showed and told you love. I never heard my
mother say it. I knew her work was love
keeping us alive. She let me learn to
help her. My love kept you from more you could
have learned. I wanted it all perfect
for you, and then I had to go and have
a baby brother and spoil it all. I hope
someday you’ll know how hard motherhood is.
(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

By the time I crafted this poem I often introduced myself in phone calls to the nursing home by saying, “Hi, this is Pauletta, Larnie’s mother,” unconscious of my mistake until the slight pause before a response. I knew something of how hard motherhood is.

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome , winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry.  The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia,  The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love ,  The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers On the Value of Literary Communities and The Blessing (The Real Story: Part 2).

Dos Madres Press’ publication of Palindrome was funded in part by the Ohio Arts Council. For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

 

The Real Story: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

At the beginning, all you think about is loss.
An incomplete geode
on its way to full formation
but somehow interrupted
from reaching its brilliance.

Like a piece at the potter’s wheel,
you are gradually changing,
like a rock in the stream
becomes less sharp and develops smooth corners.
Perfectly imperfect.

Excerpt of poem from participants in Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, October 14, 2017. (Composed with lines from all by Pauletta Hansel)

Most of the poems in the book I called Palindrome (meaning something that is read the same backwards as forwards) were written in the roughly two year period my mother spent in her first nursing home. There are outliers on either side, but Mom’s move into “care” in March 2015 marks an unofficial start to when my life both on and off the page leaned into my role as her shepherd and as her scribe. Nearly two years later, the manuscript of poems and prose written in response to my mother’s dementia was accepted for publication. And about halfway through that period, in April 2016, I became Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate.

The timing was pretty good for putting my name in the running for this very part time positon. I had not tried to replace my previous position as writer in residence at a local college because of my new focus on Mom, whose dreaded “middle-stage dementia” had her literally bouncing off the walls. And while Cincinnati was asking for an occasional “occasional” poem, mostly they wanted a poet who had a clear plan for the role. Mine was to connect people to poetry and connect people through poetry, mostly through a series of writing experiences.

The first such experience I offered was a workshop called Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, in partnership with the Cincinnati Alzheimer’s Association which had been a huge help to our family before and after Mom’s move. Annette Wick, a writer, teacher and caregiver to her own mother, enthusiastically joined me in the project. (You can read Annette’s caregiving blog here.) Annette and I were on a similar journey, both as writers and daughters. Through the wonders of social media, I had learned of Annette’s interest in starting a family caregivers’ writing group, and invited her to pilot it through this joint effort. A year and a half later, we are still doing it, and have expanded our partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association and with each other to include writing with professional caregivers and sometimes with people with dementia, through their Memories in the Making program. (To find out about our February 27 program with professionals, including nurses, social workers and aides, “How Stories Help,” click here. For our March 22 program for family caregivers, click here.)

While most participants are also grateful members of the Alzheimer’s Association’s ongoing support groups, they appreciate how writing allows us to go down beneath our usual struggles and complaints to a place where we can experience the spiritual and emotional truths of our lives as caregivers. It helps that Annette and I have been at this, the writing and the caring, long enough that we can find beauty in the broken things: a mother’s cracked voice singing a hymn the daughter has never heard, or the way her hands still stitch an invisible needle through cloth that no one else can see.

Wherever you are in your journey as a daughter or as a son, I offer you this writing prompt to explore things those things “perfectly imperfect” in your own relationship with your elders, whether in the present, as Annette is, or in memory, as I am: Mom died in January 2017. One note: this will work best if you delay reading Part Three of the exercise until you have completed Parts 1 and 2.

  1. Find an object in nature, that is something that is not made by human hands: a leaf, a broken piece of bark, a shell, a rock, for example, or if you are able to write outside, a tree or a boulder, It is important that you can get close enough to experience it through most of the senses. If you are not able to find a natural object, at least choose an object that is not an objet d’art; in other words, for this activity a bent fork is better than a painting.
  2. Describe your object as fully as you can using some or all of these questions and any of your own.
    • Describe it through the senses—what is its color, shape, texture, smell, etc.? Be judicious in tasting!
    • Where did it come from? What is its natural habitat?
    • How did it get where you found it?
    • What is its use? Have you used it? Do you know someone else who has used it?
    • Do you know what drew it to you?

STOP AND WRITE!!

 

 

(Vincent Van Gogh–Two Cut Sunflowers)

  1. How does this object remind you of your mother or your father? (You can choose which.) If it doesn’t, that’s ok too—the negative space is rich for writing.

You might choose to use the poem and its title below (“Portrait of My X as a X”) as a model, or you may not. You don’t have to write a poem. You may find it more fruitful to write more directly about your parent in prose, referring to the object as a way to add metaphor and texture. There is no wrong way to do it—write whatever is coming up for you in relation to this object. I would love to see your work posted in the comments. You can click on one of the links above to find out more about the programs Annette and I offer through the Alzheimer’s Association. Information about my other workshops and retreats can be found here –or contact me.

Portrait of My Mother as a Dried Sunflower

The round shape of you
no longer round,
bent in on yourself
as if you are trying to find your way
back to the place you began.
You smell of dust
and still that scent
of only you.
I cannot see what you were
in what I have before me,
though in dreams you still stand
tallest in the field.
Every day a little
more of you
is gone. You are
beautiful.
You are so beautiful.
At the center,
a constellation of seeds
never planted.
(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

Note: this is third in a  a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome, winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia and The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love, Her WordsOn the Value of Literary Communities and The Blessing (The Real Story: Part 2).

Dos Madres Press’ publication of Palindrome was funded in part by the Ohio Arts Council. For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.