The Poet’s Craft Blog

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
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.  The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2017. 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 and The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers.

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?




(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
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.  The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2017. 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


The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love

You Never Were

the mother I wanted at the time
I had you. Always I was
swallowing down the longing
rising for the mother
come and gone. The one

whose cool hand nested
in a tangle of my curls. The one
whose hair was blueblack
crow, caught midflight.
Once gravity had settled you

to ground, and I away
from you, I hungered
for the mother whose shovel
shouldered through red clay
to bring up bulbs I’d plant,

still clinging southern soil, in my
midwestern garden. Today it is
the mother who remembers
this I want, even as I hover
over you, my fingers

feathering the dark threads
woven through your grey.
I would cling
to whatever does not change
if I could find it.

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

I wrote my first poem about my mother when I was sixteen. Becky, her sister, had a year earlier fallen into a coma and was not expected to live (although she did, and lived well, for nearly thirty more years.) In my poem, my mother was crying. She was mopping the floor of the daycare center she ran in the converted garage adjacent to our house, and she was crying. I had sat with this image and with my helplessness to soothe her for a year, and then I wrote the poem.

My next poems for my mother came some twenty years later, after I had emerged from a decade-long silence in my writing. These poems, many of which found their way into my first book, Divining, imagined my mother’s childhood growing up in a very rural Eastern Kentucky. I left a thin sheaf of them on the guest bed after a visit home. My mother called me, “Did you know you left some papers?”

“Yes,” I said. “I left them for you.”

It is an overstatement to say I learned to love my mother through writing about her. I already loved her, though it was sometimes an itchy, get this sweater-off-of-me sort of love. Mostly, we loved each other through things. Plants from her garden, leftovers in Cool Whip bowls, thrift store paintings and pottery that I cherished first because she gave them to me.

And the poems, too, were a sort of thing. When I think of them now, I imagine myself rubbing my hand tenderly over the words, careful not to smudge the ink. This girl who became my mother, here on my page! Later I wrote about the young mother who emerged from that girl. Always present, somewhat distant in her constant doing, a door I passed through.

I was shaken to discover that my mother had been hurt by these careful, tender poems of self-discovery. At the time she seemed touched by them. Her mouth had not made its compressed line of disapproval that I learned to watch for. The poems had seemed only to make her a little bashful.

By then, it was too late to ask her why. She was in the dementia unit of a nursing home, and now it was her writing that we, her children, found left for us, dated and numbered, 500+ pages of a sort of memoir in letters from nine years earlier, written first to our dead father—a grief memoir from the year after his death—but deeper in the pile, letters written directly to us.

Love, Larnie I called it, for how she signed her pages, enlisting a group of friends to help me type it all up to present as a gift to my siblings and niece. Too, sections of the memoir began to show up in the poems that I was already beginning to write about my mother’s decline:

IV. from “The Body / Above It”

She can’t remember why she’s there, or where
there is—some days it is the hospital
where she’d not let my father die. The chair
beside his bed became her own—she would
not have him wake alone to dark and those
red blinking lights. Small mercy, I suppose,
that she’s forgotten, now, his death at home.
We cleared their desk and found the words she wrote:
I see him in his chair cocooned in white—
the bedspread I crocheted. It seemed to me
he winked and smiled his little crooked smile.
I caught a wisp of his own scent as he
floated by and thought, no matter his poor
feet don’t work, he won’t need them anymore.

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

It is less of an overstatement to say that I learned—am continuing to learn, even after her death—to love the mother who spiraled through dementia through writing about her. Poetry is first the act of paying attention. And as a caregiver for my mother, I was a connoisseur. I could spot a UTI by the lean of her body in the wheelchair, the need to be lifted to the toilet by her forehead’s scrunch combined with tapping feet. I could enter her world through just a few garbled words of a story, recognizing, for example, when I was not me, but Becky:

My Mother Briefly Reunites With Her Dead Sister Becky in the Body of Me and Tells Us

Life is small,
but it isn’t.
You are so pretty, your hair
worn now like mine.
I love you.

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

or when there was a younger version of me in attendance to whom she had something to say:

from “My Mother Makes Her Amends”

She tells me now, pushing out each word
to make the first full sentences
I’ve heard from her in months,
eyes locked on mine to be sure
I hear her this time:

The light from her eyes
blinds me. I feel the rush
of time spooled backwards,
the elemental pull
of infant in her arms. The necessity
of tenderness makes mothers of us all.

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

I was with my mother in her nursing home almost daily, and much of what occurred there showed up on the page. Clearly, writing poems is not the only way to stay present enough to provide good care. But for me, the “practice of poetry”—the attentiveness to detail, the interest in (and acceptance of) both what is there and what lies beneath, the awareness of the self in relationship to the other, the ability to be both in the moment and an observer of that self and other that dwells there—was, at first, the only training I had.

In my imagination of those early poems about my mother, my hand soothes the page in a way that it could not the long-gone girl. Later, as I used my hands, my breath, my body to comfort my mother, I imagined she was both herself and her own lost words:

Self-Portrait as Ellipsis

I live at the cliff edge
of story, the pause
between language
and the hand’s blind reach.
In the photograph
I am the vee of light
between the shadows
two bodies make.
I am the words
you might have said.

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


Photograph by Zohreh Zand

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2017. 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 in this series currently available include: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia.

Too Personal: On Writing About My Mother’s Dementia

Too Personal

like the underside
of a cat’s tongue, like
someone else’s bathwater,
like bedsheets still warm, like
a spit-wet thumb flicking sleep
from the corner of your mother’s
eye, like an old hymn hummed
beneath curdled breath, like
ragged stitches pulled from
a wound. These poems are
too personal.

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

My greatest fear in releasing Palindrome, poems and prose about my mother’s dementia, is that no one would want to read a book this personal, a cat’s cradle woven between my mother’s life and my own.

My second greatest fear—that these personal poems might contain a universality too painful for anyone left holding dementia’s tangled skein.

“No more mother-in-nursing-home poems!” one writer friend cried out at the end of a weeklong conference of workshops and readings, though thankfully not specifically in response to my own, then unpublished book: “I can write those myself!”

And later, after its publication, a colleague influential in the local literary scene picked Palindrome up from my booth at a book fair to scan the blurbs on its back cover. “I can’t read this,” he said, practically dropping it back on the table. “It hits too close to home.”

And yet, this is what I do. I live my life and I write about it, uncovering its layers of meaning first through the act of paying attention, then through the words on the page, and finally through consideration of how the individual poems and prose pieces come together to make something new, something that is from my life, but that is not my life. Something that came through me, but that is not only mine.

I didn’t set out to write a book about being the caretaking daughter of a mother with dementia. I didn’t set out to be that daughter. But being both writer and daughter, when my mother’s dementia was what was given me, caring and writing is all that I knew to do. Had it come earlier in my life, things might have been different. But from the caring standpoint, I had been edging ever closer, playing minor roles in attending two friends in their final months and experiencing somewhat of a role reversal with my mother after my father died “suddenly” during a long illness and I helped her transition into her new life as widow and city dweller.

Writing and caring is what I did then, too. But this, the caring for and writing about my mother with dementia, required something both more and less of me: that is, it required both a new level of intimacy and a necessary distance.

The intimacy is, I think, obvious. My mother’s dementia unfettered me from certain physical and emotional boundaries between us and also from concern about what she might think of these poems about her:

My Mother Has Stopped Telling Me She Loves Me

Look at us now.
My mother finally bound
to her wheelchair (that’s how
they like it in the nursing home.)
She thinks she is walking,
one foot and then the other,
her lumbering four-wheeled
body follows and behind her
trails Miss Push-Me-Pull-Me—
that’s what she muttered at me yesterday,
a sudden spark that flew my meddling hands
down from the handles of her chair.
And even when we sit together,
fingers entwined, she pushes back away,
I pull her toward me,
memorize her face,
the folds beside her eyes,
the lips that purse now
for a kiss, a dab of oatmeal
in one corner. I say,
I love you, Mom
and then she’s off again;
we dangle one side and the other
of the teeter-totter air.

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

The distance is perhaps less observable. Let me name it first in metaphor. Though I am a meditation dropout, one concept that has always stayed with me is the awareness of the slight pause between inhaling and exhaling. Yes, breath is one continuous, mostly involuntary, movement. Yes, there exists a slight gap within that movement through which awareness can enter.

For me, writing is that gap. And by writing, I don’t just mean the act of putting words onto paper or screen, but the act of noticing what is, while knowing that words will someday be what I make of it. For the poems and prose that became Palindrome, the noticing and word-making occurred within smaller and smaller gaps. The poems and prose were written within the present tense of my mother’s spiral into dementia. And with that, a different kind of distance became necessary in order to not let the poems disintegrate into a kind of wail. I began for the first time in my life as a poet writing in form, first in syllabics (the limiting of syllables within lines and within the poem itself (I am especially fond of the 7×7, seven syllables within a seven line poem) and later in sonnets and palindromes (a poem which reads the same backward as forward.) These formal constructs gave me the necessary emotional distance to make poems from content in which I might have otherwise have drowned.

I first knew that I was capable of creating the book which became Palindrome when I wrote the sonnet sequence which is at the heart of its final section (the sequence itself was written two years before the book came out.) As writer, the pairing of the intimacy of the subject and the formality of craft created a balanced container for the work. As daughter, I also believe that the attentiveness I gave to the words supported the attentiveness I gave to my mother. I will write about the complimentary nature of caring and writing in a future post (read here.)

But what of those fears, that despite the craft, the subject itself limits my work? Fear, too, has its role, not to stop us, but to spur us to go deeper into our courage and our craft, asking always, and with new intensity, is this poem true, is it good enough. I offer this on the subject of the intersection of life and words:

Of What We Make Our Poems

Ink, of course, and flecks of skin
on paper remind us who we
are is hatched from who we were,
this film of self now covering
who we will be. Locks of our
mothers’ hair; whiskers plucked,
roots intact, from our fathers’ chins.

And too, our poems are like
our houses. They want more of
us than we had planned to give
them—this one begs for a new
room, a door where we’d framed a
window; another pushes against
rafters, opens us to sky.

No matter what we say, our
poems are not our children.
They quicken outside our bodies,
run from us before they speak.
One poet I knew made his
of river rock and the black
longing between stars. I’ll make

my poems of silence stitched with words.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Tangle, Dos Madres Press, 2015)

Collage © Sara Pearce

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2017. 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.” Posts in this series currently available include: The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love.




Cincinnati: A Song of Ourselves

On January 2, 2018 a group of poets braved the bitter cold to perform a choral reading of our poem for the City as the new Cincinnati City Council was sworn in. Photographs of the event will follow, but now, on behalf of Cincinnati’s poets, I offer you:

Cincinnati: A Song of Ourselves

By some calculations,
fifty-two equals one
city, seven hills and
the ever-rivering lines of the Ohio
to bound it.
This city.
One that chose long ago to outgrow itself.
Cut the hill, see the western shadowed buildings
pulsing urgent in the city street pentameter
above a hidden unfinished underground
of metal and glass, arteries, entrails,
all sorts of plumbing, rivers and viaducts,
ad infinitum.

O City, know your poetry –
river, hills, valley in which you shine and sing –
from your smoke and mirrors.
Listen, City, to your song, the poetry gumbo
becoming to its soul made lively,
becoming more.

Voting with your mouth is useful
in the process of the seven hungers,
but in the shadow of heavy tannéd hill-folds,
lines grow longer, queued for a light from the West,
from some reborn magi of the deep pockets.
Each empty stare is a warning, and a way to begin.
Each tattered leaf, a scrap of time
you can never put back on the tree.
Instead of pretending to be colorblind,
open your eyes to the rainbow of color in this city,
like an advent calendar,
a pleasant surprise
hidden behind each window.
Feed the hungry, leave the gleanings,
open doors, embrace the ragged and wealthy and rough hewn
to make a resting place for all
who wish to call us home.
Do not let our smallness hem you in.

“I drag my feet unintentionally / this is to say / I am not a broom
but a city of stars illuminated by strangers,
welcomed by arts and parks and poems and outstretched arms.
The pride of rainbow banners point the way
to a city for all.”

And if all art is political,
we’ve been given a lot to work with.
The OSU/U-M rivalry
can’t begin to rival the Skyline/Gold Star one.
And in the neighborhood murdered by medicine,
giant buildings saunter
where our houses once stood still
and hugged us.

With just enough of the year left to plant daffodils,
winter cold reminds us
that energy is made of ice and glass, too.
And if we breathe, will we stoke the fire, or blow it out?

I am here.
You are here.
We don’t trust each other,
not as lungs go,
but someone was god-like and left us no choice.
(Move thru it, move thru it—that’s the only way out.)
And so, a blessing on us,
a goodnight Tiara shimmering in the dark above
one city,
spread among hills and vales,
villes and gates, parks and woods and sides
and dales and heights:
May the exquisite tones and turns of our words
wear nothing more than small hills, river-licked;
contain the lands and bodies of water we cross;
form a tight braid to root us in kindness, grace
and joy for all we are,
for all we hope to be.

Composed by Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel with words by Ellen Austin-Li, Michael Burnham, John Cruze, Ella Davis, Mark Flanigan, Sean M. Foster, Karen George, Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel, Annie Hinkle, Bucky Ignatius, Theresa Kulbaga, Elese Monet, Rhonda Pettit, Lynn Robbins, Raya Schweitzer, Chuck Stringer, Kelly Thomas, Hilda Weaver, Dick Westheimer, Tyrone Williams and Zohreh Zand.

If Springer School Was a Poem

Springer School is a Cincinnati treasure. For more than 45 years, Springer School and Center has carried out its mission to empower students with learning disabilities to lead successful lives. In November, I got to see the process up close when I wrote poems with Springer’s middle school students.  Using Sara Holbrook’s fabulous teaching poem, “If I Were a Poem” as an example, we talked about the power of poetry to let readers experience the world as the poet did, through images using the five senses. And then, of course, we expressed our own poetic powers on the page (and in some cases, directly onto the computer screen.) The following is a composite of lines from all seven classes I visited:

If We Were Poems

If I were a poem
I would be the clickety-clack
of a speeding steam train
leaving the station.
If I were a poem
I would be a starry night pouring down
on your paper like a jar of fireflies
you are setting free.
If I were a poem
I would be a cake
and when someone blows out my candles
they will become older.
I would be a rack of ribs
and live at Montgomery Inn.
I would be the taste of BeanBoozled®
because you never know
what you’re going to get.
If I were a poem
I would not leave you on a battlefield.
I would show you how
to travel time through time.
If I were a poem
I would be the swirling of the tornado.
I would be a basketball, the swish sound
as the crowd goes wild.
I would be a hawk with a secret poem
for the world to hear.
If I were a poem
I would make everyone laugh.
I would be a computer running my code
as you mindlessly type on my keys.
If I were a poem,
I will make you have chills up your spine
when you dip your feet in the pool.
If I were a poem
I would be the book
you do not want to put down.

Springer School Middle School Students
with Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel

What would you do if you were a poem?

To read more about my visit to Springer, click here.

This is my last post of the year! If you would like to hear more about what I have been up to, and recharge your own creative juices, check out  Kelly Thomas’ Renew Series, featuring ten writers and others who will share our insights + personal experiences around everything from optimizing your creative practice, productivity hacks, publishing and everything in between. Interviews are with Magdalena Waz, Teri Foltz, Stacy Sims, Michael Winkfield, Andrea Scarpino, Katie Titi, Aimee Nezhukumatahil, Jenny Tosner, Manuel Iris and me! They run through December 20. (Mine will be released on December 18. You can sign up here: (it’s free to join + participate.)

After the beginning of the year, look for a series of blogs about the writing process, many focused on how I wrote my latest book of poems and prose, Palindrome, written in response to my mother’s dementia.

I hope to see you in the New Year!