The Poet’s Craft Blog

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end of a weeklong conference of workshops and readings, though thankfully not specifically in response to my own, then unpublished book: “I can write those myself!”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, 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:   The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love,  The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers,  Her Words 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.

 

 

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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,
ours,
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!

Pauletta

I am From Artsy Fartsy Saturdays

Where are you from? I have led former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon’s “I am from” writing activity with dozens of groups now, from preschool students to seniors, and I always learn something new. Last month I had the privilege of working with Artsy Fartsy Saturdays, the arts non-profit/ministry Cathy Barney and friends do with neighborhood kids in subsidized housing in Milford. Artsy Fartsy is celebrating 5 years of vibrant creative community by developing a book about their journey, with the assistance of ArtsWave, Dos Madres Press and a whole slew of great volunteers. And, of course, the talented young people themselves. More information can be found here  and here , but first take this sneak peek at Artsy Fartsy’s creative minds at work!

We Are From Artsy Fartsy

I’m from where people
care about how they look
and girls’ hair is always wrapped up.
I am from basketball—I am a forward
who dominates the paint.
I’m from Pike Street.
It smells good and it looks good
and it’s quiet.
I am from the big tree outside.
I heard leaves falling.
I’m from the falling of leaves
and the smell of trees,
from the shining sun on glistening water,
with a turtle walking on dried leaves.
I am from animation and vanilla,
the smell of pumpkin spice latte
and the taste of chocolate chip cookies
dipped in milk.
I’m from touching my stuffed animals
and how soft they are.
I’m from where everyone is active
and the girls are always full of drama.
I am from Idaho.
I am from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas,
California, Colorado, Connecticut…
I am from no limits.
I am from multiple lifestyles and adventure.
I am from flowers and leaves that blow about,
from the laughs and jokes of my family,
that fall from the family tree.
I am from knowing how to say Thanksgiving
in sign language.
Sometimes I feel sad,
but no matter what,
I can’t wait to see what happens
next in the adventure of life.
I am from Milford, Ohio,
and I love flowers, cats and dogs.
This is where I am from.

The Writers of Artsy Fartsy Saturdays
(with Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel)

Note: Check out “I am From” poems from across the country and submit your own here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where We’re From

I had the privilege last month of working with the poets and performers who make up WordPlay Cincy’s Scribe Poetry Team.  Led by spoken word artist, Desirae Hosley, Cincy Scribes is a positive, upbeat community to explore identity, culture, current events and the media through poetry and creative self-expression. I loved their commitment to words—and to each other. Check out all of WordPlay’s work on their website. Here’s the poem we made.

We Are From WordPlay

Where are you from?
you ask.
I am from tears and mess and compromise.
I am from Cincinnati, the land of granite,
from sunken eyelids and bony hips.
I am from those places caught
between past and present lies,
from the split moment terrors
I get when I think of how my rapist is free.
I am from the powerful words
my mother made sure were in my lungs
since she knew that with the color of my skin,
people wouldn’t listen when I had to speak.
I am from a place where an orange runs a country—
no tea, no shade, but isn’t that funny.
I am from a crowd surf
of different hands and ideas.
In this beautiful fictional far off place,
every day is a gift to live and grow,
borders dissolved and no one owns the land.
I am from sticky rice and vinegar,
from teaching fish to dance,
from individuality and the correlation
between different and unique.
I am from the crack in the picture frame
that lets you reach inside to touch it.

WordPlay Cincy Scribes: Anais, Cat, Daphne, Keshawn, Lilly, and Sol
September 16, 2017
with Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel

(Look for our poem, too, on the I am From Project’s Facebook Page.  This national project, co-founded by former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon, aims to build a quilt, a scroll, a multimedia display, a swell of voices, a collection of poems “in celebration of the diversity and beauty of who we are.”)

I will take this opportunity, too, to share a little about “where I’m from” in my tenure as Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate! As I enter my final six months in this role, I invite you to view a list of all we have done together during this time, with links to the many poems co-created with Cincinnati’s writers, here.

Writing Among the Trees

What better way to spend the first full day of fall but among the trees! Thanks to everybody who came out to Everbody Let’s Write! at Everybody’s Treehouse, and to Ellen Austin-Li for sharing her lovely poem on her blog, and letting me share it here: House of Trees. Perhaps there will be time for an early spring repeat before my tenure as Cincinnati Poet Laureate ends on April 1, 2018.

Where We Are From: A poem by Art4Artists

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to write with a fine group of artists at Dunham Recreation Center, just about a year after my first visit to the to the center’s afterschool program.  Founded by Arnelle Dowin 2006, Art4Artists is a group of novice, semi-professional and professional women artists who meet regularly to support each other’s creative endeavors and explore new techniques and ideas. For more information and to join Art4Artists, please call the Dunham Center at 513-251-5862. The group is filled with talented practicing and retired art teachers, artists and arts enthusiasts. And some fine writers, too! We used former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon’s prompt, “I am from,” and will be sending our group creation off to her  “I AM FROM project,” which aims to build a quilt, a scroll, a multimedia display, a swell of voices, a collection of poems in celebration of the diversity and beauty of who we are.”

We Are From: Art for Artists, 2017

I am from a blank canvas,
from the typewriter set up
in my mother’s kitchen,
from bright colored fabric and shiny beads,
from the country attic where
obsolete treasures lived,
from the vegetable garden in the summer,
from a hand gliding over big boards,
flour dust flying in the air.
I am from that girl,
the one who called herself
writer, artist, gardener, cook,
from the space she held to grow into.

It is like a trail through my memories,
which shoots straight and sharply
through my town, my life, my thoughts.
I am from struggling children
and a nation divided,
from tall scary people all in black,
in white.
So long ago, it seems familiar.
The streets are filled with too many ghosts.
What a strange journey through time.

I am from a life reinvented,
floating in and out of fog and clarity
and plunging in again,
from a long hard slog to make my way
through scrambled streets with cul-de-sacs,
from a towering blue spruce
that mocks my journey.
I am from many steps,
the ones I tumbled down
grabbing life, reclaiming fears,
pursuing and abandoning perfection.

I am from the nest of peace
I have made of my home,
from the joy of dirt and rocks,
the delight of sun and moon,
from quiet Friends and deep meditation,
from the “see you later, welcome home”
barking of the dogs,
from the sweet shade of the same old trees.

All in all, a pretty good life.
I am here.
Now in my 50s,
my 60s,
my 70s,
80s.
Unreal.

 

By Art4Artists Participants: Sue Brungs, Pat Bruns, Mo Conlan, Carole Douglas, Arnelle Dow, Mary Hennigan, Vivian Kline, Sally Murray, Pat Ostenkamp and Carolyn Stewart with Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel.
Dunham Recreation Center
August 15, 2017
Composed by Pauletta Hansel

Art for Artists

What’s up next for the Poet Laureate (you may ask)? Everybody Let’s Write at Everybody’s Treehouse in Mt Airy Forest, Ohio’s only wheelchair accessible treehouse, on Saturday September 23 from 10-noon. More info here and on Facebook.