The Poet’s Craft Blog

MYCincinnati: If We Were Music

If you were music, what might you do? This is the question I put to members of MYCincinnati (Music for Youth in Cincinnati), a free youth orchestra program in Price Hill. Founded on the idea that personal transformation can be achieved by striving towards musical excellence, MYCincinnati offers children (and now adults, too!) in Price Hill the opportunity to learn violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, or clarinet, and play in an orchestra. MYCincinnati is inspired by El Sistema, Venezuela’s revolutionary youth orchestra program that uses music as a vehicle for social change. Led with energetic gentleness by the amazing Eddy Kwon, and consisting of 110 musicians, MYCincinnati is a true Cincinnati treasure.

So what would these community musicians do if they embodied the music they play? They would keep doing what they are already doing, inspiring through their exuberant embrace of their community and the sweet sounds it makes. But don’t take just my word for it! Experience it for yourself. MYCincinnati is celebrating its 5 Year Anniversary on Friday, October 28th, 6:30 – 8:00 PM in a free concert at Community Matters, 2104 St. Michael Street, Lower Price Hill. Please join us for an evening full of music, reflection, recognition, and celebration—and hear the premiere performance of the group poem we created:

MyCincinnati: Our Music

If I were music I would roam the streets.
I would skip around through people’s feet.
I would go to concerts
and be proud of my music.
If I were music I would put on a show
for people to see,
and every time they think,
they think of me.
They will accept me by my music.
If I were music my main goal
would fuel my soul.
I’d make people feel
that anything is possible
and for change,
happy and hopeful
for things to be awesome.
If I were music I would remind you
of something that had happened
or something that would happen in the future.
I’d crack the concrete
so that pretty flowers would bloom.
If I were music—
disappear the I,
eat the you.
My belly would be full
with all the right tastes—
sweet, salty, sour and green—
sleep coming like a heavy blanket.
What’s most beautiful about music
is that it connects me to you.
I would rock your body in rhythm to our sound,
the whole room moving together as one.
I would make people joy.

Composed by Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel with words by Keyonte Ervin, Pauletta Hansel, Eddy Kwon, Christopher Penman, Corry Penman, Jayden Thrasher, Tamara Thrasher, Trinity Thrasher, Ziuad Tooles and Carroll Wallace.



Lower Price Hill is…. The Lower Price Hill Women’s Group

Earlier this week I had the privilege of meeting with the Lower Price Hill Women’s Group at Santa Maria Community Services’ new space on Glenway. Nancy Laird, Donna Jones, Melissa Cornelius and a half dozen or so other Lower Price Hill movers and shakers shared their neighborhood with me. They talked, I wrote it down as fast as I could, and then we crafted poems from what they told me. Here’s what we made. I hope you also treasure this glimpse inside a very special community.

Lower Price Hill

Lower Price Hill is
bringing dishes for each other’s families
when comfort is needed:
Donna’s meatloaf, the other Donna’s
“beangemese,” Sue’s loaded potatoes,
Patty’s baked beans (but I like her potato salad),
Lori’s mashed potatoes,
Steve’s chocolate cake,
(I bring the pop) and oh my God,
your pineapple-upside-down-cake
is the bomb!
And Julie brings, brings, brings—
she gives, gives, gives.

Lower Price Hill is
Mattie always saying, “Why weren’t you at church!”
Donna saying, “Let’s go eat, Sue!”
(No matter where we are
it’s always about food.) Fred says,
“Let’s get that haunted house going!”
and Jim, “We’ve gotta have something for the kids,”
(They’re on their third generation of Lower Price Hill kids.)

Lower Price Hill is
everyone always doing something for someone.

Lower Price Hill is
our joy, our pride, our pain, our sorrow.

It’s where family doesn’t necessarily mean blood.

Composed by Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel with words by The Lower Price Hill Women’s Group

Tommy O

“We’ve had a lot of loss.”

“Hey, Mom,” he’d say to Donna,
pucker to kiss her cheek,
“The girls are okay today!”
(But don’t get him started on Connie!)
He’d be up around Meiser’s,
before Nancy’d be parked, he’d be at the car,
asking, “What can I carry today?”
(Usually it was her purse.)
He’d say, “I’m Nancy’s right-hand man!”
But he had some left-hand people too.

This summer he got shot in the leg,
it was a ricochet, no hospital would keep him,
thank God the bullet didn’t hit a bone.
It was pushing up and when they finally
took it out and Nancy changed the dressing,
she found a wad of blue jean in the wound.
After that it healed well.

When he wasn’t on his meds
he could be hard to deal with,
wearing his robe and flashing everyone.
Once he shot the stop sign there on State,
flashbacks to the war.
On his meds nothing could rile him.
He always had trinkets for the kids.

This fall his heart couldn’t take it anymore.
After the first heart attack, he walked all the way
up the long hospital driveway, pajamas and socks.
You can’t keep a good man down,
that was Tommy.
After the second,
twenty minutes without oxygen,
he’s not the Tommy we know.

His presence is already missed
in Lower Price Hill.
On Sunday, Reverend Nelsa
showed the empty offering basket
before she sent it round—
all the pennies and quarters and dimes
Tommy would have picked up from the street—
not there.
A war veteran on paper,
a Lower Price Hill veteran by heart:
that’s Tommy O.

Composed by Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel with words by The Lower Price Hill Women’s Group.

The State of Us: Cincinnati, 2016

In honor of our Mayor’s upcoming State of the City address, I invited poets from throughout Cincinnati to send their responses to the prompt “The State of Our City, 2016,” for me to weave into a poem carrying our varied perspectives. Here is the result, by twists and turns candid, appreciative, reproachful, humorous, compassionate—and ultimately hopeful. We, the poets, present:

Cincinnati: The State of Us, 2016

She first blooms, a surprise beauty,
blossoming between the Cut in the Hill,
Queen of the West in her 21st Century dressed.
Can you find her?
We’re the south south side of Chicago, an easy commute
by a not-yet-built fast train. It’s a slow
rumble now, easing through Indiana
as fragrance from the Shasta Viburnums
waft throughout the seven hills.
By some calculations,
fifty-two equals one
city, seven hills and
a river to bound it,
above a hidden unfinished underground
of metal and glass.
At dawn, over the river
rises a haze of contradiction.
This is a city of neighborhoods,
the kind expressways divide.
We make do: our beach,
a waterpark; our parks
no Central Park
but forests and woods,
an island of homes
between the garden cemetery
and the factory.
Our parks are beautiful and free.
Colorful murals paint a story
on walls left blank from another era.
We count as neighbors both the blind wanting walls
and the unseen paying for their construction.
We carry our stained-glass decisions carefully packaged.
The Island of Misfits has become Disneyland…
(In a big sports town that plays on words,
everybody knows the cabin cleaning nits
aren’t in the same league as the nine rancid tics.)
Adding attractions are important, but the people?
Who gives a damn? I see them again and again,
men and women, lying or sitting
on the steps of the stately old church,
some clutching bags of clothes,
others with nothing.
The night is dark, bordering on cold
and I wonder who they are,
why they are there.
The name of the street?
The highs? The lows?
Who can read such weather?
At Findlay Market, 10:03 AM,
fallen unnoticed in flat November light,
one too-ripe-to-sweet-soft strawberry lies
like a cat’s heart on cold pavement.
At Walnut and Sixth,
blue sky hangs framed from skywalk roof to floor
to sidewalk. Hey! It’s under there!!
My city’s under there!!!
(No matter how deep you bury it in money,
the love and loss leak out…)
Careless on my bike, I got my permanent
teeth knocked out on Tweed near Linwood.
My Cincinnati metaphor: decades of trauma
with just the crooked smile I needed to cope.
The people, we’re who
give a damn. By some calculations
300,000 equals one
people spread among hills and vales,
villes and gates, parks and woods and sides
and mounts and dales and heights.
We know where East and West meet
but does each have an ending?
Because Race Street only runs one way
(runs rough to our river,)
because the city-county line
is not just a dotted streak on a map
but a pulse that won’t quit
throbbing through the veins
of our streets with people,
a linchpin people made of fifty-two pips:
our city is definitely alive!

Composed by Pauletta Hansel with lines by Ellen Austin-Li, Valerie Chronis Bickett, Michael Burnham, Owen Cramer, Sean Foster, Jonathan Goolsby, Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel, Michael Henson, Annie Hinkle, Pam Hirte, Bucky Ignatius, Linda Busken Jergens, Theresa Kulbaga, Steven Paul Lansky, Jai Washington, Scott Whitehurst, Annette Wick, Sue Wilke and Tyrone Williams.

A reading of the poem:

Lyric Essentials: Pauletta Hansel reads “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher.

I am honored to be included in Sundress Publications’ “Lyric Essentials” reading Tess Gallagher’s wonderful poem, “The Hug” and talking about the intimate power of narrative poetry.

The Sundress Blog

tangle-author-photo-2Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Pauletta Hansel reads “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher.

Pauletta, this is a wonderful poem you’ve read for us today. I’m not sure if Gallagher or her work need an introduction, but do you remember your first experience with her poetry? What do enjoy most about Gallagher’s work?

Pauletta: Chris, I think the first poem of Tess Gallagher’s I read was “I Stop Writing the Poem” “about” (ostensibly) interrupting writing to take care of the laundry, which always gives me an immediate ping of recognition—the tangle of art and life and memory. I am drawn to narrative poems, both in reading and writing. To poems where the story itself is the metaphor for some larger story. Gallagher does this especially well…

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Northside, Night and Day

In August I had the pleasure of leading my first Cincinnati Walking Sonnet group—a new Poet Laureate project in which I invite poets to take a walk in one of our 52 neighborhoods, drafting a 14 line poem along the way. A full description of the project can be found here, as well links to instructions for the sonnet walk and to an ever-growing group of poems written on these walks.

Our first group foray was in the Northside neighborhood where I lived for many years. It was hosted by Chase Public, a small volunteer organization with a prodigious output of activities and talent. Seven poets participated, and from our seven poems I created an additional sonnet pair, Northside: Night and Day. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed composing it!


Northside Nocturne

I must be dreaming we must be dreaming we
drop puddles on gravel and see what grows
through the mural, bright blues, greens. Brilliant
oak tree’s wise nod above it all. Clatter
and strands of ivy shelter noisy birds.
Storefronts stocked with pitchforks and stuffed bears.
Some dreams are accidents, conceived ad hoc
on a leash. The american dream remains
another world—not here. Porch strung with lights,
though the funeral home is long dead,
turret over its rosy door. Word Alive,
this aching love, ever denied me.
No revelation lurks backside Taco Bell;
inspiration needs a good night’s sleep.

Northside Aubade

Sun opened warm on my shoulder, shrugged
through red bricked alleys, pooled with morning rain.
Every day life happens alongside hope;
pink clovers sprouting from cigar tip. Red
sagging rooflines and cheap UDF beer—
a crazy quilt of movement, sight and sound
playing the mystery mixer’s song. Shadows
ride a cosmic horse with insect wings.
A grey galaxy is spinning outside
this block like where grandma’s liquor store stood.
Cicada shells hang empty from a pole—
spontaneous permanence; three circles.
The quiet library. Garbage and smoke—
the phrase the american dream holds so much.
Composed by Pauletta Hansel with lines by Ellen Austin-Li, Cris Cheek, Leslie Clark, Owen Cramer, Pauletta Hansel, Scott Holzman and Nina Knueven. You can read the poems in their entirety here.

The next Cincinnati Walking Sonnet Workshop is October 29, 2016, 10:30 am to 1:00 pm at the Mercantile Library, Downtown. Visit Poet Laureate Events for info on this and other activities.


The Cincinnati Walking Sonnet Project is adapted from Rosa Alcalá’s “A Walking Petrarchan Sonnet” in Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry

Writing The Sacred, Writing Community

Shifrah is a group within Cincinnati describing itself as “ongoing conversation about art, faith, justice, community and mystery.”  I had the pleasure of writing with thirty-some folks at their Walnut Hills gathering space this summer. Here is something of who we were that night, together.  (Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel, August 2016)

The Sacred
“After the teacher asked if anyone had
                                      a sacred place…” Stephen Dunn

My sacred places are stories.
I never quite felt at home,
but always tried to build one,
listening to music on my own
in a still place of solitude
with no cares on my mind.
I turn on the light
and it feels like
the tambourine in “Pure Blue Eyes,”
tastes like baby.
It is not a coincidence that I hold it to my chest.
I sat there to read books,
in my corner chair by the window
which sadly looks out on the parking lot,
then slipping between threads of cotton
woven so tight it feels like silk.
Anyway, isn’t it crazy?
I know real places change,
but somehow these places
feel more real because they don’t.
Authentic and home, there’s a ford
between the permanence and the temporary.

The cabin is long gone,
but sometimes I let my mind rest there.
I carefully tiptoed out
through the summer breezeway
to the cold gravel path,
past the still silhouette of the still weeping willow.
No flowers, but I was in hot pink.
I was the flower, breeze through my hair.
The pace of walking, the rhythm of my shoes,
gravel, dirt, sky, wind, the buzz of crickets, cicadas,
the songs of birds, chattering, speaking to one another,
to me, as I walk, sacredly.
All that is infinite and eternal, precise and fresh
surrounding me and filling me with magic and wonder.
Light flickers within my mouth,
in and out my nose,
streaming particles shed by dreams and breath,
endless notes,
endless stream of sacred sound.
And I am in the center.

is the gateway I’m looking for a ladder,
a ladder I locate inside myself when I let go?
I remember the dance studio, the spring to the floor,
the smell of practice, exertion, stretch, and flying.
Drum beating the count of steps, and weave of pattern.
In a trance of simultaneous concentration
and forgetting myself,
I feel both small and vast,
weak and powerful,
agitated and satisfied,
alive with the laughter of the river
at the bottom of the world,
for the ebb and flow surges through me as well.
From within or without a place becomes me,
and I it, the air between us translucent,
a hint of gold,
darkened at the edges.
No longer pure pretentious thought,
I am one again,
a creature, surprised
by something sacred.

August 14, 2016
(Composed by Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel from lines from our writing.)



A Letter to Young Creative Writing Students

As students head back to school over the coming weeks, I feel drawn to share a slightly revised version of the Foreword my friend Darby Lyons invited me to write this spring for Wyoming High School’s literary journal, Icarus. Praise be to high school and college creative writing teachers who make such writing communities possible.


According to my parents, I wrote my first book of poems when I was five or six. I could write the alphabet, but not yet form words, so it became a community effort—me saying my poems for my mother to spell, but not to write; the words on the page must be from my own hand. I don’t remember this, but the story itself—as well as the story of reading my first word (ALL, on the detergent box)—has been retold so many times it feels as real to me as memory. As real as Meg saving Charles Wallace from the nefarious IT (A Wrinkle in Time); as real as the kitchen sink where Cassandra perched to write her journal entries (I Capture the Castle); as real as the stinging nettles Elise sewed into seven capes to return her seven brothers to their princely forms (The Wild Swans). I was, to quote my friend and mentor, the poet George Ella Lyon, a “wordful child.” But though I inhaled entire sections of multiple libraries during my elementary school years, I did not find my true life with words until junior high.

I began writing poems at age 12 for the reason that so many do—because there was no other way to say what must be said. I often ask other artists—writers, painters, musicians—when they first began to make art, and have found that these early adolescent years usually mark the beginning. Everything is in flux—our interior lives, our relationship to the world around us. Without art we might burst into flame. In my case, no one I knew wrote, and certainly no one wrote poetry. My father was a voracious reader; poetry, he said, was the only literature he did not enjoy. My mother told me that she had written in sixth grade but stopped with a teacher’s criticism. There was no creative writing class in my small school; the only poem I remember being asked to read was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (I thought maybe it was about Santa Claus!)

I was, however, thoroughly immersed in the singer/songwriters of my day; the songs of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Janis Ian were my path into poetry. I wrote, I thought, in secret, but my father with his nose for words discovered my vocation and became my first reader. (It turned out the only poems he liked were mine!) He always pointed to what shined in my poems, and did not comment on their failings. His gentle direction provided encouragement and a year or so later I met my first poet, M. Joe Eaton, part of Kentucky’s poet in the schools program, and I learned that what I was doing was making metaphors, and that not all poems needed to rhyme. My first publication was as a result of a Scholastic Magazine prize, and in high school I published a few poems in regional journals alongside adult authors. But I did not have a true community around my writing until I went to college where I found a group of peers and mentors who encouraged each other.

So whether you are encountering a creative writing class in high school or college, how lucky you are to have this community now of other writers who can inspire you, who can set the bar just a little higher, who can make you feel, if not less crazy, at least crazy in good company. To have teachers who take your writing seriously and connect you with the elders of your tribe—other authors who, like you, believe in the necessity of speaking truth, whether it be through poetry, fiction or essays. The necessity of saying what can be said in no other way but through your own written words.

Remember that first book of poems I wrote at five or six? It was lost forever in one of my family’s many moves. It doesn’t matter. The writing of those poems became “story” and that story of the girl who wrote them became the story of the woman who writes.

Maybe you will stop writing after the class ends. Many do. I stopped soon after college, and did not begin again until my early thirties. Maybe it was due to a lack of community; certainly the first thing I did when I let myself acknowledge the pull to the page was to find a writing community. To find my tribe.

I want to say to you, don’t stop. Search out those people in school and in the wider world who see more clearly with pens in their hands, or keyboards beneath their fingers. We are out there and easier than ever to find through the many online and in-person writing groups, as well as a plethora of open mic readings. But even if the only time in your life you call yourself “writer” is now, you are still lucky, because now is when you need it most. The poems and stories you write are a part of you that outlive your years in school. Writing them are now included in your “story,” the story of becoming who you are.