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.

But—but—
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.

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

 

 

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For As Long As We Can: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

On July 16, 2016, I was honored to lead my first Cincinnati Poet Laureate Creative Writing Experience with fellow family caregivers of persons with dementia. Writing our Lives as Caregivers was offered in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati and co-led by Annette Januzzi Wick. This poem is a weaving together of snippets of our writing from the day . Innumerable residents of Cincinnati are caring for loved ones with dementia —mothers, fathers, husbands, wives. Their experiences of tenderness and loss are all too often untold.

For As Long As We Can: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

There is much more hurting than healing
in our lives right now.
An incredible sadness.
Robbed of all this time,
many years, with my mother.
I let go of the colorful gal I once knew;
now her words cut through me like a machete,
leave a hemorrhage like no other.
All this before I even sit down.

I want so desperately to believe
God has a miracle for my dad,
for my beautiful Gina, in beautiful Bermuda—
how I would love to take her again,
away from the tiny world she knows
—and the bitterness of that impossibility.

I hold to every word, to every syllable,
to every streak of black
remaining in Mom’s soft white hair.
I know I am still her baby girl.
I cling to my old memories.
I don’t want it to change, but it does.

But then, a conversation—mother and daughter.
Mom hunched her shoulders
and walked in a silly way, making me laugh.
She doesn’t need that jacket on,
but she’ll wear it anyway,
singing “76 Trombones” and I join in.
It takes her a moment to connect
my place in her room
with my place in her life.
I know she is in there.
She looked in my eyes; I let her love me.
Mom was back,
but not for long.

The touch of your hand—unnerving,
unbounded by time.
At Mirror Lake in Eden Park
the air had cleared,
the colors of sunset filled the western sky.
Tiny blue gills swirled alone in lazy Van Gogh circles.
Heads together, giggling like conspirators
and wishing for more.
I am still comforted by your touch.

Moments—come and gone—
that would not have been
had we not been present.
Engulfing moments unborn, unknown by us.
A salve to put on the wounds part—
the baggage of the day
and my beat-up body,
the parts that broke,
under the pressure of loneliness.
I breathe deep until the next time;
I sink into the car
and think about doing it again tomorrow.

The contrast—the leaving,
the spent memories so different,
so contrary, so final.
Or maybe not final,
maybe this too will change.
I hold her strength, yet I cannot find her.
The joy we had, the hope
and promise of things to come.
I want to believe.
I cling to these prayerful words:
Relax, you are safe.
I will be here for you—not forever,
but for as long as I can.

From participants in Writing Our Lives as Caregivers with Pauletta Hansel, Cincinnati Poet Laureate, and Annette Januzzi Wick at the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati

Please visit my website for more information about my work as Poet Laureate. A Cincinnati Poet Laureate Facebook Group where members can announce activities of interest and learn about others is available here.

22 Ways To Be a Good Literary Citizen Without Spending A Dime

I love these suggestions. One of the things that I often say when other poets ask me to discuss publishing, is how we are all part of a literary ecosystem–a community of writers, readers, publishers–and each part is essential for the other to thrive. This blog from Sundress is all about such interconnection.

The Sundress Blog

Want to be a good literary citizen? On a tight budget? At Sundress we came together to bring you 22 ways that you can be a good literary citizen–for free.

1. Attend free shows.

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Support your local poets by showing up to hear them read! Faces in the crowd are such an encouragement to a poet, especially if you approach them afterwards to let them know what you enjoyed about their reading. It is an easy way to become part of a community. Find events near you here: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/events or look up your local writing groups and libraries.

2. Trade books you have read for books you haven’t read: what better way to discover new literature than from other readers?

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Whether you get together with a few friends and trade paperbacks over a glass of wine, or hold an advertised community book exchange, this is a great way to refresh…

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Happy Poetry Month to Me!

First Poet Laureate Winner

Prolific writer and longtime resident will serve two-year term
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 1, 2016

CINCINNATI – A Paddock Hills resident whose writing has been published nationally has been selected as Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate.

Pauletta Hansel was chosen from several applicants to fill the position. Ms. Hansel is a poet, memoirist, teacher and arts administrator who has lived in Cincinnati since 1979.

She is author of five poetry collections, most recently Tangle (Dos Madres Press, 2015). Pauletta’s writing has been featured in The Writer’s Almanac and American Life in Poetry, as well as in literary journals including Atlanta Review, Talisman,Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Heritage and Still: The Journal.

The Poet Laureate was selected by Mayor John Cranley, based upon the recommendations from a seven-person Advisory Committee that reviewed the applications. The appointee will serve a two-year term.

“Ms. Hansel’s writing is exquisite,” Mayor Cranley said. “Her poems evoke the type of emotional reaction and convey rich details that leave a lasting impression for the reader.”

To become the Poet Laureate, the person must have written poetry that exemplifies the characteristics or spirit of Cincinnati. Additionally, the Poet Laureate is expected to promote poetry appreciation, encourage the reading and writing of poetry throughout the city, as well as compose and read poems for special events.

Previously, Cincinnati had an official poet of the city. In January 2015, Vice Mayor Mann proposed reviving the position with a motion, signed by four City Council members, and renaming it as Cincinnati Poet Laureate.

Ms. Hansel has served as Writer in Residence at Thomas More College and is currently Writer in Residence at WordPlay Cincinnati. She leads writing workshops and retreats throughout Greater Cincinnati and elsewhere.

Ms. Hansel holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Human Services from Antioch University; a Master’s in Education from Xavier University; and a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. Also, she is managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative; is a core member of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition and serves as a Board Member for Dos Madres Press.

Ms. Hansel lives with her husband, Owen Cramer, in Paddock Hills. A selection of her poems is attached to this release.

A formal Announcement Ceremony will be held 5:30-7 p.m. on Friday, April 15, at the Mercantile Library, 414 Walnut St., 11thfloor. The event is free and open to the public.

 

For more information, contact Elese Daniel in Vice Mayor Mann’s office at elese.daniel@cincinnati-oh.gov or (513) 352-4611

The Self Not Mine but Ours*: An Exploration of Persona Poetry

        *From A.R. Ammons’ “Poetics”

I have long been drawn to the persona poem. As a young woman writer, I used a character as a loose mask (in Latin, personae) through which to speak truths I was otherwise reluctant to say—or know. (I even named her “the lady.”) More recently, I have taken on the voices of ancestors in order to explore their—and my—stories in a more intimate way. (For this is the paradox of persona poetry, there is both the distance of a dramatic character, and the intimacy of the lyric I.) Persona poetry has also stretched my voice into new places, and has occasionally jolted me out of my habitual gravitas.

Some writers/teachers declare that the “I” of a poem is always a persona. I acknowledge the truth of that, and would argue that any dramatic character within a poem is, to some degree, also the poet. But in this exploration, Persona Poetry means poems in which the poet has chosen to take on the voice of another—sometimes even the “other” in the sense of taking on a POV that is alien and perhaps abhorrent to the writer. In this, persona poetry, even when drawn from personal or societal history, has as much relation to fiction as nonfiction, as the writer is required to embody a person other than his or herself. For this exploration, I have drawn together some examples of my own work and that of other Appalachian writers falling loosely into one or more of these categories:

Family/Memoir: Sometimes these poems include snippets of conversations that may have actually occurred. Sometimes they are in the voice of a family member whose story has never been given prominence. Often it is some exploration of relationship between the “I” of the poem and that of the self. My poem, “My Grandmother Speaks from Beyond” (Tangle, Dos Madres Press, 2015) is an example of this.

My Grandmother Speaks from Beyond

for Pauline Carmen Hansel, died 1932

Girl, don’t speak for me, you only know
what you can see and it’s not much, that picture
took when scant was left, just bony arms
around the baby, eyes too big for my head;
I never would have worn that shade of red
they painted on my dress after the fact
of me was buried in the ground.
Your daddy’s little suit was white, not blue;
we didn’t know what he would be the day
I bought the cloth. I know that picture’s all
you’ve got, and half my name, Pauline, given
to you as if it might be something of me
they could hold. I’m gone and all my stories
with me—you’ll not know what knit me to
the man whose name your daddy carried like
a curse or promise never to be him.
You had enough without me, and your daddy
made it up somehow for all he lacked
for lack of me. Just let me go; those poems
you write (the books you read, do they not teach
you how to rhyme?)—they are all yours,
nothing of mine.

History/Social Commentary: Frank X Walker has written several books of poems in the voice of another or many “others.” As individual poems and as a whole, they offer a view of history that both widens and contradicts more traditional tellings. (“Unghosts” those whose voices have not been heard, to borrow a word from Walker’s latest title.)  Poems by Frank X Walker and links to his book can be found here and here. Poet Michael Henson views our current predicaments through the lens of The Bible in his book, The True Story of the Resurrection. See his poem, “Lot’s Wife”. My poem, “Housekeeping, August 1899,” also from Tangle, is another example:

Housekeeping, August 1899

Cincinnati newspapers tell of a woodworker who drank carbolic acid and, not trusting its effects, shot himself too. In his pocket was this letter: “Living with my wife was unbearable. She was too pretty to work and would not attend to the duties of the household.”

It’s not as if I spent my days
at the mirror; only the once
he found me, rag in hand,
outside the darkened window
caught up, not in of the curve
of my own cheek (he was the one
forever staring at the round parts of me)
but in how the light of an evening
seems to shine out from under
all that green, like it’s caught
there in the bushes. I know
that’s just fancy talk,
he told me so, it don’t
put meat on the table,
five o’clock sharp, no matter
if the four o’clocks
have just begun to bloom
or the hummingbirds decide
to sit a spell
in the sheer blue air around them.
I have the wandering eye
for wonder. Mama said
I was just born that way— a butterfly
would stop my snuffling
quicker than a teat.
Too bad neither worked
on him, all that carrying on
about the chores he knew
I’d surely get to
one day or the next.
I can’t say I’m sorry
that he’s gone—some men
are too particular
to keep.

Eavesdropping: The late Jo Carson was the master of eavesdropping—all the more amazing because she was about half deaf! Her book, Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet: Selections from the People Pieces is, thankfully, still available. Each poem is a dramatic monologue crafted from individual and composite voices. Read one of her more famous “people pieces” here.

Writing A Persona Poem of Your Own

Keep in mind that persona poems are usually dramatic monologues and thus the consistency of voice is key to the poem’s success. In some, the voice is fairly close to the poet’s, though the message may not be. (In Walker’s poem, “One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead,” for example.) Other speakers have very distinctive and separate voices. The speaker is addressing someone—you, another person from their time and place, a general audience, themselves in soliloquy. You might also think of this as a letter from your chosen persona. I began each of my persona poems with a situation, and let my “character” respond to that situation. “Housekeeping” began with coming across a newspaper article, as I mention in the epigraph. “My Grandmother Speaks…” was written in response to a family photograph. Some possible sources of persona poems for you:

Response Poems: In using The Bible as his primary text, Mike Henson’s poem seems to fit within the Jewish tradition of midrash. With the root meaning of “to study” or “to investigate,” midrash stories help to both fill in gaps and draw forward the essential lessons within sacred texts.  For response poems, the texts do not need to be sacred: take any “peopled” poem or piece of fiction and write in the voice of a lesser character.

Their Words: Speak in the voice of a family member, living or dead. Your poem may begin with words you’ve heard family members say (eavesdropping), or may be the re-imagining of a family story in the voice of someone other than yourself. You may be lucky enough to have letters or other family documents to draw from.

Ekphrastic as Persona: Mixing our root languages here (ekphrasis means description in Greek),  this is simply a suggestion to use a photograph, portrait or other visual piece of art as an invitation to write in the voice of the person depicted (or perhaps in the voice of the photographer, or other character outside the frame.)

The Public I/Eye: Speak in the voice of an actual or imaginary person caught up in a pivotal political and/or cultural moment. Whether working with current events or history, this one may take a little research. Here is a link to a really interesting interview with Frank X Walker on the creation of Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.