The Circle of (Literary) Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a larger market for books about writing poetry than there is for poetry. (And for that matter, for blogs about writing poetry: more people read, or at least clicked, my first post, Too Personal: On Writing About My Mother’s Dementia, about writing Palindrome than have bought the book—though I am forever hopeful!) Everybody wants to write poetry; reading it, or buying it, not so much. There were more poets in attendance that night than at many poetry readings I’ve been to. My main message: it is up to us, the poets, to cultivate the community of both writers and readers, of speakers and listeners, of publishers and poets. We have to both grow the poems and be the market for them. Here are the highlights of what I shared:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publishing Tips 

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

On the Value of Literary Communities

Because I am a teacher of poetry, an editor of a regional literary journal, and a poet who sometimes gets published, I am often asked about publishing. My basic advice: Write what matters to you. Learn and use the craft to write it well. Be a generous participant in a generous literary community.

Why community? First, and most selfishly, that community is a listening ear for a poet’s work. Workshops, readings, critique groups all provide information about the ways in which poems do and don’t work, and can help a poet to judge the viability of her poems outside of the nest of the notebook. Clearly, discernment is necessary; as Naomi Shihab Nye has written, “Some ears are tunnels./Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.” But if nothing else, reading your own writing aloud to others and hearing theirs is important training for your poet’s ear; you begin to hear what sings and what clangs.

I have never been the lonely poet in the garret. For me, the solitary act of writing happens within a community of other writers, each of us, to paraphrase Rilke’s definition of human love, protecting “the solitude of the other.”

Nearly a dozen writers read my latest book of poems, Palindrome, from start to finish before it went to press. I sent it to one friend very early in the manuscript process asking a dangerous question. Palindrome is a single subject book; some might call it a poetic memoir, written in response to my mother’s dementia. I asked my friend, “Does the subject matter overwhelm the craft?”

I am not entirely sure why this question seems to matter more in poetry than in prose, but I think it does. Memoir, especially, is still a more populist literary form. A good story will hold our interest to a degree from which even a poorly-made container does not completely distract. And we seem to want stories that connect with our lives, that make us feel less alone in our bodies. There is a much smaller audience for poetry, and that audience has strong, if often conflicting, views of what makes a good poem. Perhaps, too, it matters more if the poet is a woman, and if the subject matter is one that is traditionally a “women’s issue”: my poems about caring for my fragile mother left me feeling vulnerable for both of us.

Portrait of My Mother as a Discarded Birds’ Nest

in my hand unraveling.
Pieces crumble
to my page. I can see
the seam, the two sides knit together,
but I can’t make it hold.
A softness at the center remains.

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

A most crucial reader was, of course, the book’s ultimate publisher, Robert Murphy, himself a fine poet. Other writers were kind enough to read the manuscript in order to compose endorsements. Two poet/teachers gave their time to do copyediting for grammar and punctuation. Others responded to a last minute call to help me choose which poems to remove from the almost final manuscript when I decided it was too long. Beyond these readers, there have been dozens of poets in my workshops who have read early or late drafts of poems on their way into the manuscript. And beyond readers, there have been listeners of individual poems or, as the work progressed, substantial sections of the manuscript at public readings. In each of these cases, I listened carefully to the feedback I received, always weighing it against my own goals for this particular work and my own passion for both the subject and the craft.

I have come to think about myself and my poems as part of a literary ecosystem. We, too, are necessary for its health and ultimate survival. Editors and publishers are part of this ecosystem. So are teachers and students and readers. So are bookstores, libraries, poetry readings and audiences and the young woman who reads the poem she wrote on the napkin while waiting for her turn at the open mic. So is the guy in the critique group who only likes poems that sound like his. But unlike traditional biological ecosystems, we are always trading places. Sometimes I’m that guy, and I need to have my ears opened to the light. Sometimes the napkin girl’s poem can show us the courage that ours are missing. Sometimes my editor is publishing my poems. Sometimes I am writing grants to help keep his press going. Sometimes your friend is singing your praises on Facebook. Sometimes you are introducing him at the reading series you started. Not tit for tat, but nurture for our community of words to thrive. It can be messy, but it does not need to be lonely.

I hope you will join me for my last public program as Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate on Thursday, March 29, 2018, 7 pm, at A Panel on Publishing Poetry at Chase Public, 2868 Colerain Avenue in Camp Washington. I’ll discuss my theory of the literary community as an ecosystem, as further discussed in my post called Publishing Tips, as well as my own experience as editor, editee and sad rejectee.

Until then, I leave you with a blessing for whatever community you might create or find:

A Blessing for the Feast of All Poets

For words, for vowels, for syllables
that purr off my tongue,
I give thanks.

For black ink on a page,
for margins and lines which,
like rules, beg ignoring and for all
punctuation, especially the dash—
forgiving and constant—
I give thanks.

For poets who like miners
go down underground
with only the light
of their own unknowing
to guide them,
I give thanks.

For the ones who do not come up again,
who lay broken beneath
fallen pillar and beams
of the lives that chose them—
though I turn my face
from those cratered lives,
hold their words like a candle
too close to my skin,
then too far from my eyes—
I must still give thanks.

Oh, but those who go down
and come up every day;
who plumb mystery, pull weeds
from the garden, the poem,
the dark path underground;
who sit with me at tables,
hold my words in their hands—
you who are constant as dashes,
as forthright as ink,
I would bless you with light
for your journey,
as you have blessed me.

(Pauletta Hansel, from What I Did There, Dos Madres Press, 2010)

Girl Villanelle, poem by Pauletta Hansel (ME, AT 17 Poetry and Prose Series)

Thank you to Silver Birch Press for including this poem in their cool “Me at 17” Project~

Silver Birch Press

pauletta-with-windy-hair-at-17aGirl Villanelle
by Pauletta Hansel

She’s still there, that girl,
the one I was and hoped to leave behind.
I am forever loosening the ties.

The only life she could imagine for herself
was one she’d heard already in a song.
She’s still there. That girl

took more than her share and left scattered
on the table all that could have fed her.
Hell-bent, she was, on loosening the ties.

I am not ready yet to claim her as my own.
She thought her body was the price of being seen.
She’s still there, that girl,

bound and shivering inside her own smooth skin.
I’ll say for her what she could not; that’s how
I’m loosening the ties

and slipping through the doorway
from the past—I won’t return alive.
Though she’s still there, that girl.
Me, I’m loosening the ties.

SOURCE: “Girl Villanelle” appears  in the author’s collection Tangle (Dos…

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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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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.

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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.

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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