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)

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, 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 in this series currently available include: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s DementiaHer Words, The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as CaregiversOn 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.

 

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.

 

 

About Poetry and the Senses

A poem should not mean but be.” (Archibald MacLeish, Ars PoeticaOne way of understanding this quote is that a poem should allow the reader as close to a direct experience as words are able to provide. Similar, perhaps to a painting, or a piece of music. One of the best ways to do this is to engage the senses through images. Here are some of my favorite quotes about the sensorial nature of poetry:

  •  Our senses note only particular. We never see color, we see particular colors; we never just touch, we touch something….This human preference for the particular is shown in many primitive languages, which may have no word for tree but may have many words such as ‘oak’, ‘pine’, ‘maple’ and ‘elm’.” The Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
  •  “Poetry for me is always a process of inquiry. If I knew what I thought, if I knew what I felt about what compels me in the world, I doubt I would write a poem. That part of our minds which makes metaphor proceeds ahead of us, and the metaphors seem to know more than we do about our emotional lives, about our ideas…. my work as a poet is to…put pressure upon those images that strike me, in order to ask them to yield their meaning. –Mark Doty in Poetry Review . [Vol 87 No 2 Summer 1997].
  •  “I always begin with an abiding image. I sit with that image and I turn it and turn it and look at it from every angle, and I write into the mystery of that image. ..They (the images) are asking something of me. They’re asking me to look beyond the surface to the bigger levels of meaning and metaphor.” –Cathy Smith Bowers
  •  Image’s concentration, like sound’s, is a field where the energies of mind and body meet… Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both. — Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

My next post, Writing Image-Based Poems, will provide some ideas for using images to make poems.