Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Pauletta Hansel

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating seven local women writers who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Pauletta Hansel

Meet Pauletta Hansel, poet

Great Parks: So can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Pauletta Hansel: Sure. Well, I am primarily a poet, and I was born and raised in Southeastern Kentucky, in Appalachia. I’ve lived in Cincinnati since 1979. I’ve been many things in my career in Cincinnati, including Montessori teacher, and a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society. I’ve worked for the Urban Appalachian Council as an administrator and continue to volunteer with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. I’ve done arts administration, too, but for the last decade or so, probably closer to a decade and half, I have mostly made my living as a teacher of creative writing.

I’ve been the Poet Laureate of Cincinnati, doing programs there. I have worked with the Cincinnati Public Library as their writer in residence, and also at Thomas More University and WordPlay, which is a youth literary organization. And much of what I do in addition to those kinds of programs through organizations is just offer creative writing classes to people who are interested in taking them as an individual entrepreneur, if you will, an artistic entrepreneur.

My poetry is about a fairly wide range of subjects. I don’t know. Some might say something different, I suppose. A lot of what I write is focused on place, particularly Appalachia, where I grew up, but also the place that I am now, my relationship with my home here, the garden that I planted here in my little neighborhood of Paddock Hills, and the relationship of place of both where I’m from and where I am with who I am.

Currently, I am working on a project tracing my maternal line from their first entry onto the soil of what was not yet the United States. My 10th great-grandmother was a Jamestown bride, brought over to marry one of the settlers. Then the family moved into North Carolina, then into Southwest Virginia, Southeastern Kentucky, and finally Ohio, with me. It’s looking at the history of this country, for better and for worse, within the lens of a particular family. That’s a big, big project which requires a lot of research.

GP: Tell us about when you first wanted to become a writer and when did that happen?

PH: Well, according to my parents, who are unfortunately no longer with me, I wrote my first book when I was maybe five or six. I was old enough to be able to form letters, but I couldn’t spell, so my mother had to sit there and spell every single word that I wanted to write. I don’t remember that, and that book has long ago been lost. I remember when I first began to develop an identity as a writer—I began with poetry and have stayed primarily with poetry—that was when I was in junior high.

I feel like that’s the time when many people who have a creative calling begin to experience that calling, because it’s the time when everything is changing, in our bodies and in our lives around us. There are so many feelings and things that need to be expressed. There is often no other way to express them, except within that art form that has chosen us.

For some people, it’s music or visual art. For me, it really has been writing throughout, so I began writing and I’ve been mostly writing ever since.

GP: So in your teaching experience, have you seen that for the middle school age? Is that when you’ve seen people get that creative spark?

PH: I have seen it, but as anybody who has been a middle school person knows, that’s also a time when you’re not necessarily willing to share your inner heart with adults, and particularly with adults who you don’t know well. Or maybe more with adults that you do know well, come to think of it.

I have seen it, but it tends to be sort of to the side. A child might come up to me in a class afterwards and show me a poem. If I encountered them later in life, they, might say that [middle school] was the time in their life that they really were able to start expressing themselves creatively, because of a creative writing class or an art class or, you know, whatever gave them permission to express themselves. A lot of my writing is focused on my early teen years as a way of trying to understand myself and the world around me.

GP: What drew you to poetry initially, and why have you stuck with poetry?

PH: I don’t think we always choose. I think it chooses us. I grew up in a time when popular music really focused on singer-songwriters. It was the singer-songwriters of my day that brought me into poetry. It’s the music and words together, and although I’m not a songwriter, and music has not been my primary gift, there is music in poetry that can be expressed through the words alone.

GP: It feels good to you.

PH: Yeah. There’s not really a specific reason. It’s more that it is my gift. I do write memoir and essay and prose of various kinds. There are some things that I think can be expressed more fully in prose, but mostly, especially when it is an emotional issue, poetry is what it comes down to.

GP: So your poetry touches on a lot of stuff: like you said, motherhood, womanhood, the transition from childhood to adulthood, the communities of Appalachia. But even when it is not an essential theme, it seems to us that elements of natural beauty are almost always woven into your poems. Why is the natural world so prevalent in your work?

PH: I’ll stop and think about that before answering…

I think poetry is about paying attention, to a large degree. In order for poetry to express itself in the most elemental way, which is through image as well as through the music and verbal content, the world around us has to find its way in.

I was a very internal child. I read a lot, I was inside a lot, and I wasn’t all that active—that didn’t come till later—but as I began to write, especially about childhood and youth experiences, I became aware that on an unconscious level I’d taken more in than I really understood. What I took in of the natural world not only shaped my understanding of the Appalachian region, but it also shaped my understanding of myself.

To a certain extent, Heartbreak Tree, which is currently my most recent book, is an intertwining of the female body and the wholeness of female self with the landscape itself. That was not necessarily intentional, but it seemed to be the right way to express what I was trying to express, in terms of growing up in particular place.

Now, I do spend quite a bit of time outdoors, including of course, at Great Parks, walking in my urban neighborhood, and then working in the garden when I’m able to. Those tend to be meditative times for me, both walking and gardening, when that sort of unconscious noticing and paying attention happens.

GP: And so, in your opinion, what impact does poetry have on the world of conservation?

PH: Poets can be a canary in the coal mine, so to speak. Although you’re not talking coal mines, here, you’re talking the natural world. We pay attention to what is right and beautiful and whole, and then also to what seems to be lost along the way. My gift has not been necessarily to be that kind of poet, of witness to environmental issues, particularly. Though actually, in my next book, there’s a number of poems that are that are about the recent flooding in Eastern Kentucky and other things particularly related to that.

If poets are paying attention, they’re paying attention to what is right, and whole, and beautiful—and also to what is easily broken. Poets who truly place their heart in the natural world allow us to see the world in new ways, see the natural world much more clearly, and see our place not just in it, but as part of it. Nature isn’t something that we enter, but something that we are. I think poets help give us that.

GP: You have roots in many places: Kentucky, West Virginia, and Cincinnati. How has the Cincinnati literary community impacted your career as a poet and as a writer?

PH: In many ways, I have grown up as a poet here in Cincinnati. When I moved here in ‘79, I was not yet 20 years old. Although I’d been writing and publishing for a few years, at that point, I became who I am as a poet through my interactions with other poets here, many of whom also have roots in the Appalachian region. I’ve learned through my work in the writing communities of Cincinnati and the writing communities in Appalachia about the importance of nurturing community and the awareness that writing is, in many ways, a solitary act. It’s also an act that is shared by community, and ideally supported by community, which I have found here.

GP: What does your poetry writing process look like?

PH: It depends so much on the individual poem and individual creative process, but I would say that at this point, because so much of my creative energy goes to teaching poetry, that oftentimes my poetry does start in community. I move to the individual work through the prompts and ideas that I might offer a class and through the inspiration that the class may offer me.

Sometimes I will start with an image, or something that is kind of sticking in my mind for some particular reason. I will begin to write in a way to understand why that image is affecting me. Sometimes it might start with the line of poetry that comes into my head for some reason, and I’ll write around that.

The poem that I wrote yesterday and today began with two things: one was a list of words, which had been part of a prompt that I’d offered to a class, and then the desire to write about a particular ancestor. So I did quite a bit of research about… well I didn’t do research about her because women’s history is not captured, but I could do research about what her life might have been like during that time. I took those words and that research and used questions as the basis of my poem to begin playing around with what an answer might be.

GP: So it evolves and changes for each poem.

PH: It does. That’s the short way of saying it.

GP: Are there any projects that you are currently working on that you’re excited about? You mentioned you have a book coming out soon?

PH: I do. The book is called Will There Also be Singing? and it’s from a Bertolt Brecht poem which says in part, “in the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing in dark times.”

It is poems of witness, poems of protest. The book does include more directly environmental justice poems. That book will be out at the end of April.

The new project that I’m working on, tracing the history of this country and of my family, and my book coming out in April, are my big things.

GP: Thank you.

Visit Pauletta’s Website and find out where to purchase her books!

Pauletta Hansel is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 22 & 23 at Fernbank Park.

Jack Fogle
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest