Sunday, July 30, 2000

The Arts Life: Desk doesn't bind this poet

Pauletta Hansel pens her own expressions, as she helps others find a creative voice

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is the seventh in a monthly series focusing on small arts groups and the people devoted to them. Pauletta Hansel, who is a poet, an arts administrator and an unflagging arts advocate, doesn't like to talk about herself.

(Luis Sanchez photos)
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        She will confess that she's always liked the idea of trying to “change the world through art.”

        Here are some things Pauletta Hansel never would tell you about herself. (Her many friends aren't so reticent):

        • Ms. Magazine interviewed her for an article on Appalachian women poets — when she was 15.

        • She enrolled at Antioch College's Appalachian campus in Beckley, W. Va., while still in high school. She graduated three years later (the school's last graduate).

        • She became acquainted with Cincinnati when she came here with the Soupbean Poets, a politically active writers group she'd founded and named at Antioch — again, as a teen-ager.

        Appalachian poet Richard Hague has known Ms. Hansel for more than 20 years. Their friendship dates back to the days when, still a youngster, she helped establish the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative.

        “I remember her 21st birthday,” laughs Mr. Hague. That was 20 years ago this August. “A bunch of us were on the front porch of the Appalachian Writers Workshop. We'd given her a T-shirt that said "Minor Poet' and crossed out the "minor' and wrote in "major'.”

        Ms. Hansel, in addition to being an accomplished poet, is the assistant director of community development at Urban Appalachian Council. Part of her job is overseeing the community arts schedule of programs and performances.

By Pauletta Hansel

That spring
she let herself go,
and slipped out through
the crack in the window.

She was unleashed
Even her hair sprung
free of curl.
Her clothes
Would not stay put.

She spoke too loudly.
Sentences ran on
ahead of her.
She followed
when she chose.

When people said
they didn't know her
she did not
hear them.
from Divining

        “I ended up doing work that interested me the most,” she notes. “Community organizing and community arts.”

        She has served on the regional cultural planning task force and Cincinnati's arts allocations committee. She is a tireless volunteer for Women Writing for (a) Change, where she helped start a foundation for new programs and raise funds for scholarships.

        Pauletta Hansel may not be changing the world, but she's having a significant impact on a corner of it.

        Mr. Hague has just written the forward for Ms. Hansel's new poetry collection, Divining, which Ms. Hansel is sending off to small presses.

        Ms. Hansel will read from Divinings on Sept. 1 at Crazy Ladies Bookstore in Northside (time TBA). It will be a “collaborative concert” with longtime friend and artistic cohort Mary Kroner. There will be Ms. Kroner's songs, Ms. Hansel's poems and maybe a Hansel poem set to Kroner music.

        Many poems in Divining, says Mr. Hague, have “a longing for a sense of place, but there's always movement. They're migratory — that's very much a part of Pauletta's history, and very much a part of Appalachian history.”

        As a child her family was always on the move between small college towns in Eastern Kentucky where her father Charles would teach philosophy.

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        One big reason Ms. Hansel put down roots in Cincinnati is “I think I was tired of moving.”

        The work in Divining dates from 1995. Ms. Hansel actually gave up writing for 10 long years, from 1984 to 1994.

        “I stopped for the reasons a lot of women stop — lack of belief in myself, belief in my voice, fear of exposure.”

        There was the problem of “trying to fit into a box as an "Appalachian' writer.' ”

        “It took her a while to come to terms with that,” says Mr. Hague.

        “She faces issues of self, family, culture, her sense of being. She always looks into herself and asks, "Who is this person?'”

        There was the fact, Ms. Hansel says, that “I felt like I had to choose, between political/social action work or writing. I don't know if that was a conscious choice, but that's what happened.”

        She went to work for Legal Aid ,“working directly with the people who were the most disenfranchised” and soon started serving on the board of Urban Appalachian Council.

        Significantly, she also lost her creative “home.”

        Shortly after Ms. Hansel arrived in Cincinnati to work on (and later earn) a master's degree in Montessori education at Xavier University, she discovered Arnold's, the downtown cafe.

        She found friends in its habitues and employees, including Michael Burnham (now a professor of theater at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music) and several frisky, politically inclined twentysomethings (including Ms. Kroner, Barbara Wolf and David Tape).

        By 1980, they were part of a group that formed political theater Street Talk.

        “We used to refer to her as "the infant poet,' ” Mr. Burnham says fondly.

        Ms. Hansel happily recalls the occasion their “guerrilla” performance at Summerfair got them kicked out of the annual arts festival.

        While the friendships have lasted, Street Talk itself dissolved after only about four years and when it did, Ms. Hansel stopped writing.

        “Pauletta's a family person,” Mr. Burnham says. “She's determined to keep family together. In Street Talk, she was always healing places where we split.”

        She only started writing again a decade later when, as Mr. Hague says, “a couple of turnings in her life around 1994 led to the recovery of her voice.”

        Most of the years she wasn't writing, “I felt as if there were a hole in my life, if not in my soul,” says Ms. Hansel, who lives in Northside.

        Almost by accident Ms. Hansel happened onto Women Writing for (a) Change, directed by Mary Pierce Brosmer, in 1994 and found a new creative home.

        Ms. Hansel signed up for a Women Writing class “and accepted my fate as a poet,” she laughs.

        A year or so later when Street Talk alum Terry Flanigan was dying of AIDS, Ms. Hansel was one of many friends who took on a regular visiting/caregiving schedule. She began to write about the experience, and it ultimately became the one-woman performance piece Sitting with Terry, which she debuted in 1998, directed by Mr. Burnham.

        Mr. Flanigan's long illness and death also inspired several works in Divining.

        What defines Ms. Hansel, says longtime friend David Tape, is “clear drive and clear vision. I've known few people in my life who so clearly set a standard of excellence and then go after it so single-mindedly.”

        These days that pursuit is for time to create.

        Earlier this year, Ms. Hansel cut back on her hours at Urban Appalachian Council in an effort to find more time to write, but even as she did, her involvement with Women Writing became more consuming.

        She's taken on some administrative tasks. This year she coordinated the expanded Young Women Writing for (a) Change summer program for girls and teen-agers. Two radio shows of their work will air on WVXU-FM (91.7) in August. (The girls' work airs 9 a.m. Aug. 3 and 10; the teens' at 9 a.m. on Aug. 6 and 13).

        Starting at the end of August, she'll “apprentice” teach an evening writing class.

        Women Writing will collaborate with MUSE Women's Choir on its November concert. “I don't know if they'll let me sing,” laughs Ms. Hansel.

        She laughs again as she recounts how a palm reader spotted a double life line on her hand, one line dominated by organizing abilities, the other by creativity.

        “It's a burden, in many ways, to have administrative skills,” Ms. Hansel says lightly.

        She fills her time too well — “I'm interested in a lot of things” — and what to cut back, she says “remains my biggest quandary.”


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