Chris: 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. The intimacy of the details within her poems gives me a sense of not just clearly viewing the scene, but embodying it.
Chris: What about this particular poem, “The Hug”? What are some specific elements that make this poem stand out to you as an essential piece of writing?
Pauletta: I chose “The Hug” as a poem to learn by heart when I used some of the practices in Kim Rosen’s powerful book Saved by a Poem in one of the poetry classes I teach. The poem was given to me by a potter friend who is also a great reader at a time when I was helping to care for a dear friend with brain cancer. Caring for him meant also caring for his complicated and somewhat ornery family. Pam said, “You have to read this poem!” And so I did, and not just read it but lived with it, took it into my breath, chanted it (“How big a hug is this supposed to be?) and through this process, came to a deeper sense of what it means to be connected and responsible to and for, not just those we choose, but those whom our lives choose for us.
What I never managed to do is to learn the whole poem by heart—it’s a long one!—but there are still bits and pieces of it embedded and available to me when I need them, as I often do, caring now for my mother who has dementia, and doing this within her current living situation in a memory care unit of a nursing home, so that hardly a day goes by that I don’t “lean my blood and my wishes” into a stranger for whom I feel such tenderness or into my mother who, while never a stranger, is often so very different from the mother I knew.
So, how do you (do I, do we) come back from those experiences? We don’t, in a sense, because they remain within us, “the imprint of/a planet in my cheek/ when I walk away. When I try to find some place/ to go back to.”
Gallagher’s poem is so much about a particular hug—hers, not mine—that I can smell the man’s overcoat, hear the voice of the street poet recede as the coat and the man envelop me. And “the houses—/what about them?— the houses.” (Ah! That line gets me every time!)
But the poem is also Joe, and my mom and the guy, Bill who paces the dementia unit and says, “Hi, Babe” every time he sees me. We writers all know that the universal is only visible within the particular. Gallagher does such particularities brilliantly, I think, and then startles us into the universal as the image of a button imprinting a planet on the speaker’s cheek, becomes one world flowing into another. For me, this poem (like the hug it describes) is truly “a masterpiece of connection.”
Chris: Do you find it difficult to read and write narrative poems given the level of intimacy and transportive power that exists in them? I imagine that it takes an emotional toll to “go there” while writing, reading, and creating such emotive conditions in a piece of writing.
Pauletta: The short answer is no. When I write I usually go to an interior place that I identify as being “down below” emotion. I feel a sort of clarity, an intense desire to “get it right,” to write my way through a remembered experience to a place of truth—albeit a subjective truth. Mostly I feel a sort of relief that I am naming the experience as fully and well as I can. I don’t write for catharsis. I write for understanding, and hopefully to create something beautiful and whole out of my life, even the broken parts. Especially the broken parts (that’s where, as Leonard Cohen says, the light gets in.)
Right now, much of my writing is about my mother’s experience with dementia, and my experience with her. I find myself living, and writing, very much in the present. The past feels less available to me and happy memories make me sad! I am sure there is a perversity about that statement which says as much about my personality as it does about my current situation! But the losing of self for my mother, and the losing of mother for me is constant—not static—a verb, not a noun, and this is very much affecting the poems I write. The remembered experience may be from this morning or last week, rather than decades past, which gives it a sort of immediacy on the page. So the challenge becomes how to contain this in a poem in such a way that it is not overwhelming to the reader. To write poems that are intimate but still communal. I find myself turning to form, which is new for me. The sonnet has been particularly useful to me. It helps me lean toward craft in my poems even as I am writing them, which, for me anyway, provides a counterweight to the intimacy of the poem’s present tense. So, the short answer was no, but the long answer is…complicated. (Tangled, again.)
Chris: One last question, Pauletta. What other poems by Gallagher would you recommend to us? And—I lied—one other question: are there other poets you enjoy reading who tangle together all the threads of our tumultuous, beautiful human lives?
Pauletta: Gallagher is one of the poets that I have encountered mostly in anthologies, rather than in her collections, and I see I need to change this. In addition to the poems mentioned above, I love “Black Silk” (and recommend, too, the essay where I first encountered it, in Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry). Also the poems, “Choices” and “Red Poppy.” And here, Chris, is the great gift of this interview to me: I did not know that Gallagher wrote about her mother’s journey with dementia. My research to answer this question sent me to a book on my shelf I have not yet read, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, with a foreword and several poems by Tess Gallagher.
Other narrative poets I love? So numerous! Allison Luterman, Dorianne Laux, Larry Levis, George Ella Lyon, Ada Limon, Cathy Smith Bowers (proving I read poets whose names don’t begin with “L!”), Sharon Olds, Nick Flynn, Maurice Manning, Linda Parsons, Frank X Walker, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Lisel Mueller …I’ll stop here, as there is no way to name them all! But you might note that a fair number of those have southern and Appalachian roots. Appalachian literature is as diverse as the region itself, but still, there is something about a good story that is a connecting force.
Pauletta Hansel was recently named Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate. Her poems and prose have been featured in journals including Atlanta Review, Talisman, Kudzu, Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Heritage and Still: The Journal, Stirring and on The Writer’s Almanac and American Life in Poetry. She is author of five poetry collections, most recently Tangle (Dos Madres Press, 2015), What I Did There (Dos Madres Press, 2011) and The Lives We Live in Houses (Wind Publications, 2011). Pauletta is managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Pauletta leads writing workshops and retreats in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond.
Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry can be found in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. Chris himself can be found somewhere in northeast Tennessee drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.