Gratitude and Remembrance: My Year as Writer-in-Residence

Written by Pauletta Hansel, Writer-in-Residence, Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library

Our 2022 Writer-in-Residence, Pauletta Hansel, is a poet, memoirist, teacher, and editor. Attend her upcoming workshops and writers' office hours, opens a new window. And, listen to her as host of CHPL's "Inside the Writer's Head" podcast, opens a new window.

Friends, it is hard to believe that our time together is coming to a close! November seems the right month to reflect upon my year as Writer-in-Residence, beginning as it does with a day of remembrance—the Day of the Dead—and ending with giving thanks. And my year has surely been about both. Plus, it gives me the chance to invite you to my final programs, with links below.

Let's Start with Gratitude

First and foremost, I am grateful to our very first Writer in Residence, Kathy Y. Wilson, and so sad to hear of her death. Kathy Y. was a Cincinnati treasure and she surely loved the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library! The dedication and passion she brought to her work here is an inspiration to all of us who have followed.

I am grateful to the 40+ local and regional writers who have participated in the residency with me. They have been guests on the podcast, opens a new window, featured on the blog, opens a new window and/or have shared their work both online and at Library events. That’s a whole lot of talent in one year! And the number doesn’t even include the dozens of writers of all ages who have attended workshops and showed up at Office Hours. One of my goals as Writer-in-Residence has been to strengthen the connections between the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library and its local literary community. Your involvement has been all I imagined when I took on the post—and so much more! Thank you.

I have cherished the opportunity to work with the generous and expert Library staff. I had no idea of the variety of skills and passions it takes to “make library happen.” I wish I could have visited all the branches, but I am especially grateful I got to peek behind the scenes at the Materials Selection and Distribution Center! Now when I go pick up my books at the St. Bernard Branch Library, I can visualize the human and mechanical hands that moved them so quickly into my own. Plus, they graciously and cheerfully added a whole slew of books by local poets into the catalogue!

Remembrance

When The Library Foundation said they wanted a Writer-in-Residence they meant it! Not only have I built my skills as a blogger and interviewer, I have been able to give time to a creative project of my own. And this brings me to the theme of remembrance. My current project is writing poems about four centuries of my family on this continent, from Ezekiah Wroughton’s 1619 landing on the banks of the James River through today.

I have known for some time that my 10th Great Grandmother Margaret was a Jamestown Bride, shipped in 1621 by the Virginia Company to help ease “the wants of the comforts without which God saw that Man could not live content.” (Ferrar Papers, "A Coppie of the Subscription for Maydes.") I became interested in this history as I wrote the final poems in my latest book, Heartbreak Tree, opens a new window. A final prose poem in that book reads, in part:

“At 24 or 25, she left England as ‘a good and faithfull servant,’ a mail-order bride before there was mail, to be wed for a price of 150 pounds of tobacco leaves. Her journey not made chained in the belly of the great white wooden Warwick, like those others erased, my DNA traces Cameroon, Congo, the southern Bantu. I have no claim to those I carry.”

Heartbreak Tree

Writing about family is, of course, a way of naming and thus claiming our complicated history. I had been given a fairly complete family tree that traced this branch from their landing through their migration through the North Carolina mountains post-Revolutionary War to Appalachian Virginia in the early 1800s, right up to the birth of my great-grandmother. From Margaret Dawson Wroughton to Sarah Margaret Rhoton, the surname one of several variations from the original. What I needed was context.

And so here I am at the intersection of gratitude and remembrance. The Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library has been a wonderful resource in helping me understand how I might fill the gaping holes in my knowledge. To write about my family in the way I hope to, I need not only information about the family history but how that history intersects with that of our nation and of the Appalachian region which is so much a part of my personal and poetic lineage.

Chris Smith in the Library’s Genealogy & Local History Department, opens a new window was a great listener. Margaret died a wealthy woman back in 1659, having outlived three husbands. The wealth, however, did not follow my family line. Chris’s enthusiastic questioning has encouraged me to “follow the money”—or in our case, the lack of it, to understand more of the family’s trajectory. Because so much of this history had already been written by other relatives, I didn’t make as much use of the Library’s amazing resources as I might otherwise have done. I was searching more for story than history, and as the family spent most of the past four centuries in Virginia, Chris was able to connect me with helpful librarians there. If you are at a different stage in your search, or if is more local to Ohio or the Greater Cincinnati area, I encourage you to check out all the Library has to offer. And regardless—go talk to Chris! He is a wealth of both story and history.

And as you might imagine, my search has taken me down many a slippery rabbit hole. There are no short cuts that I know of when trying to make poems from history. As discussed in the podcast episode, From Curiosity to Creativity, opens a new window, you have to keep reading and researching until you find the spark of obsession—and then read and research some more! What the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library has done is to make that rabbit hole a lot less expensive than it would otherwise have been! Almost every article I read on my free subscription to JSTOR, opens a new window (a great resource for journals, books, images and primary sources) led me to a book with more information—and most of those could be found in our library. Those that were not could often be accessed through interlibrary loan (Learn more about SearchOhio and OhioLINK, opens a new window).

I include below a list of some of the books most helpful in my research. If you would like to discuss your own creative writing project with me, historical or otherwise, I invite you to visit virtually during my last CHPL Writer-in-Residence Office Hours, opens a new window, on December 3 at 11 a.m.

I would be incredibly honored to share with you the work-in-progress created during my residency. I’ll be reading some of these poems and discussing my work as Writer-in-Residence Thursday, December 8 at 6 p.m. during An Evening with the Writers-in-Residence, opens a new window. Yes, “writers” plural! You will also have the opportunity to meet the 2023 Writer-in-Residence, opens a new window, and to check out the newly renovated Walnut Hills Branch, opens a new window, too. I hope to see you then!

A Sampling of Books

It's All Relative

One of my first obsessions was discovering how many people I am related to, from William Shakespeare to unsavory politicians! This book provided a bit of insight into that from an even-more-obsessed amateur genealogist.

Ancestor Trouble

A moving and informative memoir about the author’s journey to discover herself through her ancestors. Her forays into the scientific and historical literature were helpful in directing my own inquiries. Plus, we share some of the same genetic lines, including the Wroughtons!

My Grandmother's Hands

“If the persistence of white supremacy in twenty-first century America surprises you, this book will give you a startling different understanding of why,” begins the preface. When I learned my early ancestors owned African men and women, I knew that this history must be confronted in my work, though I am still struggling with how. This is one of the books that Newton’s led me to.

Walking Gentry Home

Young was the 2020-2021 Youth Poet Laureate of Nashville, Tennessee and the US Southern Region, and is now a college student. In this, her first book, she traces her own maternal lines, “Black women and girls in West Tennessee from unrecorded history to the 1700s up to …. present day.” All of us enmeshed in the challenges of tracing family should read what she has made of a history our society has tried to erase.

And finally, three of the history books read for the project:

The Jamestown Brides

This book directly mentions my 10th great-grandparents

Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs

The Jamestown Project

These both provide some very useful historical and sociological context.

Want to discuss your own creative writing project with me? Drop in virtually at my final Writer-in-Residence Office Hours on Saturday, December 3, 2022 at 11 a.m.

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