It is not much of a stretch to say that much of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is made up of poets and writers. Advocacy on behalf of urban Appalachians seems to go hand in glove with creativity, especially given that community organization and creative communication are such crucial talents among poets and writers. Therefore, it is appropriate that our first Poet Laureate was an urban Appalachian, our own Core member Pauletta Hansel.
The Poet Laureate of the City of Cincinnati is a relatively new position. Pauletta occupied the role of Poet Laureate from April of 2016 until March of 2018, followed by our current Poet Laureate, Manuel Iris. The role is now taking on a new dimension as UACC’s longtime collaborator The Mercantile Library enters into a partnership with the city to name the third Poet Laureate of the City of Cincinnati.
It is significant that the first Poet Laureate of the city is an urban Appalachian. People tend to relegate the cultural contributions of Cincinnati’s Appalachians to things like Bluegrass and downhome-cooking. Pauletta Hansel’s time as Poet Laureate is a sound reminder that the fabric of the literary and artistic culture of greater Cincinnati is woven with the threads of Appalachia.
I spoke to Pauletta about her tenure as Poet Laureate, and she explained that as the first to occupy the role, she faced some serious challenges: “There was not much structure for the role when I took this on. I really had to create a vision for the position,” said Pauletta. Yet, as an experienced poet and educator, Pauletta Hansel was the right person at the right time. In many ways, it was precisely her experience as an Appalachian poet that made it possible for Pauletta to succeed in her role as Poet Laureate: “Appalachian poets and writers have always had to create our own outlets and support each other. I brought that imperative for community-building to my role as first Poet Laureate of the city.”
Pauletta Hansel successfully enacted her position as Poet Laureate to connect poets across the city and to bring the power of poetry to people who are not necessarily writers. She offered 22 workshops and provided many opportunities for public readings and publication for area poets, from youth to established writers. A Facebook group is still active that connects nearly 800 people through the magic of poetry. A complete archive of her work can be found on her website.
Manuel Iris took over the role of Poet Laureate in 2018. When I spoke to Manuel, he was quick to say that “the city of Cincinnati welcomed and adopted me in the most generous ways. I was not born in this city. I was not even born in this country. The fact that the people of Cincinnati welcomed me and accepted me as a part of the literary community was a great honor to me.” Manuel Iris continued the focus of building community through poetry that began with Pauletta Hansel. Manuel’s aim was to bring different communities together through poetry to emphasize the ways we are far more alike than different. As he explained, “I am interested in promoting diversity, but more than that, I work to use poetry to promote empathy and understanding toward social change.”
As we look toward our next Poet Laureate of the City of Cincinnati, the Mercantile Library has stepped up to take a more active role in promoting and supporting the position. I spoke to Cedric Rose from the Mercantile Library who explained, “As the literary center of Cincinnati, The Mercantile Library has always supported literary efforts. Now the Mercantile, through an agreement with the city, has stepped up to take a more active role in providing support and structure for the work of the Poet Laureate.” The Mercantile Library is in agreement with our previous Poets Laureate that the role of the position is to work toward building community in the city through poetry and the literary arts.
One requirement of the future Poet Laureate of Cincinnati is that she or he must have written poetry that exemplifies the characteristics or spirit of Cincinnati. It is certainly a fact, and a point of pride for us, that the spirit of Cincinnati is most assuredly the voice of urban Appalachians, and our first Poet Laureate was an urban Appalachian. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Core member Pauletta Hansel effectively created the role of Poet Laureate. As we anticipate the next poet who exemplifies the characteristics or spirit of Cincinnati, we can be sure that urban Appalachians have helped define the literary voice of Cincinnati and are in fact leaders in the literary and artistic culture of greater Cincinnati. To quote from one of the poems Pauletta composed during her tenure with lines “crowd-sourced” by other Cincinnati poets:
O City, know your poetry –
river, hills, valley in which you shine and sing –
from your smoke and mirrors.
Listen, City, to your song, the poetry gumbo
becoming to its soul made lively,
From “Cincinnati: A Song of Ourselves” by Pauletta Hansel
For more information on the Mercantile Library’s Poet Laureate program, click on this link: https://mercantilelibrary.com/the-cincinnati-and-mercantile-library-poet-laureate-program/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.