They are the nuts and bolts that writers use to construct a poem and hold it together.
“That’s how writing works – connections are what poetry is all about,” says Twyla Hansen, who Governor Dave Heineman appointed Nebraska’s third-ever state poet in November.
“I’ve learned to trust my instincts on what might become a poem,” Hansen says. “It could be a word, a phrase, a piece of conversation or a scene, and I immediately think about other things that could be connected. Everything is food for poetry.”
As an example, in her book “Potato Soup,” Hansen’s poem about 9/11 titled “We are on Nine-Mile Prairie When” ties in her experience walking with her granddaughter’s fourth-grade class through the Nine Mile Prairie on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I had heard on the radio about the terrorist attacks, and I knew I wanted to look around and get the details right and make connections so I could write about what I was doing at the time,” Hansen says. “It’s like when President Kennedy was shot. Everyone remembers what they were doing.”
The fourth-graders were hiding in the prairie, playing games like “Prey and Predator.”
In part, her poem reads:
“… The blameless children, rabbits, bolt from predators, crouch in grass. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no superman to reverse the earth’s rotation, start this day over. Wings in the air, the claws of terror.”
Hansen couldn’t help but worry about her granddaughter’s future after such an event. The poem ends with, “Are we safe on this, our only, planet? Each child becoming the smallest prey.”
Previous state poet connection
Speaking of connections, Hansen’s association with Nebraska’s second state poet, the late William Kloefkorn, led her to become a writer.
“I was a horticulturist at Nebraska Wesleyan University, and I had free tuition, so I thought it would be fun to take his poetry writing class,” Hansen says. “I wasn’t a writer when I enrolled. That was 1983, so it was 30 years ago.”
Hansen recalls that as the first class ended, Kloefkorn asked the students to bring a poem they had written to the next class.
“I hadn’t written any poems, so I just started writing,” Hansen says. “He had a gift of always saying something good about writing, no matter how bad it was. I started writing in his class, and I’ve been writing ever since.”
Kloefkorn died in May 2011. He was named Nebraska’s second state poet by proclamation of Governor Charles Thone on Sept. 11, 1982. Nebraska was the first state in America to name a poet laureate in 1921, when John G. Neihardt was appointed to the position.
Neihardt and Kloefkorn held lifetime positions as state poets for Nebraska.
“I suggested a term limit for the state poet going forward, and other candidates did too,” Hansen says. “It will give more poets the opportunity.”
As a result, Hansen will serve as Nebraska’s state poet for five years – through Dec. 1, 2018.
“It’s just such a great honor being named Nebraska’s state poet. I’m still pinching myself,” Hansen says. “There are so many great writers in this state. I look forward to working with students and citizens in the creative writing process throughout the state. You never know how your words will impact a person. One teacher can make a huge difference. It certainly did in my life.”
Hansen is an accomplished poet with an extensive publishing history in books and other publications (more on those later in this article).
Governor Heineman named Hansen as state poet after receiving a recommendation from a five-person State Poet Selection Committee coordinated by the Nebraska Arts Council, Humanities Nebraska and the Nebraska Library Commission.
Suzanne Wise, State Poet Selection Committee member and executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, says that all of the candidates had excellent credentials as poets and a vision for what they wanted to accomplish as state poet.
Online and outreach connections
“Twyla stood out with her willingness to think about outreach in a new way with digital media and how to connect poetry with a wider audience,” Wise says. “She is full of enthusiasm, and she has a great manner with audiences.”
Wise says that as a creative writing presenter with the Humanities Nebraska Speakers Bureau for 20 years, Hansen was already doing many of the tasks required of the state poet before being named to the position. State poet duties include serving as an advocate for poetry, literacy and literature in Nebraska; giving public presentations and readings; leading workshops and discussions; and providing other outreach in schools, libraries, literary festivals and other venues.
Hansen says she plans to “bring the position into the 21st century” by establishing an online connection – including a web site, Facebook page and other digital media – to serve as a platform on which to invite guest writers and bloggers, feature poetry books and provide links that connect Nebraskans with writing resources, such as the Nebraska Writing Project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“To me, being the state poet means creating a greater connection across the state between writers, readers and community groups, and creating a greater awareness of poetry,” she says.
Early rural/nature connection
Beginning with Kloefkorn’s poetry class, Hansen’s early poems reflected her rural background, having been raised in northeast Nebraska on land her grandparents farmed in the late 1800s as immigrants from Denmark.
“That was a really rich experience in sensory details that I could call upon in my writing,” she says. “The whole experience of stacking hay, smelling plowed soil and hearing honeybees buzzing in the orchard – all those sensory details made their way into my writing process.”
Her love of nature led to earning a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and a master’s in agroecology, both from UNL. She has worked as a horticulturist ever since, including as ground manager and arboretum curator from 1982-99 at Nebraska Wesleyan University. NWU planted and labeled an Amur cork tree on campus in her honor when she left her position.
“As a horticulturist, I’m also an environmentalist, and I’m not afraid to speak out about endangered species, for example, through my writing,” Hansen says. “But I don’t get up on a soap box too often – unless I’m doing a reading.”
Her master’s thesis focused on balancing nature and farming.
“It isn’t easy, but it’s important,” she says. “There’s no going back, but we can move forward with consideration for wildlife in some fields with shelter. Everything is connected on this planet.”
Hansen is active in the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.
She and her husband, Tom Hansen, live in the house they built in 1972 at the northeast edge of Lincoln. Over the years, they have created an urban habitat for raccoons, foxes, deer and other wildlife in their backyard. The wooded acre was recognized in 1994 by the Mayor’s Landscape Conservation Award for its wildlife-friendly native plants, trees and shrubs.
“We’ve also received two weed notices from the city,” Twyla quips.
Hansen is often seen at fundraisers that support causes such as the Pioneers Park Nature Center in Lincoln and the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center near Denton, Neb.
The writing connection
Hansen donated her unique poetry book “Prairie Suite: A Celebration” (published in 2006), which includes detailed drawings by ornithologist/artist Paul Johnsgard on the pages facing each poem, to the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center. The book is sold in the center’s gift shop to raise funds for its tallgrass prairie conservation and education program.
Hansen has published five additional poetry books, and most of her poems can be found in two of them: “Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet” (2011), which includes 50 poems by Hansen and 50 poems by rancher-writer Linda Hasselstrom of South Dakota; and “Potato Soup” (2003), which Hansen calls “my earthy mix of poems.”
Her other poetry books are “Sanctuary Near Salt Creek” (2001), “In Our Very Bones” (1997) and “How to Live in the Heartland” (1992).
Her writing has also appeared in a wide variety of other publications.
Awards and honors for her poetry have included the High Plains Book Award, the WILLA Literary Award, and twice receiving the Nebraska Book Award. Her poems were also nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize.
Hansen notes that her writing has changed over the years to include more women’s advocacy issues.
“I have two granddaughters who have changed my perspective about our society,” she says. “I’ve also experienced challenges as a woman in a male-dominated profession as a horticulturist, ground manager and arboretum curator.”
Does she have a favorite poem?
“I’m always most interested in the next thing,” she says. “I’m dabbling in short fiction now. I’ve been writing essays and combining them with my poems.
“I don’t know just yet what kind of project will come out of it,” she adds. “I’m working on it!”