New Nebraska state poet not afraid to get dirty

Twyla Hansen in the backyard of her Lincoln home. (Ray Meints/NET News image)
Twyla Hansen in her writing studio. (Ray Meints/NET News image)
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December 5, 2013 - 6:30am

Nebraska has a new state poet, and she brings a different background to the position. Meet Twyla Hansen, a poet with a little dirt on her hands.


“After a rain I yank weeds in the flowerbed – crabgrass and foxtail,
the usual suspects - and because moisture is abundant, seedlings
of maple and ash, my own private forest, which undeniably multiplies
beneath the windbreak I planted years ago, where, thanks to birds,
scores of young cedar, mulberry, wild cherry now tangle.”

--“After a Rain” by Twyla Hansen (from “Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet”)

The place in “After a Rain” is poet Twyla Hansen’s north Lincoln backyard, which she and her husband Tom maintain as an urban wildlife habitat. It looks the part. Birds and small animals are everywhere amidst the dense, varied vegetation. It’s a collision of two worlds that have made up the life of Nebraska’s newly-appointed state poet.

Twyla Hansen (courtesy photo)

Twyla Hansen is Nebraska’s third state poet. The position was created in 1921, and in 1927 John Neihardt was named Nebraska poet laureate “in perpetuity.” Neihardt died in 1973. Bill Kloefkorn was appointed in 1982 and served until his death in 2011.

“It is daunting,” Hansen said as she laughs when asked about following Neihardt and Kloefkorn (her mentor) as state poet. "I try not to think about that too much. It’s quite an honor. I’m deeply honored by this.”

Hansen will serve a five-year term as state poet, one example of how a new collaboration between Nebraska arts organizations is helping redefine the position.

“With my colleagues at the Humanities Nebraska and at the Nebraska Library Commission we undertook a lot of research about how other states work with their state poets,” said Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council. “We got a lot of good ideas from our colleagues in both the arts and the humanities about just exactly what a state poet can do.”

Hansen grew up on a farm in northeast Nebraska, never interested in being a writer. She thought about teaching, or nursing, then finally decided on studying horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This landed her at Nebraska Wesleyan University as grounds manager and arboretum curator. It might have been fate or luck, but when Hansen decided to use an employee benefit and take free classes at Wesleyan, some of the first were with English professor Bill Kloefkorn, Nebraska’s state poet at the time. Hansen started writing and didn’t stop.

“I’ve always kind of liked words,” Hansen said. “You have to be a little bit of a word nerd to be a writer, and words fascinate me, the language people use fascinates me.”

Hansen says there’s a not-so-obvious connection between horticulture and writing.

“Everything in a writer’s life is food for poetry,” Hansen said. “So when you are landscaping, for example, you use balance, color, form, you’re thinking of the end result of what you’re doing to enhance a landscape and looking ahead. Twenty years after I left there (Wesleyan), those trees are mature now and in some ways you write a poem, it’s the same way, you send it out into the world and you never know how it will come back to you but it does, often.”

Hansen has sent a lot of these poems out into the world, in numerous periodicals and her own books. She’s received numerous awards and honors for her work, including two Nebraska Book Awards, the High Plains Book Award and the WILLA Literary Award. But it was more than a list of accomplishments that impressed the committee charged with choosing a state poet for the governor to appoint.

“When she gets in front of a group, she just builds a kind of enthusiasm and is inspiring because of her own passion for it,” said Chris Sommerich, Humanities Nebraska executive director and a member of the State Poet Selection Committee. “I think the whole reason to have a state poet isn’t to shower somebody with accolades or honor them as a great writer, it’s more to bring literature and poetry to the public.”

“Of the finalists for the position, Twyla really represented the poet who really thought the most about how to take poetry and this position to the people of Nebraska,” said Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council and another member of the selection committee. “I think she has an ambitious agenda. I think she has a really good understanding of the entire state and she’s enthusiastic about it.”

You can expect to see Hansen traveling the state to give presentations and work with aspiring writers. For the first time the state poet will be part of both the Humanities Nebraska speaker’s bureau and the Nebraska Arts Council’s touring roster. But another thing that got the attention of the selection committee was Hansen’s desire to use new media to engage Nebraskans.

“So it’s not going to just be traveling to locations to give a talk or to do a workshop or work in an artist-in-schools residence, for example,” Wise said, “but maybe digital forums. Maybe it will take the form of a Facebook page for the state poet.”

Hansen sees her job as an advocate for creative writing, with an emphasis on the process more than the product.

“You pay attention to language in a special way when you write poems but it’s a process,” Hansen said. “You can’t just talk about it, you have to actually write. The actual act of writing is what makes you a writer, not talking about it, not studying it.”

You’ll find evidence in a spare bedroom in Hansen’s house that’s now her writing studio. Next to an easy chair there are a couple shelves full of notebooks with phrases, words, little starting points for poems.

“If I get a little notion of something that might work as a poem, a phrase or a word or a poem I heard, or something that makes me think of something else, I scribble them down in a notebook,” Hansen said. “I want to get some of the words down on the page, make sure that I capture that before it’s gone. I’ve fallen asleep way too many times with a great idea for a poem and do you think I’d remember it in the morning? No!

“Just getting the words on the page is the most important thing and then you can work from there,” Hansen continued. “If I write a poem and it isn’t successful I never throw it away because there could be a time when that phrase will come back around or those words or some of the ideas in the poem will find another way to make it into a poem.”

Many of Hansen’s poems are about nature and the land. And not always the pretty things. Because Twyla Hansen, poet and landscaper, says poets ought to have a little dirt under their fingernails.

“In other words, you’ve got to live a little bit and write about real stuff, you know? I would say write about what’s important,” Hansen said.

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