Negative Capability Press will features a poet on our website every month. To submit yourself for consideration, follow the instructions on our Submissions page.
Cordelia Hanemann is a native of Southwest Louisiana. The daughter of an army officer and diplomat, she has lived in Japan and London as well as in the US. Hanemann earned a PhD from LSU with a dissertation on the language of contemporary poetry and developed a career as a university professor. A published poet, her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, and in her own chapbook, Through a Glass Darkly. Hanemann resides in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is a working artist and writer, currently working on a novel about her roots in Cajun Louisiana.
who died one night in a hospital room
and I didn’t even know though we’d
shared life and death hundreds of times
over coffee and cigarettes in her living room
ensconced on the second-hand couch
with the calico throw hiding years of abuse.
It was either cancer or chemo that killed her:
first, tiny harbingers of death,
breeding like adders in her lungs
poisoning breath, stealing life,
then lethal juices shot through her veins
to nab cellular beasts but, got Betsy instead.
My Betsy, who regretted
she’d ever smoked,
stoked by yearnings
for life but consumed
by combustions in her chest.
Respiration, radiation, exhalation:
her vitality waned
to a simple orange glow
with each suck of air—inhale.
I watched her incinerate—exhale
to a cylinder of ash—inhale.
How she smoldered with rage—exhale
at the choices she’d made—inhale
out of ignorance, expedience—exhale
an addiction to belonging—inhale
at 13 to the crowd of cool girls who smoked
Still smoking at 35—cinders of hopes—
two daughters she’d never see women,
friends like me, dreams churned up
by the encroaching orange flame,
Betsy on her funeral pyre,
consumed by one final fire.
Like Gemini Only Different:
I have come back. The room we shared
is bare now, the climbing rose that crept
along the back fence, a snarl
of stems and thorns: papery petals
crumble under the crush of my thoughts.
Mother was such an indifferent gardener.
The family’s gathered; everyone is here,
but you, and Dad, of course,
your absence everywhere.
Though two maple saplings now flank
the front gate, it seems about the same:
behind the playhouse in the back yard,
the tire swing hangs from the crooked willow oak,
and grass still won’t grow on the digging place.
That we two were the last in the litter
of busy older boys never seemed to bother you.
Then again, you by yourself were always two,
like Gemini, only different, divided,
double—Walter-Craig—even your name:
my brother, my friend, my phantom.
Once, I thought I knew you—your need
to swing higher, run harder,
beat me at every game.
I loved your raucous laughter,
how you brought Mother dandelions,
lost yourself in music.
I, the quiet older brother, followed your lead,
as we tried on imaginary lives like play clothes,
defended leaf-pile forts with tree-limb guns,
or sailed to wars in cardboard boxes.
Like Gemini, Only Different
Then, you sailed away; became someone else.
I no longer knew you, your need…
your laughter high and light,
your body hard in strange new clothes,
your only friends, then, other men.
We were traveling to different ports.
That final week in San Francisco,
your body slumped in a rented wheelchair,
you fought a different battle.
You wore a baseball cap to hide your disrepair.
For your birthday celebration,
Mother exchanged the soiled pajamas
for your silver silk and rayon suit
that hung on your bones like play clothes.
We ordered an exotic steak
you couldn’t even swallow for our sake;
dry red wine choked in your throat,
the words of the toast unspoken in mine.
I picked up the tab and drove you home to rest.
Mother reminds me, I’m now her youngest son.
Portrait of two small sisters—
rosy cheeks and smiles,
holding prim little purses,
pastel pinafores starched and pressed,
patent leather shoes, white gloves,
cotton ankle sox with lace ruffles—
Jeanne and I are the end of things,
the children derived from white lies:
Night lights that burn
in the hall at noon,
blank by dusk;
Vacant daddy-made playhouse
snug in the back yard,
rickety wooden lawn chairs
where mother’s red-lipped laugh
jangles like ice in her glass,
daddy’s dark eyes blurred
behind a film of smoke.
on the kitchen floor
puddled in bourbon drool;
in the bathroom doorway
I, who planned to fly, played palomino,
but ran into the side of the house;
Jeanne, who threw scissors across the room,
pots and pans, dolls’ clothes and heads:
We were the kids who slipped
from the table under the arc
of their switch, to spit burnt toast
into the toilet, and flush—
Portrait of two small sisters hangs
now in the untenanted living room.
An Interview with Coredelia Hanemann
SBW: Let’s begin with a bit of fantasy. If we could be anywhere this morning -- in a coffee shop. I’m having a mocha-latte. Or perhaps we’re in New Orleans walking along the Mississippi as we talk. You choose the place for our conversation.
First of all, I want to thank you for reading my poems and for selecting me for the featured poet's slot. I feel honored to be in the company of dear friend-poets, Tony Reevy and Maria Rouphail. And I'm thrilled to see that you appreciate my poetry.
That said, I'd love to sit with you in a CC's coffee shop in New Orleans where we could nurse our dark rich Arabica French roast coffee, heavily laced with cream and sugar, or to stroll beneath the oaks of City Park on this brilliant spring day. But actually, I invite you to the back deck of my house here in North Carolina. I can make a mean mocha with a Luzianne coffee base. We can sit beneath the spreading branches of an oak that makes my elevated deck feel like a tree house. We are surrounded by my garden--vegetables on one side, shade annuals blooming with the last azaleas and my palette of greens, creams, blues--hostas, fatsias, farfugias, hydrangeas--all shade lovers. Welcome.
SBW: Let’s talk about poetry first. Both of your poems, “Like Gemini Only Different” and “White Lies” are about family and rooms as well. Is family – and rooms – themes in your work?
I love to talk about poetry. Family is definitely one of my recurrent themes. The complexities of my first family as well as the family I created seem to be more comprehensible and manageable when elucidated through the language of poetry--and for me as a poet, through the process of writing the poems. As I have aged, I have re-evaluated my parents, their life choices, the effects of their choices and behaviors--good and bad. Bringing my poet's mind and heart and vision to the old stories has generated new insights and understandings, and in many ways has enabled me to make peace with the past. Plus, I do love stories and many of my poems rely on family narratives of one kind or another.
The poem "Like Gemini, Only Different" originated in a friend's struggle with the death of his younger brother from AIDS. I was so moved by his story and by my friend's anguish, that I felt compelled to capture it all in the poem.
You ask about houses and rooms as recurrent themes. Houses should be places of safety and belonging; they're the places we go home to as in "Like Gemini…". The persona returns home for family and for celebration, but life brings painful changes and shifts in the family dynamic, so going home can be filled as much with sadness and loss as with familiarity and celebration.
Too often, too, these houses either aren't safe or comforting, as in "White Lies." Many families are broken; bad or strange things happen in our homes. My alcoholic parents' erratic behaviors were disturbing to the little girls growing up in our childhood house, but it is the adult poet who can write the story and capture the sense of displacement and estrangement we experienced in that house.
In my poem "To Betsy," the house was a place of companionship--life stories and experiences shared over cups of coffee. Only, that wonderful house, too, was transformed by the tragedy of Betsy's cancer and finally the loss of the mother of the household.
SBW: I note that you are a poet and a scholar and have written a dissertation on the language of contemporary poetry – specifically Diane Wakoski. She gave a reading at the University of South Alabama in Mobile – and stayed as a guest at our house. She has long been a favorite poet of mine; we still keep in touch. What do you think are Wakosi’s major contributions to American poetry?
I am so thrilled at your connection to Diane Wakoski. Unfortunately, I never met her myself or even had the pleasure of hearing her read. I was fifty when I went off to graduate school to work on my PhD and fifty-eight, working full-time at a small liberal arts college, when I finished my dissertation, which I wrote in the interstices between lesson plans, faculty obligations and meetings, grading papers, and ministering to students. I'm so envious of your opportunity to spend time with her.
I found in her volume, Emerald City of Las Vegas, a rich source of ideas about the relation of language to identity formation, the real subject of my dissertation. Wakoski has the unique and wonderful capacity to weave myriad threads into the tapestry of her poetry: love, art, nature, personal history-mythology, physics, popular culture, fairy tales. This makes her so contemporary and on-pulse with the complexity of our present-day ethos. The multiplicity of these 'languages' fascinated me and invited me to explore the nuances and possibilities of application to identity formation, specifically feminine/ feminist, though I know Wakoski eschews any identification with feminist movements. And much of the feminist impulse has dissipated or become less politically correct. Still, I loved exploring how women's identities [and of course men's too] are forged through language and the stories of our culture. Wakoski showed me through her poetry that language--especially the language of poetry--is also a site of resistance, a place where those old roles and identities can be re-written, re-imagined. What a wonderful adventure for me as a fifty-year old discovering yet again who she could be.
Today, as I continue to engage with her work--on a much less intense level--I find her poetic contribution centers in two significant areas:
1. The interplay of myths/ stories--personal, cultural, literary, truth and fiction. Our lives are our stories, the stories of our families, of our places--or lack of them, of our experiences, of our readings, of those 'truths' of the culture that we believe in or that influence us whether we want them to or not. We write stories for ourselves, create myths to believe in, etch out the narrative of our future, remake our memories….on and on--story is so powerful.
2. The way she implies through the language and form of her poetry, language both as impediment and as means of liberation, that is, through language and the stories of our culture we are consigned to roles, yet through language we can also press against the parameters of those roles and expand ourselves and our visions of possibilities. This is so wonderfully American, perhaps our greatest gift to the world--constant re-vision. I find her poetry illuminating and inspiriting and inspiring.
SBW: How do you feel that your work as a scholar illumines your poetry?
I was permitted by my wonderful dissertation director, Dr. Robin Roberts at LSU, to write a creative rather than a mostly research-based dissertation--when I wrote my dissertation, not much had been written about Diane Wakoski, which I considered my lucky break. Though Robin did force me to craft an argument and to develop expertise in my focus, I would not say that I'm a scholar in the strict sense. Yet, reading the great French feminist theorists--who are also in many ways poets themselves wrestling with the language and the ways in which we can use it-- expanded the scope of my relationship with language. Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva so enlarged my understanding of the possibilities of language that I know I'm a better poet for having read and studied and applied them to my enterprise. From them, I think I came to understand that the poetry of language doesn't reside merely in poems, and that this poetry of language lies at the very heart of all that moves us and enables us. Delving in language is a dangerous and risky business--totally essential.
That said, I like to think that my poetry is also informed by my background in music. Stevens says, "Music is feeling and not sound," but poetry is a music of sounds that evokes strong feeling. I studied music--piano--off and on my whole life, thought at one time of being a music major, taught piano lessons to put myself through college. Music is still important to me--I still dabble at playing the piano and the violin. My youngest son is a musician, teacher, and composer. I like to think that my poetry ripples with music; I'm very conscious of the sounds of words, their juxtaposition, the cadences of phrases.
SBW: I saw on facebook that you are an artist as well as a poet and that you have a book on how to draw nature. Do you consider yourself a deep ecologist? Is the natural world have a significance in the things you write?
I have come to the world of art only since I retired from teaching--teaching is pretty all-absorbing. Art--painting, drawing--has become for me a new way of looking at the universe, both large and small. I dabbled at painting at first, loved it and wanted to get better. I enrolled in the Botanical Illustration course at the NCBG where I learned the discipline of looking and of seeing what was there, then of capturing it, finding the right line, the right colors, the right proportions. It was a wonderful adventure: I was thus able to blend two loves--my new love of making art and my long-lived love of, as you call it, the deep ecologist.
I am steeped in nature, though I live in an urban center. We're very fortunate here to have greenways and parks, a state park in the heart of our county, wonderful city and county lakes, three stunning botanical gardens--Raulston Arboretum, NCBG, and Duke Gardens. We're two and a half hours from the beach, two and a half hours from the mountains, heavenly. I've written poems about both. So, yes a significant theme in my poetry is nature.
I'm an avid gardener, a visual artist, and a lover of the outdoors, so I see in nature patterns and meanings and ways to articulate complex human dilemmas through the interplay of nature. For example in one poem, "When You Have to Kill the Snake," I wrote about an awful moment when I had to kill a beautiful but deadly copperhead that was sunning itself on my doorstep. As I wrote the poem, torn between the snake's beauty and its threat, I meditated on the end of a personal relationship that I had thought lovely and fulfilling but which was actually 'poisoning' me. The poignancy of loss I felt at killing the snake and at ending the relationship seemed similar to me. Writing the poem--thinking through the correlative between nature and my life events--enabled me to articulate complex feelings and insights. It is interesting to note that I don't reference the human relationship in the poem, but several of my readers have made the leap from my 'snake' experience to similar 'life' experiences.
Also, I grow much of my own food--love the whole process of making the soil, crafting a relationship with the seasons, nurturing seeds to fruition. My passion for design and for the nurture of gardening feeds me--literally, spiritually, artistically. Then, I have a series of poems articulating my frustration with 'Zeus' who withholds rain, the pangs of the work of gardening--hauling compost, pulling weeds, sharing figs [with the bugs!], killing snakes, etc. Ecology is a complex facet of life itself.
SBW: I spent a number of years in New Orleans while I was working on my Ph.D. at Tulane University. I love the ethos of the city – the food, the French Quarter, the history. What are your connections to the city that care forgot?
My husband was from New Orleans, brought up on St. Charles Avenue, but we, as a family, never lived there. However, as with Cajun Louisiana, I still return there frequently wanting to belong to its history and mystery, its diversity and its culture. I, like you, love its ethos, and feel it's a small part of who I am. But I generally go mostly as an outsider, or perhaps as an insider-tourist.
You mentioned the city that care forgot. Going back to this city I've always loved to love was so painful, knowing how it had been treated, neglected, abused. It was a ravaged city. Its devastation and the piece-meal reconstruction disturbed me, made me feel that same sense of loss and emptiness I have felt in going back to old plantation homes along the river, many of which are ghostly skeletons of their former glory, ravaged by time and the vagaries of history and river and weather. But, I've been amazed at the city's resilience. It is coming back, and still retaining that part of its mystique that has characterized it. I don't write much about New Orleans, but it will feature briefly in my novel.
SBW: Maybe we’re having dinner at Antoines tonight – or maybe somewhere else in the city? Where? Do you favor gumbo and maybe jambalaya?
Ah, are you a foodie, too? I said I'm perhaps an insider-tourist because I do know many good places to visit and to eat in New Orleans. When my mother-in-law was still living, we always loved to get the Trout Marguery at Galatoire's, though my children insist now that we go to Frankie and Johnnie's--shrimp po-boys and boiled crawfish. But when we go home, it's to Lafayette, where my sons grew up. We can all fix the meanest gumbo in town--and all my boys cook. The secret, of course, is in the roux! Years ago, my husband and I put together a family cook-book with all our favorite recipes. The boys still pressure me to update it, but I haven't the time. My sister keeps urging me to write more food-poems. Perhaps I will. Anyway, our favorite gathering is standing with friends at trestle tables spread with newspapers working our way through piles and piles of boiled crawfish, drinking beer, or better yet old-timey nickel cokes in the little green bottles [am I dating myself?].
SBW: Tell us a bit about the novel you are working on and about Cajun roots.
Many of my poems are rooted in the opulent wild Louisiana landscape of which I have and have not been a part. As a child of the military--my father was an Army officer--I had no place to call home, no people to call my folks. So I've hungered for a place and a people to belong to. Though Mother often returned, children in tow, to Cajun Louisiana, place of her roots, and I wanted to belong there, I was always something of a stranger. Yet, even now I'm haunted by its very elusiveness--the uniqueness of its culture, the lushness of its landscapes, its water, its sultry beauty, even as I stand outside, wanting it to be mine.
I think my impulse to write my novel derives from my attempt to locate myself in that place with those people. Unlike so many Southern novelists who come from storied homes where stories were handed about dawn to dusk, I'm essentially 'un-storied'. Besides, my mother, my aunts, uncles, grandmother all spoke French, so I suspect they were telling stories, but, again, I was the outsider. And I wanted to get inside their story, to belong to their place, to share in their continuity.
Yes, I love story. Since I lack the shared stories from my folk, I have long felt I'd have to make my own. There is one skeleton of a family myth that all the cousins know, but no one knows the 'real' story or much about it: a great-great-great grandfather owned a plantation and slaves. A mean and imperious man, he wore black and rode a dark horse and beat his slaves with a whip. One day, the slaves hid out, ambushed him, and killed him. End of story. This kernel, probably apocryphal, became the core of my novel. I knew I'd have to humanize this 'all-bad' man, so I had to give him something to want, something he couldn't attain. A dynasty, sons--then he has all daughters, then a son who dies, at his hand perhaps. My mother was the youngest of nine, one brother and seven sisters, so I had all these wonderful aunts to populate my novel. Interestingly, my uncle married late and had no children, so there are no direct heirs to my mother's family line. As I've worked through the story arc, the protagonist shifted to one of the daughters, and I've moved the time up to the early 20th century. Through the novel, I hope to explore the nuances of culture, land, family, personal angst--all those wonderfully complicated things that novelists explore. These fictional characters are becoming my folk, their home, my home. It's been a wonderful journey--ongoing.
SBW: How would you describe your career as a poet?
As with the art, I've come to the career as a poet only since my retirement from teaching. Unlike me, the artist, I feel I've been a poet all my life. I seem to have always written poetry and read poetry and loved it. A reviser, I'm often pulling old pieces out of my slush-pile to rework and refine. So, I've been developing a body of significant work, especially over the last twenty-five years, but it has often languished in files. Only now have I marshaled the energy and the not-inconsiderable effort to find an audience for my poetry. I have begun getting published in the literary journals, and I have two privately published chapbooks of poems with commentary that I have sent out to friends and family. Now, I'm working on compiling a series of Louisiana poems to send to a publisher. One of the problems with coming to this enterprise so late in life is that I have so many things I want to accomplish, but so little time--do I work at putting the poems together or do I write poetry; do I market my poems and stories or do I work on my novel; do I frame and get my art juried or do I paint? I love the creative process and have surrounded myself with wonderful artistic friends who critique and appreciate my work, but the dilemma still remains--I would like to have a wider audience.
SBW: Why does poetry matter?
What a wonderful question! I think of it all the time. Without poetry we are automatons going through the motions of life without our being able to get in touch with our deepest, most spiritual selves. Honestly, I feel that many of the problems in our culture--our obesity, our self-absorption, our greed, the need for moremoremore, our inherent dissatisfactions--stem from a want of poetry. There's a reason the religions all have 'poetic' texts to articulate many of the complexities of human relationships and the very complex relationship of the individual and of humans in general to the Creative Spirit of the Universe, called by many names: God-Allah-Buddha. Without language we are lonely, isolated. Without poetry, we are separated from ourselves, from our connection to the universe, the universe of people [over time] and the universe of nature--in large and small ways.
A favorite moment of mine occurred when I was teaching. A 'jock' student in a Brit Lit class insisted he didn't like poetry, didn't see the point of it, didn't have any use for it in his life. Then, one day, he crept up the stairs to my office and sheepishly [imagine it!] asked me if I would read a poem he had written for his fiancee. It was quite bad poetry, but it was so beautiful: a young man struggling to find the language of love for someone who mattered to him. Poetry matters because humans matter. It matters what I feel, what you feel. When bad things happen to us, we need a voice and a language to express ourselves; when we experience great joy, when we confront a confusing situation, when we want to celebrate--we need a voice and a language. Poetry is that voice, that language.
Your story matters, my story matters. All the voices need to be heard. At a recent open mic a group of young people roared out what I thought was very loud, raucous, often obscene stuff. The crowd loved it. Regardless of my 'opinion' about it, those voices matter. We need to struggle to understand each other and ourselves, and when we don't, we tend to do awful things to each other. When I was a teacher [not that I've stopped being a teacher--it's like breathing], I wanted more than anything to give my students the gift of poetry--the magic of new insights, new visions, the opportunity to dig deep and to soar, to expand the dimensions of who they are as human beings. This is what poetry is--this is why poetry matters. Besides, it won't leave me alone!