How to Write War, Wounds, and Elegies: Seven Questions for Pastor Poet Patrick Cabello Hansel

As a young boy, the North Dakota plains
were a vast comfort, the stars
calling each eye
towards heaven. But in the clear night
of the Bering Sea, each star is an enemy
tooth, a rocket that hates your name. 

--Patrick Hansel, "Evacuating"

Editor’s Note: this interview conducted via email has been lightly edited for length and clarity, and does not necessarily reflect the views of this website.

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1) How did you first know that you were a poet? What are some of your first memories of calling yourself a poet?

I started writing poetry my senior year in college—1975. One impetus was my first real girlfriend breaking up with me! Instead of writing a weepy or angry poem about that, I wrote a gentle poem about her and I together. I was taking a course on Contemporary Women Poets (I was the only male in the class), and saw how you could write about painful and complicated things in a way that was moving and included beauty. We started to workshop poems at the end of the class, and I got some really good feedback, so I kind of got hooked! I started taking creative writing classes soon after that, and writing a lot. I think that’s when I started thinking of myself as a poet.

2) Which one is harder: being a pastor, or being a poet? How are they similar, and how are they different?

Well, the thing with being a pastor is that you’re with people a lot, whereas writing poetry is pretty solitary (I have written in groups, and taught poetry). The challenge of being a pastor is that you’re with people a lot (if you get my drift!). All of my ordained ministry has been in diverse, inner city communities of color, which has been extremely rewarding. The faith of the people I ministered with was truly amazing. But it’s also a challenge in that so many things don’t work out well in those communities: from city services, to community economics, and solidarity, to family issues. And you’re always dealing with a lack of resources, so pastoring included seeking or creating what you needed.  That creativity fueled my poetry.

I don’t think I would have become the poet I am if I hadn’t been a pastor where I was. The richness of imagery, struggle and contradiction really informed my work. I also don’t think I could have lasted as long as I did (35 years) as a pastor without having a passion for writing poetry. It was a steady place where I could withdraw from the challenges of ministry; it was a place where my soul was fed.

3) You’ve recently published a memoir in verse called Quitting Time, which focuses on your father’s life, as well as your relationship with him. Tell me about your decision to combine memoir and poetry. What were your initial expectations about writing memoir through poetic form, and how did memoir and poetry actually come together for you as you wrote Quitting Time?

I didn’t start off to write a memoir, and I’m not sure that’s how I look at the book. I think it is more of an extended elegy, because as I understand elegies, they combine sorrow over the loss of the loved one, with joy and love for who the loved one was–and is. 

I wrote the poems in this book over a period of 10 years or so. My dad died in 1996, and much of the origin of the poems came from a single memory. For example, he had told me a story about his service in World War II that he didn’t tell any of my siblings. I also remembered riding on the Ferris wheel with him, the time he and I worked on repairing the family’s bathroom, and sweeping up hair at his barbershop. 

Then I started to wonder about things I knew he had done, but I didn’t know any details:  traveling with the wheat harvest on what was called “The Combine Trail,” going to Barber College, and so on. Fortunately, the Minnesota Historical Society had some great materials, and the Mower County Historical Society in my hometown of Austin, MN was a cornucopia of information.

In the beginning, it was just a series of poems about my father. But as I wrote more and more poems (and not all of them made it into the book), I began to start thinking of it as a book.

The energy that propelled me as I put the book together had a lot of longing and curiosity in it: longing to know who my father was, and also, writing about him, to know myself better. There was also curiosity about what he had experienced in life, and how our relationship changed over time. The process was not a linear one, nor did the poems come chronologically (although they are placed mostly chronologically in the book). It was a journey of discovery–of him and of me. A lot of the poems are epistolary, where I ask him questions, or wonder about what is happening.

4) In Quitting Time, you recount a fall you had an as an infant when your father stepped away to check on your brother while changing your diaper. I was particularly touched by this stanza in the intriguingly-named poem “Let Us Wait To See How Long For This Terror To Be Forgiven:”

There is a strangeness in our skulls, a desert 
of bone we dare not touch. When a stranger 
drills open the parietal bone, peels back 
the dura mater, gently pulls 
the hematoma free, what does he sing?  

How would your life have been different if that fall never happened?

That is a really good question! In my morning devotions, I have affirmations that I read every day. One of them thanks God for my rebirth—in my baptism, in the day before me, and on that fateful day when I was 10 weeks old. I could have died; the medical technology in 1953 was way different than today. I could have been seriously disabled; in that case, would I have become a pastor, met my wife, raised two daughters, wrote poetry? I don’t know.

I read that poem at a reading once, and a woman approached me afterwards to tell me that she had been my surgeon’s administrator. The binds that connect us are everywhere. Since retirement—since I have more time to reflect and relax—I have noticed certain deficits that relate to that injury. The right side of my skull and brain were more severely damaged, and the deficits are on the left side of my body. I am trying to honor my body for who and what it is, while looking for ways to continue healing. Using a fork and spoon with my left hand can be hard at times; however, it does slow down my eating, which is a good thing!

5) Which poets (and particularly poets who write memoir in verse) have had an influence on you? Why?

Oh, there are so many: Pablo Neruda, William Butler Yeats, Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Yehuda Amichai, Wendell Berry, Lucille Clifton, William Blake, and on and on. I think a lot of poets write about their life experience or their families, including some favorites of mine, which include Ada Limón, Carolyn Forché, Natasha Trethewey.

I have been fortunate to have had some wonderful poets as mentors. For several years, I studied in NYC with Phillip Schultz (who won the Pulitzer, and writes a lot of memoir-like poems). I’ve had some terrific mentors through the Loft Literary Center here in Minneapolis: Jude Nutter, Ed Bok Lee, Richard Terrill, Shelia O’Connor. 

I’ve also found that teaching poetry—to seniors, youth, immigrants—really helps my poetry grow. And reading fiction and creative non-fiction, and listening to everyday speech helps!

6) Describe a favorite place where you write poems. How does this place support your poetic practice?

While I was working as a pastor, I often rented a writing studio at the Loft. It was the size of a prison cell, but had more amenities, like carpeting, a nice desk and easy chair and a nearby fridge! I could still avoid writing if I wanted, but it was harder. I have a little office at home, which is nice. Sometimes I write at a coffee shop or while sitting in a park. I keep scraps of paper in the car, so in case I’m waiting somewhere, I can jot notes. I do not write while I’m driving!

Garden of Patrick Cabello Hansel

7) In the poem “Seeding” in Quitting Time, you catalog some of the items that your father left behind:

There are the gloves he wore
as he pushed the spade in on the first
warm day of spring: the crust
of moldering leaf and soot, the skin
shed by all living things. Here is
his trowel, his hallock and his long-toothed fork.
Here is the wind, ready to sow and to reap.

What items do you hope will symbolize your legacy? Why?

Especially after his retirement, my father’s green thumb flourished like never before. I don’t know how much of that I’ve inherited, but our vegetable garden has grown since we’ve retired. I won’t be able to pick what items others will see as my legacy. I hope some still read my books! The things I am proudest about are:  the trees and pollinator attracting plants we’ve planted at our house and at the last church we served; the amazing public art produced by my wife and co-pastor and others at that church (see www.semillacenter.org); and above all, the people whose lives I have touched.

Thank you for your time, Patrick!


Patrick Cabello Hansel is the author of the poetry collections The Devouring Land (Main Street Rag Publishing) and Quitting Time (Atmosphere Press). He has published poems and prose in over 70 journals, including Crannog, Ilanot Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Ash & Bones, RiverSedge and Lunch Ticket.  Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, he has won awards from the Loft Literary Center and MN State Arts Board. His novella Searching was serialized in 33 issues of The Alley News.  He is the editor of The Phoenix of Phillips, a literary journal by and for the most diverse community in Minneapolis. His website is www.artecabellohansel.com

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