Local Poets Share How ‘Poetry Can Help Us Feel Less Alone’

When Manuel Iris applied to be Cincinnati’s poet laureate, it was with the understanding that he would not be selected. That’s because most of his writing career had taken place in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. At the time, he hadn’t even authored a book in English—but he was about to.

Manuel Iris

Photograph courtesy of Hailey Bollinger

“My wife told me, ‘You’re not going to win, but you want all these important people to read a sample of your work,’ ” says Iris, “so when the book comes out, I was not a stranger.”

Iris was selected as Cincinnati’s second poet laureate in April 2018, and is a few weeks past the end of his two-year term. He’s still the city’s poet laureate, at least until applications open and the mayor presents his selection to city council, which will vote to approve the position. The process has been temporarily put on hold due to COVID-19.

In the role, Iris’s duty is “to foster and to champion poetry,” and each laureate can decide how he or she achieves that goal. One way Iris did so was through hosting readings in unexpected places—like a laundromat. He called the series All We Have in Common. “The idea was to bring people of all walks of life to talk about one single subject,” he says.

Consider his reading at one of the kitchens at Cincinnati State’s Midwest Culinary Institute. Culinary students made food, and attendees discussed nourishment and “how we feed each other.” The meal included dishes from Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. “It became very clear to me that our food is different, but our hunger is the same,” Iris says. “Our language is different, but we want to express the same things.”

“There’s something therapeutic in saying, ‘Here’s this other person who’s grieving at the universe, and this helps me to not feel alone,’ ” Sara Moore Wagner says. “You can kind of howl at the universe in a poem.”

Pauletta Hansel, who preceded Iris as Cincinnati’s first poet laureate and teaches community writers at Thomas More University in Crestview Hills, Kentucky, started a series of poems at the onset of the coronavirus called Postcards from the Pandemic. The series was so helpful to her students, she says, that she opened it up to a larger audience. The call for poems returned 125 submissions before she cut it off, and she published about 80 last month on her blog. “Poetry can help us feel less alone,” she says. “Even poems about difficult subjects can help ease stress.”

That’s what poetry writing is for West Chester resident Sara Moore Wagner. In 2017, she published a chapbook about family trauma titled Hooked Through, in which she uses poetry and fairytales to explain her grandfather’s suicide to her children.

“After that traumatic event, poetry was a natural place for me to turn,” she says. “You’re able to artfully express things like pain and trauma and anxiety and stress through poetry. The world is terrifying, and how do I use language to kind of speak in this little, beautiful way?”

Reading poetry, too, can provide healing, Wagner says. “There’s something therapeutic in saying, Here’s this other person who’s grieving at the universe, and this helps me to not feel alone,” she says. “You can kind of howl at the universe in a poem.”

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