In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Patrick Cabello Hansel
The featured image was taken from a broadside created by Nick Wroblewski displaying Roy McBride’s poem “Lilac Week” for the Powderhorn Writer’s Festival.
Your poem “Lilac Time Minneapolis, May 2020” published in Volume 25, reflects on the uprising in the days after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired your writing of this poem?
We live about a mile from George Floyd Square, and a couple blocks off Lake Street. My wife and I were serving a church that was two blocks from Lake, made up mostly of immigrant families. So many were traumatized by his death, the burning of Lake Street and the militarized response (after no action to stop the arsons). We had tried to work with the local precinct for 15 years to do real community policing for our diverse and poor neighborhood. But even before George Floyd’s murder, the police too often swung between no response at all to an occupying force that was more military than policing. This all was in the context of increasing anti-immigrant feeling and actions at the federal level, COVID and political division. So it was a tumultuous time, to say the least! And there, in the middle of that, the beauty of lilacs blooming all throughout our fair city.
Your poem acknowledges Roy McBride, a well-known spoken word artist, poet, and activist in the Twin Cities community. What was your connection to Roy, and in particular, to his work that opened up “Lilac Time Minneapolis, May 2020” for you?
I did not know Roy well; our paths had crossed at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, especially at the May Day Festival (when sometimes the lilacs had just started to blossom). I wish I had got to know him better. But as soon as I heard his poem “Lilac Week” I was so moved. The whole world is taken over by lilacs and their short, intense time of that intoxicating aroma and color. As Roy wrote:
It’s lilac week.
surrenders to lilacs.
As I note in my poem, lilacs were the flowers that we brought as children to the May Crowning at the church in Austin, MN where I grew up. Hundreds of girls and boys dressed in pastel brought flowers to honor Mary, and the church was filled with such wonderful aromas.
In May 2020, I went out some nights on our little 2nd floor back porch. I could smell the tear gas from the precinct, the smoke from the fires, see the helicopters overhead and hear sirens, shouts, gunfire. But in the midst of that, our dwarf lilac was still giving off its last scent. That’s where the poem was born.
I’ve read a variety of responses over the years as to whether poetry allows for political conversations, political activism, and building progressive change. What is your response to this?
I honestly can’t imagine a poet not being engaged with their world and then writing about it. The challenge is to do so without being pedantic. Self-righteousness, no matter how just the cause, does not make for good poetry. I don’t want to be told how to think or feel about an issue or event, I want to be invited into the poet’s engagement with whatever they are writing about. I’m more of a narrative poet, so for me the best way to get at issues is through stories rather than ideas. In my first book The Devouring Land, the first third of the book is about immigration, but I don’t lay out policy or shout slogans. Rather, I tell stories, including people I love who were hunted, deported, separated from their families. For example, the images of a medical examiner in Arizona trying to discover one person’s identity from their bones speaks to the issue better than declaring that hundreds of people die each year crossing the border.
I’ve also found that if I get close to trying to solve the problems raised in a poem, I lose creative tension. Finally, imagination plays a key role for me; especially imagining what I call “the world beyond the world.” That means standing firmly in the world as it is, while living into the world as it will be. To me, that’s the definition of being incarnational; theologically, it is the word (promise) becoming flesh (reality).
You write and have published work across multiple genres, and you’ve also worked for decades in the faith community as a pastor, both in Minneapolis, the Bronx, and Philadelphia. How do all these avenues and mediums of work overlap in your creative writing? Do you find yourself exploring similar paths of thinking across your work?
I think faith has to do with creative tension as well. That is, holding together the reality of the pain of the world and the promise of liberation. The neighborhoods I worked in with my wife Luisa were communities of color, low-income, with many immigrant families. I was an effective pastor when I entered that reality as best I could and when I held onto a vision of a different reality. More often than not, it was the people I served who brought the abundance of faith. I was privileged to be the scribe and the speaker of that faith, in a dance with the scriptures and liturgies we had received and those we created. In every parish, we tried to bring the mythic and cultic practices of religion into the community we served. For example, with In the Heart of the Beast, St. Paul’s Lutheran developed La Natividad. It was a bilingual telling of the Christmas story from the point of view of an immigrant family in south Minneapolis. The whole audience processed with María and José as they sought shelter to have the baby. Living that ancient story in our current world—with music, art and of course, food—helped make it more alive for many.
Can you share with us about the mission and the work of the literary journal you edit, The Phoenix of Phillips?
The Phoenix of Phillips is a program of the Semilla Center for Healing and the Arts, which is a non-profit started by my wife and I as an extension of St. Paul’s community work. Semilla has taught mosaics, painting, puppetry, drama, urban gardening and many other arts to over 4,000 people, and installed 37 murals and over 50 other artistic place makers in the Phillips neighborhood and beyond. My wife is a mosaic artist, I am a writer, and it made sense to start a literary magazine for and by the community. Part of that was doing poetry workshops with seniors, new immigrants and especially youth. This past summer, I taught a group of youth and we wrote in different locations in the community. One of those was an historic cemetery, where we wrote poems to our ancestors and then from our ancestors. All of the photographs in The Phoenix, whether of street scenes or art we have produced, are done by youth.
The Phoenix welcomes submissions from people who live, work or volunteer in Phillips. We intentionally wanted it to be by the people it was for. But if anyone is interested, there are a lot of volunteer opportunities! You can see back issues of The Phoenix on Semilla’s website: https://www.semillacenter.org/creative-writing/
Who are some writers that inspire you?
Oh it depends on what week! Or day! When I started writing 45 years ago (!), two poets that really inspired were Gwendolyn Brooks and Theodore Roethke. The poets who’ve mentored me include Ed Bok Lee, Jude Nutter, Richard Terrill and Philip Schultz, among others. This week, I’ve been reading Sun Yung Shin, John Donne, Loren Niemi and Maya Abu Al-Hayyat. How’s that for eclectic?!
What projects are you working on now?
My third book of poems Breathing in Minneapolis will be published by Finishing Line Press in November. “Lilac Time” is in it. It’s about all that happened in 2020-2022. I’m working on a series about my mother (my second book Quitting Time was an extended elegy to my father). I continue to write poems about the city, social issues, family, nature and whatever else grabs me.
I’m also working on a novel that I have been writing for 10 years! It’s based in a fictional small town in southern Minnesota and is kind of a coming of age story of a young woman in the context of all that was going on from 1900-1919. A lot of stuff then too: war, women’s suffrage, prohibition, labor agitation, anti-immigrant movements, not to mention a global pandemic!
While retired from pastoral ministry, I am active in my church. Being retired gives me more time to garden and spend time with family, including our granddaughter, who just turned one.
Patrick Cabello Hansel is the author of the poetry collections The Devouring Land and Quitting Time, and the forthcoming collection Breathing in Minneapolis. He has published poems and prose in over eighty journals, including Crannóg, The Ilanot Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Ash & Bones, and riverSedge. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, he has won awards from the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota State Arts Board. His novella Searching was serialized in thirty-three issues of the alley newspaper. He is the editor of The Phoenix of Phillips, a literary journal by and for the most diverse community in Minneapolis. You can learn more about his work, along with his wife Luisa’s work, at their website https://www.artecabellohansel.com.