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I did not attempt creative writing when I was young because I had no notion I could. My unlikely path to poetry—to creativity, really—was detoured by everyday life: growing up, marrying, starting a family, working, attending college as a non-traditional student. By the time I graduated with a degree in horticulture, I thought I knew what I wished to do and where I was headed. Not exactly.
I grew up on a small farm with three older brothers and without television. At an impressionable age, I lived and breathed hay bales and clover blossoms and topsoil. Because there were few distractions, I looked at things closely and let my imagination run wild. We listened to radio programs like Perry Mason, Lone Ranger and a creepy sci fi show that gave me nightmares. We attended a one-room country school K-8th. Saturdays, we drove to town for groceries and supplies, and there I learned to love the library. I would load up with books and return them the following week.
Which led me to an interest in the humanities, and literature in particular. My first professional position as a horticulturist was as grounds manager and arboretum curator at Nebraska Wesleyan University. An employee benefit was free tuition. One of the first courses I enrolled in was poetry writing taught by William Kloefkorn, who was named Nebraska State Poet in August 1982, soon after I started working there.
In that first class, Kloefkorn read some of his and others’ poems, talked and joked around, then said, “Next time you come to class, bring a poem you have written.” Which sort of stunned me: I’d never written a poem! Sure, I’d read poems—including Kloefkorn’s and Ted Kooser’s early book together, Cottonwood County, which made me think maybe I could at some point attempt writing something resembling a poem. I’ve always been a little nutty about words—a word nerd. I was intrigued with poetry and how poets craft words into phrases and lines to capture a moment or experience or person so succinctly and artfully. I thought Kloefkorn would instruct us on how to write a poem—step one, two, three—like there was a formula, recipe or checklist to follow. Wrong.
My first poems were awful, I’m sure, but I was lucky. Kloefkorn was talented at finding at least one good thing in each piece of student writing. In mine, it was a line about my brother “punching my arm silly.” The word “silly” with “punching my arm” stood out as imaginative and fresh; he was right. I learned something valuable about writing: you start where you start. You learn from others, by listening, by reading, by filling your head with words that make you want to write your own creative piece, whether it is a poem, story or essay. You study other writers to learn the what/how/why they craft their work as they do. But mostly you learn by writing.
Why poetry? Because it is a challenge, because the blank page is waiting, because you trust words, love to discover where writing can take you while abandoning yourself to the process. Which, in creativity, is everything.
Twyla M. Hansen is Nebraska’s State Poet for a five year term as named by Governor Dave Heineman. Her newest book, DIRT SONGS: A PLAINS DUET, won a 2012 Nebraska Book Award and was Finalist for 2012 WILLA Literary Award and High Plains Book Award. Her previous poetry books include POTATO SOUP, winner of a 2004 Nebraska Book Award. Her writing has appeared widely, including in literary and environmental periodicals, anthologies, a textbook and encyclopedia. Her B.S. and M.Ag. are from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she is a creative writing presenter through Humanities Nebraska and the Nebraska Arts Council.
Ever since I was a child, storytelling has been a part of my life. Back then, it was an escape from getting into trouble—but usually the opposite happened. Having spent quite a bit of time in the coat closet at elementary school for “stretching the truth of a situation,” one would think I would have given up on this venture. Many were the times when the priests would lecture me in the confessional—guess it just didn’t soak in!
About twenty years ago, I watched Nancy Duncan do a story in which she transformed herself into a chicken. What an experience! That was something I had always wanted to do (story-tell for applause, not become a chicken). We became friends after she observed me giving a tour at MONA. She told me I would be a storyteller at the newly formed Winter Tales Festival in Kearney. YIKES! With her support and mentoring, I found my passion.
It was amazing—what used to get me into trouble, now merited applause! In the beginning, children were my preferred audience—they are easily drawn into a story. Before long, adults were asking for programs too. Soon chamber dinners, company dinners, libraries, schools, and meetings became storytelling venues; people seemed to hunger for a live person telling a story!
My biggest thrill came when I was asked to open for a comedian at the Merryman Performing Arts Center. Doing an original comedic routine on a stage with bright lights and a huge audience was the scariest and most exciting thing I had ever done (except for getting married and having children).
Everyone has a story to tell; my hope is to encourage more people to do it.
She received her teaching degree from Kearney State College and taught second grade in Lincoln and Kearney.
Mary has been a “professional” storyteller for 20 years. She has authored three children’s books, but mostly works very hard at “staying out of trouble!”
Currently, Mary serves on the Humanities Nebraska Council, Kearney Area Storytelling Festival Board, MONA Board, Good Samaritan Hospital Foundation Board, Crane River Theater Board, Woman’s Club Board, Docent at MONA, Hospice Volunteer, member of WIN.
Great news, Nebraska! We are pleased to share that we have received a $400,000 4:1 challenge grant from an anonymous donor that will help us reach our “All for the Match” campaign goal!
To meet the conditions of the grant, we need to raise $1.6M over the next three years to match the increase in the public fund that provides real time support of the arts and humanities across our great state.
This opportunity will not only ensure a future livelihood for the arts and humanities in Nebraska, but also helps ensure Livi’s safety! Remember Livi, the charming, courageous piggy bank on a mission to help us reach our goal and enlighten antagonist Hammy in the process? The 4:1 challenge grant meant that Hammy had to attend the Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities, an annual event that demonstrates the importance of the humanities in public life.
During the Governor’s Lecture, Hammy listened as Pulitzer prize-winning author and historian Annette Gordon-Reed and collaborator Peter S. Onuf discussed their forthcoming book, Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination.
While Hammy was less-than-thrilled to attend his second humanities event, we were fortunate enough to capture the photo below when he didn’t realize we were watching. Is that a smile starting to form? Maybe this means there’s hope for him after all! Will Hammy overcome his reluctance and embrace that the arts and humanities have beautiful experiences to offer? Only time will tell!
For more information about this matching grant opportunity, contact Pam Snow at email@example.com.
My earliest political memory is of my father’s reaction to my uncle’s observation that he thought Robert Taft would be a good president. Daddy narrowed his eyes and slowly shook his head: “Taft was never a friend of the working man,” he growled. Born and raised in Saline County, my parents were staunch Democrats, and my grandfather had served in the Legislature as a Democrat before it became a non- partisan unicameral.
A couple of uncles by marriage brought a much more typically Nebraska Republican position to our family gatherings, and I loved listening to their sometimes heated discussions. After the company had left, I would pester my parents with “why” questions. My father’s answers were grounded in the personal history of a self-taught blue-collar worker and son of Austro- Hungarian immigrants who had left Europe before the devastation of two world wars.
Although my exploration of the “whys” would benefit from a far more extensive formal education in history than my dad enjoyed, these earliest experiences of using history to understand issues helped shape my life. Even during the radical student days of the late 60s and early 70s when I was in graduate school, I believed that you had to understand why something was as it was before you could change it. Simple slogans wouldn’t do.
The state humanities councils, with their congressional mandate to use the humanities to foster public understanding of critical issues, became a natural vocation for me. While finishing my dissertation, I served as a scholar in a project exploring women’s issues funded by the brand new Nebraska Committee for the Humanities. An NETV film series with discussions held around the state encouraged Nebraskans to look at historical forces shaping women’s traditional roles and analyze the factors demanding change. It was a perfect vehicle for understanding why this issue was so controversial that Nebraska first approved the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and then repealed it. I had found my calling!
I believe that Humanities Nebraska fulfills its highest mission when it enables Nebraskans to draw upon history and the humanities to better understand the challenges we face today. Whether it’s a question posed to a Chautauqua scholar about government’s role in agriculture during the Depression; an exhibit that traced Nebraska’s English-only law back to WWI anti-German-immigrant sentiment; or high school students from across the state at Capitol Forum exploring the divisive legacy of western imperialism in the Middle East today—Nebraskans are asking “why.” They are learning that the humanities are essential to citizenship.
Jane Renner Hood was executive director of Humanities Nebraska from 1987 to 2010. Prior to that, she was on the staff of the Illinois Humanities Council and taught history at UNL, Creighton University, and Northwestern University. Hood was one of the founding members of the Nebraska Cultural Endowment and also served on the Federation of State Humanities Councils. She has a B.A. in history from Doane College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in European history from UNL.
In her retirement, Hood continues her commitment to the humanities and citizenship by serving on the boards of directors for the Cooper Foundation, Doane College, Lincoln Literacy, and the Foundation for Lincoln City Libraries. She is on the advisory board for the Willa Cather Foundation, serves on OLLI’s history committee, records magazines and books for the Library Commission’s Talking Books, and occasionally reviews books for NET-Radio’s “All About Books.” She has a son and two granddaughters who live in Chicago.