State Poet Twyla Hansen

Twyla Hansen
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June 3, 2016 - 3:33pm

State Poet Twyla Hansen was inspired by Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, whose work is deeply steeped in their prairie roots.

About halfway through her stint at Nebraska state poet, Twyla Hansen continues to travel Nebraska, sharing her poetry and her love of writing with a variety of audiences.

Hansen was named to a five-year term as Nebraska’s state poet by Gov. Dave Heineman in 2013, replacing one of her mentors, the late Bill Kloefkorn. Like Kloefkorn, Hansen is a staunch advocate for poetry, literacy and literature.

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On a late-winter Saturday afternoon, Hansen spoke to a women’s group in Omaha. Attendees peppered her with questions about her influences, her writing process and the essence of poetry.

“Prose is known for what it includes. Poetry is known for what it leaves out,” she said in response to one person’s question. “It’s highly condensed language and every word counts. So it’s a little more difficult to write in that you really have to think about every word.”

That doesn’t mean that the prospect of writing poetry should be intimidating, Hansen said. She likes to share the story of her own journey into becoming a writer, which began when she took a writing class about 30 years ago from Kloefkorn at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

From the start, Kloefkorn himself demystified the writing process. “I go to the class hoping to learn how to write,” she recalled, “but this is how he did it: He read some things, he kidded around, and then he said when you come to class next time, bring a poem you’ve written. And I hadn’t ever written one. And I thought he was going to say, one, do this, two do that, but it didn’t work that way.”

From that, Hansen said, she learned the best way to learn to write is to just start writing – and don’t stop.

“I tell people they should write every day but when I was working fulltime I didn’t have that luxury. But it helps to just keep practicing your writing,” she said. “No matter if it’s something you’re not gonna keep, you’ve honored the process. You’ve actually put words on a page, which counts because all writing leads to more writing.”

Twyla Hansen at her family pizza business, Old Cheney Farmers Market in Lincoln

In Hansen’s case, that’s led to six published collections of poetry so far. Most of her work is informed by her Nebraska roots. She grew up on a farm near Lyons in northeast Nebraska and spent her career as groundskeeper for Nebraska Wesleyan University.

She was inspired by Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, whose work is deeply steeped in their prairie roots. And “Cottonwood County,” a collection from Kloefkorn and fellow Nebraska poet Ted Kooser, was quite influential.

 “I thought this is great. They’re talking about dirt and cattle and things that I know about. I grew up on a farm, and that kind of made me wonder if I could be a writer,” she said.

Hansen likes to use Kloefkorn’s phrase – “nibbling around the edges of something vast” – to describe how poetry gets at its subjects: through as few words as possible in evoking meaning and emotion. And she thinks teaching poetry to young people is key to helping them communicate, whether they turn into poets or not.

“It’s a means of self-expression but it also teaches you how to choose words carefully and express your ideas in a way that others will understand,” she said. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This time of year, you’re likeliest to encounter the state poet selling pizzas. She and her husband own Rolling Fire Catering, a wood-fired pizza business whose gigs include the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market in Lincoln.

Hansen has achieved one of her goals as state poet: creation of a website celebrating Nebraska poets, a collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and other partners.



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