Updated: Sep 2
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from around the world. This week, we highlight the work of Tina Hacker.
Tina Hacker, a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, was a finalist in the New Letters and George F. Wedge competitions, named Editor’s Choice in two literary journals, awarded the Matrix Honor prize, and named a Muse for The Writers Place in Kansas City. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications, such as The Whirlybird Anthology of Kansas City Writers, San Pedro River Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Fib Review and I-70 Review. Since 1976, Tina has been poetry editor for Veterans’ Voices, a national magazine of writing by military veterans. Her poetry books, Listening to Night Whistles and Cutting It, have been joined by a new poetry collection titled Golems, published by Kelsay Books. The poems are based on the golem character from Jewish folklore who has helped mankind through the ages.
We reached out to Tina to talk about her work, influences, and inspirations.
Meet Tina Hacker!
AN: Welcome, Tina. We both live in the Kansas City metropolitan area, and I have had the good fortune to hear you read your poetry at local libraries and at The Writers Place events. I also attended the Muse Celebration where you and our current Missouri poet laureate, Maryfrances Wagner, were honored by our writing community. What a joy to have this opportunity to chat with you in our Flapper Press Poetry Café.
My first question for you is, "How has being a part of the Kansas City Writers Place enriched you as a poet?"
TH: The Writers Place in Kansas City has been a deep font of help, encouragement, information, and inspiration. I did my first public poetry reading for The Writers Place, which was a big step for me. There I was, sharing my poetry alongside an established and respected poet. Would my work hold up? Would I read well enough? The reception I received calmed all my jitters. It was totally positive, including a person in the audience who said he’d like to sell my book at the Barnes & Noble where he worked. He was surprised that I had no book. That supposition was rewarding also. I’d been writing for many years, but it was the support and information I gleaned from members of The Writers Place that led to my first—actually to all of my—poetry books. Ironically, Barnes & Noble won’t sell books by local poets now.
Since my first reading, I’ve read several times, each one an experience that has motivated me on my poetry journey. But reading and hearing other members’ work has also been a major element. The Writers Place opened the world of poets and poetry for me and welcomed me into an active, vibrant poetry community.
AN: Tina, I knew that you were the poetry editor for Veterans’ Voices, however, when reading your bio, I discovered that you have been in this role since 1976. This is a phenomenal volunteer commitment to Veterans' Voices, so obviously this publication is close to your heart. Please share with our readers how you became involved with Veterans’ Voices and why your commitment is so deep.
TH: I came to Kansas City in 1970 to work for Hallmark Cards, Inc. As a way to meet people and get involved in the community, I joined the Kansas City chapter of Women in Communications, Inc., now the Association for Women in Communications. A member of the chapter, who became a good friend, had founded Veterans’ Voices in 1952, so I heard about it regularly. In 1976, the protests and swirl of emotions from the Vietnam era were fresh and vivid to me. This background contributed to the magazine’s appeal. I liked the openness to publishing opposing and possibly unpopular opinions. Veterans could submit writing that was for or against the war, the military, or the government. I knew veterans who were treated badly when they returned from Vietnam. Here was a place they could tell uncomfortable truths about their experiences, a safe place for all veterans to write about feelings and interests, a place for healing and creative expression. When the poetry editor invited me to become her co-editor, I accepted without hesitation. Editing veterans’ poetry, today and in past years, is my way of participating in what I see as a larger picture of serving the country.
AN: While writing is incredibly therapeutic, why is it important for ALL veterans and active-duty military to know that they can submit their work on Writing, Poetry, Art, and Photography on ANY subject of their choice to Veterans' Voices?
How can family and friends best let their veteran loved ones know that the general population wants to read their work and view their art?
Please include any advice you might give to a veteran who is on the fence about submitting.
TH: I know this is out of order, but my first answer might be, “Please jump off the fence.” This is a magazine that welcomes new and experienced writers. Worried about subject matter? No need to feel anxious because the Veterans’ Voices staff is open to writing that explores just about anything.
This magazine gives “voice” to a group of men and women who share unique as well as similar experiences. It exists because its mission fills a need that hasn’t diminished over the years. The staff values this group and has since the first issue. Do friends and family want to read their writing? The longevity of the magazine is proof of that. Today there is an infinite number of journals and magazines that publish writing on the internet. I don’t have specific statistics but many, if not a majority of them, publish five years or less.
A billboard on Times Square. That would make people aware of the magazine and intrigue the general population. But, of course, that’s not possible. “Word of mouth” has been invaluable to Veterans’ Voices. All writers want people to read their work. The writers published between its covers are no exception.
AN: Another fun way our lives connect is that we each attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Illinois. Were you engaged in poetry while a student there? What ways can academia best reach a general population and foster a love of poetry, in your opinion?
TH: My experience at the University of Illinois could be called “the nasty note that launched a career.”
I majored in music for my first three semesters. The U of I has one of the top music schools in the country. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of the top students, or even near the top. My musical ear wasn’t good enough to become proficient in my chosen profession: high school choral conductor. Though it was heartbreaking, the decision to switch majors was the right one. I always enjoyed English literature, so majoring in the Teaching of English was a natural choice, though not an especially exciting one. At the time this was happening, a woman in my dorm slipped a nasty note about my singing voice under my door. I cried. And cried some more. And wrote a poem.
I don’t know why I wrote a poem. I hadn’t written any others. Ever. But I showed it to a friend. She liked it, so I wrote another. A couple of friends liked that one. And the next one. I spent the following year attending classes in English lit and writing poems in every spare moment. At some point, I reconnected with my freshman writing professor, and she became a mentor and friend. After a year of filling notebooks with poetry, I submitted a poem to the university’s literary magazine, Oblique, and had my first acceptance. Three more were accepted by the University of Wisconsin’s literary magazine, The Brass Ring. I also learned the hard way about rejection slips. But poetry put the allusive quality of excitement into my future.
I was prepared to be an English teacher but, after filling out a 30-page writing and editing test, Hallmark Cards hired me instead. I worked there for nearly 40 years.
I don’t know if the U of I had a poetry program. Truthfully, I didn’t even think about it when I was there. Who could make a living writing poetry? Same answer then as today. In my senior year, I did have a one-on-one poetry tutorial with the head of the English department. To qualify for this, students had to have taken several writing classes or submit a portfolio. I did the latter. This was a two-semester class, but it was my sole poetry course. Between this and the mentoring by my freshman writing professor, I had one-on-one poetry tutoring for nearly three years. I think that was the best route for me.
I believe the internet has had an effect on people’s perception of poetry and also venues like The Writers Place. But we need more people reading poems at major events, like Amanda Gorman reading at Biden’s inauguration. She set off a tidal wave of interest in poetry. Whether that wave will continue, only time will tell. But we need an ocean of waves.
AN: Your latest project, Golems, sounds fascinating. Can you share a little more about your journey in creating this book?
TH: The background story to the poem ”Words While Married” below I think answers much of this question. But I have an answer that adds some more information.
I first met golems as a little Jewish girl growing up. They’re part of Jewish folklore, so they seemed like my own personal heroes. About a decade ago, I wrote my first poem that starred a golem. I submitted it to several online journals but mostly heard, “It’s too Jewish” or “It’s not Jewish enough.” Then I submitted to an online journal called Quantum Fairy Tales. The editors not only accepted the poem, they also told me how much they loved it. After publishing several golem poems, they asked if they could serialize them. To my surprise, I had developed a following! Quantum Fairy Tales published 14 golem poems before the journal retired.
It was a fairly simple step to consider putting together a book of these poems. I do want to write a few words about the cover illustration by Terry Lee. I’m not saying a bit of golem magic was involved, but Terry, a designer and friend, was in a class I took at the Jewish Community Center at the time I was developing the book. When I casually mentioned it, he offered to create the cover. It’s an understatement to say I jumped at the chance to have an original cover illustration by an award-winning designer. And Terry was already known among fans of science fiction and fantasy.
The book, titled GOLEMS, is only the second collection of poems centering around golems—the Jewish folklore version. Individual poems, novels, and storybooks have been published, but no collection of poetry. And GOLEMS is actually the first collection that features a variety of golems. The book can be purchased on Amazon or from me. I can be reached at email@example.com.
AN: While this answer varies with any given poet, I am curious how you define success for a poet?
TH: I think a successful poet is a person that continues to write and enjoy poetry. Publication in journals, producing books, giving readings—these are certainly very rewarding. But keeping the words flowing year after year, in my opinion, is the most important achievement.
AN: This has been an honor for me to interview you for this Flapper Press piece. Thank you so much for stopping by to share your thoughts on poetry with our readers and for all the wonderful work that you do for our veterans.
We wish you the best in all your poetic endeavors and especially with your new book, Golems.
Tina, I’d like to end our conversation by asking you to share some of your poems and their backstories with our readers.
This poem is a true story, embellished a good deal by poetic license. I had a cousin who survived Auschwitz. As a Jew born only one year after the Holocaust officially ended, I felt this tragedy’s presence strongly and was eager to talk to my cousin about her experience in the camp. As the poem says, she uttered six words: “The worst part was the hunger.” No more. I now know that her mindset is very common among survivors. They share the desire to move on with their lives, look to the future and not burden their families with the past. But there was also the question of my cousin’s name. After calling her "Helen” for 20 years, she announced, without much explanation, that her name was “Julie.” I created a framework to address this, linking her name change to the Holocaust. After the poem was published—a long time after—I gathered the courage to send it to my cousin. I hoped it would prompt her to say a little more about her time at Auschwitz. Maybe another sentence. Anything. I was relieved that she liked the poem; that’s all she told me.
Looking for Helen
"The worst part was the hunger."
My cousin Helen says this
about her time at Auschwitz.
It's all she'll say. She pretends not to hear
my pleas for more information,
lapses into Hungarian, fleeing to the words
of her youth and remaining there
until the all clear is sounded
by talk of other matters, other times.
I hear rabbis repeat reasons why Helen
should, must, ought to say more.
"For future generations, for past generations,
for all generations."
They smile at her, confident in their skills
at persuasion until they feel
gusts of her silence, hear the trumpet call
of her unspoken words sound retreat.
I can now meet with Helen
without asking about the camp.
I ignore the restless questions,
tossing and turning in my mind,
catch them before they lunge at her
with impatient demands. Each year,
the unease becomes easier to bear.
But last month, when I called Helen's office,
a voice hollow with indifference said,
"No one by that name works here.
Maybe Julie can help you?"
My cousin came on the line.
She told me her real name was Julie,
and didn't know why the family always
called her Helen. That's all she'd say.
I can now call her Julie without translating
her new name into the original.
I wonder if she will change her name again.
Where has she put Helen?
Is she in hiding so when the Nazis
come, her neighbors will say,
"No one by that name lives here.”
First published in Potpourri, Vol 13
Mental illness has played a major role in my life. My mother suffered with this condition, so I grew up with the consequences of an illness that was misunderstood, stigmatized, and, most of all, not even recognized. As an adult, I studied mental illness and became active in organizations that strived to spread information about it to the community, especially to families who had a mentally ill member. Among the many books I read was, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of case histories by Oliver Sacks. This book, which explores extraordinary mental conditions, has been the inspiration for an opera, a movie, and my poem. One of the chapters deals with a person who developed a heightened sense of smell. My poem imagines a story about a woman with that condition, including her family’s reactions. Such families, like mine, often endure blame and guilt or are totally ignored.
She's never manic in the same way twice.
She claims she can smell
the arrival of spring though it's weeks away.
She walks across her backyard,
eyes closed so mere sight will not interfere
with the panorama of aromas enfolding her.
Spring flourishes unseen to others
but the fragrant journey of sap flowing through elms
offers her a sign as clear as a white iris.
Tangy roots awakening underground make her mouth
water in anticipation of grass and greens.
Her sister pulls her inside
before she can bury her nose in the moist soil
and embarrass her family.
Upstairs in her bedroom, she leans against the window
intending to look out into the garden
but is distracted by eclectic odors
of glass and curtain and sill.
They rise up to tell her stories of men sneaking smokes
as they apply lacquer to the window frame,
women dusting wood, girls stitching lace.
She is a fast learner.
When she hears her sister's footsteps
outside her door, she grabs a magazine
and turns to a middle page.
Somehow this always makes her sister happy.
She leafs through; glossy photos enthrall
her with their musk of ink and oil.
Perfume patches leave traces of scent
on her fingers. She tastes them.
Another world is opening.
First published in the Kansas City Star.
Like many of my poems, this one is a true story. My husband and I were walking along a path when a sycamore leaf fell on my head. I couldn’t identify the leaf but my husband could. This was the first of many questions throughout the hike about the flora and fauna around us. As we hiked, I scribbled the information around the edges of an old flyer I had in my purse, writing ideas for images at the same time. Some of these made it into the final version of the poem. One friend of mine commented, “You don’t often write about nature.” That’s because I don’t know a lot about nature. I blame this on growing up surrounded by brick and concrete in Chicago. And I know this isn’t a valid excuse.
Mill Creek Hike During Covid-19
A sycamore leaf. One leaf. But large
as a dinner plate, falls
right at my feet in early October
before the wetlands trail
turns into wallpaper patterns
of locust, oak, maple.
I stop, pick it up. This is new to me
or seems new after weeks in lockdown.
Swarms of marsh cattails line the route.
Their tall slender stakes sway
at the whims of autumn winds,
eclipsing smaller scrambles of prairie grass.
Algae spreads over a pond like a ‘50s
poodle skirt, wide swaths of green, smooth as felt
with a blue heron replacing the iconic symbol.
Walking through a tunnel, I am pressed
into a crouch when a train passes overhead.
Fun! I decide to wait for another train
then stroll until late afternoon shadows remind me
of the dark time I am traveling through.
But for a couple of hours on this lowland journey,
nothing more dangerous than a leaf.
First Published in the Mockingheart Review
Fibonacci poems are fun to create. I write almost exclusively in free verse but enjoy the structure of this form that does not require meter or rhyme. It’s like having your cake and eating it, too. I’m not sure when I first read a “fib” but, intrigued, I practiced writing them until I could feel the rhythm of the lines. I wrote “Jim Crow Crayons” during the weeks of Black Lives Matter protests. Though the poem doesn’t directly refer to this movement, it takes a small detail of ordinary life to reflect the larger issue of racism.
A last word about the form: it can have a wide number of layouts, which is another part of the fun.
Jim Crow Crayons
a crayon: FLESH.
Whose? Not mine or yours.
The color, a blur of pink and peach,
draws an American fiction, a land where light-skinned kids fill every playground.
answering to names
not found in the books
about Dick and Jane. No friends from families
with slavery in their history, whose stories for children explore shtetls or mosques.
Scope so slim
but so wide in hubris.
The box denies all birthrights beyond Europe’s borders,
its mix of colors segregated until the muscle of history opens the lid.
First published in the Fib Review
I’ve known about golems my entire life. After all, they first appeared in Jewish folklore: beings that rise from the earth to complete tasks given to them by their creators. Since I like science fiction and fantasy, golems were the perfect subjects, since they would encompass both. I published my first poem showcasing a golem in 2013 on a site called Quantum Fairy Tales. To my surprise, the editors were very enthusiastic about it. Of course, I wrote and submitted another and another. Readers of the site were following them! Before long, the editors asked If they could serialize the poems. It took me about one second to say, “Yes.” I searched the internet to find other poems starring golems and found individual poems, storybooks, and novels but no collection of golem poems. What an opening to fill! My collection, titled Golems, was released by Kelsay Books in 2021. As far as I know there are now only two such collections: one that contains poems highlighting a single golem and mine that has poems about an assortment of golems. I think both are “firsts” in their own way. The internet calls every action hero invented a ”golem.” Mine follow Jewish tradition more closely. Each of my golems has a specific goal and, upon completion, disappears into the earth. Mostly.
Words While Married
Task: Become a dictionary on demand.
Dave remembers love at first sight.
Sara’s not sure, but after 45
years of marriage, she lets
Dave’s memories prevail.
Their main love is each other,
main worry is Alzheimer’s.
When a word sticks on Sara’s tongue
and won’t come out,
or a name slips under Dave’s shoe
and won’t come off, there’s fear.
Sometimes they find
words for each other.
Together they recalled
the sacred text to conjure
a golem named Eli.
They were shocked when he appeared.
What was his purpose?
To fulfill wishes?
Dave listed things he’d buy
if he won the lottery. Sara
a hole-in-one or bowling 300.
Dave rolled his eyes;
his standards were higher.
“What a smart-ass,” Sara remarked,
“just like that actor in