10 Questions With David Hassler, Director of the Wick Poetry Center
David Hassler is the director of the Wick Poetry Center, where he oversees the local and national Wick projects, works with students and collaborates with other programs across campus. After growing up in Kent, Hassler decided to return as an adult after attending college, and he’s been here ever since. In his role as the director of the Wick Poetry Center, Hassler guides Wick’s innovative community projects that offer valuable educational experiences for Kent State students and impact the community in many positive ways.
Learn more about Hassler as he answers these 10 questions:
Q. How do you describe your job?
I feel very fortunate to lead this center in a way that can be responsive to the needs in our community and of our students. I feel lucky that my job is both administrative and also very creative. We have the capacity to invent and to create new projects, while also continuing to deliver our traditional programming. Working with students here at Kent State is the very heartbeat of our program. It's the students that animate and give the lifeblood to our program. It's awesome.
Q. How has your work changed through the COVID-19 pandemic?
During Governor Mike DeWine’s COVID-19 press conference on March 22 announcing an Ohio stay-at-home order, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said, “I know it feels like life is shutting down, but I feel like life is waking us up.” At the Wick Poetry Center, we believe in the power of poetry to wake us up and bring us together, especially during these difficult times of uncertainty and isolation. At a time when we are all practicing social distancing, we must not be emotionally distant from each other. This crisis is also a mental health issue, and poetry and expressive writing is an important tool to address this issue. Life will not shut us down. Rather, we believe, along with Dr. Amy Acton, that this difficult and disorienting time will wake us up to the power in our own voices and bring us together in new and creative ways.
We are working hard at the Wick Poetry Center to convert our programs, creative writing tools, and interactive traveling exhibits to an online platform, so that people can engage from home and share their voice in a creative community conversation.
In this time of social distancing, we are building a landing page for our Traveling Stanzas website that will offer a means for people to follow several different writing prompts and to add their voice to growing community poems and to a gallery of other voices. People will also be able to submit their poems and creative reflections both in text form and in videos from their homes. We are working with the Kent State College of Nursing and creating a video poem of their faculty and graduate students who are working on the front lines of this crisis, and they will be reading their community poem, “Some Days,” which the Wick Poetry Center scripted in 2018. We will collect videos from 8 different Nursing colleagues reading different sections of the poem from their homes and edit their videos into a group reading of the poem. This video will serve as a prompt for a state-wide community poem honoring nurses, doctors, and caregivers who are working to help others during this time of crisis. We have also been leading weekly writing workshops online with our incredible Wick student interns and fellows and other KSU colleagues and community members and will post these instructional videos featuring our staff members, Dr. Jessica Jewell and Charles Malone. We have also made our interactive exhibit Armed with Our Voices available online. Armed with Our Voices commemorates the 50th anniversary of the tragic shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, and connects our history to the contemporary moment.
Q. When and how did your passion for poetry begin?
I joke that I often wanted to rebel against this inclination that I felt in myself and that I saw in my father's life, which was to pursue the life of literature and teaching. Yet I have very fond memories in elementary school of creative writing exercises and my beloved fifth grade teacher assigning us personification essays where we got to imagine being a blade of grass, or a leaf or a tree and describe our life that way.
As an undergraduate college student, I was pulled to the critical side of literature. It was only after I found myself in the real world, feeling wholly dissatisfied with most of the roles that one could play, that I turned to creative writing to make sense and meaning of a feeling that I was not happy with the status quo, either of the world or of my own life. When I landed back in Kent at the age of 24, I met Maggie Anderson, the founding director of Wick. I feel lucky that I came back to Kent and planted myself here in this fertile ground for poetry and was part of this community of writers that feed each other and are a part of this ongoing conversation of poetry.
Q. So, what brought you back to Kent?
I first came back to Kent because I was hired by the Ohio Arts Council in 1995 when I had just graduated from Bowling Green State University’s Master of Fine Arts program. I thought, if I'm going to work in Ohio, I want to live in Kent. I had good friends who are musicians and writers and dancers, and I knew that this is a very creative town. I love its quirkiness. It's a place where you can just simply be who you are, it's very accepting. So I came back, and those were very fertile and creative years in my early thirties. Because I was living in Kent, Maggie Anderson and I reconnected and in 2000 she asked me to develop a poetry outreach class for Kent State undergraduates.
Q. How has your role changed over the years you’ve been at Kent State?
In 2000 I was hired part-time to develop the class, “Teaching Poetry in the Schools.” Initially my role for the Wick Poetry Program was simply to teach that class every spring semester. It was a joyful experience for me as a teacher to witness the discoveries and the ‘aha moments’ of Kent state students and to share my passion with them. When I was hired full-time in 2004, I took on some additional administrative roles as the program and outreach director. It was exciting to work with Maggie Anderson, our founding director, and to actually have a full-time job on the campus, to begin to serve on some committees, and to work with the May 4th symposium. When Maggie retired in 2009, I had the opportunity to take over as the director and to hire some wonderfully talented, passionate staff to expand our work in the community.
Q. How have you seen the university evolve over time in a way that's made you proud to work here?
Kent State has phenomenally talented and wonderful people in many different departments, fields and disciplines. I think it's an exciting place. I think Kent State, like so many universities, is such a rich place of intellectual capital and of real resources across disciplines. I think one of the opportunities in academia is to work with one another to create these one plus one equals three equations. These collaborations certainly benefit students and all of us in a way, but we can't do it alone. Bringing poetry to the Women's Center or to Visual Communication Design students are ways that we create projects that expand our reach to leverage the intellectual capital that and the resources that exist on our campus. I think what I've enjoyed is thinking of Kent State as a wonderful laboratory to explore how to remake and rethink how we take advantage of the resources in academia itself. I think in a lot of ways, some of the programs we've created are leading on a national level. This kind of innovation uses the resources of a university with its own community in new and innovative ways that benefit us all. The exhibit we created working with refugees and immigrants we called Writing Across Borders, but I think writing across borders and disciplines and bridging those gaps has been a real focus of the Wick Poetry Center.
Q. What makes you passionate about your career?
I've always been very interested in the personal and the collective, in the way our private and our public lives intersect and feed each other. I turned to poetry out of a real need to make meaning of my life and to work on my own healing. My mother passed away when I was 12, and I grew up with that sense of loss, but I had never had the language to talk about it. I turned to poetry initially to give shape and form to that grief in my early twenties when I found other examples of ways that poets could give meaning to that. I think being this instrument for others to find a voice, to make me another life and to make themselves whole through their language was very gratifying. I see the work of Wick continuing in that tradition. I was always aware, even when I began working for Wick initially in 2000, that the center was a way of helping to give voice to what felt inarticulate in our lives, and to give meaning to what felt meaningless. Poems are suited for that way of coming to us at a time when we need precisely make sense in language of what is troubling us.Out of loss, you have through the alchemy of words and of language and of art, a new kind of gain, when you can speak and give voice to some loss.
Q. What is your favorite spot on Kent State’s campus?
Well, of course my favorite spot now is the Wick Poetry Center and our poetry park. But I've always loved the commons, even knowing full well its tragic history. As a middle schooler, I used to walk from our house across 59 onto the commons and play pickup soccer games with Iranian graduate students in the late seventies. Of course it's been the site of so many commemorations of May 4, and I think of it as sacred ground, and very meaningful. And I've loved the library. Especially the seventh floor.
Q. What’s one thing about you that might surprise people?
Something about me that might surprise people is nobody believes that I'm an introvert. According to the Myers Brigg, where you draw your energy is how you determine what you are. I expend lots of energy around people, but I love and require lots of alone time in solitude. In fact, the chapbook that I published for the poetry chapbook series was called Sabishi: Poems from Japan. The word Sabishi in Japanese means solitude, lonely, to be alone. People will still contest that I'm not an introvert.
Q. What is your number one piece of advice for Kent state students?
My number one advice to students is to pay attention to one's own mindfulness and build up one's own resilience and ability to be mindful and centered. Nothing is more important than that because life is difficult and always full of surprises. Our own ability to remain centered and to create a healthy mindfulness to respond to the world will always be absolutely essential in one's life. I think it’s important to build one's own daily practice of centering oneself. There are a thousand more ways to do it. For me, it's not just reading and journaling, it might be that combined with playing the piano or running or walking in nature. I think finding one's own rituals and one's practices of mindfulness is invaluable.