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In Memoriam: Monica Hand

Hand was a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Missouri and an Assistant Professor of English at Stephens College.

 

“I am listening. My entire body is listening. To everything,” she said. “Your body is the primary source, and the scholarship is the secondary source.”

Monica Hand took a unique approach to the research that fed her creative work. She was a traveler, a researcher, a poet. She used the experiences of her life, the places she had been, as the research to influence her poetry.

In May of 2011, Hand found herself living in New York with her daughter. She had just retired after thirty-two years with the Postal Service, and was busy spending her days promoting her new book of poetry, me and Nina, a book of poems in conversation with the music of Nina Simone. She was also thinking about her next adventure.

Earlier that same year, Hand had earned her MFA from Drew University. It was a low-residency program, the structure of which brought a family element to her studies. She found that she fit well inside the long days and intensive creative atmosphere. She wanted to begin working beyond her MFA and knew she needed to find her way back to a creative writing program. Hand considered going back to office of graduate studies, but really didn’t see herself in a literature program. She wanted to create.

Then, almost serendipitously, she heard of an opportunity to study with a few MU professors during an intensive summer session that June in Greece. It was during this month-long residency that Hand was introduced to her doctoral advisor, Aliki Barnstone, MU professor and poet laureate of Missouri. Barnstone encouraged Hand to attend Mizzou as a Ph.D. student.

“Missouri? Where is Missouri?” Hand said, laughing. “Missouri was like the other side of the world to me.”

Born and raised in Newark, NJ, Hand was an east-coaster at heart, and had only ever lived on the east and west coasts.

“The Midwest seemed foreign to me.”

In July of that same year, Hand’s mother passed away.

“It made me feel groundless, homeless, and I wandered around a lot,” said Hand.

Devastated, Hand worked to pick up the pieces of her life in New York, but this life event made her realize she was ready for a new start.

“I got another one of those inquiries from Aliki encouraging me to apply [to MU], so I applied. Really it was a new beginning,” Hand explained. “I was lost, to be honest, I was really lost. I was grieving, and it’s not really good to stay in that grief. [The Ph.D. program] gave me a goal.”

By the time of her final year of her doctoral studies, Hand created another book of poems, her creative dissertation, which was inspired by this new journey in the Midwest and her continued travels, mostly in Europe and other parts of the United States.

“People make a lot of assumptions that poetry is about the person’s life, or they say write about what you know,” said Hand. “That can be true, but I don’t want to be stuck in that narrative.”

Though some of her work is about and influenced by her life and experiences, much of it intertwines with research. With creative work, the research process is different than more traditional processes and methodologies.

“I don’t think that people understand the difference in the way a creative writer might do research,” explained Hand. “For me, the first step in this research is to tap into the intuitive and allow yourself to reflect on associations. Writers may also do research on the period of literature, or the genre.”

This was true for her first book, me and Nina. Part of the research for these poems involved fully immersing herself into the music of Nina Simone, listening to it over and over, allowing herself to live in it.

“I had been listening to her music since I was a teenager, and I am writing about her in my fifties. A lot of things have happened since then.”

As someone with a background in music, she was able to use her training to pull apart the different elements of each song in order to experiment with the structure and content of the poems.

Simone was a classically trained musician herself who “had a love affair with Bach.” So, she began listening to the music of Bach, and soon she decided to structure her book like a fugue. But, her research didn’t stop there.

“I read her authorized autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, and I read every single biography that I could find.”

When she came to Missouri, Hand’s focus moved in a different direction, but her research methods remained the same. With her late mother still on her mind, she was drawn to explore those feelings the best way she knew how: by writing.

“Since my mother died, I felt homeless. I wanted to write about homelessness. But, I didn’t know how to enter that subject matter.”

She tried writing literally about homelessness, but then felt that wasn’t the right approach for her. Hand forced herself to stop thinking about it, consciously. Rather, she turned inward, to her most trusted research method: her intuition.

When she started her program at MU, she felt alienated in Missouri.

“I was writing poems that reflected on being in Missouri,” Hand said. She felt a feeling of displacement, of not belonging.

“For some reason homeless and homelessness took me back, all the way back to slavery,” Hand explained. “I was thinking that I feel homeless, because I have lost my mother. What other thing connects us to a place? What else gives us roots? The more I thought about ‘motherland,’ the more I thought about slavery, because that is when, for most of us, our story in [the US] begins.”

One of her more recent poems was inspired by a trip she took to Iowa for a poetry reading.

“Aliki and I are driving along the Mississippi river. And there is something burning, I don’t know what is burning,” she said. “I wrote down ‘along the Mississippi…’.”

She created a sonnet from this experience.

“Even though I am Monica in this time, the persona in the poem is the African first arriving.”

The rising smoke combined with the long history surrounding the Mississippi river led to a poem that was so much more than just that one moment riding in the car. The poem combined her intuition and the research that she completed on the history of the location and on African languages.

During her time at MU, Hand’s scholarly work focused on Black British literature, which started her on a path to explore the contributions of Black women on contemporary British literature.

“When you look at most genres, they are totally dominated by men.” Thus, she wanted to explore the various contributions of women across several genres. Hand was surprised by what she found. “I realized that the Black British woman writer is actually Caribbean, Trinidadian, Jamaican, Antiguan, or maybe Caribbean Canadian, so this increased my interest outside of the UK into the African diaspora.”

As with most of Hand’s work, her new research took her on a journey. This time, she travelled to Nantes, France, a port city.

“I had the most incredible out-of-body experience there,” Hand said. They have a memorial to the end of slavery. On the ground outside they have hundreds of plaques in the sidewalks, in the walkways. And it seems endless, and at first you don’t know what you are seeing. And you walk and walk and it’s there. It was summer, and it was blistering hot. It wasn’t humid. It was like the sun was burning your skin. Each of these plaques had the names of ships, names in French that translate as ‘The Children,’ ‘The Black Angels.’”

The plaques held the dates of when each ship sailed and where it travelled, including Canada, the United States, and Jamaica.

“I had this feeling like, ‘oh, this is why I am drawn to France, instead of wanting to go to Africa.’ That was all intuitive.”

Several of her most recent poems come from that experience and relate to displacement and homelessness.

Before her passing, Hand was drafting the poems that would have culminated in a creative dissertation. It contained the poems from the journey that led her to MU: writing in Greece, traveling in France, and being in Missouri. The journey of the last five years.

“The title has changed many times,” she explained. “It started off actually as ‘Homeless’, it moved from that to ‘Traveler.’” Now, it is “American Nomad,” to suggest traveling and not belonging to one place. “Trying to find that home where I belong.”

When she was not writing poetry, Hand wrote plays.

“Believe it or not, my BA is in English and theatre, but mostly acting and directing.”

She had always been drawn to writing for the theatre, having first explored playwriting for street theatre and by crafting dramatic monologues.

“I was surprised at first to come back to theatre, but it has always been in my life.”

The Disappearance of Anne Plato is a full-length piece that Hand wrote while studying under David Crespy, a playwriting professor here at MU. It is based on the life of Anne Plato, an educator, essayist, and poet.

“This play is 85% research based. I had to study the 19th century, especially for free Black people living in Hartford CT, because that is where Plato lives.”

She used historical research to assist when writing scenes and characters, even the music that would be present in the world of the play. “For Pennington, the minister, I read about what his robe would look like,” said Hand. “And that was so fascinating, because I kept learning things that I didn’t know before I started. I learned that he was an escaped slave, and he was living as a free man in Connecticut. Then, I learned that he was the first Black [man] to attend Yale Divinity School.”

Hand hoped to have this play read and produced one day in March of this year, The Disappearance of Ann Plato was accepted as a part of the Plays in Progress forum at the Mid America Theatre Conference, and a reading of her ten-minute play Chrysalis was presented to honor her contributions as a playwright.

Another of Hand’s projects, The DiVida Poems, is slated for publication, posthumously, in 2018 by Alice James Books.

With each day, she set out to experience the world around her, always waiting for a whisper from the muses and the pangs of inspiration. Hand’s artistry will continue to live on in her poems and plays, and her memory treasured by those who knew and loved her.