This week's wholeheARTed conversation couldn't have come at a better time. After the white supremacy rallies in Charlottesville, we're ever reminded of the undercurrent of racism that rocks our nation—in slow and steady tides, and in extreme, raging storms.
In a world where guns and money and hatred and fear often have such a strong grip, why art? Why spend time nurturing our creativity when we could nurture broken bodies and institutions instead?
In her reflections, our wholeheARTed guest, Hannah Landgraf, offers us a possible response. Poetry, art, words—these are forces with the power to free us from ourselves. Liberation isn't disconnected from our thoughts, our visions, our creative expressions; it is inherently rooted in them.
We can't make the world whole without also tending to this work within ourselves.
Read more below and be sure to catch up on our other wholeheARTed guests here.
SA: When did you first consider yourself an artist or creative person?
HL: I’m only beginning to try on the title of artist, primarily because it has taken time to break my expectations of what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a human with titles.
I went to seminary, but I’m not ordained. I write, but I don’t get paid for it. I have taught in unique settings, but I don’t have a license. I have a job I love, but the title doesn’t really share what I do or why I do it. Often I try to footnote my titles. I want to provide context and clarity. I feel the need to prove it.
I’m learning how to claim my identity and move on. So, I am Hannah. I’m a poet, teacher, preacher, and program manager. I’m an artist.
SA: Tell us about the art you create or how you express yourself creatively.
HL: I am a poet first. Everything else is practice.
Even when I’m writing prose or short stories, even when I’m crafting sermons or liturgies, I come to those pieces and projects as poems. I know poetry to have the most power and range of any written form. In a world of more—more money, more time, more power, more images, more news, I can’t help but cut the fat. I craft constraint to hold back, to let it rip. Poetry flips the world on its belly; it points simultaneously to hope and grief, to the particular and the universal. Poetry is a tool for liberation, it’s a life force. It’s the only way I know how to counter death and despair in all of its stubbornness.
SA: What is your creative process like?
HL: It’s difficult for me to differentiate between my creative process and my daily life. The way I interact with the world fuels my creativity. I am constantly observing, listening, reading, and taking in new information and ideas. I am a compulsive note taker. I’ll witness an interaction between strangers on the bus and scribble it down. I try to read at least one poem or piece of creative writing a day. Eventually, something mysterious and chemical happens within me and a few lines of a poem appear or an idea for a story emerges. In that moment, all I can do is put pen to paper. It’s as if my body needs to physically expel the words.
Since I work a fairly demanding job and I’m not a full-time artist, I’ve had to steward this chaos. I’ve worked to create rituals and disciplines to nurture the creative impulse. I set aside space in the week to write. I challenge myself to follow a certain form or use obscure prompts. Rarely do these disciplines produce work I share formally, but they keep me sharp and ready.
SA: What does fear look like for you and how does it show up in your creative process?
HL: While I know creativity to be an extraordinary gift, it is also perilously linked to my personality. Over the last few years the wisdom of the Enneagram has given me the language to talk about my fears, my desires, and help make sense of what it means to live, love, and create as an Enneagram 4. For those who don’t know, the Enneagram is a personality typing system and tool for transformation. Its purpose isn’t static—it isn’t meant to box us in and name us. Rather, it’s a dynamic system that seeks to point us toward growth while helping us better understand our motivations, our shadows, and how we enter into relationship with others.
The Enneagram 4 is the individualist. I am self-aware, sensitive, creative, moody, and self-conscious. Creativity is so utterly connected to my personality that I even attempt to create new identities for myself. I am preoccupied with the need to create. Sometimes I create manically, hoping the stories or poems I write will give meaning to my life, hoping they will help others better understand me. Often I am paralyzed by this desire, so much so that I cannot create. This is when the fear sets in. It’s a fear that if I am not creating, I am insignificant. I am nobody. I have lost it. For someone who has hinged their existence on creativity, this is an agonizing and staggering feeling that leads only to shame, guilt, and doubt. At my best, I am able to stop, unhinge myself, and affirm that I am more than what I create.
SA: How do you push beyond fear and self-doubt when they emerge during the creative process?
HL: To overcome fear is to let go of the feelings that bind and learn to transform them into substance and grit. The best way I know how to push beyond fear is to move forward into it—to transform the fear and doubt into art that tells the story of what it means to be human. A community helps too. While living in Atlanta, I helped start an art co-op. The group still meets every month to share their work and provide feedback to one another. It was in that space, supported and challenged by loving and grace-filled community, that I was able to speak honestly of my fear and watch as some of it began to fade away.
SA: How is your creativity connected to your faith?
HL: James Cone, in God of the Oppressed, writes, “God’s Word is a poetic happening, an evocation of an indescribable reality in the lives of the people.”
Theology is an inherently creative task. My theology—our theology—is a response to God’s work and word in the world. My poetry is theological. Whether or not I use explicitly religious or spiritual language, I’m always seeking to point toward the good news of God made manifest.
SA: How does creativity/art lead you to wholeness?
HL: The poems and stories I write serve as stepping stones on the long journey toward wholeness. Without them, I’d sink. I’d fall through the cracks. It’s a tumultuous road, this business of becoming whole. Every now and then I need to catch my breath and rest. The art I create provides that respite.
The neighbor starts his mower at seven.
It is Saturday and he is smiling to himself
thinking only of productivity and homeownership.
He switches the tiny engine on and marches
rhythmically across the square lot leaving only
tufts of green and some imperceptible poison.
The news anchor told me five percent of
this country’s air pollution originates from
more than 50 million people cutting their
grass on any given summer weekend.
It is Saturday and he is smiling to himself
while I am trying to sleep.
As I turn into the post office a Buddhist monk
is jaywalking on his way to meditation.
Everything in me says hit him as he
dangerously darts between speeding traffic.
Didn’t he learn anything from the silence?
Must my windshield teach him karma?
These mornings it is good I don’t keep a gun
in the drawer by my bed to steady on a shelf
and aim at my neighbor’s neck.
This morning I will tap my brake giving
the holy man a millisecond more mercy.
It is Saturday and I am smiling to myself
while he is safe at puja.
(poetry by Hannah Landgraf)
Green Bough House of Prayer
after i pet the
tailless cat for
two days and
became her fur
matted into the
& walked the
labyrinth at dusk
& when sharing
because we had
it was time to go
& i wept careful
tears scared to
return to a time
when i’d only
count in my
i’m glad i stayed
isn’t really a
a hiding place
we have come
from and where
we are going
Hannah Landgraf is a hopeful poet and wannabe monastic. She shares her work at Vixens + Monks and co-curates Lifevest, a digital literary magazine, with her husband Eric. During the day, Hannah works to secure safe, stable, and affordable housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Des Moines.