North Salem poet Pamela Hart is inspiring people to discover the power of words and ideas
What do neuroscience, species loss, gun violence, and military families have in common? They are just some of the complex topics that occupy the brain of Pamela Hart, a nationally acclaimed poet and writer-in-residence at the Katonah Museum of Art. Through ideas and words, Hart informs and empowers herself as well as the often-overlooked communities that she focuses on in her work.
“I've always thought of myself as a writer. It's always been a part of how I've understood myself,” said Hart, a North Salem resident.
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Since she was a little girl, Hart immersed herself in words. She grew up a voracious reader and writer, and as an adult spent time as a journalist before discovering her passion for poetry.
“Poetry allowed me to be a little bit more loose,” Hart said, noting its lyric qualities and freedom to play with words, released from the constraints of plot and character development. “The idea is the engine; that's sort of how I operate,” Hart said.
Hart has spent a good portion of her writing career probing the lives and experiences of military families, an interest that grew out of personal experience. After her son graduated college, he decided to join the Army, a choice Hart and her family had not foreseen.
“When he started talking about this as a college grad it surprised all of us, but in a good way,” Hart said. “Once he enlisted and went off to basic training in the Army and decided to join infantry, I thought to myself, this is something, and I don’t know what that means. I want to learn about it as a parent and as a writer.”
As Hart does with any subject she finds interesting, she threw herself into research. She joined a support group for military families run by the Red Cross. She began reading war literature, including Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as well as some of the great novels written about the Vietnam War. Stories of soldiers are everywhere, but Hart had trouble finding stories about people living the home front experience. The seed of her next writing project was planted.
Hart called on her journalistic experience and began interviewing families impacted by the war in Afghanistan. “As our son moved around the country for various trainings and we’d visit him, I’d speak with and meet and talk to and interview people there,” Hart said. “Soldiers were deploying multiple times, which was unusual…families whose spouses were going over two to three times,” she said, referring to the unique and significant impact that that dynamic was having on military families.
Mothers Over Nangarhar is the product of Hart’s immersion into military family experiences, a five-part debut poetry collection that Publishers Weekly said “reads like a fundamental act of compassion.” In the book’s forward, Rowan Ricardo Phillips writes, “at its heart this book is a story of the mother’s mind making sense of a child tossed overboard and into the jaws of war.”
Hart said that while she hesitated as to whether the collection would find an audience, she also “had the sense that it spoke to something larger about the culture of war and the culture of story making.”
For Hart, the process of writing about war was a journey to understanding. “I’m not one that thinks of writing as healing,” she said. “I actually think that art making in general doesn’t necessarily provide solace. I think, for myself, as you get deeper into anything you open things up that are painful and difficult. I didn’t start things to heal; I started to try to understand and to look. I’m interested in looking at something from as many different perspectives as one can. That’s where my writing grows from; it’s about knowledge.”
Knowledge-seeking is something Hart has been working to pass on to the younger generation in her role as the writer-in-residence at the Katonah Museum of Art (KMA), where she’s worked for the past twelve years. Hart’s Thinking Through the Arts program challenges students to understand, think and speak about ideas that come when experiencing a visual work of art, such as a painting, sculpture or photograph.
“It comes out of the idea that images really dominate how information is presented these days in a range of media,” Hart said. “We believe that students can learn critical thinking skills so that they can better read this visually charged world.”
Beyond the students Hart interacts with through the museum, she has also developed meaningful relationships with inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the largest women’s prison in New York State and the state’s only women’s maximum-security prison. Hart, along with her colleagues at KMA, collaborated with Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a group that helps people in prison develop life skills through arts education, to develop a poetry program for the inmates at Bedford Hills. While the pandemic forced the program to go virtual, Hart persisted in sharing writing prompts via email and engaging in email correspondence about the submitted work, sharing feedback and often providing additional items for the inmate to read and consider.
“We’ve gotten some amazing work,” Hart said. “More than 60 poems. I’ve just been really blown away and moved. It’s been profound for me to be able to walk alongside and see this happen.”
When she’s not helping others find their words, Hart is busy finding her next ones. She has two books in the works and is collaborating with a composer on an opera about gun violence. “I’m a big believer in having multiple things happening at once,” Hart said. One of her books will explore how the brain works and how it breaks, looking at family trauma and neuroscience. The other book in progress explores species loss. Hart is finding inspiration for that work along the banks of the Titicus River in North Salem, where she can connect with nature in solitude.
Hart says her gun violence opera will be informed by multiple voices, including survivors, victims, perpetrators, and law enforcement. “As always, the research for me is really interesting,” Hart said, adding that this will be her first time writing a libretto (the text of an opera). “It’s a big undertaking but it also has been really invigorating to learn about.”
To talk with Hart is to feed off what appears to be an insatiable curiosity about the world—how it works, how people are moved and affected by it, and who and what are the often-overlooked people and forces that exist within it. Nothing is off limits, and everything is interesting.
“That’s what’s important about the [KMA] program. Students have the opportunity to understand that they can be interested in science or math or neuroscience and create art,” Hart said, referring to a common tendency to silo subjects. “The great thinkers are interested in all of them and get ideas from multiple levels of exposure to information.”
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