When an artist leads an examined life, all past roads clearly inform the present. Take, for example, Tasha Golden, one half of long-time Cincinnati Alt Folk duo Ellery and whose first book, Once You Had Hands, recently was a finalist for a 2016 Ohioana Book Award in Poetry.
Currently a doctoral student at the University of Louisville’s School of Public Health, Golden says the reason she chose to pursue a career in public health lies in her past. As does her poetry.
“For several years, I’ve been interested in how stigmatized things become ‘speakable’ through the arts,” she says by phone. “An example is (how) in Ellery I would perform songs about things like domestic violence or mental health. After our shows people would line up wanting to talk. I had dozens of women and a couple of men tell me they were abused, and say that I was the first person they told.
“I had read a lot of research about the negative health impacts of stigmatization and repression, and how the arts allow people to talk about things that are otherwise not ‘talk-about-able,’ ” she says. “That’s actually what drove me here to research arts and health.”
That also drove her to publish her highly praised poetry. Booked to play Springfield, Ohio, the duo (she and husband Justin) was asked to come early to perform a “lunch hour” show at a nearby youth detention center. Not knowing what to play, they decided on songs about getting through tough times.
“I shared songs about domestic violence and depression, and how those songs helped me to work through things,” she says. “Afterward, the arts director of the facility said that nobody had ever talked about that stuff with the youth. She asked if I would come back to lead a weeklong creative writing program for the girls.”
These experiences led to more writing workshops for incarcerated girls. They also led to the publication of Once You Had Hands. At the end of each writing workshop, a closing program was held where the girls would read their poetry. But during one workshop in particular, they were too nervous, and didn’t want to go through with the program. So Golden informed them she had a stack of her own poems that terrified her. She said if they read their work, she would publish her poems.
“When they took the deal, I said ‘Oh, crap,’ ” Golden says, laughing.
Once You Had Hands is a bold, nuanced debut. Published by Humanist Press, the publishing arm of the American Humanist Association, it grapples with Golden’s experience of growing up as a conservative Christian in southeast Ohio and Akron, especially as it relates to being a woman and not finding a safe place there.
An example, used with permission, is “I Was Thinking of Origins”:
Natives, whiskey, gentlemen
Little Girls, loveless unions
Tuberculed lungs, rotted livers
Gone, their skin lain
Sagging, sprouting weeds
Ashen, wormed into rich earth
Of how I learned to pray
From ghost mouths, coffee
Burning, cakes and paper
Torn and browning, bleeding ink
And urgency, those souls uncertain
Yawning, crowding as if I could speak
For them, as if I could speak
“The book came out of my attempts to excavate a family history that I will never be able to pin down,” Golden says. “My mother is the youngest of 11 children and her parents had both passed away by the time she was 3. I have all these questions about her upbringing, which was clearly impoverished and abusive. A lot of the poems are my attempts to try to put a story around something that’s just a skeleton of a thing. I felt like I needed to do that.”
Excavating such poetic matter produced light for Golden. “There were times when I was writing this book that were really dark moments,” she says. “But also, it felt hopeful because I had finally reached the point where I could do this work, as opposed to living with something I can’t name.”
Her poems netted yet another boon: new songs. “When I started writing songs again, it was just like this whole field of subject matter was now open for exploration,” she says.
For more information on ONCE YOU HAD HANDS, visit humanistpress.com.