Manuscript Consultation Program Alum: Chris Hansen-Nelson

Chris Hansen-Nelson is one of the many authors who published a book after participating in our Manuscript Consultation Program and working with Enzo Silon Surin. We wanted to know more about his book, his publishing experience, and what he’s working on now. Here’s our interview…

Black Lawrence Press: Tell us about the process of writing Fathers, Sons, and Holy Ghosts. When did you start your first draft?

Chris Hansen-Nelson: My father died in August of 2014. He was a singularly unique human being and so I started off making a master list of stories he had told me over the years about his childhood and began to write in response to those that struck anything more than just a spark. I looked to the work to get my arms around my father and pull him as close as I could, to get my hands around his neck a bit, but most importantly, to inform myself about my experience of his experience, my take on having been his child, his son, as well as my time as a father and as a grandfather. That was the central, complicated cog to that wheel.

BLP: Fathers, Sons, and Holy Ghosts is about the complicated relationships that we have with our parents and ourselves. In your description of the book, you write, “Children working to solve the puzzle in the mirror look to portraits of their parents.” What made you decide to take up this central theme and what do you think you learned about our myriad selves while writing the book?

CHN: A month before my father’s passing, my five siblings decided I was to be the lucky one to slip him the news that we were taking his car away from him because he had become a risk on the road. It did not go well. Not surprisingly, it pulled a poem out of me as I wrestled with the brutal memory. At the time, I had just finished my first collection, The Book of Clay, an effort that consumed my writing for the previous five years. After its publication, I was stumped. I thought, “What am I ever going to find that holds my attention like that?” Then, my father died and, naturally, I began to reflect on my love for him and our time together. I continued to evolve that poem about our next to last interaction, fortunately we had a warm final moment, and I began to reflect on his life and our life together and that turned into the next five years of writing. What I learned is how much people of the same generation have in common. So many people who read my book and whose fathers were of the same generation have told me that they felt like they were reading the stories of their father’s lives, their father’s heartaches, the triumphs and relationships of their parents with their parent’s siblings and spouses even though all the particulars were of course different. And that reminded me that not only is it wise to forgive, it’s emotional suicide not to. Also, I was continually reminded how the apple, while not falling far from the tree, is not an exact duplicate, and so it is worth every delicious bite one can take and chew and savor.

BLP: What poets are your biggest influences?

CHN: Wow, so many. Shakespeare, Whitman, and then over the last twenty years, Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, Dennis Nurkse, Jane Hirshfeld, Heather McHugh, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Symborska, Mandelstam, Gluck, Marie Howe, Beckett, Jean Valentine… to name a few. I don’t know that I absorbed enough from any of them to claim influence, but I know I’m grateful for what I could get.

BLP: Were there any books or individual poems you found yourself returning to again and again as you wrote this collection?

CHN: The works of D. Nurkse, Philip Levine which included poems about their fathers. I return to Louis Gluck, Jane Hirshfield and Marie Howe. And, I also am now in my second re-reading of Hirshfield’s book of essays, Ten Windows, which with its companion effort, Nine Gates, I cannot recommend enough, for as many reasons as there are pages in the thick tome. Also, Basho.

BLP: Your previous book is titled The Book of Clay. Did you learn any lessons about writing, revising, or publishing this book that you implemented while you were working on Fathers, Sons, and Holy Ghosts?

CHN: God, I hope so. Most importantly, I learned not to judge the work, but rather to savor the discovery in its evolution. My favorite quote is Robert Pinsky’s observation, “First drafts are just the invitation, revision is the party.” And so, the previous draft of any work is just the invitation, today’s work is the wingding. It keeps reminding me of Heraclitus’ observation, “You can never step into the same river twice.”  So, diving back in, again and again, into the same work, holds the promise of ever-ripening, ever sweeter fruit. It’s the journey that enriches. One of the many other poets who have given me great advice over the years, the specifics of which unfortunately do not include remembering who gave me the specific gift, said, “Remember, the poem you are working on now is just preparation for your next poem.”  I would say that that advice keeps me sludging through self-judgment and keeps me thinking there is yet another poem to be found in the clouds and mirrors and mistakes and lessons to be found there as well as in one’s spouse and children and grandchildren and so on and so on and that the specific searching for those poems keeps me looking closely at the things that matter in life, that are altogether too easy to pass over lightly. As for  publishing, while a worthwhile pursuit, it does not determine the success of one’s writing life, the discovery itself is the unchallenged prize.

BLP: There are so many paths to publishing. Do I have it right that you established Wicked Rufous Press? Can you tell me what it’s been like establishing a press and having a guiding hand in the publication of your own books?

CHN: When I self-published my first book, I was advised to create a publisher to differentiate your effort from the work of the printer, so I created Wicked Rufous Press. The Wicked Rufous, in case you’re curious, is the smallest, feistiest of the hummingbirds. I knew I was small, so I would be at least half-right. I decided to self-publish after circulating the manuscript for some time because I was ready to turn my attention to new work and I felt publication would enable me to do that, and it did. As far as publication, I was involved every step of the way. That was 2014. By the time I was ready to self–publish Fathers, Sons and Holy Ghosts, that industry had changed radically. The companies I researched, including, no longer provided all the services, for a fee, necessary to publish and so it fell on me to find an editor, a layout artist, etc. It was much more complicated. I hope I have at least one more book and I hope it finds a home with a publisher.

BLP: What advice do you have for authors who are currently shopping their manuscripts?

CHN: Patience, of course. Think of the process as a journey which, like everything else in life, can inform your future work. Submit work from the draft in publications which may help to draw attention to your work and increase your chances. Subscribe to and read Poets & Writers. Find and join and participate in a group that shares work and feedback to your work both for what you can learn from their comments and for the camaraderie and the connections. If you can’t find one, start one.

BLP: Would you mind talking a little bit about your work with manuscript consultant Enzo Silon Surin?

CHN: In all honesty, recognizing that I need all the help I can get, I try my best to get all I can. Consequently, those cherished contributions pretty much melt into one big teacher. What I mostly remember from Enzo is the courage to continue to expect the work to provide its own reward and to continue to look even deeper for deeper flashes of surprise.

BLP: What’s some of the best craft advice you’ve ever received?

CHN: Enjoy the discovery. Share what you find. Find others similarly inclined. Keep writing, smothering self-judgment vs. critical objectivity, as best you can, knowing and accepting that the bastard will always find a way to pop up and very possibly have something to show you.

BLP: What are you working on now?

CHN: After spending the last ten years primarily focused on the completion of my first two books and the topics of those books, I have found great freedom and energy in simply responding now to stimulus that crosses my brow in the moment. I have also dug back into my files to see what work over those ten years that was not connected to those books still catches my attention and might be worth resurrecting and digging into again. So… thirteen years ago MoMA presented a retrospective of the work of renowned performance artist, Marina Abramovic, and commissioned her to create and install a new work in the atrium of the museum. I had never heard of her but I love going to MoMA and my wife knew her work and recommended we go, and so off went. The new piece involved her sitting in a chair in the museum’s spacious atrium, opposite an empty chair, from just before the museum opened to just after the last visitor left, each day, for 60 days. The atrium was otherwise empty, except for a 40’ x 40’ taped square on the floor surrounding the two chairs. There was one two foot gap in the outlined box from which, one by one, anyone who wished to was welcome to come and sit in the other chair facing her. The “visitor” could sit as long as they choose. They could not talk to her. They could not touch her. When we arrived that morning, there were maybe fifteen people waiting in line. I was intrigued and so went and joined the line as my wife went off to see the retrospectives of Marina’s earlier, celebrated work. I stood in line for five hours and the experience tickled, punched, intrigued, and continues to inform me. I happen to have a pencil and journal with me and so began to jot down random thoughts, reactions and observations. I have worked on evolving my reporting of the experience off and on over the last twenty years and am currently enjoying what I am learning from this stretch of the marathon. I think, said the blind man, I can see the finish line. It is currently 27+ pages and growing, and shrinking, and shifting and laughing at me while it continues to give me so much pleasure and insight.


Interested in participating in our manuscript consultation program?

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Selections from Fathers, Sons, and Holy Ghosts




Odd thing,

holding your father’s speckled grey remains

in the pink palm of your hand,


a pile of powder from a plastic bag

delivered to you in a varnished box

half the size of a loaf of bread.


He wanted his ashes scattered 

over his mother’s grave.

The woman of whom he never spoke.


Of whom I never saw a photo 

until they moved into assisted living,  

and a formal portrait, so young


found its way on to a mantel. 

I didn’t even know where her grave was.

Cousin Paul knew. St. Louis Cemetery #2,


the Robelot crypt. The tomb was splendid,

one of those mini-mansions of memory.

Four ornate pillars offset the corners   


with just enough do-dads to be grand

yet refined.  Front stones engraved with

the given names of the dearly interred.  


Nowhere, however, could we find Aimee,

his mother, who died when he was four.

Her name. Her death. That’s all we knew.


We never wondered how she died 

or why he never spoke of her.  We learned 

early on not to knock on doors he locked.


Time comes to punch our nerves,

to the hand-cuffed letting go

of ashes and tears,


to tossing what’s left over the top

of the six-foot high, white-washed vault

only to watch the wind played rude.





The baseball of your head 

is custom-made at four days old

for the glove of my hand.


The rest of the stretch,

gift-wrapped in cotton swaddle,

rides the length of my forearm.


I eat up your scowls, the banana smiles, 

the wise-ass grins, and, boom, 

the right brow, now, arching solo, 

à la Groucho or Brando or Orson Welles, 

flashing over your rubber features 

as mystery pipsqueaks  

speckle your soundtrack.  


Your father’s faces at this age 

twitch somewhere deep

in the muscle of my heart, 

and as I look down at you, you,

you little old man in the face of a baby, 

my father, and my grandfather come to mind,

and I see that I am gonna love this movie.  

I’m going to break out in laughter,

and wash my face with tears.  


And, as I prepare to play my role,

I see for the first time what no one sees– 

that I am not going to see

the end, or even most, 

of this movie.



Chris Hansen-Nelson was born in New Orleans, raised in Southern California and has lived in NYC with wife, actress Asta Hansen, since 1980. He graduated from NYU and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence. 

Fathers, Sons and Holy Ghosts is Nelson’s second collection of poems following his well-received 2017 work, The Book of Clay.  His work has most recently been published in The City Review and Oberon. His books are available from Wicked Rufous Press.