Peggy Hamilton, a native Miamian, received her BA in English from Barry University, and her MFA in Poetry from FAU in 2007. She is the author of QUESTIONS FOR ANIMALS (2013) and FORBIDDEN CITY (2003), both from Ahsahta Press. She's a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Grant in Literature for Poetry, and an honoree in the State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Children's literature. She's been a finalist in the National Poetry Series, Barnard New Women Poet's Series, the CSU Poetry Prize, and the Heekin Group Foundation's Novel-in-Progress Award. She's taught community writing seminars at FIU and the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, has read poetry and performed with Devorah Major, poet laureate of San Francisco, at a Miami International Book Fair event called "Performing Persona." Before teaching at FAU as a graduate student, then as an instructor, she was a jury consultant and grant writer, and taught grant-funded intensive programs for young adults, many of whom were in residential foster or treatment programs, or correctional facilities. Currently she lives in East Tennessee, and is Director of Programs for a nonprofit educational startup that will offer residential writing workshops to high school students as they prepare for college.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The process of writing and publishing my first book confirmed an ideal of the writer’s life that I had seen modeled by my teachers at Barry University (at that time Barry College), but hadn’t yet realized was an ideal: Dr. Lillian Schanfield, Phyllis Laszlo, Sr. Dorothy Jehle, and Father Tom Clifford were all terrific teachers, agents of change in their communities, intensely family oriented (however they each defined that), very spiritually dynamic, each with remarkable social skills (in very different ways)...AND were really funny.
This meant, when I “stopped out” of college after a year and a half, I still felt able to be connected to, and aspired to, the writing life as they practiced it. I wrote a novel (still unpublished), and began sending out a poetry manuscript to competitions (I may have missed the part about sending out individual poems :) When it came back to me, I’d keep working, realizing from my models that a type of slow-speed dialogic was unfolding as my life did...as it should!
Over those years, the manuscript began to final in competitions, and I’d often get cryptic notes from judges, usually on postcards, outside of official channels, which helped me realize that while the poems were working, the point of the project was misunderstood: because all the poems were in a vernacular of which I don’t appear to be a native speaker, the project was judged to be about race, rather than about voice, place, language, myth and the creation of self.
That next revision, finally titled Forbidden City, was read by Rem Cabrera, one of my college friends-- someone who also models the Barry life-- and he introduced me to Janet Holmes, who graciously read it. After hearing the back story, she wanted to test drive reader response in a graduate class at Boise State, which made perfect sense to me...and after which I was fully prepared to work on it further. It was published as is, though. I think time’s passing had as much to do with that as did my reshaping the manuscript.
Questions for Animals is a logical next step in an interrogation of voice, place, language, myth and the creation of self-- especially as those things tend to be problematic in Buddhism. The project involves taking the very syllogistic form of the sonnet, a form which some credit and blame with the creation of the subjective consciousness of an imperial “I,” to see if that space can be recaptured by the reader and even allow a multiplicity of possibilities during the same reading.
In a formal sense, both books are set up in three parts, and the main body or device of poems-- in Forbidden City the vernacular poems and in Questions for Animals the sonnets-- is interrupted several times by poems of different styles and lengths that articulate something that is difficult to get at from within the main body, or perhaps is overly open to misunderstanding if it’s left to reside only in the primary device.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Up until 7th grade, it seemed to me that we had read fiction to teach us how to read, we had read non-fiction to teach us subject matter, and we wrote to prove we had learned to read. It was all very transactional. Now here we were in “Junior High” when we were told everything was going to be different...and here were our first electives: creative writing, arts and crafts, Cuban history (in Spanish), and chorus. I assumed there was inherent sense in this grouping, and decided, as we were handed a small poem on the first day of creative writing, and asked to write an equally small poem, that these were all things one did with one’s body, either more or less on one’s lap with your hands, or with one’s voice, performatively. Each was craft. My father could tell stories and build things, my mother could sew and bake, my brother could make or draw anything-- here was my medium, finally!
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I’m not a big note-taker: as one of my favorite philosophers says: writing it down allows me to forget it. There’s something huge to be said for holding or even attempting to hold the whole damn thing in your head at once. For me it seems to encourage connections and resonances and surprises, whereas if I bring things through notes, I tend to make them more linear than they might otherwise be.
I eventually do play with the shape of a manuscript spatially, moving pieces around, or drawing them in different arrangements. Most often this shows gaps I have to write “into,” and it’s key pre-work so that when a poem starts, it knows more or less what comes before and after it, and it has choices where to go.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Poems start with phrases or lines that are evoked by some visceral physical experience, not as in a call and response, but more in line with Buddhist gong-an or koan practice. Something has happened just before, and now this poem is happening, cannot but happen, even if in a very provisional form.
With what became Forbidden City, once a few poems got written, I could start to see what I was circling around. That manuscript went from being called No Kind a Piece, to Glass is Just Sand, before it took the shape that made more visible what the inquiry was, thanks to readers’ rejection, then qualified acceptance.
Questions for Animals was pretty well set up as a project from the start, based on the fact that Forbidden City came before it. But still, the beginning of each poem is a physical experience, or maybe a moment and emblem of sensations is more accurate.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have very much enjoyed every reading I’ve done.
The sonnets in Questions for Animals, though, were designed as physical spaces that encourage the reader’s eye to move nonlinearly “around” inside them. It’s hard to approximate that in a reading of them...since a face and a voice seem to immediately imply a narrative. I’m quite wondering how to do it.
The thing that almost stops me from considering readings now is the recording or picture-taking that goes on. A friend of mine died in 2010, and stumbling across her face or voice when she didn’t know she was being recorded seems obscene to me now.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
For me, writing is a practical art and craft, concerned with the very physical questions of how to live and die. There’s no theory there for me, only the questions: what are we actually practicing, and can, or how can, language be used to end suffering?
I taught an undergraduate Poetry Workshop of extremely verbal, thoughtful, really smart, funny students, mostly seniors who had already had plenty of workshops among them. They could play with language, they could describe ANY.THING. They could dress any scene with the perfect visual detail, and had just catalogues of multicultural items and pitched language at their disposals.
Rare was the detail that was not in some way visual. Poetic image had been utterly subsumed into its visual for them. Virtually non-existent was any contribution or argument from another sense, and I’m using these six senses: touch, smell, sound, taste, sight and mind. That we have taught “the best minds of [this] generation” somehow to live primarily through the eye really troubles me. It’s not my impression that one learns or practices empathy or relentlessness or resilience through the eye. It’s also not my impression that one gives and takes-- experiences-- intimacy this way.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’m definitely not in a position to tell anyone what his or her role should be in any venue lol. As a writer, I keep working and revising in concert with draft readers and what other writers are writing or have written to make sure each poem or book doesn’t stop until there are multiple answers to So What? for each poem or book. And until one of those So Whats suggests the next project.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It was quite essential to Forbidden City’s incarnation...from the silent form-letter-rejection editor, to postcard editors, through Janet’s reading and graduate class experiment, into book. Questions for Animals is in many ways a more “traditional” poetic project these days: it came well-tended through Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program, with Drs. Mark Scroggins and Thomas Martin as thesis committee, and Susan Mitchell as thesis chair.
My Barry mentors had made editing, each other’s work or ours, feel like great fun: like finally being able to sit down together and taste the cake someone had been baking, and talk.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Well, one aspires to honor the genre tradition and its practitioners, and push for a So What or two. The appeal, if not imperative, to me comes from the Heart Sutra: form is not emptiness, emptiness is not form, form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
The day job, whatever it’s been over the years, takes the day. With poetry this is not a problem, as my mind apparently is working on issues behind and during the day job. Novels mean up earlier, and/or to bed later, and naps. With novels, I need more frequent and longer runs of time, because stopping and starting interrupts the agency of the characters and the language.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
On a daily basis: recitation of The Heart Sutra, prostrations to the 35 Buddhas of Confession. On a yearly or twice-yearly basis: the novels Dog Years, Snow Country, A Fable, Soul Mountain, Moby Dick, Snow, and I’ve added Mo Yan’s Pow! to the list this year; the plays Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Waiting for Godot. Melville’s The Encantadas.
On an emergency basis: traditional Chinese poets (through Red Pine, generally), Celan, Prynne, and Rosmarie Waldrop; the voices of VicChesnutt, Jamie Stewart, and Serj Tankian.
On a super-emergency basis: Herzog’s movies: Heart of Glass, Fata Morgana, Aguirre, Nosferatu, Wheel of Time, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Cobra Verde; Antonioni’s The Passenger; Refn’s Pusher and Pusher III.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Aloeswood incense 80% covering up the smell of fermenting cabbage, ginger, and garlic. Ok, possibly it’s more like 20% covered up, but I LIKE THAT SMELL ;)
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I spend a lot of time walking in the woods and looking out windows, chopping cabbage, sweeping, making coffee and tea :)
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In addition to my sources of inspiration above...I’m very interested in the emerging art and writing of Buddhist women. I’m thinking of Ajahn Thanasanti, and a recent book called Receiving the Marrow, edited by Eido Frances Carney which is a collection of teachings on Dogen by Soto Zen women priests.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Publish a novel, a children’s book, a screenplay and a song.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
One Christmas my brother and I came out to find a freestanding chalkboard separating our gifts under the Christmas tree. Both of us are rather intensely literal, so “my side” was the magnetic letters and “his side” was the chalkboard. He was therefore the artist, I was therefore the writer. It’s important to note that I “could use” the chalkboard side to play school or hangman on (according to my rules?...which came from...where? lol). Standing in front of a board when I did become a teacher consequently felt thrilling, with a definite life or death quality to it...which turns out is perfectly apt. My brother has been writing now for quite awhile, really well. I’ll have to ask him if it feels urgent and transgressive for him too on the “other side” of the chalkboard! I wonder if that’s where all our shadow vocations are hiding...
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson, which is amazing. Pow!by Mo Yan was another great book I read within the last year. I’m currently reading Aisthesis by Jacques Ranciere, which is quite something. I immediately read anything Red Pine (Bill Porter) writes or translates: he seems a rather unsung world treasure.
I’m not at all finished with prior great films! I saw The Master last year which I thought had stretches of greatness.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel called Head that I started maybe 20 years ago. Life interrupted, and when I went back to it, the original So Whats were gone...in the last few weeks, I begin to see some new ones there, so it’s full steam a...head. :)