Wednesday, February 09, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton is a Black, queer, gender non-conforming writer with a disability. He is a poet and cultural worker who spent much of his adult life as an itinerant worker in the service industry, indifferently housed. A Cave Canem alumnus, his poetry has appeared in CONSEQUENCE magazine, XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, Steel Toe Review, The Drunken Boat, and Cave Canem Anthologies edited by poets Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. He is the recipient of fellowships from The Chatauqua Writers' Festival and The Vermont Studio Center. In 2020, he received the Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award. He holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and MA in Arts and Public Policy from New York University. He lives in Washington, D.C.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

It hasn’t changed my life, per say. When I reread my thesis manuscript from years ago as an MFA student at the University of Alabama, I get the sense that my work has matured in some ways and remained the same in others. It feels different in terms of my commitment to subject matter and the handling of that via received and free verse poetic forms. I am definitely less confessional. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I started writing poetry seriously after taking a survey course in poetics taught by Laura Mullen at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Fiction writer John Calderazzo was on staff there and I dabbled with fiction and literary nonfiction as well as nature writing, all genres I still love. I learned of Rebecca Solnit, Edward Abbee, Barbara Kingsolver, and others whose work I reference when thinking about lyric essays. Still, Laura’s class stuck to my bones. Culturally speaking, she made sure we read a great many poets from the diaspora: Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka, Marilyn Nelson, Rita Dove, Wanda Coleman, Harryette Mullen, Lucille Clifton and so many more. Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, I like to say, was up the block in Boulder. So, the ghost of beat writing past always held sway. I got a dope ass foundation in poetry.

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 am a note-taker. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is visit footnotes and endnotes for source material and elaboration on a topic. For me, it takes longer to find out the shape and form of the poem. The ideas come fast, but there is still some hesitation in gathering those thoughts for fear that they are muddy waters best traversed with protective gear. Of course, I am messy—dive right in, looking for jewels, words or phrases that signify and push at a thesis. I like to think that all poems, no matter how cryptic, have the material parts that elucidate an argument the way a good essay does. 

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?

It begins as an investigation, as a subject that irks me, as something I want to, need to clarify or complicate. Poetry is beautiful that way. We spend so much time recycling talking points in “the real world” that it is nice to visit a space where nuance rules. As for projects, it's safe to say I am working on a chapbook from the very beginning. Never a whole collection.  

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love poetry readings. I do get bored because I think that some poetry lends itself to being read versus listened to in a public space. At the end of the day, I think whatever poets one enjoys reading, they’ll enjoy seeing them perform that verse. If you like reading Tony Hoagland’s poetry, for example, then chances are you’d kill to see him in a live context. Yes, readings drive my creative process. 

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?

I like to write through my understanding of and concerns for history from below. Who are the actors, persons, objects, movements that are written out of official narratives? I don’t know if there are current questions that we should all conform to. Justice is always central to my writing projects. 

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

For me, it’s to tell a truth based on omission. Art disrupts, angers, frustrates, soothes and so much more. The only role the writer has is to create. I reserve the right to critique. We can and should be moved to respond to writing, if we choose.  

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential. I love my editor at ReCenter Press. I like having a second pair of eyes on my work. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

What others think of you is none of your business. Write anyway.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I don’t have a routine unless I’m on retreat at a residency, then I’m very strict. While at the Vermont Studio Center in 2019, it was chow hall  breakfast, workout, lunch, writing, reading, dinner in that order. Occasionally, I’d pull an all-nighter, writing and researching, if the spirit hit me. Wish I could say that, like Maya Angelou, I holed-up in a hotel suite one day a week with a typewriter and a bottle of red wine. 

A typical day for me begins with a robust and hardy breakfast. I love to cook.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Print news. Visual art. Memes. Books. Documentaries. Social Media. Food.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

It’s probably a mixture of wisteria flowers, lightning bugs, leaf rot, and opium perfume (something my mother wore often).

13 - 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?
Music plays a huge part as does nature. I love classic and experimental jazz as well as diasporic artists like Miriam Makeba. Odetta, Abbey Lincoln, Jimmy Scott, Dione Warwick, Phyllis Hyman. Those divas give me chills. It is the way they render notes. I like listening to international music whose language I don’t understand because the experience isn't cerebral. For me, it is physical. It is a different way of finding speech. Nature has a similar effect. Observing forms and processes in the natural world can be generative.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Writers (to name a few): William Shakespeare, Aime Cesaire, Akilah Oliver, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Angela Y. Davis, Reginald Shepherd. Writings: The Common Wind: Afro American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius Scott; Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition by Cedric Robinson; Hammer and Hoe by Robin D. G. Kelley; The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James; and, Southern History across the Color Line by Nell Irving Painter

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Buy a home, grow food in raised beds, and feed people. 

16 - 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?

Had I not become a writer, and had it my way, I would have become an herbalist. I like the idea of running an apothecary, wildcrafting and bottling natural medicine.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Reading. Growing up, I spent loads of time identifying with protagonists, looking for context in a world that was bat shit crazy.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read is Do What You Love: And Other Lies about Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu. The last film I watched was Tina (the documentary).

19 - What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a series of lyric essays on the roots of racism, disease, and addiction.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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