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A Muscle of Belief


April 15, 2014

The Guggenheim fellow on returning to free verse in her latest collection, the difficulty of being joyful, and why poetry has taken the place of religion in her life.

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Image by Alicia Osborne

In Barbara Hamby’s latest collection, On the Street of Divine Love, the poet asks, “Who can remember all the selves stuffed into the miraculous / sack of skin?” A fair question for all of us, but particularly for someone putting together a new and selected. The book consists of fifteen new poems followed by choice poems from Hamby’s four previous collections. It encourages us to ask: Who are Hamby’s past selves? And what can they tell us about her evolution as an artist?

On the Street of Divine Love is a sort of bird’s-eye view of the poet’s obsessions—language and movies, religion and women, far-flung places and the neighborhood hardware store. Of the fifteen new pieces, ten are odes. Not much escapes Hamby, and her focus ranges from the mundane (knots and noise) to the more mysterious (August in the South and “Two or Three Things That Have Been Eating at My Heart Like a Wolverine in a Time of Famine”). She is a poet who admits to working hard at joy, and yet a joy of language seems to come naturally, the right mind-bending, tongue-tripping combination of words rolling from her, as in “Ode to American English,” from her 2004 collection Babel:

I miss the mongrel plentitude of American English, its fall-guy
rat-terrier, dog-pound neologisms, the bomb of it all,
the rushing River Jordan backwoods mutability of it, the low-rider
boom-box cruise of it, from New Joisey to Ha-wah-ya
with its sly dog, malasada-scarfing beach blanket lingo
to the ubiquitous Valley Girl’s like like stuttering,
shopaholic rant. I miss its quotidian beauty […]

Babel received the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. And Hamby is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Kate Tufts Award. She spoke to me by phone from Tallahassee, where she is a distinguished scholar at Florida State University. When asked about her city, she began by describing her love of travel. But then she found something to praise in Tallahassee’s blue skies.

Erica Wright for Guernica

Guernica: You recently published new and selected poems in On the Street of Divine Love. How did you decide what to include from your four previous books?

Barbara Hamby: You want to make a representative selection, but at the same time, you want to give a sense of the whole project. I have this big conflict in my writing life that I’m trying to work out all the time. I was raised in a strict fundamentalist household, and I always say that gives you a muscle of belief. I want to believe in something, but I don’t believe in what my parents believed in. Poetry has taken the place, or I think the arts have taken the place, of religion in my life. I wanted to see how that was working out through the poems.

Guernica: Something that I underlined in the title poem, “On the Street of Divine Love,” goes: “I want a God / big enough to love those who don’t believe in him.” Is that speaking to this idea of finding religion through poetry?

Barbara Hamby: I think so. One of my problems with religion is that it’s limiting in so many ways. I remember the first time I took a humanities class, I thought, I can’t believe this. This is fantastic. This is what I want my life to be. When I was a young person, I did a lot of dabbling in Eastern religions, and it was very satisfying in some ways, but there’s that limitation always, which I find myself bridling against. I was talking to a friend and read that very line you quoted. He just laughed at me.

Guernica: I took it so seriously.

Barbara Hamby: I took it seriously, too. If someone didn’t believe in me that would kind of be a compliment in a way.

I think it’s really hard to be joyful. I work hard at it.

Guernica: You edited an anthology called Seriously Funny. Do you think it’s more difficult to write joyful poems?

Barbara Hamby: I think it’s really hard to be joyful. I work hard at it. I always feel like it’s a choice. You can be joyful or you can be depressed, and there just doesn’t seem to be any future in depression. My husband, David Kirby, and I [recently returned from] India, and I had the best time. It’s going to take me a long time to digest that trip. But I was talking to an Indian woman at a party this weekend, and she said, “Did you have a great time?” And I said, “I had a fantastic time.” And she said, “Didn’t it smell bad?” And I said, “No, I don’t remember it smelling bad.” She was sitting next to her boyfriend, and he was sneering, too, and she said, “Oh, you didn’t go to the bad-smelling part,” and I said, “I don’t know, we seemed to get around.”

That wouldn’t be the first thing I would say about India, that it smelled bad. I think it really is a choice. You can be the kind of person who says India smells bad.

When I was a young woman, I had this friend who was really beautiful, and she would talk about how she was losing her looks, that she wasn’t as pretty as she once was. She was gorgeous, and I thought, I’m going to stop this bad habit of self-criticism that I think a lot of women get into. You make a choice to be different.

Guernica: What’s it like to be an artist in Tallahassee?

Barbara Hamby: My husband and I travel, so we get out of Tallahassee a lot. He has great language skills. We lived in Paris a couple of times, and we have a terrific study abroad program here [at Florida State University]. Basically, we have good jobs and we have each other, so Tallahassee’s fantastic. I love to go to New York, and I loved living in Paris, too, but I know that when we came back to Tallahassee, it was the end of December. The sky over Paris was inches above our heads; it was gray, gray, gray. We hadn’t seen the sun in a week, and it was so cold I thought I would die. We got off the plane in Tallahassee, and the sky was bright blue. It wasn’t summertime, so it was really gorgeous here. I thought, I love this place. My spirits lifted immediately. That’s not to say that there aren’t better restaurants in Paris than there are in Tallahassee, but there is something about the sunshine that makes your spirits soar.

Guernica: And you’re originally from New Orleans?

Barbara Hamby: I was born there, but I grew up in Hawaii. That was a paradise. That’s a paradise I keep inside of me all the time. It’s funny, I don’t really write too much in poetry about Hawaii, but I published a book of stories a couple of years ago.

Guernica: Had you written stories before that collection?

Barbara Hamby: I’ve been writing fiction as long as I’ve been writing poetry. It’s just that the poetry took off, and it took me a lot longer to figure out how to write a story.

Guernica: Are there challenges in switching back and forth between genres?

Barbara Hamby: Yes, and I guess it was easier for me to find my voice in poetry than it was in fiction. I’m working on fiction again, and I find it a lot more difficult. It’s a struggle. At a certain point, you have your voice and you go to it every time, so it’s not like reinventing the wheel. That’s the way I see it at least. John Updike’s writing has been described as “fixed in facility.” Instead of starting at the starting line, you start in the middle of the race. That’s not to say there aren’t things to work out in every poem that you write, because there are.

Guernica: In an interview with Dan Albergotti for storySouth, you said, “When you are an expert, you aren’t prone to make the mistakes and have the same kind of goof-ball adventures that you have when you don’t know anything.” How do you maintain a sense of wonder, if there is this facility?

Barbara Hamby: You’re always having to push yourself. I know that one of the things that I really did to push myself was to write more formal poems, so I could feel like I was more of a master of language than I had been before. That was challenging and gratifying in so many ways. Then with these new poems, I’ve gone back to free verse, because it would be easy to paint myself into a corner with form. I saw myself becoming more opaque with the formal poems than I wanted to be. It took me a long time to work back into free verse again. That was a challenge in itself. You’re always having to push yourself. One of the things I said, maybe not in that interview with Dan, is that travel really makes you into a beginner, especially if you go to a place where you don’t know the language. I really like that a lot. It makes me instantly kind of childlike in a way.

Travel is something that I like to do because it gives you lots of images, and it also really makes you think about your own place in the world in a very different way.

Guernica: We publish a lot of translations here at Guernica, so this might be a selfish question, but are your students interested in translation at all or are they more focused on their own work?

Barbara Hamby: They’re really focused on their own work. We had a PhD student a couple of years ago who was Polish, and she and I worked on a epigraph for my book All-Night Lingo Tango. I read several translations of this poem by Zbigniew Herbert, and I wanted to see what she said about it. We spent weeks just translating a few lines. It was difficult. And for this new book, I did the translation of Rimbaud, a part of A Season in Hell. It seems that most Rimbaud translations are really stiff and formal. I wanted to get more of a sense of the passion of his work, and so I did a pretty free translation. I hope that I haven’t offended too many people. It’s an easy poem to translate literally, but I wanted to do something that was different, especially the first verse, which is more imagistic. I wanted to give a sense of that desperation in Rimbaud.

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Which is better, the literal or a sense of the voice at the center of a poem?

Guernica: So the scholars with pitchforks haven’t shown up?

Barbara Hamby: Not so far. I don’t think anybody’s read it, so that’s not a problem, yet. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Which is better, the literal or a sense of the voice at the center of a poem?

Guernica: You have those lucky people who are good at languages and who are also poets.

Barbara Hamby: Or at least someone who can enter into the zeitgeist of the poet, especially somebody like Rimbaud, who changed everything. In another life, I was the editor at a literary magazine, and we got these translations from the Hungarian of a poet named József Attila, and these translations were beautiful. I asked the translator if he had any more, and he said, “I’ve got a book of them.” So we published a book, and it won the Academy of American Poets translation prize that year, which was unusual for a small press, especially a first book. It’s interesting, a lot of people didn’t like [the translations] because they took a lot of liberties, but because the translator, Peter Hargitai, was Hungarian and knew the culture, knew the time, I think that he really gave a sense of the passion of József and of course his desperation, too.

Guernica: Part of the Rimbaud epigraph says, “The world is a theater of everything we want,” and that seems to capture the voraciousness of your work. Is there any subject you wouldn’t tackle?

Barbara Hamby: I want to say no, but there are a lot of things that are personally painful that are really hard to write about. I know that pedophilia and hurting animals are difficult for me to read about. One of our former students, Adam Johnson, won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, and he read this story from the point of view of a recovering pedophile. I never would have read that on my own. I was happy to have heard it because it was a wonderful story, but it was an extremely painful subject. There are certain subjects that are difficult to approach. It’s hard to keep your joy when you’re writing about pedophilia.

I read the biography of the Marquis de Sade, and I have an outline and all of the subjects chosen to write a section of persona poems from the point of view of the women in his life. His mother-in-law was an unbelievable woman. She wanted her daughter to marry him because he was a member of the aristocracy and they were not, so it was a step up for her family. She didn’t much like the daughter he married, but when he seduced her favorite daughter and got her pregnant, that was the end of it. She turned on him, and she was the reason he went to prison. According to the biography, his mother sent him to be educated in a royal family, and he was viciously sexually abused as a child. Monsters are made, not born.

Guernica: I don’t think of your work as persona poems.

Barbara Hamby: There are some in All Night-Lingo Tango. I’m working on a book of poems now about voyages. A couple of years ago, I got a Guggenheim fellowship, which let me take off a year and finish the new poems in this new and selected. At the end, I had some money. I love Russian literature and I’ve always wanted to go on the Trans-Siberian Railway, so that’s what I did with the money. I took the train from St. Petersburg to Beijing. That was my first voyage. Then the next summer, David and I went from Memphis to New Orleans on the Blues Highway, and that was the second group of poems. For the third one, I wanted to follow The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaca, so I got a grant from FSU to do that last summer. When I did the Delta tour, I wrote a couple of persona poems that I liked that were from the point of view of women.

You never know what will happen when you take a trip. When we went from Memphis to New Orleans, we stopped at Vicksburg. We were on the battlefield, and [the guide] kept saying, “You’ll like this.” And one of the things she knew I would like is a history of women who dressed as men and fought as soldiers. There was this one woman, her name was Albert Cashier, who became famous long after the war. I got really interested in her and wrote a long poem from her point of view.

Her father dressed her as a man and put her out to work in Ireland, where she was from. When her mother died, she got on a boat and came to the U.S. as an immigrant. She said in one of her letters that she thought about becoming a woman again, but then she realized after the war was over that she was used to being free. She could take a drink if she wanted to. She could walk where she wanted to. She didn’t have to be afraid, and she could vote. She said that she voted for General Grant when he become president, and she wouldn’t have been able to do that if she were a woman. It was a choice she made to keep being a man.

Guernica: I wanted to ask about your poem “I’m Making Soup with Walt Whitman.” There’s a woman telling the speaker how beautiful Milan was before it was bombed, and then there’s the line: “and now we’re bombing Iraq and Afghanistan.” Did you feel compelled to write about the U.S. invasions?

Barbara Hamby: One my friends, Karen Myers, teaches a course on interior design and she takes her students to Milan every summer. She likes for me to go with her, and I do because it’s a lot of fun to go to Milan. We were doing one of the tours of showrooms with her students, and we had to kind of “Border Collie” them because they would start window-shopping. Karen was at the front of the line, and I was at the back, when this woman stopped me and said, “Are you American?” I said, “Yes, I am.” She had tears in her eyes and she said, “What’s wrong with your country? Why are they bombing Iraq and Afghanistan now? And this city was so beautiful before you bombed it in World War II.”

I don’t think many right-minded people were for the bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq.

World War II was complicated because Mussolini was collaborating with Hitler and a lot of the bombing was directed toward armaments, factories, and railroad stations, but they still bombed a lot that they shouldn’t have. I was thinking that bombing is never good, but what Hitler was up to was not good, either. What kind of world would we have now if that bombing hadn’t gone on? But it’s so destructive. I don’t think many right-minded people were for the bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a moving experience being called on the carpet for your country’s behavior, and having to agree with this woman.

During the second Bush election, we were actually in Italy for a semester and I was taking an intensive Italian class. I was the only American in the class. The teacher was a chain-smoker, and about every forty-five minutes, she had to leave. She would say, “Oh I’ve got to xerox something,” but she was really going out to have a cigarette. Everybody spoke English in the class, and they would turn to me and say, “What’s going on in your country?” I would try to explain to Austrians, Poles, Australians, Israelis, Costa Ricans—people from all over the world—what was going on in our country. I would have to say, “I don’t know what’s going on, either. It’s pretty evenly divided in our country. Sometimes one part’s on top, and other times, the other faction is on top, and right now it’s just crazy. We hate it as much as you do.”

Guernica: You mention in your acknowledgements that you have collaborated with Stuart Riordan for twenty years, and her painting “When the woods got heavy” is your cover art. What conversation do you think that painting is having with your poems?

Barbara Hamby: A very specific one, as a matter of fact. She likes to inscribe poetry in the background of her paintings. She had this painting she was working on and it had a car in it, and she asked if I knew of any poems about cars. And I said, “I have one in my last book called ‘Mambo Cadillac.’” She inscribed the whole poem in the background of that painting. And I thought it would be an appropriate piece of cover art because the poem is in the book. Although you can’t really see it [on the cover]. You can kind of see little scratches of it in the background. I bought the painting actually, and you can read the poem in the painting. I thought it really spoke to what was going on in the book.

One of things I write about a lot is the role of women. An older friend of mine said that she feels like there’s always a tension between wanting to be free and wanting to be cherished. I think that’s one of the things that the whole book speaks to, wanting to break out of the confines of the roles that are prescribed for women and yet at the same time, not wanting to be totally free. You want to have intimate relationships. It’s that bursting out of confinement. But the way Stuart sees the painting is that [the figure in the painting] is falling back into the world where she has to find her way by herself.

Guernica: I feel like I’ve been let in on a secret. I’m looking at the cover, and you can see the little scratches in the background, although I can’t make out any of the words.

Barbara Hamby: It is really kind of a little secret there. A couple of weeks ago, we did a talk between us where we both signed the book. We talked about our collaborations and about this painting. Stuart says that she doesn’t like to tell people what she’s thinking about in a painting; she likes to see what they think. I have to say the same is true of poems. I’m always surprised, especially by English students who see the poems that are in textbooks and have interesting interpretations. Something that I didn’t have in mind at all. It really is what you see in it.

I think that there’s something innately human in wanting to praise the world even though it’s disappointing in so many ways.

Guernica: What keeps drawing you back to the ode?

Barbara Hamby: It’s a part of that choosing to be positive and choosing joy. I love Keats’s odes, and I love Neruda’s odes. I always think of my odes as being a combo of the two. Meditations on ordinary objects, but with the music of Keats. Or attempting those things because I could never say that I even come close to those two masters. After I started writing them, I got interested in the form. I tried to find a book about the ode form. I’m trying to write one myself. It’s going slowly, but right now I’m really concentrating on Pindar, the ancient Greek poet and his odes that are dedicated to the Olympic champions. They’re really beautiful and very different. Of course there are Horace’s odes in Rome, then the Romantics and Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself” is an ode.

One of my questions really is, why has the form lasted for all of these thousands of years? For 2,500 years, people have been writing odes. Why? I think that there’s something innately human in wanting to praise the world even though it’s disappointing in so many ways. There’s always that tension. We were talking about the role of woman, wanting to be free and wanting to be cherished, and in the world, there’s a tension. It’s so beautiful and it’s so terrible at the same time. It’s like Milan. It was bombed to smithereens and it’s still beautiful. There’s always that tension between the sublime and the terrible. The ode really speaks to that, wanting to praise the world, and yet part of that is the horror and the pain, too.

And it’s not really a form, is it? It was in ancient Greece and Rome, but now, people are writing free-verse odes. One of my favorites is Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Ode to the Maggot.” Its gorgeous last line, something like, “No one gets to heaven except through you.” I don’t have it exactly, but every time I read it, I get chills.

Guernica: One last thing. I’m curious whether you think we need a National Poetry Month.

Barbara Hamby: I don’t know that we need it, but it’s fun to have it, isn’t it? Everything else has a month.

I was just talking to some poets in Seattle at the AWP conference, and Alicia Ostriker was saying that when people ask, “Isn’t it a waste of money for a parent to pay for an education in poetry?” she says, “Nobody says that about taking piano lessons.” If your child isn’t going to become a concert pianist, that’s a waste of money—nobody ever says that. They do say it for poetry. I mean, I took piano lessons, and I’m not a concert pianist, but I love music.

I don’t know anything about chemistry, but I know that there’s a whole world of chemistry, of professional chemists. They have their prizes, they have their publications, they have their work. Just because I don’t know about it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. A lot of people say, “Isn’t poetry in trouble today?” Or: “Nobody really reads poetry anymore.” And I say, “You’re crazy.” There’s a huge world of poetry out there. You may not know about it, but it’s there.

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