Not Dark Yet: An Interview with Poet Justin Hamm

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If you’re like me, you have a soft spot for poets who also love fiction and Bob Dylan. Enter, Justin Hamm. Justin recently published his first book of poems, Lessons in Ruin (Aldrich Press), which was preceded by two chapbooks, Illinois, My Apologies and The Everyday Parade/Alone with Turntable, Old Records.

Justin’s work reminds me of poet/novelist/farmer Wendell Berry, in that it has a distinctly Midwestern flavor, a wit born of pastures and plow-blades, not to mention a sense of wisdom and introspection bolstered by (but not constricted to) small town life. Put another way, the rural Iowan in me gets where he’s coming from.

But even if I didn’t have the background I did, Justin’s submission still would have hooked my attention because here’s someone whose knack with language transcends the geographical lottery of birth. There’s a stark quality to his poems that decries the shifting snobbery of poetic fashion and speaks instead to something deep, universal, and honest.

Michael Meyerhofer: I’ve mentioned before how some of my favorite poets have some background in fiction, and likewise, how some of my favorite fiction writers have some background in poetry. That’s definitely one of the things that draws me to your work. Obviously, a good writer doesn’t have to be proficient in more than one genre, but how do you see seemingly different genres like poetry and literary fiction influencing themselves, either in terms of your own aesthetic or the literary community in general?

Justin Hamm: The narrative influence of fiction on my poetry is pretty apparent. But truthfully, the opposite is even more true: if not for poetry I probably would have stopped writing fiction altogether. Over time, I’ve learned a lot about composition from poetry, and what I’ve learned has allowed me to feel much freer in my fiction writing. I write short fiction. Early on I tried to write really traditional stories form-wise, and I had rigid ideas about what fiction should do. But, although I admired them, I found I didn’t like writing traditional stories much. To me, it always ran counter to my favorite aspect of writing, which is discovery through improvisation. I wanted to go where the language seemed to be leading, not where the plot demanded.

My stories work more like poems now. The form is more organic. They follow the language. In fact, early on I conceived many of them as prose poems. But I didn’t have much luck sending them out to poetry editors, so I started sending them out to fiction editors instead, and they started getting picked up. I think this is because a lot of contemporary writers and editors see that a story can be a million different things, that the lines between genres are far from absolute.

MM: I really like the bittersweet humor in “Days Like This.” What place do you see humor having in poetry, or contemporary literature in general? In other words, what do you see as its strengths, maybe its risks, etc? Do you have any personal, aesthetic rules when it comes to incorporating humor in your writing?

JH: I appreciate you saying that, Michael. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this very question recently. For me, humor is especially important to help counterweight all the darkness in the world right now. I mean in literature, on TV and the big screen, across social media—everywhere. I understand the importance of satire, but sometimes I feel like the seemingly endless barrage of comedic satire has deadened its effect, turning it into just one more source of darkness. So I suppose I’m really talking more about the kind of humor that comes out of a genuine sympathy with the human condition.

My only rule about humor is just what I learned from my early failures. I try to make sure there’s that emotional truth at the core of what I’m doing. I want the funny part to enhance or reveal something deeper. If necessary, I put on a John Prine record and take notes. He manages this better than almost anybody.

MM: I love the sense of observation in your poem, “The man in line at the grocery store in Centralia, Missouri.” Can you talk a bit about that poem, what inspired it and/or why you took the approach you did?

JH: Sure. If I’m waiting for the mechanic to finish with my car, or standing in line at the grocery store, I tend to space out and think about the strangers around me, and many times these daydreams end up sparking poems or short prose pieces. I can’t remember if the man in this case was specific or a composite. I do have a memory of seeing a dad somewhere whose kids were giving him true and holy hell and thinking that the look on his face was a perfect mix of fierce love and a desire to drive off, alone, and never, ever return under any circumstances. But I honestly can’t remember if I made him up while writing the poem or not.

I can say for sure that I really wanted to use a dignified tone in imagining this person’s inner narrative. I hear so many reductive judgments about the people you see at, let’s say, Walmart. People struggling to manage a cartful of dirty-faced kids, buying up generic groceries, maybe paying for them with some form of government assistance. The impulse is to see that situation and make assumptions about motivation and character—because, as we all know, the world is completely just and everybody gets exactly what they deserve based on hard work and the quality of their character, right?

I’ve been reminded again and again that many people have a more complex inner landscape than they get credit for, and I wanted the poem to reflect that.

MM: Getting back to both the differences and the overlap between poetry and prose, both “I Take Forty-Five Minutes to Shoot a Portrait of My Father” and “First Lesson in Meat, 1984” are great examples of a poignant, striking narratives bolstered by poetic form. Can you talk about why you chose to address these scenes in poetry, and any struggles that go with that approach?

JH: “Meat” is really about a single moment, the culmination of a small series of remembered images. The compression and the fragmentation of broken lines made poetry feel like the natural form for that sort of idea. Poems usually draw the eye across and down the page at a pace that’s quite different from how prose moves the eye. The unfolding of this particular poem is tied to the speed at which the eye moves, or at least I hope it is. Trying to expand or develop the idea into prose just seems counter to the way the poem occurred to me and to how I want the reader to experience it.

“Portrait” is a poem that’s a little more troublesome to talk about in this regard because I could envision it as a CNF piece. So I suppose the short answer is that the idea came to me as a poem and that’s why it’s a poem. Like with “Meat,” I think I instinctually felt like there was something important about the way the lines controlled the pace and the rhythm of the unfolding, and that makes the sound of speaker’s voice, too. What’s hard for me with narrative poetry is knowing what to leave in and what to leave out—a detail such as the story the speaker tells the father to make him crack a smile, for instance. If the poem had been a CNF piece, that story would probably have been related in its particulars. But it just isn’t necessary given the compression of the poem. The gesture is the thing that matters.

MM: What do you look for in a good poem? How about a good story?

JH: By nature I’m pretty varied in what I enjoy. Not undiscerning, but definitely open and, frankly, also pretty fickle. But I’ll try to say at least a few general features that tend to attract me.

I especially enjoy when a poem sounds like the poet is right there in the room with you, communicating something important in highly particular or intimate way. Raymond Carver comes to mind. I also like poems that make giant leaps in time and space and subject matter so that they feel much larger than the average poem could ever actually be. I like poems that make me reflect on my own life and the passage of time. Linda Pastan is a favorite in this vein. Place is big for me, too, especially the Midwest. I love Americana and just about every genre of music, and baseball, and roots music, so poems about these subjects tend to resonate with me. But then, every so often, I want nothing but poems that force me as far outside of myself as I can possibly get.

About the only thing that comes close to a must-have is a sense of something honest and human at the core. I don’t mind difficult poems, but poems that feel completely removed from the sound of the human voice, or that give no indication they were made by a human—those sort of poems usually make me feel stupid or leave me feeling cold.

My thoughts on stories have changed a lot over time as my own approach to prose has melded with my approach to poetry. I still prefer novels, especially long ones, to do the traditional plot, character-building, et cetera. But I might like a shorter fiction for too many reasons to name, and I might dislike it for just as many completely subjective reasons, many of them basically the same as with poems. Really, the only things I require to potentially fall in love with a story are that it holds my attention and that it moves me. Of course, that’s harder than it sounds. To accomplish those two requirements a story has to do whatever conventional or unconventional thing it is trying to do really, really well.

Lessons in RuinMM: Promotion time! What are you up to these days, in terms of publishing?

JH: My first full-length collection, Lessons in Ruin, is out from Aldrich Press. The poems in it are steeped in the Midwest and its people, a mixture of lyric meditation and heartfelt narrative not too far removed from the group of poems published here. I do hope if people like my work here they’ll take a chance and pick up a copy of Lessons.

As for what’s next, I do have a couple of slow-moving ideas—a series of fantasy/folk-influenced poems and a series of short prose pieces that riff on classic rock figures—but neither of these has jumped up and demanded my full attention as of yet, so I don’t know if they’re things or just, you know, things. I also have some ideas for a longer book of prose, but that’s really in its extreme infancy, so it’s dangerous to even mention it.

MM: Last but not least, what’s your favorite Dylan album?

JH: Hard question! I have a different relationship with each of his albums. But if I have to pick just one, I guess I’ll go with Time Out of Mind.

So many things came together on that album. This was the first time Dylan was consistently writing great songs again in probably twenty years. The return of his creativity came right at the time he was starting to figure out how he could use the ragged instrument his voice had become for maximum emotional impact. On this record, what he was singing and the persona he was singing it in—this torn-down, world-beaten old soul—were completely intertwined. The production was heavy, but not slick or cheesy like some of his ’80s production. There was a spooky, echo-ey vibe, but it was tasteful and helped bring out the ghostly dislocation in the lyrics. There are songs on this record that just knock the wind out of me. “Not Dark Yet,” “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” “Standing in the Doorway,” “Love Sick,” “Cold Irons Bound.”

Even a song like “To Make You Feel My Love,” which on the surface might seem trite for a Dylan song, is uplifted through the voice and delivery. It’s intensely and unapologetically romantic. You get the feeling the singer has played and been played and has reached the point where he’s just going to put it to out there to his love direct. You can sense Dylan getting his confidence back, too. I get goose bumps every time he sings “But you ain’t seen nothin’ like me yet”—that hint of the sixties swagger surfacing again after everybody thought it was gone for good.

 

 

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About Author

Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won the James Wright Poetry Award, the Laureate Prize, the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, and five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at his website.

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