Published: July 20th, 2015
Barbara Hamby is an American poet and short story writer who currently teaches at Florida State University. Her collection, Babel, earned her the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Donald Hall Prize. Her collection, Delirium, earned her the Vassar Miller Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. And her short story collection, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, earned her the Iowa Short Fiction Prize/John Simmons Award. Her work has been featured in The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry and the Best American Poetry series three times.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Hamby: I write both poetry and fiction, but my process is much the same for both. When writing poetry I collect images. I’ll see something or hear something and I’ll think, “Oh, that would make a good poem.” When I was beginning to write, I would try to make a poem out of that one image, but as I wrote more, I would see images begin to stick to one another and as a result make more complex poems. That’s the way I work now. I collect images in a notebook I keep with me all the time, and then I transcribe them into a file on my computer. For example, right now I am working on a poem that I am calling “Ode to the Funny Papers.” I have always loved to read the comics in the paper, and I thought it might make a good ode, which is a poem of praise. When I was a girl, one of my favorite comic strips was Prince Valiant, so the poem might have a Arthurian slant. Also, another image has to do with my dad, who died about ten years ago. Whenever we said goodbye, he would say, “See you in the funny papers.” So I think the poem might have something to do with my father. Right now that’s all I have, but as images come to me, they will reach a critical mass and I’ll write the poem.
I generally work on about twenty poems at a time. I came upon this process after a frustrating bout of writers block. I realized when I was working on one poem at a time, I had a hard time letting go of a poem that wasn’t working, because I had nothing else. My first group of poems was connected by a metaphor. I found a book about beekeeping and realized I could use that metaphor in a series of poems. I loved Sylvia Plath’s bee poems and Virgil’s, so I knew bees were a potent metaphor. These poems were the first section of my first book. The next sequence was a group of poems about Keats’s final journey to Italy, and the third sequence was about my own first long-term visit to Italy. These three sequences made up my first book, Delirium, and I have never looked back. I have used form to organize my work. In my second book, The Alphabet of Desire, I wrote a series of 26 abecedarian poems. I have written sonnet sequences as well. Form has been a very productive medium for me. I love rhymed couplets and counting syllables. I like Charles Simic’s idea of form being a constraint for a poet the way a straightjacket was a constraint for Houdini.
Howl: How do you edit your work?
Hamby: I find that writing a draft and letting it sit for a time and then going back to it is great for editing. Also, reading a piece aloud, whether it be fiction or poetry, is very helpful. You can’t convince yourself that something is okay when your ear tells you it’s not. Also, some poems or stories need many more drafts than others. I find that writing groups don’t really work for me, because no one is as hard on me as I am on myself.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Hamby: Read! And read good writers. It’s okay to have secret vices like Harry Potter or mysteries or thrillers, but great writers teach you how to be a writer. If you want to write stories read Chekhov and Joyce. If you want to write poetry, read Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Keats, Rimbaud, Rilke, Catullus, Neruda, Lorca, Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Ginsberg, O’Hara--to name a few of my favorites. Always read what’s new, too, and steal from everyone. Be wild!
Also, develop discipline. Write every day. You won’t write something good every day, but put in the time. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it must find us working.” Virginia Woolf ‘s dictum that a woman should have a room of her own works for men as well. Have a place to go to that is yours, a place where you can work without disturbance. It’s hard when you are young to say no to friends. It’s hard at any age, but sometimes you have to make that choice, and by choosing your writing you will find yourself becoming a writer. There’s no other way to do it.
Howl: Your poem, "Ode to Dictionaries," is a sort of appreciation for the written word. Why do you feel that poetry, or writing in general, is your creative medium of choice?
Hamby: My first published work was a story that was published when I was in the third grade, but the next year I bought my first dictionary, and I remember reading it and thinking—so many words! I felt so rich, and I still feel that way when I write poetry especially. I collect words, and sometimes they are the images that come together into a poem. “Ode to Dictionaries” is really my love letter to that first dictionary. It’s a highly formal poem—abecedarian, rhymed couplets, 13-syllable lines—but I hope it sounds wild. I want all my formal poems to sound as if they are spontaneous. Sometimes I feel as if I am more successful than at other times. The Italians have a word, “sprezzatura,” which is making something very difficult seem easy. This seems like a worthy goal for a poet.
Howl: What do you look for in reading poetry and are there any writers we should have our ears on the tracks for?
Hamby: I love poems that have music, mystery, craziness. I love word-drunk poets like Ginsberg and Shakespeare. You know by reading them that they love language. I love Lorca because you know what he is saying but he doesn’t spell everything out. There is so much mystery in his work. I love funny poets who are often heartbreaking in the same breath, poets like Tony Hoagland and Lucia Perillo. I love excess, so I love big poems. “Song of Myself” is glorious. I find it opening up new worlds every time I read it. But a poem doesn’t have to be long to be big. Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” is a huge poem, but so is Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.”
Howl: Many of your poems come from personal experiences it seems. How do you find the balance where your poetry can be personal - even introspective and therapeutic - and knowing that it will also be read by the masses? It can be a very vulnerable experience publishing poetry.
Hamby: In developing a poetic voice, I have found that it is me but not-me at the same time. The voice in my poems is smarter and wittier than I am in real life, and while some experiences may come from my life, often they are not presented exactly the way they happened. Of course, sometimes they are, but it is important to step away from that, too. I’m still surprised that anyone reads my work. I’ve had people come up to me at conferences or after a reading and start talking to me as if they know me, and they do, but through my work. It’s always surprising to me.
Howl: As a teacher of creative writing at Florida State University, what trends in contemporary poetry do you see, i.e. free verse vs form, popular themes, growing or waning interest in the genre...?
Hamby: There are certainly trends that I see that are encouraging and ones that are discouraging. I was the judge of a contest a few years ago, and found a manuscript by Jason Bredle, Standing in Line for the Beast, which was just what I was looking for—long, digressive, poems filled with wacky images. One image led to another, but the poems were held together by Bredle’s voice. I love Richard Siken’s book, Crush, for the same reason, though Siken’s poems are more heartbreaking. Adrian Blevins’ Live from the Homesick Jamboree has some gorgeous word-drunk poems and funny ones, too. I love Dean Young’s surrealism.
Trends that I find disheartening are poems that try to keep the reader out, ones that are so abstract or difficult that there is no pleasure in reading them. For me a poem has to bring pleasure first. It doesn’t have to spell out its intentions, but it should give the reader pleasure, whether it is the pleasure of music or of expressing some complex emotion that seemed inexpressible. I love Emily Dickinson’s definition of a real poem as one that gives you a chill no fire can warm. We’ve all felt that chill, and that’s what I want from a poem or from a work of fiction.
Howl: What have been some of the joys as well as some of the challenges of being a professional poet?
Hamby: I can’t believe I can do this for a living. Nothing in my background prepared me for a life in the arts. Neither of my parents finished college, and my mother used to say to me, “Wake up, Barbara, you’re living in a dream world.” I can’t believe that I get to live in that dream world in which art is at the center. My husband, David Kirby, is a poet, too, so we have a life with poetry at the center. We were in Italy this summer, and there was a poem on every corner but that is also true in Tallahasse, Florida, where we live.
I can’t really think of a challenge. I feel so lucky. Every once in a while someone will say something like “There’s no interest in poetry anymore.” I see plenty of interest in poetry. My students love poetry, and I have lots of friends who are poets. I go to the AWP conference every year and there are 5000+ poets and writers there talking about writing. I’m not a chemist, and I don’t know much about chemistry, but I’m certain that there is a vibrant world of chemistry with prizes and conferences and publications. Just because I don’t know about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Howl: Who were your inspirations early in your career and did you ever get to meet any?
Hamby: I met Philip Levine, but I was too shy to talk to him about poetry, but I listened to other people talk to him about poetry. Richard Howard was poetry editor of The Paris Review, and he accepted some of the poems in my first book for that magazine. He was so supportive and funny and such a grand poet. I’ll always be grateful for his generosity.
Howl: What is next for Barbara Hamby?
Hamby: I’ve just finished a draft of a new book of poetry based on three journeys I took—one on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from St. Petersburg to Beijing, one from Memphis to New Orleans on the Blues Highway, and one following The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaka. I’m polishing it this summer. I want to write an opening poem on maps, but so far I’ve had no luck. We’ll see.
I’m also working on a novel set in Hawaii where I grew up. I’m working on draft five, which I hope to have finished by the end of September, and then on to draft six. While I was working on draft # 4, I realized that certain chapters could stand alone as stories with some tinkering. One just came out in the Boston Review: http://bostonreview.net/fiction/barbara-hamby-dole-girl-2015-aura-estrada-contest-winner and another will be in Five Points in December. And there are those twenty poems I have cooking on the back burner.