Evanston-based international poetry journal RHINO turns forty this month, and co-founder Ralph Hamilton’s recent collection, Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015) is as much about endurance as it is about reconsidering the elegy. Hamilton’s version suggests that loss is not always tragic, and this intermeshing between possession and absence drives the work toward a question that curtails itself through its own arrangement: “what would we say if / we had something / to say? A storm.”
Chris Campanioni (Rail): I’m always interested in the lineage of an artist and their work of art. Readers often bring me the most valuable insight into my own body of work, but it’s a rare—and welcome—opportunity to discuss the context of a collection with the poet themselves. In Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail, you begin with John Donne, but I see traces of more mid-century North American voices within your own, namely Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. Who do you consider your poetic precursors in shaping this collection?
Ralph Hamilton: I need to back into some of these questions through biography. Hope that’s okay.
My father hailed from Alabama, my mother from Georgia. I was raised in the American South until I was six: in Alabama, the mountains of North Carolina, and a cattle ranch in Florida. At seven years-old, suddenly I found myself in the Bahamas where I lived for most of the next six years, attending a British school in Nassau, St. Andrew’s, except for six months in England at a boarding school called St. Leonard’s Forest. Both schools were Church of England, so each morning began with hymns, psalms, and prayers. My first exposure to poetry in the classroom—indeed to a consistent, aural, musical language—was infused with the cadences, rhythms, and syntax of the Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican hymnal, thereby to 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century British prosody.
The reference to Frost to makes sense but, surprisingly, I’ve read very little of him. What I know of Frost I’ve learned mostly through Jarrell’s criticism. Strange (and embarrassing), I know.
I have broad tastes in poetry, and at different times have been captivated by poets working in very different styles and registers. The semi-centos are a kind of explicit conversation with a specific poet, but otherwise the way poets have influenced me is more about unconscious assimilation. The poets I return to again and again have been absorbed into me so thoroughly—to my ear, my expectations, my sense of what is possible—that their sway (however mangled) comes out unwittingly. Yes, Wallace Stevens, but also Frank Bidart, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lisel Mueller, Liam Rector, Amy Gerstler, John Berryman, Charles Olson, Harryette Mullen, Tony Hoagland, Antonio Machado, and so many others.
Sometimes the source of a poem for me is not poetry, but music. For instance there’s a poem in the book that I wrote thinking about the jazzman, Sidney Bechet—his breathy vibrato, the emotionality, tenderness and vulnerability in his playing, of how he made his instrument whisper and squawk and croon and honk, how a single song could span the breadth of human emotion. My poem had nothing to do with jazz, by the way, and it didn’t in any way approximate the emotional depth of Bechet’s playing, but I used Bechet’s music to push myself, to struggle for something deeper and more vulnerable, to take more risk.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is really simple. Because I grew up in a lot of different places and have always been an eclectic and omnivorous reader, I have a welter of voices and musics in my head. That jumble of sound and sense is me. I can try to talk about the poets who have fed (and feed) me, but I’m don’t think I can do it with concision or a great deal of clarity.
Rail: Are these conversations with other poets usually a part of the conscious process while writing or something that happens retrospectively, the way you can see your voice in other voices much later, when reading the work back to yourself, even after publication?
Hamilton: I continue to find things in my poems of which I was unaware when writing them. Maybe I need that “unknowing” to write. For me, too much early thinking can kill a poem before it’s even on the page. Some of the poems I’m most proud were appalling in their early drafts—both stupid and ridiculous. But luckily I kept on writing, intrigued by a goofy conceit or a phrase I couldn’t shake, by whether it might be possible to make them work. Early on in my writing a friend told me, “If you begin with an idea you have an essay; if you begin with a piece of music, you have a poem.” (I think he was quoting a teacher of his). That advice stuck with me. It’s not that I don’t like poems that think, but rather that I want to be sure the thinking doesn’t overpower a fragile kernel of creativity, and that any idea is embodied and not simply argued.
Rail: I like that distinction and also the possible connections, between being embodied and being argued. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive, or does good poetry require embodiment, and is it the reader’s role to make the argument? I guess what I’m also asking here is do you find yourself more Imagist than Metaphysical when conceiving a poem?
Hamilton: A lot of the ideas I have about poetry are probably in the Imagist lineage, though I admire greatly the Metaphysical poets’ loopy metaphorical inventiveness and grab-bag goulash of similes. There are ways in which both the Imagists and the Metaphysicals were reacting against a poetry that had become polite, mannered, and stale. Personally I’m more attracted to poems that are “embodied,” if their language and music is arresting and fits the aims of the poem. Abstraction has a place, of course. A good poem often needs tension and variation, and alternating between embodiment and abstraction can be very effective. Among the many dangers poems face is being kooky for kookiness sake, or being hoary and unimaginative, or being needlessly abstract. My freshman philosophy professor (who, oddly, also taught the novels of Joyce and Tolstoy) used to chortle wickedly, “Don’t give me this, Your eyes are like the stars and moon. Tell me, I’m the cream in your coffee! Stir me. Breathe my stench. Taste me. Guzzle me down. Leave your lipstick on the rim of the cup. Stub your cigarette in my dregs.”
To get the most out of a poem, the reader can’t be inert, can’t be merely a passive receptacle, any more than a good concert hall is dull and unresponsive. There has to be an interaction, a resonance that occurs between the poem (or music being made), and the ear and mind (or hall) in which it’s reverberating. The best poems always engage the reader in an active interchange. The reader is always completing the poem.
Rail: So much of this collection reads like an extended elegy, but it doesn’t follow the usual theme of loss; instead of simply unrequited love, for example, these poems seem concerned with a love that is consummated and yet remains unfulfilled or unfulfilling, which seems much more tragic to me.
Hamilton: I’m not sure I’d thought about it that way before, Chris, but you may be onto something. In assembling the book I was conscious of wanting to present different kinds of losses and different ways of reacting to loss. For example, the love we feel is always real, but the basis of our love—that is, the things we see and respond to in another—may be partly or even wholly an illusion. Perversely, the pain of losing such a love is no less painful. Similarly, many of us bring such contradictory expectations to our relationships, along with all the complicated and shifting needs, that the question of “fulfillment” is not easily answered, at least for me.
Maybe I’m also struggling to suggest that loss is not always tragic. Sometimes loss can be a form of release, of freedom or escape, of growth. Sometimes we have to sit with “what is,” to cry perhaps, but also to laugh at the way emotions play across our own internal prosceniums. Sometimes we simply have to accept that loss and grief and longing are built into human experience; the challenge will always be to make something of our pain. Maybe that’s why I return repeatedly to the line from Auden’s disowned poem, “September 1, 1939:” “For the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love / But to be loved alone.”
Rail: The image of negative space—which you embody so well throughout the book—and also the continuous chains of juxtapositions and challenged binaries also pervade Teaching. Perhaps my favorite paradoxical metaphor is the heart as “a cloak” in “The Mother, Broken.” In a way, this one image captures the entire collection’s confrontation with possession, absence, and psychic distance.
Hamilton: I loved cut-outs as a child—the way nothing becomes something. And those optical drawings in which one’s mental image of what’s on the page shifts (such as the drawing that transforms from a young girl to an old woman) depending on how one focuses one’s eyes and constructs the visual fragments in the brain. When I first went to museums, I loved looking at sculptures for the space they left empty; and how the space that was occupied and the space that was not, depended on each other, were made by each other. So the relationship between binaries—their dissolution and integration—is something I come back to in my poems. Perhaps it’s a classic formulation for a child who witnessed a few too many divorces.
Rail: The title of the collection begins with the verb “to teach” and similarly, a number of these poems can be read as advice, forewarnings, and instructions. My favorite poem, “Forest, No Trees” speaks well to this idea of the poetic parable. The title itself serves as an innuendo suggesting iteration—a repetition with difference—but also subjective perspectives, and ultimately, an attempt for correction or the desire for interruption, addendum, revision.
Hamilton: The instruction, if there is any, is to myself in one sense; and yet I was also trying to share the poems as a kind of witness, perhaps. The poems were a way of handling loss, of trying to figure out loss, of needing to. There may be a wacky sort of Mithridates in it: by exposing myself to loss again and again—as he did with snake venom—I found I built up a tolerance. And though there is no one answer, no right answer, asking the same question again and again—the multiplicity of partial, necessarily unsatisfactory answers was illuminating for me. Put differently, I am the man, I am the dog, I am the tail, I am the thing entangled, the dog that’s trapped, and the enmeshed “teacher,” all needing and incapable of distance. Maybe merely trying to communicate the tangle of loss and love, as if in conversation with another person or people, is itself the answer.
Let me try it another way. A poem is always a performance, a particular kind of artifice, a particular form of public speech. I never forget that. I want my poems to be an effective performance. But in order for the poem/performance to be effective, I have to connect with something inside myself, in my experience or psyche, and probe that so that the performance/poem I build comes from something true, something that matters, if only to me.
Rail: I love this emphasis on performance, not only because of poetry’s intention to be performed, but also a notion that I think is common to almost all writers, in which we write something to bare ourselves and in the process inevitably obscure or re-present other aspects of who we are. Do you often find yourself grappling with the factual (I hesitate to even use a word like “literal” in this context) vs. emotional truth?
Hamilton: One of the first things Liam Rector said to the entering MFA class at Bennington was, “All poetry is fiction.” For a moment the statement startled me, but it also made me clear up the difference in poetry between mere facts and the truth. A good piece of fiction and a good poem may not be factual, but they must in some sense be true. Sometimes, when I’m stuck or baffled writing a poem, I’ll ask myself “what is the emotional truth here and why does it matter?” and that can prompt a lucidity that frees me up.
Rail: I want to bring up Wallace Stevens again, and maybe even introduce more experimental Modernist poets like Gertrude Stein into the conversation, because I feel like some of your most provoking lines in this book also experiment with inversions of logic, and psychological plumbing—either through your use of enjambment, “Nothing suggests you will. The disadvantage / of knowing you so long is knowing you” from “Changing Your Mind,” or, as in “Knots,” where an actual question being posed: “A successful imitation of / marriage is marriage, or is it”—yet curtailing before its question mark.
Hamilton: I often think of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit’s words—“‘She would have been a good woman,’ the Misfit said, ‘if it’d been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life’”—when I think of a good poem. Because that’s what a good poem does for me, to me: it shoots me a little bit, it wakes me up. I get too lazy, or numb, or smug, or bored, or distracted to actually be in the world; and a good poem brings me back. Sure, I’m influenced by poets like Stein, Michael Palmer, Rae Armantrout, and Harryette Mullen; but most poets play with inversions, parataxis, juxtaposition, etc. The chiasmus in so many Psalms is just a beautiful harbinger of many rhetorical moves that would develop to make music and to pierce ordinary, heedless consciousness. I wrote part of my master’s thesis at Bennington on Mullen and Russell Edson, so I’m entranced by poets who play with language and logic, who make strange in order to make real. I love the way poetry can shape-shift, can give and take back with the same hand, can slink and twirl and strut and buck and ease its way around what is in order to show what is. Poetry uniquely has elasticity and brawn, quickness and weight, an embodied breath and an ethereal flesh that allows writers to explore and reflect what they know of life.
We’re all made by language, by words, in some sense. Yes, there are many potentialities in us all, but they need to be activated, to be switched on. The stories we tell and are told, the words we apply to ourselves, both foreclose and create realities. Our poems are always assertions about reality or, rather, assertions of reality. This may sound odd but maybe the process is a bit like the Velveteen Rabbit (1922). In that children’s tale, love is the catalyst through which the rabbit becomes “real.” I’m trying to suggest that our language, our stories, our poems are a lot like love. They have a force, a cumulative power to transform and “make real.”
Rail: How has your writing been shaped by your role as editor of one of the most celebrated contemporary poetry journals?
Hamilton: I read about two-thirds of the 15,000 poems submitted to RHINO each year. Some are wonderful, some are not; regardless, the writers have given us a piece of their heart. The sheer diversity of the poems we receive shapes me in ways I can neither control nor fully explain. It’s humbling to see how much we all need to grapple with ultimate questions of meaning and loss—to come to terms with suffering and cruelty, how we still dare to love others, how we are able to find and take sustenance from the beauty all around us, how we maintain the capacity to wonder, to make joy—how poets have the courage and audacity to speak the truth the best we know how. Maybe all poetry is about loneliness in some sense, even as it’s about reaching beyond the echo chamber of our own skulls in order to be heard and understood, to connect with people and the natural world. RHINO has also definitely taught me about the role of form in expressing the content of a poem. And it’s definitely taught me that most poems need less, not more. The best poems take me out of myself, out of what I know and expect; they stretch me to hear and understand a poem in its own terms, to enter the world it creates.
My fellow editors have also been critical to my growth as a poet. They provide me with a continuing lesson in how to read poetry. Many of us have critiqued each other’s work for years now—we’ve watched it grow in depth and ambition. Their skill and insight continues to challenge, frighten, and inspire me.
Rail:Can you talk a bit about the emergence and success of RHINO in the last few years?
Hamilton: RHINO is a collaborative venture, but there is a set of core values that hold it together. We’re committed to publishing the best poetry in English annually (including flash fiction and translations), regardless of style, and whether the author is established or an emerging poet. With an ever-changing group of twelve to fourteen volunteer poet/editors, we embrace being a work in progress. The journal fosters a diverse and changing cadre of editors who love poetry, cover the demographic spectrum, and represent varied tastes. From its earliest days, the respect and gratitude that the editors have for each other and for the poets who share their work with us, is the very heart of our endurance and growth. Every bit of our progress—a new website, better submissions, use of Facebook and Twitter, our Big Horn blog, grants, our layout, etc.—has happened because different editors have stepped forward to take leadership, and the rest of us have backed them up.
Rail: What are you working on today? How does it depart—or recall—form and content concerns in Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail?
Hamilton: I’m working on another book called The Barnyard of Boyhood. It focuses on issues of male identity and masculinity; including growing up, sexuality and desire, being a son, being a father, finding one’s place in the world, finding home. Some of the poems are more directly voiced than those in Teaching a Man, I think. But I’m also struggling with the voice in a way that I didn’t with Teaching. A lot of that is fear and insecurity, of course. At the moment I’m experimenting with inserting short context-setting prose pieces into the manuscript, but I can’t say whether those will survive.
Recently my energy has been going into RHINO 2016. This is our 40th anniversary year, and I’ve just sent off the galleys to the printer. The range of wonderful poems in the issue stuns me. As I was proofing them I kept thinking that I hope to write a couple of poems half as good as many of those.