Thursday, February 24, 2011

Weeping sheep and the consolations of philosophy - an introduction to the poetry of Justin Hamm, reformed classics blogger

from Illinois, My Apologies

At thirteen fourteen and fifteen
I was an alien among
the Rockwellian agricreatures
of my home galaxy

I’m turning from Martian invaders to Martian poetry, the American Midwestern version.  Those lines begin Justin Hamm’s poem “Illinois, My Apologies,” and his new book of the same title.  “Rockwellian agricreatures” gives a pretty good sense of Hamm’s strengths.  Tableflat, tarbrained, flannelclad, sheepshapes, fleshyfat, holyspeak – chewy words with a solid mouthfeel.

Once upon a time, perhaps as long as three years ago, Hamm had a book blog called What Do I Know, a so-called classics blog.  In real life he, like Tony Curtis in Spartacus, “taught the classics to the children.”  At some point he mentioned that he had a poem in something called Renaissance Magazine, which was fortunately on the newstand at Borders.  The feature article was all about Renaissaince Faire wedding dresses, oh, so hideous, so hideous, but the poem was – well, it was a real poem.  “To the Venerable Bede,” it was called.  Hamm posted or linked to another couple of poems, and after reading them I thought to myself, this book blog sure as heck won’t be around much longer.  This fellas got bigger fish to fry.

from At Sixteen

but the black sheep
reads Boethius to the spiders
by flashlight
beneath the stairs
weeps for everything
worth weeping for

If you detect a note of adolescent self-pity, that’s the subject of the poem, a subject of the book, even.  I do believe Hamm is mostly sincere about the title of his book.

Illinois, My Apologies is Hamm's first book, a fifteen poem chapbook tied up with string that binds in a poster and a CD of Hamm reading his work.  The poet, who I only know as a blogger, asked me if I wanted a review copy.  A prig about free books, I said, no, of course not, how dare you, and bought my own.  The madmen* who operate Rocksaw Press will send you a copy, too, for $12.

from Goodbye, Sancho Panza

I meet
a Slim Jim munching
Sancho Panza
goateed now
all leathered out
and in close contact
with his inner beast

Now that’s a good hook, and the rest of the poem lives up to the promise.  I suppose I should try to give the book something like a proper review.  Not my strength, but tomorrow, I’ll try.  What’s a good reviewer's cliché – a promising debut!  Quite a bit better than that, really.

* “Madmen,” defn.: anyone who runs a small poetry press, God love ‘em.


  1. coming from you, I believe. There are some bloggers I can depend on and you are one of them.

  2. What on earth...? Hamm's words have a clamp on my imagination. Inelegantly put, yes, but my face bears an inelegant expression when I read "Stars Will Crunc Underfood Like Leaves". Are writers this good just...supposed to be popping up on blogs, writing on the internet? Whoa.

  3. First - Justin has kindly offered to answer questions, shoot the breeze, and whatnot. Just leave 'em in the comments here, or on tomorow's posts.

    I'll start - was I blowing smoke with the Craig Raine reference? Do I detect a hint of the Beatnik in "The Autobiography, Nearly"? How about Ted Kooser?

    Are you the kind of writer who hates talk about influences? If so, please ignore all of the above.

    Nana - Imani, too - yes, that's how it works now - the poets just pop out of the internet. Hamm is publishing in good places, but he can put a fair amount up on his website. We can read Nana's poems at his. This is the future!

    That prose poem, "Stars Will Crunch Underfoot Like Leaves," is not in the chapbook. Good decision - I don't think it fits.

  4. First of all, thanks for the kind words, Imani. And thanks to A.R. for spending some time with my poems and telling others about them.

    I don't mind talking influences at all. Part of my fascination with reading literature is speculating about the obvious and less obvious influences on the writer.

    I'll start with the first question. I think the alien imagery in the title poem came out of the phrase "Rockwelian agricreatures." That just came to me and once I had that I tried for imagery that matched.

    I hadn't thought of Kooser. I don't know his work that well, but from the sense I have of it, he seems like somebody I could learn a lot from.

    I think Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters were down there in the mix from my days of being educated in the state of Illinois. I didn't set out with them in mind but I'm sure what I read and was taught of their poetry shaped my concept of a "Midwestern" or "Illinois" poem even before I began writing my own.

    What's strange about "The Autobiography, Nearly" is how it came about. I wrote it during a kind of boring meeting before the new school year started. There were a bunch of magazines around and I just started juxtaposing phrases from the covers and from the meeting handouts and then improvising stuff where it came to me. It didn't make much sense. So when I went back to it later I saw it needed something to tie it together and it became that "hipster" voice, and that was intentional. The poem's meant to be semi-ironic--the idea that it's confessional but it's cloaked in a language that distances you from confession until you aren't really sure what's being confessed. Not sure if that came across as well as I intended, though--at least one reviewer didn't read it that way.

    Am I saying anything interesting?

  5. Thanks, thanks - I love this stuff.

    I knew the Beatnik hipster voice was parody! It works perfectly in the book - we have the jittery "Electric Widower," followed by our first good look at his wife, assuming we want to read the poems as a story - and no wonder he's jittery! One kind of high energy is followed by a quite different kind. Nice effect.

    I'd wondered about those other Illinois poets - inescapable growing up there, I'll bet. How about Vachel Lindsay? You seem insufficiently, um, peculiar, to really incorporate Lindsay.

    I've met a few Midwestern poets, all a generation older than you, and they all more or less worship Kooser. It's an interesting phenomenon. You're already doing something he does a lot - fix on one object, one piece of the landscape, like the old International Harvester (see today's post) and get it exactly right. But Kooser often stops there, cold. A sort of refusal of explicit meaning. If there's a lesson, he's not telling.

    Your poems often end with a sort of reach for wisdom. It might be interesting to think about what would happen if the imagery or characters are left suspended.

  6. That's an excellent suggestion. I've been playing around with different ways of entering and exiting poems recently.

    Looks like I need to spend some time with Kooser.

  7. I'm looking at a collection called Flying at Night, which is basically Kooser's first two books under one cover.

    I think you'll feel at home with some of these poems. "Shooting a Farmhouse," for example - I've been by that house. So have you.

    I'm not sure, if we went by word count, that either of Kooser's books are enormously longer than your chapbook. Some of these poems are sparse.

  8. What an interesting review on a book! Makes me more interested than ever to read a poetry book, with much more enthusiasm than I have had. Just reading the blog made me feel connected to Justin. Thank you for such insight.

  9. Justin - there, Breeana supplied the blurb!

  10. Thanks, all. If you end up reading it, I hope you'll shoot me a line and let me know what you think!