How has your first book changed your life?
84. Christine Hamm
How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Mayapple Press? Had you sent it out often before that?
I had sent out many, many manuscripts before (probably about 15 since 2001, which was when I started writing poetry regularly and seriously), but I had only sent out The Transparent Dinner to three places (all simultaneously). All three expressed interest--one ultimately decided it was "too raw," one wanted me to pay $3,000, and one was Mayapple. It took Mayapple a while before they were clear about it--they expressed interest a couple times over a four month period before actually committing.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
As soon as I got it out of the box I generally acted like one of those National Clearinghouse Winners on TV--lots of whooping and dancing and typing emails in all caps.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I thought that I would magically and completely and instantly be changed into a "real writer" and I thought this change would manifest itself physically somehow, so people could tell just by looking at me. (Hence the tattoo that reads "real writer" across my left wrist.) I thought having a book published would make it a lot easier to get my work published in general. It hasn't.
Has your life been different since?
My book came out just after I started my first year at a graduate program (I'm getting my PhD in Lit) and once my professors found out, they all made announcements in class and read the reviews out loud to every one, etc. It was simultaneously embarrassing and a little thrilling. I think most of the students avoided me after that. Some became visibly annoyed every time a professor called me "the poet" in class rather than my name. (I've never seen eyes roll quite so hard).
My fellow writers (outside of school) have been quite supportive. I think they understand how the book feels a little like a baby--they ask after it sometimes, make parenting suggestions.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yep. I designed the front cover. The painting on the cover is a collage and painting I made specifically for the book. I now wish I went with something a little brighter--but hindsight's always 20/20. The publisher designed the back cover.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I was surprised when one of my elderly professors cornered me and told me she really liked the sex in the poems--she found it "very realistic." I was surprised recently when one bookstore owner insisted that my book was self-published and was reluctant to stock it. Every time someone said they read and liked it I was surprised. Yet, simultaneously, I expected some sort of acclaim, perhaps a small parade. I'm complicated that way.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I've done a lot more readings, and I've bought a couple ads. I bought an ad on poets.org for a month. Didn't make a single sale through it. It was pretty though.
I've gone to a couple bookstores and asked them to stock my book. I hate promoting myself in person that way. Mostly I'd rather chew off my right hand than tell people how great my work is. I had one bookstore promise to carry it, then that manager got promoted and the new manager refused to stock it. That was quite humiliating, being turned down after I was promised. I did a reading at a bookstore in New Brunswick. The bookstore staff was wonderful. They bought 20 copies of the book and made a display. They put cookies out. Only one person showed up, and all he wanted to do was read his own poetry to me. It was so horrible I get flashbacks just thinking about it.
I like doing the readings (when I'm not by myself), but sometimes I get tired of reading from my book. I want to read my new work.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
I wish someone had told me that I would not actually gain any superpowers--also that people would be shocked when they read it, and that some men would instantly think I was the physical embodiment of the poem "Slut." I also wished someone had told me that no one was going to be quite as impressed by the fact that I published a book as I was.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
It's definitely given me more confidence about my writing. It's given me a sense of accomplishment--sometimes I go back to the book and reread it, and I realize it doesn't completely suck. I think the sequence of poems hangs together pretty well--the success of that kind of cohesion allowed me to consider writing more series of poems. The manuscript I sent out recently, The Saint of Lost Causes, is also made up of some very closely linked poems. This time, the book's even more like a novel--there are repeating characters who grow and develop.
How do you feel about the response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
Many people have been quite complimentary (which always surprises me). I was very surprised by the fact that many people read the book as straight autobiography. In fact, the poems have about the same relation to my real life as my dreams do. I didn't realize some people would find it so disturbing--they said it gave them nightmares, and one person said my work made them "queasy." One of my supervisors at Rutgers (where I teach) said it brought up really bad memories from his childhood and he was sad that he had read it. I was really thrilled when I got a review from Jen Tynes, because she really understood the purpose of a lot of the poems.
Because of people's responses, my writing has become a little more subtle, but the subject matter has not. I just realized that I can imply rather than outright state, and readers will still get the point. I've also been working outside of the first person point of view a lot more--I think different points of view make readers consider the poem as something more deliberately created. They don't immediately assume that I'm just writing reportage (I hope).
Do you want your life to change?
I'm actually pretty happy with the direction my life is headed. I wish my writing would change and always keep changing--I really want it to improve. I wish I could work on poems longer--they're always done within a week or so; Elizabeth Bishop took decades on her poems. I'd like to be able to enter a poem that way and be able to stay with it for a long time. I'd like to get a good teaching job in academia, but that's in the future.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I'm trying to study the work of other poets who I admire--see what makes them tick. I want to apply everything I learn to my own work.
I plan to do my dissertation on post WWII female poets. I think an intense scrutiny of their work will help me deepen my own process.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I think that's a difficult question because it's hard to say what constitutes change and what constitutes the world. I believe the world is made up of things both infinitely small and incredibly huge. I think people are changed by reading a poem, that it somehow enters them and rewires the language centers in their brains, even if only a little. I think that people are changed by everything they encounter, that everything is absorbed and processed somewhere, somehow. In terms of large cultural and political change, I think some anti-war poetry has been fairly successful in changing people's points of view. Randall Jarrell did a very good job with that. Also, Reed's poem, "Lessons of the War," seems to have influenced people. I haven't read any good antiwar poems that are post WWII, however. Maybe they're out there. I think e.e. cummings' poetry probably changed the world in that it made people less afraid of poetry--or maybe that was just my experience with it as a child.
2 poems from The Transparent Dinner by Christine Hamm:
Your breath this morning, foul, loved,
out the open window, hammering, overlapping
my tongue so far down your throat I can
an old man in army boots stumbles down
marks from previous floods on the walls
stones older than Christ the hum
screech of birds, unseen
Now I lock myself in the bathroom
sneak into the toe of your boot you will wear me
dark around the edges
the negative space of your forehead my thumb
smoothing your brows
The dogs that eat us so sweetly
we are beyond choke chains here
beyond chasing a squirrel to the middle
beyond standing at their shoulders
it is slow this kind of loving
you can see it as they lick their dripping
and we taste like presents like the ripping
open of presents to them
. . .
next interview: Logan Ryan Smith
. . .