An Interview with Barbara Hamby

by Dan Albergotti

Barbara Hamby is the author of Delirium (University of North Texas Press, 1995), The Alphabet of Desire (New York University Press, 1999), and Babel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). She won the Kate Tufts Award for Delirium, and the New York Public Library named The Alphabet of Desire one of the twenty-five best books of 1999. Babel was the winner of the 2003 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Hamby teaches creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she lives with her husband, poet David Kirby. In addition to this interview, storySouth is also presenting seven of her poems.

Dan Albergotti: When I read your poems, I often find that the linguistic and the erotic intersect. I’m thinking of poems like “The Alphabet of Desire” and “Six, Sex, Say.” And I can almost detect a purely sensual enjoyment of the sounds and textures of language in your work. Is that fair to say? Is language a sensual pleasure for you, and if so, has it always been?

Barbara Hamby: I grew up in a big talking family, so words have always been important to me. Both my mother and father were quick with a quip, and my mother, especially, used a lot of Biblical language. For instance, when I’d be fuming about how I wanted to kill my brother, she’d often say, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” I can remember having half a dozen minor aneurysms when she’d come up with that or “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” She was an Old Testament gal and really dug Jehovah, because he kicked some serious ass. As a woman in the fifties and a Christian to boot, she was always sublimating a fierce will to power. She loved quoting Job and Isaiah. I also grew up with the King James Bible, which is like growing with Shakespeare in the sense that they are both masterpieces of Renaissance English. Shakespeare and 19th century American literature were duck soup for me after going to church every Sunday for 18 years and hearing the pastor read from what is perhaps one of the most beautiful books of poetry ever written though, of course, it wasn’t presented in that way. However, no amount of hellfire and brimstone can cover up the utter beauty of the language, until the mid-sixties when they came out with all those modern translations. What a bad idea.

My dad was also an influence. When he was a young man he memorized reams of poetry, and he’d recite it all the time. I was so embarrassed when he’d start spouting “Gunga Din” or “The Killing of Dan McGrew” in front of my friends. Later, though, I realized what a fabulous linguistic stew I was privy to from the very beginning. My parents weren’t readers, so we didn’t have many books around the house, but we did have this snappy, weird give-and-take that could turn venomous at the drop of a hat. My brothers and sisters are all quick witted, which means that I had to watch what I said. Never give the opposition ammunition. Irony was mother’s milk.

So words were always important, for themselves and as a vehicle of survival. Then I learned to read. That was the most miraculous thing that ever happened to me. There I was in a rowdy, lower middle class religious free-for-all, and by opening a book I could go anywhere and be anyone: Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Lady Brett Ashley, Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke, Jane Eyre. I loved biographies as a child, and I still do. There was a series of biographies for children in my elementary school library. The illustrations were silhouettes. I read the whole series from the founding fathers to Jane Addams of Hull House and George Washington Carver. When I was in the fourth grade there was a special deal in my school, Francis Asbury Elementary in Buckroe Beach, Virginia. You could buy a children’s dictionary for a couple of dollars—A Dictionary for Boys and Girls: Webster’s Elementary Dictionary. When I unwrapped my copy, I felt so rich—all these words and all of them mine. I would read through it randomly, sure I would never know all those words but hoping to one day. And I’ve never stopped collecting words. I love to find new caches of lingo, such as hardware or jazz or dance or noir films. Other cultures are a fabulous trove of language, especially for an English speaker, because our language can take in anything and make it our own. I tell my students that it is a privilege to write in English because of the huge vocabulary, because of its suppleness, its weird rhythms, its gorgeous array of sounds, and that very inclusiveness that I just mentioned. Sometimes I’m just beside myself with the sheer thrill of putting all the thousands of Englishes together. It’s like juggling and walking a tightrope at the same time.

DA: That early experience with the richness of language is certainly evident in your poems, but your adult experience with foreign languages and cultures has also exerted a profound influence. International travel seems to provide you with a very fertile source for poems. The Alphabet of Desire has an entire section titled “Italian Odes,” and Babel has one titled “13 Ways of Looking at Paris.” And there are many other poems in which your travels in France and Italy figure prominently. How has your travel abroad influenced the development of your poetry? And what would your poems be like if you spent all your time in Tallahassee?

BH: My dad was in the Air Force, so travel has always been a part of my life. I was born in New Orleans, then we lived in France for three years, and finally we ended up in Hawaii, where my mother still lives. Hawaiian pidgin was one of my first immersions into a different and highly expressive variation on English. David and I are lucky, because Florida State University has one of the largest study abroad programs in the country. There are campuses in London, Florence, Valencia, and Panama and six-week courses in Paris, Prague, Munich, Costa Rica, and Ho Chi Min City. Actually I was lucky to marry someone who likes to travel as much as I do and who has an incredible facility with other languages. I am a dunce when it comes to foreign languages. I can buy shoes in four languages, but that’s about it. I think we both find travel stimulating. We always come home with a huge fund of images to draw on for our work.

When I was in my twenties, I did a lot of Buddhist meditation. One of tenets of Buddhism that I love is beginner’s mind, to see the world continually through fresh eyes as if for the first time. Travel does something like that for me. In this country, I know my way around, but in Paris I’m a beginner. I speak an idiot’s French, and I understand so little. I find it a very beneficial place to be in for a poet. When you are an expert, you aren’t prone to make the mistakes and have the same kind of goof-ball adventures that you have when you don’t know anything. And the misunderstandings—what a cornucopia for a poet. I can’t imagine living in Tallahassee and not being able to travel, not just to Europe but to New York, New Orleans, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and all the Podunk places in between. I have this big fantasy of going to India, which I’m hoping to be able to do in the next few years. I also want to make a couple of cross country trips. I want to see Mount Rushmore and that Cadillac Stonehenge in Texas.

DA: I could see those trips feeding a very distinctly American section of a future book, one that might mirror the Paris and Italy sections of your earlier volumes. And I don’t mean something like the “American Odes” of Babel, but more of a “looking at the native land as a traveler” sort of thing. What do you think?

BH: The poetry store is always open. I never do anything or have anything happen to me that the thought does not cross my mind—how could I use this in a poem?

DA: I’d like to ask about the organization of your collections. Each of your three books has three very distinct, thematically (or formally) cohesive sections. Do you conceive of your books this way from the outset—that is, before you begin writing the poems? Or do you simply begin writing poems without a larger structure in mind and then see that distinct themes begin to emerge, themes that can be grouped into book sections?

BH: I joke that as a former born-again Christian, the trinity dies hard. Actually I write the poems in these sections. I came up with this process after floundering around for years, waiting for inspiration and then working one poem at a time. I had a book-length manuscript, but it wasn’t very interesting. Then I picked up a book in the British Museum bookstore on the archeology of beekeeping. Don’t ask me why. It looked interesting, and it was. I got a bee in my bonnet about beekeeping. I read everything I could get my hands on. I had no desire to become a beekeeper, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that bees could be a powerful metaphor. They certainly worked for Virgil and Plath. I took pages of notes, and finally I came up with the beginnings of about twenty poems, finally ending up with about ten. It was the most wonderful process. For months I was tied to my desk. I was in the zone, and when I finished the poems, for the first time I felt as if I had written something authentic. And it was easy for me to let the unsuccessful poems go, because I had others that were doing my bidding. I knew I had a section of a book, and I had found a way to work.

The next group of poems was a series of persona poems in the voices of the people associated with Keats during his last four months. Again I started with around twenty ideas and ended up with ten or twelve poems. The third group came from the first time we lived in Italy. When I sent these poems to magazines, editors that I respected wrote me and called me and took everything I sent them. I had never experienced that level of interest in my work. I felt as if I had turned a corner.

One thing I realized rather quickly was that the organizing principle didn’t matter much. Whether I used a metaphor, an experience, or a form—they were a conduit to that deep unconscious mind where all art is made. I like to use the analogy of a car. Diction, syntax, imagery, line, subject—all the elements of poetic craft—are like the chassis, steering wheel, windshield, tires, seats of a car. When you see them together, you say “car.” But without the engine, that car is going nowhere. The deep self is the engine of a poem. Some will say that the self is a construct, and I would tend to agree with them. Some poets make a big deal out of the fragmented self. As we used to say in high school—no duh. However you approach it, the self is a powerful construct and one that allows us to navigate the world. And that self is looking for its place in time. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ gorgeous language would be nothing if he weren’t grappling with these deep issues. The same goes for Whitman, Dickinson, Lorca, Neruda, Keats, Donne, all my favorite poets. What does it mean to be a human being in the world and caught in time? All my poems are about the same thing, understanding my place in the world. So I think that is the central organizing element; the metaphors, subjects, and form are secondary.

DA: You mentioned form as an “organizing principle,” and that’s evident in the number of poems you’ve written in particular forms. For instance, you have worked extensively in the abecedarian and the ode. The titular section of The Alphabet of Desire consists of 26 abecedarians (each titled sequentially with a word beginning with a letter of the alphabet—one of the most ambitious formal projects I’ve encountered in recent years), and you have a section of “Italian Odes” in the same book and a section of “American Odes” in Babel. Can you speak a bit about the appeal of these forms to you, about when you first started writing in them, and about what form in general means to your poetry?

BH: I wrote an abecedarian poem that I included in Delirium, and I loved writing it. It was so much fun, and the poem took me to places that surprised me. I loved that feeling. I have a pretty obsessive personality. I count everything. I alphabetize everything I can. I’m a collector, so the idea of writing a series of abecedarian poems was exciting. I love having a project. I wrote most of them over a summer, and it was one of the hardest and most thrilling things I’ve ever done. They say we only use 20 percent of our brain’s capacity. That summer I felt as if I was pushing 27 percent. I loved everything about it—the weird subjects that emerged, the gorgeous words I found, the mix of highfaluting language with slang and dialect. I made wonderful lists of words, especially for the difficult letters of our language—j, q, x, and z. Sometimes a word would open up the poem for me. For example, “zugzwang,” which is a German word meaning “move compulsion.” It’s a chess term—you have to move but whatever you do will hurt you. I almost went mad with joy. If that couldn’t be translated to most of my misbegotten romantic involvements as a young woman, I wasn’t the poet I thought I was. And it went on and on. The form forced me to make wild associations that I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t been using the form. And the abecedarian form is like a high speed elevator to the deep self, at least for me. I’ve tried to write metered poetry, but everything I write sounds so boring and stilted. The abecedarian was a form that was meant for me. I especially loved the language that it allowed me to use.

In Babel, sometimes I used the form to get a draft, and then I pulled it apart and reconfigured it as a free verse poem. “Ode to American English” had its beginnings as an abecedarian poem. The title poem of Babel entwines two alphabets at the beginning of the lines. In my new book, I’ve come up with two different variations on the form. I’m working with the beginning and end of the line in both poems. The first I call a double-helix abecedarian because I entwine two alphabets at the beginning of the line and two at the end. I’ve only written four poems, because there are so few words that end in “j” or “q.” The second form I call an abecedarian sonnet though it is only 13 lines. If only our alphabet had 28 letters then I could be more traditional. However, I love the number 13, so I’m not complaining. The first one I wrote began with an “a” and the line ended with a word that ended in “b.” The second line started with a “c” and ended with a “d” and so on. It didn’t take me long to start thinking about another sequence, but there was that “j” and “q” problem. So I came up with the idea of 26 poems, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, so I’d only have to come up with 13 words that ended in “j” and “q” and not 26. Again, it was an all-absorbing process. I finished the first drafts in about a month, though I’ve been tinkering with them for two years. Next year Verse is going to publish 13 of them in an issue on poetic sequences.

As for the odes, I came to them through Keats and Neruda. I love the music of Keats’s line and Neruda’s elevation of simple things. My first odes were written from this place, but after my first odes were published, I began to read Pindar and Horace, both of whom I came to love. “Ode to W. E. Diemer, the Inventor of Bubblegum” in Babel is my attempt to write an ode in the manner of Pindar. One of my abecedarian sonnets is based on my favorite ode by Horace—IV.1. It begins “So it’s war again Venus after all these years.” It is the most marvelous poem and utterly modern. In Babel I tried a more formal approach to the ode—a thirteen-syllable line, a thirteen-line stanza with end rhymes, often in rhymed couplets and a rhymed tercet at the end of the stanza. Most of them ended up being free verse poems because I wasn’t skilled enough to pull off the syllabics, though two worked—“Ode on Satan’s Power” and “Ode to the Bride of Frankenstein.” I’m working on a new sequence that I’m calling “Lingo Odes” because they all investigate language in some way. So far I have drafts of four poems and they are in the 13-syllable lines, 13-line stanzas. We’ll see if I can do it.*

DA: I have no doubt you’ll be able to. So many of your previous formal projects have seemed dauntingly difficult in their design, and yet you’ve pulled them all off with complete success. I’ll look forward to these new sequences. But to turn the conversation from form back to content, and perhaps to philosophy, let me ask you about a particular poem from your second book. In “The Dream of the Red Drink” (The Alphabet of Desire, pp. 29-32), your speaker, having consumed a fair amount of grain alcohol and Kool-Aid, says,

                            Is this a revelation? Maybe.
                            Not only do I see God, but I see through him
                             to the other side, though probably it’s a vision
                             of cerebral matter being sloughed off,
                            and I have a tête-à-tête with my most persistent epiphany,
                             that is, life is nothing, rien, nada, niente.
                            I find it incredibly comforting to know
                             the world is transparent,
                             insubstantial, without meaning.

Okay, let’s face it—in your poems it seems almost impossible to separate the first-person speaker from Barbara Hamby. So I’m going to be so bold as to read this as an honest statement of your own philosophical belief. And I want to say that I concur, not only in the belief in nothingness, but in the comfort such a view can provide. But I’ve often encountered people who argue that such an absurdist worldview is antithetical to the poetic imagination, that one needs to believe in something beyond this life to believe in art. I have the opposite notion—that such a belief fuels the power of art. Would you agree with that? And could you speak in general about how you feel that a belief in nothingness is “incredibly comforting”?

BH: Actually I found out later that there was LSD in that punch. I should have known. When you see God, transcend natural laws, and see into the future, something besides grain alcohol has to be involved.

I sometimes think that I believe in everything and nothing at the same time. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian house, and though I couldn’t wait to leave that fear mongering downer environment behind, it did leave me with a muscle of belief. I want to believe in something and what better than the world I can see, smell, touch, hear, and feel? For your average true believer this world is nothing, but for me it is everything, a constant source of fascination. In essence it is nothing, because we are moving through time, growing older. Though the world seems solid, it is ephemeral, always changing. The Buddhists say old age, sickness and death get everyone, so it is essential to live in the moment, which is easier said than done.

I’ve come to be grateful for my religious background for many reasons, not the least being the immersion in the King James Bible. But if you believe that “all time is eternally present” as Eliot says, then I carry that believer inside me. So I can believe in God and not believe at the same time. I feel sorry for people who are raised by godless atheists and feel that they have to convert and become believers as adults because organized religion is so incredibly tedious. I’m glad that I have that in my past, so I know what I am missing, which is absolutely nothing. I do believe in electricity, in art, in beauty, in good food. In a sense, poetry has taken the place of religion in my life. I live it and breathe it in a way that I never did with religion. I’m rereading The Iliad right now, and it tells me how to write a line in my own work. I have just finished a sequence of sonnets each beginning with a phrase from the Psalms. I’m working on a sequence in which each poem begins with a phrase from Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, but the poems are elegies for my best friend in high school who died about ten years ago, much too young. Poetry is everything and nothing. And, of course, it is easy for me to say that life is nothing, but I am saying that from a place of relative happiness and prosperity. Blow up my little world and then see what happens.

DA: So much of what you say there resonates with me. I’m also grateful for having been raised in a church-going Methodist family, even as I reject every tenet of belief associated with it today, because it complicated my experience of the world in a strange, but positive way. It ultimately made me see poetry as a necessity. And it made me read the Bible, which as you said before is one of the great works of Renaissance English poetry. I find that my poems are often God-obsessed despite the fact that I am, in a sense, “godless,” and I think your idea of a Psalm-started sonnet sequence is quite fascinating. Do you think such poems might be evidence of a larger phenomenon—the contemporary Southern poet living in a land of ultra-conservative beliefs and tent revivals during an era of extreme intellectual skepticism, somehow looking for a way to bring together the two?

BH: Sure it is, and it’s a way to use that fabulous Southern Christian lingo, both black and white—as God is my witness, come hell or high water.

DA: Well, I’ll be damned, hell or high water indeed! Thank you very much for your time and for sharing your perspectives and new poems with our storySouth readers.

*Afterword: I finished the ode sequence, but the poems didn’t want to use the 13-syllable line, 13-line stanza form. David had a sabbatical, so we spent last fall in Paris. Our apartment was near the Luxembourg gardens. On one of our first days in the city, we went to the garden, and sat near a statue of Mary, Queen of Scots, which had inspired Joseph Brodsky to write one of my favorite poetic sequences, “Twenty Poems to Mary, Queen of Scots.” It is, among other things, an absolutely brilliant example of end rhymes. He starts out doing the usual things but by sonnet eleven he’s using only a couple of different rhymes. Just before we left I’d read Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which is written in rhymed couplets. These two poems collided in my mind, the odes I began working on were either in rhymed couplets or used the same rhyme for the whole poem. I started with lists of words and just let it fly.              —Barbara Hamby