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Christine Hamm is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Drew University. She has published The Transparent Dinner (Mayapple, 2006), Saints and Cannibals (Plain View Press, 2011),and most recently, Echo Park (BlazeVOX). Hamm is poetry editor of Ping Pong, and she edited the anthology, Like a Fat Gold Watch, poems and more inspired Sylvia Plath. She lives in Brooklyn.
She has previously published work in Press 1. Perspectives on Echo Park by Lisa Cole and Sarah Munroe appear in this issue.
Valerie Fox: You’re very prolific. How do you go about putting together your book manuscripts and deciding about what poems belong in what collection? How was compiling Saints and Cannibals similar or different to putting together the new book, Echo Park?
Christine Hamm: I’m ambivalent about the word “prolific” – one person said that about me previously and it was right before she told me that her poems made her quite nauseous. “Prolific” sounds very similar to promiscuous – throw-away men, nights, and/or bodies. It makes each poem sound much less important, and somehow “easy”. Three books in 46 years is “prolific”? Sure, I’m no Elizabeth Bishop, who took ten years to finish “The Moose” and had to drink herself blind to get there, but neither am I a Bukowski, who has way more books and poems than I can keep track of. After I published my first book, which took 7 years to write, I told a professor of mine that I had finished another manuscript over my summer break (I actually ended up revising it for another year, but I THOUGHT it was finished), and she was quite irritated with me. Perhaps “prolific” is subjective?
How do I go about putting together a book manuscript: one of my very first (self-published) bookish venture was Discount Heaven (later pieces of which became The Transparent Dinner). Basically, I just threw a bunch a poems together that I liked. I was lucky enough to get a very measured and useful opinion about the structure of it from Ivy Alvarez, who helped me to think about how each poem in a collection leads in to and relates to the others. I also participated in a publishing seminar once, and one of the panel members talked about how each poem in a collection should relate in some way to the others – either stylistically, tonally or content-wise.
Saints & Cannibals was a very different experience for me than either The Transparent Dinner, which came before it, and Echo Park, which came after it – because with S&C I planned to write a book about a certain character, Claire, from the very beginning. In my first book, I was following a much more confessional model – I was specifically influenced by Sharon Olds, and with S&C, I wanted to tell the story of a character. I used a lot of what I learned as a counselor/social worker for the mentally ill, and the fairly obvious idea (which I probably got from The Exorcist) that spiritual matters have become entirely medical/pathologized in the 20th and 21st Century.
My initial impulse was simply to follow Claire’s life, her family history, treatment and visions, but then I found myself also writing quite a bit about cannibals – which came from my earlier obsession about meat – when I was taking a break from her. I did a lot of research on Medieval saints and since I was writing about cannibals anyway, I started researching them as well. So the book ended up being quite “bi-polar”, some kind of manifestation of the psychological defense of “splitting”, where one perceives everything as either all good or all bad. In this world, you’re either a saint or a cannibal.
VF: Speaking of Bishop, I know she is an influence of yours and you’re writing about her. Is there an especially influential poem of hers that you read often and recommend to others? What keeps you returning to that poem?
CH: I really like “In the Waiting Room” because it describes such a strange emotional experience in such a matter of fact way, but my very favorite is “At the Fish Houses” because of the lovely and grotesque description of the all the different textures, and because of her surreal and bizarre interaction with the seal – again, the tone of the whole poem is so matter of fact that it never quite seems over the top.
VF: I am interested in your use of research. What are some of the ways you draw on fairytales? Was this a sort of “project”? Does your use of them happen naturally, organically?
CH: My interest in using fairytales started when I was reading a lot of Anne Sexton, and I realized how much she used fairytales. I chose to interpret her use of fairytales as being in opposition to the common poetic tradition of using Greek myths to create a link to larger world, outside the world of the poem– to reference a common culture shared by the readers. I think this (Greek) world reinforced many of the problems with the literary world Sexton had to face, especially, that it was run by men who had a certain kind of education, and because of this, the mythology that was constantly evoked reinforced the patriarchy and patriarchic values. Moreover, I saw Sexton’s use of fairytales as a rebellion against the established order – fairytales are not considered “serious”: they are for women and children. So, I decided that I, too, would use fairytales as reference to a shared culture, because it is a culture that is specifically “low” rather than “high,” and because it has a history of being for women and children, rather than for men. I’m not talking about Disney’s use of fairytales, which just exist to reinforce heteronormative ideals, but the real, original fairytales, full of strange, unruly, frightening and gorgeous settings as well as figures.
VF: How did you get started with Ping Pong? What are some of your goals in the magazine?
CH: How I started with Ping Pong: Maria Garcia Teutsch and I met at a workshop run by Kim Addinizio at the Palm Beach Poetry festival in 2008. We really connected, and had similar tastes, so she asked me to submit to Ping Pong. After I submitted and she published that issue, she asked me if I wanted to be the East Coast poetry editor and I jumped on the chance.
My goals for the magazine are to make it bigger and better – bigger in the sense that I want to increase circulation and awareness of the journal, and better in that I want it to become more elaborate – I’d like there to be contests and reading series, perhaps even book or chapbook collections. I’d like to use Ping*Pong to help launch beginning writers who are perhaps overlooked by other publications, and to further the Ping*Pong aesthetic – that is, work that exists outside, and perhaps counter to, the mainstream. I don’t specifically mean the kind of poetry that is often called “experimental” – I mean work that deals with issues or represents realities that are often ignored or avoided by the major publications.
VF: Could you talk a little about influence, perhaps as relates to the poetry community or aesthetic styles?
CH: Lately, I’ve found myself writing work that is much more loose in structure – kinds of modified prose poems that are collages or fragments of other narratives. I’ve been inspired by the work of many contemporary female poets, and specifically, the aesthetic that seems to run through the school of work that loosely fits under the “Gurlesque” label. I’m a big fan of the prose poems published by Rose Metal Press, and also, the work of Lydia Davis – which many call prose, but I call poems. I hope that my weirdly shaped poems can influence other writers to try unusual forms.
VF: I am quite sure that your prose poems and poems in general do inspire others. In that spirit...would you be willing to share a prompt that you’ve found successful? Or some writing process activity or insight?
One prompt that’s always useful for me when I’m blocked is to go through old drafts of poems that I haven’t used or finished, and collect lines that have something in common. Then I see if you can make them cohere in some way, so they seem like they belong to the same poem.
I also like doing reverse poems – pick a poem by someone else that I find interesting in some way, and then write the reverse of it, word by word. I get some interesting results that way.
VF: Thanks Christine. I am sure some of the Press 1 readers will try those ideas out. And thanks for doing this Q and A with Press 1.
CH: You’re welcome.