Barbara Hamby
April 2009

 

Barbara HambyBarbara Hamby's most recent book of poems, All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her third book of poems, Babel, was chosen by Stephen Dunn to win the 2003 Associated Writing Programs Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and was also published by Pittsburgh.

Her first book, Delirium, won the 1994 Vassar Miller Prize and two prizes for the best first book of poems published in 1995, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award. Her second book of poems, The Alphabet of Desire, won the 1998 New York University Prize for Poetry and was published by NYU Press in May 1999. The New York Public Library chose The Alphabet of Desire as one of the 25 best books of 1999.

She received a fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and has also received three fellowships from the Florida Arts Council.   Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, Ploughshares, Five Points, The Harvard Review, TriQuarterly, Best American Poetry 2000 and 2009, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2001. She and her husband, David Kirby, guest-edited an issue of TriQuarterly—128: The UltraTalk Issue.

She is Writer-in-Residence in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University in Tallahassee.


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Statement of Poetics

Language is a sensual pleasure for me. I grew up in a big talking family, so words have always been important. 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, saith the Lord.” 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 has 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.

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. 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 her 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. 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.

But what does language do?  I see it as 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. 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.


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