Born in New Orleans and raised in Hawaii, poet Barbara Hamby earned an MA at Florida State University. She is the author of several poetry collections, including On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (2014); All-Night Lingo Tango (2009); Babel (2004), which won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Donald Hall Prize; and Delirium (1995), which won the Vassar Miller Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. Her short story collection, Lester Higata’s 20th Century (2010), won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize/John Simmons Award. With her husband, poet David Kirby, Hamby coedited the anthology Seriously Funny (2010). Hamby’s poetry has been featured in numerous anthologies, including The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011), three editions of Best American Poetry (2010, 2009, and 2000), and Good Poems for Hard Times (2006).
Fans of Barbara Hamby recognize her work for its distinctive voice—the current that energizes her signature “fountain” form, her odes, and the rest of the wide variety of genres within which she has written and which she has challenged. It will come as no surprise, then, that when I asked her what made last year’s Gearhart Poetry Prize winner stand out from the rest, she answered “voice,” but not only voice: Hamby said she is attracted to “poetry that is of this world,” that “has mystery but is not impenetrable.”
In her Spring 2018 graduate poetry workshop, Hamby’s assigned readings consisted not only of poetry, but also of poets’ letters. In assigning the letters of Bishop, Lowell, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Plath, Sexton, and others, she provided students the chance to hear poets speak on poetry, personally, one to another. At times, these letters somewhat demystified the writers’ poetry; other times, the experiences that inspired these poets’ works made those works even more mysterious.
Regardless of whether these letters made the poetry more mysterious or less, reading poets’ thoughts on poetry changed the way students thought about the poets themselves. My hope is that this interview would provide similar insight into Barbara Hamby’s thoughts on poetry, for one, but would also help the reader (and potential competition submitter!) better understand the poet herself—what she looks for in submissions, how she decides on winning work, and what, for her, makes for “great” poetry.
Hi Barbara! First off, I’d like to thank you once again for agreeing to judge The 2018 Gearhart Poetry Contest! This isn’t the first time you’ve judged the Gearhart, and we’re always excited to see which poem you choose. I was wondering if, for our readers’ and submitters’ sakes, you might give us the ~inside scoop~ on how you make your decision?
This was a difficult decision. All the finalists were so good. When I judge a contest, the first thing I look at is the language and I ask myself the question, "Is this poet serious about language." All of these poets were. However, when I had to make a choice, voice became the deciding factor. Rick Mulkey's "Cured" grabbed me from the poem's first moment and didn't let me go. I was carried along on the river of his voice. It was serious. It was funny. I was a human voice talking to his reader from his place in time.
The finalists were amazing. I suppose, rereading our submissions, one of the aspects of Mulkey’s poems that stands out most to me is how the speaker uses repetition to anchor his/her argument in the poem’s sounds. It is a very musical poem. Does this quality have much to do with what you mean by voice?
Sure, musicality is a part of voice, but sometimes the music of a poem can interfere with it as well. There's a fine balance to be had, and I think Mulkey's poem achieves this balance. I never thought once while I was reading it, "Oh, that's a poetic flourish." He carried me along without calling attention to his considerable control over his work. The Italians call it sprezzatura—making something very difficult seem easy. Mulkey's poem is very conversational, funny, rollicking, sensual, and it keeps all its balls in the air as if it were the easiest thing in the world when, of course, it isn't.
Could you tell us a bit more about what you mean by a “human” voice? And is this quality something you often look for when judging contests?
For better or worse, I am an American poet. I think we trace our poetic ancestry back to Whitman and Dickinson, and aren't we lucky to have these two great poets as our godparents? Both of them are speaking in distinctive voices. I like to think of Whitman as speaking out and Dickinson as speaking in, but they are both exploring what it means to be a human being in this world. All poetry that I find emotionally moving has this quality. When I read Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets, I feel as if I've picked up Frank O'Hara's telephone, and Shakespeare is speaking to me directly. I feel his joy, his anguish, his anger. Mulkey is speaking to Albert Goldbarth, but he's also speaking to me. After I finished reading this poem, I thought of Warren Zevon's advice, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer--"Enjoy every sandwich." Even when we're speaking to another person, we're alone. It's the human condition. How do we make our way through the world? What I love about Mulkey's poem is that he expresses all this but with such joy and sensual delight.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask one more question about Mulkey’s poem before asking more about your judging priorities.
Mulkey’s diction is, in my reading, specific yet colloquial. The poem’s images are constructed of local specificities—“all the evangelicals in their aging / chapels and strip mall sanctuaries,” for example—which characterize the speaker and the setting with their conversational diction … I might also have something of an unfair insight into your preferences where diction is concerned: You’re likely, in workshop, for example, to suggest avoiding Latinate language.
All this is really just a lead in to the following question. What is it about Mulkey’s diction that you find so attractive?
"Cured" is image rich. You are in a specific place--Bluefield, Virginia--and on a Sunday morning. And the food imagery! This poem is a riot of tastes and smells, not something that I see very much in contemporary poetry. I'm not against Latinate language. It has its place, but it can be distancing. It takes a lot of skill to make it work in the present moment of a poem.
After that last long question, let me be a bit more direct now about your judging priorities and preferences:
What do you mean by “serious about language?”
It doesn't matter whether your aesthetic is spare or rococo, a poet must think about every word in a poem. Language is our medium.
Is voice for you, more often than not, a deciding factor? the deciding factor? What else factors in most prominently to your decisions?
I like to think of voice as every characteristic choice a poet makes. I think that rather than voice, I would say that I'm attracted to poetry that has a balance between lyric and narrative, that wants to connect to its readers, that has mystery but is not impenetrable. I love poetry that is of this world, which is so beautiful and terrible at the same time.
What is the most important quality for a submitted poem to possess?
I'm a huge fan of Keats. It has to have Truth and Beauty. "Howl" has both, as does "Ode to a Nightingale," but they are very different poems.
Perhaps this is too similar to the last question, perhaps a bit too vague—what makes for “great” poetry?
Truth, beauty, negative capability. A great poem asks the big questions, knowing that there are a million different answers or maybe none at all. What I lov