Guest Blogger: Justin Hamm
Justin Hamm on the Making of American Ephemeral
In more than one interview over the years, a certain curly-headed, Wayfarer-wearing rock-poet claims all his songs are autobiographical—that is, if you know where to look. Which seems like it must be a put-on coming from an artist who has written songs about robbing tombs in a frozen pseudo-Egyptian fantasy landscape and Einstein playing electric violin on Desolation Row.
But I think what Bob Dylan means is our work necessarily carries our habits of mind, our obsessions, our values, and anxieties—often whether we want it to or not.
This has more or less been my philosophy for making books ever since the day I laid out the poems in my first chapbook to see if they could work as a manuscript and discovered they had already been in conversation with each other without my knowledge or approval. I try to ignore the possibility of a manuscript for as long as I can, to remain completely open to anything that might suggest itself as an individual poem (which is how I come to write the occasional poem about a jock strap, say, or a man-eating beard from the middle ages, or Telemachus and Odysseus playing baseball together). But by nature I tend to hold onto ideas and events, to perseverate (ten points to my wife for this fantastic word), so even when I believe I’ve written poems far-ranging and completely unrelated to one another, I usually find the same ghosts that haunt my psyche tend to haunt most of my lines and stanzas.
Here are some of them: I’m getting on forty pretty quickly. I lost my mother eight years ago—she was just forty-six at the time. Every day I carry around a sense that our time here is limited. My children are older every minute. Their innocence is necessarily short-lived, as was mine so many years ago. The assault of time isn’t limited to our personal lives, either. And despite the mythology and the political bluster, it is impossible to comprehend how truly fleeting the American moment is when compared to Time with a capital T.
Under these circumstances, how do people create meaning from the small occurrences in our lives? How do they believe in that meaning with any sincerity?
There’s the old cliché about adaptability—about the acceptance of change—and of course, it’s one-hundred percent true. What choice do we have but to change and adapt and accept until we ultimately return our energy and our bones to the earth? But the lie is that doing so is as simple as a pithy aphorism makes it sound. I live with an intense feeling that each moment is already gone before I even realize I’m living in it. Wordsworth didn’t mind that feeling. The daffodils were sweeter to him knowing they’d be there later, in memory, as he lay around, dreaming of them. I wonder what he thinks about that now that he’s dead.
If we’re friends on social media, you know I take a lot of pictures, period. But I especially take a lot of pictures of my children and my wife. Now you know why. Partly, it’s to keep the long-distance relatives in the know, of course. But it also betrays a desperation to pin down experiences as they race past.
You also might know that I’m obsessed with the old, the rusted, the broken, and the long forgotten—not out of nostalgia but because I recognize a kinship with them. Such items mirror the anxiety within me, the raw place where good poems and photographs come from.
Speaking of photos, I should say those in American Ephemeral aren’t my best technically. They’re just the best for this project. I hope they suggest relevant metaphor, being, as many of them are, obviously imperfect—blurred with motion, obscured by fog or water, et cetera. In some cases they represent a time period or a moment that can never be recovered. In that way they represent the futility in trying to tame time, to hold it within the confines of a frame. They do visually what I hope the poems do with words, which is why, after I considered giving them a separate section at the end of the book, I eventually just sequenced the photos as if they were poems.
“The purpose of art is to freeze time.” That happens to be another line attributed to Bob Dylan, and it has proven a particularly inspiring quote for me over the years. But time is so damn elusive. So I ended up with a collection that explores the inability to freeze time. Art? I’m not sure. But like my old man’s carpentry work, it’s honest and it’s my best. So I guess we’ll see.
Originally from the flatlands of central Illinois, Justin Hamm now lives near Twain territory in Missouri. He is the founding editor of the museum of americana and the author of American Ephemeral (forthcoming in 2017, and containing the poems above) and Lessons in Ruin, both from Aldrich Press, as well as two poetry chapbooks. His poems or stories have appeared in Nimrod, The Midwest Quarterly, Cream City Review, Sugar House Review, and a host of other publications. Recent work has also been selected for New Poetry from the Midwest (2014, New American Press) and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center.