Poet Ralph Hamilton recently released his first book of poems, entitled Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail. The book addresses the spectrum of love and its coupling with pain, and Hamilton tackles issues of love and loss and opens up about the people that have touched his life.
The Evanston resident talked with Windy City Times about who inspired his work, his break from writing and the Lucian Freud painting that became the book cover.
Windy City Times: Where did your love of poetry come from?
Ralph Hamilton: It started early and I put it aside for many yearsthen, it recaptured me. I was always a dreamy child and spent more time with animals in trees than with people. [Laughs]
WCT: Were there certain poets whose work you read and who you looked up to?
RH: When I was a boy, I loved [Rudyard] Kipling. Partially I was raised in the Bahamas, which was then still colonial Britain's empire. I went to a British school there so that's what we read. The poem's and stories appealed to a boy's imagination.
WCT: As a young boy, was it easy for you to decipher the meaning behind poems?
RH: Poets often work at many different levels and there's a way in which all poems are songs.
One may not understand it but still be enchanted by a kind of lingering music in the language. And the second reading may draw you in, in a different way. Some poets write in a style that is immediately accessible and some don't.
WCT: When did you write your first poem and what was it about?
RH: I wrote poems as a child all the time but I can't remember what any of them were about. [Laughs] I was a newspaper editor in college, and when we were putting the paper together we had to print the columns out on a sort of teletype printer machine, then cut it out and glue it to a piece of paper. Often we would realize that there was eight inches of blank space we had to fill. I would run in the other room and dash off a poem, type it up and it would go in that slot.
WCT: Did you maintain your interest in poetry writing after college?
RH: For almost 30 years after that, I stopped writing; when I was about 49, I started again.
WCT: Why did you stop?
RH: Life. I got a job working in the Jimmy Carter administration as special assistant to Carter's appointment secretary. I volunteered in his campaign and suddenly I found myself working in the White House at the age of 21. From there I went back and forth between public policy, foundations and academia for 28 years.
WCT: What made you want to get back into it?
RH: I had been reading poetry again and began writing again and I decided that I was ready to commit to it full-time. I went back and got another MFA in poetry from Bennington [his first master's was in religion and literature from Harvard] and got involved in RHINO [an independent poetry journal] and became the editor.
WCT: Your first book of poems, Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail, was released last year. How many years worth of poems did you draw from to complete this book?
RH: Most of the poems were written in the last five years. Through several years I was writing fairly consistently on issues of loss and the difficulty of love. Looking back, I realized that there were a group of what turned out to be 100 or more poems that seemed in different ways to be linked. It's about the fundamental role of human connection. In a several-year period my mother passed away, my brother died and my relationship of more than 20 years came apart.
WCT: The book cover shows a man and a dog lying down, with the man's arm wrapped around the dog. Why did you choose that Lucian Freud painting as the cover?
RH: I had admired Lucian Freud for years. He [was] Sigmund Freud's grandson. Mostly set in hermetic domestic interiors, the book's portraits of loss strip away protection. The poems probe and expose the messy, stained vitality of mortal flesh/consciousness beneath the shield of personality and persona that often obscures reality. While suggesting no equivalence, Freud's paintings have often been said to approach their subject's similarly.
Further, the nudity, the presence of both human and dog, the classical and sexual resonance of the drapery/sheets, and the pulpy physicality of the paint itself reflect images, tensions and evocative inversions explicit in many of the poems, including the title.
WCT: Is it important to refer to yourself as a "gay poet?"
RH: I am not sure of the distinction that works for me. I am gay and I do write poetry and those are both true and I'm proud of both. But I don't usually make one of them an adjective for the other as in, "I'm a poetic gay." [Laughs] There's no doubt that some of the poems have what someone may call a gay sensibility. particularly the ones using humor. I love it when a poem breaks your heart and then makes you laugh.
WCT: Your book has been nominated for the Lambda Literary Awardsan award ceremony that elevates the profile of LGBT literaturein the category of gay poetry. How does it feel being nominated?
RH: It is delightful. As a writer more than anything, one hopes to be heard. When one is a finalist for an award, it is particularly a profound validation when it's been heard.
Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail is available at SiblingRivalryPress.com or Amazon.com . Find out more about Hamilton at RalphHamiltonPoetry.com/ .