Poet Matt Hamilton discusses life, faith

Matt Hamilton has packed more life into his 41 years than most of us could in twice that.

Of the many roads he has traveled – soldier, congressional aide, Benedictine monk, PeaceMattmug Corps – one he likes best is the road that brought him to North Litchfield, S.C., where he vacationed last week and sat down in a Litchfield coffee shop long enough to be interviewed.

“My whole family has vacationed here for years,” he said. “We love it. The younger ones can go north to Myrtle, and the rest of us have Litchfield, Pawleys and Georgetown.”

A Kentuckian by birth, Hamilton grew up in Ohio and majored in history at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. He next earned a master of fine arts degree at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and he now lives near Richmond, Virginia, and works at Benedictine College Prep, a Richmond high school.

Lipscov2To the school’s students, he is Matt Hamilton, school librarian. But to the wider world, he is Matthew A. Hamilton, prize-winning poet and a rising literary light. His first book of poetry, “The Land of the Four Rivers,” published in 2012, was hailed by critics and readers alike, and in 2013 walked away with the Peace Corps Writers Best Poetry Book Award, a coveted prize.

One critic wrote: “Hamilton’s poems do what a surprising number of modern poems are too cowardly to do: They risk being understood. If his poems were photographs, we would not only see them, we would feel that we could step right into them.”

The poems were about Hamilton’s experiences from 2006 to 2008 in his first Peace Corps assignment in Armenia, which is located between the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and has been called “the crossroads of antiquity.” Some believe the biblical Garden of Eden was located there and legend has it that Noah’s ark came to rest on an Armenian mountain top.

Armenia is a very poor country, but its ancient culture resonated with Hamilton, who only a short while before had been simply Brother Boniface, a Catholic monk at Belmont Abbey, in North Carolina. “We spoke a different language, but we spoke to the same God,” he said.

Hamilton left the monastic life in 2004 after “four years of loneliness,” he said, and an increasing call to plot his course “in a wider world.”

But he left with his faith intact and perhaps a divine going-away present: the knowledge that his contemplative monastic days had made him a poet.

“That’s when I began to write poetry,” he said.

And he’s been writing it ever since.

Besides the prize-winning book, he has published widely in literary magazines, been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize, and earlier this year published his second book of poems, “Lips Open and Divine,” based on his experiences in The Philippines, his second Peace Corps assignment, 2008-10.

Hamilton maintains a blog at http://mahamiltonwrites.blogspot.com.

His first book is available from Cervena Barba Press. His second, by Wild Goose Publishing, is available at http://amzn.to/28Qc5Bb.

His next goal is to land a teaching position on a college or university faculty. “That’s my dream,” he said.

You listening, Academe?

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Two non-Southern states of mind

I’m a South Carolina native who grew up in Georgia, and I have lived in one of these two states most of my life except for two years in the Navy (during which I never saw a ship — a story for another time) and a misguided six months in California, land of fruits and nuts.Maine St, Kennebunkport, Maine by Kate Barnum

How bad was the golden state? Well, when I got back home I kissed the ground and vowed never again to leave the South except for visits, and only then with a copy of my birth certificate in hand to prove where I was from so I could be sure to get back in.

But I might have been a bit hasty in making that pledge. Two reasons: Iowa and Maine.

I had heard for years that Iowa ranked high in quality of life (among other things, like public education). But possessing that foreknowledge had not prepared me for Des Moines, which my wife Margaret and I visited recently.

Ready? Des Moines offers clean, safe streets; free-flowing traffic; good food at reasonable prices; low unemployment; affordable housing; higher wages; pleasant, friendly people; and (at least when we were there) very nice weather. (Full disclosure: We had been advised by friends there not to come till after March so as to avoid the harsh winter. Turned out they had had a mild winter, but forewarned is forearmed: we went in May.)

My chief impression was that Des Moines was designed for its inhabitants, not for its automobiles – a sharp contrast to, say, Atlanta, where we used to live when we worked for The Atlanta Constitution. On a visit to The Big A last November, we found a city choking on its traffic. We missed two engagements simply because we could not get there at the appointed hour. We were stalled in traffic on the freeway. Stalled as in “not moving.”

I used to miss Atlanta. Not any more.Then, this month, we visited Maine. Oh, boy!

We’d been to Maine several times, including Kennebunkport, where we stayed this time, and had developed a special fondness for the Pine Tree State. But this time, it was, in the words of that great philosopher Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.” In short, it was wonderful! Again!

Think delicious weather under clear, blue skies. Think great seafood. Think flowers and American flags everywhere. Think American Yankee attitudes and spirit.

Not least, think Down East common sense and mischievous humor.

Example: Sign in a Kennebunk barbershop where I got a haircut: “Be Nice or Leave.”

Sign in a downtown Kennebunkport parking lot: “If you park here, we will crush your car while you shop and/or dine.”

Sign at the Cape Porpoise post office, which is located in a general store: “U.S. postage and small talk.”

Gotta love a place like that. Moreover, the sign was an example of truth in advertising. At the post office’s one window, I saw and overheard a patron who was indeed engaged in small talk with the clerk.

But we’re home again, and of course there’s no place like it.

You can quote me on that, but remember I was not under oath.

Editor’s Note: At the latest count, 568,093 readers have contacted me to say that Maine is the Pine Tree State, not, as I wrote earlier, the Granite State. This was, of course, a ploy by me to see if my readers were paying attention. Glad to see that more than half of you were on the ball. ~Robert Lamb

(Photo by Kate Barnum)

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Nocturnal Musings: misguided idealism

LibertyBellSometimes, in the still of the night, I think I hear the American culture coming apart at the seams. Sometimes it’s the popping of a stitch. Other times it’s an alarming rip. But the culture is definitely showing signs of strain.

I don’t think this is normal wear and tear. I think the culprit is zeal connected to bad ideology, zeal fueled by ignorance often masquerading as enlightenment.

A moment’s thought, for instance, reveals that Political Correctness undermines the most precious provision of the Bill of Rights: free speech.

Which is more important, freedom of expression or somebody’s feelings?

Only the ignorant would say feelings, but ignorant doesn’t always mean uneducated. Last November a University of Missouri journalism professor attacked a student journalist who was covering a campus protest. The faculty member championed the protesters.

Had she never heard of freedom of the press? It’s in the Bill of Rights and her field was journalism. Where was her judgment?

As Mose Allison, the great blues musician, might put it, “Her mind was on vacation and her mouth was working overtime.” (Note the verb tense; she was fired. Good riddance.)

But how many young, impressionable minds did this teacher contaminate with her wrong-headed idealism, which sadly seems more and more welcome in Academia.

A few more cultural stitches popped in recent reports that historical revisionism is in the saddle again, focusing chiefly (for now) on Civil War memorabilia – flags, statues, building and bridge names. The datelines were as varied as Columbia, New Orleans, Charleston, Cape Town, and Oxford, England, but it won’t stop there. Among the unthinking, few things spread as fast as a bad idea.

Those pushing the movement may be too young to recall that the Soviet Union was big on historical revisionism, too, but now both the Soviet Union and its revisions are gone. But why can’t any revisionist see that it is naïve to look at history only through the lens of modern sensibilities? In matters of judgment, context is essential.

Also essential is common sense, a quality that turns out to be not so common, after all.

Not least among the enemies of the republic are those who promote multicultural diversity as if it were a noble rebuke to bigotry in America. Actually, it marshals public sentiment toward separatism, which is the exact opposite of what the UNITED States stands for. Remember? “United we stand; divided we fall.”

The zeal for multiculturalism also ignores that ethnic communities have been a part of the American landscape almost from the beginning – Chinatown, Little Italy, Harlem, Tarpon Springs, Eatonville, La Storia. From sea to shining sea, the list goes on and on.

But here’s the historical difference, and it’s a huge one: Though understandably interested in preserving their ethnic heritage, the immigrants in these communities came to the USA to assimilate, NOT to remain separate and apart.

The great strength of America is its openness to the melting-pot concept of society. To push the country in the opposite direction is to encourage the balkanization of the land, or, in clearer terms, to try to disunite the United States.

If any or all of this describes the kind of American you are, I leave you with these parting words: The world is full of other countries and Delta is ready when you are.

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  • Image: Schoolhouse Rock’s “The Great American Melting Pot” (watch it on YouTube.com) via Giphy.com (fair use).

Interview with the author

When did you first start writing?
I began at age 10, inspired by a movie I saw, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” starring Gregory Peck as a magazine writer working on a story that explored society’s hidden anti-semitism.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
The sense of self-discovery and the gratification of story-telling.
What do your fans mean to you?
Every story-teller needs a story-listener. Together they complete a circuit that I consider magical.
What are you working on next?
I have just begun a story set in Pawleys Island, SC. I can’t wait to see what it is about!
Who are your favorite authors?
I have many favorites: Novelists Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Jane Austen, Dickens, Camus, Margaret Mitchell, Erskine Caldwell, Willa Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, and poets Shakespeare, Browning, Wordsworth, Blake, and T.S. Eliot. I also like my own writing. So there.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
My dogs are eager for their morning walk. ‘Nuff said.
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
I scour book sites today just as I used to scour bookstores and magazine stands.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Among the first was a short-short story written in about half an hour in a freshman English class at the University of Georgia. Each Friday, we had to write a paper in class (50 minutes) based on one of several themes the professor wrote on the board.
After some  minutes of indecision, I chose “Good Ol’ Friday, King of the Week” and wrote about the Crucifixion of Christ from the point of view of some Roman soldiers whose duty it had been to carry out the execution. Mine was the only paper that was fiction, and it was probably the first such theme paper she had ever received. She loved it, pronouncing it the best theme paper she’d ever had. Alas, she handed back the paper with a grade of 40 (out of a 100) and said, “See me after class.” After class, she repeated her praise of the story but informed me (correctly) that I did not know grammar — and would fail her class in spite of my writing talent if I did not learn it. I got busy and learned it, and made a B+ on the final. What a good teacher she was! Renamed “TGIF,” the story I wrote then appears in my book Six of One, Half Dozen of Another, a collection of short stories and poems.
What is your writing process?
I write about four hours every day when the going is good. I begin each session by rereading (and editing) what I wrote the day before. I aim for producing 1,000 words a day, and I count the words at the end of each session and record them on a calendar-like grid, putting the day’s production above a line and the running total under the line. This ritual is tantamount to giving myself a gold star at the end of each day’s work.
Do you remember the first story you ever read and the impact it had on you?
No. The first stories I ever heard were at my mother’s knee, long before I could read. But I believe they helped me develop a facility with language.
How do you approach cover design?
When I’ve done my own, sweating blood seemed to work well.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Georgia. Southerners seem to be born with a story-telling gene.
What’s the story behind your latest book?

It’s about the redemptive power of music, specifically (in this case) rock ‘n’ roll. A rich white boy and a black handyman form a lasting friendship when the boy is exposed to the handyman’s collection of rock ‘n’ roll records.

What motivated you to become an indie author?
After my second novel, Atlanta Blues, I couldn’t find a publisher. At that time, book publishing was changing drastically; I seemed caught in the upheaval.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
It helps writers like me distribute their work to readers.
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
Reading, walking my dog, listening to music, nurturing my children, helping my wife, helping aspiring writers, especially my former students.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
-To me, Gone With the Wind is the great American novel, and not because I’m a Southerner or Confederate sympathizer. It’s simply a wonderful novel.
-All the Thomas Hardy novels except Jude the Obscure number among my favorite, but I’ll single out Far From the Madding Crowd.
-All of Jane Austen’s novels, but, with apologies to Sense and Sensibility, I’ll pick Pride and Prejudice.
The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham. Great storytelling.
-My own A Majority of One. It’s really that good. Surprised myself!
What do you read for pleasure?
I’m an inveterate reader. If nothing else is handy, a cereal box will do.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
IPad.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
I haven’t found any.
Describe your desk.
I write on my laptop at the dining-room table, which at the moment is a mess.
What is your advice to young writers?
Learn your craft. As Stephen King said, the English language is your toolbox; know your tools. Then, bearing in mind that the first two letters of d-o-n-e spell do, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and write!
(Editor’s Note: This interview is from Smashwords: https://www.Smashwords.com/profile/view/robtlamb)

Forewarned is forearmed, sort of

Have you noticed the long string of warnings in TV commercials for prescription drugs?

How could you miss it? It’s downright scary. Takes up half of the evening news. The drug companies know their audience, don’t they? Only geezers watch TV news. News has not yet become relevant to the young. (But just wait, young people!)Common

I’m afraid to go see a doctor anymore. I might wind up with one of those prescriptions. Their side effects sound riskier than the ailment.

I can see it now: Doctor says to me, “Bob, you’re got a touch of maxorenia. Here’s a prescription for it.”

Well, I’ve seen the ad for that drug many times. After stating what it’s for, the announcer reads a list of “possible side effects.” The list is longer than the tail on Halley’s Comet.

It is longer than a Super Bowl halftime show featuring Beyonce doing an in-your-face dance routine in minimal clothing.

It is longer than a speech by Vice President Joe Biden, especially if he begins with, “I’ll just say a few words….”

It is longer than the time I sat at a rail crossing in Columbia’s Five Points last week while waiting for a freight train to pass. Started on Tuesday, finished late Thursday. (34,874 cars, at least, passing at a snail’s pace — and occasionally backing up!)

Oh, and the list itself? It goes something like this: “Has been known to make your dog leave home (and not come back); has caused patients who drive Highway 17 to forego tailgating and speeding to beat the next light; can create an irresistible urge to vote Republican; can cause halitosis strong enough to peel paint; effected a complete cure in one out of 10 patients (the other nine have been moved to Intensive Care).

On and on the warnings go: “This medicine Is expected to double in price next week, same as last week, so stock up; was a prime suspect in pro football’s Deflate Gate last year (jury’s still out); causes terminal brown spot if spilled on centipede lawns; has been known to make old boy- and girlfriends show up on your doorstep after you’re married. (If you’re a male, be sure to ask for the blue pill; females should opt for the pink – unless, of course, well, you know: different strokes for different folks. Just remember: It’s a brave new world.)

The reason for all these warnings and disclaimers is obvious, isn’t it? The drug companies have been sued (successfully) more times than Carter has little liver pills. So now their lawyers come into court with a mile-long list of we-told-you-so’s. Imagine getting picked to sit on one of those juries! You could celebrate a couple of birthdays just listening to lawyers read (in relays) all the warnings that show how heedless and risk-prone the defendant’s customers were.

What I’m waiting for is a youth pill. If the drug companies come up with that, forget the side effects, I’m in!

No. Wait a minute. On second thought, I don’t want to know it all again. I’d rather continue to live and learn. Maybe the drug companies can come up with a Wisdom Pill. Imagine how long the list of side effects from that medicine would be.

(*Editor’s Note: Listed on image above are common side effects from actual warnings: headache; back, muscle, bone or joint pain; severe or continuing heartburn; diarrhea or constipation; flatulence; nausea; abdominal pain and bloating; painful swallowing; chest pain; pain in the arms or legs; blurred vision and an erection lasting more than 4 hours; swelling or tenderness of the breast; a specific birth defect; high blood pressure; an unsafe drop in blood pressure; shortness of breath; a slow heartbeat; weight gain; fatigue; hypo-tension; dizziness; faintness; decreased appetite; sleepiness; sexual side effects; nervousness; tremor; yawning; sweating; weakness; insomnia; fewer tears or have dry eyes; unexplained weakness; rare cases of tuberculosis; serious infections; a higher rate of lymphoma; vaginal bleeding; painful menstruation; leg cramps; breast pain; vaginitis and itching; difficulty breathing; closing of the throat; swelling of the lips, tongue or face; a personality disorder; numbness; a bad rash or hives; problems urinating; long-term loss of potency; stroke; interaction with other medicines or certain foods; seizures; blood clots; a speech disorder; increased salivation; amnesia; paresthesia; intestinal bleeding; colitis; confusion; decreased levels of sodium in the blood; fluid in the lungs; hair loss; hallucinations; increased levels of potassium in the blood; low blood cell counts; palpitations; pancreatitis; ringing in the ears; tingling sensation; unusual headache with stiff neck (aseptic meningitis); vertigo; worsening of epilepsy; serious kidney problems; acute kidney failure and worsening of chronic kidney failure; severe liver problems including hepatitis, jaundice and liver failure; coughing up blood; cough that doesn’t go away; blue-grey color or darkening around mouth or nails; slow or difficult speech; loss of ability to concentrate; hallucinating; extreme tiredness; seizures; numbness, heaviness, or tingling in arms or legs; floppiness or loss of muscle tone; lack of energy; excessive sweating; fever, sore throat and chills; bloody (or black) vomit or stools; worsening depression; sudden or severe changes in mood or behavior including feeling anxious, agitated, panicky, irritable, hostile, aggressive, impulsive, severely restless, hyperactive, overly excited, or not being able to sleep; dependency; unpleasant taste; thoughts of suicide and death.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review

The Gambler’s Apprentice

The Gambler’s Apprentice by Lee BarnesWhat a shame that the era of the Western movie headed long ago for the last roundup. The Gambler’s Apprentice, a novel by H. Lee Barnes, is perfect for adaptation to that great American genre – and, given the chance, just might revive it. It’s that good.

You listening, Hollywood?

Long story short, it is 1917, and a farm family in drought-stricken Texas is fending off destitution, albeit just barely, by rustling Mexican cattle across the Rio Grande. The war in Europe has created a demand for beef – and for cattle buyers who don’t care whose cattle it is or where it came from.

Welcome to the world of Willy Bobbins, the titular apprentice. Only sixteen as the opening credits roll, he is already adept at living on the edge, thanks to a drunken, improvident, and generally no-account father whose idea of vocational training is to tutor his son in remorseless theft, chiefly by example.

Given the gunplay and narrow escapes involved in their life of crime, especially from men who don’t take kindly to cattle rustling, our hero at first looks more like Willy the Kid than Willie, the kid, but through a chance encounter with a card shark while in the Laredo calaboose, Willy learns a new and better, and arguably safer, way to make a living: playing poker (if you don’t get caught cheating).

Sprung from the pokey and covertly working in cahoots, the two gamblers roam from town to town, staying in each until they run out of suckers or wear out their welcome, whichever comes first. Making real money at last, Willy dreams of returning home to the girl he left behind (and who belongs to somebody else), buying a spread of his own, and settling down.

Alas, when he does return home he screws up the lovers’ reunion and soon takes to the road again, this time toward New Orleans, because 1) the city is a magnet to life’s high rollers (of all kinds) and 2) because his common sense tells him “she went thatta way.” Lisette, his beloved, is a “girl of color” who dreamed of escaping the racism of Texas for the more cosmopolitan climate of The Big Easy.

Spoiler Alert: He never finds her, but he does begin to find himself, chiefly through helping others. New Orleans is in the grip of the 1917-18 ‘flu pandemic, and Willy spends much of his “fat bankroll” to find and buy what seems to be the most efficacious medicine against the miseries of the disease, simple aspirin, which has climbed in scarcity and price as the death toll has risen. He also risks his own health in distributing the aspirin, free, door to door, to his neighbors in the city’s French Quarter.

Running out of money in a city that disease is closing down, Willy concludes that “be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” But he finds when he gets there that you really can’t go home again. Influenza has made off with his mother and little brother, his sister has married and moved to town, and nobody’s left except the last person he wanted ever to see again, his father, as unreconstructed an SOB as ever.

Except once in a blue moon, when else do you find a story packed with action and adventure involving big-as-life characters in settings and situations readymade for the silver screen? What’s more, the characters already know their lines; no script doctor is needed to improve this dialogue. Moreover, the author’s powers of description rival those of Cormac McCarthy in showing that the outback of the Tex-Mex border is no country for old men, and that even young ones age quickly there.

This novel has an appeal as wide as Texas and a historic sweep that is purely American. Willy Bobbins can’t read or write, but he is representative of the pioneer stock who settled the West, fiercely independent, amazingly resourceful, but touchingly bewildered by developments beyond their rustic ken: a world war, a plague, relentless drought, and a rapidly oncoming future in which they seem to have no place.

Even in cow-town Texas, the ubiquitous horse has begun to yield its importance to the new-fangled automobile, and a word picture of Willy watching telegraph and telephone poles march across the plains says it all. The road to the future, any future, has always been littered with roadkill, and people like the Bobbinses are often caught in the headlights.

Barnes, a Vietnam vet, makes his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he teaches English and creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada. With several prize-winning works to his credit, he was inducted in 2009 into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. The Gambler’s Apprentice was published by University of Nevada Press.

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‘Once upon a time. . .’

So you’d like to write a novel. Then here’s Dr. Lamb’s prescription: take two Dark-and-Stormy-480x428aspirin and lie down till the desire goes away.

Just kidding. Truth is, if you’re really a writer, you will write, no matter what. And if  you’re not, well, I hope you’re at least a reader. Writers need readers and readers need writers, n’est-ce pas?

But I brought up the subject because an aspiring writer, a young girl, teenager, asked me the other day how to go about writing a novel.

I don’t think she was happy with my answer, but it was the truth: There is no one way to write a novel; in fact, there are about as many ways as there are writers. That’s why you won’t get much help from the advice of other writers.

James Clavell, author of Shogun and other novels, said he simply wrote one sentence after another until he’d written 100,000 words, which is about the length of the average novel.

Maybe so, but that probably is no help to a clueless beginner – which is what I was at one time (and I still consider myself a Work in Progress).

Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, bragged that he simply “threw words into the air and they landed on the page in the right order.”

He lied.

Joseph Heller, whose first novel was the runaway best seller Catch-22, said he had to have “the perfect first sentence” before he could begin.

Don’t follow his example, either. He didn’t publish another novel for 20 years! Moreover, he titled his second novel Something Happened, and critics panned it, saying, “Nothing did.”

Ouch!

What was the book’s “perfect first sentence?”

It was: “I get the willies when I see closed doors.”

The sentence is only so-so, I think you’ll agree, but its lesson is first-rate: Don’t waste your time waiting for perfection. If you’re going to write a story, no matter what, try this instead:

Start with The Day That Was Different, e.g. the day you decided on a career or path in life; the day you met the person you wished to marry; the day a doctor said you had but six months to live – in other words, the day after which nothing was ever the same again.

Next, decide on a point of view from which to tell the story:

*First-person POV (“I did this”) is easiest and is a reader favorite because there is no intermediary between the author and the reader.

*Third-person POV (“He/she did this”) allows the author wider range and scope;

*Second-person POV (“You did this”) is seldom used because of its obvious limitations.

Now resolve to write a minimum number of words per day. (Stephen King’s goal, 2,000; Hemingway’s, 250)

Then apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write.

But while you sit there waiting for something, anything, to get you going, you might try a superstitious ritual of a famous writer or come up with your own.

*Steinbeck sharpened 12 No. 2 pencils to a perfect point before he could summon his muse.

*Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday nor would he write in a hotel room numbered 13.

*Victor Hugo wrote in the nude.

*The poet Dame Edith Sitwell liked to lie in a coffin before beginning her writing day. Her critics urged someone, anyone, to shut the lid and seal it.

Now you’re ready. Keep going until you reach THE END.

 

 

 

 

 

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