Hamilton is the author of Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm (University of Missouri Press, 2001) and Ossabaw: Poems (Salt Modern Poets Series, 2006). Of his most recent book, A Certain Arc: Essays of Finding My Way (Ice Cube Press, 2019), Phillip Lopate writes, “[T]he prose in this collection is beautifully turned, the intelligence luminous, and the experience and wisdom of a lifetime generously shared: this book is a gift to all literature-lovers.”
This interview was conducted in Iowa City on January 13, 2020.
HARILAOS STECOPOULOS: Let’s start at the beginning — or, better, one beginning. You were trained as a medievalist at UVA. When did you start thinking of yourself as an editor and creative writer more than a scholar? How did this shift occur?
DAVID HAMILTON: It’s true that I wrote a dissertation on Old English narrative styles and started out at Michigan teaching Chaucer. Two regular Chaucer teachers were on sabbatical the year I arrived and the chairman (for sure a man then), seeing I had worked with Old English, assumed I could handle the Middle English of half a millennium later. “You can teach Chaucer, can’t you?” Of course, I said yes and kept coming back to him, to Chaucer that is, for the rest of my teaching life.
So, where did I get that second start? That’s a good question. I believe it began with teaching. Freshman comp in this case — that’s what we called it then — and everyone put in a few years before moving into advanced courses. Some of us found we didn’t mind; we liked it. Liked the interaction with young writers, liked the less formal exploration of mind and thought possible in what we allowed, increasingly, to be personal essays. The explosion of creative nonfiction a half century later may have roots in Montaigne, but it stems as well from college instructors, all over the place, who found they rather liked teaching comp, so they projected and designed further undergrad prose writing courses. Out of those courses, programs evolved.
I went into English seeking the company of literature. Writing, at any level, was a threshold. It led me to readings and to helping with the Michigan Quarterly Review those few years I was there, and so on. Kim Merker, the fine press printer and director of the Windhover Press at that critical moment, must have noticed. He’s the one who approached me to edit, and it went from there.
He started the Iowa Center for the Book, right?
Yes, and he was the managing editor of Iowa Review when I came aboard. The editor, Thomas Whitaker, had moved to Yale, and Kim, who was holding down the office, found and drafted me, at least as far as I can tell. Or else it was because my wife and I bought the Whitaker’s house when they moved to New Haven and we came to Iowa City. Before the magazine, I took over his garden.
We both hoped, Kim and I, way back then in the late ’70s, that the Review would make room for the personal essay. Best American Essays, a Pushcart Prize for an essay, things like that were about a decade off. But something was in the air. Our Review had already made an occasional feature of what it called “Journalit” — not scholarship but prose commentary with an informal feel. Meanwhile, as I have said, a cadre of teachers all across the land found a hint of literature in first year composition, and by so doing warmed a place in the academy for the essay.
Also, as I took over the Review, our MFA program in nonfiction was just taking shape. Back then we called it an MA with an emphasis in writing, an MA/W. I taught in the program from its beginning and directed it for a few years in the early ’90s after it had become an MFA program. My colleagues — Carl Klaus, Susan Lohafer, Carol de St. Victor, Brooks Landon, and Paul Diehl especially — were among those comp teachers who found they liked it. We called it Expository Writing, but it was really the Essay. At least it led me to write essays, or to so aspire. Some early ones on academic subjects had taken tentative essayistic turns, but the first time that I could say, hey, maybe I’m getting into it, was with “Hometown,” the first essay in my 2019 collection, A Certain Arc.
It’s a wonderful piece.
Thank you. It’s revised from its first appearance, but not a whole lot.
Not long after that, the editor at MQR, Laurence Goldstein, a former colleague and a friend, sent me a story set in Colombia. I took it and thought, hey, I lived there for a couple of years. I even crossed paths with Hunter S. Thompson. There must be an essay in that. So I wrote one and sent it to Larry. Then I had two, you know?
A third went to the Connecticut Review. It was more about magazines, editing, and Mediterranean travel, both actual and literary. I didn’t include it here because my long piece, “At the Fair,” overlaps with it and gobbles a few bits up. But then, during a Fulbright year in Spain, which is when my bit of Mediterranean travel occurred, I made a trip to Africa to visit my daughter in the Peace Corps. That prompted “Someone Is Leaving,” the third essay in this collection.
“Hometown” gave me the form: short pieces, arranged with an eye to narrative order but also as a kind of collage. Over time, I became freer, more adventurous. It had to have been in the mid-’80s when I started writing “Hometown.” Here we are, some 35 years later, with this Arc, a couple of other books, and numerous essays that haven’t fit into any collection.
What were your major nonfiction influences? Did you like the New Journalism?
No, I never really took to the New Journalism. It’s curious; I had the prompt of the Thompson encounter. And a couple of colleagues at Iowa were into it. But it seemed a little too show-offy for my taste. I didn’t want to be a scholar exactly, but I distrusted putting that much of me in my essays.
I liked the Montaignian essay, but a definite early model was Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell. Thomas knew his science, but he was fascinated as well by Greek, biology, astronomy, music, Montaigne, and more. He in fact introduced me to Montaigne. I mean, I knew Montaigne was out there, but I’d read little. Thomas, though, tells of dog-earing pages in his copy wherever he found something of interest, only to discover, over time, that his volume had become almost twice as thick and very hard to close. That was a recommendation! And I thought, well, Thomas knows science, but I know something of poetry and fiction. Of literary magazines. Of teaching, of birds and trees and the outdoors. I’m embedded in university culture of the late 20th century. If there’s an arc to this collection, it’s the growth in my ability to develop connections among those subjects.
I did get on to Montaigne eventually. While directing our MFA program in nonfiction, I thought he should be available to our writers. No one else was teaching him, so I volunteered, and after three or four years of doing so became known locally — only locally mind you — as the Montaigne guy. Right now, as we construct this interview, Yiyun Li is hosting an online reading and discussion of War and Peace, through the magazine A Public Space. Amy Leach is one of the reader-writers chiming in. Both were in my first Montaigne course, helping me through it. I couldn’t keep up with them then, nor can I now with War and Peace, but I like trying. And I remember Yiyun murmuring about Montaigne one afternoon, as much to herself as to the room, “There are ideas enough here for a lifetime.” I expect she and Thomas would have got on.
Let’s discuss your book a bit more. I’m curious about those moments when your current self stands not so much in judgment, but in observation of an earlier self. I’m thinking, for example, of when you look back at the way Thompson represented you in his gonzo journalism, you with your gung-ho Kennedy-era spirit, or how you reconsider yourself in the Charlottesville piece, or even in “Hometown” when you’re thinking about what it meant to grow up in a segregated town in central Missouri. How do you understand the divided self that almost every personal essay occasions?
I’ve always heard, from poets especially, that the secret to writing is listening. Listening to other writers, certainly, but also listening to yourself, letting the language you choose instruct you as you pay attention. Writing has a lot to do with going over and over what you find you said. I’ll start rereading pages I’ve written, and something will stand out. Is that quite right? Could I say it better? Do I trust now what I said then? Is there more? How does that more qualify what’s already there?
Certainly, there’s nothing weightier in my experience than racism and our historical burden of slavery, unless it’s our degradation of the environment. I moved from outside Chicago to Missouri as a seven-year-old. In kindergarten and first grade in Illinois, I had an African-American classmate, a girl. I didn’t write of this, but I remember holding her hand in some playground game, even thinking myself daring for doing so. I had a sense already, at five or six, of being a bit bold, perhaps generous, and no doubt condescending, though I didn’t know that word yet. I told my mother, and she shrugged it off, or didn’t know what to say, but it has stuck with me.
Then we moved to Missouri where the schools were segregated. Hence the incident in “Hometown” of my using the n-word, performing it, sotto voce, for new playmates, and knowing instantly it was wrong. Even beforehand, or why else the near whisper. Less than a decade later, desegregation came to our schools. I was there as witness and performer. Later Colombia showed me a far more diverse society, then grad school at UVA one much less. Meeting and becoming friends with Jim McPherson here was important, and even more, his close friend, also mine, Fred Woodard, who for a few years shared editing the Review with me. I don’t see how I could live through all that blindly, though I had my blind spots. You become aware of those, at least some of them, through interactions with others, listening to them and, gradually, with more subtlety, to yourself. A degree of double consciousness arises from all that as African-American literature has made a great deal of, and as Fred spoke of often. But some vestige of it comes nearly always, I would think — or at least hope — to any writer who reports on and thinks about the actions, thoughts, and feelings of an earlier self.
The first time I taught Huckleberry Finn, I used the n-word in class, with apology. That was several decades ago. And I remember worrying then about the single young black man in the room. I hope he forgave me. I wouldn’t use it now.
Or there was this, perhaps, on a parallel plane. My great-aunt was a painter with a career through the turn of the 20th century. She lived in Oak Park, studied at the Art Institute in Chicago and in Germany, exhibited fairly widely and even won a medal at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. She and a younger sister wound up in Missouri with us, and her paintings were all over their house. One I remember particularly is in our bedroom now. A still life, in green and white, or off-white, with a background of muted gold. An open fan with a floral design stands behind a vase. The vase is slender, elegant, and features a lavender flower. A tulip. In her house, that vase was quite real. It sat on a table next to the painting. Tante Magda, that’s what I always called her, positioned it to show the tulip as in her painting. The painting on the ceramic was hers too.
In any case, it always fascinated me, seeing the vase and the painting beside it, looking from one to the other. It produced a double take that held my attention. We all find our prompts, and perhaps that one has something to do with the divided consciousness you find in these essays. I have the painting now, but not the vase. The vase is in my brother’s house.
How do you think that dynamic of self-consciousness, self-reflexivity, affects the tone of your essays? I know they were written at different times in your life, but many of them have a certain wistfulness, or tinge of the elegiac. Do you think that’s the nature of the personal essay as a genre? Do most personal essays default to an elegiac mood or tone inasmuch as they all look back on a former self thoughtfully, with a sense of humor, or shame, or otherwise?
It’s probably written deeply into the structure of most of what we call literature. There’s a passage in “At the Fair” where I remark on how all the poets seem to be writing elegies, and I’d like to reverse that, to write friskily rather than lamenting always my proximate death. The thought comes from Robert Francis, who used the word “frisky” about this wish for himself, late in life, as a poet. But death is staring you in the face, if not now, soon enough. Writers have always known. Furthermore, as they get better, at least for a long time, they are also getting older. Robert Coover said in a note once that “Comedy was Tragedy plus Time.” He may have been quoting someone. He’s right enough regardless. But you don’t always have the time, and the older you get the more aware of that you are.
One can sense that elegiac feeling at the end of “Hometown” when you talk about your friend who you discovered is from the same town. The piece ends with a repetition of “she didn’t know.” And you seem to lament the fact that her memories are entirely different from yours although you’re both from the same place. You seem to wish that her memories and yours overlapped a bit more.
I’m not sure “lament” is the word, but I was struck by that discovery, and it gave me a close to the essay. I thought it less wistful than that it just brought me up short. My hometown imprinted itself on me, the town and a set of people, close friends, with whom I went through school, and from whom I went off to college. I’ve been in touch with a few ever since. How vivid they were for me. I remember arriving in college with the feeling that my town was a special place and those people formed a pantheon of distinction. Soon enough, I discovered how small my place really is, and Barbara Price’s responses dramatize that. Here is a woman who went through that high school just after me, graduating only eight years later, and my pantheon meant nothing to her. How quickly our immediate, personal news passes.
Let’s turn to your essay on editing, “At the Fair.” What inspired this meditation on your many years with the Iowa Review?
My earlier book, Deep River, which is a kind of expansion of “Hometown,” showed me that I had a few stories worth telling. I knew, through the accidents of my own life, the inside of an American story that caught the attention of several pals at Michigan. The ones I’m thinking of were in modern fields, and two of the three in American Studies. They were eastern and urban and more talkative than I, but every now and then, I’d take off and find that they listened closely. Their interest in my rural, Midwestern story boosted my confidence to write it. So, when it came to “At the Fair,” anecdotes and reflections drawn from over 30 years with the Iowa Review, I found myself again on the inside of a space and activity many people are curious about but haven’t shared.
Other editors have served as long as I, or longer, and they too might write such an essay. But why shouldn’t I offer my version? Why shouldn’t I make something of all those stories I’d picked up along the way?
You know Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies? I haven’t reread it, but I remember being impressed at how he seemed to see into the essence of an array of items and events of popular culture: automobiles, pro wrestling, television, coffee shops, supermarkets, all sorts of things. And I thought someone ought to do that for magazines. I’m not claiming I did, but his book was an impetus, from afar. I didn’t go back and reread him to see exactly what he did and how. I just mulled over my memory of his work and asked something like his questions. What is a magazine? What is its existential nature? What about it compels me and keeps me going?
Magazines are all over the place. They are an alternative way of literature, and I just kept writing around that conviction. If I zeroed in anywhere, and really got at what a reader finds should be said, it’s somewhat by accident, and persistence. The more you write, the more you stumble on a pretty good notion now and then. So I kept circling around the idea of a magazine, finding tales to tell as a way of keeping that idea in play while hoping to surprise myself with understandings I hadn’t known until I found them at my fingertips.
You have some wonderful insights about literary magazines. I love this description: “I like to think of literary magazines as a single magazine, a jerry-rigged patchwork of many small readerships adding up to one large alternative magazine, springing up here, there, and all over, a dandelion patch of a magazine with seeds drifting far and wide.” I love that conceit. Has that changed over the years? Do you still believe in that notion of all little magazines engaged in a collaborative endeavor?
It’s certainly what I picked up from my experience, beginning with the two or three years I helped at MQR before I came to Iowa. It was a much smaller enterprise then. The manuscripts arrived in envelopes. We did not yet have simultaneous submissions.
I remember Radcliffe Squires, its editor then, carrying home on a weekend his narrow briefcase. He’d take a couple dozen manuscripts at most and return Monday with three or four for which he sought, or at least pretended to seek, my second opinion.
And there were fewer magazines, many fewer. They tended to be at the established literary places: Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Hudson Review, Georgia Review, Sewanee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, Paris Review, a couple dozen such magazines. Iowa was a newcomer. But it felt communal. AWP was a much smaller enterprise — now it’s larger than the MLA. So I felt I had comrades in the trade. You could speak to them. I didn’t feel in competition too much. Furthermore, before simultaneous submissions, you weren’t reading the same thing at the same time. Of course, that all changed hugely through my time with our Review. When simultaneous submissions started, my first thought was, gosh, I’d better jump on this before Stanley Lindberg at Georgia or Larry Goldstein at Michigan or DeWitt Henry at Ploughshares in Cambridge beats me to it. But soon enough that idea changed to, oh well, somebody will take it if I don’t. Maybe even The New Yorker.
But I never entirely lost that early sense of camaraderie. Call it an engaging fiction that points toward the truth of what we were up to, collectively. That sustained me, especially as I got to know a few editors fairly closely. DeWitt and Larry I’ve mentioned. Speer Morgan at Missouri. Howard Junker at ZYZZYVA. Peter Stine at Witness. Robert Dana and then Robley Wilson at North American Review.
Then there were all the people who worked with me over the years: Writers’ Workshop students, Nonfiction Writing Program students, and occasional others, many of whom took off into writing and teaching careers, more than a few getting into publication elsewhere and starting their own magazines. Rebecca Wolff and Douglas Glover, for example. Too many to name here. They made the AWP convention, for the decade when I went regularly, very much like a reunion. “A high school reunion without the jocks,” Michael Martone called it. I still smile.
Do you think there’s a future for literary magazines?
Oh, yes. As I say somewhere, put X people together for Y months and a magazine will come of it, inevitably. It even happened, heartbreakingly, at Terezin, among school children, in that tragic concentration camp northwest of Prague, as I learned at the Jewish Museum in Prague the one time I was there. Their issues weren’t printed, of course; they were typed — one, lone copy — and read aloud in the barracks. How’s that for the essence of and essential need for a magazine? Now, of course, the online magazine has largely taken over, but the impulse of a group, any group, to be heard and so to intervene in a wider discourse is always there.
I like that word, by the way. When I lived in Spain for a year, I noticed that “intervention” was their term for anyone’s presentation at a conference. That’s what we’re doing here too, making an intervention in some loose, far-flung gathering of thought.
As for the digital, it can correct the local. Magazines have tended to be local and regional. Now I can place a poem in a magazine in Australia, as I just did, and it can be read in Iowa City, or as easily, and with just as much likelihood, perhaps, in Lapland.
One of the difficulties of the magazine as I knew it was that you do tend to respond better, to make more time for, people of your own kind. Birds of a feather, and all that. Now editors make more of an effort to see what’s happening beyond their circle. At least many do. That’s a difficult dance to play, and taste to acquire; it’s a mental activity at least as ethnographic as aesthetic, especially when you have great affection for writings you have known and have gained some confidence in being able to judge.
Here’s a tale from our earlier days, one that I didn’t get into my book. I’ve always had students working and reading with me. They helped find a whole lot of what we published, and I always delighted in the degree to which our work was communal. Today, many, many female voices are being heard. But there weren’t so many in the early ’80s. Again and again, we’d fill an issue with mostly male writers. Even with women dominating our reading groups, men were the ones we would choose. So, for a few years, as I recognized reaching that point again while building an issue, I’d say, hey, let’s stop reading men. Let’s just read women for a while, until we either find something or persuade ourselves it’s not there. That was a bit of a shock, even to the women. But they played along and we, and the culture, began to change. I think it’s been a while since the Review has had that particular problem.
Kudos to you for publishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie early on, among many, many other talented and then little-known writers of color.
I’m afraid I can’t claim many, but inroads have been made. One of the things you hope a magazine will do is land, now and then, on somebody who really matters, and whom we don’t yet know. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is certainly one. Yusef Komunyakaa was another, and Jim McPherson much earlier, before I was involved with the magazine. Publishing in a place like the Iowa Review makes further publication a little easier, easier to catch the attention of, say, The New Yorker. I think as long as writers are writing, there’ll be magazines of some kind, because there has to be that early step of gaining the ear of new readers, especially readers who don’t know you already. Not your friends and cohort, but strangers. I always thought that special. Helping your friends is natural enough. Tuning in on a stranger is rarer.
So the little magazine serves as a conduit or a waystation for writers as they shift from the unknown to The New Yorker or The Paris Review.
Well, I’d say The Paris Review is closer to us than to The New Yorker, but yes, I hold on to that idea. I think of magazines as adumbrations of books in their becoming. Now, as digital shape controls the cost, fewer people cling to the handsome physical fact of a near-book doing that work, but otherwise the pattern holds.
There was always something very tactile about the magazine. That was a satisfaction, the feel of a book-like object in your hands, the art on the cover and perhaps inside, the layout and design, the choice of typeface, turning the pages, maybe cutting those of an early copy as it comes out of the print shop. Seeing the last stage of its development, the blue pages, before the first box comes into the office with 24 copies of a new issue. That happened three times a year. It took a long time to acquire the routine that I wound up with, that rhythm of the year, but that was appealing too. It nourished me. Its satisfaction was akin to agri-culture, with our “field,” “ager” in Latin, found in our office.
A question about the future of the essay, particularly the personal essay: where do you think the essay is headed?
My first impulse is to answer in terms of form. The genres are always rubbing shoulders. So the narrative essay, the lyric essay, and more recently hybrid compositions that won’t call themselves “essay” because, I guess, the writer wants to negotiate two genres without giving preference to either, something like Fitzgerald’s idea of genius defined as grasping two contradictory ideas simultaneously without going mad. Maybe there will be tri-brid forms that make that juggling harder. Having negotiated all that, and more, where next for the essay?
It’ll find its way. It always has, but let’s turn our attention elsewhere. We are concluding this interview at a very strange moment, under a kind of voluntary house arrest, nationwide, worldwide, as we combat the coronavirus. We began, a couple of months ago, you and I, in a cheerful setting, over coffee in a coffee shop. We can’t go there now, are wary of meeting face to face, and so pull this interview — an essay, really, a collaborative essay — together by email. We do not know how bad the epidemic will get, and many people, including nearly everyone we know, is in for some mourning, at the very least, and is more than a little anxious.
I have no idea how all this will turn out, but one thing I have noticed already, among neighbors, both actual and virtual, is a warming sense of looking after each other insofar as we can. Friends have asked after us and we have of others. Methods of sharing are being improvised. Somehow we know, deep in our hearts, that if we get through this, we will be indebted to others, near and far. Perhaps we are cultivating a heightened sense of community that will show in the writing of the near future, a heightened sense of “we” before “I.” That’s not how we are accustomed to thinking about writing, but musicians really get off on jamming. They love playing together. I’d love to find that jamming in our future writing.
Before we go now, one last question. Of all these essays, which is your favorite? I love “Charlottesville” — I was at UVA too — but my favorites are the opening and closing pieces, “Hometown” and “A Certain Arc.” What are yours?
Oh, I like your choices. “Hometown” has held up well for over 30 years, and I owe my second start to it. “A Certain Arc,” my title essay, is my most recent, and most daring. It shows a formal confidence, evident in its structure, that is a pleasure to have pulled off. And it features my wife; it makes her my accomplice. Those are her drawings, by the way, on the book’s cover. All the more are we accomplices through this long near-quarantine. But you can see that my heart is also in “At the Fair”; there it spills out all over the place.
Harilaos Stecopoulos teaches American literature at the University of Iowa. He is currently finishing a new book entitled Telling America’s Story to the World: Literature, Internationalism, Cultural Diplomacy.