Potent Prose Redefines Family
Jane Eaton Hamilton’s July Nights plumbs depths of relationships
by Jillian Hull
On the day I met with Vancouver writer Jane Eaton Hamilton, it was still cold, cold outside. As I left her to drive away along the icy ruts in the street, I looked up at her on the front porch of her house, where warm breath was huffing from her mouth as she negotiated through the door’s mail slot with the daughter who had locked her out. “You should have a couple,” she shouted to me, laughingly referring to her two daughters. “It’ll change your life.”
Earlier, over coffee in her kitchen, Hamilton had mused over her life as a writer and mother (she began writing six months before the birth of her first daughter 14 years ago) and contemplated her recently published collection of stories, July Nights, in which the explosive dynamics of family life play out on page after page. “I’m interested in family-oriented stories, though that is broadly defined, and I’m interested in where things go grey, because I don’t think much is black and white… I don’t care about being politically correct, because people aren’t, or if they are they’re insufferable. In families, political correctness goes out the winodw. Anyway, I think our job as fiction writers is to explicate the world, explore it, or reflect it rather than fix it.
“Basically,” Hamilton continued, “it’s the subtext of a story that interests me. That is, how people communicate and what’s going on under the surface of that so that the actual story you’re telling is not the story you’ve written, but it’s actually resonating from underneath that story.” And in virtually all her stories it is precisely this complicated relationship between surface and depth that emerges as the distance widens between how things seem and how they are.
As she does in “The Arrival of Horses”, a story that uses the slaughter of wild mustangs to show a famly rent at the seams by opposing ideologies, Hamilton often uses a mute or even absent third party to hold up a mirror to the tensions between characters. Similarly, in “Cimarron”, a baby’s deteriorating condition charts the downward spiral of a couple swindled out of their money and forced to fend for themselves as they attempt to cross illegally into the US. And in the last story, “On Morris Hill”, a difficult and unruly autistic boy binds two women together in unexpected romantic love.
Always in the first person, but never with repeating narrators, Hamilton’s stories are close-voiced, intimate, and potent. “Hello,” they seem to whisper in your ear just before you fall asleep, “I forgot to tell you something.” “For me,” Hamilton said, “that’s the most important thing. I’ve got to find who’s telling the story. My stories are very voice-driven. I’m passionate about issues, but I like to be able to subvert the issue to the voices.”
Though she speaks eloquently and intelligently about issues of voice appropriation, the politics of voice for Jane Hamilton are not just about who is speaking, but about who is listening. Of her upcoming reading for the Women in View festival (on Sunday, January 31, at the Firehall Studio), Hamilton, despite her intimate, soft-spoken way, was nonetheless blunt. “I’m delighted to be welcomed by that community now. I feel like that’s my community–the women who will attend–and I haven’t felt very welcomed as a writer. Perhaps it’s because my stories don’t fit in. I’m a feminist, but I use a man’s voice a lot, so that sort of bumps me out of that territory. I’m a lesbian, but I’m not writing many lesbian stories, so that bumps me out of that community. I guess I feel like my stories don’t have a home.”
With literary awards and honours accumulating behind her and her second collection of poetry (and fourth book) rolling off the presses this spring, it seems past due for the door to open for Jane Hamilton. But even if it doesn’t, there’s a strong possibility that she could just blow it down. Speaking through the mail slot is only for funny mothers and goofy daughters.
–Georgia Straight, Jan. 29-Feb5/93
An interview with Clarise Foster, CV2 volume 25, issue 4 2003?
As an award-winning writer, poet, children’s writer, photographer and lesbian rights activist your creative life is full and diverse. How do all of these activities connect with your work as a poet? What would you say is the overriding desire that pulls everything together?
My creative life is diverse, it’s true. I also sketch and of late even paint. But all creative pursuits, be it genre-switching within writing or something else, have certain similarities—one is to another like fingers are to forearms. I do not consider myself a poet, by the way. More of an accidental poet, in that I avoid writing poetry, though it comes out here and there like a milk drip from a leaky container.
My activism is another animal entirely. To continue the analogy, it’s more like the hair on my head—there, part of me, but I don’t perceive sensations through it. My quest for same-sex marriage rights is just something that needs to be done for the gay and lesbian community, and, in a profound sense, for Canadians in general so that all of us will be able to say we live in a country where citizens are equal under the law. Joy and I work very consciously to build bridges between divergent communities. While the activism that gets me there is a political statement, on the other hand my marriage, the day I wed the woman I love a second after midnight on the day this country allows it, will be a deeply significant personal event. Will it generate poetry? It likely will.
As a successful cross-genre-ist what would you say is the primary difference between the depiction of desire in fiction and that in poetry?
Poetry is far and away more personal for me than any other kind of writing. I’m down in the back alleys of east Vancouver mainlining emotion. I often write poetry when I’m blocked—creativity still has to get out. Or I write poems to celebrate matters of the heart, or to work through pain I’ve felt, or, yes, occasionally for the practical purpose of entering a contest.
The poem included in your issue, “Moonwalk,” began as a reply to a Harper’s Index stat that mentioned that many more people were bitten by other people than rats in NYC.
The desire in a poem is usually my desire, although not always (example “Moonwalk”), whereas in a story desire without exception belongs to a character. It is fabricated to resemble reality and is, thus, fiction.
As a lesbian and a poet what do you see as the primary issues related to writing about sensual relationships for writers whose primary sexual reference is not heterosexual and therefore not well represented in mainstream literature? Do you feel you have a responsibility to portray a lesbian perspective to the exclusion of others, or do you feel your responsibility is to the poem first?
Authors don’t have a responsibility to portray lesbian experience. We want to reach readers to whom what we have to say matters, so that may well lead us in a lesbian direction. But it also may not. My responsibility, it seems to me, is first and foremost to the piece I’m writing. To literature.
But still, I have long struggled with how to effectively portray lesbian or gay characters in a story, since as soon as those characters interact with someone who is straight, their sexuality becomes an issue for that straight person, which then brings in politics. This same phenomena happens to straight editors, I think. They bring their het eyes and experience to a lesbian story and deem it either boring, because to them, gays and lesbians just aren’t interesting, or political, issue-driven, because any story featuring a lesbian is an issue to them.
Obviously desire is not limited to a particular sexuality but many readers make the assumption there is only heterosexual desire—therefore the more gay and lesbian lifestyles are talked about the greater the possibilities for acceptance of difference—how do you deal with these possibilities in your poetry? How do you work with desire in your poetry to show yourself as a writer whose work is not solely defined by sexuality, and yet still reflect the reality that it does shape your voice as a poet?
Once one is out of the closet, a place both safe and smothering where most gays and lesbians have spent a good deal of time, it would be strange if dyke desire didn’t soak through the pores of one’s writing. But the question seems to presume intent, and I have to say I just don’t have much. Though I lead my life with bridge-building in mind, the creative expression of that goal would be subliminal or accidental. I can’t listen to my work the way a professor would. I am inside it. I feel it as a sort of synaesthetic (although not visual) experience, rather than as something to parse.
More generally, what would you say is the relationship of desire to poetry and how would you say that relationship manifests itself in your writing?
The reasons for depictions of desire appearing more often in poetry are probably pragmatic. There are just fewer words, so if a writer wants a romantic token for the beloved, that is the easier direction to go in. I just had my tenth anniversary and I wanted to write a series of ten poems that mirrored the ten years, but then my mother died unexpectedly the day I began to write the series and of course I had to deal with all the practical and emotional fallout, and the grief, and the poem series became not just logistically impossible but emotionally impossible because I had a paucity of pleasure and sweetness to draw from. So that’s like real life, isn’t it? Desire can languish because of trauma, just as depictions of it in poetry can too.
What would you say makes a good erotic poem about desire? A bad one? What would you say is the difference between say erotic or romantic in poetry and pornographic? Would you say it is a very fine line? And where would you draw that line?
A good erotic poem about desire? I don’t know. I guess that would be a poem that a majority of readers enjoy. My definition of erotica would be the joining of emotion to sex, where porn explores only sex. What makes a bad erotic poem? I haven’t a clue. Same as with any other poem type, I would think. Jarring language. No flow. No moistening, if you will, between the poem’s legs.
Can you talk a little bit about your process of writing, how you would go about writing a poem that has sexual or desire as a component? What would you say are your primary metaphors, in discussing sex? Are there metaphors that you automatically gravitate towards—that have particular meaning or reference for you in writing about sexual desire?—desire in a more generic sense?
Usually I read poetry before I start writing to remind my brain of rhythm and flow. Once I’ve had a little shiver from another poet’s work, my brain generally longs to talk back to it. After that, it’s going inside to that pseudo-narcotic, half-hypnotic state that lets the words come—generating a word, a phrase, which my mind can further spin off. It’s an instinctive, impatient casting-aside most of what comes out before the nugget that will become the poem suggests itself. Once the poem is in place, well, the editing starts and that’s always better done after a break when the critical self is back in play.
Gardens are my predominant imagery. Plants are so very obviously sexy—all that bursting of seed coat, all that thrust and bud. Flowers are the sexual organs of plants shamelessly on display hussying up the garden beds. I’m sure I overdo it. The sea, because I live by the sea and the sea is salty and spits seaweed and shells—alliteration gone mad. But really, anything that makes a poet thrum can make a poem thrum.
What would you say poetry contributes to in the discussion of human sexuality—to the discussion of human desire? In your experience how does poetry help you make sense of human relationships, good and bad, sexual and non-sexual?—and does this discussion connect to your sense of the importance of poetry?
I once suggested presenting a short story at a personal-experience panel at a conference on breast cancer, and the organizers thought I’d gone mad. There’s a general disdain for anything poetic or fictive, at least in the scientific world, which is funny since imagination, or vision, fuels medical discoveries. I wouldn’t know how to gauge how much influence poetry has had in other spheres, but likely not much. I can’t imagine families sitting down to a night of Pablo Neruda recitation rather than Frasier, can you?
Poetry absolutely helps me to make sense of my relationships and place in the world—other people’s poetry, but also my own. It is cathartic, a way to work through pain, but it is also a means to reflect wonder and joy, which may be even more important.
Would you say poetry contributes to the ability to talk about sexuality in all of its permutations more openly? Or has it hampered, preventing us from being more direct, by what people often describe as the esoteric, or obscure language?
Many times yes, that is absolutely true. Writers or teachers read poetry and carry it out into the world for a dialogue. Students are exposed to sexual matters they hadn’t considered before. Esoteric, obscure language is not accessible, but it’s used less and less as the need for it disappears. As a young lesbian, I read writers like Gertrude Stein, looking for eros, looking for my eros, and even though lesbian desire is encoded there it was an exercise in frustration. There are other writers too, writers without Stein’s talent, whose words I needed but whose books I ended up throwing against the wall. If I was drowning, they couldn’t pull me out of the water. 11.
Why would you say that you write poetry, what does poetry allow you to express about sexuality, desire and relationships that other genres do not?
A little less head, right?
From Body Rain, Brick Books, 1991:
A fat rat, rabig rat, the latest rat
crawls up the scum holes of Harlem with
rhinestones on his goodwill tux
a spit-shine on his dancing shoes and
a shoo-be-do-do-wah in his marble heart.
He should worry about his underarms.
No more slime dives in the Hudson
before calling on a lady.
Rat-a-tat-tat he comes courting
with warranties and counterfeit tail.
He took the A train from Wall Street.
Ooee he is sharp in that top hat.
Hey hey he’s cool.
His smile charms babies. Open up.
Those little teeth? The foam is only after-shave.
This is no stiletto lover. This is solid rat flesh
tap-dancing on your tummy, be-bop,
Moonwalking on your thighs.
from Body Rain Brick Books 1991:
Listen to the chocolates
curry favour in the cupboard
calling from their brown cups.
O love, o love, they sing.
The forsythia in the milk pot
squeezes out suns like good mornings
her hundred yellow lips humming.
The hot small of sex is in the air.
I have things I must say, mark,
feed into language. About you or myself.
There is an upcoming wedding,
a salmon barbecue in the yard.
Will we? I want to stand beside
you perfectly, respeating
Two women, two women. (I do,
but the kitchen table flicks
her sawhorses like garters.
Now love becomes sleight-of-hand,
a dialect of muscle and skin,
tang and fandango. We speak fluently:
We are starting to mean everything.
From Steam-Cleaning Love, Brick Books, 1993:
Epiphyte 2: Moss
When you wanted to know
what I was preoccupied with
in the dusk, I wasn’t thinking
I was facing the mirror
lying against your right side
while beyond the window
the mountains rose like blue women
Seagulls tore the sky leaving nightblue squawks
I was looking at the shape of your
cheekbone high on your face, and at your
thin arm. There was the smell of spring
We’d seen a dozen city
hummingbirds in our garden
the hover of their ruby throats. You were
wrapped in our red towels. It was
Mother’s Day; we had risen
and fallen like dough
I watched your breast which was fuller than
the night on my porch when I first undid
your buttons. The sheet beneath you was green
It was almost our anniversary
I was naked. You wore
blue jeans still clasped. Your
nipple pointed down like a scolding
thumb, and I remembered how that first time
after you came, you prayed that
I would never leave you
and then I never left