Sunday, June 15, 2014
Life as a fan of baseball’s supposed “lovable losers” informs Justin Hamm’s baseball-themed poetry.
The pitcher takes a line drive to the eye in “The Last Day of Summer,” only to get up and realize that fall is on the way.
The horror that the protagonist in “A Real Team Effort” feels when he sees his father sprinting to the team bus with the jock strap he left at home, a story Hamm calls “50 percent recollection and 50 percent imagination.”
Or the narrator in “Bird on a Wire,” whose attempts at knocking the titular bird off the aforementioned wire with a baseball aren’t as accurate as the bird’s attempt to drop some, well, droppings on said narrator.
In all three, things are wrapped up in a less than ideal, sometimes mortifying, fashion.
“…Every single one of them kind of ends with something embarrassing or tragic and I chalk that up to the fact that I’m from Illinois and a Cubs fan,” Hamm — the district librarian at North Callaway R-I schools — joked over the phone on Friday. “So I think it’s seeped into my psychology as a writer.”
The three pieces are included in Hamm’s first full-length book of poetry titled “Lessons in Ruin,” a catalogue of prose dealing with life as a Midwesterner, set to be released on Sept. 1. Hamm’s work touches on his experiences, feelings and attitudes as a lifelong Midwesterner.
The Midwest has been a constant theme in Hamm’s work over the years, though his writing influences weren’t exactly local.
Always a writer and always a poet, he had aspirations, at one time, of spinning yarns for the “Weekly World News” before it ceased publication. Growing up, he was influenced poetically by Robert Frost’s work with overtly Northeastern flavor.
He was then taken by the “Grit Lit” movement, specifically Southern scribes like Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. Brown and Hannah’s voice fascinated Hamm, who admittedly tried to emulate the tone in his own work.
“I love that they care so much about place and can write so explicitly about it and bring it to life for other people,” Hamm explains. “Also, you’d read 10 southern writers and they had 10 different things to say.”
But, being a kid from Bloomington, Illinois, it felt “inauthentic” for him to write in that decidedly-southern style. That said, the dedication to regionalism by Frost, Brown and Hannah was something Hamm adapted for use in the Midwest.
“I wanted to define for myself what it meant to be a Midwest writer,” Hamm said.
Hamm’s desire was to highlight all that the Midwest had to offer — the resilience, the scenery (he’s admitted “sucker for landscapes”) and the struggle that residence go through every day that he felt is sometimes marginalized by the evening news and even some Midwestern writers.
“There’s a lot of things changing in the Midwest and a lot of people are hitting hard times and there’s difficulties going on,” Hamm said. “So it makes the region really interesting to explore and the most interesting characters are the one’s going through the most difficult time and having to adjust to a changing world, which is going on right now.”
That theme materialized in his debut chapbook “Illinois, My Apologies” and its follow up, “The Everyday Parade.” Those motifs were rewarded when he received the 2013 Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center for a singular piece titled, “In Case You Were Wondering.”
And he’s continued to explore it in Lessons in Ruin, a 76-page offering six years in the making. The book’s title, somewhat, is a reference to the rundown factories, towns and collapsed barns of the Midwest, representing, what Hamm calls, the region’s “Roman ruins.”
“…There’s also a sense of personal ruins, too, of what’s left of people’s lives after tragedy or even just everyday lumps we take trying to get by” Hamm said.
In “At Sixteen,” Hamm uses the factories, fathers and smokestacks to relay tales of industrial tradition and doing as your father did and his father did.
Then there is “The Last Year on the Farm,” in which Hamm uses 22 lines to encompass the feeling of a grandson sitting on his grandfather’s lap, looking out the window at the family farm.
“I feel that’s something a lot of people can relate to,” Hamm said of the poem. “I read in a couple of venues locally; I had people who wouldn’t typically be poetry readers who come up to me and say, ‘I really connected to the poem’.”
In “Rebekah Just When the Drought Was Ending,” the narrator is a “hardened, Missouri woman” caring for her family while she, herself, is ill.
“That kind of resilience is what you see in people around here,” Hamm said. “They are going to do what they can for other people.”
Though the the pronouns and protaganists vary from poem to poem, his goal was to create a thematic thread from each individual piece rather than constant characters.
“There are ‘I’ poems and ‘me’ poems and ‘she’ poems and ‘he’ poems, but you can definitely see repetition and if you choose to see ‘you’ or ‘I’ or ‘he,’ I think it definitely works that way,” Hamm said. “I just wanted poems that worked together thematically.”
“Lessons in Ruin” is available for pre-order on Hamm’s personal website www.justinhamm.net and can be purchased in bookstores or through www.amazon.com and www.aldrichbookpublishing.blogspot.com.
Josh Mosley can be reached at (573) 826-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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