Building a Boat Inside Myself: An Interview with Janet Hamill

It's Animal but Merciful contributor Janet Hamill chats with George Wallace.

Janet Hamill is an American poet, spoken word artist, and painter. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. Body of Water (Bowery Books, 2006), her fifth collection of poetry, was nominated for the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Prize.


GW: Used to be American Bohemians who went to Tangiers, Nepal, and Mexico City, took freighters to Europe, hung around in North Africa. It's been detailed by some of the men—Kerouac, Snyder, Ginsberg, Corso, Paul Bowles and even Ira Cohen. Perhaps less so by the women, aside from Jane Bowles. What was your experience of this scene, both individually and as a woman? What does it MEAN to take a freighter across the Atlantic Ocean?

JH: Ah, yes, the romance of the Beats. I went on my world travels inspired by them. I wanted to live that kind of life. I wanted to emulate them. I wanted to see the world.  Being there as a woman was awkward. Even with a male companion, things would happen. I was groped many times.

I loved Morocco, Marrakesh, Tangiers, Egypt, Ethiopia, The Serengeti. I have pieces on my travels in the collections The Temple, Nostalgia of the Infinite, and Lost Ceilings. I’m also working on a tale set in Tangiers. Some locations and experiences were so overwhelming, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to put them into words. One of those experiences was crossing the Atlantic on the freighter. It was one of the greatest gifts bestowed on me. The freighter was Yugoslavian and had room for 200 passengers. My Dutch grandfather was a ship's engineer and  I was enchanted by his travels throughout my childhood. He and my grandmother would come home from exotic places with exotic gifts. I wanted to know what it was like to be on a ship at sea. Also, at that time I thought I could get through life without having to travel by plane. That changed when the only way to get to Cairo from Athens was to fly. But standing on the deck in the middle of the Atlantic is probably as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.

GW:  You've been engaged with the poetry scene in NYC since the 1970's, that's 40 years. What were some of the high points of the scene, both in and of itself and in your personal relationship to it? Low points? Where's it at today as compared to other times, in your view?

JH: I was initially disappointed with "the scene" and I kept my distance from it, probably to my own detriment. I was so unbelievably idealistic when I first arrived in the city. I thought artists/poets were going to be angels on earth, totally enlightened beings. My expectations were completely unrealistic. Unfortunately that initial exposure (a workshop at St.Marks in ’68) was so disappointing it kept me away from real involvement for years. I expected everyone to be talking about "making it new" in a passionate way. Instead, it was all career, career, career. It gave me a bad impression. I took the subway back to Brooklyn, and into the future. I wouldn't hook up again with St.Mark's (other than going to readings) until I met Maureen Owen.  High points were meeting Corso, Ginsberg, McClure, and Berrigan. The Ginsberg-Lowell reading at the church, Burroughs's reading at the church, and my first Wednesday night reading at St. Marks with Jerome Rothenberg. I pretty much felt like an outsider, though.  My writing was so different from what most of the poets on the scene were writing and most of my friends were musicians, photographers and painters.

Today is quite different.  The downtown scene doesn't exist anymore the way I knew it.  People are living all over the place.  Still, there’s a lot of energy, a lot of activity.  I see it in great weather for MEDIA and the work being done by the people at Three Rooms Press. I'm happy to be seeing a lot of experimental work and a new emphasis on Dada and Surrealism.

GW: You're a Jersey City gal who made NYC your home and base of operations from which you traveled the world. Recently you've been living up the Hudson Valley. How's that going?

JH: It’s going. There’s actually a thriving poetry scene up here on both sides of the river. Once I found the right people, artistic kin, things picked up. It took a while for that to happen because the Hudson Valley is enormous. It stretches from Rockland County up to Albany. You have to drive miles to see anyone! It’s not like the old nostalgic dream days when everyone lived south of 14th street. I’m glad to say that things are looking especially good now with the founding of the Seligmann Center for the Arts on the former estate of Swiss-American Surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann, in Sugar Loaf. A lot of good people are involved, and I think the "avant-garde" in the Hudson Valley has legs.  In the midst of ruburbia, we’re having good turnouts at our events.  Obviously, there’s an audience and we’re filling a gap.

Other pluses of living here are the closeness of my family and the positive isolation.  You can think less about your "career" up here, and that is always good for writing.

Having said all that, I miss the city like crazy and would move back in a flash, but unless rents start to plunge, that's not going to happen. Fortunately, the city is close enough to get there frequently. In a couple of years, since I can’t move back to NYC, I’d like to move to one of the little cities up here—maybe Kingston, Warwick or New Paltz. I live in a semi-rural area and miss sidewalks.

GW:  You've collaborated with a lot of great people over the years. Who are some of them? Who do you miss not having an opportunity to work with? Who's your 'dream collaborator'?

JH: This is hard.  There are so many people. Mentioning them in detail would take at least an entire memoir. I’ve loved, and would continue to love, collaborating with Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Maureen Owen, Bob Holman, Ken Tisa, Richard Baron, Anne Waldman,  Adele Bertei, Max Blagg, Jerome Rothenberg, Lee Ballentine, Sutton Brieding, Neil Winokur, Lost Ceilings, and David Amram, to name a few.

My dream future collaborators would be Phillip Glass and John Cale.  They're great musicians and composers, and are both appreciative of poetry.

GW: At what point does it bug you if people ask you about your friendship with Patti Smith?

JH: She’s famous and it comes with the territory. Patti and I met when we were very young and unformed as people and artists. We met when we were just blossoming and did a lot of growing and discovering together.  She is one of my oldest friends. We've always inspired and encouraged each other, and for the longest time, she was my imaginary audience of one when I wrote. I’m proud of her and her achievements but mainly think of her as a girlfriend. What I can't stand are obsessive fans who only want to befriend me because of the association.  Fortunately, I manage to keep most of those people at bay.

GW: It's been said that you "spin dreams and visions into poems, wake into works."What does that mean? Is that about enlightenment, or wonder? Where does satori, or the enlightened state, exist for you—in dreams and vision states? Through particular meditative or other processes? In the understanding that comes with your dialectic of awakening? In your art itself? Can your audience find an "aperture to understanding" or satori in your art?

JH: Whoa! Let's just say you've covered all the points and my answer to all of your questions is yes. I’m drawn to the marvelous, to alternative realities. I was very religious as a child. As an adult I've tried to transfer the mystery I found in Catholicism into poetry. The act of writing is meditative for me. It’s my hope that my writing takes people somewhere else. “Anywhere out of this world,” as Baudelaire says.

GW: People are engaged in many different kinds of journeys in their life. In "The Wanderer. 1" the poem you've included in our anthology, you write: I cry all night when lilac bushes bend to the ground/from rain. From snow. From habit. I cry in the absent arms/that brought me. Warm from phosphorescent sky banks/Though nothing will ever close the distance. To what extent is the kind of life journey you are on?

JH: I'm still hung up on the existential questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How'd we get here? Where do we go after this? What’s it all about? The wanderer is my other self. The poems are about a being, the wanderer, who lives inside me and is privy to my dreams and most intimate thoughts. The wanderer is building a boat inside me, preparing to depart for a great journey throughout the universe. It's already a series and may wind up being a book-length.I see myself as a wanderer, passing through life with no fixed course. I've been doing the I Ching since the early 70's, and I get the hexagram of The Wanderer repeatedly. The wanderer has no fixed abode. I often feel like an alien, an outsider looking in. I've never had children, and I think that adds to the detachment. The wanderer is my child.

Read Janet's poem "The Wanderer. 1" in It's Animal but Merciful.

To find out more about Janet, visit her website.

Janet will be reading at great weather for MEDIA's event at KGB in NYC on Dec 12th.

Find "Body of Water" in our recommended bookstore.