‘There are no rules’: Long-time ‘Iowa Review’ editor David Hamilton talks family influence, the lure of nature and recent memoir ‘A Certain Arc’

David Hamilton — courtesy of ‘The Iowa Review’

I met David Hamilton, author of A Certain Arc: Essays of Finding my Way (Ice Cube Press), at a local Iowa City coffee shop in February of 2020, before the world began to social distance and wear masks due to COVID-19. The coffee shop was filled with people, in a way that wouldn’t be possible now. It was a louder atmosphere than I had expected, and it worried me that I wouldn’t hear David’s quiet voice on my tape recording. Listening back, I can hear him clearly.

His answers were strong and confident, which, from a young writer’s perspective, I admire. I found it a little ironic that I, as an editorial intern for The Iowa Review, the literary journal Hamilton had headed for many decades, was the one asking the questions, but after we got talking I realized it fit perfectly. I was able to ask him about a field I was just entering, and he was more than willing to answer, from both an editor’s and a writer’s point of view.

What would you consider to be the greatest struggle you had when writing this memoir?

That’s a little hard to answer because the essays were written over a long period of time, and they cover virtually all of my adult life — certainly all of the adult life I’ve spent in Iowa involved in writing programs. And that’s, you know, over 40 years, so that means there were different struggles at different times. I suppose the greatest struggle (struggle is overly dramatic there) was coming to the point where I saw the essays as a book, saw something whole in it — because I have plenty of other essays out there and other configurations could have been possible, but this is the one that ultimately took shape.

Did you have different essays that you wanted to include, but felt that they weren’t right? Or did you know which ones you wanted to include from the beginning?

I had some help from the publisher and his reading assistant. I had given them a larger collection, and when he got interested, I was already thinking of revisions. So I suggested a cut version of the bigger collection, and he in turn — over some period of time — would say, “but what about this one?”; “What about that one?” There was some interplay between the two of us, and I wound up including one or two more than I was about to offer. There’s also an economic point to the size of the book — what you can print within a range that readers will pay for.

Do you have any writing traditions or routines? If so, were any of these continuous over many years, or new discoveries when writing A Certain Arc?

I suppose I have some general habits. I’m a day person more than a night person. Although it doesn’t happen every day, morning time is the most promising time for me to get to work. Once something is started though, it’s easier to go back to, and as it sits on my desktop in a file through the day, even over months — years — it’s easy to pull up, add to or fiddle with.

That’s actually interesting because I get my best writing done at night.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with that! I often wished I were more of a night person. I think the imagination is a little looser then, and I think I could have had other notions. And also, when you get started after nine or ten o’clock, you can go on uninterruptedly.

Throughout your memoir, you continually mention your previous experience at The Iowa Review and how interacting with writers and their works affected your daily life. Did your background as an editor help or hinder your writing process? Did it propel you forward, or was the knowledge from both sides of the publication process difficult to manage?

It was some of both. I mean, there is just a lot that goes into the editorial work, and it took a lot of time away from what could have been writing time. But I didn’t come into editing thinking of myself as more than a “wannabe writer.” Still, being in the company of writing and knowing more and more writers de-mystified some of it for me. So gradually, I thought, “Why not me?”

You state that as an editor, your motto was “Be moderate, be decent, be brief.” How do you think that applies to your own writing?

Well, that little anecdote comes after my accepting a piece for the magazine that wasn’t any of those things, so there are exceptions to every rule. Yes, moderation, decency and brevity are modest virtues, but at times they are to be sacrificed. The longest essay of the collection is certainly not brief, and flirts with being immodest — and indecent.

David Hamilton — courtesy of ‘The Iowa Review’

There are many connections of you watching and observing nature to your process of watching out for manuscripts and other people’s writings. Can you elaborate on that?

I came into nature before I came into literature. My boyhood wasn’t one where I read all the American greats. I didn’t really begin until college. Before that I was a small town boy and we were a farm family. I made canoe trips, camping trips and had roamed the woods behind our house an awful lot, so my attention was already on the natural world. I grew into seeing literature as a smaller thing than the natural world — that literature could both vivify the natural world and take shape from it. There’s an old medieval notion of the “Book of Nature” in which nature is sort of “God’s book” and you learn to read it word-for-word, mark-for-mark. That’s a nice fiction — I never took it literally — but it’s an attractive idea. It makes continuing your attention to nature more engaging.

What do you think are essential reads for people wanting to become editors? Of literary magazines or otherwise?

I think there are no rules.

No rules? Really? Why do you think that?

Because there are many different magazines and they have their own reasons for being. They stem from different cultural impulses. The undergraduate magazine you’re editing [Fools Magazine], Little Village, The Iowa Review, they are all on the table together in some way. All are small groups of people putting together a publication that makes sense to them.

But they all stem from reading something; there’s always a pattern, maybe even a program of reading behind it. Whoever puts a magazine together has read certain things before and wants to join that company. But different magazines can come from very different places.

Do you think your background in Chaucer and Medieval English Renaissance Literature affected the way that you ran The Iowa Review? Or do you think it didn’t matter at all?

It had a mild influence. I was interested in contemporary writing too, or else I wouldn’t have leaned towards the job when it was out there. But Medieval Studies gave me a larger view of some things. The experimental fiction writers of the ’60s and ’70s were trying things beyond the paradigm of what was familiar — and some of their experiments had been ventured before by Cervantes, Chaucer and others. Some of that experimental work felt more familiar to me than their writers had counted on. The postmodern has always been with us in some sense. I think that helped; it gave me a little confidence.

What is your philosophy on writing style? Do you feel as though your style has changed ever since leaving The Iowa Review?

No, I wouldn’t say it’s changed much. I’ve become a little more practiced because it’s been a few decades since I wrote the first of these essays. Half the book, however, maybe more, was written after my retirement from the Review, that is much more recently, and all of it has passed through my hands again, as I’ve taken the chance to make it somewhat more uniform. Overall, something in me resists being obviously showy and wants to meet the reader at least halfway.

My father and uncle wrote too. They didn’t have the graduate education that I did, and didn’t get into literary circles. Their writing was historical and scientific. But I knew them as intelligent, curious, thoughtful men. I always wanted whatever I wrote to be available to them. Academic postures that make the writing more difficult to enter never had much of a purchase on me. I have long nurtured an image of readers who weren’t academics but intelligent readers nevertheless. I want them to pick up my book, feel invited in, and to find it makes sense.

What’s next for you, writing-wise?

I don’t have any definite plan. I write and publish poems, a few here and there. No new essay has sprung to life since the publication of this book. All my essays are, in a sense, occasional — prompted by something. I guess I haven’t found that next something yet. Sometimes I think about going back to the essay about editing The Iowa Review and doubling, tripling it, making it a book of its own. But I haven’t.

‘A Certain Arc,’ by David Hamilton. Ice Cube Press, 2019.

I think you’re already partway there, since the essay is in that chapter format. You’ve got it separated into different parts.

Yeah, six parts, so far. There weren’t that many at first, when I turned in the manuscript to Steve Semken, the publisher. I didn’t have the sixth part, it had only five. It might have only had four, but I wanted to make it a little longer rather than writing an entire new essay. And now I know I could go on.

But I think the book as it is has an arc to it, from “Hometown” to that last essay. It’s also, in some sense, a single essay, in fragments and pieces. You’re invited to fill in the blanks. The first essay is about high school, so you think the next essay would be about college, but instead the next essay begins right after college — college is over and I’m in South America and run into Hunter Thompson. I don’t know, I guess I could write about college, but I kind of like the jump-cut. Most anyone who reads this book will have gone to college, they all have their college stories, right? They can fill theirs in instead of reading mine.

Sometimes it really interests me what creators can do with a jump-cut, inviting assumptions of what could have happened off of the page. You keep those college stories to yourself because everyone else has their own college stories as well, so they understand.

Well, there is that moment in the long middle essay, “At the Fair,” where I’m asking the students to name qualities and features of a lyric poem, and the mention of rhyme, meter, image, voice, tenderness, this and that, somebody else, from a different corner of the room, offers “juxtaposition.” That’s a feature one might not find on such a list. There will be lots of lyric poetry classes in which that word was not spoken. But it felt right to everyone that day, including me. And there it is, in other forms of writing too. You jump from small town Missouri to Barranquilla, Colombia and Hunter Thompson, to Gabon with my daughter, to my life here and my connection to the magazine. Yeah, there are connections, and a very fine book might be made tracing them all out and explaining more. But then, I hope a decent enough book allows for their omission as well.

(The following part of the interview was done post-meeting, over email, in an attempt to connect again after the world was thrust into quarantine.)

Have you been writing more or less? Have you done any writing on the pandemic itself? Do you have any advice to writers and creatives in this troubling time?

It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I mean pretty much everyone in the world is experiencing a version of the same thing, and writers, being writers, want to tell of it. Almost every time I open a paper or magazine, I find a tagline that alerts me to another writer finding their angle on the moment. We need that — to talk about what is happening. But the press to leap into the ring, to find your own twist, to outdo one another with something odder or more extreme, that gets tiresome. Not to mention the tincture of the opportunistic. Still, we need the conversation.

My own response has been to turn to my garden and to poems, a few new ones, more older, always under revision. But no new essay is underway, at least not yet. As for the garden, the derecho had its say about that. So there’s more to do.

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