[Ed. note: Jamal Rashad spoke to poet Richard Hamilton about Hamilton’s debut poetry collection, Rest of US, out from Recenter Press.This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Rest of US is available now at the Recenter Press store.]
In his novella Empire Star, Samuel R. Delaney wrote the following: “The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society’s values, can force it to change.” In his debut collection, Rest of US (Recenter Press, 2021), Richard Hamilton questions reality and privilege with narrative. For Hamilton, there are indeed some hard truths in struggle and poetics. There are places of reckoning. In the pages of this collection, Hamilton speaks with the voices made clear to him from his time listening to a world of beings who are “fed up with being exploited, undermined, stolen from, murdered, and generally violated by the dominant class,” and who deserve fulfillment. In the following interview, we discussed the nature of class relations, the praxis of poetry and his hopes for this collection.
Jamal Rashad: Much of your work in this manuscript is concerned with discourses of historical events such as the Haitian Revolution and the horrors of Western Expansion in the United States. What draws you to these events as a point of entry into the work?
Richard Hamilton: There has been a virtual cleansing of information on organized, often armed resistance in this country. Aside from a passage or two about Harriet Tubman and her work on freedom struggles and the Underground Railroad, one is hard-pressed to learn anything else. Even that is whitewashed and revised. The schools do not teach children about the gains proffered by the enslaved in Haiti or Louisiana or Virginia, for example. It doesn’t teach us about fugitive maroon communities that fled to the mountains, hills, and swamplands to carve out a life free of colonial control. When I think about armed revolution or self defense by any means necessary, I don’t envision crazed militant cultists wielding rifles and machetes. Rather I see men, women and children sick and tired of being sick and tired—fed up with being exploited, undermined, stolen from, murdered, and generally violated by the dominant class.
I see individuals who want joy, who covet pleasure and peace, and the material conditions to create an honest life not colored by the dictates of racists or attitudes rooted in white supremacy. I see trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera as revolutionaries working with dispossessed runaway queer youth in the streets of New York City. I see the first brick hurled at the Stonewall Riot. It was cultural critic and philosopher Gilles Deleuze who said, “A concept is a brick—it can be used to build a courthouse of reason or it can be thrown through the window.” It’s not that I think all young people should wield knives, guns, or machetes in the name of revolution, but rather their inner compasses should arc toward justice. Sanitizing history to exclude violent countermeasures, in effect, creates conformity ad nauseum: it teaches kids to stay in their place, not to question authority—that the present-day violence visited upon them and their loved ones though policies that penalize the poor are aberrations, uncommon occurrences that can be bandaged with concessions. I realize this is loaded. There is questioning that gets at misuse and abuse of power and that which smacks of privilege and entitlement.
JR: I agree, without question. Oftentimes, folk who find themselves within liberation struggles are pathologized or dehumanized in a way. They become less human and more myth (for better or worse). When you speak of a questioning that is mired in privilege and entitlement, what are you referring to?
RH: I am referring to the former. The social control and violence visited upon captive rebel leaders of the German Coast Uprising of 1811 in Louisiana was meant to quell resistance. Public tribunals were held wherein lead revolters were gunned down by colonists, beheaded—their rotting heads hung on poles along main thoroughfares as reminders to the people to adhere to the status quo. Imagine being haunted by the memory of your loved one’s putrefying skull day in and day out. I know for a fact this kind of scare tactic lives on today. Mass incarceration has that effect on men and women so frightened by the powers that be we turn out ire for state-sanctioned mistreatment on each other. We are easier targets. No one looks for the disregarded.
JR: And so, I take it, that the process of finding these poems and bringing them into the world is just as much a matter of urging (agitation to a degree, remembrance also) as it is a matter of holding dominant narratives to account—centering a truth. Tell me, how do you find a poem? What is your process of creating a poem?
RH: After I finished the MFA degree program, I felt guilty that I was not reading poetry, per se. It was like I had betrayed a calling and wasted precious time in graduate school. I realized though that so much of what I enjoy reading, including memoir and cultural criticism, can be written with poetic sensibility. I find inspiration and lines for my poems in the work I read whether it is classified as poetry or not.
JR: I like the way you put that. That poems are informed not just by the study of poetics, that they are a part of a dialectic. The poet interacts with the world (perhaps in pleasure and study) and that births a notion which may become a poem.This book seems to be in conversation with and posing a challenge to aspects of Black poetics (the Black Arts Movement being named as one). What do you see as the particular failings and victories of Black poetry?
RH: I think it’s safe to say that Black poetry, Black poetics and Black vernacular cast a wide net in terms of praxis; that is how folks are constructing poems, the aesthetic and political soup that works emerge from. I wonder if the failings are most noticeable at the level of publishing—I don’t know of too many black-owned independent presses. There were a slew of them that sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s, Third World Press, for example. I may be wrong, though, and it occurs to me now that there might be a host of presses among subaltern circuits that are just not well-known or mainstream. Redbone Press is one black-owned and queer-centered publisher who I like. So, there should be more. As for triumphs or victories, I am hopeful because technological advances have made it possible for the average person, especially those outside the academy, to publish their own work. The academy, even when it courts leftist and progressive and Black writing, often does so to win political points for optics. There are mobile apps and 2.0 software now that support the creation and promotion of one’s work, so long as you have the patience and time to produce it, which opens up another can of worms under capitalism.
JR: Where is this book situated in Black Poetry? Who do you see this book in conversation with?
RH: That’s a loaded question. Like Claude McKay—and I realize it is a stretch to compare little old me to such an established writer and cultural thinker—I believe my work is harder to classify or situate because I am queer and crave the complete overhaul of system that adjudicates violence. I like to think that my work might sit well inside traditions furthered by poets like Xandria Phillips, Lauren Russell, Dionne Brand, Tyehimba Jess, Jamal V. May, Aimé Césaire, and deceased poet Akilah Oliver. There are so many poets whose work I have not read, so the list is incomplete.
JR: The artist statement declares that this book aggregates a litany of things considered, by some, revolutionary. What, then, is the artist’s role in the work of reconstructing or reimaging the world?
RH: Right, so demanding your boss provide protective gear during an epic-level public health crisis is not so revolutionary. Or, in the case of one poem, “Asylum,” patient demands for toilet paper should register as an everyday human fight. I don’t like decrees about what an artist should or should not do. I reserve the right to critique or condemn your work if I find it outright racist, ableist, sexist or anything else. Art is triggering. In my own work, I want to showcase nuance. We spend so much time recycling talking points or advancing half-truths based on incomplete and harmful intel we gather about this person or that culture. I hope my work complicates things some. I hope it helps to imagine a world wherein everybody belongs and that pivots on the present-day and historical context for the equal distribution of wealth in this country.
JR: And where are you? Where does your lived experience inform your work?
RH: Almost all the poems in my current collection were written while I was housed indifferently in Louisiana. The experience of being homeless, sleeping rough in my car, seeking social services, being visibly disabled, all the time holding down a job, albeit usually some form of itinerant, gig economy work without benefits. The tenuous nature of that time period forced a series of ruminations about exploitation, the disposability of labor, especially Black labor. It happened too that I met and looked after a friend who also slept rough in bandos, with friends occasionally. My coping mechanism was writing. Writing is therapeutic. I knew, though, from reading loads of confessional poetry in graduate school that I did not want to turn the act of writing into an exercise in narcissism, self-loathing, or self-criticism. I knew that my struggle and those around me happened by design, and that said ruminations would be best spent thinking about the material conditions that create an underclass, in effect, of non-citizens. I am after solidarity in my work, so I spent time filtering my experience through the lives of others who faced similar struggles. Take, for example, the life of famed Black pugilist John Arthur Jack Johnson, or Marva and Martha [the person and alias featured in the book].
JR: This book, being situated on the margins, doesn’t seem to be presented in a defeatist or passive posture. This book “talks smack” and demands attention. What do you hope this work will do? What can we learn from the margins?
RH: I wanted to gather an impression of the ways we have resisted colonial and state control, starting with the Haitian Revolution of 1789 and the rebellion of 1811 in Louisiana, the largest slave uprising on American soil. Under the leadership of Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacque Dessaline, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved class in Saint Domingo defeated the French and British armies to become the first Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere free of colonial rule. That is no small feat. News of the victory inspired the enslaved, creating a wave of panic in the hearts and minds of the planter class. Charles Deslondes, a native Louisianan who was, in effect, a deputized slave driver on Colonel Manuel Andy’s plantation on the east side of Mississippi (in what is referred to as the German Coast), clandestinely commanded the first rebel attack among the enslaved in January 1811. Together, they killed one slave owner and wounded many others. They raided the coffers of Master Andy, took muskets and ammunition, and proceeded to grow the revolt. So, inspired by the Haitian Revolution, rebel leaders in Louisiana placed their comrades in army uniforms taken from Southern militia. They knew, as did revolters during the Haitian Revolution, that placing insurrectionists in official military garb would consummate the uprising by lending visual credence to a growing movement.
As for smack, I hope it does that and more. Revolution is like talking with your mouth full in a room of respectable negroes. Smacking is the thanks we all get for routinely denying or attempting to deny someone else pleasure. I hope the book leads people to waters they might never drink from, but dip their big toe in, if only for a temperature check. I hope they come away feeling, as current day Haitian revolters did under the U.S. backed and false leadership of Jovenen Moise, that imperialism, and its pet project racism, must be met with fierce demands and countermeasures in the street, in the workplace, in the bedroom, in schools and churches alike.
JR: I believe you accomplished that. For me at least.
RH: Did you have a poem in mind that you feel smacks of zero fucks?
JR: Personally, I’m drawn to poems like “Alabama Inmate Notes” because it prioritizes the voice(s) of the incarcerated. It brings me to question assumptions I have of how we, as a collective, deal with folks we have grown accustomed to not seeing. Do we believe they are deserving of decency? There are a lot of people who consider themselves abolitionists these days. I often wonder how deep that politic goes. Do we care for people as people or as causes?
JR: Was it important that this book be published through a particular publisher?
RH: Not really. I honestly thought from years of sending out work that drew rejection after rejection from editors, that the work might never find a home. The more expressly political, the less traction I gained. It happens now, and over the past few years, the Movement for Black Lives is a hot button topic. I am seeing more books whose contents are replies to anti-Blackness, imperialism, racial capitalism, environmental injustice, homophobia and transphobia, sex-positivity and deviance. This is good, but again, like in cinema, we all love a great trauma story chock-full of Black pathology and suffering we can sympathize with. It is the reason why, while the poems in the book are dark or address dark themes, I try to focus on responses to it.
JR: I’m glad this work has a home in Recenter Press. It deserves that much and more. It deserves to be read and reckoned with. Thank you for lending your generous thoughts and contributions.♦
Jamal Rashad (he/they) is a Watering Hole Poetry fellow, a D.C. native and optimist when careful. Their poems have been/will be published in Ramblr Magazine, Love Jawns, Big Wash, Foglifter Magazine and Ina: An Erotic Anthology. They are the editor of Imagoes: A Queer Anthology (2019). They hold a B.A. in Africana Studies from San Francisco State University.