Friendship Is Incredible: An Interview with Diana Hamilton
Diana Hamilton’s latest book, God Was Right, is one of the few books I’ve read that feels like it changed me as a reader forever. People love to use hyperbole when talking about books they love, but hers really got to me, and I hope more people read the poems in this beautiful collection.
Diana’s wit is so sharp--I felt so burned by one of her answers in this interview that it took me two months to work up the courage to send a new question—and her reflections on blurred identity, friendship, love, sex, and animals are so rigorous, they made me want to work harder at everything to which I apply my brain. This interview took place via email over the span of a few months, until we decided this issue needed to run. I could have emailed her my questions forever.
Bryan Woods: I’d like to start by talking about the essay as a form, and how you see it in relation to poetry. Many of the poems in God Was Right refer to themselves as essays: four of the eleven pieces have the word Essay in the title, and others refer to themselves as such within the body.
The first of the two Essays On Bad Writing begins:
This is a bad poem
by a lady poet.
It’s called “Essay on Bad Writing,”
But I want to talk about writing that’s good.
Initially, this was a bad essay called “Bad Poems by Lady Poets,”
I love the recursion here, and the way the spiraling builds up to an argument that eventually becomes tautological: a bad poem is what lady poets write, even if it isn’t, or she isn’t.
I can’t imagine this opening working nearly as well without the timing of the line breaks, but every piece in the book struck me as essayistic in the way they all are propelled by arguments that are supported, explored, or eventually revealed.
Are these poems essays? How much is genre a spectrum, and how much is this a question for the author, as opposed to the reader or the publisher?
Diana Hamilton: Yes, these poems are essays! Except “On Second Takes,” which is an essay that isn’t a poem.
And I hope the book shows some generic spectrum: I wanted to borrow the essay’s willingness to make arguments literally, and I wanted poetry’s willingness to ask questions it does not answer, or to defer or recur, or to draw attention to form as occasionally more interesting than meaning.
Some of this was an accident. Though I had a few false starts when I tried to write “Essay on Bad Writing” as a “critical” essay—feeling that I needed to find a structure that would carry me to certainty, even though the whole motivation for writing it was a vague anxiety that I kept seeing brilliant women perform stupidity on stage, a feeling about which I had no real argument to make beyond “this is uncomfortable”—when I finally decided to write it as a poem, it happened quickly. I wrote it “all at once,” as if my computer were a friend I had held captive for a rant over a third wine. I was surprised to find that, in writing it as a poem, I had done a much better job at writing it as an essay.
I was worried that poets would think it was just delineated prose. I showed it to my ex—who appears in this book more than I would like!—and who had the uncompensated job of helping me decide whether something I had just written was any good. He thought it didn’t have a form yet, but I disagreed. Sometimes, you ask someone to read it a draft because you want feedback on how to improve it; sometimes, you just want to find out how confident you are about it.
This was the same process by which I had written my chapbook for Ugly Duckling, Universe, which was an attempt to complain about a class I was taking on Kant’s moral philosophy. I had been reading 300 pages of Kant a week, going to a seminar with typically humiliating dynamics of gender and interpretation (the professor kept repeating that it was once interesting to talk about Kant’s views on women, but once “feminism happened,” we could return to talking about his system without worrying). In class, I tried to bring up the problem of moral and political philosophy’s search for the “neutral” example, but the professor was not interested. We were reading Arthur Ripstein’s Force and Freedom, where his chapter on contract and consent used the example of agreeing to get one’s hair cut. Can you change your mind halfway through? When does a haircut become violent?
I thought it was bizarre to pretend that we could talk about rape by talking about a haircut. I thought it was stranger still to pretend we could talk about “force” and haircuts without talking about the very long history of people in power shaving the heads of their captives. Most of that poem is straight from Ripstein. He writes: “If you stop me from cutting your hair, there’s a sense in which you are interfering with my labor, but, since you are entitled to determine whether I cut your hair or not, you do not wrong me.” With a few minor changes, this is the opening to Universe. But I found it easier to show how emotional and non-neutral these examples were by breaking them into lines, where they could speak for themselves, than by writing an essay about it.
That was long! But it gets me to a confession: that this is a book written largely in the hangover of a PhD. I had become angry at myself for the kinds of claims I made in my dissertation—specifically, that poetry cannot make arguments!—but I also was so used to writing academic prose that my poems kept falling into that style. The wonderful poet Jameson Fitzpatrick looked at an early version of this manuscript and noted that many “seemed like essays,” and that I could exaggerate that. I listened. I removed the poems that didn’t seem like poem-essays, and I wrote a few additions (“Five Paragraph Essay on Third Heartbreak” and “Persuasive Essay for Sex Ed”, for example) that I thought would clarify what was “poetic” or “essayistic.”
But the first poem I wrote in this book was “God Was Right.” I wanted to argue against the “devil’s advocate,” and I tried to write a long poem in defense of things that don’t need defending: cats, walks, dancing, reading, love (an earlier version had a long section on pasta). I kept this in mind throughout the book, too. In graduate school, I had become disenchanted with the demand for “new” arguments, when so much of reading for pleasure is about agreement: “my friend was right that this book is great,” “theories of the sublime are interesting,” “there should be more books that allow women to stand in for a city or country or history,” etc. I felt like poetry was a better place for stating a shared feeling than essays were, but that essays were a better place for admitting your position than poems were, and I wanted to do both.
You ask about whether this is a question for the author or the reader or the publisher. You read it, and you asked, so I suppose it’s a question that comes up in reading! Certainly it was a question for me. And UDP published it on their “Dossier” series: “Dossier publications don’t share a single genre or form—poetry, essay, criticism, interview, artist book, polemical text—but an investigative impulse, broadly conceived.”
I would like to congratulate myself for having answered this question without reference to Montaigne or essayer.
BW: I think knowing that you work in academia slightly colored how I read the book. I kept subconsciously thinking the word rigor while reading it like a mantra. Not only because the writing itself is more rigorous (or scrupulous?) than what I'm used to in poetry, but also as a theme, since so much of the book is exploring the concept of what makes writing good or bad. I noticed that I was beginning to question my own assumptions about academia's relationship to rigor, which I realized I took for granted. Somewhere in my mind, I associate academia with rigorous writing in a way that surprised me, at least in part because of how much I hated college! I dropped out my senior year after three and a half of the most unrigorous years I can imagine a person living.
I didn't get nearly as far with school as you have, but I think the primary skill I took away from studying writing and literature is learning how to use the little tricks, the shortcuts in language you can use when talking to people who have studied the same things, in order to make broad gestures toward a thought or idea without needing to articulate it in detail. There are a million of these tricks, and appealing to authority (I bet I read a reference to Wittgenstein, Barthes, or, as you point out, Montaigne, at least once a week) strikes me as the most unforgivable in academic writing, even among writers I like (such as Maggie Nelson, who I'll want to discuss later).
I've gotten to the point with a few of my favorite reading topics, like strongly typed functional programming languages, or American Minimal music, that I've been driven back into academic literature just because I've read practically everything else! Now that I've consumed all the primary sources, all I can do is see which small pieces are being put under the microscope in theses and academic journals or whatever. And with rare exception, it's all terrible! I don't even know if the authors would argue with me. When I read that stuff, I'll sometimes find myself wondering if I'm the first person to ever read page 48 of whatever weird book I found in the library.
I know this is all a cliche. Everyone knows academic writing is political, or unreadable, or navel gazing, or whatever, but while I was reading God Was Right I kept wondering Why? Why aren't the people who devote themselves the most to something always the best at it? Why does this book feel so different?
And to go back to something you just said (and which struck me as profound): "so much of reading for pleasure is about agreement." I think that's absolutely true, and I'm surprised that I have almost no mental framework to draw from in terms of framing an argument (that word!) or articulating a thought in a way that feels like it's worth sharing, if it's an agreement. I've tried to sit down a number of times to write about music or books I love, and always wind up giving up, because "omg lol it's soooo good" feels like enough. How did you approach this when writing the book?
DH: You are saying so many nice and mean things at once! You accuse me of academic rigor, you read me for the unnecessary Barthes references, and you wink at the fact that God Was Right is full of such shortcuts.
I’ll bite, though. I didn’t think I had to approach the problem—how hard it is to express agreement or admiration critically—because I took the shortcut of “these are poems, calm down.” I wanted to say, for example, “friendship is incredible.” There are many scholars who have said just that! But along the way, they have to “contribute to the discourse,” establish authority, hand-wring over method, period, and scope, decide whether the object of analysis is literature or art or ethics or health, attempt to obtain tenure, etc. It’s very difficult to meet these constraints and still give the impression you’re in love. You could write some Guardian-style popular science piece instead, but the scientists would admit they don’t know why or how friendship is curative; they’ve just designed some studies to find evidence that eating alone too much correlates with depression, and that “face-to-face” interactions are important for most people.
Instead, you can just tell some stories about an exceptional friend. Even if people hate the long poem I wrote to Shiv, I think they will believe me that friendship is incredible.
But you asked why academic writing is bad! We could talk about how few people are actually paid enough to do research, how hard it is for anyone but the rich to make it into a well-funded PhD, how even those who finish are unemployed, how many writers, in other conditions, we might have the pleasure of reading. We could talk about the segmenting of disciplines, and how it created increasingly specialized audiences. We could get very dull, if we want! But from another direction, we might just be wrong: I remember trying to find out what contemporary poetry was good, at 18 and . . . I read a lot of poems I hated on the way, which was fine, but I also came to like a lot of bad poems, which was worse. I felt the same trying to find good models of art criticism. I am sure that, if we tried just reading “erotic novels,” without knowing where to begin or having a friend to ask, we might get the sense that both fiction and sex are to be avoided.
To the extent that my own academic writing was bad, according to peer review, it was because it “lacked stakes.” I described without arguing, got too caught up in trying to learn, and failed to explain why the question I was asking mattered. In this book, or in this form, the questions came easier—“how could writing be adequate to the experience of loving an animal?” for example—because I didn’t have to answer them authoritatively.
BW: OMG, I am NOT claiming that God Was Right takes shortcuts, or that its rigor is unnecessary! When we run this interview, I'll make sure to include a bold, 72pt font disclaimer which states that I loved the book wholeheartedly, and that I'll fight anyone who disagrees. I'll be sure to include that next to the note that it took me a full two months to reply with this follow up question.
This is the second time a writer has recently told me her writing was criticized in peer review for "lacking stakes." A friend of mine who's finishing up her MFA in fiction noticed that the (outnumbered) male writers in her cohort tend to use this as a stock critique of women's writing, a euphemistic way of calling their work frivolous while still appearing to follow the rules of workshop. She said that early in the program she took the feedback seriously and would work to "raise the stakes," but has recently had a change of heart. Why can't a story just be about two friends?
I was touched by your writing on friendship. I know it seemed a few years ago like female friendships were "having a moment" in literature, but I've read very few books that explore deep, mostly platonic, love between two friends who don't share a gender. I don't know if you've read it, but along with the marriage to her husband and her romantic relationship with another woman, in her memoir Vanishing Twins, Leah Dieterich also explores the mutually supportive relationship she has with a coworker who might be thought of as her "work husband." While reading both books, I was shocked to realize how rarely these everyday relationships are depicted in literature, but also felt a pang of jealousy: imagine having the kind of friend you would want to write a poem about!
Speaking of jealousy, this stanza:
It's what we both want: for friendship to prove itself
so prioritized with respect to other loves that it takes
the form of those other loves; further, we want love
to be so "important" it doesn't matter that I'm a woman
and you aren't attracted to women; I want to love
a man without holding his heterosexuality
against him; we both presume "friendship" precludes
shit like "jealousy" and "children" and "arguments
about dishes." We're wrong, though.
I love these bittersweet moments in the book, where a shared desire that might otherwise have a simple solution is made complex because of sexuality, society, anatomy, etc. Without an established framework (like marriage in a romantic comedy), these problems become novel and can only be solved by the two individuals finding something that works for them. But couldn't every relationship be improved by analyzing each person's needs this deeply? How different do you think this book would have turned out if you didn't have a muse like Shiv?
DH: There is so much that wouldn’t be possible without Shiv, most of it more important than books. But there are some straightforward ways he "made it possible:" the first poem, “Expository Writing on Some Kisses,” I now realize I stole from a conversation we were having about a part of his book I hadn’t then yet read, where he gives all the reasons he’s not going to fuck someone (someone named Diana). I forgot this conversation, sat down to write, and “remembered” that I wanted to write a poem about refusing to kiss.
More than that, the books we were reading and talking about in common crept in. Ferrante stayed on my mind longer because we texted and cried about it, in the early years of our friendship, which led me to write the five-paragraph essay about a girl who tries to use Days of Abandonment to decide, after a breakup, whether she’s lost her mind.
To the extent that God Was Right is about my life—which is a very small extent, it being fictional and stylized and reshaped and fantasized about and “worked through,” like the writing down of a dream—it’s about my trying to find out how things work, how they get sorted. It’s about Shiv moving in with me at a moment where I was trying to organize some especially hard thoughts, and the strange pleasure in realizing that, though we were both “not doing great,” something in the way we coped with that together led us to write more often, and in ways unfamiliar to us, in a shared office I turned into our smoking room. We'd sit on the orange desk, chain-smoking, and when we started talking about something related to our writing, he would press record on his phone. So Shiv gives the book context—specifically, the context of a friend who gives a day a loose structure.
I used to be jealous (since you bring that feeling up) of writers who, I believed, wrote books that seemed less contingent and more intentional. In my imagination, a good writer would have a book in mind that didn’t take a wholly different course because of something she happened to have read, or because she made a new friend. At some point, I remember accepting that this good writer was not going to be me. And then, later, I found myself not wanting it anymore, even: I like that writing is a record of the kind of thoughts you get a chance to have only because some circumstances conspired.
Bernadette Mayer writes that “A month always seems like a likely timespan, if there is one, for an experiment. A month gives you enough time to feel free to skip a day, but not so much time that you wind up fucking off completely.” I think that friends are generous in the same way that months are: they give you a great deal, but they also let you ignore them now and then; they don’t eat you up like lovers.
I am very sorry to learn you haven't had a friend you'd want to write a poem about! You should work on that. Start by setting a timer and holding a friend for at least 60 seconds. See if you have it in you to cry on their shoulder.
BW: One thing I find so unique about your writing is its focus on ethics, and it doesn't surprise me that you're a fan of Elena Ferrante's writing. I also loved The Days of Abandonment, but was so drawn to the Neapolitan Novels in part because of the way they work to build out such an elaborate ethical framework for loyalty, whether between friends, or lovers, or neighbors, or an artist and her subject.
Writing as a weapon is a recurring motif throughout the books, and something the two friends Lila and Elena use to hurt and betray each other throughout their lives, and it seemed to me like Ferrante was arguing that novelists themselves are selfish people, and that novels often hurt people close to their authors. This is a theme I could read about forever, and I guess I kind of did by reading all six books of My Struggle. I've read some of your criticism of Knausgaard and My Struggle, and wondered if you consider it an unethical artistic project.
In many ways I think both authors strike a very similar pose: look at me, the greedy novelist, writing about all the people I've ever encountered, airing their dirty laundry for my own benefit. The obvious differences are that the characters in My Struggle usually have the same name as the real people they're based on, and importantly that Ferrante has tried to shield her own identity, which in turn protects the real people her characters might be based on.
When I read this beautiful couplet from your book I knew it was something that would sit with me forever:
So I'm writing this essay after all, to say:
Fuck you if you think bad writing is more offensive than rape.
It immediately, and I'm still not completely sure why, brought to mind Elena Ferrante's famous quote from an interview: "Even if we're constantly tempted to lower our guard--out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness--we women shouldn't do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved."
This directness, and seriousness, stands in contrast to the humor that is so often used when talking about things like the violence men so often inflict on women. You address this in “Essay on Bad Writing”, in which you reflect on Patricia Lockwood's viral poem "Rape Joke."
So I wonder: do you think humor is ever a useful tool against violence? And Is it ever OK to make art that hurts people?
DH: Before I published “books,” I hadn’t had to think about how awkward it would be to edit things years after writing them, only to have people interact with them as if they were just written. I wish all books came with a disclaimer: “The writer probably wishes this book were entirely different, but we commend her psychological progress in letting go.”
“Essay on Bad Writing” was the hardest poem of this book to edit. Others felt more outdated, but that also made them easier to identify as “of a certain time.” I can safely say, “I can’t change the heartbreak poem because I no longer think about that ex” or “in 2015, I wanted to write something that highlighted the way poetry’s formalism shares some of the arbitrary repression of the five-paragraph essay, but that’s not something I’m thinking about now, so there’s no need to ‘refine’ my approach to the question.” But I can’t pretend to no longer think about the ethics of bad writing—just this week, the internet argued about whether a dirtbag (or a Kenneth Goldsmith) is "not a poem" or simply "a bad poem." I have very different ideas about compelled performances of gender than I did four years ago, and about the fact that abusers, in and outside of literature, continue to be permitted to live. I would no longer congratulate myself for misandry, the sometimes unsatisfying refuge of guilty white women.
But I also didn’t want to throw that piece out. For one, I didn’t want to rewrite it with 2018 examples instead of 2015 ones, which would just postpone its feeling out of date. It’s also useful to me as a map of my shifting commitments.The main edit I permitted myself, then, was to add the following line to the mini-rubric at the end, where I list some questions to ask of poems to find out if they are bad or good: “if this poem hurts people, are they people I want to hurt, too?”
I wanted to clarify that my goal was not to minimize harm, but to direct it at the right targets. This argument has been hard-fought in comedy (i.e. Lindy West’s distinction between rape jokes at the expense of victims and those at the expense of rapists).
As you know, I do not think that Ferrante and Knausgaard have similar projects. I think The Neapolitan Novels succeed at giving women’s friendship the force of history; I think My Struggle takes for granted that individual experience is world historical, and comes out whining and fascist. If I believe his project is “unethical,” it’s not because he used his family’s experiences to write a book—that makes him unethical as a family member, but perhaps not as a writer—but because the “struggle” is on the wrong side.
Edna St. Vincent Millay has, in my opinion, a great breakup poem that is relevant to this. It starts:
You loved me not at all, but let it go;
I loved you more than life, but let it be.
As the more injured party, this being so,
The hour’s amenities are all to me—
The choice of weapons; and I gravely choose
To let the weapons tarnish where they lie; [ . . . ]
When we talk about whether poetry and humor are “useful tools” against violence, I think we ask too much of jokes and of poems. But injured parties enjoy recourse to even useless weapons.