Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Alfred Starr Hamilton, 1: Biographical notes and reflections



modified from an original photo by Simpson Kalisher
from the back cover of
The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton

A bit of background 

I put my first website online in 1994 and have had an uninterrupted online presence ever since.  My last website was hosted by 100 megs free but when their business model changed some years ago I lost the site.  Luckily by then I had started this here blog, focusing on what I do now rather than poetry.  I published several unknown poets back then and also wrote little blurbs about a few "underknown" others:  d.a. levy, Doug Blazek and John M. Bennett.  Those poetry 'zine sites included RetiCenter West (a weblog), amashumqua, The Reticenteer and Hand of Glory.  I first wrote about Alfred Star Hamilton in The Reticenteer. 

Discovering Hamilton was like winning a secret prize.  I'd been working at Cornell's Olin library for a while and rather randomly stumbled across The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton published by The Jargon Society in 1970.  It was a handsome hardcover book, with heavy paper alternating between creamy white and light grey pages; a black and white photo makes up the back cover.  Time, care and some expense had been put into this book; it wasn't just a chapbook put together on the cheap.  My copy is a paperback, but the quality is still evident. 

The poems inside were unlike any I'd read and still strike me as forceful yet gentle, mysterious, almost mystical and above all, original.  They sometimes remind me of certain surrealist poets, but even there they differ in their lack of calculated strangeness.  Reading his poems can be like seeing an object through a heavy fog, some non-threatening shape in the distance under an agreeable yellow light.  They make me nostalgic for things I haven't experienced.  They catalogue associations and take syntax out to the park for some gentle contortions.  They are good.

But who was this guy, Alfred Starr Hamilton?  Why would such be care be lavished upon his work?

This must have been in either 2000 or 2001.  Internet searches showed up very little, so I used the old-fashioned methods in Olin's research section, looking for magazine appearances, some of which were available at Olin;  I was able to obtain copies of others via ILS.  Little blurbs in these books led me to other books, such as Sphinx and The Big Parade.  The former was out of my price range, but the latter, as well as the Jargon book, were not.  I bought these and began compiling a bibliography of works by and about Hamilton.  I still have a relatively thick sheaf of photocopies and printouts from microfilm; it's on my desk as I write.

I was pretty excited to have tracked this stuff down.  I already had a website dedicated to poetry, so it was a logical step to put what I found online.  I also discovered that an Olin colleague and friend, poet and novelist Jon Frankel, had also stumbled across Hamilton.  He helped me acquire some of these texts and was to later write a review of a collection of Hamilton's letters on his "blogh" Last Bender.  You can read it here: For the Storm of our Lives is Never Over With: Alfred Starr Hamilton.

I started Hamilton's Wikipedia page in 2007, but to this day it remains a stub.  My own ASH page went online in November, 2001.  The contents of this page are reproduced in this and posts to follow.  You will find a complete bibliography of books (I think), what I'm sure is only a partial bibliography of magazine appearances, a (perhaps) complete list of anthology appearances and a few references to articles about Hamilton, including a call for financial assistance penned by Jonathan Williams that appeared in the New York Times.  There's also what I believe to be a self-written entry in the 1975 edition of Contemporary Authors.

I did all of this as a labor of love.  I was so enthusiastic about his work and wanted people to get to know it.  I dreamed that I might stimulate someone's interest and that perhaps someone might be inspired to write more about the man.  He was  an enigma for me and the poems themselves didn't shine much light onto the man.  I'm not sure what I expected in terms of response.

So in 2002 I was excited to receive a letter from Hamilton's niece, Jane Huber.  She shared a few anecdotes about her uncle and said she once thought of writing a book about him.  She also told me Hamilton was alive!  I wrote her back, thanked her for contacting me and expressed an interest in putting together a biography of the man, suggesting we could work together on something.  I never heard from her after that, despite sending her a few more emails.

I found it all rather odd that she would contact me and then disappear.  I was a little hurt by it too, I suppose.  In 2013, A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind, a new anthology of Hamilton's work, appeared.  Huber and the family were thanked in the acknowledgements.  I had long before come to believe that Huber wrote me to "feel things out" for the family:  What did I know?  What were my intentions?  Did I intend to publish something based on the website?  Apparently she got her answers.  I don't know if she'd already been in contact with the editors of Dreambox, but I do believe that when she wrote me she was shopping around for someone to work with.  

Dreambox is actually a nice little book, but the forward and introduction are too slight in my opinion, offering very little, if any, new biographical information about the man himself.  Nothing that couldn't be found in the intro to the Jargon book or in his skeletal entry in Contemporary Authors.   Poet Geoff Hewitt, who published Sphinx and the intro to the Jargon book, also wrote the introduction to Dreambox.  Like I said, I would have liked to have seen more about the man's life and his history as a poet, but it's a touching remembrance of HamiltonHewitt has done more than anyone else to make Hamilton's work known, so it's fitting that he is included here.

In May 2004 I received another email, this time from the director of a nursing home in New Jersey.  The director informed that Hamilton's health was fragile, but after hearing about my webpage, he wanted to communicate with me.  I wrote back saying I'd be delighted and expressed my admiration for his poetry.

I received a second email which made me quite happy:

Your note was well appreciated by Mr. Hamilton. I think it made his day.

That happiness turned to a stronger emotion when I read the following:

After reading him your Email, he decided he would like to write again. He
likes to write a poem a day.


And: 

He sends his regards. "I am pleased that my work is still appreciated".

I still am touched and glad to have brought Hamilton some happiness in his final days.  A small satisfaction.  In June I sent a paper letter to Mr. Hamilton directly but as I kind of expected, no response was forthcoming  I waited until October to email the director one more time.  He confirmed that although Hamilton got the letter and was very pleased, he hadn't had the strength to write a poem a day as he wanted.  Although ASH remained committed to poetry, he simply didn't have the physical strength to carry on.  He was, I believe, 90 years old.  I had at one point suggested a visit, but Mr. Hamilton, though appreciative, preferred not.

Sadly, further emails went unanswered.  I learned some time later that the director had moved on to another job and that Mr. Hamilton had died.  He had a good run, 90 years, at least 40 years of published poetry, praise from many of America's most well-recognized poets and, at the very end, a bit of satisfaction in learning a younger generation of poets appreciated his poetry.  For me, this is a memory that always brings me some measure of comfort, a little pride maybe.  At least he got to hear that his life's work was still known and admired and that the word was being spread.

In 2005 I got an email from a guy named Matt Miller, who had also decided to champion Hamilton's work.  I helped him as much as I could, turning over whatever contacts I had found as well as my little bibliography of small press appearances.  Apparently he was going to write an introduction to a collection of poems that was to be published and also expressed interest in writing a book about him.  As far as I know, this hasn't appeared yet.

In 2009 I received another email from a fourth person, Lisa Borinsky, who was trying to gather information about ASH.  We corresponded for a few months and had several long telephone conversations.  She was very determined and resourceful, visiting archives, contacting the family, finding letters he'd written, poring over microfilmed newspapers, tracking down genealogies.  True research in other words.  I was glad to help her and it was hard not to get caught up in her obvious excitement and affection for Hamilton. 

Apparently, my site had provided her with some interesting leads.  In addition to the bibliography I had also put online my correspondence with Huber, the nursing home and other people who had known ASH.  She had a lot of questions, but it soon became clear she knew way more than I did.  She was like a woman obsessed, one might say, and was generous in sharing a lot of her discoveries with me.  One thing I never really understood were her dealings with Hamilton's family, which seemed troubled; initial emails spoke of warm conversation, which later evolved into getting the cold shoulder, if not hostility to her project.  She also hinted that other people were interested in doing a Hamilton book.  I won't go into all the details, but there were hints that the book she published containing some of his letters was intended to make a bit of a splash to generate interest in a bigger project.  There was also a sense of playing things very close to the chest, to be the first one to get a book done.  She referred to Miller and others.  It all seemed so competitive, somewhat at odds with my "open source" approach to Hamilton.  Anyone who contacted me got as much information as I had.

Send This to the Immune Officer was published in 2010.  Her enthusiasm and warmth shine through, but there were aspects of the presentation that made me a bit leery.  The book was actually a magazine published under the "Weird NJ" imprint and the cover was a comic book-style caricature of puzzled cops and an intense Hamilton.  The letters reveal an eccentric, paranoid man.  I think it would be fair to say Hamilton had mental health issues to some degree, so the "weird" label is unfortunate.  Like I said, the texts are respectful and obviously heartfelt; she has a genuine admiration and empathy for the man.  But the presentation was a bit ill-conceived.

On a personal level, I was surprised to see that despite a relatively lengthy intro, essay and acknowledgments, she never mentions our conversations by email or telephone.  I also contacted some other people on her behalf, turned her on to some other potential sources.  She does quote an email I wrote, on the back cover calling her the "number one ASH researcher" at the time.  No mention of having, as she wrote me in a prior email, "been a part of this [project] from the beginning."  Let's be honest, her research extended way farther than me tracking down some of his published poems and in fact carried out what I'd hoped my site might inspire.  She sent me a copy of the book/magazine, but after that, I haven't really heard from her.

Still, my goal was to help push Hamilton research along so I'm heartened by the result -- the letter collection is a fascinating narrative.

Visiting Wikipedia recently in order to see if anyone has edited the ASH page, I learned about the Dreambox anthology.  I ordered it and like it quite a bit.  Editors Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal have done a good job.

As I mentioned before, the authors have worked with Hamilton's family.  Lisa Borinsky had mentioned the family wasn't very cooperative with her.  Some of her comments to me in emails suggest the family was hoping there would be some money in this for them and indeed, this book is copyrighted to a member of Alfred's family.  Neither forward nor intro to the collection mentions Borinsky, which, given the dearth of books about the man, seems curious, especially as they mention his "heartbreaking" letters to the police, which as far as I know, Borinsky uncovered for the first time.  (The family was also totally surprised to learn, apparently via my website, about the letter by Jonathan Williams that had appeared in 1975 in the NYT).  Maybe the family were offended that Borinsky had published letters which revealed his eccentricities, perhaps even mental illness.  Or maybe they were angry she was going to use public documents to make a book that might distract from Dreambox, which was apparently a work in progress when Borinsky published.  Borinsky was definitely digging into family affairs, which suggested some skeletons in the closet.  Hence the family's resistance I suppose.  Still, neglecting to mention her publication is I think, an injustice to the reader who wants to know more about the man himself.

So, what began for me a chance encounter and a simple webpage has continued to be an interest of mine 10 plus years down the road.  I'm glad so many people have been interested in Hamilton and that I've been able to play a small role in getting the word out.  The real movers in this tale are those who have published his work:  Geoff Hewitt, Greg Kuzma,
Jonathan Williams, Lisa Borinsky, Estes and Felsenthal....

I've learned a lot about the academic and publishing world over this strange trip.  The competitiveness, the secrecy, finding the right allies.  My contribution to all this Hamilton research has been time-consuming, but not groundbreaking.  I was glad to have gotten the info I had together in one place, sad when it was taken down and now, relieved that I can get what I've found back out there.

So anyway, here are the biographical notes I originally wrote, with a bibliography to follow.  I might turn the photocopies that I have into PDFs to put up on Scribd.  I have a bit of regret about the first biographical note you will hopefully read below.  I wrote it before I knew very little about the man except the poems.  I hinted that there was something in the work and photo that raised some questions about his mental state.  I even refer to him as "slightly demonic-looking".  Ill-chosen words, but honest, I meant well.  I still think a biography would be interesting, as well as a more thorough bibliography.  I'd be happy if what I've done can help whoever makes that happen.

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Biographical Note 1

The first biographical blurb below was posted on LoS in 2011 as "I am immune."

Alfred Starr Hamilton is an enigma. His name is dropped at Exquisite Corpse a few times; the front page as of 11/22/01 accuses house poet Mike Topp of ripping Hamilton off. Somewhere else he is referred to as a "folk treasure." That seems a bit condescending but Hewitt substantiates. He seems uncomfortable but says Hamilton is "eccentric." Hamilton lived with his mother until she died in 1964 and left him seven grand. He then moved into a linoleum-floored room in a boarding house at 41 S. Willow St. NJ. As of 1970 he'd been living on 1000 dollars a year (much is made of his penury), visiting the local library and Salvation Army, copping butts. His photograph shows a neatly-dressed and sane-looking older gentleman. But those could be Army clothes and his nails are peculiarly long.

Speaking of the Army, the US Army, Hamilton was drafted and went AWOL after less than a year. "I got a discharge somehow," he writes in the blurb for his poems appearing in the APR in 1976.  [This might not be true, as Borinsky discovered he'd been buried with full military honors.] This [alleged AWOL affair] was during the War. Something of this cantankerous spirit survived until 1961. He refused to participate in a civil air raid drill and was fined and briefly jailed. Other than that he can drive, has a sister, drinks Four Roses and once serviced candy machines (after the war; it disgusted him). Biographical information is scant, but he claims to have hitchhiked through forty-three states. If so, Montclair has always always remained his home port: The 2000 Directory of America Poets and Fiction Writers says he's still at 41 S. Willow. That would make him 87.

His first appearance in print, Sphinx (1969), was published out of Montclair by Geof Hewitt aka Kumquat Press. In his review of Sphinx (New, No. 9), Eric Torgersen mentions that these pamphlets were free for the asking. (Online it currently lists for 25 dollars). Torgersen praises Hamilton; he says he's often inaccessible, but when he isn't, he's dead-on. Torgersen also says there are longer poems in Sphinx, which is not the case for what I've seen in print. The poems in APR and Poetry Now are short. These poems published in the mid-seventies have a tendency to catalogue, taking a phrase and repeating it, often asking a question. The tone is bemused and iconoclastic but never mean-spirited. The meanings are enigmatic. It's as if there is a code to be broken. The object of the poems is often the natural world, but rarely the world of man-made things. In the world but not of it, so to speak. Break the code and enter the Hamilton cosmos. One slightly demonic-looking man secretly manipulating the world from the center of the universe.

Needless to say, I like Hamilton. I stumbled across the Jargon book by accident at Cornell's Olin library and was immediately struck by the simplicity and strangeness of the poems. The book itself is a handsome volume and the introductory remarks by Hewitt interesting. Wanting to learn more about this character, I turned to the internet, came up with a few references. It didn't occur to me until some time later to get the articles and poems themselves. I am still waiting for a few things, which I will review here. I'm hoping to reproduce the articles online, but an annotated bibliography will do just as well, for now.

--S. Adkins November 23, 2001

Biographical Note 2

Ho ho! Seems in this lil' squib I am mistaken in some of my facts. John Latta's blog, Hotel Point, has a good summary (dated Jan 2, 2004) of Hamilton's published work and includes the text of a few poems, including "Crabapples," which appears to be his first poem in print, in Cornell University's Epoch (Fall 1962 issue aka Vol. XII, No. 3) and not in Sphinx as I wrote above. For more details I suggest reading the blog iself, which though brief, includes some interesting context and observations. Seems this extended entry refers back to his note on Dec 12, 2003: "Poking around in old bound volumes of Epoch yesterday after Ron Silliman’s mention of Alfred Starr Hamilton, a name, unforgettable enough, that’d got bruit’d around Cornell in the early ’seventies..."

--S. Adkins November 11, 2004


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Next: Alfred Starr Hamilton, 2: Bibliography in Progress

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