Declaration of Independence: Justin Hamm on the museum of americana
This past summer, Justin Hamm took a creative leap of faith. Merging a love of historical American culture with online publishing, he founded the literary review the museum of americana, and in swift order assembled a website, an editorial team and a creative vision that “revives or repurposes the old, the dying, the forgotten, or the almost entirely unknown aspects of Americana.” This month, the review launched its first issue, which features fiction, poetry, essays and visual art. Full disclosure, I’m a prose editor at the journal, yet I was as curious as anyone how this project fast-tracked from what-if to vivid reality. With the first issue up and running, Justin took time to discuss what led him to the embark on the project and his hopes for it down the road, along with the kinds of work he’d like to publish, the evolution of his own work, and his thoughts on a classic figure of more-recent Americana, Bob Dylan.
Originally from the flatlands of central Illinois, Justin Hamm now lives near Twain territory in Missouri. He is the author of the chapbooks Illinois, My Apologies (RockSaw Press, 2011) and The Everyday Parade/Elegy For Sounds Forgotten (forthcoming from Crisis Chronicles Press). His work has appeared, or will soon appear in Nimrod, The New York Quarterly, Cream City Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Sugar House Review, and a host of other publications. Recent work has also been featured on the Indiefeed: Performance Poetry channel and nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. Justin earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 2005.
The common wisdom says to write the book you want to read, and I wanted to read work that repurposed American culture.
You’re a poet, a teacher, a parent—your calendar must already be full. What possessed you to launch a literary journal?
I do have a full calendar, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve only just now found the courage to take on a commitment such as this. But at the same time, I believe if there are things in life you feel called to do, you have to do them. In this case, I thought what has turned out to be the aesthetic of the museum of americana was going to be the aesthetic of my next manuscript. The common wisdom says to write the book you want to read, and I wanted to read work that repurposed American culture.
But somewhere along the way I realized that it’s probably beyond my life experience at this point to make that kind of manuscript. I’m just not done with my own little piece of Americana here in the Midwest yet. On the other hand, I still had a deep longing to read those kinds of stories and poems, and I’ve long thought we’re at a point where the culture they might come from is drying up or changing into something very different. I wanted to be part of a larger effort to try and reinvigorate that culture by using it as raw material for new art, and I wanted to celebrate and promote others who felt the same way. I don’t watch TV, or go out for beers on the weekend. I do this instead, and I do it for the same reason I teach public high school— because I want to be able to say I spent my time on things that matter. I know there are 10,000 journals out there, but I think this one has a chance to be culturally significant as it grows and matures.
As a writer, you work in different genres, short stories and flash fiction among them. What led you to poetry?
I’ve always been a poet; it’s just that I forgot that for a while. Poetry always seemed very romantic and noble to me, and I kept these notebooks full of weird lines from the time I was probably fourteen. When the teachers brought poetry into the classroom, I was the one of the handful of kids who perked up. I wanted to write fiction because, suddenly as a senior in college, I discovered I could do it well, and I thought maybe I would be able to learn to write and sell a book that would make a lot of money. The first short story I ever wrote got me into graduate school, and I was able to publish a couple more early on, but here’s the honest truth: I just don’t enjoy writing fiction. I enjoy having written fiction, and I sure do like it when others say nice things about what I’ve done, but composing poetry is a natural extension of who I am.
So when I hit the post-MFA dry spell a lot of us experience as we try to process everything we’ve learned, I quit writing altogether for a couple of years—and grew really despondent and depressed. I thought I was done writing forever, and that scared me, but then, tentatively, I tried making some poems again, the first I’d done in probably six or seven years. I didn’t worry about publication or what others might think about them. I only thought about how grateful I was to be able to write something, how essential and nourishing the process was. It was like coming home after being away a really long time.
I do work on fiction for a change of pace now and then, and I think I’m a capable fiction writer, but obviously, whether I’m writing stories or poems, I’m not going to get rich. So I’m going to make the art I feel I’m supposed to make.
Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Good Poems, American Places, edited by Garrison Keillor. Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Jelly Roll by Kevin Young. Airships by Barry Hannah. Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason. Just about anything by Cornelius Eady. Ditto Natasha Tretheway. David Kirby has a poem in a relatively recent issue of The Laurel Review called “Love in Vain,” like the Robert Johnson song—I sure wish we could have published that. There was a short story by a writer named Tim Wirkus in an issue of Cream City Review a year or two ago that would be perfect for us, too. It’s called “Thirteen Virtues of a Colonial Detective,” and it’s kind of a mash-up of hard-boiled detective fiction and Franklin’s Autobiography.
We like work that’s conscious of the fact that it’s concerned with Americana. That doesn’t mean it has to be artificial, though. For instance, Joyce Carol Oates has a novel called We Were the Mulvaneys that explores the small-town American family in a fairly conventional style. That type of story would be up our alley. On the other hand, so would her book of concept fiction, Wild Nights!, which re-imagines the last days of Poe, Dickenson, Twain, Hemingway, and James in some highly bizarre ways (Dickenson, for instance, is an android). The idea is for each issue to be a big grab bag, some of it serious, some of it fascinatingly strange, sort of like what you’d encounter in a real museum. None of these books alone gets at what we’re trying to do. But juxtapose them along with “Epic Rap Battles of History” on YouTube, and Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise and Michigan albums and your local Civil War reenactment, and you have an idea of our vision.
After envisioning the project at length, what was it like to finally assemble that first issue?
There was kind of a delayed joy in the first issue, mostly because I feel we have a responsibility to the writers to present their work in a professional manner. I experienced the initial sense of excitement the first time I read each of the pieces we ended up taking and realized they were really good, but after that, I had to focus on just making the issue work. It needed to be functional. It needed be formatted correctly. And since I was doing these things for the first time, it wasn’t a painless process.
But once it was all there and I could go back and take in the issue as a whole, as our editors selected it and our readers are now encountering it—that’s when I started to get excited. Of course there’s that immediate glow that happens when you’re part of creating something that didn’t exist before. But more than that, I was just really impressed with the writing and art. It’s exceptional work, work I’d be interested in wherever it happened to appear.
What are your ambitions for the journal?
Initially, I’d just like to connect our writers with as many sympathetic readers as possible. But in the long-term, I’d like to see us expand and do a yearly print anthology. I’d also like to host music and perhaps even short films on the website. Eventually, I hope we can put together a group of reviewers to regularly review new books that are using aspects of Americana in interesting ways. And as long as we’re throwing out long-term ambitions, at some point I’d love for us to be able to publish those books ourselves. We’ll see. But if we can accomplish these goals, I believe we can make an interesting contribution to the discussion about the disappearance of historic American culture, a discussion I think is going to grow as it becomes more and more apparent.
So I hear you’re a serious Bob Dylan fan. I recently saw him in concert for the first time and was impressed by the way he adapted his classic songs with funk and Latin arrangements. For decades he’s been an iconic figure of Americana, starting out as a bard with a guitar. What do you think of Dylan the artist in 2012?
I find Dylan endlessly interesting. You’ll notice that I didn’t say “he’s great,” or “he’s washed up.” I don’t think you can pin him down in that way. On the performance side, I think that comes from a combination of factors: the constant rearranging of songs, as you mention; the decline in his physical abilities; and his own interest level. He can go from outstanding to pretty unlistenable from one song to the next. With his voice the way it is, and that inconsistency, I can certainly see where some just don’t care for his live act. Then you’ll get something like the live version of “Forgetful Heart” I saw him do back in 2009, or the live debut of “Scarlet Town” from his newest album, which he performed a week or two ago (there’s a really great bootleg of it going around), or just about any version of “Ballad of Thin Man” he’s done recently. I’m glad he still tours because those moments are worth the lower points.
The studio work and the songwriting are a different story. The biggest criticism is that he outright steals his lyrics and melodies, so he’s somehow less a genius than he was at his peak. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe he’s using an interesting new collage-style method of songwriting. The fact that it’s difficult to say one way or the other is part of the appeal and mystery of the trickster character he portrays. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me that much either way. He’s already done a certain type of songwriting the best it can be done.
the museum of americana accepts submissions of original fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book/chapbook reviews, writer interviews, photography and art that showcases and/or repurposes historical American culture. Submissions are read in the months of June and December only. To find out more, visit the journal here.