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Interview Q&A with Hemmingplay
We offer our first and exclusive Q&A Interview with Hemmingplay, a writer whose multiple literary works have been featured on our Spillwords pages as well as being Author of the Month of October, 2016. Hemmingplay is a poet for all seasons, a man in touch with human sensitivities, which are balanced by his convictions gained through his deep and rich life experience. Hemmingplay can make you wonder, as well as ponder on the deeper meaning of this journey we call life.
- Please tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I’m the youngest of three children, born and raised on a farm in west-central Ohio. My father wanted to be a painter, but decided to switch to teaching and better job prospects when he met my mother. She was a talented writer with a tumultuous past, but put her energies into being a nurse and raising her family. He answered a newspaper ad for a superintendent of school in Fairbanks, Alaska, in the late 1930s and moved the family there until WWII forced them to return to the U.S., where he enlisted in the Navy for the duration. He earned a doctorate after the war and was a county school superintendent for a number of years, then took work with an NGO that moved us to Karachi, Pakistan. This was a key experience for me, and included some traveling to India, Egypt and Afghanistan.
I’ve been married to the same woman since 1970. We have two grown sons, one of whom works at Facebook and the other is trying to get into a doctoral program in philosophy somewhere out west. We started two successful businesses, a web development and hosting service, and a bed and breakfast.
- Did your working career impact the essence of your writing? If yes, how so?
I started my formal working life after college in an office that investigated businesses for unfair or illegal practices, including fraud (theft by deception). Some of these resulted in criminal prosecutions. I went to graduate school in journalism after 10 years of this, then worked at two new newspapers as a reporter, news, city and managing editor. After a few years of the news grind, I went to work as a writer and editor for Penn State University in the news and information office.
Looking back now, the predominant style of writing in these jobs was very heavily controlled by the need to marshal and emphasize facts, especially in the legal work and in daily journalism. An excess of “creativity” was discouraged in the service of objective truths, things that could be proven in court or documented in a newspaper story. I believed these activities were useful and important, but there were also rules about style and tone — in addition to dealing with those damned pesky facts— that were simply different than those that apply in poetry and fiction. But fiction and poetry have to make sense, where reality doesn’t always do that. So I bring the same seeker mentality, and track down things that make sense still, only in a poetic or fictional format. Make sense? 🙂
In other words, I haven’t lost all of the habits I acquired elsewhere. I have just put them to work in different ways.
I’ve discovered my natural poetic “voice” should probably be prose-poetry. It’s a style that was influenced by poets I read as a kid, and also the older style of the Norse sagas or epic poems that dealt with big themes. Sweeping, lyrical, focused on the horizon and inward to the heart's truths.
Sandburg. Frost. Tennyson. Elliot. Whitman. Dickenson. Cummings. Harrison. But also by the great writers of journalism, like Mary McGrory and H.L. Menken. And also by the elegant and exotic voices of my childhood home in the east, the lyrical poetry of Iqbar, and Rumi and Gibran.
- What inspires you to write?
I touched on this in a recent poem called “What It Is Not,” but I see poetry in particular as a tool used to strip away a lot of the banality, distraction, self-deception and cultural fluff we use to numb ourselves. Hard and holy work, I called it.
In the end, I am convinced we’re better off not being numb. A little trouble won’t kill us. Maybe this is just a result of age and having survived a series of hairy ordeals, but I hope younger people hear the idea of not being afraid of looking for the truth of things. Shit happens, after all. And it rolls downhill. And for a writer, everything — everything — is raw material! Even in the compost heap.
I think too many writers think poetry has to be depressing, sad, bleak and humorless, or about lost love, heartbreak, depression and suicide. It can also be uplifting, funny, irreverent, challenging and weird. Let's not get stuck in a rut.
I hope to be the encouragement that younger writers need, the reminder that things are never as bad as they look at 3 a.m., or as good as they seem on Christmas morning. We need to experience it all, embrace it all, and fling our arms wide in wonder and love and defiance.
I don’t hold myself up as a paragon of anything, though. I feel like a rank amateur most of the time, and reading back over pieces I’ve written is usually embarrassing. But I learned from my career how to push on through anyway, realizing that we need to publish and do the best we can, but to get it out there on a regular basis. It isn’t going to be perfect, but it needs to be produced. And it can always be edited and improved later.
- When did you realize you wanted to write?
I was in First Grade and my teacher was organizing a class assembly on fire safety. She asked me (or I volunteered; can’t remember) to write a little play. I did something completely forgettable and think I stole the thing from a kid’s magazine (thereby becoming a writer and plagiarist at the same time).
However, what I never forgot was the warm feeling of putting something together and seeing it appear in public. I remember applause. I think that was when I got the bug, and was lucky enough to have a teacher who made it happen. Let’s hear a round of applause for those teachers we’ve had who gently touched something unique in us and lit a fire.
- Tell us a little bit about your writing process?
I’ve always been a fast writer, but most of the early stuff is terrible. This was a big problem until computers came along and made changes and editing easier. Now my rule of thumb is to spew words, and then begin the process of rewriting, which is where actual writing begins. My rule of thumb is that it isn’t worth much until at least the fifth revision.
I’ve gotten into a daily routine. I usually am up by 7 or 8 in the morning, including weekends. I spend until 10 a.m. catching up on news and politics, and reading parts of a novel or a book of poetry. It’s good to read something good if you want to create something good. At the appointed hour, I shut off the TV, close Facebook and all email and news feeds and notification apps, turn my phone power off, turn off all music to have silence, and gather myself in front of the computer.
Then it’s a staring contest between me and the screen. I promise myself to stay there for 4 hours, whether I write a word or not. (That’s only happened once.)
Usually, once my gorgeous little Muse realizes I’m serious and am there to work, she sashays in trailing incense and sex appeal and a snarky attitude and we begin. (I think she lives in a wall of the house somewhere.) And yes, I see her as female and if you’re female you may want a different image for your muse, but you’re allowed to pick whatever works for you. All I know is that she turns me on. I'm not complaining.
Sometimes I look through a collection of images, stop on one that makes me feel something, and start by meditating on that feeling. Often, that leads to a poem. Sometimes, though, I hear a phrase, or see something someone does, and it hits a note in me and I rush to write it down before I forget. Then the writing is a process of figuring out what it was, exactly, that spoke to me. The act of writing for me is usually a process of untangling a knot of impulse and stray thoughts that feel, somehow, important.
No matter the method, I try to focus, to observe, to pay attention, to really see what’s there in front of me.
And sometimes, someone asks me to write something on a specific topic. It’s all grist for the mill.
But when it’s working just right, when Madame Muse is teasing me and kissing my ear, something happens. It’s like my inner ear gets tuned into a distant radio station and things flow through me as though I’m just taking dictation.
- What would you say is most fulfilling about writing?
It is the feeling of connecting the dots, internally. It acts almost like a kind of guided meditation that brings meaning together out of formless words, feelings, intuition and knowledge. And that is gratifying on several levels. When something falls into place, when it’s possible to find exactly the right word for a given spot in a sentence, I get a little hit of— I don’t know, is it dopamine? Actually, there are four “happy hormones” (thank you Wikipedia), and writing seems to enhance most of them, at least some of the time—Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin. The latter is less important than the others, since it usually has to do with sex and physical contact, and one doesn’t get a lot of that sitting at a keyboard. But still, on a good day, when everything is hitting on all cylinders, it’s almost as good as that. 🙂 )
- Does the addition of imagery help to tell your story?
Quite often, it does. See my answer to #5 above.
- What do you most enjoy reading?
I enjoy detective and mystery fiction, and think it’s underrated. There are some very good writers working in that field, but they get overlooked by the snobs because they’re also best-selling authors and that’s sniffed at. I also read lots of history, and have been reading and rereading more and more poets, new and old.
/Looks at the bookshelf to the left.
Lately, over there, it’s (“SPQR” and “Augustus”), experimental fiction from Barbara Kingsolver, a murder mystery or two from the likes of Harlan Cohen and Michael Connelly, a biography of Mary McGrory, queen of the newspaper columnists in Washington, and books of poems by Carl Sandburg and Jim Harrison.
- Is there a poet or a writer that has influenced you? If so, in what way?
There are several, but the three who are first in line are William Shakespeare, Carl Sandburg and E.E. Cummings. I read a lot, but at my age, I’m just afraid that I won’t get to everything before… before… well, you know. 🙂
- What are your ambitions as a writer?
To have a novel be a best-seller and be made into a movie—and get paid by the dump truck load. I want my obit in the New York Times, too. 🙂 (Not too ambitious, am I?)
His desire to write in these genres never really went away. When his children were safely off making their own mistakes, he turned on the computer one day, stared at the screen for a long time, and began again.
He has published three books so far: "Mermaid Sisters: First Dive", a children's book on iTunes/iBook; "I Came From A Place of Fireflies" published as a paperback and Kindle on Amazon; and a new book of poetry, "Snowflakes & Ashes: Meditations on the Temporary" (Gatekeeper Press) on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBooks, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, and a few others.