Abstraction, Epigraphs, and Shifting Perspectives: A Conversation with Morgan Hamill


Morgan Hamill, author of After and somewhere to rest, featured in Volume 73.1 of Shenandoah, discusses her writing process, inspirations, and upcoming work in a conversation with Shenandoah intern Ryan Doty.


Ryan: I appreciate you taking the time to write back and forth with me! The first few questions I had concerned your first poem, “After.” Almost immediately, I noticed you emphasized multiple instances of unique spacing and indentations. To me, they seem to work in conjunction to create this feeling of diving deep into one thought (as the indentations increase per line), then a slow withdrawal back to a steady stream of consciousness as they decrease. At the end of your piece, the final word “peace” has one of the longest indentations toward the center of the page, which makes me consider the “peace” the narrator feels is one within a deep, contemplative state. Overall, it’s just a beautiful poem. What do you consider to be the significance of the spacing?


Morgan: The first thing you should know about me is that I always want to make a joke. So my reflexive response here would be—I don’t actually know what I was doing. (I never know what I’m doing.) Usually, it’s a matter of process. I’ll write a poem with a more traditional “look,” maybe in stanzas, maybe in prose, and then if I feel stuck, I’ll start screwing around with the line breaks, trying to see if I can get myself unstuck. In this case, I probably wanted to work lines of multiple lengths, some very short, and some quite long. So that would lead me to format the poem in a way that accommodates the brevity of some lines and the length of others.


Ryan: I see, so it’s more of a formatting situation, and observing how specific formats impact the readability of the poem. When, if ever, do you find yourself choosing the traditional “look” of a poem over a more creative approach?


Morgan: Most recently, I’ve preferred free verse organized into stanzas of varying lengths, or prose poetry in unbroken stanzas, because these forms feel straightforward enough to express the kinds of (often linear) narratives I’m telling. Which is not to say that you can’t tell linear narratives with experimental or other kinds of poetry. I think poetry is wonderful precisely because it offers so many possible forms—and each poet uses form to sometimes radically different ends.


Ryan: That’s helpful to know, thank you. Now that I think of it, the poem also reaches some clarity as it progresses, line by line, slowly coming to the “Say, quite simply…” lines and ending. I know some authors like to leave their audience wondering what happens next, or develop some intentional points of confusion to make the reader consider alternate solutions or realities to fill these gaps in understanding. However, with “After,” I feel a sense of closure. What was your intention in bringing everything to a final few imagery-capped lines?


Morgan:  I prefer to ground my poetry in image. Other people do a wonderful job with metaphysics—some of my favorite poets!—but I’ve never been convinced by too much abstraction in my own poetry. Maybe that’s a goofy thing to say. Now I have to go check how abstract my poetry is. I could be lying to you.


Ryan: I understand what you’re talking about. I’m heading off on a tangent, but I feel like rereading your poetry can be such an interesting yet peculiar part of the process: you write something that makes sense at the moment and seems simple, but then when you revisit it later, it feels like a jumble of abstract ideas. I also like to read more conceptual poetry and try to decipher it. Who are some of your favorite poets who deal with these abstract ideas, as you mentioned?


Morgan: Emily Dickinson, Rainier Maria Rilke, Wisława Szymborska. Rita Dove. Annie Dillard—though I’ve read and admired far more of her prose than her poetry. My mentor, Kim Garcia. She’s described her poetry as difficult, and I think she’s just being modest.


I went to my shelves to answer this question and found it more difficult than I expected. I was quickly reminded—there is rarely such a thing as pure abstraction. None of the poets I referenced above are pure abstractionists. (Is that a word?) The poets I return to most often are those who are also thinking through image, narrative, material objects—Eavan Boland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Nick Flynn, Ilya Kaminsky, Ada Limón, and so many others.


Ryan: That’s an incredible list, thank you—I’ll have to look over some more of their work! If you could summarize “After” into one word or phrase, potentially emphasizing the emotional depth of the piece, what would you say this poem represents?


Morgan: Grief, acceptance, grief. It’s funny, my initial instinct was to resist this question. Maybe the better answer would be that I’m not sure.


Ryan: I was interested in your answer to this question, since I had a hard time boxing it together as well. Do you think it’s important to understand the main theme behind a poem once it’s written, or can there be beauty in not fully grasping the intent after you consider a piece to be completed?


Morgan: Certainly! I would go so far as saying that I never fully know my poems, and that most of my poems are only complete because at some point I decided to stop editing them. I’ve also had weird experiences rereading older work and realizing that it finally makes sense. Sometimes when I first write something, it can feel as if it came from nowhere, or I’ll be chasing an image or feeling that—at the time of writing—feels like pure fabulation.


Ryan: Concerning “somewhere to rest,” what do you consider to be the importance of placing an epigraph at the beginning of a piece? Sometimes, I feel like introductory quotes blanket the reader in the right headspace before reading, and give them an idea of the theme surrounding the rest of the poem. What are your thoughts?


Morgan: I have mixed feelings about epigraphs in my own poems. Epigraphs always feel right when I encounter them in the wild. But it can feel a little heavy to begin one of my own poems with a reference like that…Who am I to compare myself to Kwame Dawes? And yet, that’s the right thing to do. When I’m reading, I’m writing. And I sat down to write this poem after reading Dawes’s “Before Winter.” The epigraph signals that this poem is a love letter in response to another poem, that I’m in conversation with someone else. I hope, too, that it’s an invitation for my reader to find the other poem.


Ryan: I always love reading pieces where the narrator speaks to themself (either internally or vocally); it brings a sense of humanity to the character. What do you consider to be the significance of internal dialogue and thoughts within poetry?


Morgan: I also love poetry’s capacity for introspection. Maybe that explains why most of my narrators are themselves introspective. Poems are little pockets of emotional time. Sometimes you climb in when you need them, and sometimes they startle you. Sometimes they aren’t for you at all.


Ryan: That was a wonderful way of putting it. I think it’s important to understand that one poem isn’t meant for all readers, and all readers shouldn’t expect one poem to universally translate. What types of poetry do you find the most captivating? Are there any genres or styles of writing that you try to avoid or embrace?


Morgan: I read fairly omnivorously. I’ve always had a soft spot for prose poetry, maybe because I love a good story, and I love to see how tightly and lyrically people can give an account of events. I love flash fiction for similar reasons—and anyway, genre distinctions are boring. Which is to say, I love poems that don’t quibble with genre, poems that borrow whatever formal elements they need, poems that play with sound and meaning and repetition, especially repetition. Oh, and funny poems. Go read Sandra Beasley’s “Unit of Measure.” It’s fabulous, and had no small hand in cementing my love for poetry.


Ryan: I’m excited to read more about the artists that influence your work. Where do you find inspiration for your writing? Does it flow naturally, at once, or do you start with an idea, and slowly add to it as a planned structure?


Morgan: My writing process is a mess. At this point, as an academic, I don’t have time for anything (not even being an academic). I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I have to do most of my writing on Sundays, if I write at all. Recently, I’ve been so busy that it’s been hard to get words anywhere near paper. But the writing will always be there when I need it, so I don’t worry too much about it. When I had a day job, it was easier. I used to write more regularly, maybe for an hour or two in the evenings. I have a hard time writing on weekends because I’d rather be with friends, at the stable, and/or playing video games.


If I feel stuck, I’ll go pick up a book of poems, or an old copy of a journal, and I’ll write in response. I rarely have “ideas,” per se. It’s more like I have feelings that I’m trying (and trying) to get down. That’s how I end up circling the same topics… But there’s no larger plan. In that sense, ordering my book-length collection was fun—here’s everything I’ve written in the past eight years, and maybe it means something, though I’d be the last person to know.


Ryan: “The writing will always be there when I need it.” That feels incredibly important to understand as a writer, and in a different sense, as a reader. No matter the situation, eventually, writing will come, and it is often well worth the wait. Also, I like what you mentioned regarding having planned ideas versus recording feelings. Do you ever attempt to write from the perspective of someone, or something else, with the intention of conveying a set of feelings, such as by changing perspective, or do you prefer to write as the protagonist experiencing these feelings in your work?


Morgan: Though my poems often draw on images or experiences that come from my own life, I usually think of my poems’ narrators as separate from myself. That is, each poem—to put it the way you so astutely did—is a change in perspective. These narrators may resemble me, or capture what I was thinking and feeling at a discrete moment in time, but they are not always me. They are shape-shifting, traveling through time and memory, someone else, somewhere else—perhaps even more closely related to my reader than to myself. (Of course—sometimes, often, I am my own reader.)


Ryan: That was well put, thank you. Onto some more general questions and thoughts, is there anything you are currently working on? Are there some upcoming, exciting projects you’d like to tell the readers of Shenandoah about?


Morgan: I’m working on an untitled book-length manuscript, which really needs a title, because I’m about to start sending it around. The submissions process is fickle, but I hope that it will be published sooner rather than later.


Ryan: That’s exciting to hear! I hope your manuscript finds the perfect home.


Morgan: Thank you very much! Fingers crossed.


Ryan: We’re nearing the end of the interview! If you could have any advice for up-and-coming writers, or those who wish to pursue writing, what would you say?


Morgan: Read as much as possible, especially the things that you love—whether you know it or not, your writing will respond.


Ryan: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. We are lucky to publish you, and I’m excited to see more of your work in the future!


Morgan: Thanks, Ryan, for your insightful and generous questions. I’m grateful for the chance to speak with you.

Morgan Hamill is a graduate fellow at Penn State-University Park. Her poems appear in Cimarron Review, Copper Nickel, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, and elsewhere.