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Forrest Hamer and Surrendering to the Process of Discovery Through Language

By Remica Bingham-Risher

Forrest Hamer
Photo of Forrest Hamer © by Matt Wong.

One of the reasons why poet Remica Bingham-Risher wrote Soul Culture: Black Poets, Books, and Questions that Grew Me Up was to give our celebrated Black poets their flowers while they are still with us. And what better way to give them their flowers than to interview them and invite them to talk about their creative process in this collection of essays! For Pride Month, the spotlight is on Forrest Hamer, featured in this passage. He was one of Bingham-Risher’s instructors at the Callaloo Workshop.


BINGHAM-RISHER: Do you remember your first encounter with poetry?

HAMER: I would guess it happened as my body responded to my mother’s heartbeat, to lullabies or the Bible stories I heard each night before sleep, or to my grandfather’s singing.


When I asked Forrest Hamer to autograph his books, I had never seen anyone so upset about such a small mistake. We were at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop where he was teaching and, like all the other students there, I became enamored with his work and unassuming nature, wanting nothing more than to spend the last few nights surveying his words. As he signed his books, he misspelled my name, and when I crossed out one letter for another, he apologized to no end. He held me there, despite the line forming behind us, repeating, “I’m so, so sorry about that. Names are important. Please let me take care of things.”

I was sorry to have pointed out the mistake in front of him, as he seemed so deliberate in showing each student deference and care. In addition to being a poet, he is a listener, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, the combination of which, he’d explain during our interview, were “twin efforts to discover mind through language merged.” He said: “You have to be an avid listener, as a psychoanalyst, and an intense kind of listening has to happen to be a poet as well.” After the signing mishap, he offered to buy me another set of books and was sincere in this, though I refused. But the fact that he was willing to do so told me that he is a poet, and human, of shrewd watchfulness and deep compassion; he hears what’s singing in us and bears out our glory.


At the Callaloo Workshop, Hamer was quiet and observant. It seemed like most of the students there were extroverts or at least a bit eccentric, and he was just the opposite. I worked with Natasha Trethewey and Hamer had another set of poets, but I remember—in the large forums where we’d all meet together—feeling like Hamer was “reading” us (maybe like patients?). He made us think of ourselves, and others, as individual critical beings. We were all fully invested in his heart and eye (as he was so “care/full,” as Lucille Clifton might have put it), and we hoped his keen observations would make us keener as well. By the end of the workshop, a hush would fall over the room every time he started to speak.

When I interviewed Hamer, he expressed that, as poets, we are “surrendering to the process of discovery through language” and that he hopes “by paying closer attention to what has been said we will be better able to say what has yet to be imagined.” But in his book Middle Ear, most of the poems start in the middle of quiet, loss. I question why he often mulls over what’s missing and he explained: “I’m half-deaf and the meanings of listening have been amplified by that fact of my constitution. It highlights the idea that there is more sound than one can hear—regardless of one’s capacity—and another that sound is both an exterior and interior matter.” He said, thinking about himself as a therapist and a reader, “I respond acutely to the tension between what is sounded and what is not, and I try to listen for presence and absence at once.”


Hamer and I turned to music briefly when I asked about the blues myths and mythos that appear throughout Middle Ear in poems like “Arrival” and “Crossroads.” He said he shunned the blues as a child, but living a bit more, growing up, gave him an acute understanding: “I could hear loss—of love, of hope, of security—in a way that let me hear the survival and the thriving implicit to the blues. So blues helped Middle Ear come into being with its repetitions, its worrying of lines, its holding of contradiction, its gut-uttering, and the meditation on what we do and do not bear to hear.”

With my daughter, and cousins, and girlfriends, I ruminated on this idea—this “survival and thriving implicit” to the creation of the thing— when Beyoncé released Lemonade. It’s not a blues album, it’s a hybrid of sorts; not pop, not straight-up soul. It’s an amalgamation of the embodied weight and wisdom of living: an accusation, a warning, a mingling of verse and reverb, what lies you’ve been told, and, despite this, what the body knows.


In [his collection] Rift, as in the poem “Common Betrayal,” change is a recurring theme often met with reluctance, so I asked Hamer about this and he said: “I’m surprised—though I really shouldn’t be—by how much transformation is a subject of my work. . . . That we are also in a constant state of change does seem to make urgent the matter of paying attention to what we can, if only for the sake of addressing the awe of what has already been.”

How do we capture children, milestones, admiration, the wide-open heart as they are? They are all fleeting and imperfect, most more wonderful (or unbearable) in theory, in the faint haze of distance growing wider over time.

Somewhere along the way, I realized [my daughter] Sonsoréa and I were both impressed with self-reinvention. How could we make ourselves over, even if the world around us was a swirling unknown haze? That was my world when my parents separated, when we traveled across the country to start another life. This was what Sonsoréa and her brother were asked to do, and in the wake of this, we all, in our own ways, looked for forces to help us reassess who and how we could be.


I gave in to my daughter’s request for an eponymous poem, but where would a poem like this begin? First, I thought much about what could have been the literal meaning of her name. (I tried to pin it down to one culture or root, but haven’t found anything near it yet.) I thought instead of how she embodied her name, what she’d made it mean for me and others around her.


If you are Black in this life, race informs everything. I frequently dream about being in paradise a few lifetimes from now where I’ll explain this to the newly living and how bizarre they’ll find it that all these generations, in every place we inhabited, had this obsession with skin/gender/color/ names. But why was it important? they’ll ask again and again. Those of us who lived through it will have to try to deconstruct history without making ourselves culpable or diminished.

While working on my daughter’s poem, I was also studying Forrest Hamer. In each of his books, Call & Response, Middle Ear, and Rift, much like in life, race is a change agent that enters and often consumes. In Hamer’s poem “Edge,” the speaker and the landscape, even the onlookers, are changed by experience, fragmented by time. The speaker’s mother, passed on into another life, recounts the painlessness to her daughter, then there is a flashback to bygone days: a homecoming parade. The Supremes are blaring and the speaker dreams it is the end and beginning of life as they know it. But an all-white cemetery looms across the street, so does the absence of people the speaker loved—his mother, the daughter, the eventual self—mean they weren’t there, the joy never all-encompassing and everywhere?

What edge is this? The edge of innocence, of a life just before it ends? The edge of a street, a cemetery, the changing times? Is it nearer the edge of a sharpened knife, or more like the corner of a dresser protruding, or maybe the edge of the world as some of us know it? Hamer leaps and shifts, through hindsight, as the speaker finds himself marked by what he cannot know or name. This mother, who was and is no longer but is still in rumination, the joy that was a passing parade covering over hopelessness, the dire times and those who couldn’t transcend them: all edges of what remains. Reading “Edge” underlined what a privilege it was to be a dark woman mother poet, in this day and space and time, to be able to sit with wonder and gaiety, then try to capture those moments as they are.


As much of Hamer’s work has the tinge of the spiritual, I asked him about his poems in Kevin Simmonds’s anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality and how reverence served as an impetus for his work. He said: “What I came to appreciate, and still do now, is how as humans we strive to articulate something of the awe we experience when we recognize the depth and breadth of existence over time.” He went on: “I think this address of that awe—and to it!—is inherent to the process of making, and I delight in how poetry offers me one of the most profound dwellings wherein to engage my awe of being alive as this one version of life I happen to be.”

Part of naming is amazement and articulation, recognizing the wonder and seriousness of ushering another in. Naming is a way to honor this life, this particular elation, as is addressing the minutia of our whole human, complex selves in poetry.


About the Author 

Remica Bingham-Risher is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian Poet. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Writer’s ChronicleNew LettersCallaloo, and Essence, among other journals. She is the author of 3 volumes of her own poetry: Conversion, winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award; What We Ask of Flesh, shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Award; and Starlight & Error, winner of the Diode Editions Book Award. She lives in Norfolk, VA with her husband and children. Follow her online at remicabinghamrisher.com, on Twitter (@remicawriter), and on Instagram (@remicawriter).