Thursday, December 10, 2009
Born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, Sean Hill has an M.F.A. from the University of Houston, where he was awarded the 2003 Michener Fellowship for poetry. He has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bush Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the University of Wisconsin, and Stanford University, work-study scholarships to Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and a Travel and Study Grant from the Jerome Foundation. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Callaloo, Ploughshares, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, The Oxford American, Tin House and other literary journals, and in the anthologies Blues Poems, Gathering Ground, The Ringing Ear, and the forthcoming Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. In 2008 the University of Georgia Press published his first book, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. For more information, please visit Hill's website.
That was the year
Granddaddy Thomas died
Left the family worse than broke
Uncle John stole a ham
from Mr. Ennis’s Meat Market
He was seventeen
Lost his taste for it
Ham salt cured and earth-red
sliced with the fat hanging on
yellow sunshine on a white plate
The hambone cut crosswise
a dark eye
All in the skillet
making gravy for grits
Lost the taste for all things salt
The ocean he hasn’t seen
Woman and man
He don’t never want to see
no more ham on his plate
Was hard for him
Hates white folks too
Time off for good behavior
They didn’t hold him to the last six
He’s a hog farmer
only eats beef and chicken and turkey
fish turtle and rabbit
squirrel possum and coon
and he seasons his greens with smoked oxtails
Can’t raise white folks for slaughter.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The idea of this poem, the trigger, was a newspaper article I came across while doing research for Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. I read 19th and early 20th century issues of Milledgeville’s newspaper, the Union Recorder, to get a sense of how people lived in my hometown back then—to get a sense of the texture of the times. This particular article was published sometime in 1904, I think. This was during the era of leased convict labor when the state could lease convicts to privately owned businesses. This system offered a source of revenue for the state and cheap labor for businesses. Very often Black men were arrested and convicted on trumped up charges. The article related the story of a recently released convict who’d been sentenced to work for twenty years in, I believe, a coal mine for stealing a ham. The happy ending spin the article put on this situation was that the man was now free to pursue his dream of starting up a farm. I think I read the article sometime in late 1999 or early 2000. I couldn’t shake this story. The nagging question of “and then what?” needed answering, so I wrote my way to an answer. I wrote the first drafts of it at the Cave Canem workshop and retreat in June 2000.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I think because the story was with me for a while before I actually tried to write anything on paper, it went through very few drafts over a few months. I checked my computer files, and I seem to have saved only two drafts before the final. I’m sure there were a few more that were printed out but not saved on the computer.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration; it’s what stops me, pulls me out of the everyday. Those moments of attentiveness are often something coming to me and saying, “pay attention.” A great part of “Uncle John” was “received,” but, as I said, only after I’d sat with the material for a while. The lines “Lost his taste for all things salt / the ocean he hasn’t seen / woman and man” definitely felt “received” from a place farther out than the rest of the poem. Those lines, especially “the ocean he hasn’t seen,” surprised me more than the rest of the poem, which surprised me too. I think I put myself in a place to “receive” this poem. Then I cried and sweated.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
In looking back at the drafts I have, it seems I tried to write it in tercets, but that didn’t work out. The poem, the voice, resisted that, and I listened.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
A few months.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don’t have any hard and fast rules for lengths of time to let poems “sit” before sending them out. It’s intuitive—dependent upon how I’m feeling about the poem.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The facts of the poem are what I gathered from the newspaper article: a Black man was sentenced to twenty years hard labor for stealing a ham, and he was made to serve sixteen of those twenty years, and, allegedly, he was going to start a farm after his release. Those facts along with the facts I gleaned from history books and growing up Black in Milledgeville in the last quarter of the twentieth century and hearing older generations of Black people speak about their lives and, as an adult, asking them questions and listening to their answers are the facts of this poem. The brief rhapsodic ham reverie came from fond childhood memories of having country cured ham for breakfast at my grandmother’s house and from the fact that by the time I was writing those lines I hadn’t eaten pork for close to ten years. My empathic imagining of the voice of the relative of Uncle John who understands what John has lived through and lives with filled in the rest.
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s narrative in that it relates a sequence of events. It has, I think, the structure and, possibly, punch of a joke. And if the reader is laughing, I think he or she is laughing to keep from crying.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I’m not really sure what I was reading around this time, but it’s probably safe to say I was reading Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Sterling Brown, Seamus Heaney, and Kevin Young.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
No and yes. I think the consideration of audience, for me, comes in during the revision process when I’m thinking of the best order for the words. I start thinking more consciously about how the words can mean to someone encountering them for the first time, a reader.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes. As I said, I wrote the first drafts at Cave Canem and turned in a version to workshop there. And in fall semester of 2000 I turned in a draft to Robert Phillips’s workshop at the University of Houston. A question about something that I saw as obvious or irrelevant or both was raised by Professor Phillips, I believe; the question was, why did he steal the ham? I guess that’s where audience comes in.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Well, I think it employs humor in a way that most of my other poems haven’t.
What is American about this poem?
Among other things, the story and the story behind the story are what is American about this poem. The spin the newspaper article put on it sounds like a twist on the rags-to-riches story. And the particular series of events the poem relates form a very American story. And I think the language of the poem is American. And the humor in the poem that is born of the situation is a very American kind of humor.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I think it was finished.