Samuel Amadon reads from The Hartford Book at Real Art Ways
By John Adamian
July 10, 2012
Author Event: Poet Samuel Amadon reading from The Hartford Book
with Timothy Donnelly, award-winning author of The Cloud Corporation, Wed., July 18, at Real Art Ways, Arbor St., Hartford, realartways.org
Hartford is a peculiar subject. Live or work here long enough and you'll meet people who talk all kinds of baseless shit about the city. Usually these are people who haven't set foot in Hartford in years, or ever. And they don't plan to, but their views on Hartford were formed in some time-warped fever dream. (It's true that by some metrics Hartford ranks among the top 15 most dangerous cities in America, but New Haven ranks even higher.) You'll also meet people who work here five days a week and don't ever get out to see a movie, eat at a restaurant, walk in a park, go shopping, catch a concert, go to a museum, attend a play or do any of the other things one does in the city. They drive to work and they drive home. You'll also meet people who live here who will simply not allow anything bad to be said about Hartford. God bless them, they love the place and they won't hear of anyone else criticizing it. Well, defenders of Hartford's honor, noble protectors of its name, plug your ears and avert your eyes when near poems from Samuel Amadon's new book, The Hartford Book. The book was published in March by Cleveland State University Poetry Center, and Amadon will be reading from the book and speaking with the award-winning poet Timothy Donnelly (author of The Cloud Corporation) at Real Art Ways in Hartford on Wednesday, July 18.
Hartford is a hellish vortex in these poems. ("Hartford works its way in/no matter what you learn.") It's filled with drunk fuck-ups, crackheads, meth smokers, violent lunatics and ghosts. The 32-year-old Amadon — who's from Hartford but now lives in South Carolina, and whose poems have appeared in Tin House, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The New Yorker and elsewhere — has written a book loaded with local landmarks and institutions. The grim shock of the poems quickly displaces the thrill of recognition. Bushnell Park, Asylum Avenue, the South Green, the North End, the Old State House, the Colt building and plenty more familiar names serve as signposts for these dark poems about self-destruction, aimlessness, loss, death and survival.
To transmute all this mind-altered muddle, the crippling addictions, the pervasive deadendedness of everything, and a kind of looming historical trauma into poetry requires a distillation process that burns hot and cooks off impurities. Or else one that takes the gunk and makes it momentarily beautiful. Amadon does both. "They're bent from the truth," says Amadon, who spoke by phone with the Advocate from his home in Columbia, S.C. That means the poems are mostly true, with a few names changed and situations made from composites.
He wrote these poems between 2004 and 2006, and they mostly refer to events from 2000 to 2004, before he headed off to grad school at Columbia.
Among poets, Hartford is famous for having been the home and workplace of Wallace Stevens, who walked to work at an insurance company and composed modern poetry, heavy on philosophy and art, in his head. Stevens isn't mentioned in Amadon's book. "I don't know why I left him out," says Amadon. "He's a pretty important poet to me. Maybe I was kind of saving him."
But Mark Twain is mentioned, and so is Horace Wells, who "discovered" anesthesia and who has a statue in his honor in Bushnell Park. "... I didn't/think anyone in Hartford/had ever discovered anything except/for guns & drugs …," writes Amadon in "Wells."
Characters and events — a drug-buddy friend who may or may not have a fatal illness, a premature birth, the funeral of a friend — cycle through these comma-less free-verse poems. History hovers in the background. There are sketchy drug deals, stabbings and drunken groping, and Amadon even ties the Hartford circus fire ("actually/the first thing after/insurance Hartford is famous for") and the loss of the Whalers — one drug dealer claims he could have played for the team if they hadn't left town — into the sprawling matrix of decline and tragedy. There are the corpses of dead crackheads. There's a transvestite codeine dealer named Joy and an injured millionaire hockey player (a "bi-polar Canadian") who likes to expose himself in clubs, break windows and punch himself in the face.
This event at Real Art Ways is Amadon's first real reading in Hartford. And I asked him if he was worried about possibly hurting or pissing off or maybe even infuriating some of the people he wrote about, some of whom come off as, well, criminally insane.
"There's people that I'm hoping don't hear about my reading. There are still people who would take offense at it," says Amadon. "When I was working on it, I was nervous about things like that. I was nervous about writing about things that were true."
To his credit, in the poems Amadon doesn't present himself as somehow above any of it, or innocent. "A good thing about the book is that I'm implicated."
Upon finishing the book, a reader is likely to wonder how Amadon survived the psychotic amounts of drinking, blacking out, puking and all the stupid behavior that comes with it. The book doesn't have the self-congratulatory tone or the whiff of watered-down inspirational wisdom that comes with recovery literature. And, it turns out, Amadon isn't a recovering alcoholic or addict.
"I guess I've had periods where I've struggled with alcohol," says Amadon, an admission that doesn't come as much of a surprise once you've read his book. "I had some bad influences when I was younger — I just got sucked into it."
It might be ironic, or just infernal foreshadowing, but, as Amadon mentions in his book, as a teenager he once wrote an opinion piece for The Hartford Courant that was basically in support of underage drinking.
And it's not like he doesn't touch the stuff anymore.
"I drink like a fairly normal person," he says.
He says that since starting grad school, getting teaching gigs, working on his books and winning poetry awards, he hasn't had as much time to indulge in his youthful levels of decadence. He laughs and agrees that he's been "too busy to be a fuck-up."
This is how Amadon concludes "Asylum Avenue," the second poem in the book:
we never own up to much more than
being from Hartford
which is something no one from
Hartford would ever deny because
though we're all fucked
we've all been fucked before & for
so long that unlike the rest of you
we'd have to be crazy not
to know by now what to expect next.
Amadon's parents still live in West Hartford, just a few blocks over the city line. Amadon moved to Hartford proper after returning from school. He says he wrote these poems because he found himself talking about Hartford so much once he left — in Boston at college, and in New York for grad school. "I was always talking about Hartford because I loved it," he says. Even in places so close to Hartford, people didn't quite get it.
"I guess I was trying to explain what it's like, because people have a very different idea about what Connecticut is like," says Amadon. I mention a detail from one of the poems, a line that seemed almost too cinematic in its awful mundane hard-heartedness. In it, old people evacuate a burning nursing home, shuffling into the street to avoid the smoke, and the impatient drivers in the road honk at the evacuees. Amadon confirms that he witnessed it. But he's not judging anybody, even the jerks in traffic.
"This is a book that I wrote about loving Hartford," he says. "I love the assholes."