Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Expat Author Interview with Matthew Hamilton


Matthew Hamilton and Mt. Aragats
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Matthew Hamilton, a poetry reader for the online magazines Mason’s Road and Drunken Boat, was a US Peace Corps Volunteer for four years, in Armenia (2006-2008) and the Philippines (2008-2010). Currently, Hamilton is the Librarian for Benedictine College Preparatory, an all-male, Catholic and military school. He’s also working on an MFA at Fairfield University, CT.

Hamilton's The Land of the Four Rivers is now available from Cervena Barva Press!


IMBO: Hi, Matthew. Welcome to I Must Be Off! First, let me say that’s it’s been a pleasure learning more about your life and your writing. How has your writing changed over the years?

Hamilton: I used to write poetry exclusively. Now that I am working on an MFA, I have written short stories and creative non-fiction. Currently I am working on a screenplay about the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

IMBO: You were a Benedictine monk for four years. I assume you wrote during that time, right? How did solitude affect the way you wrote?
Hamilton: Yes, I wrote a lot during those four years, mostly poetry. Umm… the third part of this is tricky, but I’ll do my best and explain it as simply as possible.

Solitude allowed me to study and write with limited distractions. This, of course, was not the reason why I became a monk, (I became one in order to seek God) but the monastic life provided me with the structure I needed to become a better writer, and within that structure, I was given valuable time to be alone. I wrote persona poems, so being able to spend a few hours a day in solitude and study a particular person without any distractions was very helpful.

IMBO: What’s a typical day like for a Benedictine monk?

Hamilton: Benedictines are educators, so many teach at a college or high school. However, a monk’s obligation to attend Mass and the Divine Office are top priority. At Belmont Abbey, NC, monks prayed together three times a day, at 7:00am, 11:45am, and 7:00pm. Mass was said every day at 5:00pm, so they organized their teaching obligations around monastic duties.

I was a monk in formation, so when not in the church, I spent my days performing manual labor, such as painting a guest room or refinishing furniture, and studying.    
Planting Rice -- Gonzaga, Philippines

IMBO:
What's the daily schedule in the Peace Corp like? Tell us about when and where you had the chance to write while you were in the Philippines and Armenia. What was your inspiration to write there?

Hamilton: After a three-month training course in country, each volunteer is sent to their permanent site, where they will remain for 2 years. For the first three months, they live with a host family. If other housing is available, volunteers have the option of moving into their own place after three months.

Although volunteers are assigned specific jobs in education, heath, or solid waste management, most of them generally work in all three in some capacity. In both Armenia and the Philippines, I was an English teacher. However, I also assisted in farming potatoes and rice, and taught classes on environmental protection.

School of Getk, Armenia -- Hamilton and 10th grade boys
For me, living in Armenia was much more of a challenge than living in the Philippines. Armenian summers were nice, but winters were brutal. With no heat in the classroom, teachers and students had to bundle up. I wore three layers of clothes and still froze. It was a little better at home. At least we had a wood-burning stove. However, the heat was only contained in the family room. It was so cold in the other rooms, that we unplugged our refrigerator and used our bedrooms to store some of our food. Secondly, although we had an indoor bathroom, we couldn’t use it in the winter, due to the frozen pipes. And man, going out to an outhouse when its –4°F is not fun. And finally, unable to extract water from the sinks in the house, my host dad and I walked to the river every other day to fill up two large barrels, one for drinking water, and the other for hygienic reasons. But living in a cold environment does have its advantages. It’s difficult for parasites and bacteria to live, which brings me now to my life in the Philippines.

Killing goat during town fiesta. Batangas, Philippines
Living in the Philippines was a great experience. For one thing, and although I loved my host family dearly, I was able to rent my own place. Two, it was a 15-minute walk to the beach, and since most Filipinos didn’t like becoming darker than they already were, I usually had the whole beach to myself. But bacteria and parasites flourished. Although I was lucky enough not to contract malaria or dengue, I think I made up for it. In two years living there, I ingested three amoebas, contracted pink eye, an ear infection, and the grand finale, blood poisoning.

IMBO: Goodness. I’m striking the Philippines from my bucket list right now. But it’s not always the easiest of times or places that inspire us. What did your experience in the Philippines teach you?

Hamilton: I can sum this up easily: I’d rather be poor and happy rather than rich and miserable.

IMBO: I hear you. Have you ever had times when you didn’t write?

Teaching class -- Batangas, Philippines
Hamilton: I didn’t write much during my first year in the Philippines. I met my wife there, a Filipina, and I spent most of my free time with her. During my second year, though, I began researching MFA programs. In addition, I explored writer’s websites. The talented writer Marcus Spech invited me to join Fictionaut, and I was off to the races. I began writing like mad and was lucky enough to be published in a couple online magazines. Close to the end of my tour, I received an acceptance letter from Fairfield University, where I have since met a menagerie of talented teachers and writers: Michael White, Bill Patrick, Da Chen, Baron Wormser, and Ravi Shankar, just to name a few.

IMBO: As we wrap this up, would you care to share a story or a poem you’ve published recently?

Hamilton: My most recent one: “Psych Interview with a Rape Victim” published in Atticus Review.

IMBO: And a story or poem by another expat/repat?

Hamilton: Tim Harnett. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and now living in Korea. He is the author of Trompe L'oeil" (Painted Carpet Press, 2007), a funny picture of what college life was like during the 1990s pop culture. Anyone of the Kurt Cobain generation or college students during that time will enjoy this book immensely. His book "Rêve" came out in 2010 also from Painted Carpet Press. In addition, he is the co-author of the webcomic "Chefs in Black" with Cliff N. Hansen.

IMBO: Thanks for stopping by and chatting with us, Matthew!
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Hamilton's chapbook The Land of the Four Rivers is out now from Cervena Barva Press. 
I must be off,
Christopher  


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Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.