“Why?”: A Video Poem for Side A by Justin Hamm


There’s a boy who beats an invisible drum and a boy who loves nothing more than to stand in the weeds and to run his fingers over the rough wood of the neighbor’s barn and a boy who hides from his chores and a boy who wants to parlay with his own confusion and that boy stands here in those weeds now with his eyes closed, and the barnwood is splintery, the sun on his face, and there’s something here to be known and felt, it lives inside the wood, a story maybe, or a special secret, and no, he isn’t going to catch any fish, and no, he isn’t going to learn to use the guns his cousins caress like pretty girls, remember how they laughed when he was almost crushed by the delivery truck, he only wanted to help the turtle, why did it bite? 

And why is blood red anyway? 

And why does it burn sometimes in the chest or the stomach to think about certain people? 

And why do pigs roll around in their own muck, and the old woman, his grandmother, why does she prefer him to all the rest, make him sit near her and hold her cracked and crooked hands and listen to her cough through those moldy old songs by the fire, her quilts she calls them, says they’re sewn together with hope and broken notes? 

What is the barnwood trying to tell us? That trees don’t bleed? The pigs do, when you stick them. The clouds bleed, sort of, if you think of rain that way. Jesus bled. He sure did! And they say he’s coming back, too, but why after all that was done to him, and why would the pigs even want to be born, when you think of it, if we’re only going to stick them? 

And why would people even want to be born if all that happens is it burns this way to think about them, everyone on fire inside as they think about each other, their guns and their fried fish, their better and worse clothes, and how they swing laughter down like hammers, and how clowns dress up with their paint-on smiles as if naked frowns aren’t allowed, why can’t you just frown if it’s a world that makes you frown, or scowl, or cry, and why can’t you just stop here, if you want, and feel the rough wood of a barn, and listen to the insects, and count your breaths in your own head, which is just like praying if you think about it, without somebody saying okay, Weirdo, it’s time to move along or yelling at you or asking you to just come inside for a minute, don’t be afraid it’s just for a minute, when inside is someplace you know you really shouldn’t go?

Mini-interview with Justin Hamm

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

JH: Discovering poetry in translation, and especially Federico Garcia Lorca. It was like discovering poetry itself all over again and reminded me there’s always something else amazing to be encountered. It has kept me on my reading quest, and of course all writing comes out of reading. 

HFR: What are you reading?

JH: Right now I’m reading a couple of art books about El Greco and Goya and Pillars of the Earth. We just returned from Spain where we saw incredible art and cathedrals and so I’m still living in that world through words. While in Spain I read Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Dead Are Everywhere Telling Us Things. Excellent, excellent poetry. 

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Why?”?

JH: I had been thinking about the way I used to do these kind of strange things as a kid. I’d sit on a porch and stare at one blade of grass or run my fingers over a railroad tie for forty-five minutes. It was kind of like meditating. Now I see it was probably a self-created method for controlling anxiety. Anyway, it started with that memory, then moved into the realm of improvisation. The rest of the piece is there because it was always supposed to be there, as far as I can tell. 

HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?

JH: I’m collaborating on songs with my friend Greg Dember for will hopefully become his next album. I’m also writing new poems and prose poems now and then. But my main focus is touring my latest book Drinking Guinness With the Dead. 

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

JH: There is just too much on the political side. But as an educator I do want to say that people need to pay attention to what is happening to our public education system. It’s being torn down right now, and that may be a bigger problem than any other we face. 

Justin Hamm’s latest book is Drinking Guinness With the Dead: Poems 2007-2021. He is the founding editor of the museum of americana, a 2022 Woody Guthrie Poet, and a former recipient of the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. Justin’s written and visual work has appeared in Nimrod, Southern Indiana Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Sugar House Review, River Styx, New Poetry from the Midwest, and a host of other publications. In 2019 Justin’s poem “Goodbye, Sancho Panza” was studied by approximately 50,000 students worldwide as part of the World Scholar’s Cup curriculum. Afterward he was flown to the global round in Manila, Philippines, to deliver the event’s keynote address. 

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