A 1701-word memoir from a world champion, hungry wolf and Wellington poet
It’s a quiet Tuesday night in Timaru. The Caroline Bay skatepark is quiet except for a teenage couple driving past in a Subaru WRX, the odd smell of the wharf dominating Herald of Timaru the headlines throughout 2019 have died down, and across the city nothing is moving. Nothing except the big table in Little India, where the Curry Club – being my father, Grant Peter Hamel, and his middle-aged friends finding a reason to get away from their families and indulge in wholesome male bonding – has his monthly meeting over tikka masala and liters of Kingfisher.
The Curry Club has a committee, minutes, rules and regulations, silly hats inspired by the Flintstones for some reason, a sponsored race, and a barbecue on the annual Timaru Harness Racing Club day. And in addition to being known throughout the city for the remarkable uniform and the parties at the racetrack, the Curry Club is known for its generosity. Every time someone’s child has been chosen to compete in a youth athletics competition in Adelaide, to play netball for Canterbury or to row for the New Zealand under-18 coxless four in Romania, you better believe the Curry Club is there to throw some financial support behind the cause.
But this particular meeting – the one held on a quiet Tuesday evening in Timaru – is different. Despite having played rugby and cricket throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was an incredibly mediocre athlete, a real fighter, as enthusiastic as I was disorderly. My dad has known this for a long time and I’m sure he used it as leverage when he stood up to give an impassioned speech about how the World Poetry Slam Championships are as much a sporting event as any. any rugby match or athletics encounter and that his son (me: New Zealand Poetry Slam champion Jordan Hamel) deserves the generosity of the famous Curry Club just as much, a speech so passionate and thoughtful that it thawed the very heart of the most hardy traditionalist among them.
At least that’s how I imagine it happened anyway.
I felt disgusted by my teenage urge to write poetry. It wasn’t the masculinity I had grown up with in Timaru. It wasn’t Richie McCaw or Chris Cairns, or even my house my castleIt’s Cocksy. Poetry is the stuff that got Kyle kicked out of Year 10 English after he asked Ms Cantwell why war poets spent their time writing “gay songs instead of killing people?” No. In my head, there was no reasonable path to acceptance. I kept silent, I didn’t tell anyone. Insults and interrogations were thrown around in school common rooms and barn parties enough as it was, I didn’t need to invite more of that.
I left Timaru for the University of Otago, trading chilly Saturdays on makeshift rugby pitches in agricultural paddocks for beer bongs and steaming canapes. I gained new friends and new pounds, I discovered dubstep and party pills, I learned how much fun it was to dip your toes in any conceivable vice or whim outside of the supervision and constraints of my former community. Any but one.
Despite my new breath of life and all the distractions, the writing didn’t stop. I read every dusty old poetry book I could find in the college library or a second-hand bookstore. I snuck in to David Eggleton readings in the English department or a half-empty pub and wished I hadn’t been too afraid to say hello afterwards. I slowly started replacing my pillars of masculinity with Baxter and Bukowski and other canceled writers.
I was always afraid that people would find out about my secret life. I wrote terrible poems under the worst pseudonym in the world, Tim. A. Roux, published in Otago’s best and only student publication, Critical. Poems with appalling names like “Our Lady of Virtue,” “Afternoon of Suspended Possibility,” and “City of Literature…and Gentrification” (Jesus Christ, Jordan). Poems that I have since worked hard to erase from existence.
I moved to Wellington and things felt a little different. I’ve talked to college friends about my double life as a poet and they’ve been supportive saying things like “that’s cool man”, “didn’t know you were a writer, awesome” and “I don’t never had poetry huh, what do I do with it? I even got the nerve to do a drunken impromptu reading of a Tim A. Roux special while dressed as Colin Craig at a 2014 General Election themed boring party. I was finally becoming me -same. Much like Colin Craig in the 2014 general election, I was learning to trust the people in my life, to take risks, and to say yes.
The first time I did a real reading was at a music festival in a forest with Hera Lindsay Bird. I vomited from nerves before. Other than the vomit, it went really well. People seemed to like it, even if they were surprised it was me up there. I was really surprised that it was me up there. It was like the start of something different.
The fear was always there of course, it always will be. But now he had to deal with a growing urge to be seen and heard, to hunt the first post-reading rush like the Wile E. Coyote of New Zealand poetry. So, like any out-of-town, non-IIML, temperamental poet, I stumbled upon the spoken word scene. Met with open arms and open microphones, I found a place as favorable as chaotic. A place that had no middle ground, just ups and downs, moments of pure intoxication scattered between poets and poems, both electrifying and atrocious.
Not only did it give me space to experiment, but it gave me something I never thought I would have, a national title. At the end of summer 2018, 10 months after this reading in the forest, I became the New Zealand champion of slam poetry. I had a big wooden trophy to sleep with, enough money to fill two gas tanks at 2018 prices, and the ability to fly all the way to the United States to compete against the best in the world. I was an international athlete! Just like Richie McCaw or Barbara Kendall.
Inside every writer are two wolves and they’re both awful. One of them craves attention and validation, chasing any scent he picks up that might lead to it. The other is out of sight, reading, hiding. Writing and speaking gave me the smallest notoriety with a hard ceiling. It’s a level I’m uncomfortable with being too much and too little at the same time. I let these two wolves fight over the meat of the day, then it all starts again.
I think we are all wired to seek affirmation in one form or another. Sometimes writers tell me that they write strictly for themselves and would be happy if no one else wrote or responded to their work. I nod politely as the wolf diva is in my ear whispering “this person is either a liar or a sociopath, there is no validation outside of the outside, shoot her down now and rob her followers .” While wolf number two sleeps, he dreams of a remote cabin on Stewart Island.
I’ve seen people turn around for attention, slams, awards, posts, anything, everything. Ultimately, given the limited space and attention that exists for what we do, combined with Twitter and Instagram, our primary means of communicating our work and having any kind of discourse, being specifically designed to amplify our worst impulses and insecurities, it’s easy to see how he can chew up a person so quickly.
Maybe I need a few years in the Siberian desert away from the internet. Maybe I need to savor being known among a small community of literary types and Twitter-addicted sycophants. A well-dressed man with two villas in Karori recently asked my friend and I at a fancy art event we stumbled upon if we live off our poetry. We laughed so much we almost choked on the complimentary arancini balls.
Writing my first collection of poems Everyone is Everyone But You felt like the right vehicle for me to accept all that mess, desire, fear, all the other raw fluids that come out in the process. It didn’t lead to any life-changing revelations, but I think it documents the insecurities and all the contradictions that linger inside me. A collection of feelings and experiences that are both completely real and completely made up. An attempt to use poetry to reject masculinity and claim it. A record of my constant craving for attention and invisibility. A trip to a party and feeling like the best and worst person in the room, hero and villain, and realizing you’re probably neither. A reflection of what it feels like to be sometimes deeply depressed and sometimes incredibly excited about living.
The last time I cried during a reading was because there are things in my poems that I never said out loud and it’s no one else’s fault than mine. Because no one ever cares about things as much as you think. The people in your life are usually happy that you’re happy, and then they start worrying about their own business again. Turns out I never had to hide who I really was from anyone, but I did anyway.
A wise poet and spoken word legend once said to me after reading, “I hate my first book, I should have waited. Don’t be like me, wait.” So I did. I turned my manuscript upside down, upside down, upside down, over and over, until the book I wanted to write finally came out.
I know that’s an extremely un-New Zealand thing to say, but I think my book is pretty good. It has to, or that weird little boy sitting at the back of Mrs. Cantwell’s English class holding an old copy of a collection of Hone Tuwhare, dreaming of writing his own one day, would never forgive me. He made it this far after all.
Everyone is everyone but you by Jordan Hamel (Dead Bird Books, $30) launches in Wellington at Unity Books tomorrow night, May 18, and in Auckland at Beresford St’s Soap Dancehall, Thursday night, May 19. The book is available in bookstores across the country, including the author’s hometown, Timaru.
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: A Murder in Ingelwood, as a new memoir by ex-journo Jim Tucker recalls.