BLOOMINGTON — Most Midwesterners, like Justin Hamm, can say they once had childhood dreams of leaving their hometowns for somewhere “things are really happening.”
Now 42, Hamm is speaking about how he changed his perspective on life in the Midwest through the power of poetry and lens of a camera. The 1998 graduate of Normal West Community High School was featured in a TEDxOshkosh talk published Wednesday on YouTube, titled, “The American Midwest: A Story in Poems & Photographs.”
Hamm, who mainly grew up in Bloomington, theorized before listeners in November 2022 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that “there really is no such place as nowhere.
Everywhere is somewhere, and everywhere has a story to (it) we can uncover if you learn to use the poet’s or the photographer’s eye.”
Pushing back against negative stereotypes about the region, like the “flyover country” label, he said the Midwest has kept him artistically busy and interested. Some of the prose recited by Hamm told of the beauty of a rust, “the mysteries of barn wood” and forgetting his jockstrap for a double-header baseball game.
The former catcher for the Normal Wildcats chanted verses of “Until Death Do Us Part,” as photo slides showing the exterior of Keller’s Iron Skillet & Catering in Bloomington were displayed. He drew parallels in his poem “Rust — Or Perhaps Fine Art” between decay and impressionist painting.
In a Friday interview with The Pantagraph, he said he tries to take photographs that would make good poems: “Quiet little scenes that illustrate something about the region.”
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“Experience another life.”
Hamm explained the title of his latest poetry book, “Drinking Guinness with the Dead.” Drawing from three other previously released books, it was released in March 2022 by Spartan Press, and contains material dated between 2007 and 2021. Hamm said it also has a “book’s worth” of new poems to go with it.
He said one meaning of the title refers to having a few beverages before revising older material. It was weird reading back in time, and he didn’t seem to care or relate to it at first. But Hamm said he didn’t want that to be the case.
He said going back also made him realize he wasn’t doing enough to publicize that work.
Reflecting on his piece titled “A real team effort,” he said he hoped to capture awfully embarrassing moments of adolescence and bring them to life. Hamm said many have told him they can relate.
“They get to experience another life for a while,” he said.
That teleportation also extends to his photography work. Showing stills of rusted-out cars, he said countless people have told them that model was the first they owned.
At another poetry reading and photography showing, Hamm said two farmers lectured him about why a particular style of corn crib was built in Central Illinois but not in South Dakota, because of the immigrants who settled in those regions.
See with different eyes
Hamm said he never left the Midwest. He said he got married and went to school in the region, and moved to Mexico, Missouri, where he currently works as a librarian for Eugene Fields Elementary School. He’s a husband to his wife Mel Hamm, and father to two daughters: Abbey, 13, and 9-year-old Sophie Hamm.
He attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville to play baseball, also where he met his wife, and said he got more involved in the English department after hurting his arm. Hamm also explored fiction writing, but said he knew he “was always a poet at heart.”
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Coming back to poetry over time, he said he found success. He did his masters of fine arts degree at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and followed another Bloomington native who was coaching wrestling in Mexico, Missouri.
Knowing his best friend “Martin” would be there and his wife liked the school district, he said it was a good landing destination. Hamm said they haven’t found any reason to relocate since they moved there in 2005.
Hamm also edited his startup literary magazine, Museum of Americana, for 10 years. Then in 2019, his poem “Goodbye, Sancho Panza“ was studied by 50,000 students worldwide through the World Scholar’s Cup curriculum.
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Around 2009, Hamm said his mother died and he had his first child. That’s when he said he realized his roots are in the Midwest, and leaving was not a certainty. Hamm said he thought he’d better start trying to see things with different eyes.
“Everything that happens in this region is a microcosm of the biggest conflicts and struggles, and also the most beautiful things in the world,” he said.
He said these experiences teach us lessons in human psychology, social interactions and the dichotomy of rural versus urban. There are many different perspectives to view through stories and images, he said, like immigrant experiences and sights of beautiful landscapes.
“When I started to stop and pay attention, I realized how deep that history really is,” said Hamm.
To keep up with Hamm, and read or purchase his work, go to justinhamm.net.
Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison