Bay Area Lit Scene: Laura Walker and Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel at University Press Books

Review by Gail Aronson, Omnidawn features writer

Who: Laura Walker and Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel
What: Poetry Reading
When: September 12, 2012
Where: University Press Books: 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Check out upcoming events on their website:

Poems from each reader follow the review.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a reading at University Press Books featuring poets Laura Walker and Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel. Hosted by Peter Burghardt, UPB’s Events Coordinator, the reading was held in a backroom, where the poets stood behind a regal wooden table and the attentive audience sat closely around it creating an intimate space. I showed up early and there were already some familiar faces and light friendly chatter. This warm atmosphere complemented the readers well and left me with a thorough and affective sense of their work.

First, Hamel began by reading sections from a longer piece entitled “occident.” Appropriately named, the work functions as a sort of rumination between incident and accident – place and experience. I was struck by phrases where the speaker pulls back, ripe with gestures such as: how much I can’t say perfectly, I keep writing the same sentence over and over again, that was a place too and not a place, and also an insistence that, I am not just listing things. And she certainly isn’t.

Her delivery was poised: she spoke levelly as she lucidly expressed an elusive range of exterior place and interior utterance. The work centered on a personal narration in which pronouns remained nameless: the I, you, he, and she seemed to become universal and almost interchangeable, constructing a broader trajectory of the ways we inhabit literal place as well as places within, and places with each other. Though the narration was decidedly disorienting, Hamel included thematic touchpoints – altitudes, water, windows, cities, music, colors, and breath. The way many of these images were pieced together had an associative quality reminiscent of Bay Area language poets, surprisingly linking senses with lines such as, “when I touch a different color you are always green…you beyond blue hands…red and orange always her.” Ultimately, occident speaks to the whole notion of story, of telling and retelling, placement and displacement, making for an honest and deeply enjoyable piece.

Laura Walker read second from her new book, Follow-Haswed, out on Apogee Press. Walker announced she would be reading only from Follow-Haswed because it is new and she is excited about it. Her reading proved she truly has something to be excited about. Walker’s use of lines verbatim from the entries Follow-Haswed in the F-H edition of the OED, created gorgeously minimal poems she describes to the audience as “completely collaged.” Each poem’s title is an entry word, sometimes the same one used again. Line breaks, she explained, symbolize a break in the text: insuring the exact lines she draws from remain intact. Walker is no stranger to borrowed text – she has a keen sensibility for drawing upon recorded language to stir up something magically, wholly hers. Bird Book (2011) is written in combination with a field guide to North American birds, Swarm Lure (2004) with quotations from Joyce’s Ulysses, texts from online translation machines, and terms of English and Italian beekeepers. Now, she uses found language to once again construct something all her own, speaking leaps and bounds to our connectivity: how we speak, record, and live our lives together – and that perhaps the things we care about most can’t help but appear and reappear again and again – if you look carefully enough. And I believe that she has.

In her introduction, Walker said, “As I was reading I became fascinated with these themes that seemed to be popping up across entry words…” “how words like ‘freckle’ and ‘gentle’ seemed to be speaking to each other.” She went on to say that the themes present in these entries had already come up in her own work: girlhood, soldiers, water, and war, among others. She spoke of her interest in what a single word might carry, and the lovely idea of the “word as a whole world.” She also dispersed a photocopy handout of gentleness as an example entry.

Walker decided to “try something new” by reading her poems in order: a “radical idea.” I enjoyed this radical, albeit simple approach, and found myself listening and absorbing Walker’s words more than jotting them down. Although formally unlike Hamel’s work, the authors relate to each other in their sense of revision. Both create layered map-like structures of time and place where a magic in the language takes over and unfurls into something greater. Hamel crosses things out and repeats, dense with reoccurring differently angled images. Walker uses blank space, cherishing each word as a whole world. She returns to themes that she already found that way – that can’t help but reoccur and breathes them new life. Angle after angle there is something new and beautiful to be found.

Before this night I had yet to attend an event here, despite often passing the convenient location amidst the bustle of Berkeley campus life. But, from now on, I will be unable to resist stopping in to browse their collection of university press titles, in addition to keeping an eye on their events calendar for more wonderful readings.


Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel

from occident

( )

a potted plant flies up and comes back down, behind the street
where you made your target
and that’s as far as this relationship is going to get, where your needs are filled
in teasing and linguistic failures. it’s a miserably long process.
now cutting costs and corners, it’s easier on yourself, pushing upward
when it was not a target as it was. further a means of entertainment.
throwing pots. I don’t anyone is foremost on the mind.

blacked out and you know
they won’t come anymore. they move off and never get your letters. she
kept them in a box and crumbled.

anyone this is how you show affection
‘I don’t’ remains: there’s potential abroad as here there is something wrong with us
and for all improper looks and purposes they may be right. I’ve too much thought
to object.

constricted and on foot, without the safety of windows
in percussive shortness of breath and minimal eye contact, unsuspicious
we both know what happened, or ‘I don’t,’ theoretically,
to talk about this anymore. I prefer to dance with strangers.
measure your vocal range with tape.

please stop. she doesn’t know what she’s saying.
she holds all this, assumptions spilling,
and she has no idea. just stop, please.

you never came here like you might have.
I peel it with all parts of my hands.

it’s performance, of a kind.
eventually she’ll see him come in
and this taken out of context, brought to assumption
your peculiar script I don’t
I’ll wait here quietly, to do something with my hands.
it won’t stop spinning.

Laura Walker



throttle you
to his knees

what has been swallowed

intended to be swallowed

the human face [is]
sulphur smoke

from the drawing broken

necessary to carry

we came to where it lay