FACETIME- Writing life: Kendra Hamilton renews her poetic license

Kendra Hamilton

Kendra Hamilton is an award-winning poet and journalist, but in Charlottesville she's better known as Madam Vice Mayor.

"In a way, Charlottesville is divorced from the rest of my life before," says Hamilton, 48. "I was always known as a writer. If you enter Charlottesville as a grad student, your entire previous history is erased." 

And who knew that the city councilor has written sensuous poems like "In My Mother's Garden, I Remember Your Touch"? Or that she's been published in literary journals like Callaloo and Shenandoah?

Hamilton has plans to reclaim her identity as a writer and focus on poetry rather than politics. She's not seeking a second term on council and has quit her job as editor of Black Issues in Higher Education to spend the summer finishing her dissertation on Gullah, the language and culture of low country South Carolina, from whence she hails. Last fall, she published a collection of spicy poetry called The Goddess of Gumbo. 

"The poems go back to a period of my life when I was younger, surrounded by all these women in the meat market that is Houston," she says. Her own marriage had broken up, and she was learning to be single again while working for the Houston Chronicle.

Hamilton's research into her family history– her great-great-great-grandmother was a slave who was kept as a concubine– led to another thread in her poetry: "I explore sex and violence in the past and in my friends and in my own life," she explains.

One achievement for Hamilton in the Goddess of Gumbo is her crown of sonnets– seven interlocking poems in which the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next. When she finished "Ariadne auf Naxos, Alabama," she says, "I knew I had a manuscript." 

 "Her poems are effective in taking an everyday scene, opening it up, and delving into it," says Word Press senior editor Kevin Walzer. 

A family history of public service influenced her decision to run for City Council. "I love it, I learned from it, but I don't want to do this the rest of my life," she says. 

And she has a suggestion for encouraging participation: increase the salaries. "People complain about raising salaries, but it takes about 30 hours a week. That works out to $6.40 an hour, or with the raise, $8.90 an hour– still below the living wage. If you want people from different walks of life, you really need to think about compensation."

She doesn't rule out another stint in public office, but for now, she taking back her writing life.