1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
Hamlet. It’s a play. It’s actually not my Safety Book at all, in that it’s very dangerous. It’s nearly nihilistic, but it’s also supremely beautiful, which is the most dangerous combination, and it has everything. Actually maybe it’s my Safety Book after all. For a poet, there’s safety in a book that still has the power to be so dangerous.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
Popular culture is so infused with references to Hamlet that it’s hard to say when I first heard of it. Most people read it in high school, though I read it first in college. (Our high school class read Othello.) In an introductory English major course, Chief English Writers, we read a Shakespearean comedy and tragedy. The comedy was The Taming of the Shrew. And then Hamlet. It immediately crippled me. A friend of mine just told me a story about how her students didn’t see the point in completing their course papers because eventually the world would end. I remember feeling similarly trying to write a paper about Hamlet, except that to me, Hamlet was the end of the world.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Yes. At the time I first read it, I didn’t have the faculties to handle it. It was really hard to move on from what I perceived as its bleak vision of the world. I read it at the same time I started writing, and my writing started to out-Herod Herod. My professor told us Shakespeare was ultimately a nihilist. Then why do we read his work? I asked. Because it’s beautiful, he said. That was probably the first time the word beautiful meant anything to me. And it’s Shakespeare’s attention to beautiful expression that gives him away.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
[Leaps in the grave.]
This is the stage direction from when Laertes leaps into his sister’s grave, exclaiming some terrible woe-is-me stuff. This is why Laertes is not the hero of Hamlet -- because Hamlet is by far the better poet. Hamlet then schools Laertes on the poetry of grief. The first quatrain of Pessoa’s “Autopsicografia” must be about Hamlet.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
For the reason above, I assigned this book to most of my students when I was teaching poetry. Among other things, Hamlet is about the attempt to reconcile expression and being. For Hamlet, maybe because of his youth, there’s always a crippling tension between the two. And that’s what it feels like to be a poet. [Leaps in the grave.]
Bio: Micah Bateman is from Jacksonville, Texas. He currently lives with his wife in Iowa City, where he studies library science at the University of Iowa, works for the International Writing Program, and edits petripress.org. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow and postgraduate Provost Fellow. He is the recipient of the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America.