Among his many vocations, Matthew A. Hamilton MFA’13 has been a Benedictine monk, a Peace Corps volunteer, a librarian, a legislative aide, and even a soldier. Now he can add one more title to his impressive resume: national prize-winning poet.
Last September, just months after earning an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield, Hamilton received the Peace Corps Writers’ 2013 Best Poetry Book award for his first collection of poems, The Land of the Four Rivers (Cervena Barva Press, 2012), which was also nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.
But the road to those accolades was a circuitous one, at times quite daunting and certainly less traveled.
“It usually takes a long conversation to explain how my journey began as a poet,” said Hamilton, 38, who lives in Richmond, Va. The youngest of five children, Hamilton grew up in a military family that called Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama their home. Moving from place to place laid the groundwork for Hamilton to become a “people watcher” and eventually a writer. Hamilton always thought he’d have a career in the military. His father worked for the Chrysler Corportion, assisting the U.S. Army in building Nike Rockets.
But during Army basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Hamilton was diagnosed with a medical condition that prevented him from completing his service. “It was devastating to me,” he recalled. “[The military] was where I thought I was supposed to be. Years later, I realized God was sending me down another path.”
Trying to figure out what to do with his life, he enrolled in North Carolina’s Belmont Abbey College, founded by Benedictine monks. “They were welcoming and opened up a new world for me, and that led me to the monastery,” said Hamilton, who earned a B.A. in history from the school. He felt at the time his calling was to become a monk.
“When I entered the monastery in January of 2000 is when I became a serious poet,” shared Hamilton. “I really wanted to write something profound. Why? For myself, I feel poetry is a spiritual practice. It’s about getting closer to God. It also breeds compassion for others.”
To Hamilton, one only has to look as far as the Psalms for poetic inspiration. “Writing poetry is like prayer for me,” he said. “Instead of sitting in a church and praying directly, I’d rather write.”
But the one question the monks encouraged Hamilton to ask himself was whether being a monk was his true vocation. He eventually realized it was not, so he left the monastery.
Hamilton just knew he wasn’t the kind of person who could just have a job. What he did for a living had to be intrinsically linked to how he saw his place in the world.
Soon, he was working as a legislative aide for North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry. The position didn’t allow him to do what he had a yearning to do — connect public service with international relations.
The natural eventual stop on his sojourn was the Peace Corps. First, he taught English from 2006 to 2008 in a village in Armenia, a former Soviet republic. It would be a fertile time to write about what he experienced, and he later had some of his work published in Atticus Review, Boston Literary Magazine, among other publications.
He then went to the Philippines for another two years of Peace Corps service. In search of a graduate writing program, he came across Fairfield. “I was impressed with [MFA Program Director] Michael White. He writes historical fiction, and that is something I enjoy reading.” Hamilton was also intrigued by the faculty who are also poets: Baron Wormser, William B. Patrick, and Ravi Shankar.
When Hamilton arrived with a stack of poems at Fairfield’s low-residency program, he found a welcoming audience in his classmates and teachers and an encouraging guide: William Patrick.
Patrick quickly agreed to read Hamilton’s 35 pages of poetry, and told him that his first impressions were good. “I will always be grateful for that,” said Hamilton. “I think one of the main reasons I got off a first book of poetry so quickly, even before I graduated, was due to Bill.”
With Patrick as his mentor, Hamilton molded his poems into The Land of the Four Rivers.
One such poem, “Solitude,” evokes Armenia’s resilience:
They speak in the language of moon smiles and falling stars.
They tell me that their homes were burned and people massacred during the Great War.
They tell me that one day Armenia’s children will return to their land first given to them by God.
Despite graduating, Hamilton continues to be mentored by Fairfield faculty. With guidance from Baron Wormser, he’s working on another poetry book, which was his MFA thesis. Hamilton wrote a novel that covers the 1915 Armenian Genocide as seen through the eyes of a 17-year-old girl. Now married, Hamilton works as a librarian at Benedictine College Preparatory School, a Catholic military school. Meanwhile, calls from Fairfield come in. Faculty member and best-selling memoirist Da Chen has been after Hamilton to write a memoir about his well-traveled life. “I haven’t gotten to it yet,” said Hamilton. “I have a lot of ground to cover in it. I’ve always had itchy feet.”