Verse as Mutual Aid

Verse as Mutual Aid

The Oakland poet, editor, and publisher views publishing poetry as a community service.

Oakland poet-editor-publisher Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel has deep roots in the Bay Area. Originally from Sacramento, Hamel moved to Berkeley in 2006 to attend UC, where they fell in love with 17th century literature and took their first poetry workshop. Hamel was immediately hooked, and found their first creative writing community.

They went on to receive an MFA in writing at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, studying under poets Graham Faust, Brenda Hillman, and Dora Malech.

While many families would be dubious about their progeny going for a creative arts degree, Hamel’s was supportive.

“My family was actually really supportive of me going to school,” Hamel said — any kind of school. “My grandparents immigrated here from China in the ’30s, and their thing was go to school as long as you can.”

During their grad school years, Hamel began interning at local publishing house Omnidawn. Co-publisher Rusty Morrison became a mentor to Hamel, who eventually became an editor for the house.

“Omnidawn has been one of the Bay Area’s flagship independent publishers since it started in 2001,” Hamel explained. “It has always been poetry-focused, and experimental is a word you could use to describe it, but a more accurate word is exploratory.”

Hamel went into the role with great hopes: “We were trying to make poetry something that could be our whole lives,” they said. “Something we could live off of and as a service to our community of other poets and for people who read poetry and nourish themselves off it in a spiritual sense.”

But affording to live in the Bay Area is tough, and eventually Hamel had to find another way to make a living — working full time as a poetry editor wasn’t paying the bills. They now are employed as a nonfiction editor at local publisher North Atlantic, but like so many artists, Hamel works on their artistic pursuits alongside a full-time paid gig. They still maintain a role as senior poetry editor at Omnidawn, in addition to being one of the co-publishers of the poetry book series Spect.

Spect, which Hamel has run with three other Oakland poets since 2013, started off as a chapbook series, but has now become a full-fledged publisher with Berkeley’s Small Press Distribution distributing their books to indie bookstores, libraries, and online booksellers.

“It was something we started for fun to publish for our friends,” Hamel said. “We still see it as an act of service to the poets that we love. I’m more interested in publishing poetry … as an act akin to community service or mutual aid rather than an exercise in building individual clout.”

Alongside the publishing operation, Spect also produces a performance series called Poetry Is a Drag, combining poetry reading and drag performances, so far primarily at Oakland’s White Horse bar.

And despite all the care and feeding Hamel gives to their fellow poets, they also continue to create their own art. Their poetry book, occident, which was called “haunting” and “ethereal” by reviewers, was published in 2017 by Santa Fe’s Called Back Books.

“occident was really the culmination of 10 years of writing, finding my way into poetry was really the process of writing that book,” Hamel said.

Soon after the book came out, Hamel came out as non-binary. “It was interesting to come back to the book and see what I knew before I knew it,” Hamel says now. “I didn’t question my gender most of my life, but then I did radically and suddenly.”

This shift in self-identity has led Hamel to see poetry as more of a quiet, inward contemplation these days, akin to writing in a journal. But in many ways, poetry itself is all about turning the internal external, about the meandering path to finding a self-identity and a place in the world, and as Hamel goes through that process, readers are sure to see more work from them in the years to come.

Faces of the East Bay