Matt Hamilton has packed more life into his 41 years than most of us could in twice that.
Of the many roads he has traveled – soldier, congressional aide, Benedictine monk, Peace Corps – one he likes best is the road that brought him to North Litchfield, S.C., where he vacationed last week and sat down in a Litchfield coffee shop long enough to be interviewed.
“My whole family has vacationed here for years,” he said. “We love it. The younger ones can go north to Myrtle, and the rest of us have Litchfield, Pawleys and Georgetown.”
A Kentuckian by birth, Hamilton grew up in Ohio and majored in history at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. He next earned a master of fine arts degree at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and he now lives near Richmond, Virginia, and works at Benedictine College Prep, a Richmond high school.
To the school’s students, he is Matt Hamilton, school librarian. But to the wider world, he is Matthew A. Hamilton, prize-winning poet and a rising literary light. His first book of poetry, “The Land of the Four Rivers,” published in 2012, was hailed by critics and readers alike, and in 2013 walked away with the Peace Corps Writers Best Poetry Book Award, a coveted prize.
One critic wrote: “Hamilton’s poems do what a surprising number of modern poems are too cowardly to do: They risk being understood. If his poems were photographs, we would not only see them, we would feel that we could step right into them.”
The poems were about Hamilton’s experiences from 2006 to 2008 in his first Peace Corps assignment in Armenia, which is located between the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and has been called “the crossroads of antiquity.” Some believe the biblical Garden of Eden was located there and legend has it that Noah’s ark came to rest on an Armenian mountain top.
Armenia is a very poor country, but its ancient culture resonated with Hamilton, who only a short while before had been simply Brother Boniface, a Catholic monk at Belmont Abbey, in North Carolina. “We spoke a different language, but we spoke to the same God,” he said.
Hamilton left the monastic life in 2004 after “four years of loneliness,” he said, and an increasing call to plot his course “in a wider world.”
But he left with his faith intact and perhaps a divine going-away present: the knowledge that his contemplative monastic days had made him a poet.
“That’s when I began to write poetry,” he said.
Besides the prize-winning book, he has published widely in literary magazines, been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize, and earlier this year published his second book of poems, “Lips Open and Divine,” based on his experiences in The Philippines, his second Peace Corps assignment, 2008-10.
His next goal is to land a teaching position on a college or university faculty. “That’s my dream,” he said.
You listening, Academe?