Just some brief updates, friends!
A couple of days ago, I was notified by the Texas Institute of Letters that Recycled Explosions had been named a finalist in the 2017 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry. Thank you to the folks at TIL for that honor!
I’ve also just finalized a signing for The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City at the Barnes and Noble in Amarillo, TX. Come out and see me on February 18th at 2:00 p.m. Don’t worry– I’ll have plenty of copies for all! And if you can’t make it, you can always buy a copy here.
I probably ought to also mention that my poem “Shriven” will appear tomorrow at Rattle.com! I recorded the audio with a sore throat, but I think it still turned out okay. During part of the poem, I curse my dog. Please don’t think I ever actually treat my dog with anger. I don’t! But I had to sound angry / upset when I recorded the audio for the poem because my voice has a sort of sweet, nice quality to it, and in my early recordings, it didn’t sound like I meant it when I cursed. It sounded super cute. And anyway, the poem isn’t really about the dog, is it? Thank you once again to Tim Green for having my work in Rattle! Always one of my favorite sources of poetry.
I know it’s been ages since I’ve posted, but I’ve got a good excuse, because as it turns out, I’ve been living with a misdiagnosed neurological condition for about 17 years or so, as near as we (myself & the doctors) are able to guess. I haven’t felt well for ages, have always had weird symptoms and sicknesses, but for the past year, my health has been exceptionally poor, and in a fit of desperation after dealing with 1. debilitating fatigue; 2. months of near-constant heart palpitations; 3. getting lost on the way home from work and driving the wrong way down an access road on which I drove every single day, I switched doctors. I felt that I would die if I didn’t find someone to help me soon, it had gotten so bad. The new doctor did not tell me I was imagining the symptoms or laugh at me when I said I was afraid because I couldn’t think anymore, as my old doctor did. Instead, she ran a plethora of tests– several lab visits with 8 to 14 vials of blood drawn each time– and in the end, we found out that I have Lyme disease. It’s like a cross between dementia, heart disease, arthritis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, meningitis, and anxiety disorder, among other conditions.
I’ve had increasing trouble reading and writing for the past 8 months, as it’s so difficult now for my brain to make connections, my eyes and head hurt, my hands hurt, and sometimes blocks of text just look like squiggles to me– my brain just won’t connect words to their meanings at times. I’m now being treated and hope to be back to my old self in 18 to 24 months (though I have to admit I don’t know who my “old self” might be, at this point). Anytime I feel relatively “clear,” I work like mad trying to get something meaningful done, but it’s only been recently– the last week or two– that I stopped feeling as if I were just quickly disappearing.
Other writers who have Lyme disease, that I know of, include Amy Tan and Meg Cabot. So there is some hope for me, that I still might be successful at reaching my writing goals.
In the meantime, during those months of fear and worry, Steve Schroeder of Purple Flag Press, whom I had met at a reading, solicited my current magnum opus (current because it is my intention to write more of them) manuscript The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City, and I sent it to him, though I had it out at about 15 places at the time. Steve used to live in Amarillo, though now he lives in Chicago, and I ended up accepting his offer to publish at Purple Flag because I knew he would take care of the book and value it as I did. I knew I could trust him. That sort of regard from someone for what you create means even more when you are ill. And I’m glad Purple Flag released it, because it turned out exactly as I wanted. It even feels soft and lovely in your hands, inviting, the way a book should feel.
This manuscript has been read and critiqued by many people, writers and friends I admire, and it has been revised, re-revised… Poems in the book have been published in many of the poetry reviews I love to read. This book began as my creative thesis at Goddard College and grew into something that really matters to me. It’s about my home– a place that doesn’t have a lot of poetry written about it. My husband tells me it’s like living for a year in Amarillo, which is nicknamed Bomb City because it is near the nation’s only active nuclear weapons assembly plant. To me, this book is about what we come to accept and why. When the esteemed A.G. Mojtabai called it “very, very good work,” I knew I didn’t have to worry about whether the book had done as I hoped it would do.
It was technically released on January 5th, but I’ve had trouble getting the energy to promote it, which has been frustrating.
Today I’ve managed to get it listed for sale through Paypal here.
I’m also doing a reading at Chalice Abbey Center for Spirituality and the Arts in Amarillo on January 28th at 6:00 p.m., and I’m reading again at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK, on Friday, April 7th. If you will be either of those places, you can buy a book from me in person.
I’ll try to post more as my energy picks up– and as always, I thank you, readers, for being here and for perusing my ramblings!
I have wonderful news! The cover art is done, the blurb has been obtained, the proofing has all been completed. Now all that I await is to receive Recycled Explosions from Ink Brush Press! Readers, you ought to be able to order copies from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores in just a few days. Until then, please enjoy this preview. This stunning cover was designed by Jerry Craven at Ink Brush and features a painting by Thomas Moran.
“Chera Hammons’ Recycled Explosions places us in an elusive and at times frightening narrative, moving along Judas-filled landscapes where we may or may not ‘find a way back to what [we] know.’ Perhaps whatever inheritance we once had—or believed in—is gone. Still, Hammons ‘keeps vigil.’ Her poems remind us that, despite the times we live in, we seek to be blessed, even if the angel we wrestle turns out to be only a ‘reflection’ of ourselves.” – Jeff Hardin, author of Notes for a Praise Book and Restoring the Narrative
In my previous life, I worked as a bookkeeper for an investment firm in a building downtown. I know bookkeeping might seem like a strange job for a poet, but I will freely confess that I love numbers. Numbers are beautiful in that they are always exactly what they are. There is something profoundly satisfying and reassuring that happens when I can arrange them in such a way that they fit together properly. A math problem has no gaps; it is supposed to work out a certain way. It’s clean. In my bookkeeping job, I would do math all morning, then take a break for lunch and sit in the lobby writing or reading poetry.
The office was small and private, and usually only three of us (myself and two other employees) were there. There was a courthouse across from the building in which we worked, and often, on nice days, a man would appear seemingly from nowhere, stand on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, and dance. His feet would spin, his coat would swing; sometimes, he even incorporated whatever he carried into his routine. Whoever first noticed him would call the others, and we’d stand at the window for a few moments watching the man dance. Cars would honk and he’d wave to them. People walking nearby would either stop to watch or give him a wide berth. We always wondered who he was, where he came from, what music he heard, but of course the most pressing question was why he did it in the first place. He never seemed to try to collect money for it. He’d dance for a little while whether or not anyone was there, and then he’d leave.
I recently spoke to a group of high school students about poetry. Their teacher sent me a list of their questions several days before I was to speak to them. The list included things like, “What is your main source of inspiration?” and “What are the ups and downs of writing?” At the bottom, the teacher had typed, “THE BIG ONE -Why do you write poetry?”
When I read that one, I had to pause and really consider it. Why, indeed? Poetry is not a normal occupation for most people. It takes a lot of time, and one must weather a great deal of rejection. Being a poet is like having a second job for which you receive very little pay. And so little of that job is the writing and revising itself; much of it is reading, researching, networking. The submissions process alone takes an enormous amount of time, and it’s statistically not likely to end with an acceptance. It’s a lonely job, particularly in a location like mine where there aren’t fellow poets with whom to discuss craft or commiserate in person. If you’re a poet, your family might consist of the most supportive people on the planet, but they probably don’t read what you write or really understand it if they do. I sometimes question my sanity when I consider the student loans I appreciated while trying to better my craft– with interest accrued, the balance is probably now equal to the annual GDP of a small country. Then I think about days like today, which was incredible just because I got an email from a press I have dreamed of being published by since high school, telling me that my manuscript is still being considered. And though I know the odds are against me, today I’m still in the queue.
The answer, really, boils down to this: I do it because I love it. If I didn’t, I couldn’t do it at all. Poetry is how I have come to identify myself. It is how I define my place in the world. It is how I hope to make a difference, no matter how small, to someone.
I always meant to go outside, cross the street, and ask the man who danced why he did it, but there never seemed to be a good time. I always meant to do it later. I didn’t know that one day, as mysteriously as the dancing started, it would end. When he didn’t show up, we genuinely missed him.
But I suspect he danced for the same reason I write. He always seemed content while he did it. He seemed more than content– he seemed exuberant.
Perhaps your dance is also poetry. Or perhaps it is cooking pies, or grooming dogs, or calming patients, or collecting stamps, or welding pipe, or playing basketball, or teaching long division to fourth graders, or detailing cars, or shoeing horses, or flying planes, or learning about foreign countries, or taking care of your children.
So often, I ask my students what their dance is, and they say they don’t know. Really, I think that they are, on some level, afraid to define it– maybe to themselves, maybe to others. And that’s perfectly all right. The best part of knowing someone who doesn’t have an answer is to think that, someday, they will.
Readers, in honor of the upcoming release of my full-length poetry book Recycled Explosions from Ink Brush Press, I have been trying my hand at what I think is called “visual poetry.” I’m taking some of the more accessible, vivid poems in the manuscript and making videos out of them. I posted the first a couple of weeks ago; it uses my own photographs to illustrate my poem “After the Blood Moon.” Be sure to have your audio on when you play it.
I have eight total visual poems planned so far– two more are already completed but won’t be posted until closer to the book’s release sometime in the next several months. My husband Daniel Miller, truly a man of many talents, illustrated those two for me.
In other news, I received word today that I have been selected to perform at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival this spring. If you’re attending, I would love to meet you!
I know I haven’t written a blog entry since February, but let’s pick up right where we left off– shall we? Like old friends. After the dismal failure of the poetry slam outing mentioned in an earlier post, my quest to enjoy and/or cultivate a more poetic atmosphere in my hometown seemed to be at a standstill. I couldn’t find any good outlets or any fellow poets or poetry appreciators anywhere. They seemed to all be hiding, scurrying about in the shadows at night like literate mice, leaving evidence of their existence tucked away in corners at the local library sales, where I would find their old marked-up poetry books and buy them for myself. Finally, in a burst of frustration, I told my husband, “What do I need to do to get some poetry going here? Stand on street corners and read Whitman through a bullhorn?” He indicated gently that doing so would be pretty extreme and suggested that I try to arrange something with the Amarillo Botanical Gardens instead. I know and like the director, whom I worked with at a previous employer’s, so I already had an “in.” I outlined an hour-long event at which I would pick 21 poems from classic and contemporary poets, aligned with a common theme. I intended for each poem to have a different reader, so I would need 21 volunteers from the community. When I approached Kevin, the director, with my ideas, he said it sounded like a good experiment, and then asked if I represented an organization. Things would have been much easier if I had. For example, I couldn’t get food donated without 501( c)(3) status, so I ended up bumming my mother-in-law’s Sam’s card to get veggie trays, cheese cubes, watermelon, and bottled water in bulk for the event. I also organized the event single-handedly, which took several weeks of constant work, all told. It looked a bit scary there for a while. However, the graphic design, poem-picking, reader-asking, program-making, food-getting, etc. all somehow miraculously fell into place, and the event turned out to be really inspiring. I began with an introduction touching on why poetry is so important to us as people, then between each reader, I introduced the next reader and provided what I thought were cool little insights about the poems (for example, that Emily Dickinson’s work can be sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace”). I had no idea if the format would work, but it seemed to flow really well.
As you can see from the program, I did not end up finding my 21 readers. Instead, I had 7 readers who read 3 poems each– but holy smokes, were they amazing! I started by asking my friends in the local art and theater communities to read, and they asked their friends. The readers made the event a big success. Whenever I’ve moderated readings in the past, I’ve been far too anxious to enjoy the readings themselves. This time– whether because of the beautiful summer evening setting, the apparent enjoyment of the audience, or just the way the readers carried me into the poems as a listener– I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I enjoyed myself so much that I feel like I threw the thing just for me– when really, I did it to try to feel out my community and get something going that many might appreciate. The botanical gardens has asked me to do four of these events per year now (one for each season), but alas! With working full time, I don’t see how I’d be able to do so without experiencing some sort of nervous breakdown. I will throw another one, though. Soon, I hope. Stay posted, Amarillo!
And fellow poets out there in isolation, if you would like tips on putting something like this together yourselves, please comment or email any questions. I would be more than happy to help spread the poetry. Happy writing!
A week or two ago, in my search for fellow poets in my hometown, I convinced my husband to go with me to the one poetry event I have seen advertised regularly here– a slam at a local coffee shop. While we waited for it to begin (which still hadn’t happened by the time we ended up leaving over an hour past the scheduled start time), I had ample opportunity to observe what was going on around me. The readers were all sitting at a table together, and after watching them for a while, I got the strong impression that they were a clique of people who were doing as much as they could think of to reinforce their “role” at the coffee shop and make themselves stand out from the “regular Joes,” without actually standing up and reading any poems.
Keep in mind that writers are my kind of folk. Amateur, professional, I don’t care. If you love writing, I like you. For that reason, being around a group of writers usually makes me feel completely comfortable, even if I don’t know any of them and never actually approach them. But this time I felt absolutely like an outsider, and I was driven to define from whence my unusual feeling of disconnect came. I went to the event expecting the work of these young poets to make them stand out from the normal Amarillo crowd. I think instead that the poetry slam was actually being done to feed these poets’ own images of themselves, given with no consideration of audience. Discovering this made me think of how people identify and present themselves (in this case, the slam poets vs. everyone else), and this led me to another train of thought.
I started thinking about an odd thing that happened during one of my residencies at Goddard. I had to take a shuttle from the college to the airport by myself because I was leaving on a flight earlier than that of any other students. Since the airport is an hour or so away from campus, this meant I had plenty of time to converse with the driver of the shuttle. He asked which genre I was studying. I replied, “Poetry.”
“You don’t look like a poet!” he responded as he squinted at me, obviously befuddled.
Curious, I asked, “What do poets look like?”
“Oh, you know,” he said. “Like they had bad childhoods.”
I realized that I had never actually thought about this. What do poets / apparently, people with bad childhoods look like? I have no idea. Tattered clothing? A haunted, hungry look in the eye? Honestly, I’ve never noticed any major features or trends among the poets of my acquaintance (except for thinking at times that poets often look younger than they are), so nothing of that nature had ever entered my mind. And personally too (aside from those uncomfortable middle school years, of course), I have always just been me, which has the whole writer thing included, so it was an odd thought that I should look a certain way to portray my “true self” to someone accurately. Besides that, I have known plenty of people who had bad childhoods. They pretty much look like everyone else. Furthermore, I can’t at the moment think of a single person who looks like exactly what / who he or she is.
Googling “What does a poet look like?” returns some amusing results. Apparently I’m not the first to ask. One YouTube user posted a video in which several students were asked the same question. If you are a poet who wants to know what you are supposed to look like, you might start here:
If you don’t want to watch the video, here are a couple of tips: you should wear mismatched clothes of muted colors, and you should have big eyes. You can find even more tips in the wikiHow article “How to Dress Like a Poet.” The first tip is, “Decide which end of the ‘poet spectrum’ you want to lean towards. You could be a thoughtful, melancholy poet, or you could be a showy, dramatic poet.” You should also wear either “lots of black” or “flowy tunics” and “lace gloves.” My personal favorite is the final tip: “Looking like a poet is fun once and[sic] a while, but if you dress that way too often you could end up with a bad reputation. Just be yourself.” — But, wikiHow, I am a poet. What do I do now? My reputation is at stake!
Of course, one can’t really get into the whole “judging by appearances” issue without getting into a whole slew of other discussions, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just stick with the poet thing. I don’t know if my hair or make-up or accessories are poetic. As far as clothing, when I write, I wear whatever I was wearing when I sat down to write (usually, I suppose, business casual, since that is often after work). My goal when I’m reading is to pick something clean and nice that is not going to get in my way and distract me and / or the audience, or detract from what I am saying. I don’t wear something that blatantly screams “poet” because that’s what my poetry should do. I don’t think a stranger would ever guess what it is that I really do with my life. Yet my main identity, how I think of myself, is as a poet.
So I guess what I’m saying, friends, is what you already know, but it’s good to hear sometimes. That we are all just people, that who we are is normal to us, and that nobody else could possibly know all there is to know about our true selves, so don’t worry about it to the point that it negates what you’re trying to do. When I picture poets in my mind, I like to think of ‘Annah, whose untidy car full of shoes was fascinating to me, and who wore clothes that floated around her, so that she came into a room first and what she was wearing followed her. Or Bruce, who wore scuffed cowboy boots and cut his white hair once a year. Or Jeff, who, with his button-down shirts and jeans, looks as well-put-together, yet approachable, as his poetry. In my experience, the thing for us as human beings to strive for is to be the best, the kindest, the least cluttered, and the most honest versions of ourselves. I have come to believe that if you’re doing that, you don’t have to worry about how others view you.
Anyway, that’s that. Slam poets of Amarillo, if you ever see this, please actually read next time. Open yourselves to your audience, because we really do want to hear what you have to say. When you don’t say anything, you subject the world to the rambles that occur when I am left to my own devices to entertain myself on a Friday night when my coffee has gone cold. And nobody wants that!