Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Archive for February, 2014

What a Poet Looks Like

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.

Chera in a cowboy hat with t-posts.

In which I built a fence, then went inside and wrote a poem about it.

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!

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A Page from my Days in IT

I don’t know of many poets who work in Information Technology, though I have run across bios of that nature every now and again while reading literary reviews. I thought I’d share a page from my “IT Diary” that I ran across recently. It reminded me of the things I taught myself to view as amusing rather than annoying (that was often my coping strategy, and I highly suggest it). So, without further ado, I give you a slice of my life in 2012:

July 9, 3:05 PM. A downstairs employee comes by my desk complaining that her printer isn’t working. I go downstairs to fix it. It is out of paper. Once it has paper it prints as normal. I go back upstairs.

July 9, 5:07 PM. The employee emails to say that her printer has stopped working again.

July 10, 7:50 AM. I receive the email and go downstairs to check her printer, but the computer is locked and nobody is at her desk. I go back upstairs.

July 10, 8:03 AM. I see the employee come in and follow her back downstairs to her desk. She says, “Do you need me to log in?” I concur. As I stand near her computer she slowly unloads her purse on her desk and proceeds to walk to the refrigerator to carefully deposit a bag of breakfast foods. She then returns to her desk to log in. When I look at her printers I find she did not actually send her documents to her printer, but to an old one still in her printers list, which is why the documents did not print to her printer. I delete the unneeded older printer so that she will not be further confused, then return upstairs.

July 10, 9:12 AM. I am paged by the employee. She says that her printer has once again stopped working. On returning downstairs and checking the printer, I find that a thick plastic reusable cup has fallen over on her desk and rolled to the printer, hitting its large power button. Upon correcting the cup’s orientation and turning the printer’s power back on, it once again functions normally. I go back upstairs and cancel my gym membership.

There you have it, friends. I must say, while working in IT didn’t give me much good material in the way of poetry, it did give me plenty of slightly amusing anecdotes. And hey, while we’re in a discussion about both computers and poetry, check this out: a code poetry slam!

My Annotated Bibliography

Readers, one of the requirements of Goddard’s program is to read at least 45 books, and then write three-page annotations over them. During the final semester, the student picks fifteen or twenty of the books that had the most impact on the student’s work or perception and completes an annotated bibliography (separate from the general bibliography, which contains all books the student has read during the program, but does not have any expansion or description). When I was working on mine, I Googled those of other students to find examples. I thought I’d add mine to the mix in case any future students do the same thing. You can also take anything on my annotated bibliography to be recommended reading. Enjoy!

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Finney, Nikky. Head Off & Split: Poems. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011.

Nikky Finney’s poetry contains socially-centered content that ranges from an examination of the treatment of Hurricane Katrina victims to a description of the speaker’s experience of eating fish that was chewed and then fed to her by her mother. This book showed me that poetry can be “activist” without being preachy. I also enjoyed seeing how one concept or word could be woven throughout a poem to sew it together, and I began experimenting along similar lines in my own work. Hearing Nikky describe her “paleontology” of poetry construction at the residency and then seeing her strategy actually applied in this book has been helpful in keeping me from “writing the same poem twice.”

Hillman, Brenda. Death Tractates. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1992.

Hillman begins this book struggling to accept her friend’s absence. She eventually comes to believe that her friend can see into her world even if she cannot see into that of her friend, and thus they are not truly that separated. Her bright, clear writing style, hopeful in the darkest places and full of nuance, is something toward which I strive consciously in my manuscript, particularly in the nature poems. Hillman’s work makes clear the way that tone can be set through the connotations of words. She demonstrates the importance of specificity.

Hirsch, Edward. Wild Gratitude. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2003.

Wild Gratitude is divided into four sections that tie together into a complete, comprehensive manuscript that follows a definite arc from despair to hope. Analyzing this arc, because it is so subtly crafted, allowed me to better refine the organization of my creative thesis after I had already organized it roughly along the lines of the Maginnes book I also annotated. It was also a good example for me of metaphor and subtext, and I understood that subtext has to work throughout an entire poem to be pleasing and authentic.

Hugo, Richard. Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo. New York: Norton, 1991.

Making Certain it Goes On moves from early, relatively general musings upon ocean landscapes and seabirds to Hugo’s experiences during the war and beyond, ultimately exploring his hometown, his actions, and his relationships intimately and honestly. Because my manuscript deals largely with where I’m from, I found his treatment of place to be especially helpful. It showed me how to deal with the subject of “home” in a way that is balanced, acknowledging the good and the bad.

Maginnes, Al. Inventing Constellations. Cincinnati, OH: Cherry Grove, 2012.

In Inventing Constellations, Al Maginnes takes the reader on a journey from the inexperience and beauty of youth to the irrevocability and resolution of death. Besides providing a good example of the narrative, conversational, personal, yet accessible style toward which I strive, I found the organization of this book to be a helpful example of how I am seeking to arrange my own thesis.

Neruda, Pablo, Ferris Cook, and Kenneth Krabbenhoft. Odes to Common Things. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

Neruda’s Odes to Common Things discovers and expresses the significance and human-like characteristics that everyday household objects possess, lending then beauty and importance. It showed me that nothing is wrong with describing ordinary items— from apples to spiders— in a way that emphasizes their significance and “personalities,” no matter how trivial they seem. Studying Neruda’s knack of personification without “cuteness” helped me see how to balance a whimsical idea with plain speech.

Olds, Sharon. The Wellspring. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Within The Wellspring, Sharon Olds discusses many of the most transformative phases of the life cycle—from birth, to adolescence, to adulthood and parenthood—with a deep, sometimes humorous, sometimes aching love. The honest, unafraid, and meaningful exploration of the closest human relationships caused me to consider how to treat my relationships in my work, particularly the family relationships.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. New York: Perennial Classics, 1999.

The work in Plath’s final manuscript has a raw, insistent quality that is nonetheless beautiful as it explores the darkness inherent even in relationships and familiar landscapes. Her fearlessness astounded me, and the intensity of her work is what I began to strive for early in my Goddard experience. Her use of archetypes also caused me to consider the archetypes appearing in my own poetry, and why I use them.

Plath, Sylvia. Crossing the Water. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

The book appropriately forms a bridge between the earlier, less personal work in Colossus and the sharper, more tragic poetry of Ariel. The poetry as such displays the strengthening use of Plath’s imagery and methodology, clearly showing her maturing style. Seeing the difference between this book and Ariel encouraged me to strive to crystallize my work to the same extent.

Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Saint Paul, MN.: Graywolf Press, 2004.

Rankine’s book calls itself “an American lyric.” It is the author’s exploration of world events, politics, technology, sickness, and science. Her refreshingly unapologetic voice aptly describes modern life in the United States. I hadn’t been exposed to this sort of writing before and I found its expansiveness and use of visuals widened the room I had to explore in my poetry, so I felt my boundaries loosen, even though I did not use the format myself. I also started to consider the speaker in my work more closely, and how that speaker presents herself.

Rexroth, K., and L. Zhong. Women Poets of China: Orchid Boat. New York: W. W. Norton Limited, 1972.

Despite being written throughout a wide timeframe in many situations, the poetry in this book almost always regards love in some way. The speakers in the poems seem both strongly grounded with nature and exceptionally tied to the men in their lives. The quiet strength of the voices demonstrated to me that simplicity could sometimes be used to striking advantage. And that there is no shame in speaking unabashedly of one’s realities.

Spahr, Juliana. This Connection of Everyone with Lungs: Poems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

This book is Juliana Spahr’s response to the political and social situations which occurred after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I had not realized something so controversial could be treated with such love. I realized that I could tie my poetry to specific events through which I had lived. This book also made me realize the importance of white space and line endings— how a poem’s structure has even a physical effect on the reader, influencing breath.

Szymborska, Wislawa, Stanislaw Baralczak, and Clare Cavanagh. View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1995.

The work of Wislawa Szymborska dances with wit, irony, and surprising conclusions that
somehow also manage to be relatable to readers from many backgrounds. I was exposed to this book early in my Goddard career and feel it may be the first contemporary poetry book I read in which the material was completely accessible but still wholly intelligent. This is another book which I hold up as a model for what I have hoped to achieve, particularly its sort of confidence and awareness.

Turner, Brian. Here, Bullet. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2005.

The calmly stated details of what happens before, during, and after violent events make Turner’s poetry believable, despite sections that would likely seem heavy-handed if they came from another writer. This book showed me that sometimes maturity of style may be acceptably sacrificed for authenticity of voice— that sometimes rawness actually adds to a poem’s power, and can be used as a tool.

Young, Dean. Fall Higher. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

Young’s work, while it often seems random in its imagery and conclusions, nonetheless possesses an energy and a confidence that come across as a sort of exaltation of existence, an embrace of the good, the bad, and the circumstantial. I strive to attain a similar vivacity in my manuscript— like Young, making the work sensory, with an artistic quality akin to that in paintings, to add to its impact on my reader.