Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Archive for February, 2016

Why Do You Dance?

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.