Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Archive for January, 2019

Revision is Re-vision

Dear readers: I know I missed making an entry (is that what this regular random spewing of thoughts would be called?) last Friday, but I have not forgotten about you! I have been busy revising my literary novel. Enough time has passed since I last looked at it that reading it this past week has been like reading it for the first time.

If you’re a writer, some time away from your drafts is a gift, because time allows you the distance you need from your work to be objective about it. Time allows you to “forget” your own work enough to approach it more in the way a reader would, and you will thereby notice inconsistencies and weaknesses that you didn’t see before.

I used to find revision tedious, but now it’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I hope that you will learn to love it, too.

The greatest thing I learned in grad school is that revision = re-vision. In other words, it means seeing your work again. Revision, unlike copy editing, is less about correcting grammar or punctuation and has everything to do with structure and ideas. This is where you see if your work communicates the message you intended. Read your work aloud; is there anything that causes you to stumble? If so, why? Is your meaning clear? Should anything be rearranged? Should there be more detail in one place? Less in another?

For prose, you might ask yourself if there is enough of a reason for an event to occur. Characters should have reasonable motivation for their actions. For poetry, you might ask if there’s a more specific word, a more vivid image or comparison, maybe something that can call back to an earlier point in the poem. For both, revision is where you identify your strongest, most important themes and adjust the rest of a piece to support them.

Revision, in short, is what can take a good piece of writing and make it great. It’s one of the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. Wield it. Value it. Understand it. Keep it sharp.

So I’m Trying to Write Through Personal Trauma…

Dear readers: I spent a lot of time this week working on writing a personal essay. It took so much time because writing it was a genuine, chewing-fingernails-to-the-quick kind of difficult. You see, the essay concerned a Very Sad Thing that happened in my past. This thing has loomed over me every time I sat down to write for years, but it was too painful to turn and face. So I would end up facing it halfway, and the results often weren’t very good; they didn’t say everything I intended. I usually ended up throwing them out. But this week, I finally decided to try to write through the Very Sad Thing and get it out of the way, once and for all. Because my writing is often how I process experiences, good and bad, and emotion: love, anger, fear, grief, sometimes all of those together. I know myself, and it felt like I couldn’t fully process this event until I really sat down and wrote about it.

If you know what to search for, you can find an article in the Albuquerque Journal detailing a murder at a drive-in restaurant in that city. It says the victim, a man with a family and a reputation for kindness, was found near the restaurant dumpsters by a coworker. There was no known motive for the killing, and the murderer was never caught. The victim still had a weak pulse when found; the article doesn’t mention that. I only know because one of the first people who stumbled upon the scene was my ex-husband, a truck driver, who developed PTSD as a result. That tragic day changed everything– for the victim’s family, who lost a husband and brother, of course. And for the two of us.

So I wrote the essay, I changed the names, I tried not to cry and after I had finished, I had a sort of meltdown and deleted it all, just like I always had before. Because writing about past trauma can put you right back in that trauma, as if no time at all has passed, and the scars revert to open wounds. This is not something to be done lightly. And this is why trained counselors or psychologists should guide groups of people who are writing about their traumatic experiences as therapy. I decided I would never try to write about it again, because I seemed incapable of doing it well.

The next morning, however, the strongest emotions seemed like they had been depleted, so I restored the file from my file history and revised it, trying to view it more as a Writer, someone telling what happened, and less as the person who experienced it. Thinking of it that way gave me just enough distance. This time, I was able to say exactly what I wanted to say. And it finally felt like the dark cloud that had been looming behind me for so long was getting smaller, not because its significance had diminished, but because I was getting farther away from it. I was reorienting myself to the disaster.

Sometimes, when a person experiences trauma, it takes a long time to process it in a way that allows them to translate it into something others could understand. Sometimes a person can’t do it alone. Sometimes it takes a long time to know what they themselves want to say about it; they have to come to understand its many complexities and implications first. Sometimes, a writer has to write something over and over and over, and it will never be right, until one day, it is. In the meantime, we should practice kindness– to others, as well as to ourselves. This world can be hard, but we are in it together.

Unplaced Poems: “What I Taught Them”

Hello, readers! I hope everyone’s holiday season went smoothly, and that all of you came through it in one piece– or, if not, in at least a few salvageable pieces that can be glued back together.

I’ll admit I took a bit of a break from the blog, but I have now returned– so you see, your confidence that I would come back was not in vain. Today’s entry won’t be a complicated one; it’s just about something I sometimes think about (gosh, we’re off to a good start, aren’t we?).

I’ve discussed with poet friends before an interesting observation: that the poems to which audiences tend to react most favorably at readings often seem to get the least amount of attention from journal editors. I haven’t been the only one in my group of friends who has noticed this. I’m really not sure why this may be, though I can tell you that, when picking poems for a reading, I tend to go for the ones that have strongest emotional impact, perhaps at the cost of some complexity or nuance that might be more accessible to a reader than an audience member, for whom a poem only occurs once. I’m wondering if other poets out there have noticed something similar.

Anyway, in tribute to my favorite “unjournaled” pieces, I thought I’d start sharing some poems from my books that audiences seem to enjoy, but that never got picked up by journals. This week’s is “What I Taught Them,” from The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City. It got some personal rejections from places like Blue Mesa Review, but it never got picked up, though I love reading it because it’s a piece that gets both (good) laughs and “ooohs,” which are mother’s milk to a performing poet.

“What I Taught Them” from The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City by Chera Hammons

A man I’ve never seen before is chasing my two horses,
running them across the pasture and waving his arms at them
while his slim girlfriend watches, black sunglasses astride
blowing blonde hair as she raises her phone
to document his bravado, the shorts that flap in the wind
and his fleshy arms arcing out like wings that have been plucked.
The horses, because I have taught them to trust,
seem more surprised than frightened at first,
flying over the yucca in bursts, then turning to see
if the man has been satisfied, but he keeps coming at them.
They are used to standing still and lifting their feet for the farrier,
who files down their rough edges every eight weeks.
They know to take the bite of the vet’s needle without flinch or kick.
That is why, if this man wanted, he could walk up to them,
rub the swirls of hair under their forelocks,
breathe them in, their wildness and joy and
the sun and sweet-hay smell of their windswept coats.
It is why he is able to sweep them away
for sheer nothingness, giving them no reasons.
I would hurt him if I could, this man
who has no idea, who says he was running
because he wanted to run,
not chasing my two horses on my land
because the woman who came with him
is impressed by that sort of thing.
I follow him to his shiny white car with its dealer plates,
watch him drive slowly away because he is not sorry enough.
The horses pace as I walk back to them, eyes white-rimmed,
and I worry they will fear me again,
having just been treated unfairly.
But they recognize my voice and let me step among them,
lay their warm heads against me for comfort,
snorting and blowing from their flight.
Then— this is how much I love them—
they ask if they did what I would have wanted of them,
and I say yes.

For a video of the poem being read, click here.