Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Archive for Thoughts

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.

 

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!

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.

Moving right along…

Hello again, world!

I never realize how much time has passed since my last post until I remember that I have a blog (which happens almost never) and then go there and see the date of my last post. The passage of time does have the added bonus of giving me more material to write about,  though, right?

In news this, uh, year… I have some readings coming up in North Carolina! The first will be on March 14th at 11:00 a.m. at Durham Tech and will feature, besides Jeff Hardin and myself, readers from the …and love.. anthology. The second is also on March 14th and will occur at 7:00 p.m. at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.  Jeff and I are the main event at that one. Books will be for sale as well. More info will be on the Flyleaf Books website as the date approaches. Additional readings may be scheduled through March 16th, so check back.

Finally, keep an eye out for the spring issue of Rattle, in which I am honored to have a spot. You can pre-order the issue at a discounted price right now here.

I plan to soon write a post regarding thoughts about my latest residency at Goddard, in which I met Nikky Finney and was told something odd by my cab driver. That’s for next time though. Gotta leave ’em (you) wanting more, right? I will do my best to write that post before, say, April.

I would like to leave you with a picture of my super cat, Butter, who does exactly what writers’ cats should do: keep our laps warm.

A Writer's Cat

Here’s a shout out to you, Butter. Even though when you sit in my lap I can’t open my keyboard drawer and have to set my keyboard on top of my desk where there is no space for it, you’re appreciated.

Robert Frost’s Woods

I saw Robert Frost’s woods for the first time this winter, when I spent several days near Plainfield, Vermont. Since Frost is the reason I wanted to be a poet, this walk through the softly drifting snow was transcendental for me.  As a Texas girl, I have seen snow falling horizontally, snaking across the road in dry powder, and as an adopted New Mexican, I had seen it building over the mountains like smoke to drift white ashen on us and then disappear by noon. How fitting, then, that my return to poetry after a long and yellow absence would occur here, I thought: trees as tall as the Appalachians, and snow falling softly through them in the way I had imagined in my childhood. Though “The Path Not Taken” is often misinterpreted to mean that one road is better than another, instead of its more accurate interpretation (discovered by closer reading) that the paths we choose all simply lead us to different, but not necessarily better, places, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” has never held any sort of mystery for me. I can hear the horse shaking his bells, and see the smoke from the farmhouses now. My breath in the air and the soft settling of the branches above me are all I need to tell me that these woods are mine.