Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Archive for Thoughts

Brief Update

Hello, readers! Please accept my apologies, as I have been dealing with life and its many consequences. Between being busy, there have been migraines and some sickness, some breakdown of appliances (the dishwasher in particular appears to be cursed), and last week, we lost my grandmother to a long illness.

She wasn’t like other grandmothers– I never saw much softness in her– still, until last Tuesday, I had never known a world without her in it, and I have felt disoriented since. She had severe dementia and hadn’t recognized her family members for awhile, so it was really like she had been slipping away slowly for a couple of years, and her passing was simply the next step. But I don’t know if that made it any easier.

She was raised on a red dirt farm in Oklahoma and was one of the toughest people I knew. She was the last of her siblings, the last of her friends. It comforts me that she believed my mother, who cared for often her in her illness, was her own mother towards the end. I like to think that means she felt safe.

I will feel more normal, I suspect, when I can write something about it, but right now, it’s still too soon, and I have learned it is not helpful to rush how one processes loss. Loss is always complicated.

Please check back soon. I will write a real blog entry (a more cheerful one!) again in the next few days. In the meantime, I wish you good writing and good health!

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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.

From Potboiler to Promising

Good morning, friends,

I don’t have much profound to say today, as I’ve been feeling unwell all week– first with a mild cold, and now with a hovering migraine, which I am staving off as best I can with coffee and Tylenol and darkness. I am in quite a bit of pain, actually! So please forgive any typos. This week, I managed to crack the 20,000-word mark in my YA novel and do a fair amount of research for what comes next; write two poems; revise the query letter for my first novel; and read submissions for poetry journal One (through Jacar Press). I intend to close out the week today and tomorrow with a few submissions of my own. I expect some rejections any minute now which will free up more work for me to send elsewhere. (That’s how rejection works, in case you didn’t know!– Each rejection is an opportunity to send work to a journal that might provide a better home for it than the last one would have. So remember that.)

I wanted to take a moment to talk about the importance of having other people– people you trust, who will also be honest with you– read your work. Even if you are already a famous, award-winning writer, for some reason reading my humble blog post right now instead of working on your next great masterpiece, this is true. Everyone has a different level of experience and a different perspective to offer, so guess what– even the opinions of friends and family who aren’t experienced writers themselves can tell you if your work communicates the message you intend it to. You will learn, with experience, what sort of critique is helpful to you, and what isn’t. When you try something someone suggests to you, if you end up not liking the change, you can always change back. Often, other people can see things that you can’t, simply because you can be too close to your own work.

I finished a literary fiction novel last year, and had sent it around a few places, but have been trying to find a publisher in earnest only the last four or five months. I have a 50% “success” rate with agents, by which I mean that my query letter 50% of the time has triggered a request from an agent to see the full manuscript. I gave up on agents fairly quickly, however, because I realized early on that the story does not have mainstream appeal, though the writing style itself is good (and this has also been what the agents I dealt with have told me). Though sales are always nice, of course!, I am predominantly interested in craft and expression with this book. I have opted to try to find a small press instead, one that specializes in this type of novel (literary fiction with elements of suspense / noir and wilderness / survival), and is perhaps less driven by factors affecting the mainstream market. The protagonist of the book is an elderly, chronically ill woman, someone who would traditionally be ignored by society. When her husband is murdered, she must defend her property from poachers on her own. She is an unreliable narrator and often doesn’t do what she “should.” She is a character who is trying to adjust to life changes, trying to survive, and sometimes makes bad choices in an effort to do so.

I hadn’t allotted the book a great deal of importance, aside from personal significance, I suppose because I wrote it mostly for myself, and it is my first novel, so I very much wanted to have realistic expectations. (For the record, I’ve often felt I would be more successful if I had a bigger ego– I’m just not sure how to go about nurturing one.) But when I told my talented editor friend about the book, and he asked to see the synopsis, he pointed out that it deals with important issues such as isolation and care of the elderly and chronically ill; it has a subversive aspect in that the female character successfully takes her husband’s place; it has a concern for the environment and the treatment of animals. “These are the elements you should be marketing,” he told me.

And magically, a light went on. My perspective changed. These are the wonderful moments as a human being, I think, when the world shifts around you, not because the world itself has changed, but because your viewpoint has. This is why the risk of showing your work to someone you respect, making yourself vulnerable, is often worth it. Suddenly, I understood that my little book had more weight than what I myself had been giving it. The issues I had cared about when actually writing it had shone through. I remembered why I had written it in the first place. Sometimes we get so involved in the business of our own lives, we forget ourselves.

I have revised my query letter accordingly, and it is ready to send to several small presses I have my eye on that are opening January 1st. Many thanks to my friend, who took the time, despite having a busy week of his own, to look at my work. I will keep everyone posted with the results.

Tumbleweed Warning

Yesterday in the Texas Panhandle, we experienced sustained winds of around 40 miles per hour and gusts of up to 70 miles per hour. While this is windier than our standard windy day, it is not unusual for us to have wind like this. The meteorologists warn us, their concern apparent, to use caution and to check on our pets and the elderly (because the wind really does buffet small animals mercilessly and blow people over– I’ve seen it happen). We simply groan, tie down our possessions, and go about our days.

It is inevitable that while we are away from our homes, we’ll lose shingles, our fences will blow down, the hay will blow away right under the horses’ noses. Driving to work, if you must go on an east-west line, the wind pummels your car, skidding it sideways. You can’t use cruise control. If you must go south, it is easy to speed. If you go north, you will have to push the gas pedal to the floor to get up to 60, and you will be able to watch the needle on your gas gauge drop. It’s like driving into a wall of water. You will notice briefly that every driver has the same focused, tight-lipped expression you can feel on your own face. In certain places, gray dirt will blow around your car, and it will be like driving through the densest fog you’ve ever seen. You must watch for hazards. The birds can’t control their flight, and will hurtle in front of you without warning, or remain stationary in the air, flapping their wings furiously. The huge flag at Gander Mountain will rip in half, and its stripes will drape across the bridge at I-40. Road signs and mailboxes will topple in your path throughout the day. Metal pieces of barns will fly across the road. And then, there are the tumbleweeds.

The tumbleweeds, or Russian thistles, seeds of which apparently came to our area hidden in a cold-hardy variety of wheat seeds, are fascinating plants. When they are on the move, they seem more like animals than vegetation, skipping along with real intention until a fence catches them. Once I stood at a gas station and watched tumbleweed after tumbleweed get pulverized by cars on the frontage road, and it was indescribably satisfying to see the round globes explode into tiny golden twigs. Of course, anyone who lives here knows the annoying sound of tumbleweeds dragging under a car, caught in the undercarriage, and the fun of having to dig the prickly, unfriendly things out of places they have wedged. I have seen tumbleweeds blow suddenly against my horses in the pasture; the horses jump and run away, bucking, then look back with great offense. Tumbleweeds are downright bothersome plants. But during the Dust Bowl, they provided some small bit of nourishment to livestock, and some families even canned them and tried to eat them themselves (if you live in the Panhandles and haven’t read The Worst Hard Time, you should. Some of the details of life here during that era are simply mind boggling).

The research I have done about the Dust Bowl in order to write my YA novel has been engrossing, and it has given me an entirely new way to think about where I live. It is a decade that was touched on briefly in my school history classes, but it molded our area and its people forever. Reading about it, I recognize home– the ruthless droughts and near-constant wind, the people who refuse to give up, and to a lesser extent now, the sandstorms– and it feels sometimes like all we have learned to do is hold our dirt down better. The settlers who caused the problem by turning up too much of the grassland too fast– they did what nearly anyone in their situation would have done. Ask yourself what you would have done, given free acreage and a mandate to grow wheat, and then imagine having to grow more and more to make the living you had made the years before as the price plummeted. They didn’t know better then, and there were so many misconceptions floating around, like the incredible “rain follows the plow” theory, or the idea that the aquifers were limitless (in fact, many people still treat our aquifers that way). The ruin of the land seems to be the direct result of human nature. It seems a miracle anyone survived the Dust Bowl. I hope that we know better now; we have by now ought to have learned to be better stewards of the places that sustain us. I never fully appreciated before the tenuousness of our lives in this area. It is an area that was long called uninhabitable for farmers and the people relying on their produce. We mustn’t take that for granted. The story of the Dust Bowl is, if nothing else, a warning.

But back to the tumbleweeds. Look out for them. Yesterday when I was walking to my car, a student was walking 10 or 15 feet behind and a little to the side of me. She was on her phone. Without warning a tumbleweed shot by me going about 50 miles per hour, and I stopped short and nearly tripped. It missed me by a scant inch. I turned to warn the student, but it was too late. She tried to jump over it and yelled something like, “Oh my god! I have to go!” into her phone. She ended up making it to her car without further incident, and I suspect she learned a valuable lesson that everyone here has to learn eventually– Watch out for tumbleweeds!– they must go where the wind carries them, and they won’t watch out for you.

I Will Do Better (Really! I Mean It!)

Dear friends– You have, by now, probably realized that I am the least consistent blogger in the known universe, and perhaps in universes as yet unknown, as well. I am going to genuinely try to start making more consistent posts so that they are less “Update! Important news! It’s been two years…” sorts of posts and more “Here is something to think about this week” sorts of posts. (Do I hear distant laughter? Hmm. It’s probably just the wind.)

Some of you already know that my most recent poetry book, The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City, was a recipient of the 2017 PEN Southwest Book Award. When Traveler’s Guide was announced as the poetry winner, I couldn’t have foreseen the changes it would lead to in my daily life, and I am grateful for all of them. It was strange, because up to that point I had worked on my craft in silence and relative isolation; I had given up on getting any sort of real recognition for it; I had taught myself to be content with the work itself. And that really was (and still is) what I cared most about– making my work the best it could possibly be. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t invisible anymore, and some amazing people locally started to care about my work and help me to promote it. And my parents weren’t the only people coming to my readings anymore. (When I said something like that to one of my publishers, he said, “My mom has never come to my readings,” and frowned. But my mom has been to some of his readings, so don’t fret too much, dear readers.) At the same time, I had started a treatment for Lyme disease that was working– slowly, but steadily, I was beginning to get my life back. (If you’d like to know my treatment protocol, I’d be happy to share it via email. It involves strengthening the body’s overall immune system.)

I am now the Writer-in-Residence at my undergraduate alma mater, West Texas A&M University. It is the job I have always wanted but never dreamed I’d actually get to perform, and I intend to give it my all. Though I am still getting a feel for the position, I have been thinking of the ways I can best add value to the school and its programs and developing a plan. If you are a student at WT and you are reading this, please get in contact with me. We can talk about your work in a friendly, safe, relaxed atmosphere; no question is too big or small.

Though I have had to make adjustments to accommodate lingering health issues, I am glad it has been possible to do so, and the effort has been more than worthwhile. The students I have spoken to are enthusiastic and talented. I am so very happy to be here. I take the responsibility of assisting student writers seriously. I remember how it felt to be one myself– the excitement and the vulnerability of beginning to share my writing. The type of feedback a writer receives at the beginning can have a big impact on what happens next, and this feedback must be handled with care so that it is both encouraging and helpful to the student’s work.

I started this position at the end of the fall semester; I expect the real work for me will start in January. And I am looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I wanted to let followers know about my current main work-in-progress, because I will sometimes post about it. I am writing a young adult historical fiction novel set during the Dust Bowl. I’ve done a lot of research, which has given me a whole new way to think about my home and my ancestors. I have so many projects going on at the moment that I don’t work on the novel daily, but when I do, it’s the sort of writing I get completely lost in, where hours fly by. I’m hoping to have it finished by spring.

I hope all of you caught in the snowstorm are warm and safe, and that you have mountains of books you can read, and tea, and maybe cats, if you, like me, profit off of their body warmth. (Hey, I feed them, they can earn their keep.) Please check back and see if I’ve been able to make another post before two years is out. (There’s that Texas wind blowing again…)