Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Archive for slam

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!