Chera Hammons

amaranthineAmaranthine Hour (Jacar Press, 2012)

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

Amaranthine Hour first began to be gathered in 2002, after I enrolled in the creative writing undergraduate program at the College of Santa Fe. My (still lovely and much-loved) poetry teacher, ‘Annah Sobelman, required a book of the semester’s work as the final project. To meet the deadline, I had to include many poems that weren’t of the highest quality in the book’s first draft. Every year for about ten years— that’s right, ten years— I would add to the book or take away from it, and then send it out to contests at two or three small presses.

The oldest piece in the book is “The Pictures Are On A Tilt,” which was written in 2000 when I was 18 years old. I was still living with my parents then, during my first year of college. At the time, I was a photography major at the local community college, but I had been writing poetry for as long as I could remember and was taking a creative writing class as an elective. I remember sitting on my bed in my yellow and blue bedroom, which had a Van Gogh print on every wall. My print of The Starry Night, framed in a heavy, lopsided, homemade black metal and glass frame, easily became crooked at the slightest provocation, even if a door slammed on the other side of the house. Sometimes I got tired of straightening it. That particular day, I remember looking at it and thinking— Why do I keep fixing this? What would happen if I didn’t? My (often overly-active) imagination took over from there.

By contrast, the most recently crafted poem in the chapbook is “Papa’s Armistice,” which I wrote less than two weeks before I submitted my manuscript to Jacar Press. There are consequently fewer versions of it floating around on my hard drive than any other piece in the book.

What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?

I wrote Amaranthine Hour at a time when I was struggling mainly with questions about faith and about mortality. My way to explore those issues was by writing poetry. I often still find myself writing towards acceptance or at least understanding. To me, this book is about interconnectivity, the dual natures of things, the ephemeral natures of things, and about coming to terms with what can’t be changed. Parts of it are lonely, and parts are triumphant. But I don’t want what it means to me to dictate what it means to someone else.

Unless you compare it to my middle school and high school poetry, which consisted solely of traditional rhyming verse (mainly really terrible sonnets and couplets), Amaranthine Hour is predominantly my early work. I do think it differs from my current work to a great degree. Because of my previous marriage to an alcoholic, which took all of my energy to maintain, I took a six or seven year hiatus from serious writing. That doesn’t mean that I stopped submitting work altogether, but my rate of submission, as well as the generation of new work, dropped dramatically. I concentrated on poetry maybe a couple of times a year at odd moments, instead of making it a way of life.

Those years of my first marriage defined a great dividing line in my existence, and I feel like my work changed dramatically because of it. By the time I came out of the other side of that dark tunnel, I didn’t have much of my own identity left. I didn’t even know what food I liked to eat anymore, much less what my own voice sounded like. After I got to a certain point in my healing process, I began writing again, and it was depressingly difficult. I felt like I had started all over at the beginning, like I didn’t know how to write poetry anymore. But Amaranthine Hour was my old darling and I hadn’t given up on it. I eventually enrolled in the creative writing program at Goddard College to try to get my writing career going and, after much trial and error, I began to know my own voice again.

Whenever I began generating new work in earnest during my first semester at Goddard, I felt like my old work had some sort of hold on me that kept me from freely moving forward. Determined to find a publisher for it and to free my conscience from it, so to speak, I overhauled it one last time, revised and rearranged the pieces once more, and entered it in several contests at small presses. I entered it in the chapbook contest at Jacar Press right before the contest closed. Jacar got back to me on it in very little time— judge John Hoppenthaler had chosen it as the winner.

When I look at it now, Amaranthine Hour seems to have an innocence and mystery that my work now doesn’t have for me. Part of that is that I had to become a truly practical, much “harder” person to survive between the book’s conception and its realization. But I do feel like I’m improving all the time on different levels, and I’m grateful to be where I am now.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?

I used to get a “word of the day” email from Merriam-Webster, and one of the words long ago was “amaranth.” I became fascinated with the word because of its representation of two natures— the worldliness and usefulness of a plant that could be cultivated for food, and the otherworldly quality of a flower that never fades. Because I thought about it a great deal, it showed up several times in poems in the phrase “amaranthine hour”— for me, the idea of a piece of time that is practical because it’s being lived, eternal in its immutably having occurred, but ethereal in its fleetingness and in the ability of memory to change it. When the phrase first appeared in my work, I knew it was how I defined my body of work as a whole. My first genuine poetry teacher, ‘Annah, loved the phrase and encouraged me to embrace it. Amaranthine Hour has therefore only had one title.

Regarding arrangement— I think chapbooks are much easier to arrange than full length books. Since the poems all had the same kind of feel and recurring imagery (and I didn’t know any better), I went about arranging it instinctively, the way I would have made a mixed tape in high school— by feel, emotion. Each poem had to build on the one before, and the poems with echoing images had to have some space between them, but other than that, I just wanted the best flow. I can’t tell you how often I read and reread the manuscript over from the beginning, trying to get the right arrangement. I had the entire thing printed out so that I could shuffle the pages around. Any time a poem jarred with its surroundings, I moved it to a different place and read the book over again. If I just couldn’t seem to find a place for a poem, I removed it altogether. I didn’t set out to write a chapbook in particular, but that’s what the manuscript organically became when all the right pieces were put together and the ones that didn’t fit were pulled.

That being said, the ending was the ending because I wrote it to be a reverberation of all that had come before, but with a clear feeling of resolution. The title poem was always intended to be the ending. Every time the book changed, I revised the title poem to fit it again.

I feel like I have to mention that I actually found out not long ago that wild amaranth grows in my pasture, and I have been cooking with it this summer. You can eat the leaves just like spinach or kale! It gives me a whole new connection to the book.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I was fortunate in that Jacar Press worked with me a great deal to make sure that I would like the book’s appearance. I asked Richard Krawiec, the owner and manager of Jacar, if I could use my own photograph on the cover. If I couldn’t find one that we both liked, he indicated that he had several himself from which we could choose. After I submitted a few, he chose the one from my submissions that he thought would fit the work best. The cover photograph is one that I took near Calistoga, California, from my car while stopped at an intersection on the way to tour vineyards with my second (current and final) husband Daniel on our honeymoon in 2011. Danny Krawiec took charge of the book’s design, and I’m genuinely impressed with how it turned out.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

I have found promotion to be difficult in my area of the country. I’m not aware of any independent bookstores within a four hour drive of my location, and the local colleges, although both my alma maters, do not sell alumni books or support alumni writers, so those resources were not available to me. However, I did successfully approach local art galleries for support. One allowed me to set up a table for a signing and book selling that went far better than I expected, and another keeps Amaranthine Hour in stock.

Since I had just completed my first semester at Goddard when the book was released, I was able to take copies to the remaining residencies with me and stock them in the bookstore there alongside work from faculty and other students. A copy is in the library there, as well.

Online, I set up a website and blog, and I started a Facebook fan page (I don’t use any of them enough… Facebook sends me emails about my page that say things like, “You might have more fans than you think! Maybe you should put more effort into this!” and “People are forgetting about you! You should pay us to promote you!”). I also posted the book wherever I could in relevant groups, on walls, and on bulletin boards. I have lately been thinking of several other ways I could promote it online since a Kindle version is now available on Amazon.

In addition to what I have been able to do on my own, Jacar Press set up several readings in North Carolina for me and for their 2012 full-length manuscript contest winner, Jeff Hardin, when our books were released. Several books were sold that way, and I had a lot of fun and met some great people. I heartily wish I could do readings of my work locally, but I have been unable to find any other poets to read with me, and I think people would get tired of me pretty quickly if I read for an hour by myself.

I also always keep several copies of the book in my car or in my bag. It seems like opportunities to sell them often come up at random times, and it’s helpful to be ready for those. I sold a few this month at an event I organized that had nothing to do with my own poetry, but just because people found out I had a book and asked about it. So, writers, always keep a few copies of your books on hand, just in case the opportunity to “rehome” one arises.

What are you working on now?

I have, as is normal for me, several projects going on at once. I’m in the process of organizing regular events at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens in which readers perform a mix of classic and contemporary poetry for an audience. I’m teaching high school this fall and have been completing certification classes in order to obtain a secondary teaching license in Texas. My recently completed full-length manuscript is currently undergoing my revise-submit-revise-resubmit process as I try to find a publisher for it (hopefully it takes less than ten years this time). I’m working on my next full-length manuscript, as well, but I’m only about 25% into that one. I have ideas for more chapbooks and a cross-genre book I would really like to have time to work on, but alas, they are as yet only sketched out in my brain. I want to do a book of translations from French poetry at some point. There are also at least two novels I’d love to write before someone else has the same idea, but I have a hard time writing long fiction (I don’t have the patience for it), so they may never happen. I think I have about 38 more years until I can retire and write full time. So, maybe check back with me in 2052 for an update.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

I have learned a great deal through my experiences so far as a poet, as an editor, as a student, and as a teacher. Persistence is key. Be tenacious. If your work is something that you really believe in, don’t be discouraged by rejection. Publication is often a matter of getting your work on the right desk at the right time. Statistically, the more you submit, the more of a chance you have of being published. I keep so many pieces out and get so many rejections that I would have to try pretty hard to take it personally at this point.

That being said, be honest with yourself about your own work. Research to find the right markets for it. Make writing a way of life, think about it all the time, and always move ahead. It’s imperative, too, to listen to the feedback you get and to keep striving to be a better writer. Let a lot of knowledgeable, honest people read your work, and be willing to take the criticism that leads to improvement.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

“Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook?” and “Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?”

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?

I connect most particularly to three poems: “Papa’s Armistice,” inspired by my grandfather and the souvenir he brought back from Korea, the only thing I have of his; “Singlefooting,” based on riding a little rescued Paso Fino horse I had for almost ten years (he was big-hearted, kind, and also really flashy under saddle, but I lost him to cancer several years after writing this poem); and “Dark Canyon.” I know that “Dark Canyon” isn’t the most impressive piece in the book, but every time I reread it, I go back to the moment it describes so vividly— it’s like a time machine to a place I don’t really like to visit, but it’s necessary to go there sometimes to be reminded.

There’s a place in New Mexico, maybe an hour or two outside Albuquerque in Santa Fe National Forest, called Jemez Springs. It’s beautiful there. Dark Canyon is the name of one of the hiking and fishing areas— if you’re ever there, you’ll see a sign for it where you can pull off. You can hike down to the Jemez River. There are these lovely tall trees, some of them piñon pines, some of them with vivid red leaves. The ground is coated with pine needles, so your feet don’t make a lot of noise when you walk. The only sound is the water rushing around these great, gray boulders. The streams are stocked with trout from the hatchery upriver.

My ex-husband and I had gotten “High Country” fishing licenses and had been going for months trying to catch some trout. The water was so clear, you could see the trout just sitting in the river, but they were too smart to bite. We had tried everything.

The day that the poem describes, we had gotten earthworms and were trying casting downriver and then reeling slowly back up. When I finally hooked a rainbow trout, I thought my hook was caught on some weeds until I had reeled the line in pretty close to me. I hadn’t caught a fish since I was a little kid, so I had no idea what to do with it. I couldn’t even stomach baiting my own hook, let alone trying to unhook a fish.

When I got it up out of the water, I could see that the trout had actually swallowed the hook, and I knew that all was lost for the trout. My ex tried to pull the hook out, but the fish was suffering and I knew he’d have to just kill it. It was such a beautiful fish. On the way back to the car I carried its glinting body and just kept thinking about it. It was a significant moment in my life, a turning point that I didn’t see at the time.

That was the last moment I remember spending during my first marriage that wasn’t just a series of betrayals and disappointments. When I wrote the poem later, it became a metaphor for the shock that I had felt myself when I came to understand that my idea of safety had changed forever, that there are things that inexorably tear from you the world you know, and that you can have a share in the responsibility for them, no matter how harmless your intentions.

Have you found in your writing of poems that they are separate from you—that they have their own lives and desires—or that they are extensions of you without “selves” apart from your own notion of “self” and your imagination?

I don’t feel like they are separate from me, probably because I think about each piece for a long time before I sit down and write it. But I do feel like my best poems are those that came easiest— that I didn’t have to force in any way. Those generally come out whole and don’t usually require a lot of editing.

Sometimes I write down a few lines and then leave a document file open with those lines for several months at a time (I don’t restart my computer nearly as often as I should). Then, at the right moment, I’ll see something that inspires the rest of the poem, and I sit down and finish it as soon as I can. My work does sometimes surprise me, but less often now that I’m a more mature writer and much more conscious of craft. I think the spark is where the surprise most often is for me, and where “the other” comes into my process most.

Do you think that in the course of your present and/or future career, having written and published a full-length book, you’ll come back to the chapbook, publishing them (or attempting to) as you see fit or as the work seems to elect, or do you see the chapbook as a breakthrough collection to longer works?

I see the chapbook as a powerful medium for a certain type of content— a cohesive collection of work that is not as long as a full length manuscript. Sometimes fewer pages are just more appropriate. Although Amaranthine Hour wasn’t originally intended to be a chapbook, it works well as one— far better than any of my full-length versions of it did. I plan to write chapbooks purposefully in the future as a way to explore material and themes that are closely related, but that might be hard to stretch into a longer manuscript.

Concerning voice and style: Do you find it something that you consciously think about or do you simply write? Do try to reinvent yourself every few years, go looking for a new way, or do you think that finding a certain language, a certain voice and pushing and honing it over a lifetime is your preferred mode?

It’s normal for me to have a gap in my regular writing of several weeks, or sometimes months, whenever I experience a significant change in my life— particularly since my work is so based on “place,” and I feel like I have to be somewhat grounded to be productive. I used to really worry during those quiet times, wondering if I’d “lost it,” if I’d ever write again. I’d lose sleep over it and get depressed.

Inevitably, though, I’d start writing again at some point, and my work would be slightly adjusted to accommodate a slightly adjusted world view. The poetry usually comes back stronger. I’ve learned to just keep thinking about writing during those times, and to take lots of notes about things that I see. That way, when the smoke clears, I can move ahead more easily.

Practicing writing has also been important— I mean, learning to sit down and think like a writer, understanding your own process and what you can do. Sometimes I have to write something on the page just to feel the pen moving, and that gets things started. I even sit down sometimes when I’m blocked and just type out lyrics of Dave Matthews or Decemberists songs while I listen to them. I think being a practiced writer has reduced the lengths of those gaps for me when they do occur.

Since my work changes as I change, I wonder sometimes about what it will look like ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. I have no idea where it will end up because I don’t know where I will end up. Hopefully someplace wonderful and meaningful!

What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?

I feel like I have been incredibly lucky with Amaranthine Hour. I couldn’t have asked for a better home for it than Jacar Press. Richard Krawiec has done a lot to support my growth as a poet, because he didn’t just publish the book and leave me to my own devices (which still would have been thrilling). He has instead included me (and the authors of other books the press has published) in many other projects, including asking me to serve on the editorial board at online poetry review One (one.jacarpress.com). It took a long time for Amaranthine Hour to be realized, but the whole experience was definitely worth the wait.

These days, my main goals are to keep moving forward, keep improving, stay involved in the writing community and in my immediate community, and find the right publisher for my newest manuscript before the next decade is out. I’ll keep you posted!

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Chera Hammons’ work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Connotation Press, Rattle, Sugar House Review, Tar River Poetry, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. Her chapbook Amaranthine Hour received the 2012 Jacar Press Chapbook Award. She is a graduate of the MFA Program at Goddard College and currently resides in Amarillo, TX, where she works as a high school English teacher. She is also a member of the editorial board of poetry journal One.

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www.pw.org/content/chera_hammons

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Wolf-Tongue

You dream of a shining being making bright things,
and that is when the moon falls.

Fear is featureless, in the shape of a man. The light falls.
You open your throat to catch it;
the darkness whispers Prophesy, but do not
Love. The dark god of dark creatures spreads your
teeth, saying, Sing, saying, Do this wordlessly.

The night has scoured you to sinew
with its waiting. Say that you are waiting,
disembodied lung, hidden speech, black
Instrument—come in through the cracks where
the house has settled. Come out from the
low places, into the airtight room.

Dogs listen to the ground open. They
worry the sleeping chambers where their masters
rest. They can smell the last breath
leaving, pulling the warmth under skin out through every wall.

You feel the wilderness of your descent and
Stand. When this simplicity of speech falters, you hear
the shadows move; the hollows of the fields
lie bare and drying in the sun.

There is a pause when he sees what he has
Illuminated. The earth sparkles as it moves.
Its surface shines with clouds.

The voice says Sing, and hold it there.

from Amaranthine Hour, first appearing in the Improbable Worlds anthology by Mutabilis Press

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