Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

A Conversation Between Jeff Hardin & Chera Hammons

In both of your recent collections, Recycled Explosions and The Traveler's Guide to Bomb City, the first poems' first lines mention beauty. "America" (from Recycled Explosions), begins, "We told ourselves it was the most beautiful," while the first line of "Amarillo" (from The Traveler's Guide) says, "There isn't anything pretty." How do you see this exploration of beauty playing out within your body of work, in your attention to place?

I try to define beauty largely because of the landscape in which I grew up. It was considered flat, ugly, boring. None of my friends could wait to leave, and they teased me for wanting to stay. But I loved the wide-open sky, the way storms swept in, the way I could see every nuance of a sunset's oranges and reds. The openness, plainness, and exposure that repulsed so many people felt clean and straightforward to me. People either strongly dislike the Texas Panhandle or remain fiercely loyal to it. I wanted to learn what it meant (or didn't mean) for me and to be able to communicate that meaning of my place. I know that there is a duality to beauty; nothing is perfect. This place is a difficult place to live, and it would be impossible to live here without being affected by its harshness. It is the windiest place in the country, and we have all sorts of extremes. We never see the color green, unless it is a lawn. And we are running out of water while people nurture their lawns. I have seen a lot of creativity, strength, and bravery here, but there can also be much intolerance and a sort of pride of ignorance. As a result, I've always loved my home while concurrently feeling like an outsider. And I think some of the frustration of feeling out of place shows up in my work, which as I've gotten older and more experienced has clarified into what can largely be considered my attempt to orient myself within a difficult landscape, to understand the border where my love and my frustration meet. My work has started to move both more outward and more inward. My newer work contains much of the same imagery--what I see all the time, after all--but the tone and themes are different. Though I am still in this place, now I am reaching beyond it. I'm no longer trying to define my home but am looking more at who I am, who this place has made me, and why I am here. But the "problem" of my home had to be understood first.

Yes, the problem of home has been a concern of mine, too. I'm an eighth generation descendent of the founder of Hardin county (TN), and though that might sound important, the truth is that I haven't lived there since I was 17. I've lived two thirds of my life elsewhere, in a sort of exile; even so, I still hear U2 saying, "It's not where you're born; it's where you belong." I have learned to make my home wherever I am. Likely, if anywhere, my truest home exists in the poems I've written. As I say in "Concerning the Shape of Time," addressed to my friend Tony Earley, somehow I became

this self
I never thought I'd be, who found a language
meaning can rejoice in--a kingdom I'm still
                              the only home I call my own.

As you say, poetry can be thought of as a way to orient ourselves, as a way to get from the outer to the inner and vice versa, as a way both to reject and to accept what "home" was, or is, or is still becoming. For me, the next poem I haven't entered yet is the home I most want to discover.

Jeff, I'm grateful for the happy coincidence that caused us to meet--my chapbook and your full length book winning the Jacar Press competitions in 2012. I enjoy reading your work partly because I find it to be so soothing. Using great care and intelligence, you manage to elevate common images and sentiments into something that feels sacred. As a reader, I feel as though I've come into a hushed, tranquil meadow in the middle of a busy city. Fortunately, you are also a prolific poet--I think you produce more poetry than anyone I know!--an ability I envy. The titles of your manuscripts--A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being, No Other Kind of World, Small Revolution, Restoring the Narrative, Notes for a Praise Book, and Fall Sanctuary--all indicate, on some level, this spiritual quality, or the quality of praise, that is central to your work. How do you manage to keep the door to this sacred space open? And how has the way you've approached this space changed throughout your journey as a poet?

Writing is a daily, devotional practice for me. If I don't sit down daily to explore the possibilities of language, I fear I will miss something essential or holy or insightful that might never appear again. Emerson says, "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within," and I have been faithfully trying to do just that for more than thirty years. The title of my 6th collection, A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being, speaks to the desire I have to step into a space where the mind--besieged from every side, unable to see past its own preconceptions--ultimately finds a solace or a silence, an interiority that allows stillness to settle in and reign.

My early life was spent within two sanctuaries, the first one Hopewell Baptist Church in Savannah, TN, and the second one 2000 acres owned by family friends. The first was full of hymns, sermons, prayers, and fellowship, while the second was full of bird songs, creek stones, tree wind, and solitude. These two sanctuaries define my life, my mind, and my words. My poems move back and forth between the two and teach me to look upon every place as a sacred space. In "Poem of the Earth," from my first collection, Fall Sanctuary, I speak of being twenty miles from town "on land that very few/could find." "[W]hen I stood/beside the creek," the poem continues, "I stood/beside the sea of Galilee./Great storms amassed and then/were calmed." That same "calm" appears again in my third book, Restoring the Narrative, where I listen "to water heal//its surface" and to "time fold[ing] into time." The fellowship I continue to have with writer friends, including yourself, is also part of that calm, that sanctuary, that sacred space poems invite us to step into. I can't imagine my life without all these other voices. In a way, they are simply another choir I have joined.

Your attention to those two sanctuaries is wonderful, and it goes a long way toward explaining why your work feels so quiet while it also brims with a sense of wonder. I appreciate that fellow writers, and perhaps even the traditions of poetry itself, actually add to that sanctuary, rather than adding noise. We're part of a conversation that has been going on for a long time, communicating our understanding of the world and our orientation within it. I am usually writing about my place on the stark, arid, wind-crossed prairie; you're writing from a place of trees and creeks and music. The poems are very different, but together they make a bigger story, and that story adds to another story.

You mention these other poets, this fellowship, often in your work, classic poets and contemporary ones. The second poem in No Other Kind of World, for example, mentions Bly, Neruda, Stafford, Bishop, Dickinson, Heaney, and Wendell Berry, and that is only one poem. This book alone is full of references and, I would say, tributes--not only to other poets and writers, but to artists and historical figures. You also have a practice of addressing poems to other poets, and they often address poems back to you.

There aren't many poets where I live, so one of my main struggles has been writing through isolation, when it sometimes feels like writing into a void, and it's often difficult to make connections with people doing what I am doing. This, by necessity, occurs most often for me online. There is something about speaking to a peer that is such a relief, knowing someone else understands your craft and your struggle with it. Such discussions help to keep the focus ahead.

Isolation is, in many ways, the essential human condition. Emerson said that for a thinking person the only two realities were the self and the abyss. Maybe the poems we write are merely (and mostly) a way to stave off the abyss, to understand our isolation from others, as well as to come to terms with the nagging sense that words may not change anything, that ultimately the self is (for the most part) the only real audience a poet has. The mind eavesdrops on itself, trying to fathom its own depths, lengths, and heights, and what lies beyond itself. Maybe that sense of writing "into the void" is not necessarily a bad thing, though. It might even be liberating.

I think of Stafford writing daily poems for decades, though we know only a portion of them. I think of haiku poets placing poems on a stream, letting them drift away. I think of all the poets who will not find an audience outside of a few devoted readers or friends. The task, then, is to bring the mind to the edge of the void and to listen, to have a day by day encounter with the fact of one's existence, its mystery and grief and joy and unlikeliness and temporality.

The focus ahead? The focus ahead is the next word, the next thought, the next plodding through the mind's turmoil and hush, hopefully leading into some expansiveness, some larger sense of being present. Maybe I call such a moment a sanctuary, a "clearing space in the middle of being," a "preview of eternity." When I find such a space, I sense that everything and every place and everyone and every tense of time are all suddenly present too.

No Other Kind of World ends with a poem titled "I Once Was Lost," echoing--that is, for anyone with ears to hear--the hymn "Amazing Grace." The poem's last lines speak to that sense I have of what writing a poem sometimes feels like:

                        Like always,

            I lose the thread
                        of what I'm looking for

            as soon as I begin.
                        And then--

            what else to call it--
                        I'm being led

            so that anywhere I go
                        I'm found.

I think that you've articulated the reason to practice poetry. It feels like being "found," being "present"--yes, it even feels like a "sanctuary." It can make us, for a moment, into the people we believe we can be. And it tells the truth. The only other thing I have found that has a similar effect on me is working with horses. I told a friend that the reward of poetry was in the work itself. I surprised myself when I said it, but it's true: I genuinely care--and I know you do, too--about writing poetry that connects to people and makes them feel less alone. But the spark often comes because of a desire to understand something better, to understand how to love something, or to learn how to praise something, or to grieve it.

Perhaps, if there is the "self" and the "abyss," our "self" in turn has two components: public and private. My public self is friendly, careful, a good conversationalist. My private self is the more honest one, the lonely and messy one, the one who fears. The one who is living nearest the abyss and trying to understand it, because it is good to understand one's neighbors. If it weren't for poetry, this private self of mine would never be able to speak. Yes, poetry is freedom. What I want more than any recognition is simply to make my work the best it can possibly be. I haven't gotten it where I want it to be yet. But this is purer and more satisfying than my motivation when I was younger and felt that I had something to prove. My poem "Shriven," originally published in Rattle, begins, "The worst part is that there is still some hope. / That there keeps being hope, no matter what happens to us." We get rejected. We keep going. We do this over and over. Sometimes I don't know why. It's just what we do. I think it's a part of the work, and we love the work. We don't know how to live without it.

If you think about it, almost all writing is rejection. Any poet--me, you, well-known poet A or lesser-known poet B--rejects poem after poem before putting anything on a page. Think of how many lines never make it to the page. Even the poems that appear are often discarded, never typed up, never submitted, while most of the poems that are submitted are returned. Then a fortunate day comes, and we are holding a book we have written. Perhaps we've won a book prize. Then the books, also, are rejected: i.e. not on bookshelves, not bought by readers, not reviewed, etc. Even so, this craving exists inside us to discover some unthought thought that has never existed before. Isn't writing poems one of the most wonderful things we do? I'm thankful so many poets have sat down to do the hard and joyous work of bringing words together on a page--I can't imagine my life without this daily chance to eavesdrop on another person's interiority made manifest before me, miraculously spoken into existence out of nothingness. 

Though we have never spoken about it, I suspect that your "private self" is what communicates a frightening and confusing childhood so well in some of your poetry. The speaker in these poems, which have a darker tone than your other writing, is a boy growing up in the rural South. But even they are dappled with light--a light that comes from the strength and confidence borne of surviving, of overcoming. You already know the power of telling this story, outside of any "recognition" you get for telling it. Perhaps this is why you say in "A Lost Word" (from Restoring the Narrative): "The word fills and fills. I love the word and pray / its prayer will say itself without my voice / above a place I cannot find or say." As if you are asking the rocks to cry out in your stead. And from the same book, in your poem "Acknowledgments"--and I think you actually mean this--"I'm deeply grateful for the fellowships that went to others while I sat and wrote / late nights at Waffle House or early mornings / on the porch before the kids awoke." Those late nights, the invisible struggles, help to keep us yearning for the next poem, the next book, the next story, and for someone to read them. Maybe we will have an audience, maybe we won't--but the work done during those late nights sustains us, even if no one sees it. I sometimes wonder if practicing poetry makes me selfish. I can only hope, if so, that my work is larger than I am.

Isn't it a comfort, though, to know that so many poets are working right now--everywhere at once, all over the globe--bent to the sound of words coming into existence, recreating creation, each word realigning our thoughts, if not our breathing? I have prayed for translators so that more words from languages I do not know might reach me in time. That's my greed. I want to know what the world sounds like through the voice of Carsten Rene Nielsen or Adam Zagajewski or Ko Un. I want to lean in close to hear what the words themselves are hearing, some deeper, truer place I might never have imagined could exist. I want to step into that interiority, to dwell there, to abide there. Then I want to hear other voices one by one drawing near to me, joining me within this clearing space--deepening it, widening it--until, finally, it is all that exists; and together, in fellowship, we move and have our being within it.

Jeff Hardin has been honored with the Nicholas Roerich Prize, the Donald Justice Poetry Award, and the X.J. Kennedy Prize. He is the author of six books, most recently Small Revolution, No Other Kind of World, and A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being.

Chera Hammons has published four books, most recently The Traveler's Guide to Bomb City and Maps of Injury. She lives in Amarillo, TX, with her husband and a menagerie of chickens, horses, cats, dogs, and rabbits.

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