Sunday, March 10, 2019

#79 Backstory of the Poem "Paddling" by Chera Hammons Miller

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#79 Backstory of the Poem 
“Paddling” by Chera Hammons Miller         
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? Usually, when I experience something of note (whether traumatic or otherwise), it takes time before I am able to process it enough to write about it. 

Sometimes I just don’t know how to approach it at first. Maybe it’s silly, but I think of the poetic mind as a sort of rock tumbler; it has to live with and consider the event until the true character of it comes through. This poem is about euthanizing my gentle old riding horse, a well-behaved and willing gelding I’d had for about ten years. 

He never once refused when I asked something of him. I had gotten him as a bag of bones from a horse trader for something like $200. Once he was healthy, he was one of the best horses I ever had. And then he got cancer. I had tried to write about this experience several times before, but none of those poems were worth keeping; none of them were right. 

This one finally did what I wanted it to do. Though I sometimes combine or shift particulars to make a poem work better, the details in this poem are exactly as they happened. The same event sometimes shows up in my other work, as well, because it is something that still bothers me. For example, it is an important part of my more recently written poem “The Capacity for Malignancy is Ancient,” which is available to read online at Rust + Moth.

Here’s what happened. Once the cancer was diagnosed, the horse’s condition worsened quickly. We hired a neighbor with a backhoe to dig a grave with a dirt ramp in my parents’ pasture, where we were keeping our horses at the time. I led the horse down the ramp into this grave. My husband, my dad, the neighbor, and the vet joined us at the bottom, and the vet euthanized the horse with two injections: the first, a standard tranquilizer, and the second, the overdose that would stop his heart.
I remember that with every step approaching the grave, with the horse walking softly beside me, I felt like I was betraying the horse. I wanted to yell at him to run away, to save himself. He hesitated at the top of the ramp, but he followed me down because he was so obedient. He was suffering, he was in his mid-twenties by that point, and I knew I did the right thing by him, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I had used his trust in me to destroy him. I was able to do that because he followed me so willingly. He still had enough instinct or presence of mind to not want to die, but to let him keep living in his condition would have been cruel on my part. I wish I could have explained to him what was happening.

This happened in November of 2011. Soon afterwards, I think within a week, I received the call from Paul Selig telling me I had gotten into the MFAW program at Goddard College.

Goddard was difficult for me both physically and emotionally, though I loved being there; now I know that I was battling Lyme disease without knowing what was wrong, and I was also still dealing with the residue left by my previous marriage to a gaslighter and abuser. I was so exhausted I spent much of the time in a haze. 
I didn’t get to socialize much because my energy was so low; most of the time not spent in workshops or at meals, I was alone in my dorm room, thinking of what had brought me to this point, how important it was not to waste such an opportunity, and thinking of what to write about, what I was carrying around with me that made me feel so heavy. It was easier to write about losing a horse than losing faith. I thought about his death, and then getting the call that I would be going to Vermont to work on my writing, something I had always wanted to do. 

I started to think how surprised I had been when the vet had called the horse’s kicking upon death “paddling.” Such an odd way to say that the horse’s nervous system kept firing. I knew I wanted to write a poem that started with paddling (the sort of euphemism) and ended with kicking (what you actually see happen). Once I figured out how to do that, I filled in the middle with the details. Then I revised it to make it less emotionally focused and more succinct.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. My memory is a bit unreliable because I suffer from cognitive dysfunction. I sometimes wrote in different places at Goddard, the cafeteria or a seating area by the computer lab. I am almost certain this piece was written in my dorm room, though, because that’s the feeling I get from it (and I know I would have fought tears while writing it, which is something I prefer not to do with others around). 

I had a single room, always kept quite pleasantly warm, with a twin bed under a big window, a chest of drawers, a trash bin, and a doorless closet with a bright mural painted over the doorway. There was a dusty off-white linoleum(?) tile floor. I could always hear other people’s voices and Netflix episodes through the walls, and someone in the dorms wore patchouli, so the scent was always in the air. 
There may have been a desk, but I often sat on the bed to write. The bareness of the room would have aided the feel of the poem, since I wanted it to have the essentials of the experience.

What month and year did you start writing this poem?
I’m guessing it was written in maybe June 2012 or January 2013.

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I remember that I over-wrote it without worrying too much about that and then cut some it out, went back and forth on some word choices, but it didn’t completely change shape as poems sometimes do between rough and final drafts. I would say there were maybe four versions total between the rough draft and the one in the book, with increasingly minor changes. There would have been the initial draft, the one I took to my advising group, the one I had revised after incorporating to their feedback, and the one that ended up in the book and that I sent around to journals. 

I had already started doing my writing via computer at that point instead of pen and paper (I had a little Toshiba netbook I used for grad school), as my hands can be arthritic, and a word processor is less stressful for me in general—if I mess up, I can hit the backspace key, and it isn’t messy. Unfortunately, this convenience has come at the expense of my rough drafts. Once I am certain of a change, I save the new version over the old one.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poemthat were not in the final version? And can you share them with us? The main thing I remember revising is related to the duck image at the beginning of the poem. 

I don’t remember what the lines were, just some unnecessary details. I didn’t need to carry the image for several lines, as I had originally done, when only a couple were needed. The duck image wasn’t important except as comparison and progression, and focusing on it too heavily was confusing for the reader. I think I had originally dwelt on that outside image too heavily in order to delay getting to the more painful material.
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? I wrote this poem largely to help process some of the guilt I felt about the horse’s death and to release some of the images that were still so clear. I imagine most people have, at some point, experienced the loss of a companion animal. They are such a large part of our lives, we shouldn’t feel embarrassed about grieving them, or feel that one’s grief is more consuming than it “should” be. 
I’ve had closer relationships with my horses than I have had with most people; a person and horse can really get to know each other, to the point their interactions are downright telepathic. Owning an animal also comes with a great deal of responsibility, including that of deciding life or death, because we have created a world in which they cannot care for themselves—and that means we must do it. 

Their lifespans are generally shorter than ours; maybe we’re there at the beginning of their lives, as well as the end, and we’re all they ever know. I knew it was ridiculous for me to carry guilt over doing what my vet had advised me was the kindest and most responsible thing to do for my horse. I could see it myself. It was the perceived betrayal of trust that hit me so hard, and that was because I was imagining it from the horse’s perspective and reading my own interpretations into the horse’s viewpoint. The horse himself likely didn’t have any such concerns. I want the reader to see that, by the end of the poem, there isn’t anything else to be done. It’s not good or bad. The poem does not embellish or try to teach a lesson. All it does is tell what happened. And that is also how an animal would likely experience it, too—with practicality, a view of the moment itself, not its implications.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why?  “It was his first step into the ground, / and he would not look me in the eye / with so much else on his mind.” I vividly remember kneeling beside the horse, wanting to comfort him, with everyone else standing silently around me, and clouds floating through the square of blue sky over the grave, but he was preoccupied with dying and seemed completely indifferent to my presence there; I felt helpless and inadequate. Those lines remind me of that feeling.

Has this poem been published before? And if so where? I didn’t send this poem around very much, thinking the subject would generally be considered too trivial. But you really never know what is going to hit and what will miss. Maybe I ought to have tried harder.  One of the great things about writing poetry, though, is that the poem itself, your own creation, can benefit you. This one has helped me to confront something I didn’t know how else to face. And I hope it helps other people to know that their similar experiences aren’t isolated ones. Poem: “Paddling,” from The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City by Chera Hammons.

Anything you would like to add? One of the reasons I picked this poem is the timing of your request. We had to euthanize our elderly dog a few days ago; she, too, had developed cancer. She lived two good years past what was expected, and we knew the end was approaching, but the situation was difficult nevertheless. She was always here, and now she isn’t. I remembered this poem because the situation was similar. And I appreciate being given the opportunity to share a piece that means a great deal to me personally, but that usually doesn’t attract much attention. Thank you!

—that's what the vet called it
when she told us what to expect,
as if the horse could choose
to bob like a duck in the middle of its cool
world, a buoy of unconcern.
Not that a horse's body tried so hard
not to lose its running that it couldn't stop.
There's no good word for that, I guess.
Still, an old horse must be put down
when it gets to a certain point more quickly than it should.
Muddy bay furry with hay and cold weather,
warm, the coat twitched under the needle,
thinking it had found some new kind of barn fly.
While the first sleep coursed through
we watched him splay as he tried to keep standing,
and we muscled him onto his left side,
the side you mount from.
Four of us held him down
(it takes four people to kill a horse like that,
a horse that has other ideas)
while the vet tried to find the vein again.
As I stroked a cool nose she said,
This one he's not coming back from.
It was his first step into the ground,
and he would not look me in the eye
with so much else on his mind.
She stood as the neck pushed the nose into the dirt
and we waited to know what we should do.
Stand up and stand back, she said.
Stay away from the kicking.

Chera Hammons currently serves as the Writer-in-Residence at West Texas A&M University. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College. Her work has appeared in such publications as Beloit Poetry Journal, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Connotation Press, Rattle, Sugar House Review, Tar River Poetry, Tupelo Quarterly, and Valparaiso Poetry Review
Her chapbook Amaranthine Hour received the 2012 Jacar Press Chapbook Award. Books include Recycled Explosions (Ink Brush Press, 2016), The Traveler's Guide to Bomb City (Purple Flag Press, 2017, winner of the 2017 PEN Southwest Book Award), and Maps of Injury (forthcoming in 2020 from Sundress Publications). She is a member of the editorial board of poetry journal One. She resides in Amarillo, TX, with her husband, five horses, a dog, three cats, a donkey, and a rabbit.


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

039  November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”

040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”

041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”

042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”

043  November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”

044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”

045  December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”

046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”

047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”

048  December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”

049  December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”

O50  December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”

051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov

052  December 27, 2018
“Under Surveillance”
by Michael Farry

053  December 28, 2018
“Grand Finale”
by Renuka Raghavan

054  December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry

055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo

056  January 7, 2019
“The Seamstress:
by Len Kuntz

057  January 10, 2019
"Natural History"
by Camille T Dungy

058  January 11, 2019
by Brian Burmeister

059  January 12, 2019
by Clint Margrave

060 January 14, 2019
by Pat Durmon

061 January 19, 2019
“Neptune’s Choir”
by Linda Imbler

062  January 22, 2019
“Views From the Driveway”
by Amy Barone

063  January 25, 2019
“The heron leaves her haunts in the marsh”
by Gail Wronsky

064  January 30, 2019
by Terry Lucas

065 February 02, 2019
“Summer 1970, The University of Virginia Opens to Women in the Fall”
by Alarie Tennille

066 February 05, 2019
“At School They Learn Nouns”
by Patrick Bizzaro

067  February 06, 2019
“I Must Not Breathe”
by Angela Jackson-Brown

068 February 11, 2019
“Lunch on City Island, Early June”
by Christine Potter

069 February 12, 2019
by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

070 February 14, 2019
“Daily Commute”
by Christopher P. Locke

071 February 18, 2019
“How Silent The Trees”
by Wyn Cooper

072 February 20, 2019
“A New Psalm of Montreal”
by Sheenagh Pugh

073 February 23, 2019
“Make Me A Butterfly”
by Amy Barbera

074 February 26, 2019
by Sandy Coomer

075 March 4, 2019
“Shape of a Violin”
by Kelly Powell

076 March 5, 2019
“Inward Oracle”
by J.P. Dancing Bear

077 March 7, 2019
“I Broke My Bust Of Jesus”
by Susan Sundwall

078 March 9, 2019
“My Mother at 19”
by John Guzlowski

079 March 10, 2019
by Chera Hammons Miller

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