T.R. Hummer is the author of 11 books of poetry and prose, most recently The Infinity Sessions: Poems (LSU Press, Southern Messenger Series, 2006), Bluegrass Wasteland: Selected Poems (Arc Publications 2005), and The Muse in the Machine: Essays on Poetry and the Anatomy of the Body Politic (University of Georgia Press, 2006).Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, the Hanes Poetry Prize, and two Pushcart Prizes, he lives among the Arizona cacti and teaches whomever he can at Arizona State University. His blog, “Mindbook,” is at www.mindbook1.blogspot.com.
T.R. Hummer interview with John Hoppenthaler
Terry, it’s fair to say, I think, that you’ve bounced around a lot. You graduated from the University of Utah with a PhD, where you studied with Dave Smith and edited Quarterly West in 1979. You moved on to teach at Oklahoma State University, where you were poetry editor of The Cimarron Review. In 1984 you relocated to Kenyon College where, after visiting positions at Middlebury College (where you guest edited New England Review) and the University of California at Irvine, you became editor of The Kenyon Review. In 1989 you returned to Middlebury as editor of New England Review. You left there for the University of Oregon in 1993, where you directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing. In 1997, you taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, and then at the University of Georgia, where you were the editor of The Georgia Review. Now you teach at Arizona State University. Is this a result of some profound uneasiness in you or just how things turned out? How has so much moving around affected your writing and your personal life? What can you say about the fact that you’ve been the editor of three of the most prestigious literary journals around?
There are several very different questions intertwined here. I have indeed moved around more than most; for many years I was an academic migrant worker by choice, as I always moved by choice—whether as a result of some “profound uneasiness” or not is a question better left to the psychoanalyst I’ve never had. I have moved in part out of curiosity, and in part simply because I could. I grew up in a seriously isolated situation (rural Mississippi in the bad old days: say no more) and what passes in me for wanderlust may have stemmed in part from a reaction to that fact. However, much of my intellectual and artistic obsession has stemmed from a desire to understand the nature of the American body politic, and that made relocation another kind of necessity. I don’t say that my writing drove me to move around—that would be far too melodramatic an encapsulation of the facts—but my writing has followed me. You don’t mention that I spent a year in the UK in the late 1980s, an experience that had quite profound resonances on my self-understanding (I realized that I was/am far more “American” even than I had understood myself to be, and I also experienced the curious sensation of being a free-floating cell detached from the host body, a situation I had never understood before that time).
As to editing—a completely different subject—I have been privileged to be in very interesting situations, and I’m grateful for the experience. To summarize all I learned by doing that work would require a lengthy essay, and I have written on editing elsewhere. For present purposes, suffice it to say that editorial work can be in and of itself an exacting education, and I am one in constant need of education.
In his fine essay on your work (up to and including Walt Whitman in Hell), “Heresy and the American Ideal,” David Baker writes, “Hummer is an ambitious, even ferocious aspirant to the membership of strong poets. His intention seems to be nothing less than to identify, confront, and revise the ideals of American Romanticism and transcendentalism.” He goes on to write that you are “both rebel and heretic—a skeptic toward the politics and faith embedded in American culture and a revisionist of the Romantic ideal.” To call such a project “ambitious” is almost an understatement. Does Dave have it right? And, if so, is this still your project, or have your poetic goals changed?
David Baker is in a better position than almost anyone to have known what I was up to during an extended portion of my writing life; we met as graduate students at the University of Utah in 1978 and have been great friends ever since; and for a long span of time we were very closely in communication about each others’ work. His essay is very accurate particularly with reference to work I did before Walt Whitman in Hell; his essay really only brushes up against that book, which came out while he was writing the essay, and given the length and detail of the piece he wrote, it would have been unrealistic for him to have extended it farther. However, Walt Whitman in Hell was a tipping point for me—a breaking point, I might say, since it’s a book that almost broke my back to write. Before that book, I was writing (on several levels, anyway) with, and against, the stream of a certain subset of the history of ideas; during the composition of WW in Hell I internalized a certain agon as completely as I possibly could: the imperative of writing not out of “my own” life and mind but at the point where my life and mind crucially intersect the mind of the body politic. Now, this is precisely a “Romantic ideal,” if we define that phrase in terms of Whitman, who did precisely what I wanted to do. But Whitman was in a completely different cultural context than we are in. He was in a position to occupy a certain vacant zone in American being. Before Whitman, one might say, the American body politic had no voice. (This point is arguable, and I could, in the space of several million words, qualify it to make it more accurate, but for the moment this will have to do.) Whitman was able to write his own job description as a poet in a way that is no longer possible for an American poet (or one from almost anywhere else). Moments arise in the histories of cultures wherein it is possible to simply begin. But once the cultural snowball starts rolling, there’s no stopping it until it goes where it has to. The body politic now is a cacophony of wills, of voices, of impulses, and to speak its language one has to be dismembered like Dionysus and be granted a new life. That, succinctly put, is my poetic project, begun in the necessary wreckage of the old Jim Crow South, where my ancestral racist selfhood had in any case to be hacked apart and begun again.
You are a native of Mississippi, some of your poetic influences, especially early on, have seemed to include Dave Smith, James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, and James Whitehead, and your subject matter sometimes includes “southern” content. Do you see yourself as a “southern poet,” in that tradition? And what exactly is the nature of that tradition in the contemporary period? This is a subject I’ve found fascinating lately, particularly after making a study of Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard. For example, I see the very nature of a typical “southern” reader changing before our eyes, as demographics change, as attitudes change, as those who teach in southern colleges and universities change.
Am I a Southern poet? No. No and no and no. And yes, I suppose, but only in a deeply qualified sense. Again, this is a subject about which I have written extensively, and painfully, at least to me. The poets you mention have been important to me, especially Dave Smith, who was a central teacher for me, and continues to be a profoundly important friend. And yet, I think that if you examine the poems I’ve written since about 1985, you would be hard pressed to find very much about it that is specifically Southern. That’s rather a long time ago. As a footnote to this particular question, I will complain that I seem, in many quarters, to be ineradicably typecast “Southern” by people who do not seem to have read my work. Well, all right. The South is of course where I come from; in that sense I am of course Southern. However, beyond that sense, I don’t know what it would mean to be a “Southern” poet. The first poet I ever imitated was Poe, and he is of course from the South, but what is “Southern” about Poe’s work? After him, I was interested briefly in e.e. cummings, but began to forget about him when I read Stevens, Yeats, Hopkins, and Wordsworth. Those four poets influenced me when I was in my late teens and early twenties more than any others, and continue to be central to my poetry, along with a great many others.
There are writers from the South who set great value on being Southern. That’s fine; I don’t try to argue them out of it. Many of them have tried to argue, or seduce, me “back home” as they say, and I can’t for the life of me understand why. I returned to the South to live for awhile (Virginia and Georgia) and those places seemed about the same as everywhere else. My own opinion is that there is very little life left in geographical regionalism, and that that’s a good thing. Globalization puts McDonalds and Starbucks on every street corner, and there is real room for lament in that, but regional isolationism breeds xenophobia, racism, and reactionary paranoia, and I’d rather have Starbucks, given the choice. Poetry, meanwhile, is a shape-shifter, and while it has worn the trappings of regions it has never been essentially a regional thing: it is in fact anti-regional, to the extent that it provides avenues for eroding human limitation—regionalism being by definition a matter precisely of limits.
In a 2004 interview with Here Comes Everybody, you say, “Vis-a-vis ‘citizenship,’ the poet's electives range between these poles: Auden's ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ and Milosz's ‘what good is a poetry that does not change nations?’" Your poetry certainly lives closer to Milosz’s ideal. Does American poetry, as David Wojahn and others have recently argued, need to take on larger issues than the egoic (romantic?) self, political issues, in order to have anything like value?
I’m not prepared to say what Poetry in general should and should not do. I have said above that my artistic obsession orbits around the intersection of the individual body and the body politic, and that’s where I stake out my personal struggle. That particular enterprise takes me outside my personal story, to a large extent—a story which, as story, no longer interests me greatly in any case. I prefer to say that the poems I most admire and want to place myself in the company of are poems of conscience in the strict sense of the word: together-knowledge being the root meaning of that strange word. Art, however, is also always about consciousness, a word which in its root sense is peculiarly (and indeed perilously) close to conscience. To say that I write out of the dance of conscience and consciousness is another way of saying that I want the body to dance with the body politic in my poems. Those two formulations are one.
While reading around in your blog, Mindbook (http://mindbook1.blogspot.com/), I was struck by a piece you wrote in October of 2009, “A Note to Scott Olson, Editor of Ascent, on the Publication of the First All-Online Issue of That Magazine.” You say a lot of things in that essay that account for my own giving in to the internet as a legitimate (even crucial) site of literary production and transmission. Like you, my mentors are of a generation still largely suspicious of the internet as a place to publish their poetry, poetry that they have worked hard to produce and which they feel ought to be published on paper. I sometimes still feel that way myself; there’s something that feels insubstantial and impermanent about the internet, but I now believe just the opposite. What can be more permanent, I now have come to believe. In that essay you write, “Here is a scary statistic: a reader’s poll along about a decade ago, revealed that the median age of a reader of The Georgia Review (I don’t want to pick on that great magazine, I just know things about it; the same no doubt would apply to many other similarly positioned lit mags) was 58 years old. 58! And that was 10 years ago! I turned 59 a couple of months back, and I have no axe to grind about people that age, but come on: the MEDIAN AGE? How, we asked ourselves, do we get younger readers? We never were able to answer the question.” As we both know, younger readers are getting their literature right here, online, and so those who resist establishing an online presence risk currency. Is that how you see it? Is the online community now vital in the creation and/or maintenance of a career in poetry?
I don’t know about careers. I confess that these days I flinch at the phrase “career in poetry,” partly because I know there’s really no such thing. One makes one’s living as one makes it: teaching works pretty well for many of us, and sometimes we get to teach poetry. However, teaching poetry is not writing poetry. Being a poet is a living vocation which nobody will pay anybody very much to do. I don’t lament that. It would be pointless to do so. At the same time, it would be a little disingenuous for me to celebrate it; if somebody wanted to dump a bale of money on me because of my poems, I would likely not refuse. I do rather like the story that A. R. Ammons returned his MacArthur Foundation money a week or so after he received it because it made him nervous, but for better or worse my nerves are on a different wavelength from those of Mr. Ammons. The lives and vital functioning of literary “organs” of various kinds—magazines, presses, online venues—are something else again. These “institutions” (for want of a better word) are caught in a curious friction between the capitalism that rules every marketplace now and the gift economy that rules art. There are two issues here, which are related but are separate. One is the cost effectiveness of media that produce little or no income; the other is the sense of immediacy of the transaction that binds audience to artist. We love books and magazines, we readers; we draw part of the substance of our lives from them. Some people don’t; we do (just as some people eat meat and some don’t). What kind of delivery system works best for whom? And what can we afford?
The internet provides an opportunity for connection-through-characters that print also offers but more distantly, more slowly, and (perhaps) more richly, though I’m not entirely convinced of that last point. People seem immediately present through the screen of my computer. They’re out there. They write back! Instantly, sometimes! It may be that in the long run electronic media will provide a perfect compromise between orality and literacy, wherein the writer’s language has the “permanence” of print, but through which the audience can immediately make its opinion of the work known. (Or perhaps not. Time will tell.)
Print is more ponderous to produce and to distribute, and more costly—or is it? How much does it really cost to produce an online publication, if you count in the cost of servers (and all that implies: software, hardware, human expertise) and of the computers that readers must use to access online material? We have the illusion that artifacts are free online. However, that issue is not settled. Newspapers are failing; the ones that survive are starting to fight back against giving material away for nothing. I need not even bring up the effect that the internet has had on the music industry, both for good and for ill. We don’t yet know what a poem “costs” on the internet, nor who pays for it exactly, or how long the present situation will endure. But for the future, part of our job, as readers and as writers, is to find out.
At dinner, he sat silent, staring at his plate while the others chatted--a ringing in his ears, a gray aura around the chop, sulfurous mist.
The astronomer closed his dome at dawn. The morning star incised the horizon with a smell of lilies and a circle of blood on the eyepiece.
The old woman in the wheelchair watched raindrops inscribe the window. She read its poem to her blind friend, who mumbled protest: too fast.
She pauses on the bridge and looks down. Something about the way water moves, about light. But the child pulls her skirt, crying time, time.
div>They sat on the bridge rail drinking wine in starlight, watching for meteors to etch their glasscutter lineage into what passed for future.
Dying, by then, seemed normal to her, a breath and another breath and nothing, a stone dropped in water continuing in water to be a stone.
In pinewoods at midnight the trapped weasel gnawing its own leg stops to consider its bitter self-taste.
Horses in a meadow over strata of loess and limestone, reflections limned through the meniscus of earth by fossilized skeletons of dolphins.
That singular point on the continuum from which time reads like an inscribed transparency: just ahead, the hospital bed, the miraculous IV.
Silence in the house, people gone out, cats sleeping, leafblowers put away, the half life of the crawl space ticking down toward zero.
A wind in the desolation of the closet, incremental movement like the shifting of tectonic plates, while in the wall a mouse skull settles.
In a bathroom drawer there are artifacts: molecules of talcum, dried smear of cat's blood, a lingering odor of unidentifiable ointment.
After the journey, months of wandering through landscapes of bone and salt, we came at last to prairie, a rotting expanse of Persian carpet.
The cleaning finally ended. If there were beds, they would never be made; dishes would stay stained in eternity, and gravity be abolished.
A crack at the center, where even the intelligence of cockroaches was tested: rain eroded the foundation and a simple domesticity entered.
That characteristic turbulence, elemental disturbance in the aether, the tureen vibrating on the sideboard invisibly in the vacant hallway.
Soon, but not yet, the incremental creaking of hinges, the end of molecular bonding, release of form: shapelessness in the door frame, soon.
A pedestal table by the window, littered with paper—
fliers, bills, clipped coupons. A basket
Of laundry on the floor, clothes clean for the folding.
An empty bowl that should hold water for a cat.
Now that people have vanished, who will deal
with the swarm of tiny annoyances that defined
Human existence? Who will be bothered? What god will try
to train the cat to shake its head and curse?