“The Poem as a Source for Consciousness: A Discussion with TR Hummer.” The Missouri Review. 35.3 (Spring 2012): 82-94.
TR Hummer was born on August 7, 1950 and grew up on his family’s farm in rural Macon, Mississippi. Throughout High School he played the saxophone and received his BA and MA in Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1974. Two years later, his first collection of poetry, Translations of Light, was released by Cedar Creek Press, and in 1977 he became a PhD student at the University of Utah where he worked under the tutelage of poet Dave Smith.
Since that time, Hummer has published eight full-lengths collections of poetry: The Angelic Orders (1982), The Passion of the Right-Angled Man (1985), Lower-Class Heresy (1987), The Eighteen-Thousand-Ton Olympic Dream (1990), Walt Whitman in Hell: Poems (1996), Useless Virtues (2001), Bluegrass Wasteland: Selected Poems 1978-2003 (2005), and The Infinity Sessions (2005). He has served editor of numerous highly influential journals across the country including The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, and The Georgia Review. He has also published a book of essays, The Muse in the Machine: Essays on Poetry And the Anatomy of the Body Politic.
TR Hummer continues to play the saxophone while teaching creative writing at Arizona State University and maintaining several blogs on music, writing, culture, and politics. His ninth collection of poetry, Ephemeron, is due out with the LSU Press’s Southern Messenger Poetry Series in 2011. This conversation took place in February 2011.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Looking at your body of work is, well, intimidating. Over the last twenty-five years you’ve not only managed to be an enormously prolific and well-received poet but have also become a highly-respected professor, editor, and essayist. If that weren’t enough, you’re a dedicated family man, blogger, and musician. How do you manage it all?
TR Hummer: I work cheap. Therefore I work fast, when I work. It seems to me that I waste a lot of time, but one of the good things about being an artist is that nothing is ever really wasted. Music feeds poetry which feeds essays (and blogs and other prose) which feeds teaching which feeds the family. And everything I read and write goes into the cosmic poem hopper. So, over time, work accrues like flakes on a snow bank.
AMK: I first encountered your work at a reading you gave from Useless Virtues at Virginia Tech. What I remember most about that night was your reading of the last few pages of Walt Whitman in Hell that ends with the speaker’s final observations of the modern world’s failings:
… Maybe that is why-
Over the conspicuous roofs of your living
Beauty shops, sweatshops, pawnshops, printshops, meat shops,
Warehouses, bathhouses, crackhouses, penthouses, card houses-
Once and for all unhearable, and for all I know unthinkable, I go on
Sounding my doomed eternal bodiless goddamned
I, I, I, I, I.
Of this book, Garrett Hongo has said that “Hummer presents us with a hectoring witness compelled to translate the banal urban atrocities of our current civilization into complex testimonies and transcendent prophecies.” Fred Chappell echoed this sentiment: “[Hummer] turns a pitiless gaze upon his subjects and is interested in delivering the hardest truths he sees.” Ephemeron is similarly critical of American culture and, like Whitman, simultaneously loving.
You are one of the few contemporary American poets who has been able to so successfully navigate such turbulent waters. How do you think this approach has worked so well for you and why is it that you feel so often compelled to write about American culture and its flaws?
TH: About half a lifetime ago (mine, that is) I began to glimpse the possibility of a model of writing poems that it has taken me a long time to even begin to bring to real fruition. Perhaps I’m not there yet. Much of the model comes in fact from Whitman-a poet who people often claim to emulate without even playing in the same concert hall. Whitman wrote out of the mind of the body politic. His “I” is not an “I” at all in the usual sense, even though it sometimes says “I am Walt Whitman.” For him, this process was a celebratory hymn, though it darkens over time, especially after the Civil War. We live on in that darkness Whitman began to discern on his horizon, but the need of the citizen in his or her tiny body to speak to, and out of, and for, and against, the big body that is the aggregate of the nation, or of the human race itself, is still with us. I speak as a single cell, or maybe one chromosome in the DNA of humanity, but I do so with the conviction that, done right, such speaking matters to the body of the whole. Metaphorically, I try to help inject dopamine into the synapses of humankind.
AMK: Ephemeron is a book seemingly composed from a place of highly imagined yet very real desolation. A future America of endless war and the resulting physical/metaphysical wasteland is subtextualized by circling images of defunct genomes, an erupting cosmos, death, reincarnation, oil slicks, chemical reactions, malevolent gods, and a derelict body politic. These are topics that have come up over and over again in your previous books, but I don’t think they’ve converged in quite the same way as they have here. Tell us about this book.
TH: I suppose it might be clear enough from your description that this is a Dark Night of the Soul book, even more than Walt Whitman in Hell (Useless Virtues and The Infinity Sessions are positively cheery by comparison). Some writers have their coming-of-age book; I have my coming-of-old-age book. The title is of course the singular form of the more familiar word ephemera; the consciousness at the heart of the book is an ephemeron-a singular transient entity acutely aware of its own transience. As the book unfolds, that consciousness comes to permeate the entire cosmos, including all of time. Sometimes the speaker is dead. Sometimes he, sometimes she, is dying. There is of course nothing new or original in any of this, but transience is borne in on us more and more as we age.
AMK: Ephemeron is written from what appears to be TR Hummer in an alternate universe or nightmare in which the consequences of the past and near future exist in a surreal version of the present. Take “System,” for example, in which a geneticist is sliced open to reveal “a schematic of precise and interlocking logic / So familiar that the men with bayonets stepped back…” or the similarly eerie “Inventory”:
Hogsheads from the provinces. Bundles from caravans.
Crude crates from the holds of ships. Urns of oil and wine.
Embroidered sacks of opium tied shut with silk twine.
Thirty slaves. Women: eight. Men: nine. Sundry children.
And on the farthest dock, a pile of junk: cracked cudgels, broken
bandoliers, body armor stained, punctured, and stove in,
Bloodied bits of uniform, cartons of buttons, dice, bone
gathered from all quadrants of the Baghdad war zone,
Assorted boots, mismatched teeth, torturers’ pliers, prisoners’ confessions-
All stamped with the governor’s seal and symbol: sort, record, burn.
Would you classify Ephemeron as a collection of personae poems or poems that are highly fictionalized visions of the world as seen through your own eyes?
TH: More the latter than the former, though the word “fictionalized” might give a false impression. Strictly speaking the designation “persona poem” and the description “fictionalized” are quite accurate, but it feels to me rather closer to the bone than that. Let’s call it translation. If the genes could speak, if the cells could speak, what would they say? These entities are not so distant from us that we can “fictionalize” their utterance. They are us. They are in us. We are made of them, just as the body politic is made of citizens. We know, within limits, what our DNA means to our lives; but what do our lives mean to our DNA? These are the kinds of questions I was haunted by while writing these poems.
AMK: During the Cold War, countless films, popular fiction, and visual arts were created as a result of the fear of nuclear fallout. It seems that global warming, terrorism, and political unrest have led to a similar environment in contemporary American society. Countless novels, films, and television shows have come out in the last decade that address (or at least take as their subject matter) these fears. These issues have become an increasingly popular subject of contemporary American poetry with books like Rodney Jones’ Apocalyptic Narrative, Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History, Cormac McCathy’s The Road (an epic poem of sorts), and Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country.
Ephemeron, no doubt, joins this list. Is it your intention to discuss these issues in this book or are these poems the organic result of a poet paying close attention to the world?
TH: Again I must answer that it is more the latter than the former; I never write poems that set out to “discuss issues,” though “issues” come up. One must-as an artist, and more crucially as a human being-pay careful attention to the world. Just paying attention, however, is not enough either. I find myself not so much in a lover’s quarrel with the world, as Frost called it, as in a call and response work song with the world. The world is trying to teach me what I might say about it, and- as part of the world myself- I cannot help not only attending, but answering as best I can. Unfortunately, the world does not speak English; it speaks World. I am here, like everyone else, to try to learn that language. At this point, I have the conversation skills, in World, of a six month old border collie. So it’s a struggle to understand and to be understood.
AMK: It seems to me that while poets have always addressed social issues, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic poetry is something being written more today than in the past. Would you agree?
TH: I doubt it. Medieval Europe produced about a billion tons of post-apocalyptic literature. None of it starred Mel Gibson, but it was written with deep conviction. The same is true for other parts of the world, and continues to be. Our world may be on the cusp of rediscovering something.
AMK: I recently came across “High Minded,” the album you’ve just released with AmeriCamera. It’s a great collection of music with a number of tracks that sound more like poetry accompanied or set to music than songs. They are about a minute long, they are read by you (I don’t believe you sing any of the songs, but I may be wrong about that), and, structurally speaking, the line breaks and rhythms are more like poems than song lyrics.
Typically, if I heard about something like this I’d flee, but I greatly enjoyed the mix of music, poety, and the nexus that’s been forged between the two that, again, typically, doesn’t work very well. Tell us about this album.
TH: I’d flee too. I generally don’t like rock albums that have some jerk reading poems in the mix. However, AmeriCamera is a pretty big deal for me these days, because it’s the realization of an imperative I didn’t even know I was faced with. All my life as a poet, since the start, I knew there was a profound connection between music and the poems I wrote. I was a musician before I was a poet; the saxophone, my instrument of choice, taught me to be an artist when I was a boy, and it’s a good thing, because there were no humans anywhere around me who could or would have done that. Later, I made a separation in my mind between the two zones: music was music, and poetry was poetry; I had both, but in separate chambers. The Infinity Sessions,however, was an attempt to open the doors between the sealed rooms. I felt a deep need to be very direct and obvious about the process of translating music in to poetry. AmeriCamera is helping me with the other side of that coin: translating my poems back into music again.
AMK: Did you write all the song lyrics (and the poems for that mater) or was it a collaborative effort?
TH: AmeriCamera is a collaboration, among many people, but I am the primary lyrist in the community that has gathered around the project. In one sense, AmeriCamera consists of a couple dozen people, and the number changes and grows. At core, though, there are two of us: myself, and the musician Billy Cioffi, who is my age and has had a long vital career in the Los Angeles music scene, though he lives in Phoenix now. He and I write the songs (the project is ongoing). I am primarily in charge of the lyrics, but have input on the musical side; Billy handles the core of the music, but he has ample input where the lyrics are concerned: his sense of song form and song craft is more honed than mine. What I love about working with Billy is that he gets it. Together we work toward getting “textual” poetry and music back in harness together. He has splendid sensitivity to poems, when it’s time to work with those; it was he who insisted that we have some “spoken word” material on the cd (I wanted to leave it all off, let it be in the background, the music’s good secret, but he was very insistent that we foreground certain poems in connection with certain songs, and I now see that he was very right).
Collaborative art is fascinating to me; this is really my most serious foray in that direction.
AMK: I know you play the saxophone, but I didn’t know you wrote song lyrics. Can you talk about the differences between song lyrics and lines of poetry and how, in this album, you’ve found a way to merge bring the two together in such a successful way?
TH: Many of the songs are “translations” or “elaborations” of particular poems of mine back into music: the lyrics are written “out of” poems, which were written “out of” music to begin with. If the result feels organic, that’s why. As to the difference between song lyrics and poetry, there is endless argument. I have become allergic to it. As soon as someone begins compartmentalizing these things, I check out. In my opinion, song lyrics are poems. They are not textual poems, however; they are contextualized within performance. They have a particular purpose; poems that exist primarily on the page have a related but different purpose. It took me quite some time to put aside certain prejudices and reach that point. There is prejudice about the relation of song and poetry on both sides of the line; many poets resist the idea that songwriters are also poets; many songwriters do too, for very different reasons. I began to wonder at some point: why doesn’t the music industry have a relationship to poetry analogous to the relationship the film industry has to fiction? Poems aren’t generally turned into movies-but why aren’t they turned into songs? They are now and again, but rarely. Poetry and music, however, share an ancient identity. I find it immensely satisfying to work towards reifying that unity.
AMK: As you’ve progressed as a poet, it seems you’ve moved away from writing books that are collections of individual poems and into the writing of singular, cohesive works of art. Useless Virtues, for example, is organized in five sections that circle the long, numbered middle section, “Axis,” and ends with the final, unnumbered section “Coda.” Your next book, The Infinity Sessions, is a sequence of suites dedicated to jazz musicians such as Jimmie Lunceford and Adrian Rollini, the poems within each section titled after (and in response to) their musical compositions. Similarly, Ephemeron is a book that relies more on the architecture of repeated, associative images, settings, and forms than narrative to tell it story.
Talk to us about the design of these recent works and how it is you’ve come to adopt a more holistic approach to the writing of poetry over the years.
TH: Actually, from the beginning, for whatever reason, I was writing books. I conceived of The Angelic Orders very much as a unified work, within reason: unified orchestrally rather than according to a strict narrative. However, that book, and the ones that most immediately followed, were more narratively organized than my more recent books. The first two are the poetry equivalent of bildungsromans. At some point, I became profoundly uninterested in the “facts” of my own life as a point of departure for poems or as scaffoldings to hang a book on. Interestingly (to me), work I had done earlier than the Angelic Orders was also less personal. At a certain stage, however, it felt necessary for me to unburden myself of certain given material. Now I am in a sense freer to compose and arrange according to the perceived necessity of the poems, and of the books, as means to translating the language of my own consciousness into the Worldian tongue.
AMK: Many of the poems in this book are list poems in long, leaping, and elliptical prose lines. Here are the first few sections of “Biography of Eros”:
The witnessing of things in the mind. But what mind? The lovers lay on the bed, handcuffed, saying Please, and just for a moment one of them knew.
Sleeping, one of them moaned. It was the dream of the interpenetration of souls. Death is in everything, crystalline arsenic dissolved in alcohol.
They wore raptor masks. One used a small flexible whip. Its marks were radiant traces of ichor. Thus the walls of the sanctum were broken.
Intermingled with more typically structured narrative poems, these lists are a pleasure to read. Highly imagistic and wonderfully imaginative, they create a space in the book that’s almost pure voice, like monologues in a play or a solo riff in a jazz tune. They’re also unique to your poetry, which rarely utilizes the prose line or such elliptical sections.
How did you arrive at this form, and what do you hope it accomplishes in the book and from poem to poem?
TH: Are they lists? Perhaps. I think of them as sequences of aphorisms. I became very interested in the possibility of the aphorism a few years ago and I’m still pursuing it in conjunction with other things. I want them to work in just the way you describe: as counterpoint with the other poems, to create a polyphony.
AMK: “Ephemeron,” the poem, addresses the infinite smallness of life and the enormously mysterious miracle that, as sentimental or cliché as it may sound, that small life is. It’s a poem about a father at middle age who is about to become a father all over again: “It astonishes me again: I am fifty and pregnant, / And beyond the bedroom window September is gathering / Its cosmological light.” It’s also a poem about god, fate, and the physical elements that make up the literal and not so literal human body: “it is they who assemble, in the amniotic sac, / Bits of star-grit, skeins of DNA, the holy chemistry / Of existence.”
Talk to us about your experience as a father and its effect on your view of life and on your work.
TH: That’s a huge question. I have two daughters, born at an interval of 24 years. (I recommend this gap between children; it marvelously sublimates sibling rivalry.) What the two of them have taught me about the universe and about myself could fill many volumes. The poem “Ephemeron” was in fact the first poem composed for this volume, and so it is appropriate that it is the title poem and the first poem in the book. Originally I conceived of the book as a kind of instruction manual for life, aimed at both daughters. I quickly decided that idea was not only pretentious, it was false, since the poems were coming out very dark, and those were not the instructions I wanted to pass along. Maybe it’s a series of Keep Out signs for them, a Here There Be Dragons. I fear for the future of humanity, and so-like all parents-I fear for the future of my children. I would and will do anything in my power to protect them. But I also know that I have almost no power to do so. Furthermore-and for just these reasons-one’s children teach one the reality of one’s own mortality like no other teachers can do. This I suspect is truer for older parents than for younger ones; I feel it more keenly with my younger daughter than I did when my older daughter was young. They are here, and I am here, but they will go on into the unknown without me. We are all ephemera, but I am a more used-up ephemeron then either of them. A parenthas to be pleased at that: we all want our children to live forever, while acknowledging that we ourselves will not. Ephemeron is haunted by these paradoxes.
AMK: You’ve always been interested in the mechanical/chemical makeup of reality and its effect on the human population. “Inner Ear” of Lower-Class Heresy declares “It is true that the world is turning, / And its motionlessess is only apparent. / It is not true he feels it turning, // But maybe a doubling of illusions / Amounts to something like the truth.” The title poem of The Passion of the Right-Angled Man opens “Halfway up, he sees it is morning, sees / Clouds turn neon red with fluorescence of dawn, / And suddenly he is sober.” “Mechanics,” the second poem of Walt Whitman in Hell, compares the slanting radiance of venetian blinds to “sea-illumination falling on certain fish / that mate only in this precise incidence of light.” And Ephemeron is full of nebula, DNA strands, and other such notions of that which makes up our existence.
Seeing that you grew up on a farm in the Deep South, it’s unusual that your poetry is so often centered around a fascination with science rather than more typical, rural themes. What do you think accounts for this?
TH: I’m less fascinated by science than by the mechanisms of life. Science is interested in those too, but I want less to know about them than to feel their machinations. Growing up on a farm actually taught me that. I grew up surrounded by plants and animals, sure enough, but even more immediately by machinery.
AMK: You have always written poems from the third person as well as the first. I think most readers of contemporary writing can tell you why point-of-view is important in fiction, but I’m not so sure this holds true for poetry. Teach us a little bit about point-of-view in poetry in general and in your own work.
TH: A poem is a score for consciousness (“score” as in “musical score”). In textual terms, consciousness conveys itself as what fiction writers call “point of view.” So far so good. I believe less in the absolute separation of the various points of view, however: first person and third person are manifestations of the same thing: consciousness per se. Therefore, work as though every third person text is simply a first person text in which no one has (yet) said “I,” but could at any moment. I also work as though every poem, whatever its preponderant pronoun, is in fact (a la Whitman) a groping for omniscience, the manifestation of a desire to forgive everything and therefore to know everything.
AMK: When you are crafting a poem, is point-of-view the first or last thing to enter into the line? How does switching back and forth change the poem and how you revise it?
TH: Point of view is neither the first or the last thing to enter. Consciousness is the first thing. Point of view follows consciousness, but is dependent on pronouns, while consciousness imbues every word of the composition. I have poems in which a third person meditation is interrupted by the eruption of the first person pronoun, and vice versa. The second person pronoun also is interesting, very slippery. The pronouns-and therefore point of view so called-is like paint. Consciousness is the true essence of the poem, what the whole score lives for.
AMK: “Fallacy of Composition” is one of my favorite poems in Ephemeron. It opens “The sky darkens with flying bodies: the extinct birds / live in the mind, therefore the birds live. / The color of the day deepens with memory. All the wreckage / of history is eclipsed.” and goes on to list images of various undoings: “The blacksmith raises his hammer / and the red hot horseshoe straightens into an iron bar. / Consciousness moves like a shadow through the forest / and whole peoples are restored.”
It seems that this poem represents one of the central themes of the book: the desire to reverse serious errors we’ve made; to undo that which has made the modern world so close to its end. Is it your belief that language can have this sort of effect on the world? Is poetry somehow a weapon that can be brandished against the inevitable?
TH: As Hemingway wrote in a different context, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so. Who knows, maybe there’s even truth in that fantasy. For individual readers, it seems to me, poetry is a sort of psychopharmacy. There are medicines in there, homeopathic compounds, that might not cure what ails you but they can help you hone your condition: you can become ever more incisively “ill.” For the culture, the matter is different. Poetry works on the Supreme Fiction, which (I am convinced) is the body politic and its well-being. Poems, maybe, are white blood cells. Part of the immune system. But in the face of catastrophe, a poem is about as useful as a lymph node is to the victim of a train wreck.
AMK: What are you working on now?
TH: New poems, new prose, new music. Mainly, I am working on my endgame. I’ve been around longer than I ever thought I would, and issues of closure are ever present, and pressing.