- A Conversation with T. R. Hummer
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T.R. 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-length 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 as 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.
T.R. 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. [End Page 83]
Looking at your body of work is, well, intimidating. Over the last twenty-five years you’ve managed not only to be an enormously prolific and well-received poet but also to become a highly respected professor, editor and essayist. You’re a dedicated family man, blogger and musician. How do you manage it all?
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 snowbank.
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,” which 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, “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. Your book 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 [End Page 84] navigate such turbulent waters. Why has this approach worked so well for you, and why do you so often feel compelled to write about American culture and its flaws?
About half a lifetime ago 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 fruition. Perhaps I’m not there yet. Much of the model comes 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...