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Dangerous Boundaries and the Enemy of Insularity

An Interview with Poet T.R. Hummer

This interview is the fourth in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by Prairie Schooner's Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd


Recipient of the Richard Wright Prize for Literature and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, T. R. Hummer is an internationally-recognized poet and scholar who was born and raised in Macon, Mississippi. His new book of poems, Ephemeron, was published by LSU Press in Fall 2011, and a new book of essays, Available Surfaces, appeared in the University of Michigan Press's "Poets on Poetry" series in August 2012.


Redd: Regarding contemporary Mississippi, how do you feel about the renewed racial boundaries in the state since forced integration? For instance, the Noxubee County School District is 98% African American, according to the Mississippi Department of Education, while most of the white children in the town go to the Macon Central Academy.


Hummer: I hesitate to speak of the strata of contemporary Mississippi. I have not lived there since 1977. However, I can say that racism is very hard--I hope not impossible, but it may be--to eradicate. Distrust of, hatred for, the other goes very deep with humans. You can legislate segregation away (but not really, as the widespread network of private schools that sprang up in the South following desegregation of the public school system demonstrates), but you cannot legislate human emotion. White people--especially some white Southerners (some, note, by NO means all)--become deeply defensive about matters of race, because they have established a false consciousness on that foundation, and basically what you are saying to them when you ask them to change is, now you have to die and be reborn as somebody different and better--a challenge many say they have risen to at church, but are terrified to rise to in terms of the politics of identity that is "race."


In terms of education, segregation of any kind is profoundly wasteful: materially, psychologically, spiritually. Hence the place where I grew up has increasingly become a wasteland.


Redd: In an interview with Connotations you claim, "regional isolationism breeds xenophobia, racism, and reactionary paranoia...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." Can you discuss in depth your meaning of anti-regional, and what are some of those "avenues" poetry provides for eroding human limitation?


Hummer: "In depth" is a dangerous phrase. I'll be as brief as possible, and as deep as a reader's patience might allow. Poetry (art, per se) is the enemy of insularity; it is an agent of the empathic imagination. Region excludes, whether with benign intentions or otherwise. Nationalism likewise. Poetry finds its limit at the boundary of the language in which it is written; the hope there is that a genius translator is sitting at the gate. Otherwise, poetry (not all poems, but poetry) spits in the eye of the idea of boundaries. Whitman's work is paradigmatic in this sense: the boundaries of poetry itself implode in Leaves of Grass, as do the boundaries between and among human individuals. "Who touches this [book] touches a man" is an assault on logic, and on the boundaries even between the dead and the living: it is not a proposition--it is a transubstantiation.


Redd: Poetic formalism, taught by your mentor Gordon Weaver at the University of Southern Mississippi, shares these same traits with regionalism?


Hummer: I wouldn't say so. Every poem is an expression of Form, in one way or another; I define poetic form in a broad way that includes so-called "free verse" as much as it does the European tradition. Regionalism is one thing; formalism quite another. Gordon Weaver is from Moline, Illinois; his dedication to the European formal tradition has nothing to do with region. One could make a very broad argument that formalism is what it is by insisting on being different from everything else, just as a geographical region might, but that would be a strained argument at best. In any case, formal technique per se is a set of tools, not a landscape, not a place to live.


Redd: In an interview in the Cimarron Review, you state that “those writers who do not engage place—and by place I mean the largest sense of the word, not just landscape but some kind of cultural milieu, people, that’s part of place as well—their work simply seems intellectual to me, all headwork.” How can a writer develop this attention to place without becoming imprisoned by its boundaries? For instance, what are some of the ways that you’ve that you’ve found to escape from Southern speech patterns?


Hummer: I gave that interview over 20 years ago, so I can't be entirely certain what I meant, though it sounds basically OK to me now, except that I am perhaps more sensitive to anything that sounds anti-intellectual at this point, as American culture has swerved so hard in that direction. One does not become mentally imprisoned by the boundaries of a place the same way one does not become physically imprisoned in the horizon of a landscape: make sure there's a way to go somewhere else whenever necessary, however necessary, even if that means walking a hundred miles through treacherous, frozen mountain passes.


As to Southern speech pattern, that's a different question. Everyone inherits speech patterns from somebody; I had plenty when I was young, and still do, though they are different ones. Speech IS pattern. When I was an undergraduate, I took a lot of courses in a performance mode then called Reader's Theater. My primary teacher was a man from the Midwest who cringed at Southernisms. I favored reading poetry aloud in his class on assignment, and he gently corrected me, making me aware of what simply "sounded awful" to him. I acceded, while at the same time filing away the fact that a British teacher might have led me in different directions. These classes made me more conscious of different kinds of speech patterns available in the English language, and showed me that I had the right to make choices among them. That was a useful lesson.


Redd: Would you describe the genesis of Ephemeron?


Hummer: I have two daughters, one 11 and one 35. After the events of 9/11/2001, I began to worry about my children even more than I previously had (which was a lot). I conceived the notion of writing a book of poems that would be a sort of "primer" for their future (at the time, my youngest child was not even one year old), along the lines of Yeats's "A Prayer for my Daughter," only at book length. The title poem was written, essentially, in 2002 if memory serves. Then the project stalled, because it was impossible. How could I write a guidebook for their lives? But the poem "Ephemeron" had no home. I wrote another book, The Infinity Sessions, and tried to shoehorn "Ephemeron" in, but it would not go. Finally, having thoroughly dropped the idea I had begun with, I began to write a completely different sort of book.


Redd: So the scope of the work broadened beyond your own worries about your family. Was the impetus for Ephemeron's new conception still based in worry and did you at all imagine the rest of the book as a type of prayer?


Hummer: Worry, not prayer. The Ephemeron--the single thing that is passing rapidly away--has little time for anything other than anxiety. I began to base the book on contemplation of the fact that the plural form of the word--ephemera--had passed over into common usage from Greek into English, but not the singular form--ephemeron. While all of us are passing away en masse sure enough it is always the individual who experiences the passing. Why had the word not traveled? Excessive English optimism? Superstition? Pure historical accident? No one will ever know, but I found this fact fascinating.


Redd: So you found that words experience a similar kind of passing away as humans do in death, and because of this we can have sympathy for them. They have their own individuality that can be lost over time. Would you say Ephemeron is a type of extended elegy to the singular form of the word?


Hummer: In part, but even more to the passing of individual humans. It is first and foremost about people, the ineluctable and inscrutable passing of the human individual, and hence humanity, through time.


Redd: What is your next project?


Hummer: Ephemeron is the first book of a trilogy; the second part, Skandalon, is with my editor as we speak. The third, Eon, is actually virtually finished. So my dance card is full for awhile. A new book of essays, Available Surfaces, came out earlier this month from University of Michigan Press, in the Poets on Poetry Series. After Eon is published, assuming it is and that I'm still alive, a new and selected poems is in order; I will call it A Murder.


Redd: As a former church pianist now bar musician and student of poetry, I’m truly excited to read your take on music and poetry in Available Surfaces. During the research for this interview I encountered your photography, which I hadn’t known about before, nor have I found where you’ve discussed this creative outlet. There are some great photographs on your blog, and I particularly liked your recent series from your visit to Macon.


Hummer: As to photography, it's a mode that I've practiced for a very long time without knowing anything about, really, in any professional sense. I give myself license to grope my way forward. I have used a number of different kinds of cameras, from an ancient Hasselblad (I loved that beautiful instrument, but everything about it was expensive, so I had to let it go) to Nikons (I currently have a Nikon D200, a fine camera) to mobile phone cameras, which use right now more than the Nikon because it is always with me (toting the Nikon is about like carrying a medium-sized cat around everywhere). To me, photography (and cooking, for that matter) is like music: I have the instrument, and I use it to riff on the world. I love it, and don't have to take myself too seriously when I do it. Mindbook is the best place to go, still, though I'm not maintaining that blog any more. It was useful when I was writing Available Surfaces, and drafts of most of the essays in that book can be found there.




A winner of the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Prize for the short story, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Parting Gifts, Thumbnail Magazine and Prairie Schooner’s Briefly Noted.