Some people write like going to work in a factory (punch in, punch out). I grew up on a farm, and so that is my base metaphor for process: prepare the ground, plant the seeds, and after awhile something is there—or not.
AngelSpeak welcomes T.R. Hummer to the Friday Interview Series.
T.R. Hummer is the author of 13 books of prose and poetry (including two forthcoming). He is the past editor in chief of The Kenyon Review, of New England Review, and of The Georgia Review. Hummer is the winner of a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship for poetry, the Hanes Poetry Prize, the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and two Pushcart Prizes. He currently teaches at Arizona State University.
Do you have a writing routine? What does it look like?
I don’t have what any reasonable person would call a writing routine. Truth to tell, I am now so far gone in whatever it is that I do that I am always writing, even when I’m not writing. I get up early—not by choice, but because I have a nine year old in the house, and sundry cats, all of whom insist on it–; I make coffee, and I sit down at the computer. There I do a variety of things, some of which turn out to be poems. I read, I agonize, I cook, and before you know it there’s a pile of work in the printer. It’s a “pray without ceasing” kind of process. Some people write like going to work in a factory (punch in, punch out). I grew up on a farm, and so that is my base metaphor for process: prepare the ground, plant the seeds, and after awhile something is there—or not.
Your poetry spans a wide range of topics. Do you conduct research before writing? For example, how did you prepare for The Infinity Sessions? Certainly you have an extensive knowledge of music – especially jazz and blues – but were there other sources, outside your own experience, that you turned to?
This is a case in point, illustrative of my previous answer. I did not set out to write The Infinity Sessions; at some point I found myself embroiled in it, and recognized it for what it was. Therefore I did not conduct research in the way I understand that phrase. However, I have for decades done an enormous amount of reading about certain kinds of music, and listened to obscene amounts of it, in addition to playing it as best I can. But the core idea of the book hit me one day like a slightly soggy thunderbolt.
Music needs no subject, but one always turns up
Unexpectedly, dragging its trashy story,
A human figure, a woman, her dress black under streetlights.
Look at her: she just got off a bus from nowhere,
Her face shining with sweat. Or has the storm rolled in?
from “Blues In The Night”
I was then editing The Georgia Review, a job that kept me so busy I had begun to write rather short poems, of necessity. And while I worked there, I often had music playing, to keep me from absolutely drowning in other peoples’ words. I picked up the jewel case from the cd I had in the player right then, a Jimmie Lunceford compilation; I read the playlist on the back, and suddenly I thought: wow, what great titles; I think I’ll write a book in which these are the titles of the poems; it looks like a great table of contents. Then I said to myself, what a dumb idea. And of course, three days later I was in the middle of it. All I had to do was to reach out a foot or two to the bookshelf, and the cd rack, in my office for everything I needed. The first four sections of The Infinity Sessions came together very quickly.
There was a panel on research and poetry at this year’s AWP conference. Do you feel contemporary poetry is calling for more research and less personal experience? What do you feel are the implications for poetry, if any, in such a move?
This is not a question I can answer in a general sort of way. I don’t know whether “contemporary poetry” is doing any one thing in particular; from what I can see, it is a spectacularly diverse realm. I will say this: I can’t separate “research” and “personal experience.” For me, personal experience is research, and research is a form of experience. If by “research” you mean reading—what poet worth his or her salt is not an omnivorous reader? There may be some who are not, but I don’t know them, and I know quite a lot of poets. In fact, this is the one lesson that I try to teach beginning writers: a writer writes, but a writer reads of necessity. The inevitable sports analogy comes up: a runner runs, but a runner eats; you don’t eat, you don’t run. Many undergraduates show very little interest in reading, and I do not think they will be writers for long. I don’t “do research” at all, in a calculated kind of way; but everything I read, everything that happens to me, every thought I think, goes into some kind of imponderable mental hopper—doubtless presided over by the homunculi of the soul; I like those little critters—and becomes part of the substance of what I write.
You’ve been heavily involved in literary editing over the years – editing such journals as Quarterly West, New England Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Georgia Review – what advice do you have for young editors?
Beware. Quite seriously. There are occasional flurries of concern about the general sanity of poets; nobody brings up the question where editors are concerned. But editorial practice can lead to a variety of neurotic behaviors. In fact, I scarcely can think of an editor I know personally who has not succumbed to one or several; certainly I have. For someone who is a “visible” editor (by which I mean, the editor of a journal that actually gets attention), there are certain kinds of dangers that are of the celebrity/power maven variety; for most editors, who are generally invisible and doing a very demanding and generally thankless job, the dangers are of another kind: internal, existential. The whole gig can easily become a psychological black hole. There are great joys in editing, and entire educations that cannot be had any other way. But here there be dragons. Enter at your own risk. Ahoy matey. Yarr.
Recently, the VIDA report dropped the bomb on some pretty heavy-duty magazines in terms of their representation (or lack thereof) of women in the pages of their publications. What do you think accounts for the discrepancy?
We know women write. We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.
–Amy King from VIDA, Women in Literary Arts
Sexism. What else? This is not to say that editors are consciously or unconsciously sexist. Some are, some aren’t. But the culture certainly is. The whole world is. Nature is. We have made some moves in recent decades to begin to redress the situation, but even assuming good will on the part of everyone, and a steady evolution of culture, it will take generations to create a genuinely level playing field that will ensure that editors have parity—not in their magazines only, but also in their submissions, and in their minds. The same issue applies to race, to sexual preference, and probably also to class. How many blue collar Asian American writers of genders three through nine (the ones beyond the obvious two) had poems in the last issue of The Peace On Earth and Good Will To (Hu)Men Review? Changing the glacial center of humanity is a very hard piece of work, though I think not impossible. VIDA is absolutely right to call attention to it. The more we discuss it, the more we think about it, the closer we come to accomplishing something.
When can we expect to see another T.R. Hummer book?
There are two in the pipeline: Ephemeron, a book of poems, will appear from LSU Press in the fall of 2011; and Available Surfaces, a book of essays, has just been accepted by University of Michigan Press for their Poets on Poetry series. In fact, the acceptance of that book is so recent (literally, I heard about it less than a week ago) that I do not yet have a publication date. Stay tuned!
Thanks so much to T.R. Hummer for being “da bomb” and agreeing to do this interview. If you’re interested in learning more about his work, check out the links below.
- “Milk” read by T.R. Hummer at Slate Magazine
- “Skandalon” and “The Nietzsche Horse” at Blackbird
- “Emissary: Five Eternities in September” at diode
- “Ephemeron” at Red Room
- Mindbook – T.R. Hummer’s blog