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2015 Poetry Month: An Interview With T. R. Hummer

03/30/2015 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015
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T. R. Hummer is a poet, critic, essayist and the author of over ten books of poetry. He teaches at Arizona State University.

You've published Ephemeron in 2012, Skandalon in 2014 and will soon publish Eon. What is the story behind the names for this trilogy?

My publisher is not interested in calling these three books a "trilogy," for reasons best known to them, and therefore it will have no unitary presence.

If I had my way, there would be an overarching title, Greek Fire, which refers both to Heraclitus and to the mysterious weapon evidently developed by the ancient Greeks, a liquid that burned unquenchably and at very high temperature, even on water, so it was used, I understand, in naval battles. Nobody knows exactly what it was, though it has been "rediscovered" over and over, most recently as far as I know during the Civil War, when Confederate operatives wove an Al Qaeda-like plot to burn Manhattan to the ground.

So, the titles of the books are all Greek words, though they all have a presence in English, too. Ephemeron of course is the singular form of the familiar word ephemera. Ephemera are things that vanish quickly; an ephemeron is one being, one particle, with a short half-life (the human individual might be one example, though there are entities that perish far more quickly).

Skandalon in English has only a theological use, wherein it means any distraction from the True Way: So that for one person, a love affair might be a skandalon, distracting him or her from godliness; for another, it might be a stamp collection, or children. In archaic Greek, I have read, the word meant something much more specific: the trigger of a trap. So the flat piece of metal in a mouse trap upon which one places the bait would have been called a skandalon. The connection to the theological concept is obvious, as it the connection to the English word we derive from skandalon: scandal. Then Eon is I suppose obvious, since it is a Greek-English cognate, more or less. So the sequence moves from the particle that vanishes (let us say a pinball) to the entrapping, ensnaring, distracting universe through which it moves in its vanishing (the pinball machine) to where it goes beyond, and the final crossing of a boundary out.

It's a good thing I'm a poet and not a novelist. No publisher of novels in his or her right mind would allow books to have such weird, un-hooky titles. If I'd been a novelist, they'd have been called 1. Sex, 2. Hideous Graphic Death and 3. Football. Since there's no money in poetry anyway, nobody cares.

What was the inspiration for these three books? Your description of the titles suggest something epic, active and possibly devious.

There is no comprehensive answer, but a partial one can be seen right in the first poem of Ephemeron, which is the title poem. When I was 50, I became for the second time the father of a child. That poem is about the time before my daughter was born, but after she was conceived. Where was she exactly? And where was she before conception? And where will she be after I have lingered awhile and returned into concealment? I wrote that poem years before I realized it was the title poem of a book.

My first daughter, Theo (a wonderful poet and writer in her own right) is 38; my second is now 13. People are interested in this gap between children, but I tell whoever asks that I recommend it: It powerfully sublimates sibling rivalry.

However, the real answer to the question is that my second daughter's arrival, and her glorious presence, have made me more aware of my own mortality than anything ever has. I am an ephemeron, relatively near extinction. (Relatively, mind you: I plan to last a long time yet). But at 64, I look at my 13 year old daily and think: I will be gone into concealment, and you will still be lingering. Pages of ramifications.

No doubt, you'll have more books published after the forthcoming Eon. What's next for us?

I have the bare beginning of a new MS, and it has a different cadence, a different music, from anything I have previously done. I tend to explore musically, like a jazz musician improvising on familiar or unfamiliar source material, turning it inside out, deconstructing it, re-imagining it, while out on the dance floor nobody notices because they're too busy dancing. My next book is out there on the dance floor somewhere, looking for new steps, criticizing the crepe paper decorations, drinking spiked punch, and crying a little.

Poets have lost a great bard recently. Tell us about Philip Levine.

Philip Levine was a very great poet, and a very great man. I don't want to claim too much in terms of friendship: others knew him longer than I, better than I . We saw each other often during a certain period, a fairly long period. I am also gratified that, when I edited magazines, I often published Phil, and he trusted me as an editor. I published six of his essays, four of them to be found in his wonderful book The Bread of Time.

He once wrote to me: "You're good, Hummer, you really edit." Almost nobody, he said, does that now. His praise made me ridiculously happy then, and it still does. He liked some of my poems, too, though by no means all of them. Phil absolutely would not lie to you about how he saw your poetry. He might lie to you about your clothes or your taste in wine (he preferred the Spanish reds, and taught me to prefer them too; he liked them partly because they were bargains).

What I value most about the time I spent with him is the conversations we had -- one on one or in the company of others. Phil loved a good talk, especially if there was food, and just the right amount of wine. I gained more than I can tell you just from sitting across a table from him when he felt happy and at home (which meant his beloved wife Franny had to be there too). I learned lessons about poetry, and about honesty, and about character. Franny also set me on the right path to learning to cook a decent meal.

But what matters most about Philip Levine, for most of us, is the poems he wrote. He wrote wisely, he wrote passionately, he wrote precisely, he wrote incredibly well. We can talk about his subject matter, and how he gave a voice to urban laborers, but that does not exhaust his poetry: he wrote about everything. He wrote about food, and trees, and stars, and garbage, and angels. He was gruff sometimes, and could be irritable, but he was ever generous, and had a huge, comprehensive heart. It is hard for me to believe that I will never share a glass of Ribera del Duero that he found in a bargain bin at some little shop in Greenwich Village or Fresno. But the poems remain, and to those I will ever and always return.