The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with T. R. Hummer about his poetry collection Ephemeron.
Ths is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with T. R. Hummer. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
Brian S: I was going to ask, should we call you Terry or TR?
Terry: Either. I publish as TR but go through life mostly as Terry.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: And I’m mostly Gaby.
Brian S: Great. Thanks for being here tonight!
Terry: Delighted to be here. What now? Are there questions? Or how do we proceed?
Thelma: OK, I’m jumping in. Your poem “Bald Man Fallacy” got us going in a good way.
Terry: Right: what about “Bald Man Fallacy”?
Thelma: We wondered about that last line. Where it came from, aside from being the fallacy of continuum or whatever it is.
Was the sniper going to kill or not? That was one question.
Terry: Well, that line is a sort of paraphrase of the nature of the Bald Man Fallacy.
Well, as to that, the poem ends first. However, I suspect this sniper kills people all the time.
Thelma: Sigh. I was personally hoping for an epiphany.
Terry: Nah. Snipers don’t have those. Just a beer later, probably.
Brian S: I looked at the poem as an extension of the pattern of fallacies from earlier in the book–argument from design, fallacy of composition, etc. And that the bald man was a reference to a politician sending people like the sniper to war. And then that last line was a sort of a realpolitik moment from the bald man.
Terry: No, there is actually a logical fallacy–an official philosophical one–called the Bald Man Fallacy.
Thelma: Right. So shouldn’t there be a hairy (Perry) fallacy to balance things out?
Brian S: Is there really? Wow. I was thinking it was an oblique Dick Cheney reference or something.
Terry: Basically it goes like this: look at the vast number of hairs on this man’s head. If I pull one, the number hardly goes down at all. So let’s pull another. Look, he’s still hairy. That should mean we can keep pulling his hair forever and he’ll still have plenty.
Now, just apply that line of reasoning, say, to environmental issues. Or to war.
Brandon: Yet at the same time I have to sort of suggest that the last line must be laced with irony.
Terry: Of course it is. Because the Bald Man Fallacy is a fallacy.
Brian S: See, and I was working it from the idea that a Cheney-esque politician would say “we’ll never get anywhere one by one, so we have to carpet bomb the joint.”
Terry: That kind of thinking explains why we have no more passenger pigeons.
Thelma: Or grizzlies in CA.
Terry: Well, that works ok I guess, Brian.
Mark Folse: Who’s voice is the last line?
Terry: Same voice as the rest of the poem. That’s a reasonable question, though.
Thelma: I wanted it to be the gun, thinking. But alas.
Terry: Irony is supplied by the narrator.
If the SNIPER thinks that, it’s just how he thinks. It’s like killing rats
But if the narrator thinks it… then irony is possible.
Brian S: Did you set out to write all these poems based on fallacies, or did you just write one and then were struck by the idea?
Terry: I think the latter, Brian, but I don’t really remember exactly.
Brandon: Speaking of poems that end ironically, I wanted to bring up “Ephemera.”
Terry: OK, Brandon, what about that poem?
Brandon: Ok, so regarding that poem, the final line suggests something about our legacy when we have passed.
That there is really nothing left behind
Terry: Sure, that makes sense
Brandon: While we so desperately want to believe that we do
Terry: It is the nature of the ephemeron that it vanish
But what kind of trace does it leave behind? The whole book revolves around this question.
The title poem was written years before all the rest.
Brian S: How did you latch onto that form of the word, ephemeron? It’s not one that appears very often in my experience.
Brandon: And your children are what is left behind
Terry: It was supposed to be part of another book
Terry: Exactly Brandon
Brandon: And there is a tension then, in a fear of the world we are creating
Terry: Yes. Parents all have this fear.
I have two daughters. One is 34. The other is 10. That is a wide gap between children.
The title poem is addressed to my second daughter, in utero. And the book began as a sort of “primer” for my two daughters.
Gaby: I have all sorts of questions about form and the accumulation of these poems. Today a student was asking me if I felt a book’s first poem needed to set the stage for the rest of the book. I believe the answer is varied, of course. I wonder, though, how the first poem of this book is meant to open the field for the other poems? Is it?
Terry: What have I learned about the world?
Gaby: Oh you are answering this
Terry: Sort of, yes. I wrote that poem and then I found I had no lessons of the usual kind for my daughters. What began to come out was not what I expected. And that seemed RIGHT.
Mark Folse: Was the contrast of the sense of hopefulness between the opening and the rest intentional, to heighten the impact of the book?
Terry: The opening of the poem, or the opening of the book, Mark?
Brandon: That fear, an anxiety that there is nothing positive to say of a world decaying, permeates the book.
Mark Folse: Of the book
Terry: I’m not sure how hopeful the poem “Ephemeron” is, Mark. It seems pretty qualified to me. Ambiguous territory, as the poem ends up
Thelma: Yes, but I too felt it was more hopeful than what followed. .
Terry: Because there is a life to come? There is hope in that.
Thelma: Yes, I suppose. It’s a gorgeous poem.
Terry: But I was also focusing as sharply as I could on the question of death, its nature, its inevitability
Oh, thank you for that.
Thelma: I loved how you connected the gestation of gods with your unborn girl.
Terry: At some point, maybe 15 years ago, I came to the conclusion that the only philosophical subject worth dealing with is the question of the nature of death
And that we can never know anything about it
Brian S: But you still have to wonder about it all the same.
Terry: Precisely, you can’t not.
Thelma, we might as well call the powers that own us “gods,” however loaded the word may be.
Mark Folse: Outside of the sniper poems, the death seems to be apocalyptic and monstrous.
Terry: And whatever we may mean by it
Brian S: That’s roughly the time I left the church, and one of the big things I had to deal with was the idea that this eternal future I’d been sure of wasn’t likely to happen. And then be okay with it.
Terry: Pretty much
Yes, we go one way or the other on that question, don’t we? Either we take something on faith or we don’t.
Mark Folse: You seemed to have wandered into the forest in (name of poem?) where metaphysics matter.
That’s in the poem called “/”
I was absolutely delighted to call a poem “/”
Mark Folse: Just read those again an hour ago. Middle aged brain.
Terry: I know what you mean. I’m beyond middle age now: I’m a baby geezer, at 61.
Mark Folse: Can you talk a bit about the organization, the division into the two sections?
Terry: It took me awhile to figure out how I wanted the book to be organized. And I was still moving poems around right up to the last moment.
Brian S: You went into a dark wood, well, a subway, a while ago too in Walt Whitman in Hell. One of the first collections I bought as an undergrad.
Terry: Yes, it’s a similar journey
Gaby Calvocoressi: Terry, I’m really in love with the form of these poems and how the couplet is used and envisioned/re-visioned.
Thelma: So many doors, keys, hinges, lintel-ish imagery in these poems. Nice how the section Either/Or acted as a / to the book.
Terry: Exactly, Thelma. I knew early on that that little sequence–it’s actually one poem–was a hinge for the book. I was not sure for quite some time what would be on either side.
Thelma: More death :0
Terry: One thing the book is about is the journey from I to nothingness.
But another thing it is about is the journey from singular to plural.
Brian S: That’s kind of what I was getting at when I talked about the form in poems like “Schemata” and “Ephemera.” Those poems seem to act like the book in miniature–those connections between sections aren’t always clear, but they still build on the whole.
Terry: Ephemeron is the singular form of the familiar word ephemera
Gaby: Perhaps at some point you could speak about the way the form of these poems began to take shape. And the decision to separate couplets and create even more silence/pressure with those symbols.
Terry: So we journey from “I” to “we” in the course of it.
“I” is vanishing. And “we” are vanishing. But it is one thing to go alone, and another to go en masse. If we all go at once it is apocalypse or genocide.
Brandon: And I suppose that is what I found so interesting.
Terry: As to the “couplets,” I don’t think of those as couplets, but as single lines. They are maybe prose.
Gaby: In poems like Implosions
as well as the other ones where that’s more overtly clear?
Brandon: A journey from the I, the self, giving over legacy/ identity to the future generation, and of the legacy of the I to be the destruction of the future
Gaby: That’s fascinating
Brandon: A destruction of self
Or of selves
A self in our universe is temporary. We know of none that are not. Particles vanish, decay, disappear. But what was before them and what comes after
Brian S: If you look at time linearly at least. But that’s another conversation.
Terry: Right, exactly. That too is important.
Mark Folse: Some of the apocalyptic poems (Reruns comes to mind) that end in the immolation (for lack of a better world) are some of the most toucing, adds a human element to death at the cosmic or particle level.
Terry: That was my hope, Mark.
A riff from Spinoza is often in my mind. He wrote something like this:
If you throw a stone over a lake, and midway in its arc it becomes conscious, then it will imagine that it has free will. Our situation is at least in part like that.
Mark Folse: Observatory as well
Terry: We are thrown into the world, from where we do not know. And we are going somewhere, where we do not know. And all our human drama falls in between.
Thelma: Maybe we/everything exists elsewhere quantum-ly.
Terry: Yes, that is of course possible.
Lots of things are possible.
Mark Folse: Meant to say immolation of the lovers. Trying to type in a weird position while eating dinner on a settee ignoring my dinner companions
Terry: I will now make a terrible confession.
All the poems written in what has been called “couplets,” I used the Twitter engine to create
Gaby: That’s amazing!
Thelma: How so?
Gaby: That makes a ton of sense
Terry: All of them consist of fewer than 140 characters.
Brandon: Haha that is amazing
Terry: I got interested in that for awhile
Brandon: Poetry of a new age
Gaby: And they accumulate in the way Twitter can accumulate
Terry: Then I stopped
Thelma: Impeccable syntactically–unlike most tweets.
Terry: Well, I used to edit, you know. lol.
I would hang on to those damned things a long time before I pushed the “tweet” button
Thelma: Did you receive editing on this book?
Gaby: I love that. I am very interested in the way Twitter can feel very intimate.
Terry: There were probably a lot of confused pornographers in Albania.
Mark Folse: Better you than Tao Lin writing an entire novel that way.
Thelma: Amen, Mark.
Terry: Thelma, not much. Some copyediting.
Gaby: The quality of the line in those poems is very different from the others.
Terry: Yes, that’s why I was interested.
And if you pushed me really hard I would say they are prose. I was pushing the border between prose and verse (so called) a lot in these poems.
Brian S: I’ve collected some of my tweets with the idea of using them in a poem. None of them were that good though.
Gaby: The way white space is working is different. I get that. What kind of prose? How close is it to conversation?
Terry: Not conversational. Highly artificed. Borgesian, maybe.
Terry: Calvino. Sebaldian. I love Sebald. Anyway: so much prose is ephemera.
Gaby: Oh yes. There’s a lot of similarity there. I can see that.
Terry: Notes, laundry lists, etc. I tried to bring that together in “The Unwritten History of Prose”
Gaby: Does that kind of experimentation come at all from your musical life. The idea of improvisation and seeing how things build.
Terry: And the “Ephemera” section is a lot about different prose forms, memoirs, reports, etc.
Gaby: And undo themselves
Terry: Gaby, yes, absolutely. Music is always there
Thelma: There’s something also Land-o-Lakesian about the way so many of the poems work.
Brian S: Is the last section of the last poem really only 140 characters? It seems a lot longer than the others.
Terry: The sense of form, and the freedom of the riff.
Brian, I may have taken liberties here and there in the revision process
Gaby: That’s really clear. That’s why the line is so interesting to me in these. It seems as much dictated by breath as anything else, the muscularity of it.
Terry: I was not chained to Twitter, thank god.
Brandon: Too much marketing on twitter.
Brian S: It can feel like it takes you prisoner, that’s for sure.
Terry: 140 characters is about the limit of a breath for me
Gaby: And how it comes to the end of itself.
Terry: Brandon, absolutely. I never go there any more
I worked to make the phrasing fluid in those poems
Well, in all the poems.
Brian S: How long did this book take to write in all?
Terry: Hard question. “Ephemeron” was written I think in 2001
Mark Folse: Land-o-Lakesian? I’m not seeing what’s his name, the famous painter of snowy farmhouses I saw everywhere when I lived up north.
Terry: And then I didn’t know what to do with it
And then “The Infinity Sessions” got going along, and I tried to fit it in there, but it would not go. So I just held it until I realized it was a title poem. That would have been around 2007? I think. Then I zeroed in on the present book. This book was finished in 2009. LSU took 2 years to bring it out. Ephemeron is the first of a group of 3 books. The next will be called Skandolon.
Thelma: What are you working on now? Oh, there’s my answer.
Terry: And the last Eon.
Thelma: What’s Skandolon?
Brian S: How far along are you on those?
Terry: Oddly, Eon is done. Skandolon wants about a dozen poems to be finished.
Skandolon is a Greek word that scarcely has an English existence. It has a theological life
Mark Folse: What ties them together?
Brian S: Do you have a publisher lined up for them already?
Thelma: All the titles end in /n/.
Terry: Where it means sort of “anything that distracts one from salvation.” A Skandolon is a distraction, and a snare.
Brandon: Like twitter
Thelma: As did all the lines in “Inventory.”
Terry: Literally, in Greek, it means “the trigger of a trap.” And it is the root of the English word “scandal”
Thelma: I can’t wait to read it.
Terry: So, a scandal is a trap. Somebody says “What ties them together.” Hell if I know.
Brandon: Yeah I’ll be excited for them.
Terry: Or, put another way, it is a cluster of issues.
The title poem “Skandolon” was published in Blackbird awhile back.
Brian S: Here’s a link to “Skandalon” if anyone wants to check it out after the chat: http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v9n1/poetry/hummer_t/skandalon_page.shtml
Terry: I want images on the covers of all three from the same artist
Brandon: What is the cover?
Terry: It depends, Brandon
Thelma: I love the cover of this book.
Terry: On whether LSU does the book
Gaby: Me too!
Terry: And whether they will consent to the next one. Because the image I want is of Adam and Eve naked and in coitus (rather discreetly) in the background. While in the foreground Death is watching them from a copse of trees.
Mark Folse: To back up, theological or teleological? Is there some direction to make some sense of it all?
Terry: “it all” being . . . the three books?
Anyway, I don’t know whether LSU will let me put naked people on a book cover. Nor do I yet know whether LSU will do the book, but I am assuming they will.
Thelma: It’ll help sell the book.
Terry: I have broached this trilogy idea to them, but nobody will commit to anything past next Tuesday.
Brandon: Here is the image?
Terry: Thelma, it might not. A lot of bookstores will not display publications that have nudity on the cover.
Brian S: Is there still the possibility that LSU Press will be shuttered by budget cuts in Louisiana?
Terry: I don’t think so, Brian, but you never know.
Brian S: You need to write a book of poems about how awesome the LSU Tigers are. The state would pick that one up in a heartbeat.
Mark Folse: Don’t want to veer into politics, but given Bobby’s proclivities, its possible.
Brian S: They know where their priorities are.
Terry: GREEEEEAAAAT idea!
Brian S: We’re past the hour. Any last questions for Terry?
Terry: I think the Press is pretty secure at the moment.
I don’t mind going a little over, since I was late. . . .
Brian S: That’s good to hear. They were in danger not long ago, from what I understand.
Mark Folse: Good to hear, because everything else academic is being eviscerated.
Terry: There was a dicey moment. If the economy tanks, all bets are off everywhere.
Mark Folse: If I enjoyed this book and haven’t read any prior, a recommendation?
Terry: My own favorite of my books is Walt Whitman in Hell.
Brian S: I mentioned Walt Whitman in Hell earlier–I still love that book.
Terry: Maybe because it was the hardest book I ever wrote.
Mark Folse: Thanks
Terry: It almost killed me to write.
Brian S: Why is that?
Terry: Because I changed everything about every aspect of my art. Of inner necessity. Busted my own chops.
Thelma: I mean, any tips?
Terry: Wow, that’s a profoundly hard question. I reached the end of the rope of a certain dimension of my own selfhood. And it had to be broken into teeny tiny pieces.
Brian S: Did you have any trouble continuing to write after finishing that book?
Terry: No, it got easier. And it wasn’t that I had trouble writing. I had trouble writing LIKE THAT. It’s a long story.
Mark Folse: Writing like Whitman or what came before?
Brian S: Maybe we can do this again when Skandalon comes out.
Mark Folse: Like the Whitman book (having a fuzzy nite here)
Terry: Sure, I’d be glad to.
Brian S: Any last questions for Terry?
Terry: Mark, it had to do with coming to understand how language negotiates between the individual body and the body politic. Whitman is the master of that.
OK, final riff: last questions?
Brian S: This has been an awesome chat, Terry. Thanks for the great answers.
Gaby: Thanks so much for talking with us, Terry!
Terry: I appreciate the opportunity. Thanks for showing up!
Thelma: Yes, thanks!
Brandon: Thanks everybody.
Gaby: Night Everyone!
Brandon: It’s a great book. Thanks Terry. Bye
Brian S: Good night everyone. I’ll have an announcement about the next chat in your email soon.
Mark Folse: See y’all next time. A great book and a great discussion.
Terry: I am grateful for the book club, and the chat. Good night.