Langdon Hammer ’80 GRD ’89 has reviewed poetry for the New York Times and The American Scholar, in addition to editing “Hart Crane: Complete Poetry and Selected Letters.” He earned both his B.A. and PhD in English from Yale and currently teaches the popular lecture “Daily Themes” and the seminar “The World of James Merrill.” He is now working on a biography of the poet James Merrill.
Writing today needs more …
Time. There’s a Slow Food movement. Why not a Slow Writing movement? Not that we ought to go back to typewriters and longhand. But electronic writing in its many forms is about speed — speed of composition, publication, reading, response; and writing that is worth rereading, which is also to say worth writing, takes time. “First thought, best thought.” Maybe, but not the best writing.
If you could ask President Obama one question, what would it be?
“What happened, man?”
The last thing you ate/drank was …
A $1 coffee from Atticus.
If you could meet one character from a novel, who would it be?
Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s man-sized beetle.
What is the most difficult piece you’ve ever had to write?
The first chapter of my PhD dissertation. Talk about “Slow Writing”! I kept erasing it (I was using a pencil). Every writer needs permission to write, a base of authority that you can only get — paradoxically — by writing. Or to change metaphors: it’s the problem of the train that has to lay its own track. Things got easier for me, as they do for most writers who persist. Yet you never get out of that problem altogether. You just get better at laying down track.
If you could go to college right now, what would you do differently?
Go to all the home hockey games.
How do you take your coffee?
Early and often.
What is your favorite word and why?
“Still.” Five letters you can use to speak of time, space, and intensity, to insist or to allay. Shakespeare understood its spell: “What you do still betters what is done … Move still, still so, and own no other function.” There’s instilling and distilling. To say nothing about Grandpa’s still-out back. But ask me that tomorrow and I’ll have another answer.
Do you have a Facebook account? Why or why not?
I do, and I don’t know why.
The most embarrassing moment of your career was …
I’m pretty sure it hasn’t happened yet. Tell me that it won’t be this interview.
What is your favorite Yale memory?
That’s tough, because a lot of my memories are Yale memories. But how about this: Geoffrey Hartman and Paul De Man taking turns reading “Ode on a Grecian Urn” for two hours in front of (gasping) freshmen on the first day of the spring semester, 1977.
Most importantly, why is Yale better than Harvard?
Cole Porter wrote our fight song.