Like many young poets, I came of age reading Campbell McGrath in graduate school. This was always a pleasure, never a chore. Collections like Capitalism, Spring Comes to Chicago, and American Noise belonged to an order of books my fellow MFAs and I carried with us everywhere and from which we often felt compelled to read aloud.
Years later, after several serendipitous turns, I joined the creative writing faculty at Florida International University where Campbell McGrath has taught for more than twenty years. I fished out my copy of his Florida Poems and read them again with fresh eyes. For my spouse and I, new to Miami and to the whole Floridian landscape, this book would become our touchstone, an inspired map to an otherwise imponderable land.
Not long after we moved here, Campbell inscribed Florida Poems to us this way: To Julie + Angie—Now you are Floridiots, just like the rest of us! In solidarity, C McG. In that same spirit of solidarity, I called upon Campbell for this interview and, happily, he agreed.
The Rumpus: I want to start by asking you about your new book, XX, which I’ve been anticipating with great curiosity and excitement since you first mentioned it to me a couple years ago. You’ve written one poem for each year of the twentieth century, and I’m eager to know how that process began. Did you decide you wanted to write a book about the twentieth century first, or did you find yourself writing poems about various figures and events from the years 1900-1999 and then suddenly realize they belonged together in the same volume? Or perhaps this project evolved in an entirely different way.
Campbell McGrath: In 2009 I published a book called Shannon, which is a book-length narrative poem in the voice of a guy named George Shannon, who was the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. That was my first experience writing in a “historical persona,” and I really enjoyed it. If I were not a poet, I would want to be a historian. I wondered, after Shannon, whether I could tell a different kind of “history” using multiple voices, a chorus rather than a soloist. And the idea of the twentieth century just somehow showed up in my head. I think I liked the logic of one hundred poems in the sequence; it sounded very well-rounded and sturdy. So I just started writing.
Rumpus: Since you’ve opened this door a bit already: Why do you think you became a poet who writes history (sometimes anyway) instead of a historian who sometimes writes poetry—or a firefighter, a mail carrier, an astrologist, a mathematician, a fill-in-the-blank who sometimes writes poetry? How did poetry end up at the center of your life, and when did you have a sense that vocationally, you were headed toward Poetry Land?
McGrath: Hmm. It’s not surprising to me that books ended up playing a central role in my life, but it is somewhat mysterious that poetry did. I read voraciously as a kid—like in the shower, while walking to school—but that was primarily novels, stories, etc. I liked poetry, but it held no special attraction as reading matter. But when it came to writing I just enjoyed poetry. If the class could choose to write a poem or an essay or a story, in sixth grade say, I’d chose the poem. It was fun. It prioritized the language itself over the story being told, or the point being argued. It has fewer boundaries or constraints. Basically I have just kept “choosing the poem” whenever I could, and ended up here.
Rumpus: I love the idea that a choose-your-own-adventure in poetry has brought you here. I can also tell you that as a graduate student, I sat around many a seminar table and study lounge talking about what distinguishes one poet’s work from another’s and what various poet’s literary signatures are. Your poetry was part of that conversation. You’ve written long poems, short poems, formal poems, free-verse poems, lineated poems, prose poems, and of course, even a book-length poem. So let me ask you now—you who would know best, I think—what is a Campbell McGrath poem? What does it do? What does it wear? What does it eat for dinner?
McGrath: A couple of times people have said to me, in response to a poem in a journal, say, or maybe at a reading—“that was a real Campbell McGrath poem.” And I’ve tried to take note of it, so that I would be able to answer this very question. But still I am a bit uncertain, precisely because of the diversity of forms I have written over time. One thing I do know is that I get bored easily, and so am always trying to change my stripes as a poet. But, having hemmed and hawed, let me try to answer. Two types of poem come to mind. First, a type of prose poem I love to write, which involves personal narrative, landscape, and social or historical thinking all rolled together—they sometimes resemble lyric essays, though I was writing them before that label was invented back in the 1990s. I have not written many of these recently, but they are scattered about my books. Secondly, a kind of long, swirling lyric poem that often combines—surprise—the same kinds of material, but because of the energy of the line feels quite different, at least to me. Does that answer the question?
Rumpus: Well, as you would say, “There is no jail in Poetry Land” (your students are very fond of quoting that line!). Let me ask you this: what you recall about the first poem you ever wrote—this might take us all the way back to sixth grade—and the feeling of having completed it, or the first poem you ever wrote that you remember liking/loving. What does a Campbell McGrath poem feel like to you, both in the making and in the finishing of it? And do individual poems serve as catapults for other poems, so that you are able to keep doing something similar (making poems) in very different ways (avoiding boredom)?
McGrath: I do remember some poems I wrote in high school, and my mother has one or two in a scrapbook that I (allegedly) wrote in childhood. But the first poem I wrote that seemed to me real or important was in my first year of college. Two poems, actually, about my first cross-country drive—“Silt, Colorado” and “Rifle, Colorado.” They are short prose poems that look at western landscapes with what I felt at that moment—a kind of awed, mesmerized attention. Both the physical and the sociological landscape, I should say. Having grown up in Washington, DC, and Chicago, guys in cowboy hats eating pancakes at the bar in a little mountain diner was a very new image to me. When I wrote those poems I sensed that I had struck a very promising vein of ore, and indeed I have never stopped mining it. The next time I had that sensation was in graduate school, when the high mindedness of what I was being taught engendered a kind of insurrection. Writing sonnets about Renaissance paintings did not feel like a useful investment of my creative energy. I wanted to strip away artifice and write about something I really knew and cared about, and after some soul searching that turned out to be the 7-Eleven. I wrote “Capitalist Poem #5” and that mine, too, is still in operation.
Rumpus: I know those poems very well. I was sitting in a cafe in grad school—well, cafe is a stretch—a roadside establishment with two tables and an ice machine beside the interstate on-ramp—and I remember saying to my friends, “Hey, guys, listen to this!”:
On the way out I bought a quart of beer for $1.39
I was aware of social injustice
in only the vaguest possible way.
We too bought some beer on the way out, and we talked about that poem and others from Capitalism.
In what ways have you and your poems become aware of social injustice, and perhaps responded to it, with increasing clarity and specificity over the years?
McGrath: Those lines right there express my basic understanding of the situation: we rarely even find ourselves addressing notions such as social justice, because we are so distracted by the titanic apparatus of consumerism. Our lives are so dominated by financial concerns—paying the rent—and consumer choices—what sort of detergent to buy at Costco—that larger issues get subsumed into economic ones. Not just social justice, but basic issues of faith and meaning. Like that bumper sticker, “Whoever Dies with the Most Toys Wins”—that actually expresses many people’s understanding of how the world works, that slogan stands in for a code of morals and ethics. There’s a kind of mistranslation at the heart of American culture by which we mistake money’s only actual worth—which is material, how many widgets it will buy—for some kind of existential value. This is what “The Bob Hope Poem” is about. To really understand this “mistranslation” I had to investigate American history, and consumerism, and behind that capitalism, and also how it is that symbolic systems—like language or money—are structured in our minds in the first place. That’s the goal of “The Bob Hope Poem,” which basically takes those three lines from “Capitalist Poem #5” and blows them up into a book-length poem about America’s soul.
Rumpus: So, what about the newest poems in XX? No doubt capitalism and consumerism are two central motifs of the twentieth century. Do other themes emerge in this book? Did anything you found yourself writing about surprise you, catch you off guard? And if pressed, could you choose a poem from the newest project of which you are proudest?
McGrath: Everything about it surprised me. The first half of the century was easier than the second—that was a surprise. Pablo Picasso almost hijacked the book—that was a surprise. Chairman Mao? Where did that come from? I began with a few ideas, and then I just followed the voices in my head. Some just spoke to me. Like Picasso, whom I have never loved as an artist, and who was a terrible human being. But reading about him, researching, tracking down his paintings in galleries all over the world—I just heard him talking and started writing poems. I ended up with about twenty Picasso poems, half of which made it into the final manuscript. Likewise with Mao, whom I found fascinating, and enjoyed “impersonating.” I expected to write about figures like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, James Joyce. But I could never find their voices—couldn’t find a way to get them on the page. I do like many things in the book—the elegy for Elvis Presley, the “clock” poems that appear throughout like newsreels. But I’m probably proudest of some of the formal poems. There’s a villanelle about Charlie Parker, a sestina about Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which were published the same year. And then there is a canzone, about Picasso and Guernica—I’ve always wanted to write a canzone, and now I have.
Rumpus: I want my students and other emerging writers to know that established ones still set goals for themselves. What else is on your poetry bucket list? What else do you hope to attempt/accomplish in future poems that you haven’t yet? And though I know you have a habit of “choosing the poem every time,” I have to ask about prose. What is the role of prose in your life, in your work, and in your future work, if it has a role at all?
McGrath: I’ve got a couple new books in the works. First of all, when you work on a big project book, like XX, you accumulate other poems, lyric poems, that don’t fit into the project. I’ve got quite a good bunch of those, that may or may not become a new book in the next few years. Possibly, maybe, they would become the “new poems” in a New and Selected. But I’ve got some ambivalence about that. In terms of larger things, my next “history” project will focus on the North Atlantic—which is interesting in terms of American history and personal history, given that my grandparents emigrated from Ireland. So I see this book as taking place on both sides of the ocean, but it is still a notion more than a project. Then I have recently revived my long-standing interest in haiku—mostly due to visiting our son in Japan this past summer. I would really like to make a book out of haiku and prose—that is, a version of the Japanese haibun form. I’ve already worked in that form, in Seven Notebooks, but I’d like to see what happens if you push that form more toward—ready for this?—lyric essay, or lyric memoir-ish prose poetry. So that’s the only kind of prose I have on the radar—pushing my longstanding interest in the prose poem into new territory. Seeing what’s available out there on the frontiers. I read “regular old prose” avidly—but I read it mostly for the story, in fiction, or the information, in nonfiction. Which does not interest me as a writer.
Rumpus: I have never not been ready for lyric essay! Sometimes my students ask me, point-blank, “What’s the difference between a prose poem and a lyric essay?” I am always struggling to find new ways to articulate some reasonably intelligible response to this question. What I should have done long ago is ask you: How do you perceive the difference between prose poem and lyric essay—in your own work, in your students’ work, in the work of other writers? Or, framing the question slightly differently, when for you does a poem move so far into prose that it is no longer identifiable/classifiable as poem?
McGrath: The second way of stating the question gets at the heart of the issue—moving “so far into prose” is a suggestive phrase. It implies distance from a common border into a prose-only heartland. There is something to that analogy, and I frequently extend my Poetry Land metaphor into one that envisions all the literary genres as a set of writerly republics or kingdoms, with diplomatic relations that can be hostile or friendly or mixed. There are some works that are poems, and some that are not, but in fact it’s very hard to define a set of definitions that will always recognize which is which. Texts written in lines tend to be poems, but the phone book is not a poem. So we have to judge them individually. Sheer length, in a prose piece, even one that is lyrical and poetically inclined, does sometimes seem to deny it poetic citizenship. But there are always works that challenge the definition. I’ve always thought of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which is usually classified as a postmodern novel, as a sequence of prose poems that add up to a kind of book-length meta-prose-poem. And what about John Ashbery’s Three Poems, which are not only very lengthy, but also hermetic and complexly theoretical in their writing style? But then, if they are not poems, what are they?
Rumpus: What is a poem to you? What does it do, must it do, to earn its poetic stripes? And while you have already mentioned some wonderful exemplars, who would you say are your greatest and most direct influences as a poet?
McGrath: I have a hard time offering a simple formulation for what makes a poem a poem. What is a poem? That is the central question in every class I teach, and in most of my own thinking. The Odyssey is a poem, but so is a haiku, like this one by Basho—A bee/staggers out/of the peony. That’s one of my very favorite poems, but it’s only seven words long (in this translation by Robert Hass). So how can two such disparate things both bear the same name? Let’s try to define a poem from the ground up and see how far we get. A poem is made of words. Yes. A poem uses words to create art. Yes—and this is an important distinction between poetry and prose, most of which is informational or narrative at heart. A poem employs both the sound and the sense of language, it treats words not just as signifiers but as a plastic medium of artistic expression. Well, yes, I guess so, but I’m not really sure this adds too much. But I am already running out of things that are universally true! Poems are written in lines? No, not always. They employ metaphor, figurative language, concrete imagery, word play, tropes, etc, etc? Yeah, knid of, but in so many varied fashions and with so many exceptions that I’m not really sure this can be considered a real stipulation or a helpful guideline. So what do we have? Poems are language turned into art; sound and sense matter; they can be as long (or longer) than The Odyssey or as short (or shorter) than a haiku. Not very helpful.
Okay, there may not be absolute rules, as in a philosophical proof, but sure, there are things I believe poems should do. They should make the language sweat. They should be interesting. (No art should ever be boring!) They should be honest—emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, esthetically—at whatever level matters in that particular poem. They should reflect something deeply important to the poet—emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, esthetically. They should not be taken too seriously. They should be taken very seriously. It is an act of great consequence to write a poem, it is no laughing matter—which does not mean that poems should not be funny.
Walt Whitman provided a great model for me, since my first impulse as a poet was documentary and inclusive. Rilke has been a great model to me of poetry that is inward, mysterious, and spiritual. Basho is a great poet of detail, depth, and being-in-time. There are a set of mid-20th century poets from whom I learned a great deal—James Wright, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, George Oppen. Robert Hass continues to teach me things through his poetry and critical intelligence. More recently, I have learned a lot from Li-Young Lee, Czeslaw Milosz, and poets of the Dark Room Collective. And most recently, I have learned from Hector Viel Temperley, Kathleen Jamie, and Frank Baez. Any list that left out William Carlos Williams and Po Chu-i would be nonsensical, so let’s add them. There are many, many more.
Rumpus: There comes a point in every interview when the person in my position sees that time is running out and wants to ask the best question ever as a grand finale. This is that moment, but I’m afraid I don’t have a best question ever. Rather, I have a strange question—not a question I’ve ever asked anyone in an interview before, but something your previous response made me think of. Back in 1999 or 2000, I watched a film with some college friends called Moonlight and Valentino. I don’t remember much about the movie at all except that we watched it because the protagonist is a poet and a college poetry professor played by Elizabeth Perkins. She is grieving the death of her spouse, and in her sorrow, she assigns her students the task of creating “a poem without words.” I loved this idea. It seemed like a riddle to me, maybe a koan. I was looking for poems without words everywhere in the world around me. Then, I smiled when you said above that a poem is made of words. The devil’s advocate in me replied, But what if it weren’t? What else could it be made of? So all these years later, I pass one (admittedly fictional) poetry professor’s question along to you, a (very real) poetry professor and maker of poems. If a poem itself is a “making,” what are other wordless poems you find in the world around you? Maybe I’m really asking what wordless poems inspire you most in making your poems of words?
McGrath: The idea of a wordless poem is indeed like a koan, a paradox designed to make us understand intuitively, to see beyond reason. All of the arts are kin—music and sculpture and dance, those are wordless art forms. But poetry is defined by language. Of course, each art is distinct, and has its own character—not just in terms of media, but in terms of what seems to lie at the heart of it. There is an essence or a shape at the heart of poetry that other arts sometimes evoke—so I think we could imagine calling a dance or a sculpture a “wordless poem,” I would know what that meant, though it would be an inaccurate description. But there is something even bigger at work than art. There are things in this world that seem to do what poems do—a blossoming peony, a wave-eroded lightning whelk, a map of a great city. The shape that poems make in the mind is an echo of something powerful in the cosmos. I do believe that, and that is certainly irrational, so perhaps I am no wiser than Elizabeth Perkins as to the nature of poetry.