Hybrid by Nature: A Conversation with Tara Campbell

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If you google Tara Campbell, you’ll find page after page of publications. She writes in all genres, exploring form and voice like no other contemporary author, essayist, or poet. She has published a novel, a short story collection, and a hybrid collection of poetry and fiction—all of which explore identity and politics, often through the absurd. Her newest book, Political AF: A Rage Collection, is another hybrid work that embraces both the speculative prose she loves and the potent but timeless, anger of a country wronged:

Before you download
the plans for your AR-15
please also download
the plans for our son.

– from “Active 3D printer situation”

Gone is the quirky humor Campbell gifted us with in previous books. Gone is the careful intertwining of laughter and horror. Campbell’s urgency is palpable. Her succinct, hard-hitting pieces demand a response. The timeliness of her words strike home, even though many were actually written years ago—and that reality pisses us off even more. By the end, we are ready to fight.

I was thrilled to speak with Tara recently about the way form impacts writing, the importance of anger in making change, and the freedom that comes with exploring multiple literary genres.

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The Rumpus: This collection is very different from the other books of yours that I’ve read. What made you focus more on poetry this time? What does poetry allow you, in terms of form and structure?

Tara Campbell: I tend to write poetry when I’m pissed off about something. It’s a more visceral, direct way to express myself, to pour my outrage onto the page before it corrodes me, and without having to construct it logically, step by step. Yes, poetry needs to be edited like prose does, but the initial process of drafting poetry is more immediate for me. I tend not to edit myself as heavily in the first draft of a poem as I do with prose, where plot and character development require things to align or at least seem plausible. When I do get to the editing phase of a poem, the compactness of it challenges me to be precise about what I’m saying.

Rumpus: I find your flash fiction quite precise, too. And often political! What keeps so much of your work in those smaller spaces?

Campbell: Even though my first published book was a novel, I tend to gravitate toward shorter forms. For me, it’s been a way to get to the meat of what I’m thinking about without getting lost on the way there. Flash tends to focus on moments of change, and maybe that’s why it’s attractive to me as well—because there are so many things that need to change in the world.

Rumpus: You are a master of unusual fiction. What genre would you consider “The Scent of Lions” to be? What does a collection become, in terms of labels, when it includes poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction?

Campbell: I am a hybrid by nature—mixed-race; born and raised in Alaska, which is part of, yet so different from, the rest of the US—so perhaps it comes naturally to me to write hybrid forms and collections. I love the umbrella term “speculative fiction” because it encompasses so many different types of speculation about the past, present, and future (sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history, fabulist, etc.) without imposing unnecessary borders between them. “The Scent of Lions” sits firmly, if inconveniently, at the juncture of science fiction and mainstream fiction—my questions about technology, for example, are more about how we use it than about the nuts and bolts of how it works. You can’t ignore the science, but I find it more interesting to focus on what we as a society choose to do with what the science makes possible. What kind of society will we choose to build with the tools we have available?

Rumpus: What is the difference between prose and poetry, for you? Where is that line—or does it even matter?

Campbell: I don’t necessarily think about the borders between forms when I start writing. It’s more the feeling I’m coming from that determines the form: when I’m pissed off, it tends to come out as poetry rather than prose. But that’s not a conscious decision I make, and while I’m writing, I don’t care what category the work fall into.

During the editing process, I play around with sound and how it looks on the page, but even then, not with a label in mind. I think if I wind up focusing more on sound and image and idea than on a specific plot line, it seems more like a poem. But now that I think of it, my poem “The Meadow” kind of puts the lie to that, because I had a linear escalation in mind there, so who knows?

Rumpus: Talk to me about “Cauliflower.” That tiny poem stuck with me for days. I still think about it now. You’ve told a whole story in the smallest shape. What is your process for writing such powerful words in such limited forms?

Campbell: Like every Black woman ever in the history of time, I’ve taken flak about my hair. I’ve also watched parts of Black culture suddenly become acceptable and even cool once white people start taking them on (remember Bo Derek’s braids?). One day, I was in the store looking at broccoli and cauliflower, and since I like broccoli better, I wondered what cauliflower might try to do to be as cool as broccoli. That for me was an image that encapsulated a whole phenomenon, so after I wrote the poem, I shaped it in that image.

Rumpus: Then in “U.S. Government Form BC-451: Form to Procure Permission to Purchase Birth Control,” you take the hermit crab essay to a whole new level. It’s so tricky to write authentic, hard-hitting pieces in unusual forms! How did you approach this particular piece? Where did you get the idea for it? And, for writers that have stuck to more traditional methods, what advice would you share on writing in unusual forms?

Campbell: This piece was the result of my anger at all the roadblocks women are facing in getting birth control through their workplace insurance, through restrictions imposed by conservative employers and upheld by our increasingly theocratic government. The form to acquire birth control seemed the natural way to portray this attempt to control women, to corral us in the patriarchy through bureaucracy.

In my classes where I introduce hermit crab forms, many participants have said it was daunting or difficult to start, yet freeing once they tried it. Using a non-standard format as a starting point gives you a certain license to cut to the chase and say what you want to say, in a way you never would have thought to say it. Using these forms allows you to think something through outside the confines of the standard prose scaffolding—sentences and paragraphs are also a received form, so moving into a different form allows your mind to work differently. You’re using the whole shape of the piece to create meaning rather than restricting yourself to strings of words.

Rumpus: Did you write all these pieces with a collection in mind? Or did you realize along the way that a collection was brewing? How long did it take you to finish the collection, from start to finish?

Campbell: The collection includes work from 2016–2019. I wrote and published individual pieces as my anger took me, and realized in late 2018 that there were enough individual pieces to gather together into one big ball of rage. That’s when I gathered my work together and started shopping out the collection.

I don’t recall exactly how long it took to put the collection together, but what I did was print out the first page of each piece that I thought might fit, then grouped them together and sorted them, and decided which ones would stay and which ones would go.

Putting a collection together is a visual process for me. The first time I did it (Circe’s Bicycle), I taped pages up on the wall and scribbled notes and arrows on them in red ink like it was like a criminal investigation. This time it was me standing around staring at piles of paper on the floor. So, yes, a visual and physical process.

Rumpus: What was the hardest piece to write in this collection? Why?

Campbell: All of the work was pretty cathartic to write, actually. But I think the one that made me question myself the most was “The Trouble with Pronouns” because it made me grapple with how I define myself as a mixed-race person, and made me question the messages I’d been fed about what it means to be Black. What am I supposed to be or not be, as a Black person? What pronoun do I use when talking about racism, when I know full well that my light skin and blue eyes have insulated me from its worst effects: am I “we” or “they”?

Rumpus: That theme of “we vs. they” is so striking in this poem, with identity being such a nuanced, even dangerous, deep dive. And the horrific timeliness of the piece, written before George Floyd’s death—it leaves us sitting there, re-reading the piece over and over, stunned with the realization: she probably wrote this piece a year or more ago, but she could have written it this morning or ten years ago. Then you take us immediately into “After the Pedestal,” where you write about the significance of these historical statues that honor slave owners. How does it feel, launching this book in the middle of widespread protests and, hopefully, meaningful change?

Campbell: It definitely is surreal that, after a lifetime of living these issues and years of writing about them, they’re coming to head so powerfully this close to my collection’s launch. I wrote “The Trouble with Pronouns” over four years ago, and I wrote “After the Pedestal” two years ago about an experience I had in the early 2000s. The wild thing about “Pedestal” is that the statue in question has since been taken down, and that very pedestal is slated for removal in July. We’re planning to make a note in the collection when that happens. I never imagined that we’d even be able to think about things like that—that amidst all the rage, we’d get one tiny moment of victory.

Rumpus: If you could pick three people—anyone, anywhere—to read this collection, who would you choose?

Campbell: That’s an interesting question, because I think much of the work in this collection is too angry to try to start a discussion with people who are satisfied with the current allocation of power in our society. This is not the book that tries to explain gently and patiently why women and people of color are human beings deserving of respect. For me, it’s about affirmation.

Rumpus: Who is your ideal audience for Political AF?

Campbell: I don’t really write with an audience in mind; I write what I want to say. That said, I hope this collection can serve as support for the resistance, a defense against political gaslighting—no, we’re not overreacting; yes, things really were and are still that bad. I want it to serve as a reminder to us, even if/when things calm down, that yes, this shit really did happen. Yes, this is why we were out here protesting, and why we need to keep voting and speaking up. We need to remember sexism and racism and police brutality and oppression and everything else, even when they’re not in the headlines.

What I would love is for people who are feeling worn out in this struggle to be able to read this and feel refocused, reenergized, and ready for more.

Rumpus: Many of us get accused of being angry in our writing about the need for political and social change, as if anger is something negative and/or detracting from our art. This is especially true for those of us who identify as women. What is your response to that?

Campbell: Fuck ‘em. No, seriously, though… Fuck ‘em.

Rumpus: Who was the first writer who excited you with their “angry” political work? Who excites you now?

Campbell: I have to say, the understated, clinical rage of Margaret Atwood has had a huge impact on me for quite a while. She demonstrates not only that we should be outraged at the brutality of patriarchal, theocratic, bloodlessly capitalist fascism, but also why—how it works, how it slowly cinches us and suffocates us. She shows us the receipts, so to speak, and demonstrates that you don’t have to be loud to be angry.

But we have every damn reason to be loud if we want to.

Rumpus: You are extremely prolific, in terms of your publishing. What do you look for when submitting, when you try to match your work to a publication?

Campbell: I think publishing starts with reading, and I tend to read across genres. I have a fondness for publications that don’t necessarily dive hardcore into genre tropes, but are open to elements of the fantastic, like Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, XRAY, Ghost Parachute, Cease, Cows, Okay Donkey, and so many more that I’m sorry I’m not mentioning here; so, when I have something with just a tinge of the weird, those are the kind of places I try. Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online are great for stories with a more traditional science-fiction sensibility, so sometimes I try there. My stuff isn’t genre enough for the Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, etc. crowd (believe me, I’ve tried), but I was fortunate enough to get a story in Speculative City—it’s funny when I write a story that just seems intriguing to me, and it’s published as “horror” and I’m like “oh, yeah, I guess it was kind of twisted…”

Rumpus: What and who are you reading right now?

Campbell: Like many of us, I’m finding it hard to read in this moment, beyond news articles to stay informed, because if I’m going to spout off, I want to know my facts. But a few things I’ve read in the past that might be interesting for this time:

A poem that keeps coming back to me over the years is “I Want a President” by Zoe Leonard. Read it. I mean, read it! She wrote that shit almost fifty years ago, and I still want that.

Another book that has stuck with me is Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, because it wades into the very uncomfortable space of colorism, with a Black elite hanging on to precarious social privilege by distancing itself from the Black community. It identifies how “progress” has been so closely tied to “assimilation,” coming at the price of abandoning part of our identity.

If you need a bitter laugh about just how far we haven’t come, George S. Schuyler’s Black No More is an outrageous 1931 satire about race and politics in the US. I wrote about it in 2016, and keep thinking about it, and if you read it during an election year as I did, it’s even more shockingly (depressingly, cringingly—all the adjectives) real.

To balance out the cynicism, try Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. I don’t read a lot of memoir, to be honest, but I made an exception for this autobiography from John Lewis, and I’m so glad I did. It’s such an intimate and honest portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement from the inside, before the major figures we know became the major figures as we know them. It could serve as an inspiration today, when people may be doubting their ability to make change.

As Congressman Lewis said: “Make good trouble.”

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Photograph of Tara Campbell by Anna Dewitt Carson.


Hannah Grieco is a writer and advocate in Arlington, VA. She is the CNF editor for JMWW, the fiction editor for Porcupine Literary, and the founder and organizer of the monthly reading series Readings on the Pike. Find her online at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter at @writesloud. More from this author →