Campbell McGrath is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Ecco Press, 2009), an epic poem of the American west. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s
and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in dozens of literary journals and quarterlies, and over forty anthologies. His awards include MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships, the Kingsley Tufts Prize, as well as a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. He has taught at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, and for the last fifteen years at Florida International University, in Miami, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.
Campbell McGrath interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand & Ken Robidoux
“Baltimore” says that fellow creatures’ “kinship touches a peculiar nerve, a spot not far from where art resides,” then ends on the image of seventeen-year cicadas heading back underground, awaiting a song to awake them. In light of your poem “The Custodian,” which grapples with “the long-prophesied death of the book, quotidian relic of an archaic technology,” as well as with the word “imprinted” (root: print) at the end of “Baltimore,” it seems that both poems are, partly, concerned with the trend toward electronic, rather than printed, literature, and possibly a trend away from reading in general. What are your feelings and thoughts about the trend toward electronic media—including electronic means of reading poetry and other literature? What do you think the (metaphoric) song will be that will awaken those sleeping cicadas?
I hadn’t been thinking about electric media vs. print in “Baltimore,” but I think you’re right that it’s suggested in the final image. I guess I was musing about the power of song, and image, and the hope that they might somehow sustain us amid “the darkness.” What darkness is he talking about, might be a pertinent question. Cultural darkness is one answer, but I was thinking both culturally and existentially. Somehow the cicadas know to emerge from underground, and they know how to sing. It’s hard-wired into them, and I guess part of that “kinship” might be that we, too, have our courtship displays, our brief life in the sunshine, and our innate desire to sing. Not just poetry, all of art is that song.
Both “Baltimore” and “The Custodian” deal with the idea of salvation and sustenance. This idea, this longing, seems uniquely human. Part of this longing seems to be for a connection with other people—as you write in “The Custodian,” “we could be bees in a hive and still not know each other.” And in “Baltimore” you write the image of cicadas awaiting a song to lead them from darkness, sucking nutrients from tree roots in the meantime—all of which seems like a metaphor for the sustenance of art in the quest for salvation, and communion. Shannon, in a way, addresses the same issue: a man struggling to stay alive when he’s cut off from all human contact (though, of course, you could argue that a bit more ammo would also help him stay alive). We have three questions relating to this:
Is the idea of some kind of salvation, or sustenance—the nutrition sucked from tree roots—what draws you to write and read, listen to music, etc?
I’ve never consciously sought salvation, but I have sought sustenance. Art helps me survive—though of course many other things do too: love, family, baseball, Sponge Bob, etc. Art provides nutrition, yes. “Saved” is too freighted with spiritual and religious connotations for me. Maybe what we need is to be enlightened, and art can help with that, too.
In response to a question on Smartish Pace, you wrote that “Poetry is in some sense the national art form of Ireland; America's national art form is the Hollywood blockbuster.” How do you understand the difference between the sustenance that people gain from each of these art forms? Do you worry that Americans don’t interact with art enough, for the welfare of individuals and society?
There are lots of reasons why Ireland holds poetry in a different esteem—social, historical and cultural reasons—and one can debate how that came to be. Art is socially determined. People like different kinds of music in Beijing and Vienna. America’s attitude toward art is one of benign neglect, you might say, but there may be some paradoxical advantages in that, as the abundance of practicing artists here attests. America is a nuts and bolts kind of place, and there’s a tendency to view art as a luxury item, which is too bad, as people miss out on the enrichment it offers. An unemployed auto worker might find a different kind “sustenance” in the poems of Phillip Levine, for instance, from the kind he can buy with food stamps.
Your poetry is very popular. We're thrilled that it is, and we wonder why you think it’s so popular. Do you think it comes back to the idea of communion: that people are drawn to you and to your work because they find there a longing that they also feel? Or do you think there is a different primary reason people are drawn to your work?
Some people are attracted to my work because of its satire of our society. An amazing number of people can relate to the notion that Chuck E. Cheese is an existentially terrifying place. There is a real sense of communion in that—I am not alone! But other people like my poems for the opposite reason-- that I speak about and praise the real world I see around me. Whether praising or reviling it, though, I do think it’s the direct treatment of contemporary American society that attracts many of my readers. And it’s still quite a tiny readership, I assure you. Poetry occupies a very marginal sliver of our cultural terrain, and I don’t think that will change any time soon.
When you wrote Shannon’s story, how did you negotiate the difference between your voice and his—in other words, how do you preserve your voice as an artist, but still let Shannon speak? Is this an ethical choice you had to make? Is it artistic, a craft-based decision? Did you pick Shannon because of similarities between yourself and him, and/or because his story, or voice, speaks to us today in a particularly relevant way?
Of course there is a kind of literary/ethical issue when it comes to appropriation—do I have the right to speak for this person? In my case, though, the voice of George Shannon just showed up in my head, with no ethical or other preconsiderations. When I first read about Shannon’s mis-adventure I felt an immediate kinship, even two centuries later, because I’d been a young man lost and wandering around our country myself. I’d driven around the Great Plains, and felt loneliness and amazement and even fear—felt myself being overwhelmed by the sheer space. Over the years, I would hear from Shannon occasionally, and transcribe his voice, as it were, relying on my own experience, too. Then I put it all together and made a poem of it in a period of two or three months. As for the ethics, I think I have enough generic similarities to “speak for” Shannon, where I could not speak for a young Sioux warrior in the same landscape at the same time. That would be a type of cultural imperialism.
Some of your lines begin and end very precisely, and require precise placement on the page—obviously, your lined poetry, and also notable passages like the “buffalo” section of Shannon. In prose poems like “Baltimore” and “The Custodian,” how important is the line, and how important is the exact placement of the line on the page? Does each stanza function like a line? How important is the end of each physical line? For example, when prose poetry is reprinted, should each line always end on the same word, despite the page width, or should publishers let the text wrap around wherever the page ends?
By definition, prose is set by the typographer—which in our day means by Microsoft Word. If it’s prose, it goes to the margins, and is not visually shaped by the author. So, prose poems, likewise, go to the margins—any single piece of prose does, and so the poem looks different online, here, than it does on my computer. But it is broken into “units” that retain their integrity, if not their exact lineation on the page. You cannot make a “line-break” in prose, but you can make a “paragraph break,” and those, as in “Baltimore,” create a loose shaping of the poem on the page, a controlled flow. But it’s not the same as lines—it’s a unit between the line and the paragraph. Some people would call them strophes. A literal description I sometimes use is sculptural prose fragments.
How influential is the work of artists like, for instance, the brilliant Jim McMichael, to your writing style? If you feel any influence exists, do you feel it was more prevalent in your early work than in your more recent?
McMichael’s wonderful book Four Good Things had a large influence on “The Bob Hope Poem” in particular. Several people have told me that Shannon reminds them of another of his poems—but that was not a conscious influence, and I don’t know if I’ve read that poem or not. I need to look that poem up. Either way, it’s interesting that both of my book-length poems bear a resemblance to his work.
One of the indicators of an artist reaching journeyman status is a general pervasive tone or attitude akin to "what the fuck" (as in Q. "Why did you end that line on a preposition?" A. Because I felt like it). It is the product, it seems, of an artist that has reached an understanding with their art, and most often results in some of the most successful poetry. It presents as an artist that relies less on convention and more on personal choice, and usually follows years of proving they "know better". And to us it is the ultimate indicator that the artist has deeply contextualized the phrase "serve the poem." Do you feel at this point in your progression that you have reached this journeyman status as it's been defined here?
Well, my sense of a journeyman is a bit different from yours. In baseball, a journeyman is a guy who has played for a lot of teams, is a solid veteran, can help you out in the bullpen or at the bottom of the batting order, but not a real star, not a great player. In my mind it’s not the journeyman but the master craftsman who makes those intuitive, startling gestures that I think you are referring to, someone like Basho. I never will certainly never be as good as Basho. On the other hand, I’ve always done things a bit unconventionally, and taken a lot of risks, whether I had the skills to back them up or not. Poetry, for me, is a great place to take risks, break rules, run amok. I’m always happy to jump off the tops of tall buildings, and these days I sometimes even manage to land in the tiny buckets of water at their feet.
From the window, on a perfect August day, the great shade trees are unmoved, only the uncountable susurrations of their million-fold leaves betraying the breeze in its passage.
Roses in bloom, creepers climbing the porch railings, morning glory transforming the hedge into a vast, amorphous caterpillar of violet blossoms, some robins on the lawn hunting worms, two squirrels, an unabashed rabbit venturing out from its den within the ancient azalea bush.
The surface of the planet seethes with fellow creatures!
Their kinship touches a peculiar nerve, a spot not far from where art resides, primitive, cognizant of the animal nature of the species, the cave where Pan must once have lived, or still does.
And from the treetops the oceanic chorus of cicadas, described by Whitman as “rising and falling like brass quoits.”
Specimen Days. As they all are. Wings pinned, chloroformed in glass vials,
catalogued for display in the dusty museum cases of time.
Chirp of some warbler, distant traffic, rumble of bass and drums from the all day music festival at the race track where the teenagers in tie dye and belly button rings themselves resemble birds engaged in inscrutable mating rituals.
For blocks around the concert-goers fill the streets, stoned or trippy on the day’s sweet blue-sky vibe, little kids selling bottled water from red coolers, guys with knock-off sunglasses and t-shirts, the big grills set up on traffic islands for barbeque ribs and crab cakes.
The song the cicadas are singing they will sing throughout the brief weeks of their lives, exultant imagos mating in the high branches, and a new generation will emerge from freshly-laid eggs, and burrow underground, ant-like grubs, wingless nymphs subsisting for the next seventeen years on fluids sucked from tree roots, with only that promise to help them endure their long, transitional dreamstate,
that memory or fragrance, a sunlit dance of green leaves in wind, that paradisal fragment of sensory data imprinted deep within their genes,
only that song— like quoits!—to lead them out of darkness.
My old friend John stops by for a few days on his way to visit his older brother, dying of cancer in Tampa. Twenty years since we drank a bottle of cheap scotch together on 105th Street, talking all night about books and their power to transform the world, talking about poetry as if it might save us from the darkness. These days, we agree, there are no simple answers to be found in that bottle, though it is not the worst place to start. For over a decade John has worked as a custodian at a university in California, mopping the corridors of quiet buildings, talking with the young professors, working for the union, carrying a ring of keys to unlock darkened laboratories and libraries. He has discovered amazing things in the book stacks in the small hours of the night, hand-printed pamphlets from Mayakovsky, the plays of Sadakichi Hartman, untranslated poems of Roberto Bolano. Sometimes poets famous for their political commitment come to read on campus and he alone knows that the kitchen workers in that particular building are bullied and abused by a notorious boss, but they, the workers, immigrants from Laos and El Salvador, refuse to file union grievances, refuse to confront authority in any fashion, too familiar in their previous lives with its costs. That’s my niche, he says, between the poets and the dishwashers. Not to bring them together but simply to bridge the distance, the space between lives and words, the passion of the mind to connect and the intransigence of the world restraining it.
For lunch we go to a Peruvian restaurant in the city and eat ceviche of mussels and onions and a platter of fried shrimp and octopus with bottles of Cristal beer.
He would like to live in Cuzco or Lima, find a way to visit Nicanor Parra in Chile.
He would like to live in Mexico City for a while and translate young poets back and forth across that frontier.
For a couple years I trained to be a masseur, he says, at an institute run by a Japanese master, and one day I felt against my palm a pulse of wind rising from a woman’s back as surely as I feel the wind on my face right now—I was looking around the room for the draft, as if it were a practical joke, but it was what it was—pure energy rising out of the body.
Why did you give it up? I ask.
People would say, You saved my life!—and they would mean it. I didn’t want to be that person. I don’t believe in saviors.
The last night of his visit we sat up late talking in the backyard, John smoking his unfiltered cigarettes, our bodies marked by the passage of time but our minds still turning familiar gears, still worrying the old bones—as if the years were the transcript of a trial we could review at command, as if the mind is a prisoner and the thread of its movement restlessly pacing the corridors of a decaying labyrinth might even now be rewound and reexamined.
Consciousness is a caged tiger, John said, raging against the bars.
But the capsules of our minds open so infrequently, I said, like the airlocks on some giant spaceship. We could live together like penguins, like ants, we could be bees in a hive and still not know each other.
A tree frog sat with us, balled on the windowsill, pale and wide-eyed, like a glob of uncooked pastry dough, as the winter trade winds flung the leaves of the live oak tree down upon our heads like soft axe-blows, talking about translation and semiotics and novels written on cell phones by green-haired teenagers in Tokyo subway stations, arguing about literature and how it evolves, or degrades, or transforms—does anyone still read Zbignew Herbert the way we did, or Delmore Schwarz, or Malcolm Lowry, does anyone care about Huidobro, Transtromer, Pessoa?— eulogizing great bookstores and the evanescence of artifacts, the long-prophesied death of the book, quotidian relic of an archaic technology.
But books have been my whole life, he said. What will we do without them?
Loneliness is everywhere, John. Not even poetry can save us.