and the State of Poetry in America
Fugue, Summer-Fall 2006
Campbell McGrath was born in Chicago in 1962 to Irish Catholic parents. His father, an ROTC student, moved the family to Washington, D.C. where McGrath grew up. But, he returned to Chicago to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. This is also where he met his wife, Elizabeth Lichtenstein. In 1988, McGrath completed his M.F.A. degree at Columbia. McGrath and his wife now reside in Florida with their two sons where he teaches poetry at Florida International University.
Chicago is a place where McGrath lived and returned frequently, but he also immortalized it in his award winning book, Spring Comes to Chicago. His other books include: Capitalism, American Noise, Road Atlas, Florida Poems, and Pax Atomica. In these intensely musical books of poetry, McGrath captures both the beauty and corruption of the American culture.
McGrath is the recipient of numerous awards which include the McArthur "genius" fellowship, the Kingsley Tufts Award (for Spring Comes to Chicago), and he's a former Guggenheim Fellow.
I had the pleasure of meeting Campbell McGrath during his visit to the University of Idaho where he taught a one-week poetry workshop. The following interview took place during the winter of 2005.
Sara Kaplan: Place is something you've discussed in depth in other interviews. In Spring Comes to Chicago, Chicago is literally and figuratively a place of meat. It's impersonal. You don't romanticize places, but rather leave them raw. The city isn't necessarily loud and cumbersome, but rather you focus on the issue of class where rich men wear fur coats and the Wal-mart is ever present. I wonder, in your poems about Chicago, what does the speaker long for?
Campbell McGrath: Maybe it's the very materiality of place I respond to. Those alligators you allude to some cultures look at animals like that and see a powerful force of nature to be worshipped, we see a nice pair of shoes waiting to be purchased. Oh well. The whole battle of "the environment" is to get people to adopt a broader perspective, and start to believe even a little in the "sacredness" of place. If people in Florida did that perhaps we would stop paving over the few natural places we have left down here. It's one of the central notions of Romantic poetry, at any rate.
SK: Do you consider place a mythological force in your poems, a sort of religion? In other words, what are we left to believe in, in terms of our contemporary society? Do we hope for a "golden age" the "wonderment" of alligators that you muse upon in "A City in the Clouds?"
CM: There's a Joseph Campbell quote about meaning and value in people's lives deriving from their "local mythology" which your question reminds me of. I don't usually think about things in those categories. I'm not a religious person, I'm a rationalist and a materialist but I think "place" is as close as we come to something sacred in these times.
SK: Location seems to be not only significant in terms of topic but also is intrinsic to your aesthetic. How to locate a poem on the page is risky. Your poems are generally very long sequences rather than shorter moments how did you learn to extend the voice for many pages at a time?
CM: Length is one of those formal responses. If you play with a lot of toys you need a big box in which to throw them. In "A City in the Clouds" I wanted to tell an extended narrative, a fable, and to do that I had to imagine it growing larger on the page; to keep if from feeling static. I shift forms from section to section some lyrical fragments, a prose section, and the long-lined narrative sections that drive the story forward.
Would the whole poem be better served in prose? Possibly. Sometimes I think I got the mix wrong there, and there should be more prose sections some of the lines are flat. But I was learning I'd never written a poem like that, and I'm happy with it, flaws and all.
SK: Can you speak specifically about one or two of your poems where you were faced with some of the challenges of writing longer poems? And, in general, what makes a long poem appropriate for your subject matter?
CM: There's "The Bob Hope Poem," a real monster in terms of length. But that poem couldn't be any smaller to contain the set of ideas and reflections that are in it, and here is the truth I did not make that determination, the poem did. For years I wished that poem would "finish itself," would find its end-point, would allow me to wrap it up and be done with it. But it kept suggesting new connections, avenues, issues, and I felt obligated to fulfill that vision, however sweeping. This poem is not a narrative but a symphonic structure, with themes and motifs that recur, interconnect, shift, evolve the poem is internal, and the form tries to mirror the free-floating consciousness of its narrator on one snowy day in Chicago.
It's not just the material, it's the attitude toward the material that help dictate form. If the poet wants to document the external world, to write horizontally, putting the world on the page, then the poem swells the more you put in, the bigger it gets that's more or less a Newtonian process of physical expansion. There's no requirement that a poem be large, of course. The lyric poem is probably more logically suited to vertical thinking to the voice of the poet, freed of external reality, singing a song, or a prayer, or an argument. It would make no sense at all for Dickinson to expand her poems or for Whitman to contract his, just to match some ideal vision of poetic form. What those two great forerunners demonstrate is that singularity of vision requires finding a form to match the voice and content or not finding that form, which suggests that it is just out there somewhere, under a rock. It's really about creating a form, inventing it, doing whatever it takes to house the poems you have in you to write.
SK: America and popular culture seem to be two of the most prevalent influences for you. When you were developing your aesthetic, who did you read who most moved you?
CM: Whitman wrote long poems, of several types and lengths, and that was an early model. Then there's Patterson, William Carlos Williams, a great model for pastiche, collage, and documentation. Robert Pinsky's poem "An Explanation of America" was a model for "The Bob Hope Poem," and so was James McMichael's "Four Good Things."
SK: Have you ever been fond of shorter poems, writing or reading them?
CM: Yes, I do write shorter poems. I have a new book coming out in 2007, which is a very long book, but composed of mostly short poems. It's another attempt at finding a form to accommodate my compositional desires this book tries to reflect a year in the life of its narrator, to be a little bit journalistic, but remain firmly lyric. So, it's modeled on notebooks, but it's really a group of interlinked poetic suites that also chronicle a year in the life.
SK: History seems deeply rooted in your poems. You reminisce to the "beautiful and useless, flowers/ bloom and die," to a conscious inevitability towards a cycle of life. But, in the end you seem optimistic that "today" as you end your book, Florida Poems, is a new beginning. How do you see contemporary poetry fitting into a historical continuum when in Pax Atomica the poem ends, "John Lennon is dead." Have we forgotten our traditions and who peopled them what they meant? Can we still create once parts of the past die? Do you see a new poetic movement emerging? As the speaker in "Guns N' Roses" asks, "where do we go/ now?"
CM: I love history. History is a kind of travel it is the closest approximation we have to time travel. I learn from it, as I do from driving around the country, and so it often enters my poetry. Right now I'm writing a book-length narrative poem about the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Why? Because the history of that speaks powerfully not just to the past but the present. Driving across Montana, much has changed since 1805, but much has remained, and history lends insight beyond what I see today out my car window. How do we understand the world we live in if we don't understand the world it just was, ten years ago, two hundred years ago, three thousand years ago?
There is, as you suggest, a very real relationship for me between poetry and travel. There's also an analogy between location in the world and on the page, and so physical travel and exploration can hopefully lead to expansiveness of vision. But at the same time, I'm very scared to "travel" around the page too much. I cling to the left-hand margin, and seldom venture out from its sheltering shore into the wide sea of the page. There's a kind of experimental temperament that tosses words around the page, which is not my sense of poetry spatially.
My formal experiments have been driven by my desire to get large topics and chunks of information on the page, whether ideas, history lessons, descriptions of place. The lyric poem is not the most accommodating form to that kind of data, so I've tried to expand its parameters. I've never believed that there were some topics "unfit" for poetry; if you change the form, you can make them fit. It hasn't always worked, of course, but it has taught me a lot to try.
SK: When you talk to students of poetry, do you help them realize what they are writing about should mean something to them but also to an audience who might object? You write, "I will not mistake the message for the McGrath voice." You title one of your books American Noise. Poetry seems to be at least, in part, for you about sound, melody, musicality. And effective noise requires skill. How do you strike a balance between technical or formal aesthetic devices and voice when a student argues that all poetry is art?
CM: Poetry is a schizophrenic art form. In MFA programs we spend our time analyzing the text, in poetry slams people are bowled over by the sonic power of the art. But poetry exists in their intersection it is the music and the message.
SK: What do you say to students who say "all poetry is art?"
CM: I say maybe. I say prove it.
SK: In Pax Atomica, the voice is musical, repetitious, rhythmical as the word "song" for example is repeated in a list in the poem, "Train Journal." Similarly, form and movement are especially important in "Of Pure Forms." These poems seem to grow organically from the form whereby the techniques are in harmony with the conceits.
CM: Poems are not like organic beings, they are organic beings. They begin like little seedling popping out of the soil. The poet's job is to grow that into a plant. But some poems are tomato plants, some are oak trees, and some are weeds. How do you know the difference? Practice.
The more poems you read, the more you understand the categories of poetic possibility; the more poems you write, the more you grasp your own capabilities, strengths, tendencies.
SK: When you compose, what do you generally consider first theme or technique? What is your writing process?
CM: At first, most poets spend a lot of time trying to turn weeds into oak trees. But eventually you learn to differentiate, to learn from the poem what it is likely to become and nurture it in that direction. But one should err on the side of generosity and positivism. Never throw away a draft, a stanza, a line someday you may wake up realizing the rest of the poem it belongs to, or how to fix it, or what transformation if might be subject to. That is, poems that appear to be tomato plants sometimes grow into oak trees. And even weeds may turn out to be dandelions which are beautiful things in summer.
You have to tell the truth in poetry. You have to be willing to say what you think, and be wrong, and fall on your face, and have jaded sophisticates laugh at your na&iauml;veté, and have cool populists laugh at your pompous elitism. Whatever, dude. You have to respect the deep seriousness of the act of writing a poem and be willing to stand behind what you have written before some kind of grand tribunal that might beam down from the Elysian Fields to check up on us. I don't mean biographical truth poetry is not memoir, not autobiography. Truth to the language, the form, the emotion, the history, the belief-whatever the poem's central concern, it must be handled without hypocrisy, chicanery, or general bullshit.
That's all we have in poetry land: the truth. We are not well paid, and we are not respected in our land or time, but we can tell the truth. We don't have to accede to the hypocrisies and half-truths that surround us. We are not driven by a market economy whose rewards bend and corrupt us. That's a great gift and worth the economic trade off.
SK: You end Road Atlas with a portrait poem "Campbell McGrath," You say "I image that ultimate voyage... taken the long way." Where does the poetic voyage end? Where did it begin? Will you ever stop traveling? More practically, how do you find an end to a poem, a book?
CM: "Closure" is a great word, and one of the most important in the craft. Everything ends, but not everything has closure. The unexamined life, the war in Iraq, the sound of a car alarm these are things that will end without closure. Closure is a musical and thematic idea in poetry, it derives from syntax and from rhetorical structures, from the ideas or emotions of the poem working their way towards their necessary culmination. Barbara H. Smith's book Poetic Closure lays out the various categories it's a dry but useful guidebook. Closure is usually one of the last things a poet learns, and many poets never really learn it, if you ask me. If you pick up a literary magazine, nearly all the poems start off well, but not that many end that way.
SK: What is your response to "the state of poetry in America today." Do you think more people than ever are reading poems avidly, or has the audience (from what you can tell) remained limited to academics, fellow poets, and a noble handful of friends and relatives?
CM: The state of our poetry is not unlike the rest of America today. There's too much of it, nobody agrees on its basic principles, it's got factions and partisans destroying its innate sense of community, it's got some visionaries and some hacks, some hard-working citizens and some cynical careerists. It's a chaotic, overly-rich grab bag, which is its charm. The continuing expansion of MFA programs means there's more poetry written now than ever thousands of books a year get published, thousands more seek a publisher. Critics point to this and say look how much bad poetry gets published! True. But that ignores the good and even great poetry being published, which is likewise greater than ever. America believes deeply in excess, and it took a while but poetry has finally joined that club.Fugue
University of Idaho - Moscow, Idaho
Editors: Justin Jainchill and Sara Kaplan
Poetry Editor: Rachel Berry
Fiction Editor: Lissy Goralnik
Nonfiction Editor: Anna Fortner