Campbell McGrath, born in Chicago in 1962, has authored nine collections of poetry, a play and a libretto for video opera. He has received numerous awards including Academy of American Poets Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Ploughshares Cohen Award and a Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations.
An alumnus from the University of Chicago (BA ’84) and Columbia University (MFA ’88), he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing at Florida International University of Miami. I had the pleasure of meeting McGrath during his visit to The University of Texas at Dallas last spring.
With several published books of poetry, from Capitalism in 1990 to In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys in 2012, how has your process of creating poetry changed or developed over the years? Would you please give the reader a sense of what your writing process is like?
Most of my poems begin in a notebook, and then work their way through revision moving between the computer screen and more hand-written versions on the page. That has been a constant for me, over thirty years as a writer. But much of the rest of my process as a writer has evolved over time, as my life has changed. When one is busy with a family life, a full time job, etc., then writing time has to become flexible. Some days, or weeks, I have time to write all day; often, I can only write for an hour or two. Sometimes, nothing at all gets done on the creative front—but even those slack periods have their value, as one returns to one’s work with a fresh mind. Poetry is so variable that it can be written in big gulps or tiny nibbles, just as poems themselves can be as small as a haiku or as large as the Odyssey.
During a round-table conversation with creative writing students at The University of Texas at Dallas last April, you mentioned that your interest in writing is not to document but to seek to understand the world around you, simply because that’s the world around you. Hence documentary poetry, cinematic poetry, and autobiographical poetry are natural to your writing. How does the writing process differ in the creation of a book such as Seven Notebooks, which has a journal-like structure of a one-year span, from that of a book-length poem like Shannon or "The Bob Hope Poem”?
There are indeed large differences—but also similarities. You are correct to call Seven Notebooks a journal, a document recording the internal and external developments during a year in my—or the narrator’s— life. While seemingly quite different, “The Bob Hope Poem” is more or less a documentation of a single day in its narrator’s life—a single day looking out a snowy window in Chicago, seeking to understand the world in all its complexity, natural, historical, anthropological and epistemological.
Shannon is a book length poem written in persona, which tells the story of George Shannon, youngest member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, during the 16 days he wandered lost and alone. So, that’s a big difference—writing in the voice of a young backwoodsman on the buffalo plains of Nebraska in 1804. But once I had imagined my way into that voice, once I had understood the character of George Shannon, I tried to do the same thing I usually do—document the world. This time I had to rely on imagination and historical research more than personal experience, which was a wonderful shift in perspective, and taught me a lot.
Though set apart by eighteen years, In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys is similar to your book American Noise in the sense that American culture and landscape are very present. Your poetry masterfully varies in styles, structures, and subjects, yet places and historical events are consistent themes throughout. Talk about your relationship to locality and history. How has that relationship inspired you to write? What other topics generally inspire you to begin writing a poem?
True, it is a lot like American Noise—and the concern with American culture and landscape has never been absent from my poetry, though it is sometimes relegated to the background. I love writing poems about physical places that impact me as a traveler—whether through some experience I have there, something about the people, or a physical sense of place—extreme beauty, or desolation, or exoticism—any of these might trigger the poem. It’s a very immediate thing. When I travel, especially to new places, I try to record each day in my notebook. And the world sometimes speaks very powerfully there—the poems just emerge from that recording, unmediated. Not every place yields a poem, of course, and it’s sometimes hard to know why one place does while another does not. You need to keep your eyes open at all times, I think, not just when you are visiting Paris, for example. A deserted town in New Mexico might yield a better poem than the Taj Mahal—for me, at least.
Beyond the natural landscape, places are imbued with history, another great interest of mine. If I was not a poet, I would like to be a historian—for me history is closer to poetry than the novel is. Sometimes inspiration arises not from the place itself, but the sense of its human occupation, its historical associations. Often both are at play—as with George Shannon. It is both the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the beauty of those plains, that inspire the sense of wonder in that poem.
Other things that inspire to write include the natural world at a more mundane scale—a flower, a honeybee, a cloud. My family. Language, playing with words, arranging words into artistic patterns. Form—writing in complex poetic forms has the same appeal as completing a crossword puzzle. Pretty much anything might become a poem, on a given day, with a little help from the muse.
Ending a poem is often the trickiest part about writing poetry. How do create such beautifully unexpected and successful endings in your poems?
You make a very good observation. Closure—which is the technical term for the ending of a poem—is a word we don’t hear often, but implies not just an “ending,” but a kind of complex, satisfying tying-up of loose ends. As when we speak of someone finding “emotional closure” after the death of a loved one. It sounds a bit daunting, but the goal for a poem is to end with closure that is completely satisfying to the reader. Closure has many possible types, among them narrative (what happens), musical (rhyme, assonance, etc.), structural (syntax, refrain, etc.), argumentative (what conclusion is to be drawn), and formal (crafting the artifact perfectly). Great poems often combine several of these strands, and those poems tend to conclude with resonant and complex endings. This is a very technical description I’ve wandered into, when your question was really one of my personal craft. In my own poetry, I knew how to start a poem long before I knew how to finish one. Even today, when I read literary magazines, I often feel that, whereas all the poems begin well, few really achieve satisfying closure. So it’s a hard skill to master, one that takes time and practice—which of course is true of almost any art worth learning.
According to the Poetry Foundation, your poetry is influenced by Walt Whitman, James Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke. What about your poetry teachers? How did they and their advices influence you? Which poets/writers do you continually go back to over the years?
The Poetry Foundation is not wrong in that list—all of those poets have been influential for me, and I still love to read them. If you added Basho, the Japanese haiku master to that list, you’d have most of my all-time favorite poets. Of course, these are all acknowledged masters, all of them are dead, several of them for hundreds of years. In contemporary America there are dozens of poets whose work I passionately admire—Robert Hass, Louise Gluck, Tony Hoagland, Li-Young Lee—these are four amazing poets just off the top of my head. My own teachers have been invaluable to me in so many ways—not just showing me craft tips on how to write a certain kind of poem, say, but as models of how to live as a poet—and as mentors guiding me along the way. Daniel Halpern and Quincy Troupe are two of the most important. I studied with these two great teachers when I earned my MFA at Columbia University, and while they could hardly be more different as people and as writers, their shared love of poetry and belief in its value inspired me to become the poet I am today.
Poetry remains an obscure thing in our contemporary American culture, almost lost in the shadows, and yet it still holds a peculiar value place in our society, especially in celebratory occasions such as the Presidential Inauguration. What was it like for you to see your former student, poet Richard Blanco, give the poet address at President Obama’s Presidential Inauguration last January? Were you at all surprised?
Having had great teachers myself, it has been a wonderful thrill for me to watch the success of my own students over the past years. At this stage, it is far more rewarding to see one of them win some prize or distinction than to do so myself. Richard Blanco is a perfect example—a wonderful guy who has made a career of writing poetry even while maintain his “day job” as a structural engineer. Designing bridges and sewer systems, Richard has said, it is not so different from designing sonnets and sestinas.
I was completely surprised when I first learned that Richard had been selected to write the inaugural poem, but I thought he was a great poet to pick—not only for the social agenda of selecting a young, gay Latino for the job—but because he is such a terrific poet! The proof is that the poem he wrote was perfect for the occasion, and has garnered so much popular attention and acclaim, not just for Richard, but for the often-obscure art of poetry.
What advice would you give to young poets who are just starting out in their careers and hoping to publish their poetry?
My first piece of advice would be not to concern yourself with publication—worry about writing. Publication and all that stuff can be addressed in time, but for now, just keep writing poems, one after the other—large and small, formal and experimental. I’d also recommend taking classes, whether at the college or graduate level, to help you with the process. But in the end, all the answers are revealed in the process of writing itself—not in thinking about writing, or planning to write, or reading books about how to write. Only when you actually set your brain to the task, and get that pencil—or keyboard—busy creating words and lines and stanzas. Like a musician or a painter, the discipline the poet practices is both an art and a craft. The more you practice, the better you get, the more new horizons open before you, the larger your vision, the more you write—the process is endless, and endlessly rewarding. If you love to write poetry, that’s the only advice you need. Start writing, then keep going.