Q&A with Campbell McGrath
Campbell McGrath has received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize and the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award.” Seven Notebooks (2008), his eighth book of poems, was recently published by Ecco Press. His Poets Q & A appears on this website and his poems appear in Smartish Pace, Issues 10 and 15. (2008)
Do you recall the poem, or group of poems, you wrote when you felt like you were no longer writing young poems or poems which you were unsure about?
M. Parker — Las Vegas
Campbell McGrath: In graduate school I began to write a series of “Capitalist Poems,” beginning with “Capitalist Poem #5.” Those poems for me mark the beginning of my “authentic” voice as a poet. They were still young poems, but in them I began to identify the subject matter from which my poetry would spring-American culture and commerce and discourse and dissonance, the search for place and community in our contemporary world. In some senses my writing has evolved far beyond those early poems, but in another sense I am still writing them. The 7-11 was the iconic heart of those poems, and I’m sorry that my life today does not include a 7-11-they don’t have too many down here in Miami.
Is meter an important part of your initial writing? In other words, are you consciously thinking about meter while you write, or is it a concern that develops after a draft of the poem has been written?
Mark Felton — Maine
Campbell McGrath: Meter does not play any part in my poetic process. Rhythm and breath and musicality, including many of the traditional tropes and tricks of the trade, but not meter.
I remember seeing you read at the Library of Congress some years ago. You read with a bunch of the “super star” poets-Pinsky, Merwin, Gluck, etc.-and I’m wondering if you were nervous? They described you as a “newer poet” and I’m wondering if you had been in that type of readings before? You read some of your Florida poem, which I believe was still unfinished at the time; I think you received as much response to your humor as anyone who read after you that night. How unfinished was the poem at that time? I enjoyed the book very much and I’m happy to have found you at Smartish Pace-thank you.
Sue — Washington DC
Campbell McGrath: I had done a few readings with other major figures, but that was certainly an all-star cast, as the event was to celebrate the bicentennial of the Library of Congress. Some of those poets I had met-such as Robert Pinsky, who invited me there as a Fellow of the Library-but some I had never encountered, which made it exciting for me to be there. So I was excited, but I don’t get very nervous about readings anymore-I’ve just been doing it long enough to feel comfortable. And I do remember reading the first few pages of “The Florida Poem,” which at that time had no ending-but I felt certain of the beginning, and wanted to present new work.
Do you read the work of contemporary non-American poets, and if so, who are some of that you would recommend I read? Who are some of your favorite poets, or other writers, not writing in English?
E.E. & S.M.V. — Albany, NY & Dublin, Ireland
Campbell McGrath: It is hugely complicated to read poetry in translation, and I prefer finding poets for whom multiple translations exist, so I can triangulate among them, and arrive at a richer understanding of the original. Among such poets are many of those I return to again and again, Rilke, Basho, Neruda, Horace, etc. I’m particularly fond of contemporary Irish poetry, which is a very rich vein at the moment. I think Heaney is the best poet in the language. I like Paul Durcan and Ciaran Carson. There are some really gifted younger poets, many of them women, of whom I particularly like Kerry Hardie, whose most recent book is Cry for the Hot Belly, from Gallery Press. I also read contemporary fiction by people like Calvino, Kundera and Sebald-poetic prose writers with lyrical and imagistic imaginations.
Which poets do you find are the best for teaching college-level workshops?
Dr. Waters — Michigan
Campbell McGrath: I think college kids benefit from exposure to a wide range of poets, and especially those who speak of and from our recognizable world. William Carlos Williams is more useful than T.S. Eliot, for instance. And there are several anthologies of younger American poets that display the breadth and passion of the art while keeping it recognizably human.
Why don’t your poems appear in more magazines? I read a good number of “popular” poetry magazines and I see the same old poets being published over and over, but it seems like you don’t publish in the mags too often. As you are one of my favorite poets, it would be wonderful to see your poems appear in more magazines. Thank you.
A Campbell McGrath fan — Conway, Arkansas
Campbell McGrath: Most of my poems are published in mags before they appear in books, but I tend to write long (or even very long) poems, therefore there are less of them. Many books tend to have around 50 poems in them, while my books might have 20 or 25-or only 3 or 4, as in Spring Comes to Chicago. Also, longer poems tend to feel unfinished to me for a longer period of time. It takes me several years to feel certain that a poem is really finished, and longer poems tend to have a troublesome line or passage that resists revision. Sometimes I only solve the final problems in a long poem as a book is entering the publication stage, and so I lose out on the chance to publish it in a magazine. But I thank you for looking for the poems, and I believe that literary magazines are the most authentic forum for contemporary poetry.
Do you think the standards for poetry have been watered down in the past couple of decades? It seems that as the avenues to publication increase, the quality of the average poem has significantly decreased. Do you think the genuine poet is rare? And if so, who are all the rest of these poets being published?!
Brent May & Karen — Gunnison, CO & Tampa, Florida
Campbell McGrath: Well, there is more poetry being published today than ever before, that’s certainly true. Some of it is good, some is mediocre. But even the mediocre poetry is a sign of an art that is truly flourishing. Fantastic artistic geniuses are rare today, and when haven’t they been? I don’t think having a lot of good, solid poets around publishing their good, solid work negates the possibility of brilliant and original poetry being written and published. It’s all out there, you just have to keep reading until you find it.
Did it really take you nine years to write the “Bob Hope” poem? If so, why? The “Bob Hope” poem is, in my opinion, one of the five best poems written since World War II.
Mr. Murray — Phoenix, Arizona
Campbell McGrath: Thank you for saying so. (What are the other four?) “The Bob Hope Poem” took years to write because it was so large and complicated, and so far exceeded my ability to control or even to foresee where it was going. Also, while writing it I was writing other things as well: the first half of it overlaps with the writing of American Noise, the latter half with Road Atlas. Some passages date back to poems I was writing in the mid-1980s, when I wrote the longer historical poems in the second half of Capitalism. Parts were still being revised in 1995, right up to its publication. During those ten years I moved from Chicago to Miami, began a new teaching job, had children, bought a house-things which tend to interfere with the writing of a long poem. So, by no means was I writing the poem every day for nine years, but it did take that long to complete. And mostly, the size of the poem, its diversity of form, and the complexity of its various subjects account for that extraordinary length of time.
Will you be reading in the Smartish Pace reading series? I missed you last time you were in the area and I was thinking maybe you’re friends with this magazine and maybe you’ll read this spring or next fall? I enjoy your poetry and look forward to hearing you read someday. Where on the internet can I hear a clip of you reading your poetry? Thank you Mr. McGrath, and thank you Smartish Pace.
Beth — Oxford, Maryland
Campbell McGrath: There were some places to find me reading poems on the internet, and perhaps still are, but I’m not sure. Maybe you could search via Google? I wish I could be more helpful. Since I grew up in the DC area, and we have lots of family there and in Baltimore, I will probably read there again before too long-I’ll volunteer my services to Smartish Pace next year, on your recommendation.
At what point did you consider yourself a writer? a poet? Did the same event precipitate both?
J.C. — Winnipeg, Canada
Campbell McGrath: I don’t really consider myself a poet even now. I am one, by any objective standard, but it’s not how I think of myself. There was no one magical milestone in my becoming a writer, just steady progress-what they say about life is true of writing as well: it is a process and not an event. I liked doing it; I kept doing it; I’m still doing it-that makes me “a writer,” but I really don’t care about the title too much.
I’ve read a number of poems, some in Smartish Pace over the past couple of years, that we’re inspired by visual arts. Have you written such a poem?
Sam Anderson — Harrisburg, PA
Campbell McGrath: “Wheatfield Under Clouded Sky” is a poem titled after a Van Gogh painting, one of his later, moody landscapes of hayfields in northern France. The poem very much originates with that painting. In my very first book, a poem called “Where the Water Runs Down” incorporates several Ansel Adams photographs as a subject, intermixed with Woody Guthrie songs. And as poetry is a cinematic art, I am often influenced stylistically by the movies.
Before the Romantics, popular English poets were more politically engaged, and their work and views held sway. Same for some American poets of the sixties. Do you see something similar on the horizon for American poetry in this decade? Does American poetry have a large enough audience to impact society?
Dan — Baltimore
Campbell McGrath: Why would a society that doesn’t care enough about basic literacy to provide adequate supplies of paper and pencils in elementary schools care about something as luxuriously literate as poetry? Many other cultures value poetry far more highly-Ireland, for example, where poems are published in the Sunday papers, and poets are viewed as important cultural figures. Poetry is in some sense the national art form of Ireland; America’s national art form is the Hollywood blockbuster. While poetry is flourishing in America, I can’t even imagine a scenario wherein it escapes the wings and seizes the cultural spotlight. Poets can be effective voices of political outrage in this country, where so many people feel resigned to their fates and seem unwilling or unable to raise their own voices in protest. With war on the horizon, American poets will man their invisible barricades and sound their warcries. That they will go unheard does not mean they would be better left unsaid.
How much do your rough-drafts resemble the poems that they become?
Alvin Duran — Baltimore, Maryland
Campbell McGrath: Very little. My poems often begin with a scrawled passage in a notebook, and transform through dozens (or even hundreds) or revisions. Revision is the real work, while inspiration, as we all know, is a gift of the muse.
As a writer (of fiction) I try to strike a balance everyday between reading and writing. Do you do this? Or do you go for long stretches of writing and not reading, or reading and not writing?
James — Roanoke, Virginia
Campbell McGrath: I’m always reading, but I’m not always writing. Yet I often find my reading to be a catalyst to writing-some word, image or idea in a book will somehow inspire a poem. Sometimes my reading is designed as a program to support a poem I’m writing-the history of Florida, or cultural anthropology, or a biography of Ulysses Grant-but often it’s the “non- programmatic” reading that sparks a poem.
Have you read all the books on your bookshelf?
Sally Ann — Davenport, Illinois
Campbell McGrath: No. And even though my bookshelves are full, I keep buying more books, many of which I will read, and many of which I will not.
In his Poets Q & A session Robert Pinksy, when asked about inspiration for his poetry, replied that he remembers the thrill he got from a particular Frank O’Hara poem about talking to the sun, which was inspired by a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky. It was insightful to here such a wonderful poet give such a specific example of inspiration for his work. Is there a poet or particular poem that you can point to that was a major source of inspiration? And if so, what did it inspire in you? Thank you being here at Poets Q & A. It’s so nice of all you poets to take time to answer questions.
Franz — Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Campbell McGrath: I wish I had read Robert’s reply, as it does sound extremely interesting. For some reason I don’t have a great answer to this question. Elsewhere in these questions I point to a lot of general influences, but right now I’m drawing a blank on any very helpful specific examples. Obviously I need to think harder on this.
How do you sustain such great creative and inventive momentum through your long poems?
C.J. — NYC
Campbell McGrath: Sustaining momentum is exactly the issue in longer poems, and it’s not just “creative” momentum, but linguistic and syntactical momentum, without which the poem falls flat. A poem is kind of like a rocket engine, in that it burns fuel at a tremendous rate-but if you give it enough fuel it offers amazing propulsion. For me, a longer poem needs to be full of “stuff”-whether that is narrative, historical, geographical, philosophical-or better yet, a combination of them all. It needs to have an element of discovery in it, a sense of exploration, rather than a sense of having been programmatically outlined in advance. (It takes a lot of hard work to appear spontaneous.) I also think it needs a wide range of diction in order to give a varied texture to the language. And control of the syntactical ebb and flow, speeding up and slowing down the reader, enables the poem to feel energized to the last line, rather than turgid or repetitive. And if none of the above work, the poem should be shorter-listen to what the poem tells you, it often knows best.
Do you like your newer poems more than your early poems? I read where Stephen Cushman said, in an interview with Stephen Reichert, that he wasn’t embarrassed by his early work because his first published poems came much later in life when he already had time to develop his writing. With you being so young I was wondering if you had any small regrets with the early poems you published? In any case, I like all your poems-early and new. I also like what’s happening with this young magazine Smartish Pace, it’s a breath of desperately needed fresh poetry air. Keep up the innovative work. If I may, I’d like to suggest Frank Bidart and Robert Creeley for Poets Q & A.
Dr. Silverman — New York
Campbell McGrath: I have never yet regretted publishing a poem. I have written many poems that I have never chosen to publish, and even when I was in my twenties I did not submit poems to magazines unless I felt certain about them. My earliest published work is certainly the work of a young man, and it often addresses the concerns and issues I have now outgrown, and am a much a better poet than I was then, technically, but that doesn’t make me regret being that person or thinking that way or writing out of that self. It would be embarrassing to write like a 20-year old when one was 45, but the reverse holds true as well.
Who are some artists who inspire you and are not writers?
D. White — Broomfield, Colorado
Campbell McGrath: A lot of music inspires me. From Woody Guthrie to contemporary rock and roll, I’m very influenced by “American” music. I love passionate, literate American songwriters who understand the medium, whether kind of countryish or alternative rockish, from Steve Earle to Stephen Malkmus, Richard Buckner to Paul Westerberg. I’ve also been inspired to write poems by Charlton Heston and “The Price Is Right.”
I like some of our older poets, but man, you’re the NOW of poetry. If poetry were run by younger folks don’t you think you would have pushed some of these tired old poets off the scene by now? Do we always have to wait for them to die? It seems unfortunate that poets such as you won’t get the attention you deserve until we’re all a lot older and other new-maybe more relevant-poets have come on the scene. Keep up the wonderful writing. I’m a younger poet who has been published in a few magazines and I’m wondering how you were able to do Poets Q & A? It’s such a great idea and I’ve been able to ask a couple of questions in the past, but I’m wondering how you got chosen to participate? Did someone recommend you? I’d like to do the same one-day. Thanks!
Mary & June — Philadelphia & UCLA
Campbell McGrath: When I was in my twenties, just beginning to publish, I felt somewhat annoyed and confused by the fact that “younger” poets were people in their 40s who had already published several books. If they were “younger,” then what was I-infantile? To my mind, the “younger” poets were already “older” poets, as distinct from the “virtually ancient” poets at the top of the totem pole. Now that I’m in the middle of that generational progression, I’m not as impatient about getting to the top, nor am I eager to push anyone off the edge. From the vantage point of one’s 20s it appears that fame and fortune are waiting at the end of the line, but in reality all that’s waiting is the end of the line. Part of the frustration for younger poets is that sense that all the spots are already full, all the poetry hats have been given out, but of course it is not a static arena but an evolutionary one, more like the production line in the famous “I Love Lucy” episode. That candy keeps coming down, and falling off the other end, and new candy takes its place. Every year now, the remarkable, heroic generation of poets born in the 1920s is diminished, and when they are gone the landscape will be startlingly barren. Poetry written by people in their 20s is often the most immediate, and most relevant-at least to readers of that same generation. You can learn a lot from reading your peers, but you are likely to learn even more from reading your elders-from those a single generation older, all the way back to the origins of the cannon. And I don’t mean copying them-you can learn by reacting against models you find inadequate, but first you have to know those models. The art is larger than each of us individually; the tradition incorporates our generational concerns into its ever-evolving continuum; the process will keep going long after we have vanished.
Have you thought of pursuing an endorsement deal with Campbell’s soup? I bet you could make a ton.
Wilbert Rohn — Traverse City, Michigan
Campbell McGrath: But what would they get out of it?
Some people seem to have been critical of Billy Collins being named our Poet Laureate. I don’t see what all the fuss was about, but I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the poet laureate does? Robert Pinsky with his favorite poems project seemed to be active in promoting poetry among the masses, but I can’t think of another recent laureate who did anything special. Do you have any insight into these matters? If Mr. Pinsky was so active why didn’t we just continue to make him Poet Laureate? And what would you do if you became Poet Laureate?
Maxine — Nebraska
Campbell McGrath: Robert Pinsky was a great Poet Laureate, and I would have voted for him to continue, but that’s not the way the post is conceived. The two laureates prior to Pinsky-Robert Hass and Rita Dove-were also terrific in the role, active, visible and energetic advocates for poetry. Hass’ “special projects” concerned literacy and the environment, but not all laureates have such a specific agenda. The job description is vague, and being sponsoring some readings at the Library of Congress is the only official duty. Billy Collins does not have a “project,” so far as I know, but he fits the bill as an energetic advocate, and seems to be doing a good job. Personally, I was delighted when he was chosen, as he is a comic and accessible poet who has sought to enlarge poetry’s audience throughout his career. If I were Poet Laureate I would organize readings at Wal-Marts in all fifty states, and also have poems printed on Slurpee cups at 7-11s, but I’m very glad that I am not Poet Laureate, as to do the job well demands a tremendous commitment of time and effort, a sacrificing of one’s private life for a very public job.
I know this may not be the sort-of thing you want to answer in a forum such as this, but having read some of your books, I’ve been very curious: what are your general political views? Do you prefer another system to Democracy? I enjoy your poetry very much. Thank you.
Alex E. — UNC
Campbell McGrath: Democracy seems like an excellent system, and America’s version of democracy is probably the most pragmatically successful yet. But rather than being the end of the question, I consider it only the beginning. Rather than basking in self-satisfaction, America needs to address the large and growing inequities, hypocrisies and falsities it blithely tolerates. To take an obvious example, how can anyone who truly believes in democracy not be scandalized at the vast and undemocratic influence of money on the process of government? Secret meetings between the White House and big oil corporations that result in dangerous revisions to environmental policies suggest the functioning of an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
Stephen Dunn wrote in Poets Q & A that it’s counterproductive to think about what it takes to make it as a big time poet. Well, I guess I’m being very counterproductive, but this is still a pursuit of mine. What advice would you give an aspiring poet?
Mr. Salazar — Oshkosh, Wisconsin
Campbell McGrath: Stephen Dunn could not be more correct. Just write and don’t worry about where it will get you, as there really is no where to get.
I think it was Yeats who used to write down all of the ideas in a poem before he wrote the poem. This seems like a very logical way to write a poem. Did you write the long Florida poem in batches and come-up with the ideas as you went, or did you have a plan as to the topics we’d write about before you set out writing? In your long poems, do you plot them out or just write from beginning to end? Thank you. And thanks to Smartish Pace.
D.W. & Melanie — Trinity & Denver
Campbell McGrath: I did write “The Florida Poem” in stages. I never actually charted out all of its ideas, but I wanted to address the history of Florida, its landscape and society, even its “mythic” underpinning, if such there were; I wanted to go back as far as I could into the past, to identify some kind of beginning, and end at the present moment. Having established that ambitious agenda, it took quite a few years to get going on the poem, as I couldn’t really make sense of the place, or find in my research some overarching theme or trope. Hopefully the poem enacts that process of discovery to some degree, as I came, gradually, to make some sense of Florida. The strategy you (or perhaps Yeats) suggest sounds very logical to me. If the poem is derived from ideas, rather than narrative, say, why not sketch a blueprint of those ideas in advance? However, any such pre-planning should remain a suggestive map rather than a rigidly adhered to outline, as the poem needs to retain its organic freedom to become what it needs to become.
The Bob Hope poem is David Lane’s favorite Campbell McGrath poem, and I bet it is for others in Chicago, but David Lane is wondering which Campbell McGrath poem Campbell McGrath likes best? David Lane is also hoping Campbell McGrath can answer by referring to himself in 3rd person, I mean, it’s what our other local hero Michael Jordan does every time they stick a microphone in his face, why can’t a professional poet?!!!
David Lane — Chicago
Campbell McGrath: Thanks for the praise, both real and implied. It’s hard to choose a favorite poem. They are like small creatures one has created, and their feelings are easily hurt. I do like “The Bob Hope Poem”, which is a dinosaur among the dancing mice, but I remain fond of mice, too.
My favorite two lines from Florida Poems are “Chuck E. Cheese is the monstrous embodiment of a nightmare,/the bewhiskered Mephistopheles of ring toss.” When you pair transcendent ideals with products, i.e. skeeball prizes, your poems in some way reverence those plastic spider rings and 7-11 burritos; is that reprehensible? Is it possible to be enamored with Bob Hope and hate him with fiery hot hate at once? Rather, is it possible not to be enamored of Bob Hope and hate him with fiery hot hate?
Duncan — Baltimore
Campbell McGrath: I don’t think so. That is, I could imagine not caring either way, but once I decide to “care” about Bob Hope, and really examine him and what he says about America, disgust and admiration seem inseparable. In general, the more deeply I care about anything, the more ambivalent I become-there are few black and white issues in this world, and a lot of grey areas. Now, Chuck E. Cheese is getting pretty close to black and white-I really can’t find a redeeming detail to the place, no matter how small. I don’t know about “reverence,” but even the products of human greed and confusion deserve respectful consideration.
What do you tell people when they ask you to define the prose poem? (Has anyone ever asked you that?) Why write in the prose poem form rather than in broken lines?
Jackie — Toledo
Campbell McGrath: People ask me that all the time, and I’m happy to act as spokesperson for the prose poem, though I receive no recompense in my role as product endorser. First of all, I wrote a poem called “The Prose Poem” that is actually a parable or essay about prose poems, so check that out if what I say here is unclear. A prose poem is exactly what it says it is: a poem written in prose. This appears confusing only because of the false dichotomy some people perceive poetry and prose, as if these were two realms divided by some kind of Berlin wall. Of course this is not true at all, but because of some confusing nomenclature, prose poems appear to be a logical impossibility, a homeless refugee in no man’s land. If prose poems were called something else-like “gridmatics” or “Rufus”-there would be far less confusion about their identity and validity as a poetic form. Rather than inhabiting rigidly delineated zones, poetry and prose share a complicated terrain with no hard and fast boundaries; there are lyrical and poetic prose writers who steal generously from poetry, and poets who rely on traditional prose techniques. Poetry and prose are like silver and gold, and to emphasize their differences is to overlook their far more obvious kinship. A prose poem is essentially a shortish piece of imagistic, lyrically written prose that employs poetic structural strategies, in particular poetic closure. It is like a building sheathed in the smooth glass of prose, whose inner workings remain poetry. A prose poem is not written in lines, but in prose sentences-it surrenders the poet’s most valuable tool, the line break, but in return gains access to a broader palette of syntax and sentence structures. I find prose poems particularly accommodating to poems with a strong narrative line, or a lot of landscape detail-a lot of hard-to-digest data. It is a great form, well worth exploring.
Some of your poems are monumental in scale and in their ideas, and some are very short or follow a prescribed assignment-like form-“Seashells, Manasota Key.” When do you decide the less monumental poems are good enough for the world to see?
Derrick — Hollywood, Florida
Campbell McGrath: Actually, for me it’s harder to know when the “monumental” ones are complete than the shorter ones. They are not easier to write, per se, but easier to wrap up. The longer poems often feel like they have loose ends, and tugging on one screws up something later in the poem, which then must be adjusted, etc. The shorter poems are less logistically complex. This is not an aesthetic judgment, just a technical issue. I am currently weary of “monumentalism” and striving for simplicity and compression in my work-writing a lot of haiku, in fact.
What is the difference between sentiment and sentimentality? I’ve often been told my poems are too sentimental.
Mary Katherine — Albuquerque
Campbell McGrath: Good question. Emotions and human feeling can and should be part of the poetic process-but don’t overstate them. Rather than stating them at all, try to show them, imagistically.
You’ve obviously traveled quite a bit. How do you think travel has influenced your work, besides by giving you material?
Todd — Oklahoma City
Campbell McGrath: For some reason the act of traveling, whether by car or plane or whatever, inspires me to write. There is plenty of material in different landscapes and societies, as you say, but the sheer act of being in motion in the world just starts me writing.
How do you come up with ideas for poems?
Sierra — San Diego
Campbell McGrath: I don’t come up with them so much as they come up with me. Sometimes, but rarely, I decide to write a poem about a thing or place or idea, and create the poem out of whole cloth, but usually the poem arrives as a moment of inspiration– a linguistic quickening of attention, a song fragment paired with a few seconds of film footage-and then it’s my job to cut and stitch that shard or segment into a poetic whole.
In “The Bob Hope Poem” you use many quotations from Wittgenstein and such like, but not so many poets. What writers influenced your writing the most? Thanks to Smartish Pace for Poets Q & A.. What is your favorite book of poetry, or if that’s too difficult, what book do you reread most often?
Chris & Shirley — Wichita Falls, TX & Sheboygan, WI
Campbell McGrath: Whitman and Sandburg are quoted in “The Bob Hope Poem”, and that’s one poetic tradition I’ve been heavily influenced by. Novelists have been a big influence on my literary sensibility, though perhaps not my actual writing-Faulkner, Melville, Kerouac, Dos Passos, Calvino. Among poets, Whitman, James Wright, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Basho, Neruda-some of these I’ve mentioned in other contexts here. Three bodies of poetry I have reread many times are: the prose poems of James Wright; the poems of Sylvia Plath, and Rilke’s Duino Elegies;. Prose works I have read many times include Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, Kerouac’s On the Road, and The Bear, by William Faulkner-though in general I have not read these in many years. The poetry has supplanted the prose in my affections, or perhaps there is just no end to what can be learned from great poetry.
What’s more valuable in the long run, a poem about two poppies in a vase that somehow remind the poet of her daughter and herself and their strained relationship, even if the outside world is brought into the poem through the specific relationship, or, a poem that is concerned with the world outside the poet’s personal life?
David — Provincetown, MA
Campbell McGrath: This question is unanswerable, as I think we all know. In any genre, painting or film or poetry, the personal perspective can sometimes resonate more deeply than the grand objective project-a flower in a vase is quite capable of bearing the weight of human joy or suffering. Sometimes, on the other hand, the flower feels inadequate, and the world needs to be invoked in more complex detail. There is no external truth to either approach, only the internal judgment as to whether the artwork succeeds. You can balance The Divine Comedy against a single haiku, and who’s to say which is more valuable? Should Dickinson have attempted to write Whitman’s poems, was it her task to address social or political themes? I don’t think so. Each artist makes this value judgment for his or herself, and each work of art enacts it anew.
How often do you write? Do you write everyday or in bursts where you write a lot at once? Do you write everyday? Do you set production goals (for lack of a better term) for yourself, or do you let poems come as they may?
Diane H. & Deb Wills — Athens, Georgia and Ashland, Virginia
Campbell McGrath: My writing has no absolute pattern. I have young children, and my family takes precedence over my writing. As our life schedule evolves, as my work schedule waxes and wanes, my writing schedule likewise changes. In general I do not write everyday, but in concentrated stretches of a few weeks or months where I am aggressively working on one or several projects. Sometimes I set goals-I must get a complete new draft of these poems completed by such and such a date-but sometimes, sadly, these goals go unmet. The work of revision is more in your control, and setting “productivity goals” does make sense to me, as a way of overcoming inertia. However, the originating muse from whence the poem arises is far less controllable, and generally comes when and if it so decides.