An Interview with Campbell McGrath

by Jeff Simpson
April 1, 2012


McGrath_headshotWhen you don’t grow up in a family of readers and the poetry section in your hometown’s library consists of Shel Silverstein and a tattered edition of The Collected Longfellow, books don’t exactly make it onto your priority list. I didn’t discover good poetry until my first semester of college, and by that time I had stored so much potential reading energy I wanted to get my hands on everything I could.

There are writers you read instructionally to learn new tricks, and then there are writers you read because the work makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the throat. For me, Campbell McGrath falls in the later category. The first time I read American Noise (Ecco, 1993)—my first McGrath experience—I felt like I was reading something I had been missing for a long time, and his work continues to resonate for me on that level. After two decades in the poetry biz, he has emerged as one of America’s most prolific and respected writers. He’s also one of the nicest and most generous poets I’ve met.

McGrath is the author of nine full-length collections books, including his latest, In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco, 2012). His awards include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. He teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. When I reached out to him, we discussed everything from his latest books and his writing process, to the nature of poetic endings.

The Fiddleback: I’d like to begin talking about your new book, In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys. So much of the book focuses on the metapoetic features of poems—a subject you also spent time with in Seven Notebooks (Ecco, 2008). However, with Kingdom the poems seem even more fixated on form and the self-conscious choices one makes on the page. What influenced you to continue writing about the process of writing?

Campbell McGrath: When you invest your time in a particular craft you learn a lot about it, and you think a lot about it, and you have a lot to say about it. This is true for carpenters and beekeepers, I believe, not just poets. My cousin is a fly fishing guide in West Virginia, and when he’s not working he’s out fishing, or tying flies, or talking about how he wishes he could go fishing. So, when I sit down to write poetry, it is often poetry itself that comes to mind. At one point in this book’s evolution it was even more devoted to poems about poetry—but that felt overly self-conscious, and I re-imagined it. Basically, I’d been writing poems for a number of years about different aspects of poetry— investigations of traditional forms, thoughts on writing process, imitations and responses to favorite poets. I often assign my graduate students to write response poems to poets such as Bishop, Oppen, Plath, and O’Hara—and over time I wrote my own. When I pulled all this material together, the poems about poetry seemed to cohere. But I couldn’t leave the world behind, and so the book serves more than one master.

The Fiddleback: As with your other collections, especially Road Atlas (Ecco, 1999), Kingdom muses on the poetics of travel and place, only these new poems seem purposefully self-contained and situated to express the idleness often experienced in American towns: To be in Albuquerque is to be stuck in a hotel room in Albuquerque watching a snowstorm; to be in West Virginia is to be in a bar in West Virginia small-talking the locals. Were you trying to address the idleness of travel and, if so, what does that say about our excursions in the 21st century?

CM: Interesting thought process, Jeff. However, I think it reflects more on me than on some grander American theme—I’m a lot older than I was in the road poems I wrote way back when—poems about wandering the country in my 20s. I still travel a lot, but I’m more likely to be in a motel room drinking tea than camping on a mountain top, alas.

The Fiddleback: You also return to writing about poetry hall of famers: Whitman, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Bishop, Lowell, etc. Did you write about these figures as a product of your reading habits, or is there something deeper you wanted to explore?

CM: Again, these poems have accrued over time, usually as a response to reading. A more sensible person might write essays about such figures, but I write poems that serve the same purpose. They offer my reflections on craft, form, voice, on the essence of these poets, often comically, but always very seriously. These are poets I love.

The Fiddleback: Many of the new poems—“The Reading Series,” “Po Biz,” etc.—speak from the insider’s view of the poetry world that general readers are probably unaware of, just as I imagine most rock fans have no clue that a lot of time and energy revolves around equipment management, contract negotiations, and Eulerized tour routes. What is your motivation for writing openly about the business of poetry?

CM: I have always written about my life in a very documentary fashion. I think that’s my purpose as a writer, to transform the life I’ve lived into poetry—not just the “poetic” aspects of that life, the entirety of it. Now that I’m a long-established poet and professor teaching creative writing, I’ve got a lot to document in that arena. I’m a fan, in general, of specific knowledge—I like books that reveal the details of things, like the hidden side of rock tours you mention. I read Dean Wareham’s memoir a couple years ago, Black Postcards, and loved that insider aspect of it. I really like both of his old bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, and he’s a good writer—I recommend it.

I am very stubborn. Also very patient. Also, failure doesn’t bother me. So, when a poem peters out, or flies off the rails, I don’t worry much about it.

The Fiddleback: You write both in long and short forms. How much is the decision to write a long (or short) poem conscious from the outset, and how much is it directed by the material itself?

CM: It’s all in the material. All those decisions are made in the process of writing—they aren’t the writer’s decisions, they belong to the poem. You can try things. You can say, oh, I like these twenty lines, maybe I can extend this to forty lines—but then it either works or it doesn’t, and your “decision” is moot. You can cut a long poem down and turn it into a sonnet—that may seem like your decision, but really that’s what the material offered you. If you are doing it right you are not making any decisions at all—you are listening to the work, the language, the lines, to the poem itself—and doing what you are told.

The Fiddleback: Your last book, Shannon (Ecco, 2010), a book-length poem about the Lewis & Clark Expedition, is an imaginative account of the sixteen days George Shannon, the youngest member of the expedition, become lost and wandered the prairie. How did you get interested in the subject? How long did you research the expedition before writing?

CM: In my first book, Capitalism, there is a poem about Meriwether Lewis. It was at that time, this would be 1985 or so, that George Shannon’s tale caught my eye. I loved the notion of his aloneness in that vast space, and I thought someday I’ll return to that material. Over the intervening years, sporadically, Shannon would pop into my head—almost literally a voice in my ear. I’d write down a few lines, or a page. Usually something about the west would summon it up—reading a history book, or looking out the window of an airplane and seeing the western landscape. And I’d jot down something in Shannon’s voice.

At some point I went back through my journals and realized I should type up the Shannon stuff, and when I did I really liked it. Maybe ten pages or so of images, lyrical passages, reveries, wry commentary. When I had a sabbatical a few years back, I decided to focus on Shannon, and see what I could do. I reread Lewis and Clark’s journals, other books on western exploration, books like Plants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (H. Wayne Phillips, Mountain Press, 2003). And I went out to Nebraska and South Dakota, to travel the exact country Shannon wandered, where the Niobrara River joins the Missouri, at the same time of year—since we know, from the Journals, exactly when it was, and approximately where. Once I got the basic mechanics determined it just rolled along. I had a beginning and ending in Clark’s own writing from the journals. And sixteen days in between to imagine, in George Shannon’s voice.

The Fiddleback: I think the most fascinating aspect of Shannon is the language and voice you developed to tell Shannon’s story, which sounds nothing like a Campbell McGrath poem. You captured the musicality of 19th century American English with such precision we, like George, see the true vastness of the unspoiled plains and experience that immensity as something exotic. Did you struggle to find George’s voice? Did writing in new rhythms alter your own style?

CM: If I had struggled to find Shannon’s voice I couldn’t have written the poem. It was because Shannon’s voice showed up in my ear that it happened—that was the genesis of the project. It was a very pleasant experience, by the way, to be writing in a voice that did not  sound “like a Campbell McGrath poem.” The lyric voice, that voice one develops for lyric poetry, can become restrictive, or repetitive, or simply boring. I loved writing in persona for that reason.

The Fiddleback: I think endings are the strongest marker of a really good poem. If a poet can’t find a natural moment of closure, the whole thing sort of crumbles for me. Your endings are always surprising but inevitable; do you spend more time on endings than beginnings? How do you approach getting into and out of a poem?

CM: I agree with your judgment about endings. If you pick up a literary magazine, almost all the poems in it start out strong, but very few end well. Closure is difficult, subtle, complex, and takes time to master. I know that in my first book I had no idea how to do it, and that was part of the project of my second book, American Noise, to figure out closure. I remember writing “Ode to the Wild Horses of Caineville, Utah,” and that last line just came to me—“This is a love story, not a western.” And I thought, hey, I did it, this is just what the poem needed. And I worked to repeat that feeling of pleasant inevitability, at a sonic, rhetorical and thematic level. There’s a good book called Poetic Closure, by Barbara Hernnstein Smith, which offers a critical framework—but as with everything else, the answers come through the process. Writing teaches you how to write.

The Fiddleback: What do you do when you hit a rough patch in a poem? At what point does beating a horse become beating a dead horse. At what point do you say this poem is DOA?

CM: I am very stubborn. Also very patient. Also, failure doesn’t bother me. So, when a poem peters out, or flies off the rails, I don’t worry much about it. Just put it aside, leave it alone, and work on something else. Eventually you return to the problematic poem, when you can see it objectively—this might be two weeks later, or a year and a half later—and one of three things happens: you understand how to fix it, and the poem emerges; you see that it has some good lines or images, and you cannibalize them for another poem; you realize that it is utterly horrible and completely unsalvageable. Which is like walking into the garage and realizing how unbelievably dirty and cluttered and disgusting it is: the heroic thing might be to roll up one’s sleeves and clean up the mess, but the proper answer is to close the door quietly and sneak away.

The Fiddleback: Are you always working on the next book? Do you think about what poems fit together thematically and write them in groups with the overall book in mind, or do you just assemble a book from the best work you’ve collected over a given time period?

CM: I am always writing poems, and always working on several books. Though the book you think you are writing does not always come to be. Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys seemed to be quite a different book, for a long time, than the one it became. It is basically a collection of varied poems written over a given time period, with some persistent themes and images, but no grand unifying element. Whereas my two previous books had been self-contained projects, book-length sequences. It was therefore a great pleasure to assemble Kingdom, to build a book of shorter lyric poems, which I hadn’t done in a long time. Right now I’ve got more lyric poems of various types, which are slowly assembling themselves into some kind of book, not dissimilar to Kingdom. And a big “project” book I’m very excited about, which is a cultural history of the 20th Century, a sequence of one hundred poems, one per year, written in personae, in the voices of figures ranging from Picasso to Mao to Henry Ford. This project really grew out of Shannon. I found it so interesting to tell his story, using one voice and one continuous narrative, that I wondered what it would be like to relate a larger history through multiple voices, a kind of chorus or symphony. I’ve been writing these poems for some time, and really hope to finish it in the next two years.

The Fiddleback: What is your general writing process like? Do you write every day? Set weekly writing goals?

CM: My process is erratic. If my teaching schedule is busy, my family life, and I’ve got lots to do at the university, I get less writing done—sometimes nothing very useful for a month. When time presents itself, at breaks and summers, I try to really press ahead and write as much as I can. Sometimes it comes easily, you get into a groove, you write every day, generating poem after poem. Sometimes the well is dry, I waste my time playing computer games, the only poems in my head seem to exist on the far side of a vast Sahara of difficulty. You learn, over time, what helps you to be productive as a writer, and how to court the muse. If goals help, then set goals. But don’t make the process too fraught with self-consciousness, with imperatives and demands. There is a lot of mystery in creativity. Where does inspiration come from? Why does a poem show up in your head one day, the next nothing but white noise? The Greeks thought it was a divine wind, the breath of the gods—and I’m not sure we’ve advanced very far in our understanding.

The Fiddleback: What’s the last great book you read and/or the last great record you listened to?

CM: Last great book I read was Roberto Bolano’s Distant Star, which compresses the insane grandeur of his epic novels into a much shorter form. I really loved two historical novels I read last year—Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel, and 1001 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. As for records, talk about archaic technologies. I haven’t bought any kind of external music in ages. I download from iTunes, and rarely do I get a whole cd, even by a favorite band—like the newly reformed Jayhawks. I listen to the samples, and download two or three songs. Checking “recently played” in iTunes on my desktop computer, here are some bands I’ve been listening to—Heartless Bastards, Richmond Fontaine, Cornershop, Babyshambles, The Raspberries, Dr. Dog, The Sleepy Jackson.


To read poems from In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys published in our June 2011 issue, click here. To read a review of the book published in this same issue, click here.

Photo by Emma Dodge Hanson