Campbell McGrath

by Dallas Crow


Campbell McGrath ©1993 Photo by Sandra Castillo.

In January, the Ecco Press will publish Campbell McGrath’s second book of poems, American Noise. His epic first book, Captitalism is one of the strongest debuts I have ever read. Opening with an epigraph from AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” he moves through rambling prose poems and tightly-metered poems in fixed forms to explore the history of this country. In it, heavy metal, post-punk music, junk food, game shows, and horror movies take their place alongside Lewis and Clark, Ulysses S. Grant, and Henry Ford, all treated with the same joy, knowledge, and criticism. He struck me as the first poet of my generation to come of age using our cultural accoutrements and language, not in some dead-end depiction of an uninspired generation, but to reflect on American history. I had hoped to interview him in a truckstop in Wisconsin halfway between his home in Chicago and mine in St. Paul, Minnesota (what seemed to me an ideal location to talk with a poet as inspired by road movies as by other poets), but when I called him to arrange the interview I found that he had moved three days previously to take a job at Florida International University. In a few weeks I would make my own move to the state of Washington, so our interview was conducted via mail, fax, and telephone.

Dallas Crow Why poetry? In the poem “Angels and the Bars of Manhattan,” you write, “Whatever compelled us/ to suspend the body of our dreams from poetry’s slender reed/ when any electric guitar would do?

Campbell McGrath Poetry is the largest, most flexible, most generous medium I have found to address my concerns—culture, society, the world, whatever. I can steal what I want from other genres—fiction, painting, music, movies: all of which I love—and incorporate them into my work in my own voice. I can co-opt the energy and noise of rock & roll without the negatives, because I control the means of production, which is very important to me. I don’t need amps and roadies and purple mascara because the music is in my head. Still, it’s a complicated issue. That poem, “Angels and the Bars of Manhattan,” is in part an attempt to arrive at an answer, or at least some understanding of how or why I became a poet. Of course, it never really does.

DC One of the first things that struck me about Capitalism was that it is a book of poems rather than a collection. I saw the original manuscript you submitted for your new book, American Noise, and since then a number of poems have been dropped, one added, and the order changed. Can you tell me a little about the process of bringing a manuscript to publication for you?

CM As a reader, I’ve always responded to books of poetry that made sense as books, rather than as collections of random poems. As a writer, this is an issue of critical importance to me. I’ve got many poems, of various vintages, some of them published in places like the Paris Review, that I haven’t put into my books because they didn’t make sense in the larger structure. I think my poems work as books because I tend to write about recurring themes‚—America, popular culture, my life. So that for me, the creation of a manuscript, is a fairly natural process. I start writing poems and I gradually arrive at a sense of a book approaching, like an iceberg, a shape looming out there in the mist. Between this first glimpse and the actual book a lot can change, one’s initial conception can alter quite a bit, the book will shift and slide and melt and swell. But at some point critical mass is reached, you collide with the iceberg, the Titanic sinks, and the book is born.

DC There were a series of numbered capitalist poems in your first book. I noticed that they grew from slender poems into progressively larger, more expansive poems, encompassing large chunks of prose, and going on for multiple pages. Was this a planned progression, or a more organic development?

CM The growth and mutation of the capitalist poems was more or less organic. At the time I was writing them I was in the writing program at Columbia, and the feedback of workshops and teachers and friends fed into this, as did my own changing interests and tendencies. There was no master plan.

DC What happened to the other capitalist poems?

CM Many of them never really got off the ground. I’d start something called “Capitalist Poem #10,” but if it didn’t work out I’d move on to #11. So there is no #10. A few of them are in the book under other titles. “Los Angeles,” for example, was originally a capitalist poem (#6, I think.) Anything in which a 7-11 appears probably started as a capitalist poem.

DC Are you done writing poems in that series?

CM I think so. Although recently I did write a poem called “Free Cheese” which, when I looked at it later, I realized was a capitalist poem by any other name.

DC What are you working on now? I hear rumors of a long poem about Bob Hope and the cargo cults.

CM I’m currently working on a bunch of unrelated poems, including a long lyrical poem about rock & roll that takes up where American Noise leaves off. I don’t yet have a sense where these poems are going, what nature of icy fate awaits them. But the larger project I’ve been “involved” with for quite a while is a long poem about, yes, Bob Hope and the cargo cults—"The Bob Hope Poem"—whose theme is, loosely, the subjunction of faith by materialist gratifications in the age of mass consumerism. Every time I think it’s beginning to make sense, however, it mutates into something ever larger and more grandiose and unwritable. There is no estimated time of completion.

DC Your poems are full of journeys, pilgrimages, images of travel. Do you continue to draw on previous trips for your poems? Do you make trips for new material?

CM Travel has always been my most productive occupation. I’m not sure why. I’ve been doing less traveling recently than I used to, but luckily I still have a lot of “material” left, trips to places like Brazil and Vanuatu that I’ve never written about. A lot of this is in “The Bob Hope Poem.”

DC The biographical note on your first book mentioned that you had held such jobs as sailor, carpenter, stock car driver, and alligator wrestler. I assume from the number of them and variety, along with the fact that you were under 30 when the book was published, that none of these were exactly extended careers. How long did you work at them?

CM If you probe the archives you’ll see that I’ve also claimed to be a pig farmer, a snake handler, a cocktail waitress, and an astronaut, among many others. So, no, none of these were long-term occupations. Most of them were brief, tangential, or, in fact, spurious. That bio was supposed to be something of a postmodern parody of the genre.

DC I’m disappointed in myself. I thought I had a pretty good nose for irony. Not that it matters, but I had assumed your poems had a strong basis in fact. Are they equally fictional? Have you ever actually left your house?

CM I wouldn’t want to leave the wrong impression by overstressing the ironic element. I can make a pretty reasonable claim to everything on that list. Let me just say that when a man has lost a friend to a rogue gator, he doesn’t speak of that part of his life anymore.

DC You are a graduate of Columbia’s MFA program, yet you certainly aren’t writing any of the McPoems that such programs are supposed to generate. How do you account for that? What did the MFA program do for you?

CM I am an absolute and unabashed proponent of writing programs in all their many guises. You learn to write by writing, and a writing program is the obvious place to gain that practice. Can one learn elsewhere? Sure. But there’s no logic to stigmatizing writers for studying their craft. No one suggests that painters or musicians or nuclear physicists should avoid specialized schooling, or the benefits of discussion and mutual criticism among colleagues. That’s what a writing program is, a place to go to learn and to write. It’s not a brain-washing clinic for the productions of McPoems, whatever they are. That argument is a hoax.

More good poetry is being written now in America than ever before. More mediocre poetry is also being written and published—but so what? Is that the worst thing imaginable? Most of our best young writers come out of the writing programs these days. Would you want to risk losing these people, these unique literary voices, some of whom might not have persevered without the support of a writing program, might have given into despair in their “lonely garrets,” taken jobs at the 7-11, resorted to petty crime and drug use, or worse yet, to law school? Would you rather have more lawyers just so you don’t have to be bothered by some bland poems in a literary journal? Get a life.

DC Your poems have a strong sense of history. Where does that come from? Do you do research for certain poems, or do you draw on knowledge you already have? Poets are frequently asked if they write with a thesaurus. I’m curious if you write with history books close at hand.

CM History has always been my favorite reading material, and a strong influence on my writing. I don’t do research for poems; poems spring from my reading. And yes, my office probably has more history than poetry on its bookshelves.

DC Can you imagine writing straight history? Is there a topic you’d like to tackle as a historian rather than as a poet?

CM I can’t really imagine writing straight history, no. I don’t have the stamina, the patience, the diligence for the research. The kind of history I would want to write would be more socio-historical, like Fernand Braudel, or even anthropological. But again, I find that poetry allows me to incorporate history, sociology, anthropology at pretty much whatever level I want. I can expound upon the workings of 20th century American culture and society without surrendering my subjective viewpoint, my jokes, my first-person narrations.

DC Whitman, Ginsberg, Woody Guthrie, and C.K. Williams all appear to be pretty obvious influences in your work. Who else has influenced your writing?

CM Richard Hugo was a big influence. Wallace Stevens. W.C. Williams, Pound, Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, Jack Kerouac. Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy was very influential, years ago, in demonstrating the possibilities of incorporating history and culture directly into one’s writing.

DC Most of your epigraphs come from musicians (and a wide range at that—from Woody Guthrie to AC/DC, rap to Gram Parsons). Tell me about the relationship between music and your writing.

CM I find loud, good rock & roll to be the single most positive influence on my poetic output. A good song, a good record, can jump-start the creative process, or keep me going when I might have quit for the day. Aesthetically, I like poetry that has the energy, the volume, the recklessness of rock & roll. For me, the Replacements have an inspirational kinship that other poets find in Beethoven or Miles Davis.

DC Thanks. I’m glad you said that. I’ve always felt that way, but somehow while jazz is usually considered influential and artistic, like abstract expressionism, rock is tied into MTV, short attention spans, and so forth. Who are you listening to now?

CM Paul Westerberg. The Jayhawks. Dinosaur Jr. American Music Club. The Pooh Sticks. The Lemonheads.

DC I enjoy your verbless or nearly verbless poems. There’s a poet, very different from you in nearly every way possible, Robert Francis, who did some of those, but I’m guessing he wasn’t an influence. How did those come about?

CM The poem “Rifle, Colorado” was very influenced by Hemingway, the Nick Adams stories, a kind of uninflected prose rhythm. “Sunset, Route 90, Brewster County, Texas” comes from a journal entry, and is influenced by the euphoria of long distance driving, I suppose. Are these what you’re talking about?

DC Yeah, I was definitely thinking of “Sunset, Route 90,” but not so much “Rifle, Colorado.” Rather the poems that are almost pure catalog: “What They Ate,” “What They Drank,” the untitled poem prefacing American Noise that begins, “Box cars and electric guitars; ospreys, oceans, glaciers, coins.” And I guess more than the specific origins of the poems, I’m interested in how you came to write poems without verbs in them. Did you have a model in mind? Whitman is a great cataloger, but I think of his lists as being embedded in a narrative. Was it a challenge to yourself? Most lists aren’t particularly poetic.

CM Oh, those poems, right. I wrote them because I love lists, and I wanted to see how far I could go in that direction—the “American Noise” poem especially, which is just a catalogue. It’s an attempt to present a pure, unadulterated list of things, of stuff, of American “noises,” and make it work as a poem. I’ve got a few more like this in the works, one about Florida and one about Wisconsin.

DC Free verse seems to be the style du jour, yet you write a number of poems in fixed forms. Why?

CM I write formal poems to keep on my toes. To hone my craft. To avoid flattening into a too-prosey line and rhythm. And for fun.

DC Do you have a favorite form or technique (i.e. sestina, sonnet, alliteration, slant rhyme)?

CM I tend to like forms rather than “techniques.” Sonnets are great, sestinas are an enjoyable challenge. The prose poem is probably my most frequently employed form and/or technique.

DC I know it’s not a new question, but what is a prose poem? Like the old saw about pornography, I know it when I see it, but when you’re writing how do you know whether to work in lines or prose? Does a prose poem have certain qualities for you that may not be apparent?

CM Prose poems are mysterious, it’s true. But then, “the line” is a mystery also. I know that I couldn’t make the word “chickens” work as a line in one of my poems, but William Carlos Williams can. For him “chickens” is a line as solid as a rock, where for me it would be jello. That’s what free verse has done, opened up the idea of “the line” to individual authorial interpretation. Which has led to a lot of poorly constructed, badly-written stuff passing itself off as poetry, but also to a great deal of fantastic and innovative verse. All of which is off the subject, except to say that if all this, why not prose poetry too? The form has a long and storied tradition in many European languages, but in English it’s been denigrated as a black sheep and cast from the flock. Which is too bad, because it’s a great form. I think this whole area, the twilight zone between poetry and prose, is the most exciting place in literature.

DC Along those lines, so to speak, how do you keep your prose poems from being what you called, a little while ago, “too-prosey?”

CM You have to invest the writing with some sort of music, a rhythmic intensity or flow, whether this means a loose, buried metrical pattern or a colloquial cadence. Good fiction writers do this, I think, though not usually for extended passages. In a prose poem you can’t let up, and you have a different structure than fiction, a different narrative frame, a different movement and different kind of closure. It’s in these “structural” elements that I think the prose poem comes into its own, distinguishing itself from “short short” stories, for example.

DC Capitalism is one of the strongest debuts I have read. It was published by one of the leading university presses for poetry (University Press of New England/Wesleyan), the poems had appeared in the New Yorker, Antaeus, TriQuarterly, et al., and yet somehow it almost completely disappeared. There were, what, maybe two reviews; at least one of them‚ mine‚ coming out more than a year after publication. Two questions about that: Do you have any theories why, even in the world of poetry, it received so little attention? And more personally, what do you do, as a poet, when you’ve put together what you must feel is a strong book only to have it ignored?

CM My reaction is that this, unfortunately, is par for the course. (There were a total of five or six reviews, only two or three of them more than a capsule sketch, and none in any significant literary journals.) The poetry readership is small and fragmented; there’s no consensus as to what is valuable, or worth reviewing. And the art of reviewing is at a low ebb. It’s a very scattershot situation, and it can often take two or three or four books for a poet to achieve any recognition, even within the poetry world.

More specifically, Capitalism is something of a hard sell, especially within the poetry world, which tends to be conservative and lacking in imagination. I think a number of people found the book either antagonistic or dismissable. Why? Prose poetry makes a lot of people uncomfortable—ike, “Hey, what is it?” And my concerns in the book—consumerism, 7-11’s, guys driving around L.A. drinking malt liquor—are not considered typical “poetic” topics. But this will change; it already is changing.

I’ve heard people say Capitalism is a young man’s book, which, since I was a young man when I wrote it, makes fine sense to me. As my generation gets older, and begins to assume the “reins of authority,” books that address its concerns may gain some more attention. Look at Speed Racer, back on MTV after all these years. I like to think, to hope‚ that Capitalism is a book that will be discovered by more readers as time goes on, as the Speed Racer Generation contemplates its existential identity, and begins to assess, as fading presidents say, its place in the history books.

DC What are your hopes for American Noise then? I mean, it’s not looking good for a book of poetry to crash the New York Times Best Seller List. What kind of response would please you?

CM With Capitalism I was hoping for a mini-series, but I’ve scaled back my expectations for American Noise to a made-for-cable movie of the week. HBO, TNT, whatever. I’m also considering pitching the book on the Home Shopping Network like Diane von Furstenberg.

In truth, I don’t have a lot of expectations one way or the other. Hopefully people will see the book, read it, like it, but if not, not. I try not to worry about the parts of the process I can’t control. Plus, I’m not sure what critical “response” does for you anyway. The most rewarding response I got for Capitalism was from two guys in Ohio who called me at my house in Chicago one day. “Is this Campbell McGrath?” Yeah. “This is Scotty, from Ohio. Me and my friend, we dig your book, man.” I thought that was cool. And I figure, all in all, if Scotty from Ohio digs your book, what else could you ask for?

 

Sunset, Route 90, Brewster County, Texas

Now the light is brass and pewter, alloyed
metals solid as amber, allied with water,
umber and charnel, lucent as mercury, fugitive
silver, chalk-rose and coal-blue, true, full of the
skulls and skeletons of moon light, ash light
and furnace light, West Texas whiskey light,
bevel light, cusp light, light fall of arches and
architectonics, earth light and anchor light,
sermon light, gospel light, light that clasps
hands with the few and the many, mesa light,
salt bush and longhorn light, barbed wire and
freight train light, light of the suffering, light of
the dusk-fallen, weal light and solace light,
graveyard at the crossroads light, flood light,
harbor light, light of the windmills and light of
the hills, light that starts the dove from the
thistle, light that leads the horses to water,
light of the boon and bounty of the Pecos, light
of the Christ of Alpine, light of the savior of
Marathon, Jesus of cottonwood, Jesus of oil,
Jesus of jackrabbits, Jesus of quail, Jesus of
creosote, Jesus of slate, Jesus of solitude,
Jesus of grace.

 

Untitled

Box cars and electric guitars; ospreys, oceans,
glaciers, coins; the whisper of the green corn
kachina; the hard sell, the fast buck, casual
traffic, nothing at all; nighthawks of the twenty-four
hour donut shops; maples enflamed by the sugars
of autumn; aspens lilting, sap yellow and viridian;
concrete communion of the clover leaves and
interchanges; psalms; sorrow; gold mines, zydeco,
alfalfa, 14th Street; sheets of rain across the hills
of Antietam; weedy bundles of black-eyed Susans
in the vacant lots of Baltimore; smell of eggs and
bacon at Denny’s, outside Flagstaff, 4 am;
bindlestiffs; broken glass; the solitary drifter; the
sprinklers of suburbia; protest rallies, rocket
launches, traffic jams, swap meets; the Home
Shopping Network hawking cubic zirconium; song
of the chainsaw and the crack of the bat; wheels
of progress and mastery; tug boats, billboards, fog
horns, folk songs; pinball machines and
mechanical hearts; brave words spoken in
ignorance; dance music from the Union Hall; knots
of migrant workers like buoys among waves or
beads in the green weave of strawberry fields
around Watsonville; the faithful touched by
tongues of flame in the Elvis cathedrals of Vegas;
wildflowers and anthracite; smokestacks and
sequoias; avenues of bowling alleys and flamingo
tattoos; car alarms, windmills, wedding bells, the
blues.

—Campbell McGrath

Tags:
Capitalism
Rock music
Prose poems
poetics
american culture
BOMB 46
Winter 1994
The cover of BOMB 46
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