A Conversation with Peter Campion
captured September 24, 2010 at Levis: A Celebration, a conference marking the acquisition
of the Levis papers by the VCU Libraries & presented here as part of Levis Remembered
David Wojahn: Our guest today is Peter Campion, winner of this year’s Larry Levis Reading Prize, the author of two wonderful collections of poetry, Other People and The Lions. He teaches at Auburn University, and he’s had a distinguished career with fellowships that include the American Academy at Rome’s Rome Fellowship, the so-called Prix de Rome; and Stegner Fellowship from Stanford, among other things. And we’re here to discuss his work with him.
Greg Donovan: Maybe I’ll start off with talking a little bit about something I was noticing this morning as I was reading “The Presidio after Morning Thunder.” That poem, among a number of poems in your book, takes up notions of what the poet or the voice of the poems finds threatening and consoling in the notion of afterlife and even preexistence. In that poem I came across this idea of—it seems to be descended from Plato’s Phaedo—the whole neo-Platonic notion of preexistence and the memory from the ideal time, because it ends with, “resplendent pulp and viscous shadow / spiraled from air and yet to take on names.” So I just wondered if you would comment a little bit about the backgrounds for that interest and level of challenge that you found in working with that idea that seems to be woven carefully throughout your work.
Peter Campion: Thanks for asking that question. It’s always a theme I come at sideways. I think that if I sat down and deliberately wrote about the afterlife it would end up sounding like hocus pocus. And there’s a very different side of me as a writer which is not only a realist writer but a somewhat deflationary one. So I’m always a little bit timid about lines like those you quoted, even though I’m pretty proud of those lines. I try to balance whatever in the poems seems to be a kind of spiritual force against something completely different. First of all, because I think that works aesthetically, that a poem often works by a series of temperings. And also because that’s simply how I see the world. That we have our—if we have anything like epiphanies, they happen right before doing the dishes. It’s also this blend of what you were describing as a kind of fear even, and the hopefulness that comes with some idea of the beyond. This is a fusion that I find in a lot of poets I admire. I love Thomas Hardy’s poems about the afterlife in which he’s trying to console himself into thinking about the afterlife of his loved ones, including his late wife. And yet at the same time seems very much to doubt what’s going on. One of the things I love about a poem like “Transformations” is that play. You know that one by Hardy that goes, “Portion of this yew / Is a man my grandsire knew, / Bosomed here at its foot: / This shoot [sic] may be his wife, / A ruddy human life / Now turned to a green shoot.” And then, goes on, “These grasses must be made / of she [sic] who often prayed, / last century, for repose; / and that [sic] fair girl long ago / whom I longed to know [sic] / might [sic] be entering this rose.” That idea—the might be, the maybe—I think I quoted it a little wrong. The subjunctive there is so beautiful. And also the idea that this is something that’s not quite achieved. In that poem there’s even maybe a little dirty joke. He kept wanting to know her and then the entering of a rose ends the stanza. That’s not really the first level at which it’s coming in. But it’s not an achieved thing. That’s also what I am bewildered by and also take heart in when writing about these matters, is that there’s no right answer, there’s no sort of achieved state that you can kind of reach and feel proud about.
GD: I liked that word that you used because I think its characteristic of your work: you were looking for a balance. And there always seem to be these forces arrayed against each other, sometimes one poem against another in the book, but also sometimes within the scope of a single poem, that they are working that way. Departures and arrivals, privilege and poverty, political awareness, political wishing it away.
PC: That’s true. At least the poems that I like are often made out of contraries and even out of conflicts. Certainly any dramatic art is made out of conflict. We all have heard quoted to us Yeats’s famous thing from 1916 about making poetry out of an argument with yourself as opposed to making rhetoric out of an argument with others. That’s got to happen on a deep level, I think, for the poem to work. Doesn’t mean that it always has to be set up rhetorically as a series of adversative constructions. But I often wonder if every poem is necessitated by some inability to hold some sort of parallax view, some inability to hold two seemingly very different things in mind and in heart at the same time.
DW: Well of course that’s what Keats says in the negative capability letter. And every time I read that, I feel like I don’t understand what he’s talking about. And partly I think it has to do with the fact that this is how, as you say in the poem previous to the one we just talked about, this is how we live now. We live in a state where that sort of contradiction that he talks about as the poet’s fate has become the fate of us culturally, maybe in a way that it never has before. And that notion of trying to live in such a mediated world, live in a world where cultural contradictions are now reaching a fever pitch and one of horror, seems to be a prevailing theme in The Lions. And I wonder sometimes how you thought about those issues as a conceptual framework for putting the book together. Because they seem to be returned to again and again not just in terms of what’s the poet’s social responsibility but what is the author’s responsibility to memory and his own past and how does that interact with those larger historical and cultural questions.
PC: Thanks for that question, David. Wow. Strangely it’s—this is something I’ve thought about much more consciously in writing this next book. I have a draft of a book called Saltwater and in writing that draft—I’m still working on it, it’s very much in process—I was thinking and I am thinking very consciously about the kinds of mediation; these extreme changes not just in the culture but in kind of ontology, in the way it feels to be every day, that I think in The Lions I came at through the back door. And in The Lions I think some of that occurred—well, for one thing I began writing many of the poems in 2002 and 2003 and it was hard not to be thinking of globalism in its fiercest, most reduced, most frightening way, and to think of technology in that same way. I also simply, just selfishly as an artist, I wanted to get cool words into poems. I wanted to get more of the actually quite exhilarating things that we see around us in the media culture into the diction, into the imagery, maybe even into the structure of some of the poems. And in doing that, in trying to vivify the palette in that way, I also brought on a whole bunch of interesting problems thematically. And as a matter of fact, I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag too much, not that anyone would really be waiting with bated breath, but in rereading Levis so much during the last few months and working on a paper I’m going to give tomorrow about Levis, it really struck me, it took awhile, it struck me how, you know, I don’t think prophetic is too strong a word, he was about the very situation you described. A culture that is always breaking apart and, in the Yeatsian sense, and about a poem the very kind of poetics is an attempt to hold together while honoring the truth of that constantly fragmenting reality.
Audience: Perhaps this is treading ground that’s already been covered but as I was rereading The Lions today I kept thinking of Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology. And how he talks about, for instance, hydro-electric power and how we will as human beings harness nature, and we think that we are gaining this power when actually we have removed the thing against which we were cast. So we as people used to be against this mighty nature and now we have nothing against which we are. And there’s this sense in a lot of the poems in here, I think, of the speaker being caught between things or the speaker feeling a rage at being reduced. As I was reading, I kept wondering, I feel like I feel a rage at being reduced by technology a lot, and I was wondering what is the goal of a poem about that? Is it to empower for something? Is it to make aware? Because I want it to be empowering, and I’m wrestling with how it is because I feel it is.
PC: I’m very glad you asked that, because it allows me, and maybe even to sound a little pompous in doing so, to dispel what I worry is a potential misreading of the book that I’ve encountered maybe once or twice by very well meaning people. There’s a motif of humans being small in the book. And I think especially men, for obvious reasons, don’t think of the word small as a compliment. I actually think there’s something tremendously liberating in thinking of yourself as a creature, as being this little burning piece of stardust, this little phosphorescent glow in the universe, that there’s paradoxically something incredibly empowering about realizing one’s smallness. But of course you’re right that it’s also dismay in the book and dismay—you know that word dismay etymologically means losing power, not having a power to determine one’s life, not being heard within a culture that’s moving so fast, you know, in which the bandwidth seems to be filled with Glenn Beck.
Audience: On that note, you saying appreciating the smallness makes me think of the sublime and the Romantics. Would you say that Romantic poets really influenced you?
PC: Oh, incredibly so. One of the most important reading experiences for me was at about eighteen; I’d been incredibly depressed. I mean, I make fun of it now because I think at eighteen I thought I was probably the only eighteen-year-old who had ever been that depressed, like every other eighteen-year-old. But I was seriously sick and getting better and it was spring time and I was sitting out on my mother’s porch and I’d just started to read The Prelude for the first time and I read book after book. And I’d never had an experience like that. You know there’s this incredible, funny letter of Rilke’s—often easy to forget how funny Rilke can be—in which he talks about seeing Paul Cézanne’s self-portrait, and he says, “Cézanne paints with such objectivity about himself that it’s almost as if he’s a dog who is come up to a mirror and looked at it and said to himself there’s another dog.” That’s how I felt reading The Prelude. I felt I wrote this. Thank you Wordsworth for getting down my genius so well. And of course I knew that wasn’t the case. When David asked about technology and about media, I was talking a little bit about how some of these thematic concerns really grow out of small technical challenges. And for me writing what I put scare quotes around, a “nature poem,” and having it come across with all the force and beauty that I find in Wordsworth and yet not feeling like some kind of bourgeois pastoral was a challenge for me. In part, one way of doing that is presenting the human world and the nonhuman world as, yes, profoundly different from each other, but also consubstantial in many ways.
GD: That seems to come up in the poem “Invisible Bird” where the bird makes a call and the person listening, the narrator of the poem, says the second note is almost like a correction or even an undermining, and then it says that the bird’s call apparently is recalling, to use the words from the poem, “the self-seeking home,” so that the bird’s calling seeking a home and the person hearing it finds himself seeking a home. That seems to be an urge through the whole book, is finding a place where the self can be. The birds have what they have, all we have is, to quote you again, “a web of words.”
PC: Yeah. I mean just thinking of that poem as a formal problem—and I hope it’s much more than that—that ending, the sort of completion of the analogy or the simile I think works because it’s not some tremendously consoling natural image on the wall of a bed-and-breakfast. It’s the image of sheer survival in nature, in the largest sense. You talked about correction; I had an earlier version of that poem which had two more lines. It was kind a parenthetical, in which there was a kind of an ironic comment about the very act of comparing oneself to an animal. I sent this to a poet, C.K. Williams, and he cut it out, and he was right to do it. At first I thought, come on I mean, you know, if you’re writing about a bird you got to realize how silly you might sound and he was right to cut out the sort of annoying Gen X-y, sort of piece of static.
GD: In your poems you’re willing to take on political subjects and actually mention directly political figures. In your poem “1989 Death on the Nile” there are CIA figures haunting around the place, there’s mention of torture and that kind of thing. In The Lions you talk about McNamara and his ongoing deceptions. What allows you to feel like you can triumph over the reluctance that so many contemporary poets seem to have about that?
PC: It goes back to this idea of doing more than one thing at once. In that Cairo poem I’m telling a few different stories. Same in The Lions. I did, not even consciously, afterwards I could come up with a sort of grant proposal to speak about it, but I tried to rig together another subgenre that people are, these days, very timorous about, which is this kind of confessional poem, which is a word I don’t like, but we all use it. I wanted to write about my parents’ divorce, my family’s strange and bewildering and also very funny and fascinating dysfunction, and politics. And maybe in some critics’ eyes this is two wrongs not making a right, but I thought maybe the two of them would create an interesting tension. This is something plenty of people do and I wanted to find my way of doing it. I think it is possible to write a poem that is a straight on “fuck-you” poem. I don’t mean to blow smoke in one’s eyes, but I’ve just read David’s Wayne La Pierre poem and that is a pretty much straight on fuck-you poem. And it’s mediated in all sorts of interesting ways and it succeeds on the basis of its language being vivacious and just and its structure being well made.
DW: It’s one of the only poems I can think about about 9/11 that will probably endure for me is that “Curse” poem by Bidart. And partly it’s because it’s just such a beautiful rhetorical fandango. And also because, you know, the force of anger which is so compelling to us so much of the time, we are very reluctant as poets to tap into that, because if we want to be anything as poets, we want to be regarded as nice. And—very hard to break that desire sometimes.
PC: Yeah, that poem is just a straight-on curse. And I mean there’s a lot of internal resistance in it—there’s always, in Bidart, an incredible amount of wrenching resistance. Part of the resistance is actually a somewhat pedagogic tone that he takes, in which he’s actually quoting Shelley about what is it that makes a moral human being. And he states as if he’s writing a kind of very sincere essay and that in the poem mediates, not against, but mediates with the kind of just growling anger of righteous indignation.
DW: This brings me to a question too, about just the function of that continuing leitmotif of the lions in The Lions. And it begins at the end of the first section of the book and then it returns so abundantly in the title poem. And I know that the lions don’t become a kind of hat-rack symbol, but, you know, we’re talking so much now about dualities and polarities and dichotomies and how does one as a poet break the terrible burden of those things? And the lions seem to be these things that seem to be wandering about and they’re the duality breakers in some ways. And not a kind of conventional symbol, but they’re these figures of a kind of strangeness and awe that’s almost supernatural in the way that Blake’s tiger is. So I wonder if you could talk about how the lions started to emerge and how they started to become a focal point of the book?
PC: Well, all these dualities and polarities that we’ve been talking about can become themselves—I’ve been talking about using them as the formal means to create dynamic whole—they can themselves become a kind of habit or a kind of routine. It reminds me of this story that I think I read in one of Mendelson’s two biographies of Auden, although I’ve never been able to find it again, in which Auden realizes that he is a dualist. He’s always been a dualist and he wants to become a more unified thinker. And the first thing he does, to become a more unified thinker, is he takes a piece of paper, puts a line down the middle, and writes on one side all the dualists in history and writes on the other side all the, all the, all the monists, you know. And so it didn’t really work. I feel in my own small way a little bit like that. I think in dualisms and the lions of course break that, in part because they’re both beauty and ugliness. They’re both a kind of majestic being beyond the law and violence itself.
GD: I wondered, what’s your experience been as an editor? What’s been the balancing there? Has anything come of it for you, personally as a writer?
PC: One thing that’s really good about it is that you do get to see, coming over-the-transom, incredibly good writing that’s not writing that you’ve solicited from some famous person. And all of a sudden you’re returned to this, what should be a kind of obvious in the first place—which is, good writing is really ink on paper that has been worked over very intelligently and feelingfully, and it stands out. It really does, I mean, this is not to say that there’s not all kinds of backroom bs in literary culture, but it really is true that an excellent essay or poem or story will just pop out. It’s a very heartening moment. The other good thing about it is it’s a little bit like hosting a party without having to do all the dishes. The most fun part about it for me is doing the floral arrangement. When all of the pieces have been accepted and I can set up the table of contents and put people next to each other, as if at a dinner party. There’s something really fun about that and I hope that that’s affected my writing.
Audience: I was going to ask if you could talk about what it was like putting together your first book but then how it was different the second time, too, and now you’re doing a third one obviously, but I’m just curious what that experience was like?
PC: So the question’s about arranging books and how that’s changed for me and I’m not entirely sure that I’m very good at it. And I wonder if there are people who are very good at it. I know there are people who are very good at doing it for me, or not doing it for me, but helping me with it. I know of at least two or three people who have an incredible talent at doing this, at least for their friends. I don’t happen to know if they do this for themselves. It’s maybe like giving yourself a haircut. For the first book, I sent it in to the publisher. And I was convinced that I knew what their objection was going to be. I was convinced that they were going to write to me and say, “this book gestures toward a kind of narrative arc and it gets about three quarters of the way there and then doesn’t fulfill that arc.” It came back and I had anonymous readers and they said almost the exact opposite and they were right. They said, “this book gestures way too hard at a narrative arc, why don’t you jumble it up a bit?” The fun part about that was it was some of the most important and also easiest work that I’d ever done. I mean I just used the dining room table, and I had some sort of units within the book that I knew were going to stay, that were little trios or whatever, and then I could jumble it up. I thought I should put as the first poem one that sort of ham-handedly declared that here is a moment in the history of literature or something. And that really shouldn’t have been the case. And I think I got a lot better the second time. But the second and third sections of this book were reversed. And somebody told me that that wasn’t bad, but it was almost as if the main work had been done already by the time you got to what was then the third section. And this person also told me to put that title poem, “The Lions”—this was actually a somewhat opposite recommendation—to put that title poem, “The Lions,” not at the very end of the book where it might seem too willfully to be trying to make a crescendo, but very close to the beginning of the final section. That was very helpful. I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll ever learn how to do myself and I actually kind of enjoy the surprise of people helping me with it.
Audience: Do you find that you have poems and you see that they are beginning to speak to one another and that there may be an overarching motif, or do you go in sort of with an idea of what you want to say?
PC: It depends, it really depends. Sometimes a poem just starts with a rhythm, or an image, or a phrase, scribbling a few lines, and then I feel like something’s on the line, that the fish is there. And yet the other thing is true too, which is conceptualizing thematically what it is that I want to be doing. But that’s probably been happening at a very different tempo, much more slowly over a longer period of time. And by virtue of working on this very small thing, it’s as if that other ambition is able to arrive. It’s not that I want to say something—that there’s not a rhetorical point to be made, at least most of the time there’s not. I’m not against rhetoric in poems. All poems have rhetoric. And I certainly use a lot of discursive language in my poems, but in terms of that larger form that I might be ambitious about, it’s usually structural, and I think of it more of as a movie or a dance than as an essay or something to be said.
Audience: As you’re writing poems do you have particular strategies for, say, disrupting? If you feel yourself moving towards, say, a didacticism, do you have something that you would do to kill that and to move to something else? Or do you let it play out and then go back? Or do you throw the poem away? Or some of each?
PC: I’ve probably done all three, you know, and maybe there were times I should have done all three and I haven’t. Narrative is somewhat natural for me, and I wonder sometimes why I didn’t become a fiction writer—probably ADD. I love that moment in reading a narrative and also in writing it when you get to a point where there’s a matrix of possibilities and you can pick one of them, you can pick up a thread that you might not have expected. Suddenly a minor character will have the secret to—in a Dickens novel—to the murder. So I try to stop at those moments, right. Often those moments have to do with loss of nerve, when you’re still writing beyond the initiating impulse, and that I think actually for grad student writers, for anybody, that’s sort of the most important thing to learn is, when you’re losing that node of energy and just writing beyond it. And writing beyond it is sometimes fine, you can discover something that you wouldn’t otherwise.
Audience: What have you been reading lately?
PC: Right now I’m reading Vanity Fair. I have a crush on Becky Sharpe, so it’s almost like the way that some of my students watch True Blood. But I love Victorian novels and I return to them all the time. I’ve been reading Pope because I’ve been teaching Pope. The line architecture is incredible. You think that it’s so set because of these heroic couplets, but it’s just an incredible dance that he’s doing. I’ve been reading Marilyn Robinson’s nonfiction; Charles Baxter’s essays about fiction. What else? Lots. Well, I mean it’s been an incredible pleasure to reread Levis for this. This is my favorite question and it’s the hardest one to answer. Something I’d recommend to everybody is Javier Marias, the Spanish novelist, just finished a trilogy. If you can imagine Proust mixed with a really gory suspense movie, it would be this trilogy. And the sentences are incredible. I recommend that wholeheartedly.
DW: Well, Peter Campion, thank you.
PC: Thanks, David. Thanks, guys.