Campbell McGrath has been a major influence on my work, particularly my poetic collaborations with John F. Buckley about America on Brooklyn Arts Press. I’m excited that he took the time to share insights into his writing life with us. Please check out his advice on voice–priceless!
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
Always tricky to limit the list of influences, but a pretty obvious answer for me is Walt Whitman, who opened up the scope of American poetry for all who have followed him. In that same American vein, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, despite their different genres, have been important models for me, along with poets like James Wright and Richard Hugo. On the other hand, poets like Rilke, Transtromer and Basho have taught me essential things–I can’t imagine my poetry without their influence. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. And these days, the sea is full of icebergs.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
Well, in general the writing process is two-part: the mysterious, internal process by which inspiration guides you to the poem in its original state; and then the hard work of developing and revising the poem to its final form. The first of these resists too much helpful advice from me, or anyone else. Usually my first drafts show up in notebooks, or scrawled on a piece of paper somewhere. From there, I work up a first draft on the computer, print it out, and revise it by hand– then go back and forth between the computer screen and the printed page. The poem has distinct identities in those two mediums, I think. Also, I am a big fan of solving problems in my sleep, and I always try to read the latest draft of a new poem before bedtime, and often wake up with just the missing word or image.
How has teaching impacted your writing?
I studied poetry in high school, in college, and in an MFA program–and learned a lot. But I only really LEARNED a lot of those things when I became a teacher. When you know you have to stand before a class full of kinds and field their questions, you suddenly realize where the holes and weak points are in your own learning. So you get busy and really master material that you have only digested casually before. I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years, but I still find teaching to be personally educational as well as enriching.
What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?
Keep writing. Finding one’s voice is an essential starting point for all writers. You can’t find it by thinking about writing– you can only find it while actually writing. The process, like the old Magic 8-ball fortune teller, reveals all the answers. Also I would say this: find your voice, write enough poems in that voice to really master it, and then abandon it. Find another, larger, more ambitious voice– or to switch metaphors, grow your voice, like a plant, for a single seedling to an entire forest.
Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?
How has American history and culture influenced your writing?
I write about America very often–about place, travels, culture, and society–which is the world that created me, and that I still struggle to comprehend. So, it has “influenced” me doubly–by shaping my world and making the person I am, that’s the first level. Then it has re-influenced me in that I take up various aspects of our history, say, to write about, as in my fairly recent book, SHANNON: A POEM OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION. It’s a big world, with lots to write about, but I find America endlessly intriguing.
How would you finish this sentence: “A poem is…?”
…a piece of art made entirely of words.
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
Writing poetry is nothing but adversity. It’s really hard, it takes up all your time, it obsesses you–but it pays little or nothing. So you need a day job, and poetry is therefore a second, unpaid career you practice in your time off. I happen to be at the lucky end of this spectrum, with a good teaching job, and the receipt of several awards which paid me actual cash money. But even so–poets get all the respect in the world from me, simply for persevering in the face of economic reality.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
I am a big sports fan–Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins, Miami Heat, New Zealand All Blacks, Barcelona–that’s five sports but I could name others if I tried.
About the Author:
Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012). He has received many of America’s major literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in scores of literary reviews and quarterlies. Born in Chicago, he lives with his family in Miami Beach and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.