April 04, 2016

Campbell McGrath

The poetry of human history
Interview by
MacArthur fellow Campbell McGrath channels the voices of well-known luminaries, artists and political figures of the 20th century in his new collection, XX. Written over the course of 10 years, this ambitious collection asks questions about the impact of art while rejoicing in the century's discoveries and the velocity of worldwide change. We asked McGrath a few questions about taking on Pablo Picasso's voice, the many ways of chronicling history, how he's celebrating National Poetry Month and more.
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MacArthur fellow Campbell McGrath channels the voices of well-known luminaries, artists and political figures of the 20th century in his new collection, XX. Written over the course of 10 years, this ambitious collection asks questions about the impact of art while rejoicing in the century's discoveries and the velocity of worldwide change.

We asked McGrath a few questions about taking on Pablo Picasso's voice, the many ways of chronicling history, how he's celebrating National Poetry Month and more.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this unique series of poems?
About a decade ago I wrote a book-length historical poem, Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which was published in 2009. That book tells the story of George Shannon, one of the men on that epic journey, who got lost and wandered alone in Nebraska for sixteen days. That project was so interesting and enjoyable that it set me thinking about historical narratives, and I wondered if I could tell a story not just in one character’s voice, but in a host of voices—“a chorus of ghosts,” to quote XX. For some reason the entirety of the 20th century is the “story” that came to mind, and so I decided to give it a try.

How long did it take you to complete this project, and what surprised you the most over the course of your writing?
The very first poems in the book were written nearly 10 years ago—the first two were published in 2009, one in the Yale Review, the other in the Harvard Review. I’m not sure if I really believed that I would cover the whole century back then. The last three or four years I’ve been writing XX intensively, filling in holes, polishing up poems, and making sure the various threads came together as a fabric, a tapestry. Many things surprised me during this process. Particularly that some people I had wanted and expected to write about just refused to cooperate, while others—like Picasso—showed up in my head and demanded to speak.

Did you feel any trepidation in taking on the voices of such iconic personas as Picasso or Elvis? If so, how did you navigate that?
Picasso, as I’ve said, insisted on playing an important role in the century, and likewise in my book. So I felt no concern there. His ego would be satisfied. I had always intended to write an Elvis poem, since I’ve been fascinated by Elvis for years, have visited Graceland, and have in fact mentioned him in at least half a dozen other poems I’ve written. But I actually finished XX without writing about him at all. But then, reading through the book, I felt his absence—and ended up writing the longest poem in the book about him. And it’s one of my favorites. 

Was there any historical or cultural figure of the 20th century that you wanted to dedicate a poem to or embody, but couldn’t quite work in?
A lot of figures I had wanted to write about, but could not quite capture, are included in the catalogue-like “Clock” poems that show up periodically, and act almost as news-reels. Einstein, James Joyce, Walter Benjamin, Miles Davis. Some subjects or people I just didn’t feel entitled to speak for—like Martin Luther King, Jr. Others, like Richard Nixon, never came into focus.

Some may argue that poetry was much more culturally pervasive in the 20th century then it is today—how do you see the role of poets and poetry evolving in the 21st century?
Poetry is a subterranean current running below the surface throughout XX—many famous poets make an appearance, of course, but nearly everyone in the book has some relationship to poetry. Picasso and Mao both wrote and published poetry, Jane Goodall’s childhood ambition was to be Poet Laureate of England. Advertisers and propagandists stole their techniques from poetry’s old toolbox—rock and roll stole a different set of our tools. Poetry, which is a marginalized art in this country, is central to many cultures around the world. If you go to Ireland or Nicaragua, Egypt or Vietnam, you will find that poetry is valued and poets are honored for their work. Poetry is ancient—it predates written language. I have no doubt it will still be around long after many of our contemporary artforms have been entirely forgotten.

Obviously, time and the role of history is an overarching theme in XX. How do you view the relationship between history and poetry?
Poetry was the original form in which people recounted their most important histories—their epics and legends, from Gilgamesh to The Iliad to Beowulf. XX is not exactly that kind of project, but I drew inspiration from that deep connection. History can be told any number of ways—from a Ken Burns TV documentary to a hip hop opera, as Lin-Manuel Miranda has proven with Hamilton. If I weren’t a poet I would want to be a historian. In XX I get to be both.

In our hyper-connected and instantly gratified world today, has our cultural perception of time and history become hindered in any way?
Americans have always been forward-looking, which can be a great strength—but it is also an excuse for our lack of historical self-awareness. It is quite a paradox that the Internet is the greatest historical tool ever invented—all the information at your fingertips—and yet the methodology of our modern technologies is all about speed and motion and the fragmentation of our multi-tasking minds. Nobody wants to read carefully, think deeply, reflect thoughtfully. Why should they, if it is not rewarded in the culture?

How do you celebrate National Poetry Month?
With XX just coming out, I’ll be giving readings for the book, not only in Miami but in Los Angeles, Berkeley and Chicago. But it’s always a very busy month for me, especially nowadays, as we have a wonderful local poetry festival during the month of April. The festival is known as O, Miami, and there are events pretty much every day, and its goal is to get poetry out of the attic and into the actual lives of people in South Florida. As I’ve said, poetry is rarely seen or heard in American culture, so April is our month to gain a bit of attention and build the audience.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
Yes, always, several! I’m always working on various kinds of poems, and imagining my way toward new books. In terms of historical poetry projects, my next one will focus on the North Atlantic as a natural and a human environment. My grandparents emigrated from Ireland, so the story of transit across the Atlantic is not only our national foundation myth, but a personal one as well. If it follows the pattern of XX it will probably take me a decade to write it, but what’s the rush? History has all the time in the world.

Get the Book

XX

XX

By Campbell McGrath
Ecco
ISBN 9780062427359

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