Conversations, Rick Campbell with Richard Jackson, 31 March 2012

Maps, Influences, Triggers, Connections, Revision

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[In writing my poem "Things I Learned from Eating Breakfast in Front of the Map of the World,"] I'm actually sitting at the breakfast table, and I have one of those old maps of the United States on the wall, and it's the Cram's one where some states are yellow, some are green and some are red--that one that some of us are old enough to have had in our geography classes [Link to sample Cram's map]. . . . I sat for at least weeks under this map, and I've become this really bizarre creature of habit. I have a bagel and a cup of coffee, and I'm sitting at the table, and the map's above me, and I'm just, actually, kind of stunned when I draw my visual line from Tallahassee where I am, and there's Detroit. I think Tallahassee's in the East and because of the way this thing goes, I'm still only 180 miles away from the Atlantic Ocean, but Detroit's in the heart of the country, so I started realizing--like San Diego, if you draw a line from San Diego east, you're above Charleston, South Carolina. And then, you look up at where like Canada comes down between the Lakes, and I'm like, who in the world allowed the Canadians to get that close to the U.S. . . . They're below New York. So I just started having all these revelations, and I love maps. I have maps on all the walls, and I study maps. I read maps like other people read books.

Getting Started: I'll be reading poetry, and something in somebody's poem will make me want to write, so it's a kickoff that has to do with that. [Or] I'm sitting there looking at something, and I see it, and I have an idea, and it especially happens on the road, like you see a sign. I was driving to school one day--I live in the country, so in front of this place that processed meat, the marquee sign said, "Nostalgia Racers for Christ." I'm like, oh my god--that was a pun--but, you know I have to figure this out; I have to write about this. So I end up writing about old stock cars and 442 Hemis and what was nostalgic about racing then. . . . So there's that givenness of a sign, of a word. There's the reading of the poem, and then there's just the foundness of stuff--hearing something on the radio. I think it's the being able to take a line out of context. . . . A local right wing church [as] part of their summer camp was teaching children how to run from the plague. And I haven't been able to figure that--but that's got to be a poem. And there was a little store where I lived that, on the marquee there's a milkshake brand called F'Real, . . . but for four weeks they spelled it wrong. It came out Feral, so the Feral Milkshakes. . . . I like to find those things. . . . I write a lot in airports because you're like alone and not, and you can observe all this stuff . . .

Influences: The first influences for me were Philip Levine, Richard Hugo, James Wright, and, curiously, like Li Po and Tu Fu, the 7th century Chinese poetry. . . . I was a working class kid. I had gone to college. I was . . . almost 25 years old, and I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and all of my friends were college educated, but, of course, they didn't have jobs either. They were furniture movers and musicians. I don't know why they did it, but, for Christmas, they gave me a book by Levine, a book by Hugo, a book by a Chinese monk Han Shan, and they said, "Read this." I thought I wanted to be a song writer, and they said, "You should read this stuff." And then after I read the books, I went to college and thought--I could be a poet. . . . I still like to read the same poets, but I'm just now reading everybody. Frank Gaspar is immensely important to me. There's this poet out west, Julia Levine, Keith Ratzlaff. Now I came to them because of Anhinga Press, but I think that, you know, if they weren't my poets, they're really great poets, and so they're like the contemporaries I like to read.

Triggers, Leaps, and Revision: This is going to sound like undue flattery, but years ago when I was here, you and Bob Hicok were reading. At that period I had one book out, and I was kind of a narrower, one subject poet . . . I'd start off on a subject and largely remain there. . . . I knew what Hugo told us about the triggering subject, but I'd only sort of leap once. And I remember listening to you read and Bob read, and I was . . . stunned. . . . You guys were moving horizontally; . . . your poems were just going places that I knew--I knew that you were doing it perfectly--I mean, it worked. I didn't know how you did it. . . . I knew that my mind works this way, but I wasn't the poet able to pull it off yet. . . . I wrote a whole lot of poems before I could figure out . . . how James Wright could write metaphor. So my goal was to do a metaphor like James Wright. . . . All of a sudden I wrote this one little poem. . . . It was on a bus, and we're going through this little town, and there's a woman in the window, and my line was "Her hips know / that Erie is no moonstruck lover, / just a town where . . ." After I did it, I thought, I somehow have done this thing. I don't know what that even means, but it's right. And you and Bob--it wasn't just metaphor--you were--your subjects were linked horizontally in a way that made perfect sense to me, and also showed me that there's a way to do this, and it's based on faith. Like you keep leaping, and then, if you're really good at it, you leap well, and then, of course, there's revision, where you realize you didn't leap well. . . . My third book Dixmont, I started doing it. I would say . . . a third of the poems in Dixmont are starting to do this. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so the first two books, The Traveler's Companion and Setting the World In Order, they're both like, they're heavy Pittsburgh--you know, the Ohio River, the steel mills--they dominate, and I move a little bit within those. I move within culture in Pittsburgh and baseball and steel and the river and history because I'm an American Studies major; I'm a history major. But in Dixmont, I was now 20 years removed from Pittsburgh, and I had like a new freedom. I could move from butterflies to snakes to Job to cancer. I was always told, as a student, that there are too many things going on in your poem, and I thought they were wrong. Anybody who said that, I thought they were wrong because I thought they meant you can't do that much in a poem, but probably what they meant was I wasn't doing it well. Now I say there's nothing you can't do in a poem. But I say you have to leap, and leap gracefully, but even more important; you have to land. You have to come down balanced and ready to go on to the next thing. . . . I write the whole poem at once. If I get the first line, I write till I'm done, and then later, I cut away, cut away, but I don't add to poems. I mean I'll add a word like the line about Boise [in "Things I Learned from Eating Breakfast in Front of the Map of the World"]. I'm going to change it to reflect what Mexico lost in the Mexican War. They're not going to get Boise back. When I finish this, they're going to get all that stuff we stole from them in Texas. It's going to somehow get back to them, but I start off in the beginning of the poem, and I write till I'm done. I might write this in 55 seconds and revise it for 10 months, who knows?

For more information about Rick Campbell, see his bio page.

© 2012, Chattanooga State, Rick Campbell, and Richard Jackson. Used by permission.
Producer: Meacham Writers' Workshop
Director/Editor: Charles Parks, Media Services, Chattanooga State Community College.


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