Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012). A resident of Miami, he teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University. His poem “A Greeting on the Trail” appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review and can be found here.
Could you tell us a little about “Two Poems for Czesław Miłosz”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The poem was originally two poems, as the title suggests, and they both arose from the landscape. Only after completing the second poem did I see that the two, conjoined, comprised a sounder “response” to Miłosz, a more adequate testament to the complexity of his poetic and moral vision.
The first part was written after a visit to a vineyard in the Livermore Valley, west of San Francisco. I hadn’t been to California in a while, and its beauty, as it always does, staggered me. I can’t write about those gorgeous hills without thinking of the poetry of Miłosz, who lived in Berkeley for decades, and of Robert Hass, who translated so much of Miłosz’s work. (It’s hard to tell where Miłosz ends and Hass begins in some of those poems.) So, my poem was first about the landscape itself, and then about how we respond to beauty—how immediately and biologically we are attracted to it, like flowers bending toward sunlight, and yet how difficult it is to describe or even understand intellectually. The poet’s job is two-fold, the poem argues—to feel it, of course, and also to render some sort of description in words. And the kestrel, hanging there, eventually became a symbol of that duality.
The second poem was written after a visit to Krakow, the beautiful Polish city where Miłosz spent many of his early years, and to which he returned, after the fall of the Soviet Union, in his final years. If the first poem addresses the poet’s tasks in the sensual world, the second contemplates the poet’s moral responsibility. Miłosz is the great moral poet of our time, it seems to me—even more than Heaney. And it was only with his voice in my ear that I could find my way to making such didactic, moralistic pronouncements in the poem. We don’t want to admit it, or face up to it—understandably—but yes, the free do have a responsibility to speak on behalf of the imprisoned, the empowered for the voiceless, the lucky few for the less fortunate billions. Contemporary American poetry has largely abandoned such notions, sadly, retreating into linguistic solipsism, or imagining that a rebellion against syntax equates to a political stance. Krakow is a short train ride from the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and after returning from that trip it is not necessarily easier to speak honestly, but it is more difficult to lie to oneself.
Is there a poem (or poems) by Miłosz that you would recommend as a companion to your poem in KR?
Hard to choose among the many of Miłosz’s poems that are essential to me. I think I’d suggest “In Szetenie,” which embodies both—or all—of the things my two poems strive to accomplish. “Yet the spirit of this place must be contained in my work . . . ”—part of a line from that poem—not only describes my own method in this particular poem, it could practically serve as my credo.
To what extent do you feel that your work, either as presented here in KR or on the whole, is written from a distinctly American perspective? What is the relationship of your poetic voice to America and its trappings and associations?
I’m not sure the poems in this issue of KR exhibit very much “American-ness.” Normally, my work is distinctly American both in voice and subject—but these poems are a bit different. The California poem is obviously set in America, but its concerns are universal; the Krakow poem seems deeply Old World to me, deeply European—Miłosz epitomizes that sensibility. “A Greeting on the Trail” is somewhat more American, I suppose, but it was mostly influenced by ancient Chinese poets. If I didn’t think the current title was so useful, as a way of setting up the poem’s rhetorical posture for the reader, I would call it “Autumn Leaves Caught in a Tumbling Stream,” a title Meng Hao-jan might admire. Or possibly one I have stolen from him.
Could you tell us a little bit about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’m always writing several books at once—as these poems in KR demonstrate. On the one hand, I’ve been writing a bunch of “regular old poems”—by which I mean lyric poems of various sizes, shapes, intentions and forms—which are not yet a book, but which I like individually. “A Greeting on the Trail” belongs to that group of poems. But most of my effort in the last few years has gone into a long-term project I started nearly a decade ago: a sequence of poems about art and culture in the twentieth century, a poetic history, one hundred poems long, one for each year, written in various voices and historical personae. It’s been a gargantuan project, but the book is very close to being finished—I’ve got about ninety-five of the poems done, and only a few that keep eluding me. “Two Poems for Czeslaw Miłosz” will be part of that book—probably it will be the poem for 1980, commemorating the year in which he received the Nobel Prize, though I’ve tried placing it elsewhere, since the book also resembles a giant collage, and shifting things from one place to another yields interesting resonances and juxtapositions. Hopefully this book will be finished by the end of the year, and published by Ecco Press either late 2015 or early 2016. Fingers crossed.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Writing in persona has been my biggest source of discovery in the last decade, going back to my book-length historical narrative poem, Shannon, published in 2009. In Shannon I used only one voice, over an extended period—describing George Shannon’s wandering departure from the Lewis and Clark expedition—while in my twentieth-century poems I’ve tried to channel scores of different “voices.” Some of those came to me easily, some with great effort, and some defeated me altogether. You may want to write in the voice of Franklin Roosevelt, say, and fail—but for some reason the voice of Richard Nixon yields a really good poem. Since you can’t know in advance, you just have to jump in and try it. Which is always the answer in the end: write the poems.
Nearly every poem I write teaches me something—something small, usually, about line-breaks or syntax, a new way of thinking about a word, a new rhyme, some kind of problem I need to solve to get the poem written. Cumulatively, these little solutions add up to craft-knowledge, they teach you how to write. Sometimes you do learn bigger things—you gain a dramatic insight into the process—o-ho, so that’s how it works! I had a few of those, over the years, but mostly when I was trying something brand new, like writing a book-length poem for the first time. More commonly it is a process of small steps, just working away, poem by poem, brick by brick, building something, anything—a wall, a house, a castle surrounded by chestnut trees.