On an afternoon in late October, Peter Campion adjusts his big blue watch, which is a blue that is almost neon blue. I wonder if it is the very watch that appears in one of Campion's poems. The poem with the ladybug in it. Empty tables covered in heavy white linen litter the outdoor patio. They resemble ice floes....."
Kidding! Peter Campion is a recent addition to the creative writing faculty at the University of Minnesota, and I (Carrie Lorig) am lucky enough to be both a TA for him and a student in his graduate poetry workshop. Peter agreed to answer some of my pesky questions about how he looks at a poem, what it is like to move from one manuscript to another, and the "MFA program." (Airquotes aren't necessary. I just like that they make words seem scarier.)
What do you think the MFA program can do for a writer?
An MFA program can afford an emerging writer time to write and read, can supply an attentive group of readers, and can foster exchange about literature in general. We sometimes focus on specific formal challenges in the writing, and sometimes we address the larger concerns and challenges of a writer's project. The hope is that, once a writer completes the program, he or she will not only have a livelier and more realized manuscript, but will also have a more comprehensive, and more enabling, critical sensibility.
How do you approach teaching the poetry workshop as a graduate instructor?
I like to work from the ground up, to begin by describing the actual tones and structures of the poem at hand. We ask how it moves from start to finish, how specific lines and sentences work, what the tone is like, how that tone shifts throughout the poem, and many more such questions. My hope is not to push any set aesthetic, but to help each writer find the poem he or she is striving toward. We also do a good deal of reading. I want students to uncover their own stories about the history of the art. So, in the workshop you're in right now, Carrie, our reading of poets like Pound, Williams, Eliot, Bunting, and Niedecker was a response to the fact that a lot of you are exploring modernist techniques. We also read Mallarmé and Max Jacob because many of you are interested in "aleatory" or chance-inspired practices. We read Elizabeth Bishop's Geography III because, well, it's always great to read that book.
What should a writer consider when they are looking at MFA programs?
I think an applicant should check out the work of the faculty in the various programs, and the work of recent graduates. Then there are concerns like geography, and duration of the program--different people have different preferences. I also think it's important never to put yourself in dire financial straits in order to get the degree. One of the great things about Minnesota is that the funding is generous. Having three years to write and read is a wonderful thing. Another thing I love about our program--okay, I'm being a shill--is that there's real exchange across the genres. You all take classes together, and are very much engaged in ongoing conversations. And this is a great area for literature and for the arts. There are more excellent readings and art shows and concerts than I could ever attend. It was wonderful, the other evening, to get to meet with all of you in Maria Fitzgerald's "Reading Across Genres," to discuss Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, and then to be able to all go together to see the play itself performed at the Guthrie.
What kind of poems are you working on now?
I tend to work on a bunch of things at the same time. I'm scribbling away on two long poems, one of which I started three years ago. So I morph into a huge tortoise every time I open the Word file. I'm also making small revisions to some shorter lyrics I wrote during the spring and summer. There's some newer stuff percolating, too.
I know you're working on a third book, would you mind discussing your process in terms of how you put a book together?
Sure. I admit, though, that I'm much better at helping students and friends structure their books than I am at doing it for myself, which feels a little bit like trying to see the back of my head, and with no mirrors. But I'm fascinated by the idea of the poetry collection as a made, shaped thing. I like to discuss that with students, and to look at how various books are structured. I suspect that each book searches for its own structure. As Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the Shakers, once wrote, "Every force evolves a form." I will say that whenever I try to write a poem specifically for the book--to fill one gap, or something like that--it feels too willful. But I do store away ideas of things I'd like to do, in order to vary or deepen the book I'm working on, and sometimes, during the tumult of actually writing, these things break onto the page.
Also, how is this book going to be different/similar to "The Lions?" What is it like to move from one book to the next?
Thanks for asking. I think it has more voices in it--one long dramatic monologue, as well as many poems with multiple speakers, or with reported or found speech (everything from translation of ancient poems to yammer overheard at airports.) Many of the poems are more juxtapositional than earlier poems of mine.
I'm interested in your process of reading a poem in general. What happens? What are you looking for? What are you looking to get out of it? What makes you fall in love with it or decide it's not for you?
I pay attention first to the specific feel of the language--what are the lines and sentences like? Then I try to understand the shape of the poem--what action is it performing? And then I ask if it moves me. I want an original and dynamic use of language, and one that feels necessary. I want both my intellect and emotion to be engaged, and taken on a trip that feels worth while. There are so many ways that a poem can do this. I'm sure that, like anyone, I have my own preferences and pet peeves, but I don't think that any one style or movement holds a monopoly.
What do you like about Minneapolis/the Twin Cities so far?
I love how the cities are both unpretentious and cosmopolitan. I know my neighbors in Southwest Minneapolis, and chat with them on the street and at the park, as if we were living in a small town. And I also know that I can visit a first rate art museum or gallery or restaurant any time.
Any upcoming readings/new poetry releases you are really excited about?
Yes. So many. I've just read David Wojahn's new poetry collection, World Tree, and I recommend it. I also admired Laura Kasischke's Space, in Chains. I read and reviewed Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book. That book was begun fifty years ago, but was only just officially released this year, so I guess it's new. Gjertrud Schnackeberg's new book is marvelous and moving. I'm also reading a lot of fiction and history. I recommend the German novelist Heinrich Böll, many of whose books have just been re-released. I read his book The Safety Net. I'm reading Teju Cole's Open City, which is fantastic. It seems to nod to W.G. Sebald, and yet it's entirely original.
It's Bio Time:
Peter Campion is the author of two collections of poems, Other People (2005) and The Lions (2009,) both from the University of Chicago Press. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Larry Levis Reading Prize, the Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Fellowship in Literature. His poems and prose have appeared recently in ArtNews, The Boston Globe, The Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New York Times, Poetry, Slate, and the Threepenny Review. He lives with his family in Minneapolis.