Photo Credit: Teresina Lyman
Brief Biography: Stephen Kampa was born in Missoula, MT in 1981 and grew up in Daytona Beach, FL. He received a BA in English Literature from Carleton College and an MFA in Poetry from the Johns Hopkins University. His first book, Cracks in the Invisible, won the 2010 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and the 2011 Gold Medal in Poetry from the Florida Book Awards. His poems have also been awarded the Theodore Roethke Prize, first place in the River Styx International Poetry Contest, and two Pushcart nominations. His second book, Bachelor Pad, appeared this spring from The Waywiser Press. He currently divides his time between teaching poetry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and working as a musician.
Geosi Gyasi: For some fifteen years, you’ve been playing the harmonica. How did you start playing?
Stephen Kampa: When I was a teenager, I lived in Brazil for a year as an exchange student. A big part of the culture, or at least of my host family’s life, was music: I can remember us visiting the family farm in Perdões, Minas Gerais, and gathering on the porch to sing while my host uncle strummed an acoustic guitar. I also remember the time another host uncle took me aside and let me know that, judging by my porch singing, I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Of course, I resolved to prove him wrong, and when I returned to the United States, I happened upon a little basket of harmonicas while wandering through the local bookstore. I’ve never looked back except to wish the bookstore had put out a basket of pianos.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you acquire your first harmonica?
Stephen Kampa: The first was that bookstore harmonica, and I was probably sixteen years old; however, I date the beginning of my serious harmonica playing to my seventeenth birthday, when I bought myself my first real harmonica, a Hohner Special 20. I chose that model because my hero, John Popper, played Special 20s.
Geosi Gyasi: Which of these types do you play – the diatonic, the chromatic, or the tremolo? Could you explain your choice?
Stephen Kampa: I play diatonic harmonicas. The diatonic is generally the harmonica a person thinks of when thinking of harmonicas at all, the pocket-sized ten-hole job most commonly used in blues, rock and roll, and folk music. When Sara Bareilles plays harmonica on “Basket Case,” it’s a diatonic she’s playing.
They’re rather ingenious little instruments. At a basic level, they are designed to sound good because they’re tuned to play in one key, so any of the notes you play will more or less fit the music as long as said music is in the key stamped on the harmonica; thus, a total beginner might sound aimless, but he won’t sound out-and-out wrong. (Of course, that all goes right out the window if there are complex chord changes.) At a more advanced level, diatonic harmonicas are capable of great expressiveness and musical surprise, but you have to know what you’re doing, and it rarely involves playing in the key stamped on the harmonica at that point. The harmonica has its own bizarre logic, which is quite interesting, but something to save for the rainiest rainy day.
I don’t own any tremolo harmonicas—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever even played one—and the same could be said for the other more orchestral harmonicas: the chord harmonica, bass harmonica, octave harmonica, and so on. I do play a bit of chromatic, and although I’m hardly a virtuoso on it, I’m pleased to say that this year should see the release of an album for which I contributed some session work, including my first recorded chromatic work.
Geosi Gyasi: I’ve watched you play the harmonica a couple of times. From where do you get the energy to play?
Stephen Kampa: Whiskey.
That’s not true, of course, or only a little. I think the answer might be joy. I believe artistic creation comes from a deep and abiding sense of joy in the possibilities of the medium and in the intelligence that discovers them. This runs counter to the culturally accepted stereotype of the artist as a tortured soul, a loner, an alcoholic manic-depressive who amidst the destruction and subsequent wreckage of his own life manages to create a few glittering monuments. (Kierkegaard: “What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music. . . . And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ . . .” Notice the role of the people in that little parable.) I’d argue that even when artists are dealing with grief-riddled material—when they’re singing the blues—their creative response to it is part of what makes art redemptive, if art is.
That is perhaps an elaborate answer to a straightforward question. I should add that when it comes to playing music, many things contribute to the performance: the energy and responsiveness of the crowd, the friendship and mutual admiration I share with my bandmates, and that blessed moment when one stops regretting the past and worrying about the future and simply inhabits the present moment, which is where the music is.
Geosi Gyasi: You currently front your own band, Stephen Kampa and the Pickups. Could you tell us what this band is about?
Stephen Kampa: This band is about making money. Although I enjoy music and know that it is an art form, for me it has also been a way to make a living, and where I am, one has to seek out as many opportunities as possible for making that living. As much as I enjoy my band, and as much as I have learned about music, my voice, and the challenges of being a front man and bandleader, I put together Stephen Kampa & the Pickups because I needed more gigs than I could get as a sideman.
That said, I think there are some things that make the band pretty special. Obviously, at the top of the list are the first-rate musicians who have contributed their talents to the music-making. I also think that we tend to defy expectations. When people see the band is built around a harmonica player, they expect a blues band, but we actually do very little straight-ahead blues: more often, we’re drawing from the soul, funk, and R&B traditions. Harmonica tends to get pigeonholed when it comes to repertoire, but there’s no reason we can’t do songs by Marvin Gaye, Marshall Tucker, Herbie Hancock, or the Box Tops, and we do. I like to believe that when we’re playing, we’re helping people reimagine how the harmonica can sound. I suppose, then, in all honesty I should say that in addition to being about making money, the band is about getting to play the music I want to play.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any relationship between music and poetry?
Stephen Kampa: There are many, but I think the interesting analogies leave aside the question of song-writing and poetry—something Glyn Maxwell discusses concisely and persuasively in On Poetry—and focus instead on the relationship between an art form that has no semantic content and one that, despite the best efforts of the avant-garde, simply buzzes with semantic content. I’m particularly fascinated by the way vowel pitch affects the movement and feeling of individual lines, but that is only one example.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a poet?
Stephen Kampa: I’m still not sure I want to be a poet, given all the baggage that word carries: the foppish outfits, the little twiddles of cigarette smoke, the visionary gleam. I guess I think of myself as a writer who mostly ends up writing poems, possibly because I lack the attention span to write short stories or a novel, possibly because poems afford me the kind of concentration, flexibility, associative logic, and musicality that I need to do my kind of thinking.
Geosi Gyasi: If for some fifteen years you’ve been playing the harmonica, how long have you been writing?
Stephen Kampa: I’ve been writing since I was a child, but in high school I had a teacher who sentenced me to a life of poverty by introducing me to poetry. Truth be told, I’ve been in her debt ever since. So, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I’ve been writing poetry for about as long as I’ve been playing harmonica.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you split your time as a teacher, writer and musician?
Stephen Kampa: It can be difficult. I can say with certainty that when I’m teaching, my students are my priority; in fact, this summer I’ve been working on an essay about teaching, love, and Theodore Roethke. On the whole, though, I’m still trying to find a balance when it comes to the time each of those roles demands, as well as a way to harmonize those parts of myself into a single coherent identity.
Geosi Gyasi: Your first book, Cracks in the Invisible, won the 2010 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and the 2011 Gold Medal in Poetry from the Florida Book Awards. Your poems have also been awarded the Theodore Roethke Prize, first place in the River Styx International Poetry Contest, and two Pushcart nominations. Do you feel fulfilled as a writer?
Stephen Kampa: When I was a high school student, I won an award for a poem I’d written, and I got to go to Miami. There I had a bracing conversation with Mike Raymond, a writer who taught at Stetson University and whom I’d met only once. Professor Raymond looked at a small sheaf of poems I’d brought for him to read, then leaned back and said, “Stephen, when are you going to stop playing around and start writing poetry?” It was chastening; I felt taken aback, perhaps even a little humiliated, not least because I was there to accept an award for my poetry. Later, during the ceremony, I was called up to the front of a small room and given a certificate or some such, and when I got back to my seat, a woman came up to me—presumably because she’d read my poem—and said, “Thank you.” That was it. She left. Mike Raymond leaned over quickly and said, “That’s why you write.”
I tell this story for two reasons. First, that day was formative for me: although I may still argue with Professor Raymond about the place of play in poetry, I value that he took whatever talent I had seriously enough to challenge me to make more of it, and the moment when a woman I’d never met simply thanked me for a poem taught me something important. Second, I tell this story because it comes to the heart of your question: how do we as writers understand fulfillment? What is the measure of one’s success?
What I tell my students is that you have to love the act of writing itself, the process, if you hope to be a writer. When it comes to publication, recognition, prizes, fame, fortune, and eventually owning your own little island empire where everyone acknowledges you are the greatest writer ever, the sad truth is that one day soon after arriving on your island, you’re going to start to think it’s just a little bit small. Anne Lamott has words of wisdom here:
“All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings, which is about the first Jamaican bobsled team. . . . The men on his team are desperate to win an Olympic medal, just as half the people in my classes are desperate to get published. But the coach says, “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”
W. S. Merwin has a beautiful poem about meeting Berryman that also speaks to the issue, but with a different emphasis:
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
If, then, we can find no satisfaction in plaudits before the enormous maw of the ego, and we can’t trust our own sense of whether work is any good, all that remains is the doing of the work itself. In that sense, I feel very fulfilled: I’ve structured my whole life around writing, and for the most part, I am grateful, knowing how lucky I am to be able to do that.
Still, I’m waiting for my island. Even a small one would do. For a while.
Geosi Gyasi: This happened to be one of my favorite lines in the Bachelor Pad – “He worried that he lived his whole/Life in his notebook, and he wondered why/That didn’t seem so bad”. How and when was the whole idea of the Bachelor Pad conceived?
Stephen Kampa: I noticed at some point that I’d been writing a number of poems on the same themes—relationships, love, the life of the single man—and when you realize that about your own work, you’ve got two immediate choices: you can either work against the tendency and break through to something new, or you can acknowledge that you’ve got something on your mind and make a project out of it. I opted for the latter.
Geosi Gyasi: With all honesty, which of these two do you spend most of your time on: Playing the harmonica or writing poetry?
Stephen Kampa: At this point, writing. When I was a young man and learning my instrument, I practiced harmonica incessantly—hours every day—as is customary for anyone learning to play an instrument. The writing, however, has always been my priority: if I had to pick between the two, I would always choose writing. I always have, in fact. Happily, for now, I don’t need to choose.