Interview with Erik Campbell, Author of “Arguments for Stillness”

Photo: Amy Polk

Photo: Amy Polk

Brief Biography:

Erik Campbell’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in New Letters, Tin House, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Rattle, and other literary journals. His first poetry collection, Arguments for Stillness (Curbstone Press 2006), was named by Book Sense as one of the top ten poetry collections for 2007. Red Hen Press will publish his second collection, The Corpse Pose, in spring 2016. A high school English teacher for many years, he is currently an adjunct professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan University. 

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write Arguments for Stillness?

Erik Campbell: I never thought about having a book; I just liked writing one poem at a time and trying to get them published in journals I read. Then, in April 2004, Texas Tech University (TTU) Press, care of The Iowa Review (with whom I’d published two poems at the time), contacted me. An editor at TTU P. wrote that he was interested in a poetry collection from me and 13 other book-less writers—that they would publish one of the 14 as part of their Walt McDonald First Book in Poetry series. So, for the first time, I started thinking about poems in a series and how they might function in a collection. I wrote and revised and compiled so many drafts—along the way learning a great deal about how poetry collections are assembled, what poems complement what other poems and in what order, etc. I studied all the poetry collections I admired and interrogated their thematic structures—essentially every aspect of the books, from narrative arcs to fonts. I had approximately two months to get what became Arguments for Stillness together. But, in the end, TTU Press rejected my manuscript.

But I didn’t really mind because I had learned so much from the process—it was like getting an MFA for me. I also thought that the TTU editors were right—my stuff wasn’t working well as a book qua book at that point. But putting so many poems side by side had made me a better writer and editor, and allowed me to really get close to my strengths and weaknesses.

Then, around November of the same year, Rattle, a journal you know well, wrote that they were starting a new imprint with Curbstone Press in Connecticut–a really fine, small press–and asked if I had a manuscript. So I started from the beginning again and tried really hard to make every word, or, at least line, count. Then, like unfortunate déjà vu, Rattle rejected it and Curbstone never even saw it.

But by this point I thought the book had some legs; I really thought it should exist, so I wrote the editors and asked for one more shot at a revision, which they agreed to. One month later the Rattle editors accepted Arguments for Stillness, and then Curbstone agreed as well. In fact, I found out that it was accepted by all requisite parties on my 33nd birthday. So, weirdly enough, in both cases the publishers found me—and each rejected me once. This experience is very rare. And I’m very thankful and humbled by the publishers’ faith in me. I was very lucky.

However, on December 21st, 2007, Sandy Taylor of Curbstone Press died the same day we buried my father—which also happened to be my birthday. Soon after, Curbstone Press began to dismantle and sell off its catalogue. Promotion-wise, the book was dead in the water, in terms of the publisher’s roll. I was just moving from Papua, Indonesia to Phoenix, AZ. It was a chaotic and awful time. Now Northwestern University Press owns the book, but I doubt they even realize it. Deep sigh. The moral is: “Don’t get too happy.” Or, “Be ambivalent regarding your birthday.”

My subsequent answers will be shorter. Damn.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you get an idea to write a poem?

Erik Campbell: I mostly am struck with an idea—I am an idea writer, I hardly use imagery consciously; I rarely even use color, for example—and then I wonder if said idea would make for an interesting and consequential conversation. If I decide “yes,” I give it a try. So, in a weird way, my ideas start as prose.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “The Small Thing”?

Erik Campbell: I wrote that one, which is about my then dying father, mostly in my head during the three months he was in the hospital. Readers have responded very graciously to that poem, for which I’m thankful. I remember being scared when Rattle put the poem on its website, like I was showing too much to too many, but people have been great about it.

Death poems are dangerous and hard to write without falling into the precious or the solipsistic maudlin, so it’s actually thorny stuff. I thought having the poem in several sections coming from different stages of grief would be interesting. Death, it seems to me, happens in stages. There is no “moment of death,” but a series of moments, and that’s the primary idea I was hoping to convey.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about style when you write?

Erik Campbell: I tend to write in couplets and have stanza lengths of quasi-iambic tetrameter. But I am also too anapesty (a word I’ve just coined), particularly in my endings, which is something I’m thinking about now. But I confess that I don’t honestly know what people mean by “style” in poetry anymore. It seems like “lyric poet” is considered the opposite of “narrative poet” now, for example. It’s like the term “discourse.” Or how popular culture has appropriated the term “narrative.” I don’t think I know what people mean by these terms any longer.

I guess I have always written in a seriocomic vein, but never in a flippant tone. I’m always using irony, but detest mere cleverness and what Stephen Burt calls, “close calls with nonsense.” Our daily lives are nonsensical, and writing can give them form. To celebrate nonsense, as many surrealists are doing these days, seems to be a colossal waste of writing and reading time to me. If you need to embrace the absurd, watch FOX News.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you happy as a writer?

Erik Campbell: Mostly, but I think I should care more about the “business,” which is to say, to network and submit a great deal more, and thereby reach more people. I write very little—or keep very little. I make notes chronically, and sometimes they become quasi-obsessions that I think can be of use—if a poem’s purpose is, as I think it is, to inform and entertain, but not solely to entertain. After all, we still find beheadings entertaining. Or the news thinks we do.

I’m happy to write and very happy to be read, but I don’t like building a “brand.” That is something ostensibly silly to me, since I don’t think a writer should be a personality off the page—but it’s becoming necessary. I now have a website, for example, something I thought I’d never have, because in today’s publishing climate, a writer (regardless of genre) needs one (and thanks to my pal, David Mainelli, a writer I hope you’ll hear of soon, for doing everything on the website). Like e-mail, the literary on-line presence began as an indulgence, and now it’s creed. It’s just amazing and scary and mystifying to people like me who were still using electric typewriters in 1999 and who love Neil Postman. However, that’s the rumpus, right? Buy the ticket; take the ride. I did, after all, decide to write poetry, which is like being a professional philosopher or phrenologist in terms of wide public impact.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced as a writer?

Erik Campbell: To continue to do it, in poetry at least, once I realized how difficult it all is. I always think to myself that whenever I write and then submit something, I am making a promise to the reader to try my best not waste her/his time. That’s a hard philosophical row to hoe, which is why I think I write so slowly, and why I rather think we all should. I have an idea that no poet should publish more than one book every four years—minimum. I read at least ten new poetry collections a year, in addition to everything else I read, and there is no way to even remotely keep up—so our supply of poetry is radically exceeding our demand, it would seem, despite being such a small demand. But the audience is as invested as it small, I think. Poetry fans are like jazz fans—they’re committed. They’re nuts. I love them. I also fear them, sometimes. Still, I know no one in the world is waiting for the next Erik Campbell poem or book. It’s a tough room, as they say.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Do you gain anything from writing?

Erik Campbell: I don’t honestly know what I would do were I unable to read and write. Life would be unthinkable, and therefore terrifying and stupid for me. I wouldn’t need to write, I guess, but I’d have to have books and interesting people about me, else I’d erase my map, James O. Incandenza-style. Reading and writing is what I have in lieu of a god, honestly.

I have also met a few people I so hugely admire because of writing and publishing. Tim Green of Rattle is one of my most trusted friends (and editors), and I’ve only met him once in person. I wouldn’t have published Arguments for Stillness without him. I love what he’s done with Rattle, as does most everyone, because Tim is completely free of bullshit and loves poetry and the community—he thinks, strictly speaking, that the community is more important than poetry, in fact.

The late Sandy Taylor of Curbstone Press was a hero of mine. William Kloefkorn, Nebraska’s former state poet, was a dear friend. His introduction to Arguments was actually a personal letter he sent me about the book. What a man he was. A giant to me. The friendships and experiences I’ve had as a result of the writing life have been amazing. I interviewed Allen Ginsberg in 1995 before I’d published anything. Philip Glass was there in the hotel room and I didn’t recognize him. I owe all the aforementioned to engaging with writers and the writing world. I interviewed Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka about two years before his death. When I look back, it’s been amazing. “Surreal.” See what I mean? Ha.

Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to complete a single poem?

Erik Campbell: The first draft is written in one to three sittings, and then I re-read and edit or abandon. If un-abandoned, I can rewrite for three to six months on average, although I’ve rewritten some poems dozens of times over years, but this is an exception. After you’ve thrown away hundreds of poems, you tend to know what works for you and the audience, if any.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics when you write?

Erik Campbell: I care about the reading public, period, a great deal. A poet/critic named Andy Fogle published a very negative review of my first book in an on-line magazine called Pop Matters. It was such a strange, ad hominem attack. He even made fun of my author bio. But I figured at least he read the book, because his antipathy was specific. But make no mistake, he was really mean about it, which begs the question: why write a negative review of a book of poetry? What does such an act mean? There are so few poetry readers it seems to me one should write reviews of books one finds meaningful, books that can help us navigate the mess of what Ginsberg called, “humankind-ness.” I’d never review a book I hated, although they are legion. Talk about pissing in the Arafura Sea. So, I guess I care about getting negative reviews because it’s not like poetry writers are pushing themselves on the public, Kardashian-style. If you hate certain poets, okay, bully for you, but Donald Trump gets in your face more than poetry does, doesn’t he? Poetry is hugely avoidable. Seeking out poets to hate is a waste of time; finding poets to appreciate is hard enough. Furthermore, you’re rude, Andy Fogle. Like you ain’t got no mamma.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your audience?

Erik Campbell: I think my audience is potentially anyone who reads seriously or somewhat so.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more poetry books?

Erik Campbell: I have a second collection, called The Corpse Pose, coming out from Red Hen Press in the spring of 2016. I’m really excited about the press, the people, and the process. The chief editor, Kate Gale, is herself a fine writer. I met her because of my MFA program. I’ve been working on The Corpse Pose since 2007. After that, I’m certain I have one more collection in me (it’s halfway done now) and am pretty sure I could do a fourth, but that’s it, Jack Gilbert-style, but without the Greek islands and the perfect jawline and the crazy lyrical genius. After book four, I think I’ll have run out of ideas and/or ways of rendering them.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you want to be called – Poet or Writer?

Erik Campbell: Either is fine, far better than recently divorced, underemployed, sad man.

I have published essays, many of which are on-line (see The Virginia Quarterly Review), so maybe “writer.” I think it’s all right and flattering if people refer to me as a writer, but I’m still uncomfortable with calling myself one outside of my resume. It seems to me too holy a word. Tolstoy is a writer. Keats is a poet. Shakespeare is the closet thing I have to god. I’m a person who writes poems and occasional prose. I’m more of a Replacements fan than a writer. I do think I’m a very good teacher, however.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any formal education in writing?

Erik Campbell: I have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Apart from that, I have a BA in English from Nebraska Wesleyan University and I have read seriously since high school and was able to read and write about 6-7 hours a day when I was living in Papua, which was an insane luxury for a hopeful writer. I think that time in Papua was far more important than my MFA program, in many ways.

Additionally, MFAs are not truly “terminal degrees.” The academic climate and the potency of such degrees has changed. We have Ph.Ds. in Poetry with creative writing emphases in the States now. There will soon be no point to the Creative Writing MFA, I think. There is little point now, perhaps, other than to network and force candidates to produce a great deal of work, which can be done independently of the university system, depending on one’s grit and self-motivation. However, there are as many programs out there as there are students, so I shouldn’t judge and should say I don’t have a better idea than the standard workshop model for teaching poetry writing, if it can be taught. Really, all we can do in the teaching of writing is to expose readers to writers and styles and to guide. My peers have helped me hugely. The informal education has been the most valuable to me, but without the formal, I’d not have met my new publisher, for example. I also met some great people during my program that I respect and hope to have as lifelong friends, if they’ll have me.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind asking me any question?

Erik Campbell: I wanted to thank you for reaching out to us and me and doing such fine work. I had fun and appreciate it. I’m amazed at how many writers you’ve interviewed and wish I had your hustle.

END.

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