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[ interview ]

Interview with Rick Campbell

by Justin Anderson

Q: Baseball, current events, parenting… Dixmont is filled with as many diverse subjects and themes as you would ever see, and yet, somehow it holds together. What criteria did you have for including poems, and how did you go about organizing all this disparate material into something that is, as Michael Hettich describes it, "a cohesive book whose whole is more than the sum of its parts?"

Since this book is largely autobiographical, I think it functions more as a memoir than as a collection of poems, if one thinks that a book of poems needs to have an organizing principle that's more specific than just the events in a person's life. These topics in my book are just what I find essential to my life, to living. My job as a poet, at least in this book, is to find out what's significant in the everyday course of our lives. I think that the book is held together by these significant events in my life, and somehow they are more universal than private. Yes, they are what's happening in my life, but these things happen to most people. Questioning God, dealing with sickness, raising a child, observing nature-- these are normal things, and if I do my job as a poet then I can point out what's essential and significant in this everyday life. It might be that the reader supplies the coherence in the book.

Q. As mentioned above, baseball comes up a few times in this selection. I was wondering if you had a favorite baseball story (personal or otherwise) to relate?

All of my favorite baseball stories involve Roberto Clemente. But I also like one that my grandather used to tell me about Walter Johnson's striking out a batter without throwing the ball. They are long stories, though, and they are in an essay I wrote in a book called Scoring from Second.

Q. What is your favorite poem in this collection? Why?

It's not possible to have one favorite poem. But a couple of my favorites are "The Muse," "Intelligent Design and the Click Beetle," and "The Body as Instrument." "The Muse" is fun; it combines baseball, sex, and Homer. You have to like that. The other two succeed by finding a way to discuss philosophy and theology, while using the elements of the concrete, the daily. I like to combine as many elements as possible in one-- popular music, baseball, work, the Bible, personal narrative, and allusions to famous poems. These poems do a lot of that.

Q. As the director of Anhinga Press, how do you balance your work promoting and publishing other writers with your need to do your own writing and promote yourself?

I don't balance it at all. I work in binges. I work on Anhinga more than my writing; when grants are due, when writers visit, when there's something that needs to be done for Anhinga, I do it. I set aside time to work on my writing as I can; luckily I write quickly. I don't labor over poems. I write a poem in one sitting, and then I revise as time allows. Eventually I figure that the poem is finished and I mail it out. Dylan said, "We do what we must do and we do it well." I figure that if there's work to do, do it. I'm also a father and a teacher. Both of those jobs take up as much time as running Anhinga or writing. Being a father is more important than all the others jobs combined. Specifically though, running Anhinga Press helps me to promote my work because Anhinga connects me to the literary community.

Q. Margot Schilpp, in her review of your first book Setting the World in Order, described your poetry as "sure-footed," by which she seemed to mean that you shun obfuscation in favor of clarity and keep your poetry rooted in the reality of character, place, and moment. What influences or inspirations have led you towards such a grounded style?

My poetry mentors are Philip Levine, Richard Hugo, and James Wright. Most poets who I read "shun obfuscation." In fact, I’ve never used the word before. I'm either a good enough poet to avoid obfuscation, or I'm not a good enough poet to obfuscate with any regularity. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to obfuscate.

Q. A lot of your poems have a strong narrative structure. What fiction writers do you admire most?

I don't really read fiction anymore, and I haven't for a long time. But I admire Garcia Marquez, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O'Connor, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Michael Gills. My sense of narrative comes from more straightforward story-telling than reading fiction.

Q. One of my favorite poems is "Road House." I was wondering if you would care to elaborate a little on the background of that poem?

There was this little roadhouse bar between either Laramie and Cheyenne or Laramie and Ft. Collins. I'm not sure anymore where it is. We used to drink out there, and around 11 p.m. the younger people would head back to Laramie to dance the two-step. We would sit in the roadhouse and eat popcorn and listen to the owner's taped music. It's pretty much exactly like the poem says. Then this big guy who reminded me of a Basque sheepherder would dance with his dog. It was beautiful. In the book it's what I call a quiet poem. It's part of the rhythm a book might need to become a composition. Every poem can't be a big, loud note and have, in the end, a musical composition.

The following can be answered in a word, a phrase, a sentence . . .

Q. Is there a poet out there whose work is currently making you jealous?

Jealous is a strong word, but I really admire Frank X. Gaspar and Julia Levine and sometimes wish I could write like them and me.

Q. How about a poet who you wish would just disappear?


Q. What kind of child were you?

A boy.

Q. What's your relationship with rejection like?

It does not make me happy, but it happens a lot (if we are talking about poetry), and it's not hard to live with. There are a shitload of more important things to worry about.

Q. Did you suffer in the process of writing this book? How?

No. I like to write. I never suffer when writing. It's not a toothache or cancer.

Q. What was the greatest surprise for you in writing Dixmont?

That the first press I sent it to said it wanted to publish the book.

Q. Do you have a writerly habit you'd like to break?

Yes, not writing often enough.

Rick Campbell's latest book is Dixmont (Autumn House, 2008). He is also the author of The Traveler's Companion (Black Bay Books, 2004). His first full-length book, Setting the World In Order (Texas Tech 2001) won the Walt McDonald Prize. His poems and essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, The Tampa Review, Southern Poetry Review, Puerto Del Sol, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. He has won an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and two fellowships from the Florida Arts Council. He is the director of Anhinga Press and the Anhinga Prize for Poetry, and he teaches English at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.

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