Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize in Poetry from Four Way Books. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The New Republic, and PEN America, among other places. A recent Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, he is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.
Mia Kang: Chris, thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. Late in the Empire of Men is a stunning collection, and I’m excited to learn more about its making. As a first question, I’m curious to know about your process—how did these poems begin to form, and at what point did you start to see them as a book? Can you describe a moment when this project broke open for you?
Christopher Kempf: Mia, thanks so much for speaking with me, and thanks, too, to The Adroit Journal for giving us this opportunity. I think highly of your own work—the razor-sharp syntax, the historical consciousness—so it’s such a pleasure to think about these questions.
I wrote the oldest poems in LITEOM—“Predictive Text: The Corn Monster” and “In the ’90s”—as part of my MFA thesis in 2009, but the current form of the book was a relatively late development. Though I’d been aware, as I worked on the collection, that the poems were circling a set of common interests, it wasn’t until I had a title for the book that I began to see it as a structurally unified project, one, specifically, that laid a coming-of-age narrative across the westward trajectory of American history.
I like your description of the project “breaking open”—for me that happened after I wrote “Clearing the History,” what I saw immediately was a kind of keystone poem for the book, since it’s there that the speaker moves from Ohio to California, from childhood to adulthood; as soon as that poem fell into place, the book, as far as I was concerned, was finished.
MK: What’s something you’ve had to work toward or against in terms of your skills as a writer? In what ways did these poems challenge you, whether to explore new ways of writing or to go deeper into certain aspects of your practice?
CK: One of the things I struggle with, still, is fighting against—or “breaking”—the rhythm of the poem in order to convey the specific idea I want to get across at that moment. I almost always hear the rhythm of the poem before the words themselves, and while, ideally, music and meaning should work together, sometimes the prose-sense doesn’t want to fit into the poetic container, or overruns the musical staff, or whatever other metaphor one wants to use.
I’ve always loved the way Frost talks about it. The metaphor he uses—which, I now realize, is better than my own—is hearing the rise and fall of voices behind a closed door. For Frost, it’s the music, the tone of a sentence that lets it accrue such a rich affective complexity, and I’m trying more, in my own work, to loosen the rhythm in order to achieve a more varied intellectual and emotional range.
MK: The book deals in part with mythical themes and characters, as well as with the resonances of the Roman Empire. What’s your relationship to classical literature and history? What has hooked or repelled you about the classics?
CK: I was raised Catholic, and still consider myself Catholic to a certain extent, but what interests me in the religion is less the doctrinal or theological niceties than the underlying system of myth, which is—if one goes back far enough—pagan. That myth, the dying and rising god, is all around us, it seems to me—in the changing of the seasons, in the names we give to our children, in secular rites like Homecoming. For the ancients, the world was alive with divine energy, and I’m trying, in LITEOM, to re-enchant things like the Indianapolis 500 and high-school graduation parties and even video games, to show both their mythic importance to American culture as well as their more deleterious effects. I think your own writing about Rome, if I understand it correctly, sharply critiques these more negative aspects of myth, even while feeling compelled by them.
I’ve been inspired too, I have to admit, by the grand, civilizational histories that used to be written by people like Oswald Spengler and Edward Gibbon, another form of mythology in their own right. There’s a lot these histories get wrong, but they bespeak a desire for synthesis, for unity, that we seem, in our age of specialization and distraction, to have given up on; that desire, I think, is fundamentally religious in nature.
MK: The poems in Late in the Empire of Men take a wide range of forms on the page. Did your use of classical references inspire any particular formal strategies in the book? Would you say you had a formal project you wanted to engage in the book as a whole?
CK: I hadn’t thought of the form of the book as relating, much, to the classical references, but I do think of the formal movement of the book—oscillating between single-stanza, columnar poems and more fractured or jagged poems—as embodying a shuttling between wholeness and brokenness, unity and fragmentation. To the extent that the book has a formal project, it’s about thinking through, in form, the problem of how an empire holds together and how it falls apart. One could think of the book, then, as an excavation, trying to gather these mythological fragments and make them, in the present, into a kind of whole. This is, I guess, an Eliotic project, only with poems about OkCupid and food courts.
MK: I found your book often calls upon elegy or nostalgia, but it always pushes those to become more present in the present rather than enacting a simple looking back, if that makes sense—the poems tend to collapse time in a way that creates a kind of endlessness. And the time-space of the book feels distinctly contemporary. Can you talk about what you had to work through to constellate past and future in this way, whether in individual poems or perhaps in terms of sequencing?
CK: That’s such a keen take on the book—thank you.
Sequencing LITEOM, as a coherent narrative, was far easier than handling the temporal shifts in individual poems, since the book begins in childhood and moves through the pangs of adolescence—the speaker coming into his capacity for violence and sexuality—toward a more stable, if still unsettling, adulthood.
For me, time is always a function of place, which is why I love your punning term “time-space.” By that, I mean that place, as I experience it, is a kind of historical palimpsest, layered over with the various groups—both familial and civilizational—that ever occupied a given house or town or nation. Sometimes we’re made acutely aware of the presentness—“presence” would be the religious term—of the past, such as when we’re staring at the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or walking through a redwood forest, or lying in one of those massive, 19th century parks with monuments and greenhouses and skating ponds we’d never build anymore. The poems in LITEOM are infused, I think, with that historical consciousness, with the conviction that we are hardly the first to see what we see, even to feel what we feel. Against the foundational tenet of lyric poetry—that the individual is a world until him or herself—LITEOM asks whether we’re really that exceptional; I’d say probably not.
MK: Masculinity—especially the way young American men are raised into it—is at issue throughout the book. I sense you worked hard to undo any strictly declarative or narrative register of language into something more indeterminate in these poems. Can you discuss how gender figures into your approach to language and form?
CK: It’s interesting that you think of the poems as “indeterminate,” whereas I tend to think of their form, precisely, as “narrative” and “declarative.” I’m grateful, though, to be seen as indeterminate, since the opposite, I guess, might be something like “self-assured” or “didactic.”
Perhaps what’s actually taking place in the poems is a formal undoing of discursive or semantic assertion; in other words, something like lineation, for instance, complicates what seems to be a straightforward statement, as in “What/ this century left us is just/ this one way to be men…” Yes, the passage suggests, it’s terrible how American imperialism inducts young men into patterns of violence, but this also makes sense on a logical level—this is how empires work.
I wanted these poems—and want all my poetry—to resist the kind of easy moralizing that mars far too much of the poetry being celebrated these days. I want my writing, rather, to examine self-consciously its own implication in injustice, the very material ways in which it—and me, and the entire poetry community—profits from those systems of violence we most vehemently object to. Brooks and Warren talk about a poem being “massive” and “multidimensional”—I want that. Poetry certainly has a role in opposing injustice, but it needn’t do so, I don’t think, at the expense of complicated, responsible thinking.
MK: Late in the Empire of Men is your first collection of poetry, and congratulations again on such an impressive debut. What did this book teach you? What are you working on now?
CK: Thank you, Mia. And thank you again, really, for such thoughtful, challenging questions; I had to think deeply about these, for which I’m grateful.
Writing LITEOM, and watching it make its way in the world, has taught me a lot about writing poetry, but it’s also taught me to be a kinder, more generous citizen of the poetry community. The book has benefited tremendously from the kindness of others, whether friends and teachers who read early drafts, or the incredible staff at Four Way who midwifed it, or complete strangers who took the time to think with it or review it. At the same time, I’ve learned to value the work in itself independent of whatever praise or criticism it garners in the outside world; I’ve learned satisfaction can’t come from outside—one always wants one more fellowship, one more award, one more acceptance letter.
As for what’s next, I’m finishing up a second poetry collection about a year I spent living in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and trying to make a significant push on a doctoral dissertation about the rhetoric of labor in early creative writing programs. That—and reading as much poetry as possible.