E Pluribus Unum: A Conversation with Christopher Kempf

Christopher Kempf is the author of What Though the Field Be Lost (LSU, 2021) and Late in the Empire of Men (Four Way, 2017).  Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.


Evan Goldstein: Congratulations on your publication of What Though the Field Be Lost, your second poetry collection. It’s an incisive look, through the lens of Gettysburg and the legacy of the Civil War, at the social tensions and unanswered historical questions in America. The poems balance first-hand observation, documentary, and poetic history, with a total effect that reveals a landscape haunted by a long history of relentless social and political struggles that continue today in new forms. Can you talk about the genesis of this collection, and how you came to write about Gettysburg?

Christopher Kempf: Thanks so much for your kind words, and for your generous take on the book—it’s a pleasure to talk with you.

I hadn’t intended to write about Gettysburg at all before I moved there in 2017, but, when I did, the place totally overtook my thinking. This won’t be surprising to anyone who’s visited, but there seems to me something mystical about Gettysburg, something that inheres there in the landscape itself—the slat-rail fences, the stone walls, the fields that seem so quiet now.  I remember the first night my wife and I arrived in town, we drove our rented Penske truck through the battlefield and stopped near the High-Water Mark, where Pickett’s Charge was turned back on the third day of battle. That’s maybe the most consequential piece of land in the United States, and I remember being completely moved by the presentness of the past there, how close it seemed, how breathable. The past is always with us, of course, but there are some moments—including that one, at that place—where we maybe feel it more immediately.

So, the book was conceived as an attempt to capture that feeling, or to examine and get to the bottom of it—that reverence, that revulsion, that intrigue. And the presentness of Gettysburg’s past seemed to me, as it still does, particularly salient given that our nation continues to struggle through many of the issues for which that battle was fought. It’s a book that’s trying to ask what it means for a nation to hold together through civil strife, or whether this holding together is even possible, or should be.

EG: You released this book not long after an attempted coup, when far-right militants carried Confederate battle flags through the halls of the United States Capitol. This is a time that many think is hopeless, but your title, from Paradise Lost, hints at optimism, though it may be the optimism of Milton’s Satan: “What though the field be lost? / All is not lost; the unconquerable Will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield: / And what is else not to be overcome?” Can you discuss the relationship between your title and the ways in which the present political issues surfaced in your writing? 

CK:  Milton was living through the English Civil War when he wrote Paradise Lost, which is one of the reasons Satan is the “hero” of that poem—his rebellion against God stood in, for Milton, for the Parliamentarians’ legitimate rebellion against the Royalists and King Charles. That’s why Satan gets some of the best lines in the poem—or really in all of English literature. Right before he tempts Eve, for example, Satan beholds the couple at play and feels so much sympathy for them that he actually begins to doubt the massive, cosmic revenge plot he’s conceived. “And, should I,” he asks, “at your harmless innocence / Melt, as I do”? So he has this moment of wavering introspection, but then he steels himself for the task at hand: “yet public reason just— / Honour and empire with revenge enlarged / By conquering this new World—compels me now / To do what else, though damned, I should abhor.” I love the ambivalence of that moment, how conflicted Satan is regarding the task before him.  

And ambivalence is a major value in What Though the Field Be Lost, and something I learned to appreciate deeply at Gettysburg. This was particularly driven home to me by the Confederate monuments there, which of course enshrine a horrific cause but do so through glamorous and even seductive language. The nostalgia of those monuments, their striking visual rhetoric, their idealization of a Southern arcadia—those are powerful rhetorical tropes, and the book is trying to suggest that, unless we understand how and why that rhetoric works, we remain susceptible to the ideologies it buttresses. So, Satan is a figure for the allure in which evil can be veiled, and I think we ignore that allure at our peril.

EG: Ambivalence is a striking feature of the book, especially for a collection of poems thinking through the Civil War. I was impressed at the poems’ ability to withhold judgment, even for Confederate soldiers, and the way the collection sought to understand rather than lay blame. Another heart of the book is rural America, or middle America, or what pundits call “white America”—places that are immensely poor, deindustrialized, and have become targets of right-wing fascistic demagoguery. Much of the collection lives in these places when it isn’t exploring Gettysburg: the nativity scene at the AutoZone, the K-Mart, the Indy 500, “our roadside democracy”—I could go on. Yet these places never feel cheapened or mocked. Why are these places important to your work, and how did you go about writing about white, working-class parts of America without judgment or scorn?

CK:  I think you diagnosed a key social and historical fact that informs the ambivalence in the book—namely, that rural or “white America” has been co-opted by right-wing demagogues.  From talk radio to the erstwhile occupant of the White House, these forces have managed to channel rural America’s economic disenfranchisement into a conservative politics characterized by xenophobia, militarism, and rebarbative economic policies. In this country, the Right has been far more effective at understanding, and therefore mobilizing, the working classes than the Left has been, the latter of which too often rests on outrage and moral condemnation.

So I’m trying to understand working-class America in order, perhaps hubristically, to reimagine what the working classes are capable of. I’m from rural, working-class Ohio, and I feel a great sympathy for people who have been manipulated on one side of the political divide and caricatured and stigmatized on the other. “White America” surely has its problems, no doubt, but I don’t think the most effective way to combat those problems is righteous indignation. It seems to me that the U.S. Left talks about morality when it should be talking about money.

This book doesn’t talk about money, per se, but it does try to analyze how a certain insidious whiteness has been rhetorically constructed—by Confederate monuments, by corporate America, by the linking of sports and militarism, as in the Indy 500. I wanted the book simultaneously to be immersed in the materiality of working-class life—McDonalds, run-down cars in driveways, Billy Ray Cyrus—and to reveal, as much as possible, the ideology behind that materiality, the forces that shape and perpetuate unjust social structures.

EG: The ideology behind everyday life comes through in the sharp observation of the present in your collection, but the book is also informed by historical research. Can you discuss how your historical research factored into the collection?

CK: Historical research is very easy at Gettysburg, since one can walk into any bar, especially in the summers, and talk to reenactors and history buffs and rangers and battlefield guides—all of whom, of course, are just waiting for someone to ask them a question. Part of what the book is trying to document is the kind of historical ironies that flare up there, where one can do shots of Malort beside “Robert E. Lee,” for example, or look on as “Winfield Hancock” hides his cell phone and Miller Lite to pose for a photograph.

But there are all kinds of other research that went into the book, including work in the archives at Gettysburg and extensive reading around that battle and the Civil War generally. I wanted the book to feel deeply immersed in real history, rather than simply to use that history as an allegory or analog for the present. So there’s a lot of quotation in the book, a lot of ekphrasis and intertextuality. I’m trying to create a kind of historical texture, to render formally the palimpsest-like nature of the battlefield at Gettysburg—because it’s a field that has been scored over time and again with various efforts to rewrite the past.

EG: Another way your poems render the battlefield, and the battlefield of the larger American landscape, is through careful and conscious use of synecdoche, a type of metaphor in which the part represents the whole, or the whole represents the part. In the opening poem, “National Anthem,” the anthem wills that “synecdoche / mean ‘fruited plain.’ ‘Beautiful river.’” In “Great White,” a poem of “Puritan menace,” the speaker observes “the same honed fin, fantail, the plane / of the sea sliced open, so that / a part, merely, of the dire beast / suggests the whole.” In “Natinals,” “There /      is a hero who is all of us, one /      nation on his chest….” There is “Little America,” in which the poem considers the eponymous rest stop and hotel as “a kind / of continent in miniature—little /      New World.” And of course, in the blank verse litany “‘South Will Rise,’” instances of Confederate graffiti drag up America’s history of violent racist attacks, how we discuss police murders of Black men, and how Christ returning could tow “up with him whole fields / of corpses.” In a way synecdoche seems to be at the heart of your project and the relationship you draw between the present and history. Can you talk more about how synecdoche factors into your work, and into your view of poetry’s power in general?

CK:  That’s a really nice tracing of synecdoche through the arc of the book—thank you!  

Yes, synecdoche is obviously a poetic technique, a rhetorical technique, but it’s also a political technique, it seems to me, and one at the heart of American democracy. We see that in a phrase like “E pluribus unum”—out of many, one. The part and the whole. So one problem the book takes up is the problem of union—how to preserve unity in multiplicity, in difference.

I’m very much invested in the idea that a nation holding together—a “many” being “one”—is a fundamentally mystical or even spiritual proposition, like the one God who is simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s why the epigraph to the book comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, when he says that “the body is not one member, but many. […] Now are they many members, yet but one body.” He’s talking about the early Christian Church, but there’s something timeless and deeply mysterious in that conceptualization of identity and belonging, and I’m trying to port Paul’s thinking—which is entirely about synecdoche—into a socio-political context.

All of that is part of a larger effort in the book to understand how forms of national—and nationalist—identity are reproduced by rhetorical or aesthetic means. The monuments at Gettysburg, for example, are constantly producing an idea of what this country should be. A nation is an idea as much as it is a material body, spirit as much as letter.

EG: That difference between national and nationalist identity is a central problem your poems confront, as well. You mentioned the progressive potential of the working class, despite the fact that it’s been written off by the Democratic party, and I noticed in many poems you’re interested in the transnational as well: how Union soldiers and Confederate conscripts were treated under the same tent, the question “What people /    is not the undying aspiration of juncture?” in the poem titled “&,” the conditions for Sri Lankan workers in Dubai and the legacy of French imperialism in “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s,” the workers in Matamoros stitching the Washington Nationals jerseys. What is the difference between national and nationalist identity, and how do international questions factor into your writing about America?

CK: You’re exactly right that that discrepancy between national and nationalist identity is at the heart of the book. What Though the Field Be Lost wants to believe in a nation, that such a collective body is possible, imaginable, tenable. The first poem in the book, “National Anthem,” ends by expressing a desire to say “we,” to conceive of a mystical body made up of millions of individual bodies in all their difference and diversity. That ending kind of sets a trajectory through which the book moves—toward that “we,” toward a nation—so that the penultimate poem ends by saying “we began.” So the book wants to claim that “we” even as it recognizes the great difficulties in doing so, or recognizes the potential for collective to efface individual identities. When the speaker asks, in the last poem in the book, “What is it, / though, / that lets a man imagine a country / worth weeping for?” that’s a real question, and one which the book sincerely wants to answer.

As for the question of internationalist identity, the book isn’t really making any claims to a transnational—I guess you could say “human”—collective belonging. It is, however, trying to identify transhistorical and transnational myths that have allowed certain collectivities to hold together—the myth of resurrection, the myth of progress, the myth of union or of “juncture.”  Mythic thinking, or spiritual thinking, is probably inherently global.

EG: There’s a long history of work that you reference that undergirds What Though the Field Be Lost, from Milton to Bishop to Frederick Douglass, Whitman of course—what poets have influenced you?

CK: All of those writers you mention are important to me—Milton for reasons we’ve talked about, Bishop for her keen sense of place and her reverence for materiality, Douglass for his razor diagnosis of the hypocrisies of American culture, Whitman for his belief in precisely that culture. Maybe Douglass and Whitman haunt this book most pressingly—they both want to believe that a just nation is possible, even as they acknowledge the tremendous schisms that prevent its realization.

As for other influences, I think Robert Lowell is the most important writer of the last half-century or so, for me and for American poetry generally. When Life Studies came out in 1959, it changed what one could do with a book of poetry, with its forceful linking of the public and private. This has become the entire premise of the MFA era—that one’s private or individual experience indexes larger cultural phenomena. My own work stands squarely in that tradition, as does the more identity-based writing currently in vogue in this country.

EG: You mentioned that your second book took you by surprise—that you didn’t intend to write about Gettysburg until you moved there and realized what you were seeing. What’s next for you? 

CK:  Yes, I have a plan for the future, but who knows if that will get sidetracked by some new Gettysburg! I’m shifting away from poetry for the moment toward some scholarly writing and creative nonfiction.

I’m finishing up a scholarly book for Johns Hopkins UP which is exploring how and why we’ve come to call it “workshop.” The book is called Craft Class: The Workshop in American Culture, and it’s essentially asking what’s at stake—aesthetically, socially, economically—in figurations of writing as a kind of “craft,” a labor. Those pedagogies, as we’re coming to understand, are hardly neutral or disinterested.

I’m also working on a creative nonfiction book which is treating the idea of “the local” as a corrective to nationalist identity and as an alternative to global capital. The book is also, though, trying to excavate cultural forms which not only resist but refract and reproduce larger, often pernicious ideologies of nation, race, and class. So there’s an essay in there about LeBron James and the promise that sports “redeems” de-industrialized Rust Belt cities like Cleveland. There’s an essay about American country music, which seems to me to hold out notions of racial and regional belonging as compensation, of a sort, for the devastations wreaked by free-market economies.

EG: That’s exciting and necessary work, and I can’t wait to see those books on the shelves. You mentioned country music—maybe you could leave us with a song to play us out?

CK:  Ah, always!  

I’m trying to write about the three-part country-song structure, wherein our understanding of the chorus changes with each verse. The classic example of this is Tim McGraw’s 1994 smash “Don’t Take the Girl”—the first verse is spoken by a child to his father, the second to a holdup thief, the third, of course, to God. It’s a form of zeugma, one of my favorite literary techniques—the verb “take” has three different meanings.

But there are other and better versions of this structure, especially Alan Jackson’s 2002 “Drive” and T. G. Sheppard’s 1983 “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven,” in which I suspect we all know what “Heaven” means.


Evan Goldstein

Evan Goldstein is a poet and educator from upstate New York. He holds an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. He received a BA in English from SUNY Geneseo, where he was awarded the Patricia Kerr Ross Award by the New York State Foundation for the Arts for his poetry, photography, and work with arts organizations. His recent poems have appeared in Poetry Daily, Afternoon Visitor, Anthropocene, and BathHouse Journal, and he has work forthcoming in The Experiment Will Not Be Bound, an anthology of experimental poetry by Unbound Edition Press.

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