Making the Familiar Strange and the Strange Familiar: A Conversation with Peter Campion

Peter Campion is the author of Radical as Reality: Form and Freedom in American Poetry; four collections of poems, Other People, The Lions, El Dorado, and One Summer Evening at the Falls; and several monographs and catalog essays on modern and contemporary visual art. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, he teaches in the writing program at the University of Minnesota.


Evan Goldstein: Peter, it’s a pleasure to be able to discuss your fourth collection, One Summer Evening at the Falls with you, especially as summer comes around and the evenings grow long and humid here in the Midwest. One Summer Evening is filled with, as Oppen put it, “the light of other lives”—the light, but also the weight of daily life in America, and the heartbreak that comes with reaching beyond ourselves. What was it like to publish a collection so invested in a multitude of voices, and in the poetry of documenting and overhearing, in a year when our relationship to other lives has become so strained?

Peter Campion: Thanks so much, Evan. On one level, it was like publishing a book of poems at any other time: I felt grateful, a little nervous, mostly happy. 

But your question gets at something deeper, the relation of poems to their historical moment. I don’t write to “address issues” but I do want poetry that has soaked up the energy, the feeling of modern life. I wanted—and still want, in many of the poems I’ve written since the book was finished, the structure-for-multiple-voices that you describe (sometimes I call this the “Grand Hotel Poem”) and that’s bound up with wanting to register the feeling of modern life, the gorgeous and bewildering multiplicities. Part and parcel is my fascination with technology, with the poem itself as techne, and in particular with technologies that mediate the voice—with the way that we receive other voices right now, in person, and also from someone walking by on a cell, or as a voicemail, out of a PA speaker, from a computer, etc. For me, patchwork also just feels human: lyric poetry may be the art form of the individual voice, but any one person’s speech is made up of more than one voice; we all pick up verbal traits from our parents, friends, teachers, television, movies, books—anywhere. We put ourselves together by putting our language together.

I want a similar kind of patchwork with the different forms, traditional and free, which each trails a history, and also with the inclusion of translation, that sometimes stands alone and sometimes appears in the middle of an otherwise contemporary poem.

I was bowled over early on by Pound, Eliot and Crane, who often take a choral or a ventriloquial approach. Also, Moore, with her quotations—in “The Octopus,” for example—allows different voices to rub up against one another—stunningly, often hilariously, and inimitably. Then there’s Williams in Paterson and elsewhere, Toomer in Cane, and so on. These poets brought so much of the world into the poem, even as they all worked as modernists to entrench the art form in the specific, essential capacities of its own medium. 

EG: One of the essential capacities of poetry is of course its ability to contain and intensify the sound patterns of language; your poems are quite formal and take delightful prosodic turns, particularly when dealing in this patchwork of different voices and spaces. One Summer Evening contains poems written in iambic pentameter, free verse, tercets with enveloping rhyme schemes, poems in tetrameter and trimeter—I could go on. Would you consider yourself a formalist? How does working with traditional formal elements help you express that energy and feeling of modern life that you seek in your poems?

PC: I wouldn’t call myself a formalist. But sometimes other people use the word and they, most of the time, don’t mean anything bad. I dislike poems that seem like wax museum versions of the poems of another age, and at the same time I think a poet should have as much of the history of poetry at her fingers as possible—absorbed into the senses, and I think “form” in the larger sense is everything. I wanted to learn from the poems that inspired me, and to invent, or re-invent, forms. This also relates to layering: I want to hear what a friend’s confessing something over a drink sounds like set against a translation of Sappho, or what the more literary side of my diction sounds like mingled with the demotic or profane language I also use. I want there to be a range in the types of forms, and for them to bring different tones of the language. I love how in some of Thom Gunn’s individual volumes—Jack Straw’s Castle, The Passages of Joy—the alternation of rhyme and meter with different kinds of free verse creates a feeling of depth, and gives pleasure. 

I don’t feel that the more involved forms—those with rhyme schemes, for example—are necessarily good or bad for writing about modernity. And I don’t think iambic pentameter, for example, has some fixed historical or semiotic identity that it immediately brings to a poem; those associations do exist, for sure, but they work within their given contexts. So, Gunn or Merrill, Heaney or Walcott, Gjertrud Schnackenberg or Tom Sleigh, Alan Shapiro or Rosanna Warren all sound to me, in their different ways, completely contemporary, even when they’re working with a meter.

You’re right, though, that there’s that contrast between earlier and later forms or registers of speech. I think life is like that: some deep band of souterrain will roil up and break through the surface of the self in the present moment. Or, the other way around: some incident in the here and now suddenly sinks to a deeper, older level. And of course this happens in our speech, too. Different aspects of any one person’s language and voice come from different places in the person’s life. I think of Freud’s metaphor of memory, or the psyche itself, as Rome, with all its historical layers rubbing up against each other, interacting. I want my poems to be like those buildings.

EG: So many of the poems in this collection build into those layered collections of voices, histories, and ephemera, into those buildings or “Grand Hotels” you mentioned earlier. I think of “Chorus,” which begins section two, as something of an ars poetica, gathering up the odds and ends of language, from Thrasher magazine to Wordsworth’s famous Westminster Bridge poem, to the sparrows singing in the gutters. Much of this work also comes from an attention to life and experience outside of the self, especially through multiple characters and narratives (a quality I find to be fairly rare among contemporary collections). Where do you find the artistic permission to move outside of the self and into others’ experiences, and what are you seeking there?

PC: For me, moving outside of the self and into others’ experiences, or at least the desire to do so, is fundamental. Of course, this comes with all kinds of risks. I’m dubious, for example, about the overuse of the word “empathy” these days. Sometimes you have to admit your failures and your limits. And sometimes there are basic ethical concerns: I’ve changed people’s names in poems a few times. I also do have poems—like “Bud, the Photographer” and “She Dreamed a Giant Screen”—that are fictional.

I love Browning and Hardy, who wrote great lyric poems with fiction-writers’ sensibilities and ambitions—and to me those poems don’t feel at all like fiction that has been jammed into verse. Jarrell’s dramatic monologues are important to me (and Bishop’s—has she ever gotten enough credit for “The Riverman?”) as are the poems of contemporaries like Frank Bidart and Lloyd Schwartz, who write dramatic monologues as well as poems that simply include voices other than the poet’s.

As a kid, I devoured fiction—novels, movies, TV shows: I was a narrative addict, and still am. But it’s not just narrative I’d like to smuggle from prose into poetry. It’s the voraciousness, the gusto for the variety of experience to write about, and for the idioms and voices that come with that variety.

EG: That voraciousness shows itself in the collection’s deft movements between perspectives and characters, all of whom seem to share a desire for connection and a desire to suspend the moment, even the moment that has passed. For instance, “The Lingering,” the second poem in the collection, paints a scene of a divorced couple talking in the evening on a porch and investigates the spaces in their speech, the things they could say but don’t, and then it moves beautifully from these characters into “any one other person,” as “the house falls back / into its row of houses.” The long sequence “Bud, The Photographer” follows, expanding from a phone call into a world of memory and lost relationships, asking us what remains of the past, and answering “this trusted thing our imaginations shared / that I made—just lost, just never there—is there.” How are your poems working with time, and for these characters, what is their relationship to time as it passes? 

PC: Thanks for noticing that, Evan, and for putting it so eloquently.

My two favorite novelists of the twentieth century are Proust and Woolf, both writers obsessed with our relationship to time, and both brilliant at experimenting with time, its expansion and contraction, in the very construction of their sentences. They do so in their plots too, of course, but, for me, the sentences—and they’re very different writers of sentences—are astonishing. Sometimes, just to school myself, or to get myself going, I “trace” sentences from great prose writers. I make a kind of Mad Libs out of their sentence structure.

My own obsession with time? I think about the formal stuff, the manipulation of time in the poem itself. I think about the plot, about how far along in the action the poem begins, and where it ends. How “story time” and “real time” compare. Where the cuts or the transitions happen, and so forth. But on another level, this obsession has to do with the kind of suspension you mention—something like a “spot of time” or “moment of being.” That’s what I crave, what in fact I want from the practice of writing—to lose all sense of time. That’s something that I believe artwork affords. And there’s the opposite, negative side of this obsession, too, in the running down of time, the onslaught of time, time that flees too fast, time the betrayer, time the spoiler—time that means mortality.

The other part of your question, about the desire for connection, as in those lines from “Bud, the Photographer,” takes me back to reverence for Proust and Woolf, who were compelled by the texture of individual subjectivities, and also by the question of how much we can ever know one another. The necessary attempts to share those subjectivities, including the failures, interest me. They interest me, too, as I look at myself and others around me—what can our imaginations share, and what is it that eludes us in one another? Why do we behave the ways we do? Are there ways we act or think or feel that we don’t even understand ourselves? What don’t we know and what could we learn about our seemingly over-familiar selves?

EG: The expansion and contraction of time is particularly notable in the longer sequences, like “Bud, The Photographer,” and the long sequence “Greensleeves,” a tender and harrowing meditation on the relationship between the speaker, their mother, and the time that’s passed between them—a poem about the attempt to establish intimacy over so much distance and time. The final section of “Greensleeves” begins “All of this happened in about two minutes” and ends on a long question about the relationship between the self and others: “if he parked beneath the spruce boughs and saw the two of us rising to clear the dishes, who would we, what would we be then? … People who, if they only saw themselves from here, would see?” Writing from within one’s own experience can be a maxim in creative writing programs, but it’s rare to see such a compelling blend of fiction and personal lyric in a contemporary poetry collection. What do you think is the relationship between the personal and the other, and how does combining those different perspectives in one poem, and across the collection, allow you to understand and explore what we might share?

PC: Thanks for that beautiful description of the book. You’re right: a great preoccupation for me has been how people relate, and more specifically, what happens in the encounter between the self and the other. This runs in rough parallel with the contrast between the ordinary and the estranging: I want a poem to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. 

What’s the relationship between the self and the other? I’m not sure, and it’s from that uncertainty that I hope to write. Combining perspectives in a poem not only gives a poem more depth, it also just brings energy, because it courts that same uncertainty. In “Greensleeves,” I wanted the son and the mother to evade any possible moral judgment of mine. They both have “issues”—not just the big, biographical ones, but little behavioral ones: the mother becomes self-absorbed, and the son, self-pitying or vindictive. But they both have histories behind those behaviors, too, and therefore their own perspectives. I wanted them both to feel sympathetic, to make it clear they both love each other and are struggling to maintain their love. At the end of the poem, with the guy in the cab of his truck seeing into their window—I think of a weird analogy for that moment: you know when you hear your own voice on your cellphone, or on a video conference, when there’s feedback? And the voice seems suddenly alien but undeniably you at the same time? It often feels very uncomfortable. But it also has such power. Something so familiar has become strange, and vice versa.

EG: Your interest in suspending time, as well as in exploring a variety of characters, reminds me of the portraits of social documentary photographers like Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, who all sought to use technology (often the 35mm camera) to explore, as you mentioned earlier, “the feeling of modern life.” The portrait photographer Alec Soth claimed: “Photographs aren’t good at telling stories. Stories require a beginning, middle and end. They require the progression of time. Photographs stop time. They are frozen. Mute.” The poem is a different type of technology of course; the portraits of characters you create through language and formal invention seem to me to share that affinity for snapshots that build into a larger narrative that documents the feeling of life in America, but your poems also allow the reader into the consciousnesses and memories of your characters. Do you think of your poems as sharing a relationship with photography, and how do you navigate between documenting life and the deeper exploration of consciousness and feeling in a poem?

PC: I’m flattered by the comparison. I love the photographers you mention, Evan. And it’s something I think about a lot, the relationship of poetry to the sister arts, because I write about visual art and also because it’s just fascinating to me.

In fact, there are a couple sentences I’ll quote, that I have by heart. They’re from John Szarkowski’s introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide, from 1976 (the year of my birth). He writes, “Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time.”

This description applies beyond photography. My friend, the painter Mitchell Johnson, describes searching to find out what “activates the rectangle.” What do you put in the rectangle, and where, to dynamize a composition? A writer needs to ask the same question. And it’s a little bit like being that guy in the truck looking in the window—thinking this way about your own material from outside, with curiosity, you rearrange the parts, if only by changing where you stand, to see when they take on a new salience. Probably you’ve had this experience before: you don’t know what to do with something you’ve written, don’t know where it needs to go, and then you find that, combined with something else you wrote, and which you never until that moment thought of as related, the piece really starts to rise from the page. So, changing perspective is part of my process, as well as my approach.

That’s a savvy question about negotiating both mimetic representation and lyric power.  For me one response has been exactly what you say—to preserve lyricism by distilling the story down to “photographic” moments, or tableaux. Another has always been to think about the poem as an action—someone needs to affect some kind of change, and they’re moved to necessary speech. I mean that the language must be carrying something from A to Z, must be doing something. The lyric tradition has its roots in ritual that way.

EG: You mentioned Woolf earlier, and it seems to me the way you think about composing a poem reminds me of Lily Briscoe’s relationship with her painting in To The Lighthouse: how she finally completes the painting after watching the Ramsays sail to the lighthouse and after she and Carmichael, the poet, had shared their thoughts without speaking—how an attempt to know or sympathize with another can bring a change in perspective and understanding. There’s also Lily’s brilliant thought, “One wanted… to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” Ecstasy in the ordinary is something I see on every page in One Summer Evening, how you build a correspondence between everyday speech or rough in-between places, and high lyric love, connection, and intimacy, so that these things that ought to contrast blur together so beautifully (Joyce is here too, of course). I’m thinking of “Call,” the final poem in the collection, where your lines and your syntax extend and extend through the experience of a speaker’s long-distance relationship, until the speaker recounts a dream where “you, beyond my dream of you, murmur your invitation / down from the ether: ‘Call when you arrive. I’ll buzz you in.’” This clipped, ordinary phrase resounds with such emotional intensity and potential, especially at the end of a collection where so many figures are disconnected and searching for each other. Can you talk about the decision to end on this poem, on this dream of an invitation to close the distance? 

PC: There’s the distance that’s merely distance and the distance that needs to be there for desire, even for intimacy, to exist—and I wanted “Call” to move from the one to the other. I had that image, of being buzzed into a building, and the two last sentences, a long time before the poem showed up. I heard a friend say those ordinary words when I was visiting New York and I was struck by them and filed them away.

I’m so glad you quoted Lily Briscoe’s speech about being “on a level with ordinary experience,” and am flattered by the comparison. For one thing, like Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, Lily has a visual artist’s sensibility. She’s realizing, and reveling in, a notion similar to the one expressed by Szarkowski and Johnson: ordinary objects can be refreshed in art, seen in a new context, so that they seem to have been dipped in a saline solution and are now glimmering with particularity, and curiosity. And this has to do not only with specific objects or with visual art alone. We are all involved in the process of selecting, editing, interpreting the world as we move through our day. In nanoseconds, the visual nerves and brain edit the raw material of what we see, so that we can manage it. We do this in so many ways with our consciousness itself—we organize it into narratives, or categories that bear the names of judgements, or moods—happiness, sadness, etc. And we do this with language, with our vocabulary and our sentence structure—we develop habits, well-trod paths; I do, anyhow. Art has the power to refresh this process of making shape and meaning out of the everyday, to return to an original particularity what in our habitual life we’ve been taking for granted. (Fairfield Porter, a painter and critic I admire very much, was obsessed with the shapes we make of domestic spaces—where do we leave things in a room, and why? How do space and objects bear the impress of the human? How do they resist it and remain autonomous?)

Here’s where the formal process, the task of selecting and arranging, becomes indistinguishable from the deeper work of giving meaning to thought, emotion, experience. For me, so much delight comes from playing with phrases and sentences, and with the line, so that the poem works (I hope) like Lily Briscoe’s description—rendering the world and at the same time achieving a formal vivacity on its own.  

 EG: I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk at such length about your work. We’re so lucky to have this fourth collection of yours out in the world, but I have to ask: What can we look forward to next from you?

PC: Thanks for asking. I wrote the essay for a book of Mitchell Johnson’s paintings which will come out this year. I’m putting together an anthology of contemporary creative writing for a new press, Unbound Edition, which is doing some remarkable books. The anthology will be affordable, I promise, and yet it’s going to be expertly designed, an art object. I’m excited about that.

I’m also working on a new book of poems. It’s coming together faster than One Summer Evening at the Falls, which I had drafts of, under different titles, for six years. I’m at the point where there’s a book-length manuscript I carry around and read from, but I suspect I need to get past the false finality of the binder clip and just write another batch of poems, something unforeseen, before the whole structure can come together, become 3-D.  


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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