We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the talented poet Campbell McGrath, author several award winning collections, recipient multiple fellowships including the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a Puschart Prize winner, and currently a professor at Florida International—here’s what he has to say about his journey of becoming poet. His latest collection Nouns & Verbs was just released from Harper Collins.
What’s your relationship to rejection? What was the best one you received? The worst?
I recall once having had a poem accepted by a journal, which asked me to send a clean copy for their editorial process. When I mailed it to them—this was long before email—they sent me a rejection letter. They were simultaneously publishing and rejecting the same poem! Which is a pretty good indicator of how much sheer randomness exists in the process. Good work finds its way into the world by and large, one hopes, but both determination and humility are vital tools for any poet. The world does not care if you ever write another poem, and why should it? How to handle rejection is one of the most important things you learn in an MFA program, and remains a necessary skill throughout one’s life in Poetry Land.
When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?
It’s a difficult label to adopt, for most of us. Eventually, after three or four books, I think you just relent and say, ok, fine, I’m a poet. But I rarely self-identify as such. Teacher, English professor, writer—these are my normal answers when asked about my profession. “Poetry” and “profession” are not easily linked in my vocabulary.
What was the journey of getting your first book Dust published?
My first book was my MFA thesis from Columbia University. It was accepted in my second or third season of sending it out, by the Wesleyan New Poets series. A few weeks later Ed Ochester called to say University of Pittsburgh wanted to award it their Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, which would have been a much better way to get a first book into the world. I felt compelled to honor my agreement with Wesleyan, however, which turned out to be a pretty lousy publisher at that moment in their illustrious history, and they let the book go out of print after a couple years.
How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?
By writing, of course. You can’t intellectualize your way past dry spells as a writer, the process is all-knowing and all-powerful. Think of it this way: poets have to write a lot of bad poems for every good one, so when things are going poorly, just keep writing and take comfort in getting all those bad poems out of your system. Any given poem or project will hit the occasional road block, but there is always an open street somewhere. Or a trail to hike. Or maybe a horse-path to go riding on? Write what’s available to you, even if it’s doggerel, and the idea of a “blockage” will be revealed as a local or temporary concern, rather than an existential threat.
What’s part of your job as a poet that would surprise most people?
Creative loafing is essential to the poetic enterprise, as Whitman knew, but it still surprises most people to learn that I consider myself to be hard at work when I am picking up seashells on Miami Beach.
What was your darkest moment as a professional poet?
My career has been fruitful and positivistic. I love teaching poetry and I love writing it, so being a professor and a writer has proven symbiotic for me. Having to work two jobs is also ridiculously hard at times, as when you have young children to care for, a mortgage to pay, a busy teaching schedule, and still hope to keep your creative self alive somehow. Then there are those moments when poetry becomes life-endangering, when the poems require you to journey into the heart of the volcano, as I think Li-Young Lee has put it, and work with molten lava. Not every poem makes such demands, poems are not necessarily fashioned from hazardous materials, but some of them do, and are. Since there’s not much protective gear or safety equipment for poets, my best advice is not to stay too long in the volcano.