Chad Campbell is a poet living in Toronto. His first poetry collection, Laws & Locks (Signal Editions, 2015), is shortlisted for the 2016 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he taught until recently. His work has appeared in The Puritan, The Walrus, Arc, as well as many other journals. Find more on his website.
This interview took place in April 2016 at The Green Room, in Toronto’s Annex. Believe it or not, I picked this bar because I heard that it was quiet. Oddly, it was. I had recently attended a reading of Chad’s at York University, and during the Q&A session, was impressed by his confident way of speaking, so I wanted to be silent as much as possible to give him the full chance to say what he wanted to. It also had the unintended benefit of giving me the opportunity to drink my tea and pick at my food while Chad probably looked on jealously. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eliot Gilbert: I hear you’re already working on a new collection.
Chad Campbell: I’ve been working on it for about eight or nine months. I had to take a bit of a break after Laws & Locks to set aside that world because it took about six years to write. The last year of it was really research heavy and there was a lot of revision as well. I was bouncing poems back and forth with my editor, Carmine Starnino, until, like, probably two days before the proofs went out. The book got accepted for publication before I even got into Iowa as a grad student, and I had this completely wrong idea that the book was finished and I could start to move in other directions. All I knew was that I wanted to drop the semi-confessional, autobiographical, historical stuff, and start to find a way to write about the world in some way, which as it turns out I am terrible at. It was a really daunting experience to try to find a new way to write while in the public forum that is Iowa, and on top of that I was the only Canadian. I found out the tastes of American poets were not only different to mine, but I had no idea what they were all reading, so it meant that I had a really timid first year there.
It was only eight months ago or so where I began to find traction in some new material, and more importantly, to write something I care about. I quickly start to write bad poetry if I don’t have some connection to the material, and as it turns out, there was enough in certain landscapes and animals and such to find poems. It turned out that the historical research I did for Laws & Locks did me in good stead for the book I’m writing now, because a lot of it is trying to dig back to a time in science where on one hand it was more intelligible without the advanced degrees, but also the optimism in it was more apparent. People really seemed to believe that they were on the cusp of the scientific revolution to figure out everything, so I’m trying to use that as a mirror to our time now. It’s slowly shaping.
EG: Great poetry can take a long time to write. Do you think fiction is easier in that way?
CC: It’s hard to compare the two. In Iowa the fiction writers would generally look down their noses at the poets and the poets would look down their noses at the fiction writers, but I really think everybody is entirely different in their nature. Some poets put out books pretty regularly, like every two years. Some are a lot slower to boil, one every five, six years. I tend to like the ones that take longer, but that’s just a taste thing. A lot of people’s first collections are sort of “the best of” all the things they wrote while they were learning to write and what came a little after. A lot more was left out than included in my first collection.
EG: You’re what I consider an academically trained poet. How much do you rely on your training versus instinct and practice?
CC: It changes every year, if not more than that. I think what I liked most about York University is how closely the faculty encouraged me and gave me a space to write. The workshops there were not bad; it’s always good to be engaged with your own and each other’s work, especially in the beginning when you only have what you consider fantastic poems that are actually pretty cruddy. In terms of craft and technique, it wasn’t really built into the program at York. That’s not to say there aren’t a ton of great exercises and you aren’t exposed to a ton of great poets, but I figured out really quickly that if I was going to write like the people I love, I was going to have to put myself through bootcamp. There aren’t a lot of “how to write poetry” books out there; there are some really great ones and some really awful ones. Thankfully, it turned out that a lot of the poets that I loved were formalists and so I just taught myself how to work with form.
I was working at a restaurant called Olivia’s and I would design games for myself. I’d describe everything I saw on the way there as iambs, I’d describe everything I saw on the way back as trochees, and try to mix it up. Every morning I would take a poem that I really like and scan it and try to write something like that of my own because I think that the appreciation of someone else’s work, and the envy and jealousy that surrounds it, is what pulls me through. When I read a poem that makes my jaw drop, the next feeling that I have is “how can I pull that off?” And the answer to that question usually requires you to do a lot of learning. At York it was very much me being a beginner, and then getting to Iowa, no one is paying attention to you. There are 60 poets, 60 fiction writers, a host of international writers, playwrights, non-fiction writers, and a constant stream of them moving in and out of the university, and so the faculty is used to seeing a lot of people, and so mentorship doesn’t really enter in. You can take a bunch of cool seminars but again, craft and technique really aren’t a big part of it there. So in many ways what I liked most about Iowa is that it forced me to get a solid personal writing practice. I had a great time there but I’m glad to be out. I find myself most productive and find it most enjoyable when I’m going at it alone: reading a lot, writing a lot, and just trying to stay in tuned as I can to what the poems are needing, and sometimes that means me learning something new, and sometimes that means just going at it.
EG: Many writers use their ancestry as a source material. Why do you think some writers focus on their ancestry and why should readers care?
CC: Certainly not every writer relies on their ancestry but I think that the place that we grew up in, the house, the people we grew up with, the landscape in which we grew up, there’s a certain set of primal images that go along with it, and of course there’s a relationship with our siblings and friends. That all defines, to some degree, who we are in the world, and inevitably it’s going to get into the poetry.
As for the question of why readers should care, I mean, that’s a great one. At least at face value, there’s no particular reason anyone should care about your history more than anyone else’s, and it comes down to the quality of the writing. If the quality of the writing is good then the subject can take a back seat, or at least it’s part of why it’s good, so the two become sort of indistinguishable. One of my favourite books is by Louise Glück, called The Wild Iris, and it’s like 90 pages of poems written from the perspective of flowers. I love it, but someone else would think it’s terrible.
In my case, as soon as I start to worry whether or not a reader is going to care about what I’m writing about, or if there’s a message they’re going to get from the poem, I’ve gone astray. I have no idea what people care about, and I really resist the idea that a lot of us learn in school, which is to take a poem and reduce it to its message or its meaning. It’s sort of the vitamin approach to poetry, you know? You have the nutrients in there, but you want a really edible pill.
EG: How much of the historical source material is useable? I find that reading about someone else’s heritage can sometimes be tedious, but I didn’t find that with Laws & Locks at all.
CC: Speaking of tedious, a lot of the material for these books came from my grandfather’s books. He was a professor at the University of Waterloo, and he had a really hard time retiring, so when he did retire, and even a bit before that, he started to compile our family history, and that 20–30-year-old project turned into five 800-page volumes that started back in the mists of time with honestly the most ridiculous family trees I’ve ever seen. You can take us back legitimately 350 years through parish and church records, but he just went further. On one of them, I think he ended up starting with King Arthur or something like that, which says a lot about my grandfather and how special he thought he and the family was.
Obviously you need to weed out the stuff that is uninteresting, or is unimportant to the kinds of poems you want to write; and then beyond that, it’s getting fluent enough with the information itself so you can pair your own voice with it and turn it into poems. On the average day I would spend a couple of hours in the afternoon reading the source material, paring it down, and putting it into another file. The feeling that I was aiming for was almost that it was bursting with details and scraps of letters and photos, and then I would take a long walk out to the bar where I did most of my writing, and by the time I sat down, I found it a lot easier to write. I never brought the research with me because at a certain point you need to be able to move on your own as a writer. That eventually turned into a pretty happy relationship with the research, but I didn’t know what I was writing until a few years in. When it was pointed out that there were some common threads in mental illness and genealogy and all that, I was able to do the research on it. I’m also just really lucky to have Carmine Starnino as an editor because he had no hesitation to say, “This isn’t a poem” or “There isn’t enough here,” and I’d say the most helpful bit of advice he gave me, which is still a guiding principal for me, is that every poem needs to be an event. I often write in sequences. One problem with that is poems often won’t stand on their own. If you took the three or four poems away, you would have something pretty thin, and so a lot of the late stage revision was just imagining the poems in isolation to see if they can stand up that way.
EG: Carmine is considered quite the formalist poet himself. Do you take anything from that tradition?
CC: I don’t consider myself a formalist. When I mentioned the iamb and trochee practice stuff, I don’t mean to say I’ve got it all down. I never walk into a poem thinking that I’ll write in one meter or form. I like to have it in my back pocket so if a poem seems to be asking for it, I can help it get there. I certainly don’t have an allegiance to a formalist or non-formalist camp.
EG: In what ways does fixed form have a role in your work?
CC: In the case of my glosa in my book, “Grandfather’s Bardo,” I was reading a lot of P.K. Page at the time and her collection Holograms is entirely made of glosas. I thought it would be an interesting way to take my source material and try to write about it in the form. Broadly, though, my relationship with fixed form is that every once in a while I’ll look back at a poem I’ve written and see that I’ve written it in a certain kind of meter or a certain stanzaic arrangement, and then what I’ll often do is see if the poem is stronger if pushed into a particular form, whether the form is as straightforward as a glosa or a series of quatrains with no relationship to meter. For the formal stuff, it’s important to feel capable to see if the poem is moving in that area already. I want the ability to move it there more fully, and if it doesn’t work, then dismantle it and find a better way to write it.
I’ll sometimes sit down to try and write a villanelle with no intention of writing a good villanelle. I want to struggle with it without the pressure of it having to turn into something, and more often times than not the work I put in will translate to something later. Broadly speaking, it’s about widening the range of your expression so that when you meet a given subject, you can do it justice.
There’s a poet named Alexandra Oliver, and her last book, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, showed that she’s a deeply formal poet. I’m envious of the cleanness in there. I like when there’s something a little jagged or upset or broken about a poem and I often find when I write something that’s too formal, there seems to be a gap between what I’m writing about and the form. It makes it feel like the thing is walking on stilts or is wearing a bow tie. My poems are at the wrong party when they’re too formal.
EG: If any, what literary traditions do you think you identify with?
CC: Sometimes I find that I’m envious of other times where people had an allegiance to one camp or another. There’s something appealing to me about a group of poets that has a common vision, and they’re working on that alone and together. That’s certainly not the climate I’ve felt I’ve grown up with. The tradition that I come from is defined by the people that I keep reading over the years. Theodore Roethke, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Keats, Seamus Heaney. In most of those cases I think you could argue there’s a pretty formal backbone there. Even though Eliot was making all sorts of breaks with that, he was still adept with his meter. Those are the poets I idolize and am straining my poetry up to that game. Which is a losing battle. I’m never going to write like Hopkins, nor would I really want to.
EG: In your collection, you write about inheriting mental illness and addiction. In what way was writing about these topics therapeutic?
CC: It’s tricky territory. I wouldn’t think of it in terms of inheriting mental health or addiction issues, but more that if that kind of thing runs in your family, it exists as a propensity. The chances of it developing in your own life are higher not only genetically, but of course if you grow up with these people in your life, they are to some degree modelling your relationship with the world, and you’re going to take some of that in. That said, whatever you have going on in your life, there is some point where it becomes your own. The writing aside, for the people who are struggling with mental health and addiction issues, it can be healthy and helpful to know there’s a history of that in your family so you don’t feel like you’re the one fucked up splinter of the family, and there can be quite a bit that is influencing you which isn’t at your conscious control.
I struggled fairly hard with anxiety in my early twenties and that took quite a while and a lot of work and support to deal with, and likewise with the addiction. I never considered writing to be particularly cathartic. The section of Laws & Locks, “Narrowboat,” was started as one or two elegies to my grandfather who had recently passed away. To me, the poetry felt like a natural thing to do. Of course the elegiac mode is one of the oldest in poetry. In the case of “February Towers,” it happened to be around the time where my mother had one of her first manic episodes, and there was no way to separate those two things. I couldn’t go, “So my world is exploding over here but I’m going to keep writing about horseshoes.” So those poems were a response at least in some degree to what was going on.
It was nice to go into the family and find these people. In many ways these would be considered the less flattering aspects of their lives, and I thought it was important to give them a caring treatment to honour those aspects. In some ways, honouring the more fragile aspects gave me more ability to do the same for myself. Working through your own issues in those realms, whatever they may be, necessarily can be quiet and often solitary work. I think that any work that can be done, even as slight as a collection of poems, to opening up the stigma of mental health issues and recognizing the work of helping oneself and other people, is worthwhile and not simply trying to erase or upset weakness. But catharsis—not so much. I just love the feeling of hard work.
EG: Maybe it’s just a preference but I notice that a lot of poetry done purely for the writer’s own therapy can sometimes be a little immature.
CC: When I tell some people I meet that I’m involved in poetry, they often say that they used to write poetry when they were young. I think that says a lot about poetry. Not that it’s a young person’s thing, but what do people write about when they’re young? It’s, “Oh my God, Suzy doesn’t love me any longer” or “the dog died,” you know, that sort of thing, but people leave it behind as their lives take over. I feel like the impulses deep down there aren’t so different from when you were thirteen or fourteen. You want to lament something, or you’re really pissed off at something, something confuses you, so I guess we poets are the silly ones who waited long enough to be able to figure out how to say those things.
EG: I’ve always thought that as long as writing is done with skill and precision, there’s a legitimate place for it.
CC: Totally. When you look at painters, some like to do really photorealistic stuff, and others are more concerned with how the brush stroke appears on a canvas. I look at a poet like Carmine Starnino and a poet like Christian Bök, and they’re using the medium in completely different ways. I would never want to write poetry like Christian Bök, but I can appreciate it.
EG: I have to ask this just for fun. A little while ago I made a snarky comment on Twitter about ampersands. I didn’t like them, but after reading your poetry, I was forced to concede that they can be used well. I notice your ampersands add a real texture to your work. What attracts you to them?
CC: You know, it’s funny. I go back and forth about them and right now ampersands get under my skin. At the time I was reading Yusef Komunyakaa and he was using ampersands really well, so I started incorporating them in my own writing. I didn’t keep them everywhere in the collection and I tried to have them in just a couple of sequences. In the case of the opening sequence, because that was so far back in time, the ampersands would be in line with the poems being from another place and another time. In the case of “February Towers,” those are fairly packed poems and tight spaces. I was trying to have a space where those poems reflected that, and felt that ampersands helped me tighten everything up.
This sounds about as nerdy as you can get, but I hate having an ampersand next to a comma. It just looks terrible. I think about Larry Levis, one of my favourite poets. I can love one of his poems to bits and still, when I see an ampersand next to a comma, I just hate it and think it’s awful. W.S. Merwin talked about dropping punctuation from his poems because he felt that at a certain point he was stapling his poems to the page, and he felt like he wanted something more airy. I often feel like I’d like to move in that direction at least for a while. Take the staples out.
EG: What’s something you want everybody to know about Laws & Locks?
CC: I want them to know the way the book was put together. Maybe looking at Laws & Locks, people will get the impression that the collection was a conscious project all the way through, but it would be inaccurate to think so. It took six years and that deliberateness only came out four and a half years into it or so, and the rest of it happened as it happened.
I think about writers putting together their first manuscripts and I don’t know if they’d idolize my book particularly, they might find another book with an overarching frame or common concepts, but my advice is to just follow the poems and enjoy that process of learning how to write because if you’re doing it correctly, that process will never stop. One thing I like about being a writer is that I consider myself a perpetual beginner. Certainly I’m more able than I was a few years ago, but in some ways, the more you know and the more you see where you want to go in poetry, you understand how long it’s going to take to actually get there. I look back to when I was trying to get into the creative writing program at York. I was late for the deadline, and Rishma Dunlop, the then-head of the program, gave me a month more to write poems for my portfolio. I did, and then I put together a manuscript of thirteen poems and without that protection of thinking that you can write great things early on gives you, no one would have the perseverance to go on to be really good. It’s important to protect the time given to beginners.
Eliot Gilbert is a fiction writer living in Toronto. He has been published or is forthcoming in The Puritan, Hazlitt, as well as several other places online and in print. He is current associate editor, and forthcoming executive editor at Existere. Right now, Eliot is working on the fourth draft of his first novel, and the first draft of a novella. You can say hello on his website.