XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century: An Interview

Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012.  He has received many of America’s major literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in scores of literary reviews and quarterlies. Born in Chicago, he lives with his family in Miami and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.

Campbell was interviewed by Yaddyra Peralta for Sliver of Stone Magazine.


Yaddyra Peralta: Could you tell us about your forthcoming book XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century (Ecco Press).  And am I wrong in remembering that in a recent reading, the idea originally stood as a frame to motivate you to write lot of poems?

Campbell McGrath: XX is a sequence of one hundred poems, one for every year of the twentieth century, written mostly in the voices of various historical figures, such as Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Woody Guthrie. It is a history, roughly, of art and culture in the twentieth century, which is something that interests me for many reasons, perhaps most importantly because I myself am an artist born in the twentieth century! I was born in 1962, so I will spend roughly half my life on either side of the century divide—unless of course I live to be 200 or get hit by a bus tomorrow.

I don’t need too much motivation to write a lot of poems—I like writing lots of poems. But it did provide a framework to organize a bunch of poems into a longer “narrative,” or chronicle, or historical overview. It’s an experiment, in that sense, of how far you can push lyric poetry toward history.

Y.P.: How did you go about selecting the subject for each year?  Why the macro-viewing/time-traveller voice in “The Ticking Clock (1971”)—which just appeared in American Poetry Review and juxtaposes important events of the year with today’s historical figures present as their younger selves?  Or why focus on Rigoberta Menchú for your 1992 poem?

C.M.: Most of the poems are written about—or in the voice of—a single character, like Rigoberta Menchú. There are only about six of the “time-traveler” type poems, which try to give a newsreel sense of the time they are documenting—APR published most of them in that issue. These were the last poems I wrote, for the most part, and they were a chance for me to fill in missing pieces, to suggest trends or tendencies of historical importance that no individual character might be situated to comment upon. Like the development of atomic weapons, which “The Atomic Clock (1939)” talks about. That poem also talks about Walter Benjamin, whom I had tried and failed to get down on the page as a persona. There were many people I wanted to write about, but for some reason could not really “find a voice for” on the page. And others, like Picasso, in whom I had only moderate interest, whose voice just showed up in my head and started dictating poem after poem. Ironically, the Rigoberta Menchú poem in Sliver of Stone is no longer going to be in the book—I had to write a final “time-traveler” poem and it needed to be set in 1992 so she get pushed out of the manuscript. I mention her name in passing in that other poem, “Digital Clocks (1992),” but that’s it. There are many poems like that, which got cut from the final version for logistical reasons. It’s too bad because I think she’s an amazing figure and a spokesperson for indigenous rights, which is an interest I really care about.

Y.P.: “Epilogue: 2016” is another macro-view of a slice of time—this one, has an oracular voice that mostly looks forward rather than back and is thematically about the mortality of individual humans and of the planet.  Do you think the book, in  a sense, mimics a lived life—one that has seen too many changes?

C.M.: That’s a good question, which I had never considered before. Certainly I was not trying to impose my own life on the century—it has its own powerful currents and narratives, well beyond my control. But I am also a “citizen of the twentieth century,” and so my story is part of that larger story. In the book we see Picasso painting his famous “Family of Saltimbanques” painting in 1905, and then Rilke writing a poem about it in the 1920s, and then there I am, in 1979, seventeen years old, standing in front of that same picture, in the National Gallery, when I worked there as a dishwasher. That’s how time works—the past forms and influences us, and we pass it on, altered and transformed, to the next generation, as parents, as writers, as teachers. The past is alive within us.