Peter Campion—recipient of a Pushcart Prize and author of two collections of poetry, Other People and The Lions —read from his work on Monday evening in the Scheuer Room. In addition to reading from his previously published work, Campion read several poems from his recently drafted third book, tentatively titled Salt Water. You can hear excerpts from Campion’s reading here:
Prior to the reading, the Gazette had a chance to sit down with Campion.
Daily Gazette: You said that last week, you read your poetry in Virginia; how do you prepare for a reading or a series of readings? Do you have poems that you know you’re going to read or do you change the selection of poems depending on your location?
Peter Campion: There are some I know I’m going to read, but I don’t really make up a set list until the last moment because I want to surprise myself. I actually like trying stuff out that’s new, because it gives me a chance to hear it and hear if there are lines here and there I might need to revise. I also like to pace the reading between different tones, different lengths of poems, and different emotional tenors.
DG: So, have you ever done anything dramatic in the middle of a reading? Something that you weren’t expecting to do?
PC: No, I don’t want readings to be performance as such. Obviously, you are, on some level, performing the poem, I do want the dramatics of the poem to be clear. So, I sometimes do read as if I were more in the mode of an actor. And I came to poetry through music. As a high school student, I was a pretty mediocre jazz and blues guitarist. Music’s really important to me and I want that to come out in the sounds of the poem, in the reading of it, in the pauses and the pacing. All those are really important to me.
DG: It seems as though some poets are more focused on this idea of poetry as music and see poems as words meant to be spoken, while others see the poem as something that exists for the page. For these poets, I suppose, readings of their works are additional layers on top of the writing. So, do you think it’s both?
PC: Yeah, definitely. Part of my definition of poetry, as I define it to myself, as I half-articulate it to myself, has to do fundamentally with the sound. But I think that poetry has to be as well written as good prose; sentence as sentence has to be as interesting as writing, quality writing.
DG: You mentioned that you’re currently editing a new book, Salt Water. When you’re compiling a book, do you find yourself feeling obligated to cut poems that you believe are strong because they raise questions that the book as a whole can’t negotiate or because they don’t fit with the overall texture of the book?
PC: I thought I had that problem, and then somebody told me I had the reverse problem and they were right. When I submitted my first book to the press, they sent comments back from anonymous readers and the comments were tremendously helpful. When I sent the book in, I thought that what they were going to say, I thought in my advance disappointment, that what they were going to say is it didn’t have enough of a narrative arc; that it suggested a narrative and it never followed through. What they wrote back is that we want to publish this book but we think certain things need to be tinkered with and, in particular, the book tries too hard to suggest a narrative arc and why don’t you discombobulate it and jumble it a little bit. I just never thought of that. And believe me, I’d stayed up at night. I’d been sleepless thinking of the order of this book and it was like trying to see the back of my head—the one sort of blind spot was the idea that jumbling could really help to create a shape. I just learned a tremendous amount from that.
DG: I guess related to the idea of ordering, how did you find your second book, The Lions, falling into its three sections?
PC: I learned a lot from structuring my first book, so I got better at it. But I sent this book to a poet I really admire and who’s a teacher who’s now become a friend, he’s a friend of Daisy [Fried]’s too, Tom Sleigh. He suggested switching what were then the second and third sections and are now the third and second sections. He said there’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with what’s now the third section but it’s as if you’ve done the big work in the second section and so then we have this long coda. And he was right. And the other thing he said which, almost, in a way, sort of smartly contradicted that, was that I had the poem “The Lions” as either the last poem or the second-to-last poem—the title poem, which is the longest poem—and he said that seemed a little too obviously a kind of crescendo and why not move it to the front of the final section. Once I did that, it seemed to fall together.
DG: Is there anything more you’d like to say about the book you’re drafting now?
PC: One thing I’m trying to do is use more voices, and to use quotation: people speaking who aren’t me or aren’t the poet, and I’ve found that really exciting. And I’m trying also to sort of open up structures more. I learned a lot from writing the title poem of The Lions about structuring a long poem and now I feel like I’m doing that a lot in different ways. I mean, it’s like a kind of chamber music—it’s like a sonata, I don’t know how good, but the form is like a sonata form. I think that after doing that, I’ve freed myself up to find different ways to write a similarly long or longish poem that has different braided narratives.