Sarah Campbell's recent books include We Used to Be Generals (2014) and Everything We Could Ask For (2010). Her literary criticism has appeared in Jacket 2, Arizona Quarterly, and The Golden Handcuffs Review. Radio pieces have aired on WNYC and as podcasts for the Poetry Foundation.
10 questions, answered
1. The work
Seven years ago, the proportions of my poetry began changing: almost overnight, everything got shorter. As this minimalism set in, I increasingly confined myself to a limited vocabulary. We Used to Be Generals continues in the confines of this particular "condensary" (to borrow from Niedecker).
Until I feel I'm not learning from it anymore, I’ll continue to work with this mode. It's still generative and challenging, even as it becomes increasingly familiar. It feels a bit like a relationship, living this long with a form and focus.
In the past year, I've also been playing around with different methods, using more direct collage and appropriation methods for longer series poems--and having fun being more playful and grabby.
In this book, I'm interested in how the individual proceeds with the inheritance of the “generals” that used to be. The "used to be" registers in oblique snapshots in the poems: the friendship that rescues and then ebbs, expeditions to far-flung places, the “back to back” grind of one person and their relation to the company they keep/work for. Also, it’s a bit about aging and the deaths that come before dying.
What else? A person’s relation to him/herself, which is, if not epic, then at least the longest relationship from which there’s no “breaking up.” By rotating the cast of personal pronouns, I want to unfix the “I” so that it doesn't anchor the speeches, no matter how specific they sound. I understand self-expression as composite, uncertain, stolen, and shared.
7. The writer and culture
Use the poem as a kind of tool or machine for zooming in and out, for measuring and focusing on things we otherwise can't or don't see. As a goal, poems nudge, poke, or elsewise elbow the reader to figure something out, using that poem-machine. At best, the experience of reading (working over/with) the poem helps the audience see or think something the writer herself didn't imagine. The poem becomes more a part of the world (of culture) when it changes someone or something--even if just for a moment.
My friend Samina went to a swimming camp last summer. They told her, "Focus on the next stroke and make it a good one." That's advice I can use every day.
Walks, trips, a change of scenery.
Reading, even without aim or conclusion.
Great writing inspires, of course. For instance, recently was reading Pattie McCarthy's book, marybones-- just a few pages in, McCarthy's poetry made me want to pick a pen, got me thinking about returning to a history-based project I'd thought about ages ago, but never got off the ground.
Listening to writers, artists, and historians talk about their own fixations and research almost always makes me want to get to work.
Encountering un-great or ill-conceived or almost-there-but-not-quite works can inspire me too, in a different way. When I can see the gaps or bulks in other work, I feel driven to go make something tighter (even if totally different). Deconstructing things makes me then want to go build something.
15. Important writer
Henry James is like home. I go to him, go back to him, and keep on calling. For his acrobatic writing, his playfulness, his wonderful convolutions, his elaborate architectures, fussy fastidiousness, and sly humor--and a well-sustained curiosity about people's minds related to but also marvelously different from his brother William's. For all our differences in space and time and culture, I feel he really gets people in a way I want to too, and sometimes do. He was a watcher--and what an eye he has for what is idiosyncratic and shared, disguised and also gleaming in people's behavior.
16. What I would like to do
Take a really long walk-- several weeks long.
17. Other occupation
19. Last great book
20. Current work
A conceptual series poem called "Space from Space, or: How to See" lifting language from the color keys for NASA's satellite images of Earth. While thinking about the Nazca Lines carved ~ 400 AD into the Peruvian desert, biomorphs and geoglphys arguably best seen from high above, still visible today.