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"And to What Kingdoms, By What Covenant?": An Interview with Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell is the author of the chapbook In the Herald of Improbable Misfortunes (Etchings Press, 2018). His poetry and criticism have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, The Collagist, Columbia Poetry Review, River Styx, Ninth Letter, Asheville Poetry Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Sundog Lit, Zone 3, The Adroit Journal, and many other journals. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, short-listed for the 2015 Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest, third place winner of the 2013 River Styx International Poetry Contest, and previous winner of the Flo Gault Poetry Prize through Sarabande Books, Robert holds an MFA in poetry from Murray State University and an MS in library science from the University of Kentucky. He lives with his partner and animals on a winding country road in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky.

His poems, "Jesus for Lobsters" and "Hero, by Which I Mean," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Courtney Flerlage about revision, voltas, and the natural world.

How did you begin writing “Lobsters for Jesus”?  

I often stumble into poems with really strange questions in hand. In this case, I wanted to peer into the idea of religion through an animal lens. They used to keep dozens of lobsters in little tanks in grocery stores when I was a kid. They were so crowded that they would be piled on top of each other, and I find that image so disgusting and ripe for metaphor.

Even as its topic seems playful upon initially reading the title, “Jesus for Lobsters” strikes a unique urgency as it describes the imagined “Lobster Jesus” who is “neither kind nor personal.” I’m caught by the poem’s voice, its confidence from the very beginning of the poem: “Say there are fifteen holy beatitudes for lobsters. / Pretend with me. Blessed are the spiny ones, / for their hearts shall be smoothest.” Here, even as the poem invites the (seemingly) playful consideration of lobster beatitudes, the syntax suggests, through its imperatives, that this imagining has a goal, an ending reward, something serious to say. And it does: by the end of the poem, the focus shifts, and the lobster becomes an image of human hunger, emphasized all the more after an empathetic and almost intimate consideration that the lobsters are left unprotected by “Lobster Jesus” who “isn’t going / to save you.” This careful shifting of playfulness and urgency makes for a compelling poem—could you share a bit about how the poem found its way into this balance?

It strikes me that the poem found its way toward a darker tone over several revisions, and I'm not exactly sure at which point I decided that it needed a little darkness. Speculative poems, for me, tend to veer off into a kind of playfulness that can be a lot of fun, but the danger is always writing something that isn't anchored to a necessary discussion. The benefit of delaying the serious voice is that you can avoid being too on-the-nose and also catch the reader off guard. But something necessary really has to be there, otherwise it's all play.

The sonnet form of “Hero, By Which I Mean” accomplishes what voice does for “Jesus for Lobsters”—it generates a sense of momentum even as the poem shifts focus. The poem starts with describing a familiar hero, the “Most handsome person in the room, who laughs / the loudest at lame jokes.” By the end of the poem, however, the harsher side to “hero” is revealed: “Most choked by pills. Most thrown / down stairs.” The repetition of “Most” at the beginning of each sentence (“Most crass” and “Most bar-hopped, most cruised, most stopped”) as the sonnet drives the poem forward through rhyme opens increasingly intimate portraits of the “hero.” Did the poem always exist as a sonnet?

I guess I always intended the poem for the sonnet form (it was written as part of a series of "hero" sonnets), but you know how things go: an early draft usually doesn't fit the form very well, so you begin to whittle and play around with it until it does. The volta was an important part of this poem for me, and that emerged pretty early on when drafting the poem. I like poems that pivot. When I wrote this, I was very interested in the idea of celebrity and the voice of the outsider, so I really wanted a voice to challenge the hero and somehow address how our love of celebrity is often closely paired with our love of destruction-as-spectacle.

What are you reading right now?

Prose poems! Robert Duncan has some really cool ones in A Book of Resemblances. He's such a lovable weirdo. I recently bought The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, which features poems and essays addressing the form. It's really lovely, and I highly recommend it.

What project(s) are you working on? 

My chapbook, In the Herald of Improbable Misfortunes, just came out this year from Etchings Press at the University of Indianapolis, so I've been doing a few readings and trying to help promote it. My new work is coming along very slowly and is very grounded in the natural world. My husband and I have lived on a small farm for the past two years. You see some wild stuff out in the country: strange weather, animal guests, lots of death and renewal. Some of these poems are quite a bit darker than what I usually write. I always seem to be reaching for the voice of the outsider in my work, and the natural world is kind of the ultimate Other, in a way.

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