Campbell McGrath takes on a century of history in poetry

March 21, 2016

When youíre planning to write about the entire 20th century, where on earth do you start?

If youíre poet Campbell McGrath ó who knows a thing or two about covering historical ground in his work ó you dive in anywhere you can.

"When I started, I wasnít sure I could ever do such a crazy thing," McGrath says of his new book "XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century" (Ecco, $25.99). "I thought, ĎJust let me start somewhere.í So I started writing about Picasso in the first decade in Paris, where there was that combination of writers and painters who were inventing modern art. I said, ĎOh, thatís it!í "

In that first poem Picasso encounters Montmartre ("a riot of cobblestones, stray dogs and peddlers/baroque bird kiosks as in Barcelona, windmills/on the butte Ö .") ó and kicks off 99 more works, one for each year of the century, all in different, intriguing voices and styles. 

McGrath, a former MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner who teaches at Florida International University and lives in Miami Beach, spent years researching the project.

"People always ask me, "What would you be if you werenít a poet ó would you be a novelist?" No, Iíd be a historian," says the author of 13 previous works of poetry, including "Seven Notebooks," "In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys," "Florida Poems" and "Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition." "Itís just another kind of storytelling. I prefer that to what a novelist does."

Q: I donít often think of poetry as requiring a lot of research, but that canít be the case here.

A: Iím sitting in my office now, and there are boxes and boxes of books that Iíve been reading, history books, all kinds of stuff. I didnít know anything about Picasso ó thatís one of the reasons I started there. I knew Iíd write a poem about Elvis. But I had no idea I wanted to write poems about Picasso. Ö I thought Iíd write about Ernest Hemingway, but I never did never write about him. Part of it I planned, and part of the time, the book directed itself as voices showed up.

Q: In the poem "The Ticking Clock (1971)" you reference a wide variety of famous people, including Snoop Dogg, Julian Assange, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Princess Diana, Mohammed Atta, Coco Chanel, Louis Armstrong ó and more. Whatís the idea behind a poem that touches on so many elements?

A: In 1971 nobodyís thinking about the 21st century, but it was already being born, what we now think of as the every day. That was kind of my whole takeaway from this project: History isnít in the past. Itís alive right now. In that 1971 poem I mention Ray Tomlinson, who died the other day. He invented email. He wasnít even supposed to be doing that ó he did it as a sidebar to his work. Who knew 50 years later thatís our everyday life? We look backward at history, but the present, past and future are all communicating. We just canít see it till we get there.

Q: In studying the 20th century, did you find one overarching theme?

A: Thereís not exactly one theme . Ö Itís more focused on art and culture, not the history of technology, although I do write about Henry Ford and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But thatís not my area of expertise. Ö Politics is part of it, too. Mao ended up being a big character, much to my surprise. Heís the spokesman for the totalitarian part of the 20th century, especially considering the importance of propaganda. Really, the Cold War dominated the 20th century. It was two marketing campaigns. Whoís going to win? And they didnít battle with armies ó it was like Coke versus Pepsi. You can trace that back to George Orwell thinking and writing about that. Ö That led me to Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry, which led me to 1991 and [political consultant] Lee Atwater. Who would even think about Lee Atwater? But the current campaign weíre in reminds us you donít just use public relations to sell cigarettes. You use it to sell presidents. Weíve gone from selling merchandise to selling the presidency.

Q: Thatís particularly relevant this year, isnít it?

A: I finished writing this book before this campaign started. The last campaigns werenít like this one. Trump is a salesman, a marketer. No one even pretends this isnít a salesmanís job anymore.

Q: Over the past decade, Miami has really emerged as an arts and culture destination. Whatís poetryís role in that rebirth?

A: It has really exploded ó thereís so much culture going on here. Itís fantastic. Poetry is not very visible in American culture; it kind of never was. Itís more visible in Latin American and European culture. I think the Miami Book Fair is one of the worldís greatest literary events, but for me, O, Miami is so exciting. Itís the best poetry festival in the country. Itís taking poetry out of a boring poetry box and making it accessible. It puts poetry in unusual spaces and configurations, with music, art, culture and performance. One piece of culture builds the next. All arts and culture are connected ó if one does well, thatís good for the rest. O, Miami making poetry visible will help someone else with the next great idea.



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