youíre planning to write about the entire 20th
century, where on earth do you start?
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.
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 "
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
a former MacArthur Foundation "genius grant"
winner who teaches at Florida International University
and lives in Miami Beach, spent years researching the
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
I donít often think of poetry as requiring a lot of
research, but that canít be the case here.
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.
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?
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.
In studying the 20th century, did you find one
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.
Thatís particularly relevant this year, isnít it?
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.
Over the past decade, Miami has really emerged as an
arts and culture destination. Whatís poetryís role
in that rebirth?
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.