This fall, the Creative Writing Program welcomed Peter Campion as assistant professor of poetry. Campion is the author of two collections of poems, Other People (2005) and The Lions (2009) both from the University of Chicago Press. He has received a Pushcart Prize, the Larry Levis Reading Prize, the Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Fellowship in Literature. [This interview first appeared on the MFA program blog.]
What should writers consider when they are looking at MFA programs?
I think an applicant should check out the work of the faculty in the various programs and the work of recent graduates. Then there are concerns like geography and duration of the program--different people have different preferences. I also think it's important never to put yourself in dire financial straits in order to get the degree. One of the great things about Minnesota is that the funding is generous. Another thing I love about our program is that there's real exchange across the genres. You all take classes together, and are very much engaged in ongoing conversations. And this is a great area for literature and for the arts. It was wonderful to get to meet with all of you in Maria Fitzgerald's Reading Across Genres, to discuss Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, and then to be able to all go together to see the play itself performed at the Guthrie.
How do you approach teaching the poetry workshop as a graduate instructor?
I like to work from the ground up, to begin by describing the actual tones and structures of the poem at hand. My hope is not to push any set aesthetic, but to help each writer find the poem he or she is striving toward. We also do a good deal of reading. I want students to uncover their own stories about the history of the art.
You're working on a third book: would you mind discussing your process in terms of how you put a book together?
I'm much better at helping students and friends structure their books than I am at doing it for myself, which feels a little bit like trying to see the back of my head, and with no mirrors. But I'm fascinated by the idea of the poetry collection as a made, shaped thing. I suspect that each book searches for its own structure. As Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the Shakers, once wrote, "Every force evolves a form."
I'm interested in your process of reading a poem in general. What are you looking for?
I pay attention first to the specific feel of the language--what are the lines and sentences like? Then I try to understand the shape of the poem--what action is it performing? And then I ask if it moves me. I want both my intellect and emotion to be engaged and taken on a trip that feels worthwhile. There are so many ways that a poem can do this.
Any upcoming poetry releases you are really excited about?
Yes. So many. I've just read David Wojahn's new poetry collection, World Tree, and I recommend it. I also admired Laura Kasischke's Space, in Chains. Gjertrud Schnackenberg's new book is marvelous and moving. I'm also reading a lot of fiction and history. I'm reading Teju Cole's Open City, which is fantastic. It seems to nod to W.G. Sebald, and yet it's entirely original.