THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the chapbook’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
I struggled a lot with the title. I felt like I couldn’t find one that really encapsulated what I was trying to do with the manuscript. Place is important to the collection, as is tension between characters depicted, and I tried to portray that with the title. The title is probably more mild than it is captivating. Still, the three words I would use to sum up the chapbook would be the title you see on the cover: Farmstead, Fire, Field.
The cover image was an idea I had in my head to play on the tension of the title, a cornstalk where the tassel is a lit match head. My brother was able to wholly visualize my idea into the painting that makes up the cover, and I am so grateful for his artistic eye.
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
I spent a long time living with a few dozen versions of this manuscript, and now that it’s actually been published I can finally say that it doesn’t matter what I was trying to achieve because the chapbook is its own being that speaks for itself. I mostly feel like it would be a disservice to the collection to continue talking about what I was trying to do with it. It’s done, I’ve completed it, I’ve been forced to move on.
I don’t mean to sound snide in my response so I’d like to share a story from my experience, since I don’t think I’ve heard other poets describe their first project this way. I didn’t experience a sense of catharsis when the chapbook came out and the package of contributor copies arrived at my door, as one might hope. Instead, I felt a profound sense of self-consciousness on a level that I had never experienced before. Suddenly, a large portion of my poems really existed separately from me, and anyone could stumble on it and form a perception of the collection and, by association, my value as a person. This was a troubling and unfamiliar feeling.
At one point, a friend posted a picture of herself holding the chapbook on Facebook and someone I’d never met before commented, “I so want to read that!” I couldn’t conceive that, after four years of labor and sending the manuscript out, that the poems could actually impact someone, that someone might seek out my words for any reason. As I said, this was a deep and entirely new kind of self-consciousness, and it affected me for nearly six months. I stopped sending work out to literary journals. I mostly stopped writing. I could barely bring myself to the table to order and revise my next project. It took that six months for me to come out of that.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
In my first semester in the MFA program at UNH I made several attempts at writing “long” sectional poems. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the first one I wrote connected to (a highly fictionalized version of) my early life and issues I had been trying to come to terms with for a long time. It was the beginning of Farmstead, and I spent the next two years writing primarily pieces that fit into its circus ring. In a way, this answer addresses the second question: I used the writing process as a means to try and process growing up, trauma vs. experience, etc.
My mentality in writing first drafts was to focus on realizing the place in which the poems took place, developing a certain kind of idiom (this part fell out of favor as I continued the work) for the individuals living in that place, and establishing the relationships between the characters.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
The poems in Farmstead are ordered in a semi-seasonal order, starting in late winter and ending in early winter. They're also semi-chronological in the span of childhood, the poems toward the front of the chapbook tend to have a younger voice than the poems later in the chapbook.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
In work by others that I read I love to be surprised, I love to find whimsy, I love tangible yet original use of image, I love the authority of a singular voice demanding to be heard, and most of all I love the intimacy of a poem that combines these elements while deepening past each of them. In my own writing, I love the moment of catharsis when I think I’ve really succeeded in forcing either empathy or shared experience into a piece. These moments are rare, so I usually settle for dumbly hobbling a poem together while aiming for what I love to read in poetry.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
From the poem “The Burning Field”: “I was in-between fears. I dreamed / only of a woman who removed everything / before bathing in the river.”
That’s probably my favorite opening line in the chapbook, I think it conveys a lot about the protagonist and their state of being in that moment. As for a whole poem as an excerpt, here’s one:
The Synesthesia of the Sexes
The amber methods—immediate harmony, time
together, gifts of value and purpose--
have failed. A continued picking of vegetables,
confident stems balanced for her in a clear bowl,
tightfisted hoarding of maple
to give for the bland months, all unnoticed.
She would see already, if she cared to, that there
is more going on than birds flying
between my ears. Some mornings
I’m in the fields even before the moths
have gone to sleep, always
twisting her one window,
the shut picket fence raised so eloquently
around her home and body,
into my eye’s corner. Some mornings I don’t need
to listen for the notes of the piano twitching
through the walls as she plays, her soapstone aroma
entering each room she enters, hands
like thunderheads under which every object
swoons. A shadow flitting by, momentarily.
Oh gentle cobweb tethering my ear
to her throat, how your hope stings.
Wasn’t it always this way? Was it? No:
the invented language and each partial sense
a vivid nudging toward completeness. I remember
the orchard. I remember the barn.
At the pump in the shrill evening, sounding it
like a quick breath, like wildfire-noise gurgling up
from the well, if she would glance out to me: the sun
will have tripped over the top of the hill,
and ocean surf will be heard ringing
in the cabinet teacups. There
will be a storm crow entangled in my hair.
Might she run out, then, reach up,
and set the poor thing out?
This poem speaks more toward the type of image a reader might find in the text, and hints at the role of desire as tonality for the chapbook. It comes just under halfway through the collection, before transformations have really started for the speaker.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
“It’s certainly starting to get cold out; you look like you could use an expensive firestarter.” That’s really more about purchasing the chapbook than reading it though, I suppose.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
I’m scared of not existing, so creating something that might live slightly longer than I will, something that as a creative act flies in the face of the human proclivity for destruction, something that might have some real meaning for another person more so than my human frame might, is where catharsis and relief bloom in writing for me.
I’m not sure what it is to be a poet, but writing poetry is almost certainly a factor.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
Frustration, angst and longing are several of the deepest wells that I draw from in order to write poems, so any writing that fuels that is marvelous for me. I tend to read a lot of creative nonfiction essays with social implications online, and I often utilize the online etymology dictionary and Wikipedia for base-level research on what I’m hoping to include in my poems. Fiction, especially short fiction with an emotive lilt, is helpful too.
What are you working on now?
I’m finalizing the manuscript for my next chapbook, Joysong Demarcation, which is forthcoming from Tree Light Books. I’m stalled on a few other projects, the biggest being a book-length collection of poems that tries to do too many things. I'm finally back to sending out my poems to lit journals, as well, and it feels good to be back to that process.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
Can’t a man have any secrets?
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
I’m not much into tattoos, but there are several poets whose work has started to replace truisms for me, single lines acting as emotional or psychological touchstones for many situations. Those poets include Frank Stanford (“Whatever we remember…”), Elizabeth Bishop (“A Yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.”), Robert Hass (“There was a woman I made love to…” and “But I remember so much…” and “Longing we say…”), Gerald Stern (“Lucky life is like that…”) and many, many others. The mantra of a single line (notice how few of them are imagistic) that reflects back to an entire shared experience is meaningful for me as a means to encapsulate thought. I’ll often repeat these new truisms in emotionally charged moments, much to the confusion of the people around me.
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
I'm thankful for your interest in the collection, and thank you for taking the time to reach out and interview me.
Purchase Farmstead, Fire, Field from ELJ Publications.
Duncan D. Campbell’s poems have recently appeared in The Crab Creek Review, Dukool, Tinderbox, and West Branch. His work has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology. His first chapbook, Farmstead, Fire, Field is available from ELJ Publications and a second, Joysong Demarcation, is forthcoming from Tree Light Books. He lives in Vermont and works in youth residential counseling. In addition to all this, he co-edits poetry for the multi-genre print journal Paper Nautilus.
A message to my readers from Duncan D. Campbell: "I’m working to limit my social media presence, but I’d love for readers to consider submitting to the journal I co-edit, Paper Nautilus: https://readpapernautilus.wordpress.com"