In ‘The Book of Life,’ Rice professor’s poetry ponders the past and its present

A conversation with Joseph Campana

Inspiration arises from unexpected places.

Campana read from "The Book of Life" April 10 at Rice's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

Campana read from “The Book of Life” April 10 at Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. (Photo by Ashley Park)

For the newest book of poetry from Joseph Campana, Rice’s Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English, it came from a box of old magazines.

Inside the pages of the mid-century-era Life magazines his mother saved when they were slated to be discarded from the shelves of his hometown library, Campana found a chronicle of America through a very particular lens, with coverage of weighty events such as the the Cuban missile crisis and the immolation of a Vietnamese monk sandwiched between jaunty ads for cigarettes and cars.

The Book of Life” was published in March by Tupelo Press, just in time for National Poetry Month. It’s a work that considers both the critical and commercial facets of American life in poems such as “A Shirt Loves a Body.” (You can listen to Campana read that poem online.)

Here, consumer products play as important a role as human emotion: “Chrysler loves soldiers the way a mother loves a child, which strangely enough is not unlike the way Santa Claus loves toasters, deep fryers, coffee makers and electric razors all for the gift of their shiny utility.” Here, Campana mines the past for an understanding of what gives our society an identity and how vital memory is to improving upon our future.

In a brief conversation, Campana expands on the fallacies of poetry, Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk and how objects fascinate us until they don’t.

Rice News: Considering the huge amount of mass culture, culture writing and photography — the kind of stuff Life dealt in — that only lives in the digital realm today, do you wonder about how future generations will be able to have these sorts of interactions with “the past” in the future?

Joseph Campana: My connection to Life first had to do with the physical copies. Magazines raise such interesting questions about media, especially in 2019. Who still reads them? Plenty of people, sure, but are they as important generationally? I can’t say. I’m not sure how many people ever get that “archive fever” that leads them to rooting around in old shelves or boxes for slowly disintegrating magazines. Maybe no more or less than in the past? Hard to say.

But although I love the feel of these old magazines, I’m also really grateful that the entire print run of Life (and a lot of other magazines) is available for free online. So, they are available for inspiration. I suppose it’s whether anyone browses around to find it.

"The Book of Life" is Joseph Campana's newest book of poetry.

RN: Why do you think it’s important to examine the past in the way you have here?

JC: The past has interest in its own right — it always does. What was it like? How did people understand themselves? But the past isn’t really ever past, which is why my reading of those magazines was, at times, so haunting. I’m thinking especially of a poem I wrote (“Count”) about the University of Texas clock tower shooting. When I read that poem some years back on campus — before I even knew this would become a book — someone in the audience had been in the plaza that day. I think that poem must have been hard to hear — to relive those memories. As I recall, that person still has a notebook with a bullet hole in it.

When the book came out, I first read from it just a week or so after the horrific shooting in New Zealand. And now with all the shootings over the last few years especially, we’re becoming accustomed to what must have been so shocking in 1966. I suppose we’re always in danger of forgetting the past, especially now in a very fast digital media world. But the past can still rise up, sometimes when we least expect it.

RN: Name brands such as Pall Mall, Pyrex, Playtex and Chrysler are all threaded into “A Shirt Loves a Body.” How were those brands chosen out of the many ads you flipped through?

JC: That poem was so much fun to write, though it was also a kind of a puzzle. How to handle the accumulation of detail? I suppose I chose the ads and the products based on how iconic they were and how much they fascinated me. But I also listened for the sound of the names and how they would sit with one another in a catalogue that invoked all those names. And finally, what did they mean, sitting next to one another?

This profusion of commodities says something about an idea of thriving American commerce. Now most of those goods are in junk heaps all across America. Objects fascinate us — until they don’t anymore.

RN: A student who’d just finished a project at the Moody Center for the Arts a few weeks ago said, “One of the fallacies I had growing up is that art is this thing in a museum that you go look at and costs a million dollars.” There remains a similar fallacy around what is and isn’t poetry. How do you challenge your students to think of poetry?

JC: The greatest fallacy, generally, is that people not already familiar with poetry or poets somehow don’t have access. The first thing students — or anyone — might say is, “I don’t understand poetry.” So maybe the point isn’t to understand poetry, if by that we mean “I knew instantly all of what a poem was trying to say and be.”

Even when simple, the language of poetry isn’t like the language of, say, a road sign, which hopefully offers clear directions. Poems make us slow down and realize we live in and with language. It’s not just a source of information we extract.

RN: How do you discuss your style of poetry at, say, a cocktail party?

JC: About my style, I often have to say, “It depends on the book.” Perhaps some poets more consistently refine a style. For me it’s all about what the subject demands. This one is more like my first book, which was obsessed with movie stars. My last book, which reflected on quiet, rural life of middle America, was much more spare and lyric.

I suppose I could say it’s a matter of inspiration, but that idea isn’t always helpful. I prefer to think that the world gives me assignments. If I’m lucky, I’m attentive enough to take note of them in what fascinates me, in what I can’t stop thinking about. My responsibility is to figure out how to shape language to the tasks at hand.

RN: What has been the most interesting reaction you’ve received so far to a poem in “The Book of Life”?

JC: In some ways, it depends on the age of the listener. Some events seem strikingly “now” despite the historical distance. Other events strike older readers who may have read Life magazine and lived through the momentous events that were, by the time I was a child, already history. As I mentioned, the UT clock tower shooting was powerful.

I have also found readers to be struck by the poem I wrote about the issue of Life magazine published after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It contains photos of him, slain on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. And that poem is also about the magnificent Barnett Newman sculpture Broken Obelisk. It was offered to the city of Houston to commemorate King’s memory, but that gesture was refused. Now it sits in front of the Rothko Chapel, and I can’t see it without thinking about King. We have a holiday to celebrate his legacy, but we also shouldn’t forget the awful manner of his death.

It’s been about 50 years since a number of momentous events — the deaths of King and the Kennedys, the self-immolation of Quang Duc, visits to the moon. The hope of my book is that the past is not merely past, that we can re-experience what was so painful and exhilarating through powerful language.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.