Sammie Kurty (author/contributor), signing in! For today’s Fiction Reboot Interview, I have the pleasure of interviewing poet Stephen Kampa. He is a multi-tasking fiend, working as a professor at Flagler College, playing harmonica in a band (he’s fantastic, may I add), and, of course, writing poetry. He has won four major awards for his poetry and was nominated for four more. Stephen has two published collections of poetry: Cracks in the Invisible and Bachelor Pad, which was released last spring. Today, Stephen talks with us about the reality of meeting your idols, making sense of the world through poetry, and writing well. Welcome, Stephen!
Poet Bio: Stephen Kampa
Stephen Kampa holds a BA in English Literature from Carleton College and an MFA in Poetry from the Johns Hopkins University. His first book,Cracks in the Invisible, won the 2010 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and the 2011 Gold Medal in Poetry from the Florida Book Awards. His poems have also been awarded the Theodore Roethke Prize, first place in the River Styx International Poetry Contest, and four Pushcart nominations. His second book, Bachelor Pad, appeared this spring from The Waywiser Press. He currently divides his time between teaching poetry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and working as a musician.
1. If you could interview any poet, living or deceased, who would you and why? Who is your favorite poet?
That first question, trickier than it at first might seem, requires some interesting interpretive work. What would be the purpose of the interview—to meet someone talented, and perhaps famous, whom I admire? To keep the person company? To strike up a personal relationship? To learn more about the poetry? To learn more about life?
Were the point to be to meet someone talented and famous, I might be tempted to interview Dante or Horace, but in a way, I’m glad I can’t: how often are we disappointed by our heroes in the flesh when we discover they are human like us! Bad breath, poor table manners, a tendency toward arrogance despite all that humane hogwash in the poetry. Sidney couldn’t have been courtly and charming all the time, could he? Now, if it were to keep someone company, I would wish to visit Ovid in Tomis, ask him what his infamous unknown error was, and try to alleviate some of his loneliness and grief. (I have been reading his poems of exile lately.) I could go on about this—W. H. Auden, Byron, Heather McHugh—but suffice it to say that if I had to pick one poet to meet and talk with for some combination of all the reasons above, it would be Emily Dickinson. She probably would not enjoy it.
Oddly, I don’t think I would want to meet the poet I continue to consider my favorite, George Herbert, simply because I couldn’t bear it if he were not as beautiful a person in person as he is on the page.
2. I know you are also a part time musician. Does your poetry influence your music or vice versa?
I think those two parts of my life influence each other indirectly, and less in terms of particular techniques than in terms of what it means to live as an artist.
For example, music continues to teach me that you play the song, which sometimes means playing less dazzlingly than you are able because a flashy solo would ruin the beautiful, elegant simplicity of the song. All too often the temptation is to play the most technically complex, astonishing thing you can; you play one bebop solo on a country song, however, and what you’ve managed to demonstrate is not that you’re a great musician, but that you’re an asshole. The same can go for a poem: perhaps one does not use abstruse Latinate diction, virtuosic syntax, and elaborate stanzas when writing a lullaby. I suppose, in a sense, this is a matter of technique, but I don’t perceive it that way; I see it as a lesson in putting the art before the self, which makes it a matter of how I live my life—or, at least, how I want to.
To offer another example, poetry has taught me about the importance of technique and of expanding it until you can say anything you want, and this has been vital for me as a musician. Harmonica players often suffer from a limited understanding of music theory, a limited musical vocabulary, and an overreliance on the authority of the tradition, which is all a fancy way of saying that harmonica players too often resort to clichés. Naturally, one should be able to play classic blues riffs, but certainly that shouldn’t be all one can play: it would be like writing nothing but short anecdotal free-verse poems about childhood and nothing else. Again, one could argue that this is a matter of technique, but I think it has everything to do with growth, discipline, and that necessary restlessness I consider the mark of the true artist.
3. In your poetry, which is more important: the structure or the free flow of ideas? Or do you hold them to the same standard?
Perhaps we might think of it this way: which is more important, the voice box or the voice? There is no voice without a voice box, but I’d go further and say there’s no such thing as a voice box without a voice: for a thing to exist merely as unrealized potential is for it, in the most important sense, not to exist at all. You can’t have a truly free flow of ideas without the structure that allows it to exist in such freedom. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because my thinking on this matter derives from Richard Foster’s compelling arguments for discipline as a means to freedom. Here he is in Life with God: “Only the disciplined gymnast is free to score a perfect ten on the parallel bars. Only the disciplined violinist is free to play Paganini’s ‘Caprices.’”) So, if we imagine a poem where the ideas are flowing freely but there is no underlying structure, I’d wager those ideas aren’t as clear, persuasive, or impressive as the writer believes them to be. On the other hand, when a writer manages to accomplish a structurally rigorous poem of intellectual vapidity, I wouldn’t call it a poem at all.
4. Are there any poets or poetry eras you use as a basis for your own work?
I like reading, and I “steal” from everyone, so this one is tough to answer. Most recently I’ve been dipping into the Latin elegiac tradition of Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus, which nicely complements the reading of Horace’s odes that I’ve been doing for the past year or so. They all strike me as astonishingly modern: sometimes their psychology is so astute! I also appreciate the rhetorical caginess and the way those poems are embedded in a cultural context that makes them feel so public—in an extended sense having to do with civility, citizenship, and ultimately civilization—even though they are often ostensibly about the most private of matters.
5. Do you have any overreaching themes you want readers to find in your poetry? Or would you like them to derive their own ideas?
I believe once you finish writing a poem and send it out into the world, it no longer belongs to you (apart from the millions of dollars it will make you in royalties). Reading is an altogether strange transaction, one that is at least partly magical or alchemical, and if a poem I’ve written changes its elemental character in the consciousness of some reader who feels even a little gratitude for its existence, who am I to complain?
Let me add this: H. L. Hix, a deeply intelligent poet and critic whom I admire, writes, “The thinker’s task: to make sense of the world. The artist’s task: to make of sense a world.” I want to revise that to read, “The artist’s task: to make of sensibility a world.” No artist can do a better job of presenting the sense world than the world can, but I think we continue to come to art to immerse ourselves in sensibilities that respond to that world in enlivening and challenging ways. When we read all of someone, we feel we have come to know not only a body of work, but also a body, a somebody, a self in whose life and by whose mind we are engaged in quite intimate ways. As I tell my students, some of my best friends are dead. They died long before I was born.
6. Are you working on any new projects?
Yes, several. I’m a chronic starts-it-and-gets-halfway-through-and-then-starts-something-else kind of guy, and that unfortunate character deficiency extends to my writing life. Ironically, I’m currently working on a book of poems about character. I hope to call it Where There’s a Monster, which comes from an Ogden Nash poem: “…where there’s a monster, there’s a miracle…” I keep hoping that’s true.
7. Do you have any advice for discouraged poets wishing to publish?
Honestly, my best advice would be this: don’t worry about publishing, worry about writing well. Emily Dickinson, my choice of interviewees from your first question, hardly published during her life. Writing was more important to her than publishing, and it shows in the astonishing volume and accomplishment of her work. I tell my students if you want to be a rich and famous writer, write a YA trilogy with dystopian or fantasy elements and sell it to Hollywood: then you’ll be rich and famous. If you want to be a great poet, remember that every poem is not only a poem, but also practice for the few great poems you may be lucky enough to lodge in the language “where they will be hard to get rid of,” as Robert Frost put it. The goal, I would say to those discouraged poets, is not publication; it never was. The goal is art.
Thank you, Stephen, for joining us today! You can find Stephen on his website, www.stephenkampa.com. His latest poetry collection, Bachelor Pad, is available on Amazon and the Barnes and Noble online store!
What critics are saying about Bachelor Pad.
“Rejoice! The young and frighteningly brilliant Stephen Kampa has already given us a stunning second volume of poems. The title Bachelor Pad offers a hint of the author’s winning modesty and wit, but hardly prepares us for the depths of his humanity. None of the perfectly-crafted poems here is funnier than ‘Homer at Home’ or more tragic than ‘Lana Turner’s Bosom: An Assay,’ and along the way are countless other subtly mixed moods. Here is a poet who looks into the existential abyss but sees love everywhere.”
—Mary Jo Salter, author of Nothing by Design
“Bachelor Pad is a gutsy and brilliant examination of a contemporary man’s single life. Love, lust, and loneliness tangle together, strengthening and warring with one another to form a complex and honest picture of desire in action. For the man who is looking for love in all the right places, ‘You’re yours to damn; / To find your sole reprieve / Takes someone else. That someone is inviting… / Now when the man I hope to be is writing / The man I am.’ But Stephen Kampa believes in love and so convincing is he that we too believe there is “A changeless love song hurrying to me, / Ecstatic in the static.’”
—Andrew Hudgins, author of A Clown at Midnight
“Stephen Kampa’s poetry features a rich variety of stanzaic forms and a wonderful wealth of verbal ingenuity—qualities that recall the work of fellow virtuosos from John Donne to Anthony Hecht. And in his love for and knowledge of music and movies, and in his bittersweet meditations on romantic love, Kampa may remind some readers of Woody Allen. A bounteous and resourceful writer, Kampa can also speak, as he does in such poems as ‘Wasted Time’ and ‘The Pocket Watch,’ with energetic concision. Bachelor Pad impresses from cover to cover.”
—Timothy Steele, author of Toward the Winter Solstice
About the Contributor
Sammie Kurty is an English major in her junior year at Wittenberg University and a contributor to Fiction Reboot. She is a proud member of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honors Society. Sammie has been passionate about writing all her life and is about to complete her first novel, Sapphire Lake, a project she has worked on for three years. When she isn’t writing or reading, you can find her practicing makeup artistry or riding roller coasters. Twitter: @Shamtakee