Alumni Profile: Stephen Kampa (’05)

stephen_kampaThe Miscellany recently got in touch with a Carleton Alum, Stephen Kampa (’05), who was recently featured in The Objective Standard’s article, “Three Great Modern Poets.” We asked the poet about his experiences at Carleton, his teaching post at Flagler College, and the nuances of how he approaches his craft. Kampa, true to form, responded in haibun, further cementing in this editor’s mind the notion that he truly deserves every accolade he’s received. Check out his full interview below!  


So you’re a Carleton alum, and since graduating have been back again as a guest to read your poetry. Did you find Carleton changed in any significant ways? Was it strange to be back in such a different capacity?

New buildings have gone up, of course, but perhaps the more disorienting aspect of returning is that I recognize none of the students. I imagine the experience remains the same for current Carls: even when you don’t know everyone on campus, you feel like you do. You recognize faces. Sometimes you even know, in part, the schedules of people you’ve never met: now is the time when the guy with the man-bun and messenger bag always walks by the library while I’m on my way to my anthropology class, and later I’ll see him getting a cup of coffee in Sayles while I’m working the register at the bookstore. If he doesn’t get his cup of coffee, you wonder—even if only for a moment—where he is that day. To go from such a rich sense of community to one of anonymity was strange.

How long it held on

you couldn’t say, but you know

now one leaf is gone.

I confess that, when it comes to spaces, I had the hardest time with the changes to Sayles. By changes, I really just mean they bought some new furniture and placed it in a different configuration; yet after so many happy hours spent there, I took comfort in how familiar everything had grown, and one of the tricky gifts of college is that it gives you a place you can imagine as timeless, and therefore unchanging, no matter how aware you are that there is no such place.

Look where, not that long

ago, I found such fierce joy

losing at ping-pong.

You’re also a professor at Flagler College! What aspects, if any, of your experience as a student at Carleton have affected your approach as a professor?

Mostly I am aware of how far I fall short of the example of my teachers. The more I teach, the more I realize how very good they were and are. Deeply learned within their fields, broadly intelligent, and uncommonly generous toward even the Podunk bumblers like me who arrived at Carleton without a clue, they remain friends and teaching touchstones.

Even now, scholars

don’t know how the Renaissance

achieved some colors.

There are days—particularly for those of us who work, or overwork, as adjuncts—when one is tempted to phone it in. When that temptation is mine, I think of my students—of how hard they work and how much they deserve my best efforts—and I think of my Carleton teachers and the great gift they gave me. In my own classroom, I just keep trying to get close to giving my students what I was lucky enough to be given.

This past summer The Objective Standard named you as one of three poets who “prove that greatness lives on in poetry today.” They lauded you as a poet who respected the necessity of communication and selectivity in poetry. What do you find yourself seeking to communicate these days? Looking back on your series of publications, do you see dramatic shifts in the messages being conveyed?

The poet resolves

simply to let the poems

answer for themselves.

Since I believe each poem must be faithful only to the mood, impulse, image, suspicion, idea, heresy, longing, line, pilferage or pun that first animated it rather than to a personal philosophy, systematic theology, or particular poetics, I hope to leave behind a bouquet of contradictions. (Thanks, Walt! Thanks, Ralph!) This seems to me a truer representation of the way people work—doesn’t the consciousness of each of us consist of an infinite and unrepeatable set of qualia?—than any that would omit the petty or the pretty, the conspiratorial or the spiritual. If a few things stand out, so be it.

Were I to pick one such thing, it would be something best expressed by someone else—in this case, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill:

I place my hope on

the water / in this little

boat / of the language . . .

With so much on your plate (teaching, music, poetry), do you need to set aside times that are just for pursuing your poetry? Are there any “rituals” you have to complete to immerse yourself in the craft? Particular music you listen to?

I read poetry as much as possible, but this fall has given me little time to write it. Somehow I’ve found time to do a book review, a short critical appreciation of a fellow writer, and this interview. I don’t know what this says about poetry versus prose.

Byron has a terrific outburst in a letter to Douglas Kinnaird: “As to ‘Don Juan’—confess—confess—you dog—and be candid—that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy—but is it not good English?—it may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?—Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?—and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney couch? in a Gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis?—on a table?—and under it?” I like that litany of locations for sexual liaisons, and I have a similar one for places I’ve written: often in bars, in bed at one in the morning, at coffee shops, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, on airplanes, in the driver’s seat (not recommended), in parks and on beaches, in Memphis, in Red Hook, in Eden Prairie, in Fort Collins, surreptitiously during work and openly after a gig, on tables and surely, at least once, under one. Richard Bausch suggests cultivating a do-it-anywhere attitude when it comes to writing, and I’ve found that useful. I do love public spaces: one sees so much. On the other hand, I just moved into a house where I have a room I’m using as a modest writer’s studio—my brother even made me a wooden writing table, beautiful and uncluttered, where I’m typing this now—and it feels wonderful to have a space dedicated to something to which I’ve dedicated so much of my life.

Parched, one must not think

of glass or ice. The road’s long.

Pond-side, one must drink.

What does your process look like when planning out a poem? What are the biggest hurdles you need to jump to get to a completed product when writing?

To be honest, I don’t believe in a process; I believe in processes. Ideally, each poem should call forth its own process if it is to be its own poem. If certain processes do tend to work for us, we return to them—for better or for worse—with the hope that we will be able to plow new ground with an old plow, to adapt a phrase from Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The hardest part about writing a poem is learning to listen to it, to understand what it wants to say rather than what I want to say. I like lines the poem wants cut, I think the poem is in tetrameter when really it’s in hexameter, I want quatrains because I hate tercets, everyone is using tercets, but the poem insists it’s tercets or nothing, tercets all the way down, as the cosmologist has it. The more I write, the more I want to defer to the integrity of the poem, to the poem’s sense of self, rather than to my own sense of the poem. This is very difficult, and I’m not good at it yet.

I think, by the way, that this is a fundamentally religious understanding of art. One grants to the other otherness; one tries to help the other become the best of many possible selves.

The biggest hurdle

writing poems is finding

the final turtle.

Who are your picks for inclusion into the category of the “three great modern poets”?

Randall Jarrell wrote, “That a poem beginning I think continually of those who were truly great should ever have been greeted with anything but helpless embarrassment makes me ashamed of the planet upon which I dwell.”

Who is to say one

raindrop rolling down a leaf

can’t refract the sun?

I confess most notions of greatness lie well outside my bailiwick. I have long lists, however, of poets I admire, poets I envy, poets I consider undersung, and poets who are much too much the reverse. Among the admired, I’d include H. L. Hix and David Kirby. I envy to distraction Daniel Groves and Caki Wilkinson, each of whom makes me look like a backwoods hack given a rhyming dictionary for Christmas. (I was.) Among the undersung, I might mention Elton Glaser—who could forget his description of English as “my tongue of odd American, my mongrel sublime”?—or Lynne McMahon, who writes in “Artifact” of the humble pacifier:

And arcing between all such masculine histories

the curved simulacrum of the breast, shape of the planet,

some have said, the Eternal Feminine—

or would be, if these new age pacifiers were not

           so bulbous

at their tip, so elongated at the shaft.

As for the overpraised, it would be ungentle to say more.

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