Do We Believe In Anything So Strongly Anymore? An Interview with Christopher Kempf about privilege, private vs. public poems, and what it means to “be a man” in the United States.
Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize from Four Way Books. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his work has appeared in Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The New Republic, and PEN America, among other places. A recent Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, he is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Chicago, where he holds the Hanna Holborn Gray Advanced Fellowship in the Humanities and is completing a dissertation on 20th-century labor poetics.
Christopher Kempf was a Poet-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy from January 14-18, 2019, offering a series of master classes to Creative Writing students. Interlochen Review editor Darius Atefat-Peckham conducted this interview with Christopher following his visit about privilege, private vs. public poems, and what it means to “be a man” in the United States.
Darius Atefat-Peckham: Your collection of poems, Late in the Empire of Men, is very interested in masculinity. What’s your take on masculinity in your poems and in poetry as an art form? How has that shaped your specific voice?
Christopher Kempf: You know, the first poem I ever loved—James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”—explores how high-school football contributes to small-town economic malaise, and ever since I encountered that poem I’ve been fascinated by the way young men are sort of inducted into these frameworks that buttress what I think of as an American empire. By “framework,” I guess I mean something like football’s valorization of a warrior ethos, and how that slides easily into the work of soldiering—young men in particular, it seems to me, are trained from an early age to be efficient citizens of empire.
As for my specific voice, I think “voice” is probably an effect of language—an illusion, almost—so I might suggest that my voice is halting, tentative, an effect, for example, of the severe enjambment and involuted syntax I often use. I think of my voice as always self-reflexively appraising itself, taking two steps forward and then one back, ever cautious; so “voice” is one way my poems enact formally what they’re thinking through in terms of subject matter, since I’m constantly—haltingly, tentatively—re-visioning what it means to “be a man” in the United States.
DAP: Often, when you write about American masculinity, it is contextualized or expanded upon by the subject of Rome. What draws you towards the Roman Empire in the context of these poems?
CK: On a purely pop-cultural level, a great deal of my interest in Rome stems from the movie Gladiator, which—like everything Ridley Scott touches—works so well aesthetically and intellectually, in addition to being a great Hollywood popcorn flick.
But, from a young age, I’ve been drawn to Rome as an analog for our own experience of empire, particularly the way someone like Edward Gibbon narrates the decline of that empire. For Gibbon, Rome breaks up not necessarily because of external threats—like the Goths, say—but because of its inability to hold together internally, almost as if the empire had become too massive, too internally conflicted to sustain itself. The faith of the early Christians, for example, represents for Gibbon a profound threat to the secular order of the Roman Empire. I don’t buy Gibbon’s ideas entirely, but I’m compelled by those grand narratives of history that try to wrestle complex historical forces into a coherent whole.
This idea of internal discord is important, too, in the project I’m working on now, a book about Gettysburg and the Civil War more generally. Lincoln said, “If destruction be our lot, we ourselves shall be its author and finisher.” Every generation, of course, has a tendency to think of itself as “the last generation,” as uniquely and specially doomed—we’re not, but that idea of internal discord is still a resonant one, I think.
DAP: You’ve spoken a bit on the idea of the “public,” versus the “private” poem. Could you expand on what this means for your work and how you navigate the tricky ethics of who should write what?
CK: My first book is largely composed of poems that shuttle—I hope adroitly—between “public” and “private” experiences, examining how the self is joined, sometimes fitfully, to wider social and cultural phenomena.
This movement between the two modes was most, I guess, “ethically fraught” in writing about two high-school classmates who died in Iraq, Ryan Woodward and David Sanchez. I wanted to tell their stories—and relate my own personal investment in and experience of them—without necessarily speaking for them or “witnessing” to a reality I didn’t experience. At the same time, I wanted to show how their own individual stories were part of a larger narrative and a broader system of imperialism, to situate the “private” in a “public” context. I’m still not sure that those poems do that situating as effectively as they might, but that relationship between public and private modes is something one continuously works through all one’s life.
I think, in dealing with ethically perilous subject matter, one has to ask oneself why one wants to write about a certain experience, or why one wants to inhabit a certain voice that may not be one’s own. Where does that motivation come from? What does it allow one to achieve? At the same time, I don’t think poets should be doomed to write only about their own experiences. One important function of poetry is to expand what it is possible for a culture to imagine, and this can often imagine inhabiting perspectives or opinions or even voices that aren’t one’s own.
DAP: How did you go about ordering these poems when you began to envision a manuscript? Do you think you’d approach it the same way, moving forward, on a new project?
CK: For me, the organizational layout of a manuscript always happens late in the process, typically when I have all—or almost all—of the poems written. LITEOM, for example, is organized both chronologically and spatially, so that, as its main speaker moves from childhood to adulthood, he also moves from Ohio to California. In that book, then, the organizational trajectory is meant to enact, in small, the trajectory of a “manifest” American history, its westward movement across the continent. That was a layout that I came to very late, and, once I happened upon it, I saw that the book needed one or two more “keystone” poems to concretize the main speaker’s growth and movement—“Clearing the History” was the last poem I wrote for that book, and once I kind of slotted it into its position into the manuscript I knew the collection was complete.
As for the manuscript I’m working on now, the organization is much less schematic, though it does follow a trajectory or arc of sorts. Specifically, it opens with a series of poems that are overtly pessimistic or negative in their assessment of American experience, and then, by the end, becomes much more optimistic or redemptive, though still with great reservation and hesitance about that optimism. This is, at root, a mythic structure—from death to life, from darkness to light.
I always appreciate when collections of poetry have been carefully organized so that they unfold a sort of oblique narrative—or “trajectory,” to use the term I’ve been using—rather than reading like a collection of random poems thrown together. Even if a collection isn’t a “project book,” as mine are, the poems can still speak to each other and develop and complicate and look back upon one another in meaningful ways.
DAP: Your first book straddles the line between personal narrative and broader themes like world politics, sexuality, and coming-of-age. How do you see your work interacting with these subjects in the future?
CK: My second manuscript is much less personal than my first. I don’t want to generalize, but I feel that my first book is very much a “first book,” one dealing with childhood and family life and one’s gradual coming-of-age, as you said.
The personal, in my second manuscript, comes from the fact that I lived and was married in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but the manuscript is much more interested in the “public” history of Gettysburg than it is in my personal life. I’m trying, in particular, to think about the power of the battlefield there, what it’s like to stand behind those low stone walls where men stood and died for an idea. So I guess, in that sense, the book is “personal” or “private” in inflection in that I’m situating myself in the space of history, imagining what it must have been like for those young men—some just children—to fight and die for their beliefs.
Do we believe in anything so strongly anymore?
I imagine that, for most poets, the private/personal and the public/political are always complexly intertwined. For me, that manifests most in how I think about place, specifically the places I occupy and have lived in. I can’t be anywhere—Ohio, California, Gettysburg—without an acute sense of the history of the place, almost as if all those pasts are always active in the present, always underlying our contemporary experience. I guess I experience place as a palimpsest, a layering of multiple pasts and peoples on one landscape—that’s a concern that was present, to a certain extent, in my first book, but it’s much more active in the second manuscript, where I’m examining what it means to live, now, in a place like Gettysburg.