Encyclopédie Quixotica: An Interview with Allison Campbell

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Allison Campbell_Website PhotoALLISON CAMPBELL lives in New Orleans. She earned her PhD in Literature, Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where she served as associate editor of the Mississippi Review. Her poems have appeared in such places as Copper NickelThe Cincinnati Review, SwitchbackWitness, Rattle, Court Green, and Harpur Palate. She has guest blogged for The Best American Poetry website and regularly reviews for Rain Taxi. Her collaborations with illustrator Alf Dahlman have appeared in TammyDrunken BoatStory, and Palooka.

Jon Riccio: “People don’t often talk about the best thing that never happened to them.” So begins Encyclopédie of the Common & Encompassing’s first entry, ACCIDENT. What inspired you to write a collection whose prose poems consist of definitions for everything from EVENTUALIST, HUMANISTICISM, and SINKING to such locations as UNHAPPYVILLE and NOW YORK?

Allison Campbell: A short answer to the question of inspiration is Tomas Tranströmer. More specifically, his poem “Brief Pause in the Organ Recital” is what started the collection. The last two stanzas of the poem describe the encyclopedia set of his childhood, the “yard of bookshelf,” then quickly turn from the material to the immaterial, “But each one of us has his own encyclopedia written, it grows out of / each soul, / it’s written from birth on, the hundreds of thousands of pages stand / pressed against each other / and yet with air between them! Like the quivering leaves in a forest. The / book of contradictions.”

These lines helped me realize everyone had, and was allowed to have, their own encyclopedia, and that I was included in this “everyone.” My voice was valid. Moreover, these books held contradiction. I could change my mind, perspective, and feeling, however many times I wanted or needed to, and this, too, was acceptable. So Tranströmer’s poem not only gave me the idea to write an encyclopedia, it also inspired its style. The way definitions in the collection constantly shift and the logic circles around a subject, rather than pointing directly at it, stems from this permission Tranströmer’s lines granted; to both define and actively revise definition.

I should mention that these realizations, though they did come suddenly and fruitfully, did not come quickly. I went on a Jesuit mission trip in Mexico’s southern-most state, Chiapas, and to lighten my backpack before leaving I’d torn a small section of poems from Tranströmer’s collected—some ten pages from The Wild Market Square. So during the week-long trip, out in this village in the countryside, I was reading only these handful of pages over and over again. When I returned to San Cristóbal de las Casas, I sat in the covered patio of a café during a strong downpour and read the excerpted pages for the umpteenth time. I don’t know on which reading I experienced this supreme permission granting, but I did write the first entry in that café. It was the entry on rain. That’s what I knew about that day.

JR: Measuring in at 5″ x 7″, the Encyclopédie has a high portability factor. We’re talking near back-pocket. Was its mini-repository stature a goal from the outset? How might writers use knowledge compaction to their creative advantage?

AC: It’s funny you should ask this. When I first got my copies of the book, there was a moment of disappointment about its physical stature. You work so hard for so long on something and then it’s just this little thing. The feeling was similar to how Anne Lamott writes about publishing in her book of essays Plan B. “I’d wanted to be a writer my whole life. But when I finally made it, I felt like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she’d been chasing for so long—discovering it was merely metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn’t alive; it had no spirit.” In some ways, the work is dead when you publish it. It’s so strange, the writing becomes more officially, publicly, real and in some personal way less real.

But although the physical size was not a goal from the outset, I did envision the work as a mini-repository of sorts. In writing it, I played with the paradox of trying to simultaneously reduce and expand the same idea. The aim was to simply be complex. This is the work of poetry, no?

You could describe it, as you do, as “knowledge compaction.” I think it’s something close or akin to this, and I suppose the scheming that goes into compaction—how close can I get to something and how quickly—forces creativity. I know that my need to keep definitions short and also expand upon them forced me to create the linking that exists between poems (the “see entry on ___”).

And I quickly shifted to thinking the book’s small size wonderfully fitting. It is, after all, an encyclopedia “of” the common and encompassing, not a work that encompasses.

JR: According to OTOACOUSTIC EMISSIONS, “You are full of too many ideas, or out of all of them. So sitting cross-legged you begin to eavesdrop on yourself.” This is pretty much my definition for STARTING A POEM. What’s yours?

AC: Sitting seems a requirement, but there are so many ways to start a poem. Sometimes, instead of eavesdropping on myself, I begin by taking in and reporting on my surroundings. After I became a mother, and by necessity and conditioning was hyperaware of environment, this was more often how I began. What do I see, what do I hear? Thinking we can begin outside ourselves goes against what Coleridge argues, “For of all we see, hear, feel and touch the substance is and must be in ourselves;” but even he begins “The Eolian Harp” by describing his Sara, their Cot, the Jasmin. I suppose we are always moving within and outside ourselves.

Then there are also the blessed and seemingly undeserved poem droppings—you know, where a line falls onto your head like bird shit. That’s the best, when you get this gift of a starting place.

JR: You liken QUIXOTIC to “An involuntary facial twitch for the sake of humanity. Any idea of what you thought you might be as a child revisiting as more than a Halloween costume.” Halloween opens all kinds of interpretive doors, through which I always end up at the memory of a street busker dressed as a Proper Noun. Where does QUIXOTIC lead you? 

AC: I like that memory of the street busker, and I’m curious about the garb. I live in New Orleans now, a city where, in a radio interview, I heard the host ask a clothing designer, “Is this everyday wear, or costume closet attire?” Costume closet; that was new. Hearing the phrase, I knew I was in a strange, and probably the right, place. And isn’t it bizarre that on Halloween people dress up in costumes as diverse as zombie and nurse. I mean, one is a career. If you want to become a nurse, there are viable options for achieving this goal. Zombie, not so much. But for some reason this holiday puts the roles on a level playing field. Yeah, that makes sense.

I think it’s easy to get confused about what is realistic and what needs to be reserved for the fantasy realm. Luckily, I live in a place that is content with mixing realism with the surreal on a regular basis. 

JR: Your acknowledgements page thanks the poets Angela Ball, Rodney Jones, Julia Johnson, Rebecca Morgan Frank, and Jordan Sanderson, in addition to fiction writer Andrew Malan Milward and the literary scholar Monika Gehlawat. How did various critical literary theories influence the Encyclopédie?

 AC: Shit! Theory! That’s my guttural reaction to this question. Even after years of PhD work, and the awarding of said degree, I still do not consider myself especially fluent in literary theory speak. It is easy-enough to link the writing in this book with theories of deconstruction. I wasn’t Derrida-conscious during composition, but I do hope the definitions I write simultaneously construct and dissemble ideas. Often I found myself writing to the known, stating the obvious. In “High Five,” there is the simple description– “A high five is a movement of arms and hands,” but later I ramble away from this clarity (in this case, I jim-jam all the grade-school variations of hand-slapping in my repertoire). In most of my writing, I am trying to both salute and de-pants language.

But you left off one teacher from my acknowledgements, Guta Hedewig. Many of the poems in this collection were written while I was still living in New York and studying yoga under Ms. Hedewig’s direction. I was in a nerdy, heavily text-based, yoga school where we studied yoga philosophy and read classic writings like The Bhagavad Gita and Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. I think these texts had as much influence over the writing as any Western theory.

 JR: I enjoyed your collection on a conceptual level as much as I enjoyed it on a sentence level, my favorites being: “A drop of water is not rain, the same way a person cannot be people.”, “You can’t open a door and walk out on yourself.”, and “Vicarious experience, the eclipse cast on cardboard, that’s how you get at light.” Do you see the sentence as a stage or scaffold?

 AC: Isn’t a scaffold automatically a stage? They were constructing a new nursing building on campus the last year of my PhD work. When I parked my car each morning I would allow myself a moment to sit and stare at the workers on the roof or balanced alongside the building. They seemed graceful and free. I over-romanticized their work and envied the image I made of them. I could do this because they were on display.

 JR: Swedish illustrator Alf Dahlman contributed 50 drawings to the Encyclopédie. What did your collaborative process entail?

Alf Image 5

 AC: Bliss. Alf has an incredibly dark humor that allows space for experiencing joy amidst absurdity. This quality is both a temperament and a talent, and it produced images that match the writing so well. I am, down on my knees, eternally grateful that we connected while both living in New York and that we were able to maintain the collaborative process from Hattiesburg, MS, and Gothenburg, Sweden.

On a practical level, the process was very reciprocal. At first, Alf would read some of the work and develop images, but soon things became more fluid. He created images and we noticed when they synced with a piece of writing. I also found myself revising poems I might have given up on, if it hadn’t been for the strength of the image he had created to accompany it.

The process also entailed innumerable conversations about layout and design—discussions about how these words and images should become one something on the page. Along the way we also had the distraction of a comic we created and other visual art collaborations, some of which you can see at Drunken Boat.

 JR: How did you come to be a guest blogger for The Best American Poetry’s website, where some of your entries include “Love Songs have All the Answers” and “Poetry & Taxidermy, Every Girl’s Dream”?

 AC: That opportunity was the gift of Angela Ball and David Lehman. While I was at USM’s Center for Writers, Dr. Ball organized this symposium on the diaspora of New York School poetry—A New Tradition: New York School Poetry and the South—and invited poets Denise Duhamel, David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, David Lehman, and Billy Collins to read their work and discuss the influence of New York School poetry on their writing. My blogs for The Best American Poetry website were meant to create a wider audience for the symposium’s events. And David Lehman gave me a lot of creative license. My favorite blog was an imaginary Q&A I did between the visiting poets and members of the New York School. Because, excepting John Ashbery, none of the original New York School poets are still around, I used lines of their poetry to ask questions to the living poets—and I answered these questions with lines from the living poets’ work. It was so interesting to see how their work could be in conversation.

The “Poetry & Taxidermy” was a nod to this big game room at one of the receptions. Dr. Ball sent an email out ahead of the event, warning people of this room. But I’m dense. She wrote “big game room” and I thought of a pool table, foosball, and board games. In reality, there was a pool table in the room but mostly it was a ton of dead animals, a huge range of taxidermy. Denise Duhamel couldn’t even stay in the room and I didn’t blame her. But the room did give me an idea for this poem about ex-boyfriends. It became the entry “Sport.”

JR: I was thrilled to learn that Tucson’s Kore Press—who’ve championed the work by women and transgendered writers since 1993—published Encyclopédie of the Common & Encompassing. Founder Lisa Bowden and Managing Editor Ann Dernier are such positive forces in the southern Arizona literary scene. What was your experience like working with them? Any chance of you reading in Tucson soon?

AC: Lisa and Ann are incredibly creative and supportive women. They organized a reading at AWP in LA to showcase Kore’s spring books, and getting to meet and read with these other phenomenal women (Sarah Mangold, Tracie Morris, and Cori Winrock to name a few) was such a joy. Being in the company of these women, and added to the list of writers Kore has published over the past 20-something years, was humbling.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of producing the book, there was a lot of back-and-forth about layout and design. This was important to both myself and Alf, because we had spent so much time in Indesign, playing around with what we thought the book should look like. Once Kore decided to publish it, this work was out of our hands. And that was a bit scary; like handing over an infant you’ve been nursing (nursing for years). Luckily, the responsibility fell to Drew Burke, who puts out very cool work with another Tucson-based press, Spork Press. I owe Drew many thanks for seeing the book so well, and being able to make it seen to others through his design skills. And Lisa did a lovely job with the cover. Overall, Kore puts out very beautiful books, and I found their work with mine no exception. I’m very grateful for the care and attention they gave to the book.

At the moment, I’m not slated to read in Tucson. But I’d jump at the opportunity to do so.

JR: From the verb PINOCCHIOED: “This book has become real. You are holding it in your warm hands.” That’s definitely a word that gets me through the more challenging aspects of writing, so thank you, on many levels. What word or words hold the greatest value for you?

AC: “Life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.” Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author

I came across this sentence while reading the play as an undergrad, and it stuck with me. Before my brother left for Iraq, I gifted him a journal with this quote on the first page. Now, I’m realizing he and I never talked about it. There was never a word as to why I would copy this quote for him before he left for unknown work on the other side of the world. Strange. There is a lot you don’t talk about with war.

But Pirandello has many great lines. Maybe this is the benefit of being a playwright, you get to have characters say remarkable things. They speak lines that work both in and out of context. But these words in particular are still a type of homecoming for me. They match my perspective of reality. That life is, above and below everything else, absurd. Yet, it keeps going, as if it is making sense. And, we, wanting to understand its sense, kind of bolster the absurdity with our own logic. Which is fine! Because I also like Thoreau’s idealism: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

And I think an interview about a book is a little bit like foundation building, or foundation exposing. So, thanks, Jon, for this opportunity and your thoughtful questions.

Alf Image 1

JON RICCIO is a PhD candidate and composition instructor at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where he serves as an associate editor of the Mississippi Review. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in The Big Windows Review, Permafrost, Pouch, Visitant, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. The poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, he is a former reader for Sonora Review.