Encyclopédie Quixotica: An Interview with Allison Campbell

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.
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