Campbell McGrath takes on a century of history in poetry

Campbell McGrath is a professor of creative writing at Florida International University.
Campbell McGrath is a professor of creative writing at Florida International University.

When you’re planning to write about the entire 20th century, where on earth do you start?

If you’re poet Campbell McGrath — who knows a thing or two about covering historical ground in his work — you dive in anywhere you can.

“When I started, I wasn’t sure I could ever do such a crazy thing,” McGrath says of his new book XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century (Ecco, $25.99), which he’ll discuss March 19 at Books & Books in Coral Gables. “I thought, ‘Just let me start somewhere.’ So I started writing about Picasso in the first decade in Paris, where there was that combination of writers and painters who were inventing modern art. I said, ‘Oh, that’s it!’ ”

In that first poem Picasso encounters Montmartre (“a riot of cobblestones, stray dogs and peddlers/baroque bird kiosks as in Barcelona, windmills/on the butte....”) — and kicks off 99 more works, one for each year of the century, all in different, intriguing voices and styles.

McGrath, a former MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner who teaches at Florida International University and lives in Miami Beach, spent years researching the project.

“People always ask me, “What would you be if you weren’t a poet — would you be a novelist?” No, I’d be a historian,” says the author of 13 previous works of poetry, including Seven Notebooks, In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, Florida Poems and Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “It’s just another kind of storytelling. I prefer that to what a novelist does.”

I don’t often think of poetry as requiring a lot of research, but that can’t be the case here.

I’m sitting in my office now, and there are boxes and boxes of books that I’ve been reading, history books, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t know anything about Picasso — that’s one of the reasons I started there. I knew I’d write a poem about Elvis. But I had no idea I wanted to write poems about Picasso. ... I thought I’d write about Ernest Hemingway, but I never did never write about him. Part of it I planned, and part of the time, the book directed itself as voices showed up.

In the poem “The Ticking Clock (1971)” you reference a wide variety of famous people, including Snoop Dogg, Julian Assange, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Princess Diana, Mohammed Atta, Coco Chanel, Louis Armstrong — and more. What’s the idea behind a poem that touches on so many elements?

In 1971 nobody’s thinking about the 21st century, but it was already being born, what we now think of as the every day. That was kind of my whole takeaway from this project: History isn’t in the past. It’s alive right now. In that 1971 poem I mention Ray Tomlinson, who died the other day. He invented email. He wasn’t even supposed to be doing that — he did it as a sidebar to his work. Who knew 50 years later that’s our everyday life? We look backward at history, but the present, past and future are all communicating. We just can’t see it till we get there.

In studying the 20th century, did you find one overarching theme?

There’s not exactly one theme . ... It’s more focused on art and culture, not the history of technology, although I do write about Henry Ford and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But that’s not my area of expertise. ... Politics is part of it, too. Mao ended up being a big character, much to my surprise. He’s the spokesman for the totalitarian part of the 20th century, especially considering the importance of propaganda. Really, the Cold War dominated the 20th century. It was two marketing campaigns. Who’s going to win? And they didn’t battle with armies — it was like Coke versus Pepsi. You can trace that back to George Orwell thinking and writing about that. … That led me to Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry, which led me to 1991 and [political consultant] Lee Atwater. Who would even think about Lee Atwater? But the current campaign we’re in reminds us you don’t just use public relations to sell cigarettes. You use it to sell presidents. We’ve gone from selling merchandise to selling the presidency.

That’s particularly relevant this year, isn’t it?

I finished writing this book before this campaign started. The last campaigns weren’t like this one. Trump is a salesman, a marketer. No one even pretends this isn’t a salesman’s job anymore.

Over the past decade, Miami has really emerged as an arts and culture destination. What’s poetry’s role in that rebirth?

It has really exploded — there’s so much culture going on here. It’s fantastic. Poetry is not very visible in American culture; it kind of never was. It’s more visible in Latin American and European culture. I think the Miami Book Fair is one of the world’s greatest literary events, but for me, O, Miami is so exciting. It’s the best poetry festival in the country. It’s taking poetry out of a boring poetry box and making it accessible. It puts poetry in unusual spaces and configurations, with music, art, culture and performance. One piece of culture builds the next. All arts and culture are connected — if one does well, that’s good for the rest. O, Miami making poetry visible will help someone else with the next great idea.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald book editor.

Meet the author

Who: Campbell McGrath

When: 7 p.m. March 19

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Springs

Info: and 305-442-4408