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Rick Campbell on Industrial Cities & Workers

Rick Campbell is a poet living in Tallahassee, Florida, and the author of five poetry collections: The History of Steel: A Selected Works, Dixmont, The Traveler’s Companion, Setting The World In Order, A Day’s Work. He’s earned a Pushcart Prize, an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and two poetry fellowships from the Florida Arts Council. Campbell is the former director of Anhinga Press, a founder and board member of the Florida Literary Arts Coalition, and English professor at Florida A&M University. 

As a poet, Campbell doesn’t care for pigeonholes.

“It’s true that industry, industrial cities, and workers are a large part of what I write about,” he says. "If poetry was really organized by a subject index, those could be mine, along with baseball, music, and rivers. And as much I like and use history, anthropology, and popular culture in my poems, I think, or hope, they are about much more universal themes than just these topics.”

To make his point, Campbell brings in his literary heroes.

“Let’s say, in Richard Hugo’s words, that these topics are my triggering subjects, just as fishing was one of his. Philip Levine, who is, more than any other poet in our country, said to be a poet of work and industrial cities, is not just a poet of work. He once said, in an interview, that he wanted more tenderness in his poems. And he once wrote to me, in response to my poems: 'I said to myself … this guy is as bad as I am, he just won't get over the old place & the lost way of life.' " 

“I hope," says Campbell, "that my true subjects are wonder, loss, love, and the other ways that we attempt to make sense of what it takes to live in this world.”

Here — “as a poet and a person" — he shares his favorite books on the theme of industrial cities and workers:

We Shall Be All:
A History of the Industrial Workers of the World

by Melvyn Dubofsky 

This book was important to me because it legitimized my personal beliefs about workers, unions, the long and ongoing struggle by workers to create a decent life, dignity, and personal freedom in the workplace. Granted, the Wobblies were almost a thing of the past when I came of age and the steel mill workers that I knew had achieved a pretty comfortable life, largely through the struggles of generations of workers who came before them, but this book made me proud to be from the working class. I saw the Wobblies as heroes. They were tough and they got the shit kicked out of them in many ways.

New and Selected Poems
by Philip Levine

I could list here almost any collection of poems by Philip Levine. Every book by Levine is important to me. Not This Pig was the first one I read. They Feed They Lion was the first one that floored me. What Work Is, and A Walk with Tom Jefferson are also still my favorites. But for all poets, it’s not their books that I go back to, that I consider important, but it’s a few, or maybe many, poems. I read one poem at a time and almost one line at a time. The line is the most important element of a poem, of poetry, to me. I don’t think there is a need to tell people about Levine’s poems; for me, I felt that they allowed me to write about, or create myths about, the life that I was living because I saw, or thought, that there were many similarities in my life and the poems that Philip Levine wrote. In short, I wanted to write poems like those Levine wrote even if I never became as great a poet as he is.

Leaving Pico
by Frank X. Gaspar

It’s a coming of age novel, blended with a wonderful magical realism frame tale, about growing up in the Portuguese fishing community of Provincetown. The Pico people, Gaspar’s and the main character of his book’s ancestors, are Portuguese from the Azores. There’s no mill, no factory, no industrial city, in Leaving Pico, but the fishermen are certainly workers, their lives are certainly hard, full of struggles to make a living, to take care of their families, to stay alive. This is a beautiful coming of age novel, every bit as good as the classics in the genre, but when Gaspar added the grandfather’s tale claiming that it was his ancestor who really discovered America, and has him tell the tale to his grandson, the novel’s narrator, it adds an element to an already great book that elevates it to a level all its own and makes it one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. Gaspar, I want to note, is also one of the best poets in our country and each of his poetry collections could also be in my favorite books list.

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