|David Breskin, photo by Gene Pittman|
David Breskin is the author of Campaign, a new poetry collection focused on the 2016 presidential campaign. His other books include Inner Views and Escape Velocity. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including GQ, Life, and Rolling Stone, and he also is a record producer. He lives in San Francisco.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Campaign?
A: Unlike an actual campaign for office, it all started innocently enough. It had been a whole batch of years since my previous project, and I was looking to get back on the horse.
But I didn’t want it be any old horse tied up to a hitching post on Main Street or some glue-factory retiree, I wanted it to be something fast….a wild Mustang or a quarter horse or something that might throw me.
And then in January of 2016, I was semi-happily stuck in New York City for an epic blizzard: the city was stopped by howling wind and snow right out of the Yukon Gold Rush.
And on that day, I saw an American flag hanging from the end of the boom of a construction crane, many stories up. It was just whipping around in the blowing snow, leaping and twisting, and occasionally turning in on itself, getting tangled up and nearly knotted.
And then it would come free and unfurl, although it seemed like at any moment the wind might tear it to shreds. It did not. The fact that the crane was flying on 57th Street in Manhattan, on what’s now called Billionaires' Row, and the backdrop was a Trump-owned building, Trump Parc, was not much present in my mind at the time but later became an enriching complication.
Also there was a metal lifting hook or block on the end of the boom, right next to the flag, which was red and strangely appeared to be an abstraction of the “Mickey Mouse” head. This felt amusing, poignant and pathetic, and a little scary, all at once.
Anyway, that image stayed with me….maybe like one of Robert Frank’s flag pictures in The Americans—as something perhaps symbolic of where we find ourselves as a country. (I made a tiny iPhone video loop of it and put it on the top right of my website, like where you would write your name on the a student paper.). Not many days later, and back home in San Francisco, came the night before the Iowa Caucus, the traditional kick-off event of modern American presidential elections.
And I just made a deal with myself that the next morning I would go downstairs to my office and write a poem, any poem, about the process of the election, and see where it might lead me.
I had the vague idea that it might be an interesting exercise if I would force myself to make one of these, once a day, as a discipline; and also as a way of connecting with the old-fashioned notion of daily journalism, that “rough draft” of history. (For many years I was a journalist, but never a daily dude.)
I had absolutely no idea it would actually happen, and that by the second day my wife would have kindly set up a blog to post these daily dispatches. She knew, of course, that if there were other people “watching” this experiment, I could not allow it to falter and would hold myself to continue…you know, sort of like an Alaskan Husky really wants to pull the sled, even if her paws are freezing, because she hears the call of her musher and she knows that there may be some serum onboard the sled for the folks out of reach of modern medicine.
Like I say, it was an innocent experiment, at first. And then I got dogged.
It was after about five or six weeks that I realized exactly how many days there were between the Iowa Caucus on February 1 and Election Day on November 8. (Math: not my strong point.).
So the subtitle of the blog, “Elective Poems,” became partly ironic, because while I surely elected to do them at the start, quickly they became a mandatory “calling” and I felt I had no choice but to keep pulling.
Maybe three months in was the first I felt I might actually connect this effort to the long and great tradition of the “campaign book”…usually written by someone embedded in an actual campaign, and dying to tell the real story (which often doesn’t fit into the daily paper).
And I thought, I bet this has never been done through poetry before. Probably with good reason! But worth a shot. Nothing beats a failure but a try. All that said, I had no idea whether it would be good enough or feel worthwhile enough for the poems to merit a book.
Q: How did you choose the form in which you wrote the poems?
A: My previous project was a multi-year thing with Ed Ruscha and Nels Cline called Dirty Baby and for that one I chose—by my own volition and not as an act of masochism—the ghazal as a form for all 66 poems I was contributing to the book. I knew how restrictive the form was but felt it was the right fencing-partner with the Ruscha images.
So here my first thought, on that first night, was “no form”….which would have allowed it to be a haiku one day and a sonnet the next, or a week of blank verse and then something else. Completely free.
But when I wrote the first day's poem, I decided it should be compact, tight, asymmetrical, and as AWKWARD as I could make it. So I made the lines too-short for capacious comfort (seven beats long) and then the length also limiting: 11 lines long.
The idea was that the introductory poem should reflect the politics and mood of the country as it faced this election. “ AWK" is pretty much what the poly sci professor would write in the margin of any paper about our politics, circa February 1, 2016.
And once I’d done that, it just felt right to me, both the restriction itself, the awkwardness, and the fact that just like a newspaper column has so many column inches to it, so would these poems. They would be bit-sized and bite-sized, their own little units of meaning (or no meaning). 77 beats each.
As it turned out, it would have been a lot easier to make them variously shaped and surely most of them longer. But it was perhaps a more provocative challenge to try to do them this way. And then the name just suggested itself: seven-beat lines, eleven lines long. 7-Elevens.
Like convenience-food, strip mall poetry, Big Gulp. NOT farm-to-table. You get the same thing, the same size, every day, and it’s full of nitrates and probably other things that can, and will, kill you.
Q: Did you tend to write the poems at the same time each day, and were some especially difficult (or easy) to write?
A: Well, I tried to get to them every morning, first thing after getting back from driving my daughter to school. And I tried to post them to the blog by at least mid- to late-afternoon West Coast time, so that East Coast readers could at least have one with, or in place of, their after-dinner drink that night.
People who signed up for them on the blog would get deliveries every day, same time every day, via email. In this case I imagined not by email but by a mid-1950s paperboy, throwing out the evening paper from his bicycle to the doorsteps on his post-school route.
The easiest ones to write were the ones where I had some idea (however vague) the night before about what my “subject” would be the following day. Perhaps I’d make a few notes, or jot down one phrase. And then I’d have sort of a running start.
But that was rare and sometimes foiled anyway because the morning’s news (especially on the West Coast, behind as it is) demanded a different direction.
Some came fast, some were like trying to rub two sticks together to boil water. There was often a research component, which might take anything from five minutes to five hours. Rabbit holes would open up and I would get sucked in.
Journalism is often quite repetitious and the campaign follows certain cycles and the candidates say the same things over and over: how could I keep it fresh, or even surprising? Luckily for me, this campaign was like no other and reality kept given me good material (comic’s word) to work with.
They were also hard to write when I was on the road, and/or knee-deep or chest-deep working on other things, and always had this to “attend to.”
I wrote 7-Elevens in recording studios (where I sometimes end up, producing records); I wrote 7-Elevens in airports; I wrote them cooped up in bathrooms in motel rooms---while my sleeping son or daughter counted sheep in bed, I counted seven-beats a line.
A number of them were written while I took my then senior-in-high-school son on college visits. (And the poems reflected this geography: which enabled me to work in Monica Lewinsky on a day spent at Lewis & Clark, and both Obama and Nixon on a day spent roaming their old schools, Occidental and Whittier.).
The absolute hardest were the ones were I was committed to using “found language” and sculpting the entire poem from the mouths of the candidates or other people trapped in the spin-cycle of the news. This was not just square-peg-in-round-hole: this was putting language from the messy fractal fracas of our politics into the strange but smooth contours of my 77-beat Donald Judd beat-boxes.
The last thing I will say in reply to your good question is this: how do you awaken to the news of the Brussels airport bombing, or the Orlando shooting, and try to write a poem about it?
Easy enough to write a bad poem, or any poem, but how do you fit that into a sequence of maybe 250+ other poems, and have it make sense, and feel neither glib nor gratuitous. Not preachy! And not just preaching-to-the-choir. And do it in real time, without days or weeks for reflection.
Q: Do you have a favorite among them?
A: I hate all of them equally!! No, this is where writers, musicians or artists often say, “It’s hard to pick, they are all like my children.” But even for me, 259 kids is well more than enough to choose from. Some of them kids just ain’t even gonna go to community college, right? (No matter how you dress ‘em up.)
I guess the ones I like the most are the ones where I felt I brought the greatest amount of complexity of the actual world into the poem (including history and historical resonances) and still did not swamp the form…where the form actually energized the language and makes the whole thing spin rather fast.
A few examples might be: from the early primary days, a poem about the Marianas Islands, that worked in Magellan, Captain Cook, the Enola Gay, and Trump’s haul of island delegates. (March 9).
And there was a September poem, after a Charlotte police shooting and subsequent protests, called “On The Matter of Proper Policing: (What Did I Do To Become So) Black and Blue?” In that one, I weave song lyrics from that famous song—which has a more complicated history than is often thought—in and out of my own telegraphic lines about black and blue.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on—and it is a daily struggle—not being driven out of my bloody mind by our president and his feeble, enabling sycophants in the Republican Party, and not fearing too much for the future of our country, if not our species (see, North Korea; and, Climate Change).
More seriously, I have the great opportunity to work on producing records for some of my favorite living musicians: Mary Halvorson, Kris Davis, Dan Weiss and Chris Lightcap to name four.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to dream up another oddball “artist’s book” project like the ones I did with Ed Ruscha and Gerhard Richter. If I keeping standing exposed on the ridge-line in bad weather, maybe lightning will strike again.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Popovich / Kerr 2020!!!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb