Peter Campion’s “Unidentified Animal” | A Brief Portfolio and An Interview with Amanda Newell

Peter Campion’s “Unidentified Animal” | A Brief Portfolio and An Interview with Amanda Newell
June 26, 2024 Newell Amanda

Peter Campion’s Unidentified Animal | A Brief Portfolio and An Interview with Amanda Newell



AN: Peter, Thank you for so generously previewing Unidentified Animal with Plume. As the title suggests, the underlying energy of your remarkable new collection is a primal, restless one. That energy is certainly present in your prior work, but there is a heightened sense of urgency here that I feel in such a visceral way when I read these poems. You write, “I need to know/who’s this single scavenger/ransacking memory/as if he must/claw through my life to climb out into day.” How did Unidentified Animal  ‘climb out into day’?


PC: Thanks, Amanda. I admit, this book grew out of not having a plan for this book. I want the poems in a collection to elaborate on central obsessions, push into core questions and unfold them, establish patterns that feel inevitable and surprising, and once there’s a critical mass of new poems, my writing incorporates my perception of the whole. But with Unidentified Animal, I delayed that moment as long as possible, writing without preconception about the subject. I simply woke up, went to work, and felt that the poems were writing themselves. Even when there was a lot of revision, it was in the service of letting the poems go where they needed.


That may sound spontaneous, creative, free, the kind of thing we expect artists to say. But there’s another side. Working without a plan allowed me to write about what otherwise might have scared me. I mean how the structure of my life has not allowed the certainty I’ve wished for—and how that problem applies not only to me. I had to face and then see past my own life.


Eventually, when I did arrange the poems into a collection, I saw there was an underlying obsession about intuition and beneath it, more fundamental, more feral—instinct, primarily the instinct to survive.


AN: I’d like to parse this idea of survival a bit more because I do see the same underlying obsession throughout One Summer Evening at the Falls. As the speaker in one of the poems from that collection implores, “You have to understand. I became/one of the ones who ‘lives in the present.'” Call it a resignation to one’s fate? Or maybe an anguished plea in the midst of loss for “some/promise beyond this barest/animal drive”? Unidentified Animal is similarly concerned with survival, but it also asks the reader to consider what is beyond that animal drive: Having survived, what does it mean to live? I suspect your collection’s answer to that, if there is one, has something to do with human connection, but I’ll let you speak to that. To the extent that you were writing without preconception, Unidentified Animal does seem to continue the conversation that One Summer Evening at the Falls begins.


PC: You’re right. My obsession with intuition didn’t begin with this book. It’s there in poems from many years ago. But intuition as subject has become intuition as method. And I know—to say “the poems were writing themselves” risks both self-advertisement and empty-headedness. I’m not talking about automatic writing, though, or those dreamy poems of free association that, whatever their remarkable moments, quickly become tedious.


I mean intuition that derives from putting in the time. I’m an amateur jazz guitarist and know from my minor triumphs and major limitations that the craft of improvisation sails on an ocean of hard work. You might begin by practicing a C melodic minor scale in all its seven modes, ascending and descending and in all intervals at various tempos along with a metronome, and then listen to the recording of that practice session to correct lapses in the legato or places where the swing-feel stiffens or exaggerates, and only then ask how the C melodic minor scale might sound over a B dominant chord, and practice applying that in a solo, and then take out unnecessary notes so that the phrases sound less formulaic, make better sense with their surroundings. In the final analysis, we might be talking about three notes, and still, all that work contributed to getting there, to making melody. That’s how discipline and deliberation are part and parcel with instinct and spontaneity.


The same goes for writing. You take one sentence and pivot the object to the front and the subject to the back, then switch them again, or you remove the adjectives, then, no, return them but put them after the nouns this time instead of before. Would the sentence have more power if you replaced an indefinite article with the definite article? Maybe this would be better still: wouldn’t this direct the reader to the object at hand as well as the this-ness of the poem itself? Or would this be an obvious ploy, grammatically overweening? You find you’re deciding about less than a syllable’s worth of sound, and the decision feels crucial.


If writing one sentence demands all your knowledge and skill even as it makes you a beginner again, the same applies to the treatment of the subject. I mean, there’s your intuition about what comes next in a story or what needs to be said to elaborate a truth. When does a sentence build on the one it follows? When does it swerve or jump somewhere completely different? Of the many possible directions, which does a narrative take to reach its ending? How can the poem delve deeper? What should remain unsaid?


When I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Eavan Boland’s attunement to these things amazed me. “Right here,” I remember her saying about some early draft, “the poem loses its nerve.” She had a sixth sense for where rhetorical tactics intrude, where “art emotion” takes over from genuine feeling, where verbal showiness forecloses on lucidity and surprise. And yet none of those judgements was categorical: what might flounder in one poem might sail in another.


So, intuition for me means uncovering the nerve of the poem, following its branching directions. Where do I need to go to reveal its essential feeling, to make the poem as vivid as possible? If my work has developed, the change has to do with more faithfully serving that inner prompting.


One Summer Evening at the Falls is about the end of a marriage. It contains other subjects, stories, and moods, and it ends with new love, but sorrow lies at its center. Unidentified Animal has surprised me because I worried that the poems had taken an even darker turn, that the commitment to the creaturely immediacy we’ve been discussing, the dwelling in uncertainty, had stranded writer and reader out in the cold. But I’ve found—or had friends point out to me—that while the book may be dark in places, there’s also greater freedom of tone. This comes, as you say, from attention to human connection, how it offers surprise and renewal, at least when it’s not taken for granted.


AN: You know, I keep wanting to read “creaturely immediacy” as “creaturely intimacy.” Maybe they’re not so different. Maybe that says more about my own aesthetics. But I do find that many of the most intimate and urgent moments in your collection happen when language falters or is reduced to “crackling . . . static.”  These moments feel to me like a switch in frequency to a more primal consciousness, and that to me is the this-ness of your collection. It’s the recognition of our own “human-not-human[ness],” as the speaker of your extraordinary title poem says in response to his encounter with an unidentified animal.


How were you thinking about language as you wrote these poems? I wonder if you might address how these moments of wordlessness, which I view as a kind of return to the pre-lingual in the Kristevan sense, are often counterpointed by overheard dialogue, or swaths of narrative from, say, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. What work does that do?


PC: Your question cuts to the quick. I can tell so because it makes me nervous, even defensive. I confess I’m often dubious when poets appeal to “wordlessness,” when they call something ineffable, or assert the failure of language. That reminds me of teachers who say, “I learn as much from my students as they do from me,” which leaves me thinking, “then get another job, bro.” Writing a poem demands exceptional verbal skill, and as a reader I want a poem to uncover capacities of language that I might never have expected were possible.


Maybe that’s protesting too much because I can’t shake the feeling that your description fits. There are several moments in the book when the language falters, returns to pre-verbal murmurs. There’s a line in the poem, “Call Screen,” that lingers over a loved one’s sub-vocal “tunes in uh huh and oh and ah.” There’s also the instance you mention of the “no-language” in “Unidentified Animal.” There’s a passage in the poem I named after a Beatles lyric, “I Saw a Film Today, Oh Boy,” which identifies an unspoken exchange in which one person silently says to another, “Here’s the animal I was/before I was my name.”


How to reconcile these clashing attitudes? I’m taken with something Eliot wrote: “the poet is occupied with the frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail though meanings still exist.” I want to push back those frontiers by making my language as precise and expressive as possible. At the same time, I need the frontiers to push back at me. Eloquence or lexical peacockery for their own sake bore me. Lyric poetry derives from ritual, the fundamental human desire to have language do something. I need to feel that physical urge in a poem—a driving necessity that both leads to exceptional articulation and discloses the creaturely life of the lines and sentences. Fundamentally, this means trusting the propulsive power behind the voice. In a letter to his friend Grierson, Yeats writes about the increasing directness in his poems and explains it’s all about “natural momentum in the syntax. This momentum underlies almost every Elizabethan and Jacobean lyric and is far more important than simplicity of vocabulary.” A lot of contemporary poetry lacks this basic animating force.  You can tell right away when the poem is read aloud because the reader resorts to “poet voice,” the application of an arbitrary rhythm that has nothing to do with the gestural life of real language.


AN: I’m not sure any poet is entirely comfortable when someone points out what we’re doing or how we’re doing what we’re doing. What magician wants to reveal their tricks? I suppose the real question is: To what effect? It’s one thing to notice the breakdown of language and how, as you say, it “returns to pre-verbal murmurs.” But isn’t the effect of that entirely dependent on everything else in the poem, from syntax and form to the construction of images, etc.? That is, if it works, the effect is only interesting in relation to—or again, counterpointed with—something else because that is what generates tension.


PC: Yes, exactly. Any one technique needs to be “entirely dependent on everything else in the poem.” That’s how a poem becomes its own metaphor, says something truthful and beautiful beyond its paraphrase-able content. If an effect remains an effect, it isn’t effective.


For me, the layering of different voices, including those that break down—that run low instead of high—feels more than a nifty trick because it comes from an intuition about what it means to be alive. I have in mind the sense of multiplicity, connection with others, as in a coral reef or big apartment building. I want poems to be like that, to become their own ecosystems.


I also believe that individual human beings are like that. Cecilia Brady, the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, says, “Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.” I find that true not only of good writers but most people. The “trying so hard to be one person” implies contradiction, confusion, and struggle, but also those surprising dimensions of a person’s life that don’t always get recognized, and that I want to render.


AN: Your poem, “Frontier 460,” which we previously published, recounts a turbulent flight “where static spat from the speakers, and no voice arrived/except the loud and constant, crackling voice of static” before that static metamorphosizes, however briefly, into Pythagoras’s speech from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this case, though, the language breaks up, not down— arguably another way of breaking down, I suppose.


I’m intrigued by the frequency of these moments in your poems where everyday conversation is juxtaposed with the eloquence of classical texts, which is part of why I’m returning to this point. To put the question another way, could you speak to your own interest in the classical/classical myth? For me, it both opens the poem and situates it in time and space, like the spirit who “…comes/and leaves, here, there, taking form as animal or human, as it wants: forever in transit,/everything flows and every flowing thing evolves/its form in time, and even time is not unlike/a river—”.


PC: I translate poetry as a form of practice. I can’t recommend this highly enough to anyone who writes poems. It’s the best, closest way of reading poetry. The poet you’re translating becomes your guide and teacher. I start to see the poem from the inside-out when translating. It’s a way of testing and stretching my resources. How can my own language do justice to this poem? When I’m stuck, translating makes me humble again and hungry to write again.


In addition to those poems from Latin and Ancient Greek, I’ve translated from French, Italian, Korean—which I don’t know at all, but in that case, I was working with a contemporary Korean poet, Jin Eun Yung. I rarely start out with the intention of absorbing the translation into my own poem. Sometimes that happens afterward. In the case of those lines from Ovid, I translated them years before I started writing “Frontier 460.”


I’m not sure if the ancient sources have a set identity in my poems. They don’t interest me in some traditionalist way as “the foundations of western culture,” or whatever. They do imply historical depths, but depths that are less stable, weirder than such rhetoric indicates. So, I’m grateful to you for quoting the lines from Ovid because they’re an emblem for all the translated or interpolated lines in my poems: they’re some unaccountable spirit erupting, here for a moment, then gone.


I like what you say about opening a poem and situating it in time and space. When I was thirteen, my mother married a journalist who often worked abroad. He took us all over the world—North Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, etc. To my former stepfather, poetry, fiction, and journalism were matters of immediate and passionate importance. So were current events, and history, however ancient. I’m grateful for that. It was an education.


I recall those travels from long ago because they opened me to greater dimensions. On a different scale, that’s what happens when a poem that has until now seemed sedulous, well-intentioned writing suddenly pops, becomes a living thing. Situating the poem might mean estranging it, opening it by including other voices, whether those I’ve overheard, translated, or imagined.


AN: In your collection of essays on American poetry, Radical as Reality: Form and Freedom in American Poetry (Chicago 2019), you state in your introduction that “[t]he poets whose work most compels me understand the past, take hold of those forces that determine the present, and transform them in their art.” Your essay on Frost and Stevens examines how both men generated their best work “[o]ut of the tension between communal contingencies and individual aspirations.”


To the extent that the instinct for survival is a through line in your collection, the communal experience also shows up in some really interesting ways. The translated and overheard lines of dialogue we’ve been talking about certainly invoke the greater dimensions of the communal. I’m fascinated as well by the number of poems that take place while in transit—in cars, on flights or trains—or in everyday public places like the movie theater, where we catch glimpses of the speaker “peek[ing] from the edges.” The public space is both disorienting and occasion for private revelation.


How would you characterize your own approach to addressing what you’ve described in other poets’ work as “the tension between modern, democratic everyday life on the one hand and the individual’s desire for something greater on the other”?


PC: I want a poem to be an arena for the imagination and a real, unbudgeable fact; to transmit the energies of contemporary life and carve its own space outside of time. Political poetry that works simply to score rhetorical points or advance high-minded views annoys me. But engagement with the historical forces that form the language itself—that’s exhilarating. English is fabulously impure. It’s a ferment. To take up such a medium, even at the simple level of word or phrase, means stepping into the fray. I have in mind the ways we negotiate tone and register when we talk, and that our language reveals or betrays us. These have to do with class, race, age, regional background, education, and so on, and yet words maintain their own identities apart from ours and are wonderfully available and malleable. We draw pleasure—I do, anyhow—from listening to someone who runs the whole range of the language, from low to high and everywhere in-between, with mastery and playfulness.


Still, poems are more than word games for me. The poems I write about in Radical as Reality—for example, Frost’s “The Black Cottage,” Stevens’ “The American Sublime,” Niedecker’s “In the great snowfall before the bomb…,” Toomer’s “Georgia Dusk”—interest me because the aesthetic accomplishments reflect and embody challenges of cultural form-finding.


For sure, it’s easier to make that connection as a critic arriving after the fact. When I write poems, I don’t begin with big ideas about “the culture” or “the issues.” But I’ve learned to trust the problems that arise in writing because formal difficulty means something is at stake that’s bigger than my individual desires and frustrations. At the core of this new book remains the need for home and family, which contrasts the celebration of instinctual or feral life. So, writing the poem runs in rough parallel with making a home that accommodates the known and the unaccountable, the established and the spontaneous, the self and the other. Including translated and overheard lines of dialogue has everything to do with this. About fifteen years ago, I started writing what I call “Grand Hotel poems.” These take place in airports, planes, trains, hotels, apartment complexes, and so on—public spaces—and include several voices while, as you mention, making space for private revelations. That idea from Fitzgerald, that image of one person as “a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person” applies here and extends beyond the personal: it gets at the cultural or communal challenge of balancing union and multiplicity.


AN: At this point, I feel compelled to say something about the self and “multitudes.” There! I’ve said it. In your writing on Cane, you speak of Toomer’s “inclusion of emancipated multiplicities,” particularly his embrace of contradictory impulses at both the formal and thematic levels. I like the idea of your “Grand Hotel poems” because it does seem to me that writing from public space or spaces is one way to complicate the psychological terrain by making room for different and contradictory impulses.


I’m thinking too of Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen, where the most searing and intimate revelations occur, for example, in the checkout line at the grocery. This seems real to me. And human. So much of what we’ve been talking about has to do with the capaciousness of your poems, which gets to your point about poems being arenas where the imagined meets the real.


Peter, your new collection is an extraordinary accomplishment—congratulations. I have so many more questions for you, but they’ll have to wait for another time. In the meantime, I’d like to ask you what I ask every poet I interview, and I’ll admit, it’s an unabashedly selfish question: what are you reading right now?


PC: Thanks so much, Amanda.


What am I reading? I’m bingeing on prose. And here’s a coincidence—I’m reading the same Annie Ernaux book. I also just read Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, as well as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. I re-read one my favorites, Eminent Victorians, and then another, James Salter’s Light Years, and then some stories by Isaac Babel.


I’m writing a piece on C.K. Williams, and it’s been invigorating to come back to his poems, especially to see the unexpected turn they took in the final decade or so, when he courted an associative strangeness even while maintaining all his characteristic immediacy of voice and close observation of real life.


I’ve been reading new poetry collections, too. Let me single out one of them—yours, Postmortem Say. I’m astounded by the simultaneous intensity and subtlety. These poems are occupied with violence and its aftermath, and yet they never feel sensationalistic. On the contrary, there’s such careful attentiveness throughout. You have the enviable skill of achieving narrative ends—unfolding a panorama that includes the experience of many years, and many individuals, glimpsed from varying perspectives—by way of lyric means.


That artfulness impresses me. And it leaves me even more grateful for the attention you’ve paid to my own poems. Thank you.






Just off the trail just off the road and running
loud through brush from the left, before becoming
sheepdog or catamount, whitetail or wolf,
the animal was vector, force, bare violence
or flight from violence with, was it, dragged
branches or pebbles, muck, teeth, and the sound
swept like a blade: the high thin hall of trail
sliced by diagonal clatter and crow shriek,
the 9:00 pm, late summer violet
spun in a curtain-crash of dark and light,
so when the animal—fisher? bobcat?
coyote? scampered across just up ahead,
turning for seconds its human-not-human
form of the four limbs, abdomen, neck, and skull,
before it ran again, its eyes, night-vision
green through brush and shadow, flared
out in a tremoring balance, tremoring rhyme
of difference trading back and forth with same
in our no-language no one was speaking.





With giant clamps to fasten each to a flat car,
tapering cylinders like mammoth tusks but bigger
which took a while to register as windmill blades


streamed out of Union Station as our faces
streamed at each other. And three Kawasakis
popping their wheelies in unison down Wewatta,


long booms of tower cranes, a generating station
venting tall gouts: everything shone out big and bold.
But you, your mother’s phone in front of you while walking


up to your room to show your homework—you’d slide a moment
into a pool of pixels, then come clear, eyes searching
so that you seemed the small adjustments searching you.


Later, the west half of the Hilton spiked with sunset,
that little instability—and the distance. . . .
Maybe because my care and caution all my life


never held off the restlessness that ripped them down,
I want to tell you everything’s fine now
and catch the rush and mumble in my voice. But you,


under the wall of Post-it notes you plot your novel on
—what are my regrets to you but low tones
you might include in the storyline of children


lost in the woods and seeking the ramshackle mansion?
Better to send a picture, show you how beyond
the sprawl of mid-rise blister-pack, and higher, fainter,


absorbing as your remembered face still streaming
across my mind and nerves, the crumpled shadows
where I will go tomorrow are the mountains.





The night before the blizzard, she read to me at bedtime
the first few pages of the Book of Myths where gods
were parents in the sky. So when the warnings came,
school closed, my father home from work, our tub and sinks
full, and my mother as a test turned off the lights
and lit a candle, so for a second the whole room
warped to the bending of the flame and spun around,
I imagined the coming blizzard coming from
a house like ours, just loftier—up north in the mountains.
All afternoon, I watched Road Runner run
as the snow and wind grew stronger, but our power
stayed on: Wile E. Coyote wrapped his paws around
the detonator’s plunger. Then a loud knock
from the front door. A man out there in the snow.
My father opened the door and grunted questions,
and when he stepped aside to let him in, the man
followed my father to our kitchen where he placed
our red, rotary phone on the table, and the man sat down.
He dialed and asked “hello?” and as he talked, he palmed
his dripping forehead with a handkerchief.
“These people’s house, that’s where.” “No, no, I tried.”
“Baby, I tried.” “I know, but maybe someone’s
found him and warmed him up.” “Their blood is different.”
He gave a wincing smile. “Yes, true, we’re also mammals.”
Once he was done, he turned his pink and splotchy head,
and I saw the necktie knot beneath his parka, caught his
Adam’s apple and show of slumping his shoulders.
As he pulled his boots on and my mother led me
up to bed, a quick zap, and our power went out.
She lit a candle and I followed her and her wobbling flame,
though memory goes streaky here, until last night,
3-D and full high-res: the oak and mahogany
volume of that staircase. I’ve climbed
ten billion steps to get there, to find out
if you’ll ever—we’ll ever—and I try each door and each
stays locked, until the last yaws open on a blizzard:
“The gods,” I say to no one, “I have a message for the gods,”
and who approaches through the snowfall but two
gray wolves, knee-high, snouts nuzzling, pelts
gemmed with melted snow, and I have for one moment been
answered. All time has stopped. They circle,
sniffing each other and sniffing me as I stand
between them, warm and panting in the snow.





One hundred plus
all day and now heat lightning


splinters purple air,
catalpa leaves


big as faces slap the windows,
and it cuts


sharp as sharpest jealousy,


they’re so near if we want them, our
nights in the yellow house


and the ancient trademarked
games we found there,


Subtle and Forceful,
Crest and Trough,


but first the smell of sliced
basil, taste of lime


on melon, then
the darkening while summer rain


finger-drums the glass


as the shade of Francesca:
“Love who pardons


no one who loves, has not,
as you can see, abandoned me,”


and we play Forget about the Hours,
Let the Candle Gutter, Let


Your Hair Still Wet Keep Time,
and with purpose,


not just more
patching everything together,


you on the phone last week,
this paperback, the rain.




Photo cred: Elizabeth Rose Campion


Peter Campion is the author of four collections of poems and the essay collection Radical as Reality: Form and Freedom in American Poetry. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, he teaches in the writing program at the University of Minnesota and serves as Executive Editor of Unbound Edition Press.

Amanda Newell’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Review, The Cimarron Review, Gargoyle, Rattle, Scoundrel Time and elsewhere. The recipient of scholarships or fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Frost Place, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She also holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson’s program for writers.