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). “I thought, ‘Just let me start somewhere.’ So I started writing about Picasso in the first decade in Paris.”
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, all in different 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.” “It’s just another kind of storytelling.”
A: 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.
Q: In studying the 20th century, did you find one overarching theme?