Monty Campbell Jr., a poet from Salt Lake City, is inspired by his Native American culture when he writes, but he hopes to shed the label of “Native American writer.”
“I never consider myself a Native American poet, but I am Native American.” Campbell said. “I am hoping that as my career goes on, that pigeonhole will fade.”
Campbell, a Cayugan Indian, is originally from Gowanda, N.Y., which belongs on the Cattaraugus Indian reservation outside of Buffalo, N.Y.
The biggest inspirations in Campbell’s life come from his culture and his everyday experiences.
“My culture inspires me a lot: the shape of a woman, a good joke. Really tiny little things in my life inspire me,” Campbell said. “The spark for everything I’ve ever written came from something small and then just brought on other larger thoughts or memories.”
Graduate student and Vice President of the English Language and Literature Association Ali Vlahos, of Edwardsville, was moved by the power of the text and subject matter present in each of Campbell’s poems within his first book, “A Large Dent in the Moon.”
“The language that’s used in this particular book is concise, and it punches you in the gut and really makes you think,” Vlahos said. “Here’s someone who is close to my age that’s writing about very real, very true, very deep things. Most of all, it surprised me. That’s what good writing should do. It should surprise people.”
Campbell read from “A Large Dent in the Moon” in the bookstore for students, faculty and community members last week. ELLA hosted the event.
Vlahos had heard Campbell read at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Boston this year, and decided the poet should visit SIUE.
“I just saw Monty at AWP and I was so taken with his poetry and I came back to the first ELLA meeting and I was like, ‘I want this guy to come to campus. I really think that what he has to say is important and I think he needs to come here,’” Vlahos said. “I was pretty adamant about it.”
Vlahos mostly wants for readers to see his writing instead of focusing on the writer at first.
“I think it is oftentimes when once you have a label applied to whatever you are, a Native American poet, an Asian poet, whatever, you become pigeonholed. And I think it is also very easy then for other people to dismiss your poetry as such, like ‘I’m not going to be able to relate to this’. Writing is writing is writing across the board,” Vlahos said.
Vlahos feels Campbell writes poetry that can be understood by anyone who reads it.
“When [Campbell] speaks of taking one mundane thing and then turning it into an actual poem, that means something to someone. I think [something] that is sometimes standoffish about poetry is that it is kind of inaccessible. I never ever got that sense from any of [Campbell’s] writing,” Vlahos said. “It’s very down-to-earth and accessible. It’s very beautiful.”
Campbell said he only started reading and writing poetry when he was older.
“Well, I wasn’t always into poetry. I was in fiction before anything. I was 15 years old, I had always loved reading,” Campbell said. “But when I was 15, my across-the-street neighbor started introducing me to Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Henry Miller and things like that. Honestly, those are the writers that introduced me to good literature.”
While his love for fiction never waned, Campbell did find one particular poet that changed his perspective on writing.
“Walt Whitman is the reason I’m into poetry. The first time I read anything he wrote, I was just, I didn’t know, I’ve never felt that way about writing, like reading something before,” Campbell said. “Walt Whitman, Rimbaud, you know, Kenneth Patchen, writers like that. It made me have a different look on writing, but it never made me dislike fiction.”
Some of his poetry is even inspired by the literature he reads or has read in the past. While he has his favorites, Campbell said he will read anything he can get his hands on.
“I will pick up anything. Probably my favorite novelist in the last 10 years has been Cormac McCarthy and Dave Eggers. As far as poetry, I mean it’s so hard because I read so much poetry, and I still pick up the books that I was reading so many years ago, like Patchen,” Campbell said. “C.K. Williams, William Carlos Williams, [are] those things that I kind of stick to with poetry. Modern poetry, I find it amazing. I read a lot of journals and a lot of writers, [but] none who have inspired me to the lengths of the old-school writers.”
“A Large Dent in the Moon” holds a vast collection of poems by Campbell, but the majority of the poems were written some time ago.
“Lots of my older poems are in that book. A lot of those have to do with being Native American and growing up on the [reservation] because that was like a really fucked-up and important time in my life,” Campbell said. “But I don’t think I’ve written a poem in the last year that touched on me being a Native [American] at all. I just write my experience only. I think now that writing for my history is probably over in my writing because I did it.”
With his second book of poetry coming out in either January or February of 2014, Campbell pointed out differences that will be seen with his new book.
“The things I wrote were from a different place. ... I spent a lot of time rationalizing for my second book, which isn’t completely finished, edited, by any means,” Campbell said. “But I think a lot of the poems in the first book are very blunt, blatant chunks of me, and I think the one that’s coming out next year [will be] a little more reflective and down-to-earth. There’s a lot more nature poems involved with my second book.”
Campbell said he finds the world of contemporary poetry overwhelming when compared to the lives and the writing of the classic poets.
“I guess the way I think about it is now poetry, especially, is so crowded from the literary scene of universities. Whereas, 50 years ago, these guys were just hanging out, traveling, living lives without going to college and just writing about their everyday lives,” Campbell said. “That’s why I liked Henry Miller so much, because he just traveled the world and had sex with people, worked odd jobs, or just lived life instead of worrying about life.”
Campbell gave easy-to-follow advice from his experience compiling books for those who are passionate about their writing.
“Read a lot and write a lot. I think I started writing poetry when I was 19 or 20. None of those poems, for almost a decade, were very good, but as a writer, eventually you will find your own voice,” Campbell said. “That’s what happens with good writers, they always start from somewhere else. Delving into writing and reading helps a lot. And if you’re really obsessed with that craft, eventually, you will find your own voice.”
After his reading on campus, students were excited by the themes present in Campbell’s poetry. Sophomore Spanish major Jacky Lloyd, of Swansea found the reading to be jarring yet enjoyable.
“His language was really graphic but he said it so softly that I didn’t get upset. I didn’t feel provoked and I loved his description and I was trying to keep up with [him]. I want to know who he is talking about or where he was, so I loved it,” Lloyd said. “I thought it was really awesome.”
ELLA does not know who their next visiting writer will be, but Vlahos hopes that this reading will have other campus organizations ready to offer up ideas.
“This is part of the reason why ELLA has been trying to branch out and get in touch with other student organizations to kind of see who there is a need for and who people want to come to campus,” Vlahos said.