These things amuse him, but they also seem to make him a little uncomfortable. "I'm not really trying to market my product, exactly," he shrugs. "I have nothing to sell."
What interests him more is the possibility that people who don't usually read poetry might actually feel compelled to read his. And that tends to happen. A rave review of McGrath's last book, American Noise, appeared in Outside, a magazine for readers presumably more willing to take on a mountain than a volume of poems; reviewer Miles Harvey deemed him "a writer who could help save poetry from academia and get the rest of us reading again."
The poet considers this for a moment. "I think they were just saying, 'We are people who like to read and we can't find poetry we can relate to,'" he posits. "And when they read my book, they said, 'We see our world in this guy's poems.'"
Godzilla, Jesus, Fred Flintstone, Big Boy, and Mr. Peanut share a shelf in McGrath's FIU office. The plastic figurines are kept company by a picture of Angie Dickinson, photos of the McGraths' wedding and of McGrath with his children, a plaster marlin, and an Elvis clock, as well as unwieldy bust of the King. There are books by Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Robert Hass, and Raymond Carver, among others. A worn spongy football has come to rest in the middle of the floor. Sitting at his desk writing a graduate school recommendation for one of his students, there's something immediately familiar about McGrath. He's like someone you went to high school with. Especially if you grew up on the East Coast and attended private school.
McGrath was born in the Midwest, in Chicago. His father, a psychoanalyst, and his mother, a community liaison for the city government, were both from the middle-class neighborhood of Washington Heights, in Manhattan. In the Irish tradition, Campbell, the first born, was given his mother's maiden name. When he was a baby the family moved to Washington D.C. He entered the Sidwell Friends School, which was earlier attended by the writer Dos Passos and more recently by Chelsea Clinton. The school is known for spawning well-rounded, concerned youth who (like their parents) become lawyers, doctors, government officials, stockbrokers -- and sometimes poets.
McGrath, who frequently expresses his hatred of math, gravitated naturally toward books when he was young. But like other Americans of his generation, he also watched a lot of television. His work is full of TV references -- Gumby and Pokey, Wheel of Fortune, a Van Halen video. "As far as I'm concerned, anything on TV was a more significant cultural phenomenon than Vietnam," proclaims the narrator of one poem.
"I first started writing stories, which I think everyone does," McGrath says, recalling his high school days. "Stories are what first draw you to writing or literature in general -- a good story. But then in my own writing I found I was better at writing poetry, and poetry appealed to me more. What I wanted to do in writing wasn't to tell a story and it wasn't so much to create characters and create a world and have them move through it.
"If I had done another thing other than poetry, it wouldn't have been fiction," he adds. "It would have been filmmaking. I think poetry has a lot in common with filmmaking, in the way that the camera's free to just zoom somewhere else. You can cut from one scene to another without it being necessarily the logical narrative place for it to go."
He has never found it hard to come up with subject matter. "There's a whole literary tradition to tell your story," he explains. "To say, 'Here's what I did. I did this and I did that.' And that notion came to me without any desire to find it -- that was my voice."
With their emphasis on quotidian images and the evocation of the often surreal nature of everyday occurrences, McGrath's poems are invariably based on events in his life and the lives of his family and friends, and set in the places he has lived. Even so, he is cautious about using the term autobiographical to describe his work. "Even when you're writing autobiographically, there is no such thing as autobiographical poetry, because it's your life filtered through memory, and you're making it even more special when you make it into a poem," he says. "The 'you' that writes is not quite the same as the actual living human being -- you kind of put on your poetry uniform when you write."
Still, he concedes that it can be assumed that most of what the narrator in his poems recounts actually happened: "I certainly see in my writing the outline of my life."
McGrath was anything but the stereotypical angst-ridden teen who locked himself in his room and lived out his fantasies in verse. He spent his high school years enjoying, as he puts it in one poem, "the perfect arc of youth, a constellation made up of baseball, booze, girls, and loud music."