Robert Campbell is a poet living in Lexington, Kentucky. His poetry and criticism have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, River Styx, Zone 3, Ninth Letter, Asheville Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Third-place winner of the 2013 River Styx International Poetry Contest, Pushcart Prize nominee, and previous winner of the Flo Gault Poetry Prize through Sarabande Books, Robert holds an MS in Library Science from the University of Kentucky and is currently an MFA student in poetry at Murray State University. He serves as Reference & Instruction Librarian at Transylvania University and Reviews Editor at DIALOGIST, an online journal of poetry and art.
Robert Campbell talks about riffing and allusion in “Percussion in the Valley of Dry Bones.”
Percussion in the Valley of Dry Bones
By Robert Campbell
The Lord set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones.
I will open your graves and declare important things, He said.
The Lord grabbed two hills and broke the crust of the earth.
I will make various pronouncements on your heads, He said.
The Lord mused, rubbing the chin of his golden countenance.
My people will sing unto me, and I will tap my feet in time.
The Lord unpeeled some stratosphere and rolled a cigarette.
Afterward, I would like a very nice reception with limoncello.
The Lord passed his hand over the bones; they began to drop
a syncopated beat. I will dangle the skeletons of men from strings
while playing Beastie Boys songs on keytar. The Lord breathed,
and fog and strobe lights issued from each skull. I will break-dance
for my people. I will pop and lock with glory. The Lord gyrated
on his chariot, and it did thunder and lightning; the firmament
hissed with steam. My people will pay one hundred and fifty bucks
to see me lowered onto a stage wearing nothing but pink sequins
and fingerless gloves, received into a throng of dancers. The Lord
grew indecipherable. He beat-boxed for twenty minutes straight,
and the heavenly host did twist and shake. I will perform my final
number with pyrotechnics and with smoke. The sky grew dark,
a great yawning in the abyss. The skeletons hummed. The Lord
flicked ash into the sea, and when I opened my mouth to speak,
he stuck his lit cigarette therein. It seared my tongue. And then
I returned to Jerusalem, no wiser, but blind and full of music.
[Originally published in Columbia Poetry Review: Issue 27 (2014).]
Writing Prompt: Robert Campbell asks you to riff off another text. Select something serious (newspaper article, tax booklet, medical pamphlet, instructions…), and then make it less serious (perhaps even humorous). Take something from the text to serve as the first line of your poem, and then play with it.
Definition of Terms
A riff comes from jazz and means an improved sequence. Riffing, then, is the act of improvising to create that passage.
A conceit-based poem would be a poem that is conceived in the mind (rather than, say, writing about an event that happened to you).
An allusion makes a reference to something or someone else; for example, when Robert Campbell refers to the passage from Ezekiel in his poem.
Something is absurd when it is contrary to reason–it doesn’t “make sense” to us.
Couplets are 2-line stanzas. (See “Percussion in the Valley of Dry Bones” above for an example.)