Q&A with Calvin Trillin, Author, Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse

It’s safe to say Calvin Trillin’s new book on the 2012 presidential campaign is one of a kind. In Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse, Trillin, a longtime writer for The New Yorker and columnist for The Nation, writes about Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and other presidential candidates in rhyming satire.

Trillin spoke to The Hill about his inspiration for political poetry and the difficulties of writing verse on deadline. The book came out Tuesday, and Trillin is scheduled to give a talk at Politics & Prose at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

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Q: How on earth did you find anything poetic in this year’s campaign cycle?

Fortunately, there’s not much poetic about my poetry. The word “doggerel” has been mentioned, and I don’t take that amiss. I thought [the campaign] was entertaining; it certainly wasn’t uplifting. I was concerned at first when there was only one primary battle, because the last time I did this, in 2008, both parties had primary fights. But then the cast of characters in the Republican primary turned out to be so entertaining that I was saved.

Q: Writing poetry on politics — how did you get here?

I think it’s fair to say I am the only person ever inspired to poetry by John Sununu, George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff. George H.W. Bush’s administration was sort of a gray period for those of us in the small-joke trade. They were very bland people. They all sort of looked alike. There wasn’t any juicy scandal that attracted us. The only standout was John Sununu — he didn’t even look like the rest of them.

He had that attraction that people like us like — he was very much interested in looking like the smartest person in the room. Even that name was great: Sununu. So I wrote the poem, “If you knew what Sununu.” That launched me as a deadline poet.

Q: Did you have any interest in poetry before then?

Not really. I still don’t really have any interest. I’m not a big poetry reader. Even though I was an English major, sometimes I have that dream of not being prepared for the exam that a lot of people have, and the exam is “17th Century Poetry Not Including the Works of … ” and then it names all the 17th-century poems you’ve heard of. I was a little behind on the reading, it’s fair to say.

I really am not exactly a poet. We call it deadline poetry, but I guess verse is what it really is. Sometimes people write into The Nation to complain about one of my poems, and they usually do it in rhyme, or what they think is rhyme. So I’m often comforted by this, because just when I think I’m the worst poet in the world, I’m presented with evidence to the contrary.

Q: So I shouldn’t expect you to be named the poet laureate anytime soon?

I wrote a piece about not being named poet laureate some years ago … but there was no doubt that I was waiting quietly to be named. Somehow it didn’t come.

Q: What was the hardest recurring word to rhyme in this year’s election lexicon?

Well, it wasn’t a rhyming problem; it was a meter problem: Tea Party. 

The spine of this book is a very long poem — let’s not be afraid of the word “epic” here, an epic poem, interrupted by other poems. That’s in iambic pentameter, and “Tea Party” just doesn’t work in iambic pentameter. So some of the interrupting poems were written in other meters.

I’m very, very grateful that Mitt Romney’s parents didn’t call him by his first name, Willard, because that would have been a problem for me.

In general, I’m open to anyone entering politics except those who have bad rhyming names. Clinton was a hard name to rhyme. I called him the “orange” of political poetry.

Q: What was the easiest subject or target for your writing?

A couple of those Republican primary people like [Donald] Trump and Herman Cain. Michele Bachmann said things like the hurricane was sent by God because of overspending … and I wrote a poem called “Why be so hard on Vermont?” We’re all overspending.

After a while the targets get too easy on people like that. I liked Romney, but partly I liked his name, Mitt. When I needed the meter, I called him the Mittster. But I think they were all entertaining. 

Q: Many of your poems are satirical. Do you find it easier to make fun of Democrats or Republicans?

Well, this year, of course Republicans were a lot easier because there were so many of them, and they were such a strange bunch of people to be running for president, frankly. 

Q: I find it hard enough to write prose on deadline. What’s the key to writing verse within a limited amount of time?

It’s very simple: I get into the shower on Sunday night and I turn the shower to iambic pentameter, and something usually comes out.

Q: Have you ever been approached by a campaign or anyone else to write poetry for them?

No. I think they would be unwise to even acknowledge they are aware of my presence. No, I haven’t, and I don’t get mail — I don’t get objections from people in public office, partly because what I write is so silly. It’s kind of dumb to get into an argument with people like me.

Q: What is your next project? Will you continue with political poetry?

I’ll do these things for The Nation once an issue for a while.

I’m going to go back to what my daughters call my boy reporter mode as soon as I get done with the book tour and things like that. I do New Yorker pieces. I’ll have to find myself a good murderer or something.


Following are three poems from Calvin Trillin’s new book, Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse.


NEWT DEPARTS FROM THE ISLAND OF POLIWONKS (The saddest leave taking since Max left the Wild Things)

“Don’t go!” all the poliwonks started to croon.

“What other Republican dared to harpoon

“The Mittster for being a heartless tycoon?

“Who’s left to start planning a town on the moon,

“As if he had stepped from the pages of Dune?

“Who never did hesitate once to impugn

“The press — his best foil — when it seemed opportune?

“Oh why, Newt, oh why must you leave us so soon?”

But Newt, though quite portly, as well as jejune, 

Just floated away, like a hot air balloon.


CUISINE DIVERSITY

If Rubio, Jindal, or Haley or Rice

Got put on the ticket by Romney as vice, 

Republicans possibly then could entice

Some voters who like to eat food that has spice

And not stick with voters who think that a slice

Of white bread’s the food that will always suffice.


ADIEU SANTORUM

The race will miss the purity

That you alone endow.

We’ll never find another man

Who’s holier than thou.