Behind the Words: Lauren Camp

Posted by on Dec 19, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Lauren Camp

Lauren Camp is the Poet Laureate of New Mexico and author of five books, most recently Took House (Tupelo Press). Honors include a Dorset Prize and finalist citations for the Arab American Book Award and Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She is an emeritus Black Earth Institute Fellow and was Astronomer in Residence at Grand Canyon National Park in 2022. Her work has been translated into Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish, and Arabic.

And Lauren was also published in the sixth and eighth issues of Spry Literary Journal. Earlier this year, she was kind enough to be interviewed by fellow contributor Kelly Grace Thomas about her craft. Here is their conversation.

Kelly Grace Thomas: It seems like creation is at the center of your life in both poetry and visual art. Do you have a guiding principle or artistic mantra when it comes to the creative process? 

Lauren Camp: Creation is very much at the center for me, but the way I work is more organic and intuitive than logical.

I don’t write within the specific organization of time. Instead, I tack intriguing lines on the side of a grocery list, or varied scraps of paper. Some days, I only have time to make note of a wondrous word I want to claim for a poem. I need to show up to the page with something to be accountable for: maybe a history or a person. This often narrows to one of two themes: place or trouble. 

I am most entranced by process and happy to stay within it for eons, hours, months. I like to confound my poems, to tie them up with a few elements or storylines, and then detangle enough that the reader can follow. Meanwhile, I’m gradually moving toward an unknown—what I tell my students is the writer’s “discovery”—and the fullness I feel when that appears.

I’m not making visual art anymore, but when I was, I would slip colors and patterns around until they caused a perfect sort of friction. I wanted to feel a little unbalanced. I still look to do this, only now my materials are language.

Love that idea of your work looking at two themes. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to place and trouble? How do they speak in your work and what questions about each drive creative exploration? 

Places stick with me. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I want to celebrate and connect to them fully. I can elongate my noticing by casting their light and detail into a poem. This helps me hold memory of the place even more than a photo would. Though it may not be necessary for the reader to know specifically where this poem originated, I know. This was Virginia. Oaxaca. Wisconsin. Baghdad.

Any detail can spark me—a concern of the region, an element, what’s growing, what I don’t understand. And it’s fun to figure out ways to logic them into surprising language. In the high desert where I live, wind and sun are regular companions. They enter many of my poems. The demand I’ve created for myself is to make them newly viewed or felt, yet accurate.

“Trouble,” as I so casually referred to it, is harder to define. It might be a hurdle through any close relationship with someone I love, or a global or local issue. It is any palpable situation that has captured my mind and heart—for example, when I was afraid for my safety as a woman in a nearly empty building at night, or the horror of hearing a politician’s statements to a Senate committee.

Writing into and through trouble allows me to explore the situation and my emotions around it more, but it also lets me step to the side of it, to see it as someone other. In that role, I am focusing on the craft instead of the pulse of it—the point of view, the voice, word choice, pacing, etc. These are the poems I like best, the ones where I take some very heated instigating material and cross the threshold of it, draft by draft, moving it into something more.

I love this idea of “ ones where I take some very heated instigating material and cross the threshold of it, draft by draft, moving it into something more.” Can you share a little bit about your revision process, especially what you might do with a heated or heavy poem? How do you know when a poem is “finished”? 

The revision process is organic and eccentric, at least the way I do it. I’m reckoning with—by which I mean working toward and waiting for—intersections. In my drafts, I try to make meaning between the specific and the outer edge, the experiment and the reality. I rarely know what’s happening, and I like that act of faith. The process is dirty and radical and momentary, and it devises new directions based on all sorts of factors.

I’m glad for heated subjects. They give me something clear to work—and to work against. I don’t want to be self-indulgent. I also don’t want to relate too well to my material. I have to take it further…to illuminate it, change it, project it into how the world and the passage of time has affected me.

In so many ways, my revision process arose from other realms I’ve long immersed in: visual art and jazz. My compositional choices and sonic voice are structured from these previous studies, and they, too, help to compose and control tough materials. They open up space for play, even in poems of loss or longing. 

Finished? Ha, well… lately I’ve been going back into poems finished some years ago. But anyway, I’d say some are finished when they make me feel giddy. Surprised, I guess, by what I created.

I love what you said about the intersections in “between the specific and the outer edge, the experiment and the reality.” Can you talk a little bit about the experiment and reality in terms of constructing a poem, as well as collection?

The value of this approach became clear when I was working on the poems that became my book, One Hundred Hungers. I was trying to reflect the experience my father might have had as a child in a culture and country halfway around the world—and then push further, into the realities of displacement. I thought he would simply tell me. 

The project stalled for a long time because he didn’t. Gradually, I saw that I could write a different type of poem. I began drafting what I called “Variation” or “What if” poems, and these became an integral part of the mix. One example is “Variation (Let’s Pretend)”—a poem that let me experiment with my own research, intuition, imagination and hopes. It enlarged the story, allowing me to step into the poems more fully.

Thank you so much for giving us such an interesting sneak peek into your process. I have one, maybe two final questions. As someone who has had a lot of success in poetry what advice would give for poets who are just getting started? What advice do you have for poets who are in it for the long haul?  

What I love about the just-starting early times is how exhilaratingly possible everything is. No move is wrong because you don’t know that a wrong could exist. You simply throw yourself in and see what happens. You copy, you play. That’s wisdom right there. Such experimentation is necessary before the judgmental and learned self comes in and stops the party.

I’d encourage anyone to keep that phase up as long as you can. Don’t be in a rush to publish in those early days; it’s likely you’ll think about those works quite differently as time goes along. Roam out in every direction with your pen and keyboard. See how much your lines and linebreaks can help you to see. What can you make a poem do? What can you learn about yourself? about language? the way forward? history?

For poets in the long haul, welcome! It’s hard here, and it’s wonderful. This is the space of confrontation with the page and the poem. Play is still critical, but now you know far more, which means you know enough to know that you might only know a portion of the whole. You carry with you rules and techniques and approaches, some that are lauded, some tsked against. Listen to them. Also, ignore them. Be patient, both with yourself and with the community.

Thanks so much for this fascinating discussion. Is there anything else you’d like to share?  

I’d like to make a plug for supporting others. We don’t write alone. We write in a loose or exact conversation with others. Recognize that a great many voices and perspectives are what make poetry necessary in the world. Not just yours or mine. Cheer on others, loudly and with true intention. If poetry succeeds and reaches its audience, it’s because of all of us throwing our voices and worries and hopes onto the current winds and watching them be carried out. Be beautifully jealous of what someone else has created, and go back in, alone, to the page to see what you can do next.

Learn more about Lauren

Kelly Grace Thomas is an ocean-obsessed Aries from Jersey. She is a poet, editor, and educator. Kelly is the winner of the 2020 Jane Underwood Poetry Prize and 2017 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor, a finalist for the  2018 Rita Dove Poetry Award, a semifinalist for the 2021 Nimrod Poetry Award and a multiple pushcart prize nominee. Her first full-length collection, Boat Burned, was released with YesYes Books in January 2020. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Best New Poets, 32 Poems, Los Angeles Review, Muzzle, Sixth Finch and more. Kelly has received fellowships from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Workshop. Kelly is the Director of Education for Get Lit and author of Voices in Verse: Poetry, Identity and Ethnic Studies; Stanzas of America: Celebrating BIPOC Poetry; and Words Ignite: Explore, Write and Perform Classic and Spoken Word Poetry, (all released with Literary Riot) and currently being taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, sister and daughter. Learn more here.