Lauren Camp is not only an award-winning poet, but also a teacher of creative writing, a radio broadcaster, and a jazz enthusiast. Drawing upon her expertise across several artistic disciplines, Lauren makes use of all the senses in her poetry, creating striking combinations embedded in personal and social history. Her most recent book, ‘One Hundred Hungers’, traces the intertwined experiences and memories of an Arab-American girl and her Jewish-Iraqi father. In our latest Poet of the Month interview, Lauren speaks to Katy Lewis Hood about sound and silence, teaching and learning, poetry’s discomfort, and its protection.
In your poem ‘Lately, I keep crossing’, you mention Georgia O’Keeffe, and you’ve also practised as a visual artist yourself. How do you think about the relationship between language and the visual? Do you see art and poetry as similar crafts, or are they different for you?
I don’t consciously think about the relationship between visual and linguistic elements, but I know I pull elements from one medium into another. Let me give an example. When making art, I would select and combine colors, only satisfied with the resulting work when I felt some friction in my body. In the creation process, the friction is there to energize me, not anyone else. I am building the piece to suit my eye, ear, mind. In the same way I wouldn’t tolerate easy and logical color-theory approaches, I am unwilling to write easy poems.
I strive for enough discomfort that I (or the viewer or reader) will almost want to look away. Sometimes, this means I’ll crop in tightly on a narrative. Other times, I’ll frame a poem through multiple subjects, missing elements and unexpected linebreaks.
In ‘Lately, I keep crossing’, I ask the reader to go line-by-line with me, to trust the direction—even the turns, even the unknown.
The poem combines longer, enjambed sentences with shorter, more staccato ones. This impacts on the rhythm, but also on the way that the poem is presented on the page. How do you see rhythm, sentence, and line interacting in your work? Is any of this informed by your interest in jazz music?
Quite likely all of it is informed by ears that have been tuned to jazz for a few decades. I grew up with limited music in my house and no significant musical training. Post-college, when I was living in San Francisco, I started frequenting the symphony and the opera. I was fascinated by the ways that orchestras organize to create rhythm.
But then, I landed squarely in the realm of jazz where I have listened for a long time. I was smart enough to let the music slip into me without trying to make sense of it. At some point, that music became as familiar to me as my heartbeat.
During that time, I began to make art about jazz, which meant I was applying color, texture and pattern to define the sounds I was hearing. And in 2004, I started broadcasting a jazz show on my public radio station. This gave me three hours each week to snug sounds together. I challenged myself each time to create enough aural appeal without having the music become rote or flat. After all, it would go against the very thing I was championing if, in blending the music, I lost the atypical or unexpected shifts.
I am a bit jealous of artists who get the chance to improvise with others. Revising my poetry is the closest I get to a jam session. I am responding to and improvising only with myself, but that’s when I get to add in new elements or change the composition. With writing, I have so much engagement inside of me: the breath and music of the words as they fill the page, the themes, and the urgency of what must be caught before it disappears.
Poetry must seem like a fairly individual pursuit compared to jazz, but what about the workshops you teach? What do you think are the benefits of writing and revising poetry in a more communal setting?
As far as teaching goes, one thing I’ve noticed over the years is how much people need encouragement to stay with their writing. In a way, this is the largest part of my job description.
I work primarily with older adults who have always wanted to write but didn’t know how to start or didn’t have time to explore the medium. Many of them (typically in their 60s through 80s) come to my class because they want to capture some of their life stories.
We begin each class reading and discussing a poem I’ve brought in. I try to be diverse in my selections. This enlarges their sense of what writing is and how to do it well. The students are allowed to argue against what the author did, or to dislike a piece, but they must express why. Though this doesn’t happen often, it leads to some of the strongest discussions. They begin to own their opinions. Typically, there are some in the room who argue the other side, so everyone looks again at the words and their effect.
Students tell me that all the careful consideration we do together means they read differently when they’re on their own. At home, they also attend more to the words and the craft each author brings to the page.
The prompts I give them then capitalize on this wider awareness, and throw them into a space they don’t expect. There is time-pressure and uncertainty about how to tackle a topic. When they read their piece aloud, I don’t allow any judgmental comments on what they share. After all, it’s a first draft written moments earlier. Time and again, I see them come together to support each other as they learn. I create the parameters for a very safe space, but they extend that space.
Revising takes a little more care in a group setting. Egos get in the way, despite all the best efforts, but I also see how wide the author’s sense of possibility stretches when given a handful or two of new ideas.
Poetry is a barometer for society. A poem won’t make laws, but it can offer readers points in common.
Many of your poems, particularly in ‘One Hundred Hungers’, seem caught between a documentary impulse and a slower exploration of the emotions – and also the gaps – through which history is remembered and experienced. How does this shape the way you go about researching your poems?
I love the chance to learn something new, but that researched education only sticks when I am active with the information. From research I find facts and details, but not feelings. I need to forage through the gaps in the research for that richer, emotional material.
After a lot of hand-wringing over what I didn’t know of my father’s story, I accidentally pushed ‘One Hundred Hungers’ forward by giving up on getting it from him. I dared myself to be honest, to come clean about what I didn’t know, and write about that. I never expected those new poems to hold a place in the finished book, but nonetheless, I wrote lines that acknowledged the absences. I wrote to express my frustration—which, as I continued to write, turned ultimately to acceptance—over my father’s silence. I couldn’t determine why he didn’t respond to what I asked, though I believe now that perhaps he had buried those memories for so long he had forgotten.
These poems were deeply satisfying to write. Within them, I could imagine anything—from the prospect that my father would just immediately tell me his history, detail by detail, to the possibility of traveling with him to his native country and having him point out important places around which his childhood revolved. Neither of these would happen, but the poems I wrote about these gaps became a critical third element of the book. I wasn’t held to the truth since there was no truth and no lie to them. I was held only to my responsive inner self.
The world – and particularly America – has witnessed some significant changes in recent weeks. Auden famously proclaimed that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, but are there new reasons for poetry in these times?
Poetry is a barometer for society. A poem won’t make laws, but it can offer readers points in common. It can model humanity and ethics, and open them up to attend to differences.
I work as a teaching artist for Poetry Out Loud in my home state of New Mexico. The other day I was asked to describe to several high school students why they might care about poetry. I told them what I wholeheartedly believe—that poetry will be there when they need strength. Poetry will protect them when something difficult or important happens to them—a loss, a sadness, a milestone, a time they need to feel that they belong. Poetry will give them small truths in a sea of large complications. It will show them new ways to acknowledge anything they might feel: from devastation to hope.