Interview with Lauren Camp

Black Rock & Sage reached out to writer, and all around great human-being, Lauren Camp, author of One Hundred Hungers and asked a few questions in anticipation of her upcoming visit.

Camp will give a talk entitled Migration & Exile at 5:30 PM at the ISU Bengal Cafe Monday, September 9th. 

Black Rock & Sage (BRS): Throughout your career you have engaged with an incredible range of artistic mediums – poetry, visual art, radio, etc. – how does working amongst such variety impact your approach to writing and teaching?

Lauren Camp (LC): Manipulating sound and, at other times, colors and patterns, has been surprisingly good practice for training my ear and eye to create. I read and read, and I recommend that approach for understanding what a poem can do. The two other art forms, radio and visual art, gave me unexpected ways to hear and look at a poem. Is it synesthesia if I’m drawing on media with which I have a great deal of muscle memory? I’m not sure. I know I want to see a poem, its negative space, its composition. And thanks to an immersion in jazz, I crave the riffs in it, want to unbalance its regular sounds.  

BRS: What does your creative process look like?

LC: I write to catalogue what I’ve experienced, what I want to hold, or maybe even what I want desperately to let go of, to let slip through me and out to some other side. I write to figure out what I can’t reason to a perfect conclusion in the shower. To figure out that not all things are knowable. If I don’t have an idea, an image, a plan or something else, I don’t write.

To me, the first draft is just a beginning—what editor Lewis Lapham calls “breaking rocks.” Then, comes the exciting part: revision.

BRS: I feel as though there is a deep sense of musicality in your poetry. Is that sense of rhythm something you consciously work on or does it come from something more innate?  What is the role, if any, of music in poetry?

LC: Listening to a lot of jazz turns out to be a brilliant way to learn improvisation and fragmented melody. I’m not a musician, but I spent 15 years in broadcasting, mixing music: first, with a strictly jazz show, then with a show that ranged to wider genres.

I don’t like an even thing. I never cared for the perfect, easy sound (or in visual art, color) combination. I don’t want a poem to lock shut very often. What I crave most is a bit of friction and something uncertain or almost unpleasant. My goal is to take someone along, but maybe make some quick turns along the way. I read my poems aloud while I work. Though what I’m after is highly intuitive, it comes down to striving for a specific meter or stress that meets the subject and style

BRS: I am especially intrigued by the elements of memory that are woven through your works – in the retelling of other histories as you do in One Hundred Hungers as well as in your work at the Mayo Clinic – mostly due to my own experience as a caretaker for family with severe dementia. Recognizing that being in such a position can be both terribly difficult yet incredibly rewarding, have you struggled to balance the need to make clear your own voice with your sense of responsibility to voice the memories of others?

LC: I struggled with this in One Hundred Hungers, especially. Though I had almost no personal details available to me, I was trying to tell the story of my father’s childhood.

I knew I wasn’t writing for him, which allowed a kind of freedom. Even so, my imagination and research of the heritage and place had to feel accurate. It was equally challenging to describe a place that no longer exists in the way he lived it, a place I couldn’t visit and capture.

The poems that detail dementia offer a different set of challenges and openings. I think the actual writing gave me the opportunity to hold another role. In addition to seeing as “daughter,” I was able to be simply “a witness.” That allowed the heart a rest.

Those poems mainly voice family memories that are already known facts. But it is certainly muddy ground when one tries to describe someone else’s reality. This is heightened even more when one intends to enter the space of someone who doesn’t have language to exert their own agency. I could make accurate guesses, and that is where the effort really came in. I neither wanted to ease and make beautiful, nor put my opinions on what was happening. Also, it’s possible that a person with Alzheimer’s may not be thinking anything! That’s the dilemma, how to show what you can’t possibly know

BRS: What other voices we should be listening to? Are there any artists or authors flying under the radar or otherwise hidden that we should seek out to read or otherwise engage with?

LC: I could name dozens, maybe hundreds, of poets here. For my work in radio, I read widely. It’s a practice I’d recommend. It keeps one from creating derivative work. We should each want our voices to shine through. What we’re really after is what we have to say, not what someone else has already said well.

I’m inspired and influenced by so many contemporary poets, sometimes for a phrase or a perspective, sometimes for the gut-punch reaction or a sort of clarity.

But it’s important to remember that influences come from other places, too. Thelonious Monk is a master with space, Cy Twombly with interwoven shapes, Eva Hesse with the almosts of repetition. I like reading philosophical texts, fables, technical manuals. In some ways, my most innovative self comes when I choose to translate the effect I get from another medium into the one I’m using.

It’s nearly impossible. All I’m able to do is learn the reaction I want to go after. Getting there is a good labor and confusion and attempts. I end up with something new and fresh—and never actually like the model.

BRS: What is the role of the artist in the world?

LC: To make us feel. To remind us to see, or to point us towards what we’d never think to see.

BRS: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

LC: Read, write. Go easy on yourself. Don’t compare to anyone else. Find new vistas. Read more, write more. Learn to love revision. (I tell students that’s where all the magic happens.)

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