This Business of Wisdom (2010); The Dailiness (2013), winner of the National Federation of Press Women Poetry Prize; and One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), winner of the Dorset Prize. Her poems appear in Poetry International, Slice, The Seattle Review, World Literature Today, Beloit Poetry Journal and elsewhere. Other literary honors include the Margaret Randall Poetry Prize, an Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award, and a Black Earth Institute Fellowship. www.laurencamp.com.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, This Business of Wisdom, gave me credibility — for myself. I was settled into the life and career of a visual artist for a good decade or more before letting poetry co-opt my hands and mind, so having that first book gave me confidence to stay on my new path.
In my second book, The Dailiness, I was still working with some of the same themes of the first—the desert and drought, family issues, loss and jazz—but I was also working through a time in our culture that was more fraught. This shows up in the poems. Both of these books are collections of poems I wrote over the years. I drew them together into books when I thought they began speaking to each other.
Meanwhile, I’d been creating poems for One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016). This third book focuses on a particular place and time: Baghdad, Iraq in the late 1930’s and through the 1940’s. The book is definitely as personal, but more myth-like than the other books.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I found my way to poetry through visual art. I had been building a career as an artist and showing my work around the country and world. When the pieces went on display, venues often requested short “blurbs” about the work. People began to ask if I had written the poetry on exhibit in the room. Pretty much from then on, I realized I could “see” words as art, too. I’ve never stopped writing poetry since.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I only start a poem when I have something to capture or pick apart, so in that way, it doesn’t take long. A first draft rarely looks—or even sounds—like the final poem. I find tremendous joy in moving words around, reducing a poem, reframing it, ruining it, and building it up again. Perhaps it was all those years as an artist, shaping and coloring…
I think temporally when I’m at the mechanic or hoping for enough layover minutes to catch a plane, but I don’t think in terms of time when I’m writing or revising. My writing seems to come out of my life so suddenly that I hardly realize how far along I am in a project until I’m invested, and want to see it through—despite the fact that “through” may still be years away.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
At the beginning, I am working on a thought, an image, a response to an artwork, a chord, a mood. If and when that happens repeatedly with one subject, I begin looking at the possibility of “a book.” I don’t think in terms of books from the start, but lately, I seem to be able to focus on sequences, which makes the book arrangement a bit easier.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I definitely enjoy doing readings and meeting the people who are likely to be readers of my work. In graduate school, one of my majors was oral interpretation of literature. I’ve also had about 15 years of radio broadcasting experience, and I love microphones. But I don’t “try out” drafts on an audience. I only read work I’m convinced is finished.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’d rather leave it to the reviewers and readers to tell me what I’ve answered for them. Making visual art, I focused on the process of creating. Viewers added their own interpretations based on their life paths and perspectives. I loved the surprise of this, and so, I am happy to let it carry over into the poems.
Of course, I am working to unearth something each time I write. I always want to unravel a sentence to its greatest lament or its widest flight, but sometimes, I intend to discover something about self, community, land. Other times, I simply want to preserve something, whether it’s marvelous or awful.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Maybe James Baldwin put it best: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” That could mean sharing a wound (physical, emotional, communal) or a hope. It might mean making sure we, as humans, focus on some more meaningful things (land, society, inner health, the future, the past) rather than monetary gain, power and prestige all the time.
Or it might mean having the skill and determination to take a thought and flip it on its side in such a way that readers have to listen closer, to truly attend, instead of the quick-quick-hurry-move on action of our current society.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Depends. I teach creative writing workshops to older adults. One of my offerings is a revision workshop, and I school participants in letting their egos move to the outside of the room for a while. But do I do this myself…? Well, I’m very open to good suggestions. I don’t always recognize them right away, but it doesn’t take long for me to at least try something out. A chance to rearrange? I’m usually all for it. Besides, there’s always the undo key.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Oh, this changes steadily, so I’m uncomfortable giving one person credit for keeping me afloat. Lately, I’ve had to call on Barbara Kingsolver’s “I can do hard things,” a statement she made in an interview.
My memory for quotes (and jokes and names) is truly atrocious, but I read enough that I’m always sailing away on beautiful lines and images for a little while—before turning to the next book, next essay, next poem.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to multi-media performance to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?
I can move between poetry and performance because they seem like two sides of the same coin. Though I tried desperately, I couldn’t move between poetry and visual art at all. I had to choose one, or let the one most demanding one choose me.
Right now, poetry has all my attention.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My opportunities to write or revise are so hit or miss that the word “routine” is laughable. I am devoted to both, and scramble to find time. Sometimes, I’ll put slender words on tiny scraps of paper, the backs of grocery lists, an appointment card, my palm. I run my own business, so I’m always busy with the correspondence and details that come along with that.
In the best of all possible worlds, I would have time to read AND write every single day. I have it pretty good, but I almost never get those two things to fall neatly into a day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Books. The forest. The gym.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Melting candles; foaming, boiled almonds; green beans and lamb stew. These are from my grandparents’ home, where we went every few weeks to be with the extended family.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Jazz and contemporary visual art are major players in my inspiration. I’ve been very involved in both, the former as an appreciator and disc jockey, the latter as a maker. I like taking them apart and putting them together in this other medium: words, lines, space.
Nature, too, or more accurately terrain, topography and weather conditions, factor into my writing. I live in the high desert. I didn’t grow up here, and it fascinates me. I write to collect it all to me, again and again.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read voraciously, these days most often poetry. It is the main component of my literary diet. I include three contemporary poems each week on “Audio Saucepan,” my radio show, and so I am ever in search of poems I most want to share.
It’s impossible to call out poets without leaving behind more true favorites. The poetry ground I stand on includes the marks of peers, strangers, people from the generation or two before me, ancients. I’d even include poems I don’t much care for. They all remind me what I want, what I haven’t yet done, and maybe even what or how I hope to never write.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Present my poetry in other countries.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Raptor rescue and rehabilitation. Chocolatier. Honestly (and I say this somewhat saddened by my answer), there isn’t anything else that truly wows me. I “try on” occupations every time I meet someone who does something I can’t fathom. Physical therapist? Nah. Social scientist. Nope.
Though I complain about my ever-tightening schedule, and how much I cram into it, I really do love what I do, or have done, or might do very soon with it.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Art made me write poetry. Being a curious, happy loner of a kid kept me reading and writing and creating.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone recently. It’s a beautiful story about rebuilding an ancestral home in the Middle East.
I’m mostly a fan of documentaries, which give me a chance to get around the world. I loved the humanity in the Clark Terry film Keep On Keeping On, and the structure and tension of Locke.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m juggling a few manuscripts. I return to them every few months and do an overhaul, pulling poems out, sliding new things in. I’m just about done with a collection of poems about arts patroness Mabel Dodge Luhan and her presence in Taos, New Mexico. I have another sequence of poems about raptors, and a separate grouping that focuses on the ocean and the power and disappearance of memory. I’m most interested in colliding unusual subjects, so I tend to assemble half a collection at a time… and then wait for its other parts to show up.
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