As part of my regular writing practice, I read poems, a poem a day most days. The language of poets scoots into parts of me that I don’t let prose access. Poetry is wiley in its beauty and truth. . . so this week, I’m so thrilled to be featuring the work of poets – Nicole Rollender this past Wednesday and Lauren Camp today. I hope you’ll read their words, buy their books, and enjoy the mysteries of language at the edge of understanding.
One Hundred Hungers offers poems that explore the life experiences of a first-generation, Arab-American girl and her Jewish-Iraqi father. It tells a story of food and ritual, immigration and adaptation. My goal with this book was to vividly imagine my father’s boyhood in Baghdad at a time when tensions began to emerge along ethnic and religious borders, and then to further visualize and understand his emigration to the U.S. as he started over as a refugee across the world from where he had grown up.
2. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Among other things, I produce and host a radio show on the local public radio station. The show, Audio Saucepan, blends global music and unexpected sounds with contemporary poetry. I have been involved in public radio for nearly 15 years. Devoting a good chunk of my attention to the blending of music has turned out to be instructive to my poetry. Without realizing, each week I learn how to shape my segues and word-chords. The show is on Sundays from 6-7pm Mountain Time, and is streamed live.
3. What made you believe you could write a book? How did you dispel doubt as you wrote?
I don’t doubt myself in the early stages. I begin each poem without judgment. It is only when I’m struggling to “fit” the finished poems into the gestalt of a manuscript that there is doubt. And then, there is plenty.
French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said, “The reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom.” I think this is the reason I write — to dismantle or re-graph what I think I know. This is what guides me forward.
I built and rearranged One Hundred Hungers a few times, turning it nearly inside out to get it to its final shape.
4. Describe the first 2-3 steps of your process in writing your book.
1) Writing with wild abandon. 2) Abandoning the wild abandon and revising. Attending to the function of each word. 3) Putting the poems away for a few months, and then revising them again.
As I implore my students to do, in each step of active work, I read aloud. I need to hear the poem to know how it is coming along. I listen for its music and its faulty pathways.
5. Which is more difficult – drafting or revising? Why?
I don’t think of either as difficult. Though I never expected to believe this, revising is more joyful to me. As Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor says, “Re-investing in one’s own little moments of insight is very important.” Revision gives me the chance to pull together the fragments of memory or story, whatever has caught my attention, and to hone them. I work as consciously as I do unconsciously. Both are the language of my medium.
6. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
In order to answer this, I have to tell you about what I did before; I was a full-time, professional artist. I listened to music all the time while I worked, and I loved creating. Still, the lifestyle was too subtly solitary. I didn’t know this then.
When I turned my attention away from visual art to poetry, someone asked if I write in silence. The question confused me. When I write, there is the crowded, glorious music of the words in my head. It is neither silent, nor lonely.
7. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?
Dealing with the details: the administrative record-keeping for submissions, emails…
8. How did you learn to write?
I learned to write by reading. I began reading early, and read voraciously as a girl. I still do. I learned to write by loving libraries, books, author histories, research, school, the marks letters make, the sounds of words and prayer.
I also learned to write, odd as it sounds, by some of the other things I was involved in: creating visual art and producing a music show for radio. The visual art taught me how to leave things out effectively; the constant interactions with music forced me to embrace soundscapes and shifts.
Both have helped give me a sense of my voice, of how I want the poems to be seen and read and heard.
9. What are some things that get in the way of your writing? How do you move them out of the way?
Teaching fills a chunk of the time I’d otherwise try to use for writing, but I wouldn’t give it up. It offers me the chance to talk craft, to build a community, to champion the words and efforts of other writers and of my students.
Laundry, visits with friends, making dinner, classes… I try to relax into whatever is right in front of me. Of course, this doesn’t always work. I also look for chances to stretch out on the couch with a small pile of books, a lap desk, my cat and a notebook. Those glorious chances to find starting points! to hear other voices! to re-calibrate time to the pace of my words!
10. What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
I came to writing as I come to most things: self-taught. I’ve read a lot of tremendous writing advice in books, but have gotten very little handed to me in a classroom or in person. Perhaps, in a backwards way, this was best — for me. Because I have always created, and because, for many decades, no one particularly cared what I created, I had no need to worry about audience. I created for me, and I was tough on myself. I wanted that ceramic cookie jar shaped like a Victorian house to be perfectly painted. I wanted the little crocheted lion to be fearsome. I wanted to trace Raggedy Ann and Andy perfectly on that thin typing paper.
I watch some of my students struggle with evil egos. I am lucky not to care. Whoever is sitting on my shoulder isn’t making enough noise for me to bother with. I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel shame for anything they create. Those “creations” are miraculous. They come from our hands renegotiating our lives. They emerge from time that calls us to other things. They only exist because we demand that they do.
Lauren Camp is a poet and educator. Her third book, One Hundred Hungers, won the Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press, 2016). She is a Black Earth Institute Fellow and the producer/host of Audio Saucepan on Santa Fe Public Radio.