David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is the poet Lauren Camp. Prior to becoming a poet, Lauren Camp was a visual artist. Her art has appeared everywhere from the American Jazz Museum and the Delta Blues Museum to the Fiber Art Biennale in Chiari, Italy and is part of the permanent collections of many public institutions from St. Vincent’s Children’s Hospital of Indiana to the U.S Embassies in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and Bamako, Mali. For 15 years, Lauren Camp was also a producer for Santa Fe Public Radio and host of the show Audio Saucepan, described as a delicious one-hour journey through poems, philosophical fragments, and literary excerpts intermixed with jazz, spirituals, world percussion, and other sounds. A show with multiple moods, a saucy potluck of reason and tempo. Lauren Camp is also the author of four previous collections of poetry, these include One Hundred Hungers, winner of the Dorset Prize and a finalist for the Arab American Book Award, and Turquoise Door: Finding Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico, a finalist for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Her poems have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Witness among many others. They’ve been translated into Turkish, Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish. Camp has twice served as a guest editor for World Literature Today for the issues dedicated to jazz poetry and the intersection of visual art and poetry, and also a guest editor at Malpais Review for their issue dedicated to the poetry of Iraq. Camp lives in New Mexico and teaches through the state’s Poetry Out Loud program, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s Art and Leadership Program at Santa Fe Community College and through her own community workshops. Lauren Camp is here today on Between the Covers to talk about her newest collection, just out from Tupelo Press called Took House. Publishers Weekly calls Took House a “stirring original collection” that delves into hunger and longing, asking the reader to linger in the fraught space between control and the loss of it. DM O’Connor for Rhino Poetry calls Took House “Minimal yet soaring. Cemented in time and form yet fluid. There are love poems, avant-garde experiments, prose chunks, free verse, and brick-solid couplets.” Hawks, owls, coyotes, and ravens mix with Georgia O’Keeffe, Donald Judd, and Annie Leibovitz. Doubtlessly, Camp is an artisan working with culmination. Each poem stands sound and true. Finally, Poet Allison Benis White says in Lauren Camp’s Took House, “In Lauren Camp’s Took House we are enveloped in a poetry both precise and mysterious, intimate and sublime. Reading through these poems, I was reminded of the tenet that poetry is not like the interior life, but is the interior life, the thing itself made flesh via language.” “Give me your flowered ear,’ Camp writes in one poem, and in another, ‘I will speak / of the seams of desire, the practice / and even the ceiling.’ Here is a poet articulating her human existence (the tentacles of love, inebriation, visual art) here is a particular heart and mind removing its shield in order to commune, to help us see the world again, more deeply and more strangely, and reader, I am grateful.”
Welcome to Between the Covers, Lauren Camp.
Lauren Camp: Delighted to be here, David, thank you so much.
DN: So before we talk about Took House in particular, I thought we could start with a discussion of ekphrastic poetry more generally, poetry that’s engaged with visual art. Not only because there are a lot of poems in Took House that are ekphrastic, poems that engaged with Georgia O’Keeffe or Robert Rauschenberg, or Donald Judd or Eva Hesse, and many others, but also because from what I’ve read, you came to poetry somewhat accidentally when you were a visual artist and that the first text you were writing were almost accidental ekphrastic texts. So I was hoping maybe we could start with your origin story as a poet, how that came from the visual art world but also how you continue to engage with the visual art world.
LC: I was making visual art, my medium was fiber, fabric and thread. A lot of my subject matter, but not all of it, was jazz. All of these things are actually important because they all impact how I learned to become a poet. I was creating visual art, wall hangings, and writing. At some point in the process, some years in I began writing wall text for the artwork as the pieces would be exhibited, be asked, invited to be on walls in art centers, museums, and shows. The curators of the shows would ask for wall text which they called blurbs, that is what it’s called in that world. I wrote those blurbs with the intention of I guess describing the artwork for some artists in that medium, they would write about the materials they used, perhaps how many stitches or how many spools of thread or how long it took. That never interested me so I began to write just these things that I just called blurbs for lack of any other term. At some point—I wouldn’t even be able to give you a year but maybe it was like the early 2000s—somebody saw a solo exhibit that I had in Kentucky and called me over and said “I know you made the artwork, who wrote the poems?”
DN: It’s probably the first time a blurb and a poem have been put together. [laughter]
LC: I was so confused, really I was very, very lost in that question, I said “there are no poems here.” That viewer, art appreciator, took me over to the piece that she pointed out to me was a portrait I had done about Billie Holiday in fabric and thread. She said, “Here, this piece, who wrote this poem?” and she pointed to my blurb and I said, “Oh, that’s a blurb, I wrote it.” It’s like nearly an embarrassing story of how to come to poetry from the backside of it really knowing nothing in some ways. After that, I came back to New Mexico, heard one of my friends talk about a poetry group she was in, and I sidled over and said, “Could I be in that? What is that? Could I be in that?” She said, “Well, this group is closed but I know of another.” So I had to come to poetry from the center of it in a way.
DN: I suspect a lot of people who either haven’t tried ekphrastic poetry or haven’t thought a lot about ekphrastic poetry might think it is simply an attempt to describe the visual art as best as one could. But often it isn’t that at all and can be quite oblique to or even decoupled from the active description. I’m thinking of Jorie Graham’s description of ekphrasis for her and where she said, “A painting is, in a poem, a painting run through an imagination and a spirit other than the painter’s. It is not trying to describe the painting, it is trying to speak from it.” Of course, this isn’t a definitive definition of ekphrastic poetry but rather the definition for Graham. But I wondered how that struck you, and if you had a certain philosophy or orientation when you’re engaging with visual art poetically.
LC: I think I agree with that quote in great part, and I might even go further and say that for me, sometimes it doesn’t even have to be to speak from it but to speak underneath it or above it or to give a different side to it. I have no interest in writing precisely what I see. I want to take that artwork and have it help me figure out something more, maybe something about me, maybe something about a particular time. But often what I’m doing with the art that I’m drawn to is trying to figure out why. Why this piece? Why this work? Why this style? Why these colors? Why this emptiness? Why this? For a lot of the works in Took House, why this repetition?
DN: The first section of the book is called The Exact Color of Welcome, and the first poem within the first section is called Find the Color of Survival, and the notion of welcome or survival having a color points to the gap between language and perception, at least, for me. It seems like in any act of representation there is that gap, how to perceive something and then translate it into a word, a painting, or a dance, but with the classic poems, it feels like the gap is more foregrounded because one is making a representation from another representation. A poem from a painting, that itself was trying to represent something. Is that gap what you’re reaching for with these titles, The Exact Color of Welcome and Find the Color of Survival? If not, then tell us about the impulse to insert the notion of color here.
LC: I think as a visual artist, or a one-time visual artist at any rate, I think in color and texture, what for me is very familiar and common but what seems to be not for others. Survival seems like, I could say it has a color even though I can’t tell you right now what that color is, it just has a color. It’s not so much a feeling as a tangible thing which I think color is.
DN: Could we hear Find the Color of Survival?
[Lauren Camp reads the poem called Find the Color of Survival]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lauren Camp read from her latest collection, Took House. I restrained myself to one question of epic length so forgive this one but one of my favorite essays about the gap in representation is an essay by Anne Carson called Variations on the Right to Remain Silent. Part of what she discusses in it is the philosophy of the painter Francis Bacon and your use of color made me think of that essay but so did your epigraph by the Artist Eva Hesse which mentions edges. Your epigraph says, “My right or wrong isn’t to have a pure or fine edge.” When I read that I thought of Anne Carson on Francis Bacon where she says “He is a representational painter. His subjects are people, birds, dogs, grass, sand, water, himself and what he wants to capture of these subjects is (he says) their reality or essence or the facts. By facts he doesn’t mean to make a copy of the subject as a photograph would but rather to create a sensible form that will translate directly to your nervous system the same sensation as the subject.” Then later she says, “Stops and silence of various kinds, however, seem to be available to Francis Bacon within the process of his painting. For instance in his subject matter, when he chooses to depict people screaming in a medium that cannot transmit sound. Or in his use of color, which is a complex matter, but let’s look at one aspect of it, namely the edges of the color. His aim as a painter, as we have seen, is to grant sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. He wants to defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise, which is pretty much everywhere since humans are creatures who crave a story. There is a tendency for story to slip into the space between any two figures or any two marks on a canvas. Bacon uses color to silence this tendency. He pulls color right up to the edge of his figures—a color so hard, flat, bright, motionless, it is impossible to enter into it or wonder about it. There is a desolation of curiosity in it. He once said he’d like to “put a Sahara desert or the distances of a Sahara” in between parts of a painting.  His color has an excluding and accelerating effect, it makes your eye move on. It’s a way of saying, Don’t linger here and start thinking up stories, just stick to the facts. Sometimes he puts a white arrow on top of the color to speed your eye and denounce storytelling even more. To look at this arrow is to feel an extinguishing of narrative. He says he got the idea for the arrows from a golf manual.” I know this is probably a stretch but I was thinking of his employment of color to stop narrative in the lines you just read. “The muscle of my mind was worn out. I was painting everything at once. Painting until the impulse died and began again. I tended to let days scatter to bruises on a canvas.” I guess it made me wonder about your epigraph, what it meant to you, and why you chose this specific quote by Eva Hesse as the way to introduce us to Took House.
LC: Let me first say that the passage you read from Anne Carson is magnificent and feels completely logical to me, I think. It makes me want to go and read the whole thing but that idea of granting sensation through translating a sensation seems exactly right. A person can’t take something in one medium and shift it to another medium without doing some translating work. You can’t make the same music without an instrument that you would with an instrument. So if my medium is words to describe music, I have to do some work to find those words or take your pick what the analogy is, if I’m trying to describe artwork and I’m using words, that’s a lot different from using resin like Eva Hesse did. The quote, the epigraph to start the book, it pleases me so much, the fact that it isn’t black and white, that perhaps even built into her quote is that there isn’t a right or wrong, that the edges blur, that the box doesn’t contain it, the vessel doesn’t contain exactly the answer anyone wants.
DN: The cover evokes that too, the house that seems to want to be more than a house.
LC: I would love to shout out to the cover artist. It’s a woman in Albuquerque whose work I’ve known for a long time, her name is Suzanne Sbarge. When I found this piece which is called Nest, I was basically exhilarated because it seemed to have everything I needed. It was almost as though Suzanne had read the book, distilled the poems, and created this artwork though that isn’t how it happened but it really felt like it, went right along with the poems so exactly and in a way that is also very open and capacious.
DN: You have a poem that engages with the person who wrote the epigraph, Eva Hesse, entitled Instead—Small, Rather Huddled and So On. It engages with a work of hers called Repetition Nineteen III which felt in conversation to me with your Donald Judd poem called Empirical Theories of a Box-Maker which engages with Judd’s 00 Untitled Works. They feel in conversation because Judd’s work and Hesse’s work are both engaged with repetition, with Judd’s boxes being more uniform and has his weird latex plastic shapes having more variations but all coming from a certain core form. We could also say perhaps that they’re both in conversation with your poem about O’Keeffe’s Black [Place] Series where she returns over and over again to the same view to paint the same place many different times. On top of that, you also have a poem called Repetitions that isn’t explicitly about a specific work of art but it made me all wonder about your attraction to art that enacts repetition, and then also what role repetition plays in your work if you feel like repetition is a motif or a tool that you employ.
LC: I think repetition is a tool I employ in revision more than anywhere else especially in these poems. I began the poems that now make up Took House in 2005. For a long time, it was a vast collection of poems that then shifted, enlarged, and shrunk. Within those poems, they were revised, they were shortened, lengthened, stretched out. I did a huge amount to the poems themselves into the collection so in that way, there was a lot of repetition. There’s also, for me, a repetition in the core story within this collection, the going back, the drinking, the appetites, the tables even, the repetition of hungers.
DN: What about your attraction to repetition within the work of the artist you chose? Like you say one of the things that you’re confronted with when you’re doing ekphrastic poetry is “why am I engaging with this specific art?” It seems to me like you’re drawn to artists who are drawn to the repetition of form.
LC: It might seem like that but I think what you’re seeing is a selection of ekphrastic works that I made more intuitively but I’ve written a lot of ekphrastic poems, not all of which deal with repetition. Partly, I made that choice of what to include in the book and I was drawn to the ekphrastic poems that had that repetition, had the minimalism, or had open-ended quality to them. But there are a lot of other poems I’ve written, ekphrastic poems that are not at all—I’m scanning in my head some of the artworks—repetitive or not much repetitive. But I also want to say that I have an extreme fascination for the artworks that almost feel like they’re meditating or meditative maybe, that are empty, open, or quiet. I would love to think that’s because that’s how I am, but it’s probably more a factor of that’s what I need more. I don’t know.
DN: Let’s hope. I picked out two poems that to me felt like repetition leaped out, Let the Other and I Recommend You Not Empty of Content.
LC: Okay. 0:34:08.0
[Lauren Camp reads the poem called Let the Other]
[Lauren Camp reads the poem called I Recommend You Not Empty of Content]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lauren Camp read from her latest collection of poetry, Took House. So you mentioned the second poem as a pantoum and you’ve talked about how that is a good form for dealing with something hard, for any obsession, or any issue a writer can’t stop thinking about. Why is that the case?
LC: Because within the form, it repeats, it’s a very strict structure that allows those lines to repeat in specific places. But in the process of doing that, you have to add in new content or new perspective sometimes, and so the form is both directed and again, open-ended, again, requiring or allowing discovery because you don’t really know what you’re going to be able to or have to say when the line returns in a new position. I will also say that pantoums are a marvelous form. I restrain myself in using them but I love them, I love teaching them. I have a loose parameter of wishing to have a pantoum in every book.
DN: Has that been happening so far? [laughs]
LC: I’ve done pretty well, not exactly but I’m pretty good. [laughs]
DN: When I think about repetition, obsession, and pantoums for dealing with something hard because of the repetition in the forum, you mentioned the repetition that’s also happening in the story within the book because there are poems that appear regularly in the collection about a fraught relationship or perhaps about different relationships. It isn’t specified who the people are but it feels like there’s a deep subterranean story between lovers, but we have access not to the story but to these brief snapshots. I think of Allison Benis White’s blurb that calls these poems precise and yet mysterious and says these poems aren’t like the interior life but are the interior life which, of course, is often mysterious even to the person themselves, having the interior life. I guess I just wanted to hear about choices you make in the portrayal of this relationship or these relationships across the book because it feels like it’s a balance of precision and specificity and then an intentional non-specificity because there’s an absence of time, of names, of obvious story, but there’s a repetition that seems to lure us to the edge of story or to tempt us with our desire for story.
LC: I wasn’t interested in telling a straight story. I think I’ve never been interested in that. Poetry, as a form, gives me a way to focus into something, some particle of a story, some corner of a composition rather than a whole thing. I don’t think I think in that macro view and certainly with this book as it went through revisions and shaping, the story stayed consistent. The way I told it, didn’t get more or less specific but my ability to layer other things into it grew as I continued to work on it. I guess I also want to say that, if it hasn’t been clear, I didn’t really have any education in poetry at all. I was not really exposed to it by much of anybody other than perhaps the logical Dr. Seuss and James Whitcomb Riley, which my mother read me. But really nobody ever said, “Here’s a poem, here are poems. This is a form, this is how you could write or you could read or anything,” and when I discovered it, it was this marvelous space that gave me feeling like an emotional way to interact with material that wasn’t first a single fact, and then another fact, and then another fact, sensations of feelings and experience.
DN: When I think about what you’ve just said and also again the Allison Benis White blurb about your work being precise and mysterious, I also think of the many ways your poems, particularly the ones about your father, the books, the poems you wrote in One Hundred Hungers about his childhood in Iraq prior to being a refugee. A book where you had to evoke his childhood as much through imagination, as memory because of his silence around his life before, but also think about silences and spaces beyond or before language with your poems about your father’s dementia. Then similarly your last book, Turquoise Door, you’re writing into an imaginative space about a real person, the Art Patron Mabel Dodge, so you’re imagining your way into a real past, you’re not lining up facts, and in both of these cases you only have a limited number of facts in fact. So I was wondering about the role of the imagination in relation to memory and history as you engage with real people or real events of other people or your own life, and your attraction to that space. Maybe it’s an undefined space where you’re mixing the things that you know and the things you can’t know.
LC: I believe I live in that space and grew up in that space of imagination. That space is comfort to me, surprise. It’s everything. It’s where the color is. In thinking about this interview, I’ve been thinking about my childhood for some reason and how little memory I have of specific things in my childhood. I have some but I believe I lived this very reasonable suburban childhood completely in my memory, in my imagination as much as possible. I was a creative child with no support for that, no encouragement for that, and nobody to stop me from it. I was perfectly happy there. I also have a very active sleep life, not always positive but again the space of imagination and of uncertainty, I’m drawn to it, I’m curious about it. I like trying to take it apart and make sense of it. I like the fact that maybe I can’t take it apart and make sense of it.
DN: I love that you say it’s the place of color, the unnameable space.
LC: Yeah. It is.
DN: There’s this line that sticks with me from One Hundred Hungers where you say, “How do you live in silence? You talk to absence.” That line feels like it brings us to this unnameable space or place that a lot of the artists you’ve chosen seem to be drawn to as well. For instance, I’m thinking of the ekphrastic poem you did about the work of Robert Rauschenberg called Bed on the Wall where instead of using a canvas, he uses material from his own bed to paint upon, and this “bed”, his bed, is hung on a wall like a painting and it becomes a self-portrait. That feels connected to your poems about this relationship, connected to the way you put a bed on the wall in Took House as if you’re putting sheets, quilts, and pillow cases up for us to examine the lives of these two people. I guess, maybe this would be a good place for you to read us a couple of those poems so we can hear some of the poems that are more deeply engaged with the relationship. How about Splendid Gin and Fiction?
LC: I like the poems you’re picking.
DN: Oh, you do?
LC: Yeah. [laughs]
DN: Oh, good.
[Lauren Camp reads the poem called Splendid Gin and Fiction]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lauren Camp read from Took House. So when you’re writing about your father, you’re writing both based on what you know and your imagination of his past. But when you’re writing about these unspecified people like what you just read, how do you relate the “I” for you? Do you feel like these are persona poems or do you feel like they’re biographical or do you feel like that’s not even a question that enters your head when you’re writing them?
LC: I feel like these poems began from a truth or a series of truths or potential truths, and really what drives them is a curiosity about personal psychologies. What makes people operate? How and why do they do what they do even if they don’t know? Whether that people encompasses me too, probably, I think within Took House, a lot of the newer things are the later psychology or the later witnessing of what the storylines are.
DN: These poems give us a taste of two motifs that repeat through the book. One is that of alcohol and the other that we get a tiny glimpse of here at the end of the last poem is that of birds. Daniel Simon at World Literature Today links these two in his review. He talks about the Greek Mythological term called “omophagia” which is the eating of raw flesh in the context of Dionysian cult worship. Simon said that he felt it was difficult not to think of Dionysus of wine and fertility, but also of birds of prey that become symbols of voracious appetite for flesh torn apart and also referenced Dionysus himself being dismembered by the Titans. I wondered how that review and that encapsulation or one lens through which to look at your new collection, how that felt. Did that ring true to you this idea of omophagia and a wine and fertility connection?
LC: I feel there was definitely a sense of access to those poems in a way that, I’ll be honest, completely appealed to me. How far can you push? How much can you bring the camera in to show excess appetites? Even if those are true but just how extreme those appetites are and that complete desire for pleasure or for self-satisfaction.
DN: I wanted to spend a minute longer with each of these with hunger and birds. Starting with birds, the book has ravens, hawks, owls and eagles. Took House isn’t a particularly bird-centric book in the sense that we see birds in One Hundred Hungers also with buzzards, vultures, hawks and pigeons. You also have a poem called Red Bird (Agnes Martin Speaks). You have a quote in another poem of the Kafka line, “A cage went in search of a bird.” So really birds abound in your poetry in general, not specifically in Took House. But certainly, Took House is a good example of a book where birds are certainly prominent and flying through. What is that about?
LC: [laughs] I live in the desert. I live in a rural farming valley. That by itself is not necessarily interesting—it’s extremely interesting to me—but it’s not necessarily what would draw me to this but I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. My understanding of place was urban and suburban. I find it magical here. Just the spaciousness of it, the life of it. The life of the critters and the clouds. For me, 26 years on being here, I’m still completely captivated by what is moving and flying around me. I’m sure it was flying around me in the suburbs too but somehow I didn’t see it. I don’t think I grew up in a very aware family or very aware of what was around me. I didn’t grow up with any examples. I don’t even know how to describe it. But anybody who would have pointed those things out to me, who would have cared.
DN: Yeah. Obviously, a person even writing really different collections—in your case, one collection about your father’s childhood in Iraq, another about an art patron in New Mexico, and then your nearly 100 uncollected dementia poems which, some of which, you’re going to read for the bonus audio archive—those don’t have a lot of similar content but you’re the same person. There’s going to be some repetition that happens inevitably around theme and image. But I also wondered if some of that repetition might also be because you often are writing these collections at the same time. At least, some of these books are being put together not sequentially. Is that right?
LC: Yeah, That’s exactly true. I began Took House in 2005 as I said and had various points where I just had to semi-abandon the project because I didn’t know where I was going with it. I don’t know. I was waiting for some insight. In between that time, my first collection came out in 2010. Everything has been happening, not everything simultaneously, but things happen alongside in parallel furrows maybe. That’s how I work in general. That’s comfortable to me to have too many things going on. Not to be following a direct path, really following one foot in front of the other, one step, one poem, I love the idea of it, it just doesn’t seem to suit my personality.
DN: I wanted to also linger for a second on the recurring theme of hunger or appetite and Daniel Simon’s use of the term “omophagia” about the recurrence of birds of prey looking for food. But also the way you find your way into your father’s Iraqi childhood through food in One Hundred Hungers, how your radio show was called Audio Saucepan. This book, Took House, prior to part one of the book, there’s a poem called Appetite. I was hoping you could talk to us about hunger, appetite, and saucepans, in general, in your work, [laughter] but why did you set this one poem, Appetite, apart from the others. What work do you see this poem doing as a gateway into the collection since it’s happening, in a way, before the collection has started or is the way into the collection?
LC: I want to talk about hungers in One Hundred Hungers first. As you’ve mentioned, I didn’t have a lot of information from my father. In fact, I had none from my father in his childhood directly. What I did have was silence, what I had was to go a little further was the repetition of silence from him. The endlessness of silence on his childhood which might be very typical of anybody fleeing a country, starting over again after a difficult home situation or just needing to start over in a new world for whatever reason, but my father didn’t talk about his childhood. Because I wanted to write his story and I was fairly determined about that, I had to take the information I had. Some of which could be gathered from research but none of that could tell me his story. The information I had was food. It was spices. It was not full recipes but maybe table settings, gatherings, meals, individual foods, and how we consumed them. In that book, food is very prevalent because it is pretty much the only solid thing I had and maybe some prayers, and my father as an adult, as the way I knew him as my father and trying to disassemble the parts of him I knew to make sense of what he might have been like as a child.
DN: Then your hunger to know?
LC: Yeah, absolutely. My desperate need, I guess. A starvation to know. I would take anything. In that book, I was able, very carefully, to pluck out a couple of small details from my father. They are in that book verbatim. That’s how desperate I was to know and to hold these parts of him, the little bit he could tell me. I think he had blocked it for so long that he really didn’t have a memory of that. He didn’t, of course, tell me that. My father was not a direct and easy person to get to know and not direct in his information by any means. The way that the information or the lack of information would come to me would be anger and ultimately, in unpacking that, I decided it was probably, very likely, that he did not remember. It was more a frustration with himself.
DN: Talk to us about Appetite both in a general sense in Took House but more specifically about the placement of the poem Appetite.
LC: I feel like a poem that goes at the start of a book and is separated has to offer something special, something more. Maybe in this case, what I’m hoping for is some clues or some gathering of some of the details I hope you’ll see later in the book.
DN: Can we hear it?
LC: Of course.
[Lauren Camp reads the poem called Appetite]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lauren Camp read the opening poem from Took House. The repetition of the word heart and the word table also seems to bring the hunger for food and the hunger for desire together. The lovers in this book are often meeting not in a bed or a bed on the wall but at a table. I wanted to ask you about another space, the house in the title Took House. Also the picture that we’ve talked a little bit about of the strangely inhabited dreamlike house on the cover, a painting of a house that is fittingly called Nest. What does the title of the collection mean to you is my main question because when I first heard it prior to reading the book, I immediately thought of dispossession of a taken house or of a took house, of a refugee like your father who can’t go back who has been robbed of their nest, of their home. But I didn’t really have that sense of that being the meaning when I was reading the collection. I was curious about Took House.
LC: I will talk a little around the title because I’ve been asked this question by others. I’ve been asked the question in a variety of ways. Is it a real place? Is it the name of a place? It’s not that. My short, maybe, a little flip answer to the question is, it’s the past tense of a verb. That’s in fact the truth for me. The two words together are incredibly important to me, their mystery and their possibilities. The fact that it is not a direct and easy reading of them is important to me. But to me, the weighted word is “took”. Took in the way of being the past tense of take and take with the many definitions of possessing, grabbing, stealing maybe, and subtracting. I’d probably encompass all the different ways that you could interpret took or take. Then house, earlier today, I was thinking about it, how there’s always a difference between house and home, that they are different things. They could be the same but they are not always the same. They are sometimes entirely different. A house is a container not even as a safe place but as a container. I think that’s all I want to say about it because I can only define the title for you explicitly if I tell you a very specific storyline, and I’ve never wanted to do that.
DN: There are two sections to the book, The Exact Color of Welcome, which we’ve mentioned. Then the second section, Days at Zero, Movement From Color, Welcome to Dusk, Dark Rooms and Cold Weather. I was hoping maybe you could just talk briefly about Days at Zero as a section and maybe your thoughts around collecting certain poems in that section.
LC: The way that I assemble collections is on a giant table that I have in my studio. It’s a table that I’ve used for making art, that’s what it was initially, for spreading out large pieces and patterns, and it has been repurposed as a table, mostly, for collecting a lot of junk most of the time, a lot of piles, [laughs] but also for assembling collections when I do it. Other people do it on the floor and I do it here. I set up the poems. I go over and over and over them with the help of my husband who’s got a very good eye for things and also is a very different person than me and sees different connections. We spend days usually—he’s pretty integral to the process—putting together poems, rematching poems, and reshifting which sounds redundant, but it actually isn’t. Like where we’ll walk around and I’ll move a poem around and then he will come back and shift it somewhere else. It’s a brutal process and ultimately, has proven very useful to me. The last section which is the second section, which is a longer section by a bit, has some of everything, I think. Some of the three separate elements that make up the book which is predator, prey, poems and ekphrastic poems and this core storyline of the relationship.
DN: I was hoping you could introduce us to, and then read the poem [Inward, Downward, White, Gray, and Black] because it somehow manages to be an ekphrastic poem, but also an engagement with the relationship in the book, and part of the gesture of what feels like an inward and downward movement in the second section.
LC: I think this poem is the most unlike the others of the ekphrastic pieces. Perhaps, because it’s based on an artwork that is very early compared to the others that is not contemporary art, that is not minimalist art. It’s based on a Piet Mondrian, Composition on canvas called Composition No.II, it’s from 1920. The poem itself is called [Inward, Downward, White, Gray, Black].
[Lauren Camp reads a poem called Inward, Downward, White, Gray, Black]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lauren Camp read from Took House.
LC: It was hard to decide. It was very logical in my intuitive way of thinking to decide which ekphrastic poems would go in the book but it was hard to let go of some. I felt like they were all children, friends, or something. I was like, “Oh. But I have to let go of the poem about Elizabeth Murray.” Or “Oh. But how about the Basquiat poem?” I only write about artwork that intrigues me. That doesn’t mean I have to like an artist’s whole body of work or the artist as a person but something that grabs me. It was sad to leave some of those on the sidelines. Say, next project maybe another project.
DN: While we’re back on the discussion of ekphrastic poetry and painting, given that you were a visual artist, it just made me also think of the way Gregory Pardlo, the poet, who also does ekphrastic poetry, the way he described writing a poem like painting an oil painting, that you come back each time to the poem in a different headspace with something new you’ve read, seen, or heard. While there’s this base image, you keep putting more layers on or taking more layers off. I wondered if that resonated with you since you have the experience on both sides of both creating poems and creating visual art.
LC: It resonates with me but not in making art. In making art, I think, this is probably mostly because of the medium I was working in, the decisions, once made and once done or begun, you had to go with them or there were exponentially many hours of undoing. Where I see that layering of experience is really in the writing of the poems. In the two books we’ve been talking about, these poems are all very, very layered by exactly what Pardlo is talking about. Experienced what I’ve read and discovered since the last time I looked at the poems, what I’ve thought about, how I’ve become a bit different from the person I was when I wrote the last draft. All of that. For me, poetry has color, texture, and layering that I could not get in my art medium.
DN: I don’t know if we’d call this ekphrastic or not, but you have a deep engagement with music also as a poet. Some of your visual art was of jazz musicians. Your first book of poems was engaged with jazz. You had a radio show that juxtaposed music and poetry. When you were revising One Hundred Hungers, you very consciously would listen to certain types of music when revising certain poems. I was hoping you could talk to us about any relationship music has to Took House but also more broadly about music in relationship to either composition, revision or any other aspects of you being a poet.
LC: I think I grew up in a really strange house. It seemed very normal to me but there wasn’t really music in it. My learning about so many things came as I moved away from my house, my home. What I had in my home was not silent either, in my growing up home, but it wasn’t musical. As I moved out into the world, I learned about certain musical genres that I really knew nothing about. One of those was jazz. It came in a succession of other other genres that I had to move through. Once I got to jazz, I thought it was the most astounding form really, something that was unpredictable, had some repetition or familiarity, some sophistication sort of unknowable. Sometimes very comfortable and sometimes truly not. Sometimes astonishing and sometimes very straightforward. All those things gathered in me very quickly. I knew so little about jazz. At the time, I was making visual art. I was relatively new to that too. I decided I would make art about the jazz musicians I knew. I knew four and that was it. I began making portraits of these jazz musicians in my medium which was layered fabric and thread and then stitched. As I was making them, I would listen to music. The sounds would filter through me as colors and shapes. Not always, not in a super extreme way. I think some people have this synesthetic approach or sensation, not in a really extreme way, but they would filter through in certain ways. Some things would very clearly identify as certain colors or certain compositions. Those two things were completely entwined. I began learning more and more about music and about the field of jazz and the possibilities of jazz. The portraits continued to grow and then I sent them off on the road. They traveled around the country for about three and a half or four years to venues in 10 states in the US. I still needed some way to engage with the music. At that point, I got involved with Public Radio and began to learn how to do a radio show, to build sounds together, and to build programs that, again, layered or interleaved music forms.
DN: I would imagine that when you’re working on a poem, where you want to listen to music, that you’re wanting the music to have a certain effect on the poem, on the line or maybe on the line break. Is that true? When you were revising One Hundred Hungers and you’re selecting certain music, is that because you want it to influence the words?
LC: Yeah. That’s absolutely why the words, the line, or the length of the line, so, in One Hundred Hungers, there are poems that are about my father as a child living through my imagination but living in Baghdad. I wanted those poems to have that cultural feel. The way that I could think to do that, that was more than what I had innately in me, was to play [ode] music and revise especially to the sound of the [ode] which has this mournful, reaching quality. It didn’t necessarily change the words but the emphasis, the line breaks. The way I heard the poems. The way I shaped what I was trying to say to match the place.
DN: There was something you said in an interview at Under a Warm Green Linden that I really loved and I would love for you to elaborate on. Because you did mention earlier in the conversation also about the three elements of this book, Took House, which brought me to this. It reminded me of this thing that you said in the interview where you said, “When I was making art portraits of jazz musicians, which I did for more than 10 years, I would find the main image I wanted to use, the musical center if you will. Once I had that, I would build what I called a context around it. Those other elements would further my understanding or impression of the musician and/or the music. I’ve grown to like the challenge of putting three elements together. I get to and have to make surprise connections.” It sounds like you’ve taken something you learned from your work as a visual artist and then brought that into poetry. It involves this idea of three. I guess I wanted you to elaborate more on that for people who are listening.
LC: Sure. I don’t know why it’s three. It’s three because that’s an odd number but it’s not too many. But I think in everything I’m trying to create, I’m trying to move beyond what I already know, what I already have figured out somewhere in my mind or in my visual mind’s eye even. The jazz portraits that I made, the first step was finding an image of the musician and getting copyright permission, but finding an image of the musician that I wanted to use. But again, now that I think about it, it was a form of ekphrasis, I guess, in that I was changing it into a new medium and making it—more feels a little indulgent on my part—but different or larger than just that portrait of the musician but more about the music, or the sensation I get from the music as audience, as a listener. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even interesting to me to take an image and just replicate it in a series of surprising colors. That was only interesting in the part of the composition where the pictorial representation of the artist was, but the artwork had to encompass more.
DN: I’m thinking of one of the classes that you offer called Fresh Eyes: Making Your Writing Stronger which seems to be for pieces that people want to strengthen, that aren’t quite working and techniques to do that. One of the things that the class you say is about is clarifying images. I was curious if that technique is part of clarifying an image or if it isn’t. If you could talk about ways to elevate a piece through clarifying an image and what that would mean.
LC: A lot of the students that I work with are beginners or emerging writers. Often, what I see is they either are not clear at all or they’re repetitive. It’s really funny in the context of this conversation where I’m really highlighting repetition and trying to hold it and keep it, in their work often, I’m trying to help them remove those redundancies or move away from that. It’s also moving from cliches. They teach me a lot, the students. Very often I’m working with elders who are coming to writing after full careers, who want to write about their lives or just want to write, and certainly in this pandemic, want to write about anything that brings them back to a different time. I think they show me, they remind me of all the things that I’m really not interested in. That’s not to say that they only do that but the extreme clarity or the extreme logic, I don’t want to be willfully confusing at all. It doesn’t interest me to tell you something directly from page 1 to page 64.
LC: I want to tell you little parts of it. I’ve always been the type that if I have to sum up a year, I’m going to tell you what I did today because today is what interests me. If I have to take pictures of something, or if I’m taking pictures of a vacation, I’m the one taking pictures of this tiny part of a wall, something really macro not micro. Not the whole picture. I’m not good at a whole picture. It doesn’t interest me at all.
DN: As you mentioned earlier, you’re a poet who’s become a poet outside of an academic context. You’ve become a poet through becoming a visual artist and through an engagement with music. Are there other ways that are word-based that you’ve become the poet that you are?
LC: I’ve learned from everybody, from everything I’ve read. I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of poetry books. I’ve read interviews and other things also. But the poetry books, the poems, I feel like I learned from all of them. I don’t learn all good things. I learn sometimes the things I don’t want to do. Sometimes, I learn a sound I want that I’ve forgotten about that I needed to be reminded of. A shape that I’ve moved away from. I guess I’m using that shape in not a poem that is shaped but I think of these things in different ways than other people. A shape meaning that maybe the poem steps down here. Maybe, I’ve learned line breaks from people. Not poem by poem. I couldn’t even acknowledge specifically, “This taught me this,” but from a wide reading and from a hungry mind.
DN: Given that you have innumerable poems about your dad and his dementia, is that what we should expect from you next or do you have other projects also coming down the Lauren Camp poetic highway?
LC: [Laughs] I am working on a couple of projects. I have been, for the past few years, working on poems—now, it’s been more than a few years, I guess—but poems that are in some way inspired by or inhabited by the artist Agnes Martin who considered herself an abstract expressionist despite the fact that you might look at her work and find it very minimalist. For some reasons, including our current administration, I began to be very interested in her very spacious canvases. She’s entirely puzzling. You’ve just given me insight into myself and my projects with this conversation but, perhaps, that’s partly why I’m inspired by her. She’s very unknowable but also her canvases are compelling to me as much a study of me as it is or more a study of me and of these times as it is of the artwork itself. I’m doing that. I’m also working hard on moving around and through these poems about my father’s dementia and the end of his life.
DN: Do you intentionally go towards or avoid reading Agnes Martin’s writing?
LC: Oh, a great question. I’ve tried to stay away from it and just work from my impressions, my feelings about what the work does or what the work doesn’t do in those moments. But I did read, I think, the only biography of Agnes Martin which was not at all conclusive. I found that intriguing.
DN: Let’s end with a final poetry reading. Could we hear Homeostasis: Autumn?
LC: Of course.
[Lauren Camp reads the poem called Homeostasis: Autumn]
DN: Thank you for being on Between The Covers today, Lauren.
LC: It’s been a very big pleasure. Thank you.
DN: Talking today to the poet Lauren Camp about her latest book from Tupelo Press, Took House. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naiman, your host.