©2010; cross-section of a pine 4×4; rolled cotton fabric strips; pressure-treated pine; 18-1/2″ x 14-1/2″ x 3″
Forest for Alma
©2014; fabric and acrylic on wood; 17-1/2″h x 21“w x 2-1/4″d
Acres of June-July
©2012; cotton fabric, various woods; 7-1/4″ x 52-“ x 6-1/2″
©2010; rolled cotton fabric strips; rusted nails; weathered wood; 20″ x 13″ x 3″
©2010; sea glass shards; rolled cotton fabric strips; oak; 19″ x 8″ x 3-1/2″
An Interview with Lauren Camp:
NS: We first received a submission of poetry from you, which we loved and accepted a poem from, but then after poking around on your website, I also fell in love with your artwork. How did you get started in the visual arts, and what is your relationship to your visual artwork like today?
LC: I spent 12 years as a professional visual artist, always willing to navigate color, space, and texture—and the friction between those elements. My explorations failed sometimes because I was self-taught (a situation I preferred for how much leniency it gave me). I also succeeded in ways I hadn’t seen in galleries or museums before.
I began writing amidst the artmaking, often as a way to add another layer to the work. I didn’t call these little things “poems.” I didn’t know what to call them. As others began to refer to them as poetry, I started to want to understand the art form. I’d hardly had any education in poetry, so I began to read. And read. And read more…
Concurrent with this, on a music show I host for Santa Fe Public Radio each week, I voiced other people’s poems that I’d fallen in love with. I’ve done that now for 14 years; I figure I’ve shared over 800 poems.
There’s so much to be learned about writing from other creative directions. I guess I’m proof of that.
NS: I adore your Matter series, as evidenced by our feature here. I am fascinated by the range and ingenuity of the materials you used, such as: branches, fabric, sea glass, rusted nails. How did you make the choice to use these materials and what is their significance?
LC: Some of the materials are what I could find in remote locations — sea glass in Provincetown (where I spent two months at a residency), rusted nails from my home in the desert (and from the building of my studio). I’m an avid recycler, and I also like preserving environments that hold memory or intrigue. The task becomes how to blend those elements into my work. This complicates construction, and forces different approaches. Even so, I tried to always keep one constant; fabric remained my foundational material.
“The Matter Series” was the last series I created before taking a long-term sabbatical from artmaking to focus on teaching and writing. I began to crave a greater dimensionality than I had been able to get with my habitual methods. I became desperate to “thicken” images with meaning. To build in deeper centers. For “The Matter Series,” I rolled, poked, stacked… basically anything that took my base material and made it new for me.
While creating these works, I was fully immersed in writing, and visual art was becoming a side endeavor. To my eye, the pieces show a poet’s sensibility, an accruing of images, a sound that comes from the whole.
NS: You have a fabulous website which showcases your many accomplishments, both in poetry and visual art. It was on your website that I found your interview with the Library of Congress, and I was fascinated listening to it. In fact, I was crying while listening to your description of your father’s non disclosure of his childhood in Baghdad, Iraq. I related to this because my grandparents from Eastern Europe were the same way in regards to speaking about their lives before America. There was an understanding that you didn’t ask questions (well, my mom also told me not to ask certain questions). When I was older, I tried to hint at and ask a few questions of my last living grandparents, but they just deflected and made jokes. Perhaps as a result of this, I am fascinated with writing and discovering the secret stories of my family. I was delighted to see that you approached the mysteries of your own family via poetry, in your book, One Hundred Hungers. What was the response from your family after you wrote the book?
LC: My father is not a reader, perhaps because of the time of life when he emigrated to the U.S. and began to learn English. My siblings want to be supportive of my writing, but poetry is foreign to them. Now and again, my sister will ask me to read her one of my poems when we’re together. (She says she understands better that way.)
I can accept that not all people are wowed by poetry. It is the same with art appreciation: some people need a landscape, while others thrill to a red splotch on a seemingly empty canvas.
There is a certain freedom in tackling a topic as faithfully and decently as possible — without worry that the central figures might find fault. I often say I didn’t write One Hundred Hungers for my father. I wrote it about him, and to grasp and unravel his homeland and his history.
Since the book was published, I’ve traveled to a number of universities, cultural centers, and other places, and presented parts of this story of migration and heritage. In almost every venue, audience members have acknowledged (often with tremendous sadness) that they are missing information in their histories.
Had I not started and stalled on this project many times, had I not finally realized that to understand the early part of my father’s life I had to accept and probe the silences, there would be no book. Rather than give up, I worked with what I had: spices, music, ritual, language, emptiness. I learned that there is such detail in all of it.
NS: You mentioned in your Library of Congress interview that you love and believe in revision. I am fascinated by the vast differences in revision processes that writers have. What is the process like for you? How many drafts would you say you go through? How do you know a poem is done? Is it ever done?
LC: I do love revision. It gives me permission to make mistakes for a while. I don’t have to be perfect right away.
I believe in steps more than flight. I believe in a slow accrual. Tighten, reorder, settle back to the concrete, slow down. Do again. I get rid of dumb language and confusion, which gives me something useful to do on a round of edits. I fiddle with linebreaks: how about stopping here, slowing there…?
It’s a gentle sort of pleasure to wiggle through a poem until I have taken out pity, grandstanding, abstraction, excess. Taken out extreme emotionalism, undressed myself before you. It can take five tries, or (unfortunately) 48. I rarely give up on a poem entirely, though I am ruthless with my own work, and may only keep one ingenuous phrase I really like from a whole.
NS: What inspires you these days? There are so many horrible things happening in the world (as I suppose there always has been), how do you keep your sanity and protect your creativity? What do you tell your students about this (I also noted that you are a teacher of poetry)!
LC: Raptors. My father’s deteriorating mind. The cactus fluffing back into its body as spring takes hold.
Unlike some writers who have been stilled by our current situation, I’ve been writing about all the garbage going on. Though, if pressed, I’d have to admit that I’m weirdly evading even as I’m writing about it. What I mean is, I’ve been writing poems about wishing I could avoid the alarming danger.
And then there is teaching to ground me. It reminds me where I started with poetry, and why. Many people need to write to make sense of their visions, emotions and worlds, and it doesn’t matter whether they are fantastic writers. My job is to be the impetus and deadline for their thoughts reaching the page, to be audience to their lives, to believe in every line and paragraph they complete.
I move around, teaching elementary students through to elders in many different settings. The students that capture my heart are mature students: 60-plus. Though beginning creative writers, they come to classes with a lifetime of experience in other fields. They have been doctors, priests, tour guides, actors, restauranteurs. I find incredible joy in being able to cheer them on, give them a foothold or a question from which to climb.
Lauren Camp is the author of three books. Her most recent collection, One Hundred Hungers, won the Dorset Prize and was a finalist for the Arab American Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Slice, Ecotone, Boston Review, Third Coast, and Diode. Lauren lives and teaches in New Mexico. www.laurencamp.com