John Sibley Williams in conversation with Lauren Camp
John Sibley Williams: Took House is a beautifully compelling book. I can see the influences of your other creative passions in every poem, from visual art and music to essay writing. Your language sings its distinct images while remaining true to a particular ongoing narrative that ends up, in a way, defining your whole collection. How do you feel all these other media inform your poetry?
Lauren Camp: Took House embraces visual art more than any of my other books. In the past, I have only occasionally written about those other genres, though I know they hide underneath my lines as rhythm and composition. I’m now retired from making visual art as a profession, but this was a chance to hold a light to some of the artists who intrigue me and to use language to see how and why they work. I wasn’t monogamous to any art movement or period in the book, either. They range from abstraction and modernism to post-minimalism.
JSW: That visual eye shines throughout every poem, though what intrigues me most is how you actively incorporate the perspective of the artist both linguistically and conceptually. In your poem, “Find the Color of Survival,” you write: “Even in excess / I always see the most trivial details.” I’d love to know how you use “trivial details” to magnify and explore your book’s big ideas.
LC: My eye and ear and heart focus easily to a particular, rather than a full experience. It’s the splatter in one corner or the word “hoe” in a poem that most captivate me. By nature, I’m already looking tight into a circumstance or wondering over a minor fact. On travels, I take close-up photos of textures and find they remind me well of a place I’ve loved. Smallness by smallness, that’s what I see. I will remember the swirling bats more than the full city, or the name of a town my sister has traveled to better than the rest of the time she was gone. So perhaps it isn’t so much a process as my normal way of seeing and experiencing.
In my early drafts of the Took House poems, I was still actively working in my studio, the paint and materials tangible in my hands. I live so much in the present. I don’t write as well from memory as I do from what I can hold now. I write from my audible and visual experience, every tiny detail that tunnels into me.
JSW: The tangible certainly resounds throughout your work. Each object serves as a body, a living organism, acting or being acted upon. The worlds you paint are in constant motion. Yet even the external world seems a reflection of your interior life. Would you speak about how you arrive at such a nuanced balance of personal narrative and philosophical reflections in your poems?
LC: I moved to the high desert 26 years ago. I used to think I’d live amidst the wild energy of New York City, which was so near where I grew up and very tempting. Turns out, I needed to be away from that sort of endless effervescence to learn to pay close attention.
I’ve been thinking about something Joan Didion claimed: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Here in the desert, I notice. I like scribbling down small bits of actual perspective. But I’m also wired to analyze the psyche with every why and how I can dream up. The two often collide in my poems, little details falling in with the wider study of the mind.
JSW: I love Didion’s assertion, and I’m thinking that other words can replace “place,” like “sound” or “experience” or “memory.” This leads me to consider the personal narrative in your book. You provide us with brief, intimate glimpses into a relationship, and I’m wondering if, as an artist, you hold claim to that relationship due to remembering it “most obsessively.” More importantly, do you believe those of us who make art out of struggle and out of love are actually remaking those experiences in our own images? Do artists, in a way, play god? And is that a good, bad, or neutral thing?
LC: I want to agree, and then I immediately want to disagree. I hold one claim to the memory, but even though I have shaped and rendered it, I’m clear that mine isn’t the only version. It is incomplete, one-sided, and certainly crafted.
I write into difficult subjects as a way to have some agency within them. I’m more interested in illuminating a human experience than in strictly illuminating my own. I want to look at multiple sides of a situation, allowing the doubt and discomfort that comes in with different scenarios.
I teach a memoir class at my local community college each semester. Within the lecture, I explain to students that memory changes as soon as you start to work with it. So, if you want it precise, write it and leave it alone. As soon as you put your attention to it, it rushes along, in motion, becoming a new thing. For me, as an avid (and gleeful) reviser, the shifts are fantastic. They might take me to what I wish it had been… or even what I least wanted it to be. Language, and the musicality and argument of it, will help me make my choices on the page. The end result will likely align with the impetus of the original experience but might not be entirely factual.
JSW: Truth is what matters, whereas facts (real or fabricated) only work to enhance and clarify that truth. Sometimes we need to invent “facts” in order to better realize and make emotionally accessible a poem’s “big picture.” This idea reminds me of another line from “Find the Color of Survival,” which reads: “I want to talk about what I believe.” In the end, perhaps that’s all we can ever really talk about. But that stellar line is continued, “is beautiful, and this is complicated by all the oil/of that year.” Here you strike that tender balance between recognition of beauty and recognition of the struggles inherent in discussing beauty. And a number of your poems in Took House speak directly to translating experience into language. As a memoirist and poet, what do you consider the most difficult aspect of poeticizing personal experience?
LC: The short answer? Making it matter to someone else. My curiosities and concerns fill my days. That’s too much to squish into a poem. Without an expansive backstory, how do I tell a little slice of an experience? How do I find the radiance of a snapshot (or series of them)? Poetry demands a visionary way to see. It lets the writer chisel into the most valuable part of the stone. None of this is easy, but that complicated thought and consideration appeals to me. I want my creative projects to require the most: more heart or imagery or fretting or audacity of language than I thought I had. Ultimately, I find I do have it… if I can be both patient and determined.
JSW: It’s a bit too easy for an experiential poem to bog itself down with details that seem important to the writer but muddy things for the reader. Did your early drafts of these poems include more intimate details which got toned down and cut out in the revision process?
LC: No, any intimacies that I initially wrote stayed in. But the whole manuscript went through a number of overhauls over a 12-year period, where I tackled very small issues and larger, comprehensive ideas. For example, I began to welcome a reader into the poems as I got closer to a final version. Before that, honestly, I hadn’t thought of any sort of interaction with another possible person. I was writing the poems for me, just to see and hear them and find the mystery
within them. I revise avidly, unafraid (even eager) to move into alternate, surprising ways to view a subject. To me, that is the deeply internal work of wonder. Ultimately, I let go of a great deal of those drafts.
JSW: Working on the manuscript for twelve years must have been quite a challenge, and in that time you published four other collections! How did you know which poems belonged to each book? Did you write poems specifically for each or did you simply write and only later group them by interconnected themes?
LC: Some of the books had a clear direction and theme. That was certainly true for One Hundred Hungers, which focuses on my father’s boyhood in Iraq, and the book that followed, Turquoise Door, which delves into the early 20th century and the beginning of the modern art movement in northern New Mexico. The poems for those books (and for Took House) were always components of a larger project. I carried them with me, residency to residency, as a unit. I love the idea of working that way, contained to a theme. I wish it were possible all the time.
JSW: I have a burning question that I’ve waited too long to ask. “Took House” is a gorgeous phrase, and it could mean different things to different readers. What does it mean to you?
LC: I wanted it to be something a reader might have to work at. I wanted it to sound right in the mouth and not unfold into anything easy. The complicating word, I think, is “took.” Or maybe it’s the combination of two words people don’t generally put together. I mean it as a verb, and specifically as the past tense of that verb, with as many versions of understanding or uncertainty as you can imagine. For example, consider the past tense of take, as in “to grab,” and then consider it as “to remove” and also as “to capture.” You can also read it as a sort of subtraction.
JSW: Speaking of words contrasted or otherwise juxtaposed against each other, sparking surprising meanings, how do you craft such phrases? Is it an intentional move or one that springs organically from your writing process?
LC: Ahh, I have no idea. But I’ll tell you a story from my years as a visual artist. I was self-taught in that, as I am in poetry. Collectors and gallery owners would often comment on my color choices—Unusual, they would say. Unexpected and Not quite right, but satisfying. Early on in my professional career, I took a two-hour color theory class. I came home that night with all the terms on index cards: from tertiary colors to saturation levels. But knowing the “right” way to mix colors confused my intuition. I was no longer confident about how to assemble my materials to attain that delicious friction.
Poetry is much the same. I am most alive when I’m using language that is a little off from the norm; I think for me it is a norm. When I’m working in prose, I have to labor to write an exact sentence. The grammar is no problem. It’s when I must use words the way they were intended that I feel a little locked in. In a poem, I move through a line or a stanza, putting the patterns together and waiting for that slight discomfort that I find so pleasing. Waiting, in a way, for the colors to pop.
JSW: There’s a freedom inherent in creating one’s own rules and syntaxes based on devouring literature and making one’s own judgments. I’m wondering what you think about your own poetic self-education. How might it have affected your voice and style?
LC: I’m not a great student. Or the better truth is, I was a fantastic student, always devoted to any assigned tasks. But there’s a hazard to that for me… I get lost. I can’t hear myself. This is especially troubling in creative realms when one’s individuality needs to be readily accessible.
I’m gutsy about what I’ll try in a poem because, for a long stretch of time, that poem is only for my eyes. And I’m a hard critic. It’s my voice on the page that has to match my intention for the piece. Also, I have no interest in doing what’s already been done. I could be envious of someone’s brilliant poem, but I don’t want to replicate it.
That said, I would have reveled in the conversations around literature that come with university study. I love the idea of digging deeper into historical foundations of poetry and of being introduced to poets. I don’t have mentors who know they’ve taught me. Instead, I have a great many mentors who’ll never know what I’ve learned from their books, talks, readings and presence.
JSW: I’m thrilled to meet a poet I admire who shares this rocky little boat. Each poem we devour, each reading we lavish, it all becomes part of who we are and how we write. We’re all constantly mentoring each other.
Finally, Lauren, I’d like to ask you about launching Took House during this chaotic, terrifying time of quarantine and political upheaval, when creative communities are more important than ever. How has it stifled your ability to meet new readers? Has it opened any unexpected doors?
LC: I hope to be able to soon read to a true audience, not a screen. It would be such a pleasure to hear the buzz of people, to feel the breath of each line move beyond my own air space.
I’ve poured my heart and craft and many years into the poems in Took House. I’m excited that it has taken a place in the world as a tangible object. Ultimately, any book goes further on the enthusiasm of its readers, and many people have been generous in their attention to it. I’ve felt very lucky to receive such kindness to my work.
Lauren Camp’s most recent book is Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, Poet Lore, Slice, DIAGRAM and other journals. Winner of the Dorset Prize, Lauren has also received fellowships from The Black Earth Institute and The Taft-Nicholson Center, and finalist citations for the Arab American Book Award, the Housatonic Book Award and the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Visit her at https://www.laurencamp.com.
John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A twenty three-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies. Visit him at https://www.johnsibleywilliams.com.
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