Lauren Camp along with Kimberley Quiogue Andrews was recently in a joint interview with Ruben Quesada. Both talk about their journey as poets. Originally posted by Kenyon Review
Poetry Today #16: Death and Optimism
July 28, 2020
Poetry Today is a series that celebrates poetics and aesthetics—the composition, look, and feel of poetry for our time.
“Over the years I have come to understand how or why my poems altered and deteriorated.” -Donald Hall, “The Poetry of Death” (2017)
Kimberly Quiogue Andrews is a poet and literary critic. She is the author of A Brief History of Fruit, winner of the Akron Prize for Poetry from the University of Akron Press, and BETWEEN, winner of the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Prize from Finishing Line Press. Her recent work in various genres appears in Poetry Northwest, The Shallow Ends, Denver Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland and teaches at Washington College, and you can find her on Twitter.
Young poet or any poet, young me or the me that needs a reminder, a perhaps counterintuitive thing that I have found to be true: reading is more important than writing. The writing, of course, needs to get done for the poetry to be in the world. But the reading should be the condition of that writing’s possibility. “Thought,” as Amiri Baraka has said, “is more important than art.”
I have told this story a million times, but here it is in print: A Brief History of Fruit was written in basically two stages, one over the course of about two years in my mid-twenties, and then again over the course of another year in my early thirties. In between was a seven-year period in which I did very little poetry writing, but a prodigious amount of reading (as one does when one is trying to get a doctorate in literature). The language I used to process that reading—to make new thinking from it, to think with it and around it and against it—was language that I did not have in that first stage, and then had in abundance in the second. When I went back to the book, I had this overwhelming feeling, for lack of a better way of putting it, that a lot of it just needed to be re-written from the point of view of someone who had become a better reader. So I rewrote it, almost entirely. It was a deeply exhilarating process: like I was taking these nascent ideas, ones almost dormant, and being able, one by one, to breathe new and more intelligent life into each of them. I am also convinced that that process of revision was the only thing that made the book publishable. But one shouldn’t necessarily have to write a book two times over every time! So, you know, to avoid that, just get really good at critical reading before you try writing poetry. The way it trains you to notice the textuality of everything will make the world a thousand times more vibrant and your work a stronger interpretation of that vibrancy.
The question posed here was “do you believe that poetry needs to reimagine its use of storytelling as we delve further into a digital world,” and one might immediately get hung up on the word “poetry” itself. Whose poetry? All poetry? Certainly not all poetry has to reimagine itself, as a lot of it now is written with digital potentialities either as a precondition or at the very least as a given in the background. But if there is in fact something that we can point to and call “poetry,” I still don’t necessarily think it needs to reimagine itself in any monolithic way in view of whatever it is we’re pointing to when we refer to the “digital world.” In fact, I’m inclined to be contrarian and say that any such collective reimagining would amount to little more than a type of opportunism, one which would be, as all opportunism functionally is, in the end reactionary.
This isn’t to say that the poetry that digitization makes possible—here I’m thinking of the amazing things that journals like Midst have done that would be inconceivable in an analog format—is somehow all mere trend-chasing. Far from it; nothing that Midst is doing bends style (or storytelling) to meet the whims of digital attention spans. And I myself admit to being drawn more and more to digital over print publication, simply because it means that my work is much more likely to be read. If I’m not going to get paid for it anyway, I might as well make it as widely accessible as possible! But in the end, I remain deeply taken with Chad Bennett’s earlier answer to this question, in which he highlights poetry’s incessant obsolescence: while it’s certainly true that poetry is subject to its own perverse markets and circulatory systems, it is in another real sense shielded from the larger economy’s crushing (il)logics and vicissitudes by dint of being persistently unprofitable (which is to say, in telling parlance many years old, “dead”). Vanishingly few things are so shielded; we should not take that protection lightly.
It is an enduring sadness that I could now put John Ashbery down as an essential non-living author, but that recommendation seems to me a little too obvious, perhaps. So I’ll go one generation further back and say that while gripped in the midst of a pandemic, I have been returning with increasing frequency to W.H. Auden, particularly the collection Nones. It’s a short book that contains “The Fall of Rome,” to my mind the most rattling poem in the English language, but throughout, I’m struck by the enormous capaciousness of his observation, the deeply grim and yet somehow also gentle way in which he handles the human condition in a state of decline. Lots of people talk about turning to poetry as a type of balm in emergencies; I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m kind of doing the opposite. I have, in other words, been seeking an unflinching historical eye. The wonder I have for Auden right now, thus, lies in how fatally accurate he seems in his “Asking what judgment waits / My person, all my friends, / And these United States.”
I suppose I started to answer the question of poetry’s function just above, but I think in a broader sense, poetry’s capability is one of radical distillation. Even the longest poems are radically condensed artifacts. The social function of this sort of concentration is a type of focal training: a way, paradoxically, of lengthening the attention span or broadening one’s perceptive abilities. Right now, I think about this training as also a training in refusal: we are encouraged by just about everything (so, by capital) to basically take things at face value and move on, to be more efficient, productive, and just generally frictionless. Poetry may be deeply efficient in its presentation, but it is wildly inefficient in what it asks the mind to do, which is to tarry, linger, revel, wallow. The best statement of poetics I know of for this moment in socioeconomic history is Anne Boyer’s essay “No,” in which she reminds us that we “perfect the loiter before we perfect the hustle.” Poetry’s silences, she goes on to say, are a form of refusal, an efficiency that works against all current definitions thereof. Poetry can be an essential part of a general strike! What if every single one of us stopped hustling and started reading?
I always tell my students that if you’re writing just for yourself, you’re keeping a diary, which is a useful practice but one for which you don’t need community or instruction. Creative writing, on the other hand, must always be thought of as a public project. But of course, in response to being asked about my readership (if indeed I have one), I realize that I didn’t put together A Brief History of Fruit with a good idea of a reader in mind. There’s the narrow and obvious sense in which I hope that it finds a home with folks like me, whose identities feel split between two cultures. But I wrote the collection to try and think my way around myself, to contextualize and interrogate my own historical and ethnic positionalities. So, if I succeeded in doing any of that, I suppose there’s a way in which I hope that my reader will come away with some sense of how to do that for themselves. That’s the teacher in me hoping. The scholar in me hopes that folks will find ways of creating meaning from the poems or the collection as a whole that I could never have dreamed of, that I would never see coming: that’s how you know you’ve created something that is out of, but fundamentally apart from, yourself.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF FRUIT
I put the collection that became A Brief History of Fruit together by writing about one basic thematic thing—the fact that half of my family is from the Philippines and the other half is Euro-American—until I had a book’s worth of poems. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but that was my donnée until it wasn’t. I am, for better or worse, a project person: I deeply love books that are just “here are enough poems to make a book” and wish I could write them, but I’m obsessive (hence the PhD in literature) and tend to think about my work in large, sustained-argumentation chunks. The project I’m turning to next, for example, is a long poetic history of melancholy, Robert Burton style. To my editor, if you’re reading this: I promise it will not be twelve hundred pages. I’ve also got a book in mind about the labor movement at Bethlehem Steel. So one can maybe see here that poetry is slowly becoming my way of researching and writing about topics that are way outside of my scholarly purview. Apologies to psychologists and historians!
A Brief History of Fruit, if I’m being self-critical, is the kind of book that a writer almost has to write before they can do anything else, as the behemoth of one’s own inhabitation in oneself is really hard to get around given how most people come to poetry (as a means of “self-expression”). During that enormous hiatus I described above, my thoughts on poetry’s relation to personal expression shifted tremendously, and so my revision process consisted largely in rethinking the speaking standpoint of the poems with that newish skepticism in mind. There was nothing, I realized, that I could just “express” to a reader that wouldn’t be mired in the fog of communicating-in-historical-time. Why not embrace the fog a bit more? I think clarity is deeply overrated. I’m a historical subject. So are you. We’ll never perfectly understand one another, and it would be hubris to think that poetry has any way of magicking itself around that. So I revised with those thoughts in the forefront of my mind.
I also expanded the collection upon revising it, as it had been edited and cut way down half a decade prior by a minimalist. At that later point of revision, I was confident enough in my own writing to know that I am not, nor will I ever be, a minimalist. My concession to tightness of argument is contained in the book’s sectioning—there are five, which is a lot for a book of poems. I tried to make the book’s structure recursive: small argument as microcosm of big argument, five times over. I’m realizing as I’m writing this that my book might be a five-paragraph essay. But whatever! I like the five-paragraph essay. Just because what goes into it is often bad symbolism-hunting doesn’t mean the form itself isn’t useful. You want to introduce your reader to something, give them enough evidence to get them on board and thinking you know what you’re talking about, and then get off stage, leaving them something to think with. If my book has done that, I’d consider that a success.
Lauren Camp is the author of five books, most recently Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020). Winner of the Dorset Prize, she has also received finalist citations for the Arab American Book Award and the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Her work has been translated into Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish, and Arabic. In mid-2020, she was selected to be one of 100 artists and storytellers for 100 Offerings of Peace. Visit: www.laurencamp.com.
The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is to hold to my own center, tunneling into my conflicted, excitable self. Direction from others may be valuable, but not until I’ve heard my voice and vision.
I have always been a creator. My parents didn’t show much enthusiasm for what I made or wrote when I was a child. Though I realize this could easily have broken someone else, it didn’t matter to me. I was focused on making stuff, what my inner self told me could be interesting. How lucky that was! I had my own safe space, and it was fun in there. No audience, I now realize, meant no judgment.
I’m prolific at starting, but spend years completing poems and collections. I recommend it. Be patient. Then work on transforming a piece to what seems right in the new moment. And be patient again. That slow accrual of time and energy will layer experience and perspective into your poems and manuscripts.
But you must also widen your view and your understandings by ravenously reading other people’s words. Look out and look broadly; let other writers show you what might be possible—in craft and theme, and maybe from that you’ll see new steps you’d like to take.
Right now, in the pandemic, I deeply miss the active attention of sitting in an audience—in a bookstore or auditorium. I crave the chance to watch words move through real space, not pixels, from the writer towards me.
But it is remarkable that poetry has so many ways to travel—in audio recordings, online journals, daily listservs, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, and Zoom readings.
Is all of this changing how we read? I love the deep intimacy of being with a book or a poem. Does our public sharing take that away? I’m not sure. I want a poem to offer more on a second, third, or eighth reading. I want it to keep unfolding, to keep scratching me up and exposing what I don’t know, what I’m waiting to learn.
Poetry’s slowness is beautiful. Where else do we get this satisfaction? One of the best ways I experience such focused attention is when I’m leading a workshop and ask my students to engage with a poem I’ve selected. We go on for an hour sometimes, with much back-and-forth of perspectives and questions. There’s nothing else to do but feel the poem, equally for the craft as for the emotional resonance, nothing in those moments but to consider the choices the poet has made and how they land in the ear, mind, and heart of each (often emerging) student. This is when I’m most certain of how much language and syntax matter.
One of the collections that first drew me in was Donald Hall’s Without. I liked its grief, which I guess says something about me. Thoroughly optimistic in person, I prefer writing that has grit and psychological energy.
In this book, Hall delivers an exquisite series of elegies —to the failing body and to love. It so ably shows the ruptures to normalcy. But I was entranced that it gives its full narrative through harmonic language, turns, and the great craft of poetry. This was new to me.
Because I didn’t come to poetry through academia, I had no one to introduce me to what to read. Donald Hall led me on to others, and others led me further. I bounced around through what I could discover on my own. Now, the choices and options seem to increase exponentially. Every author I read leads me to another journal, another book, or another writer. It’s thrilling and daunting.
I have read quotes, craft essays, interviews, and books—and learned from each. But some of my best poetry lessons have come from unlikely places. I spent 12 years as a professional visual artist. When I began to write poems, I used the lessons my hands and eyes had learned assembling colors and textures.
Art showed me the potential shapes in a line and how to use negative space in a poem. This enlarged the dimensions of my writing. Also, for 15 years I went to a hot control room once a week to broadcast a radio show. I had designed “Audio Saucepan” to alternate between musical selections and poems. In those years, I read hundreds of books to select poems for the program. That was a fine form of study and exposed me to numerous approaches and styles. Week by week, I read poems I hoped would move my invisible audience. I learned to use the sonics and cadences of my voice better. From the music-mixing I learned to attend to seamless but surprising transitions.
I never know what will help me grow or deepen into poetry. In more than 20 years, I have seen how the field of poetry and what it can offer widens into more possibilities, more ways of sharing experience, and more ways of capturing hardship, loss, and surprise moments. Every day, I read something that shows me a place I didn’t know a poem could go, a place in me I didn’t know could be healed or hurt so deeply. I don’t know another genre or medium that is so endlessly broad with options.
I began Took House in 2005. It took 15 years from when I first wrote drafts to the final book. That’s a long gestation period. To me, it was worth every minute of work, worth the silences and confusion of it. Milosz wrote, “In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: / a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,” (from “Ars Poetica?”).
It’s fascinating to me to see how Took House shifted over time. I became braver, not in the most revealing parts, but in the more interior, reflective self.
I hope the reader who finishes the book will remember the desert, the deep way I locate in this terrain—and also consider the topography of their own home, what it offers. I want the claims and appetites to stay with a reader. I’ve been told I describe things in surprising ways. I hope that the reader sees a shocking new in the familiar, that in absence they will see sound, expression, and maybe even themselves.
Revision has become for me a kind of ritual—not necessarily a set time or space, but a process that is magical and ongoing. I constantly try to lose my familiarity with both the language and the subject. I’m not interested in demolition, but in asking questions of myself, probing the proof I have set for the poem.
I also think it’s worthwhile to throw an obstacle or two into the mix. I’ve found that if I add elements, as I did with the raptor poems and visual art poems in Took House, they confound my clear understanding of what I’m doing and my volition. Ideas accumulate and slip around. All the machinations and pauses take time.
Some years in on writing the Took House poems, I determined which ones would be in the collection and ordered them. I began to work only on the collection as a whole, reading it and sort of tickling it into place. I took long breaks from it and came back, realizing something new each time. That newness was who I’d become in relation to the experience of the poems. I introduced warnings and perspective and pulled out the oversaturation of whatever I’d felt was important in the initial writing.
I work chaotically and very clearly. It’s a mystifying and wonderful process. It’s the best way I know to rough up the clear path. I enjoy the energy of it and will likely keep it up.