Lauren Camp is author of two previous books of poems, This Business of Wisdom (West End Press, 2010) and The Dailiness (Edwin E. Smith, 2013), which was an “Editor’s Pick” by World Literature Today and winner of the National Federation of Press Women’s 2014 Poetry Book Prize. Since 2004, she has produced and hosted Santa Fe Public Radio’s “Audio Saucepan,” which entwines music with contemporary poetry. She lives in New Mexico.
She has been awarded residencies with the Gaea Foundation, Truchas Peaks Place, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. She has guest–edited a special anthology on the poetry of Iraq for Malpaís Review, and curated two special sections for World Literature Today (one on international jazz poetry, and the other on the intersection of contemporary visual art and poetry).
In her Dorset Prize-winning new collection and her third, One Hundred Hungers, Lauren Camp explores the lives of a first-generation Arab-American girl and her Jewish-Iraqi parent. One Hundred Hungers tells overlapping stories of food and ritual, immigration and adaptation, evoking her father’s boyhood in Baghdad in the 1940s at a time when tensions began to emerge along ethnic and religious lines.
Wale: I agree with David Wojahn that the cohesiveness of your book One Hundred Hungers is very impressive. At a point in the book, I begin to wonder if the poems came from an idea of writing a poetry book that explores the Arab-American cultural assimilation experience or a collection of poems you have written without that intention?
Lauren: No, I didn’t begin the poems with any idea of writing a book. I began first with the notion of writing my life as a myth. It was more an exercise in creativity than a plan toward anything larger.
At some point after that, I suddenly and desperately wanted (or maybe more accurately needed) to understand my father’s emigration from Iraq to the U.S. I chose to write this inquiry and research through poems. Only later did the two parts begin to merge.
Wale: That’s interesting. How old is the oldest poem in the book?
Lauren: I don’t seem to have an easy answer to this. One Hundred Hungers developed organically, and really in quite different ways from my other books.
I did a reading of an early version of the “girl” parts at a local theater in autumn 2010. I interspersed my “mythical” story with another poet’s. At that time, the pieces could not really constitute poems. They were dreamy and short— 2 to 4 sentences—to describe different, random elements of my life. Over time, and many revisions, they expanded and shifted, but I hope they retained some of that strange sense of a legend.
Around that same time (autumn 2010), my files show a full draft (albeit, an early one) of the manuscript.
Wale: Can you talk about winning the Dorset Prize and how it led to the publication of this book?
Lauren: Winning the Dorset Prize was a gift. It meant the book would be published by a press I greatly admire—Tupelo Press.
Throughout the latter part of 2013, I worked and reworked the manuscript. It had sat dormant for a long time before that. I was missing information about the culture and my father’s life that I felt it needed. I couldn’t figure out how to bring it together into a coherent whole.
Ultimately, I had to accept that there were details I could not know. When I realized the gaps were an integral part of the story, I shot forward, very focused in my writing.
I sent it to the Dorset Prize competition on December 26 for a December 31 deadline.
Wale: Most of the poems in the book celebrate family, the history and the culture of it. How were you able to journey into the 1940s of Baghdad? I would love to know if the history that went into this were drawn from mainly family narratives or personal researches.
Lauren: Over the years, my father had shared only a few, very small anecdotes. At some point, he told me where his family lived. This was the first specific detail that started me on the path to discovering his past.
It was nearly impossible for me to journey successfully into an era and a place that are so changed now. This was especially true because I was not particularly interested in anyone else’s story. What I wanted to discover was my father’s story. I wanted to make the book as true to him as I could.
Luckily, I had spent a great deal of time with my extended family — my grandparents, aunts, uncles and some of my father’s cousins — when I was growing up. I had that as a platform of understanding. A few of them gave me very important insights into my father and the family. These bits of information were like gold.
I read historical accounts of Iraq, and what it was like before it became a nation-state. I read nonfictional narratives by others who had left the country around the same time. I pored over old maps and gritty black and white photos of Baghdad. Also, and importantly, part of my journey was through music. I wrote and revised my words to the sound of the oud.
Wale: What a journey!
I like the innocence in your poem “Skipping Double Dutch”. There are also other poems like “Who Other” and “Foreign” (one of my favourite in the collection) that brings back the moments of childhood. At a point in my writing, I had journeyed back into such moments. Even with the help of fragments, the emotions are always extreme, whether sweet or sad memories. Maybe that is why I love the poems. Let us talk about growing up as an Arab-American and the burden of a multicultural girlhood.
Lauren: Many of these poems feel so much like a love story to my dad. “Foreign,” in particular, captures how grand it was to be beside him when I was a little girl. I can’t pull up many memories of very early years, but I know this one fully.
I grew up in a neighborhood of cultures and religions that were different from mine —Italian, Irish, Catholic—and I reveled in being a bit unusual. At that point, no one had heard of Iraq. It was not in the news. We were not at war: my one country to my other. It wasn’t hard to be in that multicultural world because I was also in the vast world of my own imagination most of the time. As best I remember, I’m not sure I even noticed what others thought.
And there’s a strange irony to all this, as different as my situation was, it was also so familiar within my home (and my grandparents’ home, certainly) that it was nearly invisible. Do you know…? I couldn’t hear my father’s strong accent until I moved away as an adult.
Wale: After reading the first two poems in the book, “Seder” and “Disorder”, I was expecting more of that style until the third poem “Pause Hawk Cloud Enter” hit me beautifully with another style. I like the movement between depth and narrative in the collection; they both worked well. How do you decide which way to write your poems?
Lauren: It pleases me that I didn’t allow you to expect anything for long. If I’ve succeeded, the book repeatedly pushes a sense of dislocation on the reader. I want you to be turned around many times.
When I write one poem, it is just that: singular, solitary. I can use any approach I want—lyricism, narrative, alternative point of view, etc. — to create the poem. I don’t worry how it will speak to others. I work to make it all it can be. It is only when it comes into a collection that I begin to think of how to “seam” the poems together.
Ordering this book was extremely complicated. I questioned every position, and made some dramatic moves. Poems in the first few pages got shuttled to the back. I separated poems that seemed to be exact companions. I tried many permutations until it worked as a book, as the story I wanted to tell.
Wale: I am glad you didn’t too. When exactly did you started writing and who influenced you?
I started writing as a child, but had no strong direction. Actually, I did anything creative I could. No one particularly noticed, and no one in my family seemed to mind. I liked for my hands to be making something.
After graduate school, my jobs were writing-based. I worked in public relations, and following that, as a magazine editor. But the words I wrote never felt particularly pleasurable. They were there to move an idea or a direction to the page. They weren’t waiting a better arrangement.
When I moved to New Mexico, I focused exclusively on creating visual art. Gradually, I began to show my work. For these exhibits, I was often asked to write small pieces about my artwork. I didn’t want to use words to simply make the work again. I spun words around, shifted perspective, played. What I wrote was a new thing I didn’t have a name for. People asked who wrote the “poems” that were on display.
After that, I started studying poetry very actively, reading essays and lectures and endless poems by everyone. During this time, I was also broadcasting a music show on the public radio station. I designed the show to incorporate poetry. In essence, I had created another genre for myself: global sounds and poetic language. Chords and pulses. I remain fascinated by both, and by how blending them together gives them a new larger gesture.
Because I read so much poetry to prepare for my radio show, it is accurate to say that my influences number in the hundreds. I dip in and out of books all week, ultimately selecting three poems by different contemporary poets to share on the program. Week after week, for years — what I’ve read lands in my body somewhere, tickles my mind. I don’t love everything I read, of course, but it is part of my education.
I don’t mean to evade your question. It is easy to see some of the poetry I like by checking out my radio show, “Audio Saucepan”. Sometimes, it is not poetry that enables my poetry. Other forms can easily engage my ear, eye and heart. I am deeply influenced by jazz musicians (Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington come to mind) and visual artists (such as Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg, Eva Hesse, Romare Bearden). I feel like my ability to write poetry comes from a world of influences.
Wale: That’s fascinating. Let me ask you this question I have been getting different answers to. Is writing hard? Is creative writing harder than the kind of writing you were into while working in Public Relations?
Lauren: Oh, no! Writing poetry isn’t hard. At least not in a painful way. The other types of writing (public relations work and writing articles for magazines and newspapers) didn’t require anywhere near the time or effort poetry does. I found it uncomfortable to stay within the lines of what was expected in that type of writing.
With poetry, there’s a continuum. It starts out as one thing. If I give it enough marinating time, and approach it periodically with fresh eyes, it can end up so much better. I am willing to work at it in the hopes of finding a surprise—a turn, a musical phrase, a new awareness. It’s joyful to write poetry.
Wale: Yes, I can relate. I would love to ask you back the question you asked in your poem, “Scraps”: “blue, why always blue”?
Lauren: Just recently, I was working on decluttering my father’s apartment. He has many clothes, and truly, most of his shirts were blue.
As far back as I can remember, my father has always been a person with exacting behaviors. For example, he believes utensils should go in the dishwasher a certain way. He is a very organized man, very orderly in his note-taking and his accounting work.
I often shied away from using blue in my artwork, and I don’t own many blue clothes. I don’t care much for the actual color, but I love blue topics. I am happy to enter them again and again, to turn them around until I find some peace within them.
Wale: I want to add your 2013 collection The Dailiness to the list of books I want to read before the end of this year. I have read excerpts from the book, and I am already in love with it. Reading reviews on the musicality of the book takes me back to where you mentioned how music influence your poetry. How do you engage music in poetry?
Lauren: I have long been interested in the juxtaposition of rhythmic cycles and silence. I began volunteering for the local public radio station 15 years ago, and have been producing and hosting shows ever since. Music has been an integral part of nearly every day of those years.
The first program I did was strictly a jazz show. Jazz is “sophisticated music” that requires an ear willing to hear shifts and breaks. I find such richness imperative, and I react to the sound with my body and my enthusiasm.
I created the show I currently broadcast, “Audio Saucepan,” in 2010. I wanted to expand the focus to incorporate musical tones and textures from across the world, though jazz is still a mainstay.
I generally listen to music as a DJ, thinking about which particular song to share, hearing how it may interact with or echo other beats that intrigue me. I listen, too, for how a tune could blend or build on the poems I have chosen for the show.
Every now and then, I also write poems about jazz musicians. The Dailiness includes poems to jazz masters Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, for example. I don’t know exactly how music enters between the lines and words of my poems, but I know it is there. It is there in my voice when I read the words aloud. I care immensely about the musical dimensions of my poems, and listen to their meanings through words and acoustic space.
Wale: What do you tell those who are yet to read your book when they ask about the meaning and origin of its title One Hundred Hungers?
Lauren: Honestly, I’d rather not tell them anything! I’d like for them to experience the book and determine what those hungers are. But, if pressed, I’d say the title encompasses the hunger for cultural identity, the hunger for memory, for relationship, for faith… the complication of excess and insufficiency… the nourishment of all these things…
Wale: What are you currently working on?
Lauren: I’m gradually moving another, quite different, historical project forward.
During a residency at arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house in Taos, New Mexico a few years ago, I began to write about Mabel and her cohort during the 1920s and 30s. The poems range to details and perspective on a photograph by Ansel Adams, the analytical psychology of Carl Jung, modernist paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, writer D.H. Lawrence’s intensity, and the role of the Native American community in Mabel’s understanding of self.
I also continue to write poems closer to home. I tend to focus within my own sphere, so if politics or illness or weather is foremost in my awareness, it is likely to end up in a poem, or a section of a poem. I’ve never worked exclusively on a series. I let myself range wherever my interests lie, and then pull back and assess the poems that are strong and ready, and how (or if) they go together.
Wale: That’s intriguing! I like your idea of engaging History in Poetry a lot. I am a History student, maybe that is where we connect. Somehow, your works are slowly making me discard the oddity I feel everytime I try to write a poem base on Historical facts. I secretly hope this is not my personal problem. I won’t be too mad with myself if you say this very easy for you though.
Lauren: I so often write from my current time and place, but am grateful for ideas that lead into another culture or time. Constructing poems based in a history that is not my own forces me into some far-ranging research. This is part of the pleasure.
Ultimately, I need to remember that what I’ve learned may only underpin the words I write; those facts and details don’t have to be obvious to make a poem richer.
Wale: I will keep that as a tip. Thank you for your time!
Pertinent questions. And enriching explanations, a fascinating exploration into the author’s world.
Good interview. Especially interesting in the association of music, history and language. For me, as well, writing poetry is a joyous act. Am intrigued by the idea/process of writing one’s history as myth.
After first reading, this interview seems inconclusive, me yearning for more.
So, I shall again read, maybe with a borrowed mind severed from the former.
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