Lauren Camp

Lauren Camp
is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently An Eye in Each Square (River River Books, 2023). Winner of the Dorset Prize, Camp has also received fellowships from the Black Earth Institute and the Taft-Nicholson Center. In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Camp will lead a series of free creative writing workshops in schools and libraries throughout New Mexico, with a focus on students and elders in underserved and rural communities. She will also partner with the New Mexico History Museum to create broadsides that will be available to state libraries in 2025. What do you hope for the future of poetry in New Mexico, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in the state have?

Lauren Camp: I want poetry to get pulled into many more gatherings with varying populations, and other art forms and disciplines. During my term, I’ve been energized by the unexpected requests I’ve received from organizations across the state. In addition to libraries and schools, I’ve been invited to bring poetry into a planetarium, a wildlife refuge, a military institute, a dance stage, art galleries, and a history museum. I’ve met with both folks in their nineties and first- graders in rural communities, as well as every age group and desert landscape in between. For the people who will fill this role after me, I hope that poetry will continue to seep into unlikely places, and that the poets will be welcomed there. How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?

LC: I’m not a navel-gazer by nature. To write, I need other activities and energies to enlarge my thoughts. Luckily, the poet laureate position has brought a richness of experience and connection—especially following the isolated weeks and months of the pandemic. Right now, I’m putting my own productivity on a back burner. When I return to my writing practice more fully, I will mine the rural landscapes I’ve driven through while traversing the state and chronicle my interactions with the people who call those places home. Many people have met me in community circles and workshops, offering their questions and their writing. As I write, I will be asking myself: How can I write for them, especially those new to poetry, maybe even for those afraid of poetry? How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together? 

LC: Perhaps the answer to this is in the building of safe spaces. Often on my poet laureate trips, the audience has been composed of people who don’t know that a poem can speak to them or for them, though they’ve perhaps held one or two close to help steady themselves in emotionally charged situations. When I meet with them, I ask them to bring their secret interest to the surface, and each time, I watch their hesitation.

One thing that works very well for me in these gatherings is  to relax with the audience. Rather than approaching them with a fixed and formal program, which can create distance between the speaker and audience, I show them a poet who is a normal human. I tell them why I write, when I don’t, where I fumble in a poem and how I try to address that. I disclose that it’s okay if they can’t connect with every poem they read. It’s easy to share with them my endless enthusiasm for the discipline, and I see how that sparks their interest. They become more open to the intimacy of what we’re doing together: using poetry to understand ourselves and each other, to enlarge our empathy and clarify the world around us. 

But it’s equally important to acknowledge what the assembled group can do for each other. I’ve taught community workshops for fifteen years and have long been awed by how a collective built on openness and safety will offer attention, kindness, and support. Each week, I see people look out for each other, allowing differences of opinions or holding each other in moments of vulnerability. I see them welcome each other and the poem. It is poetry that has built such a community—people pulled together to consider and untangle words on a page, to offer their complicated relationships to those words, and to stand aside and hear others’ viewpoints. What part of your project are you most excited about?

LC: The epic poem workshops! I am entranced by what results from them each time. The exercise usually follows a brief reading and a rich conversation about landscape and writing. I like to think I’ve primed the audience, and because I’m not asking people to single-handedly write a poem, or even a line of a poem, everyone participates. Though I may know how to write a poem (which is an easily argued point, since I’m never sure), I can’t write a poem about where they live. I need them to help me. They understand that they have insider knowledge about their region, and they are often eager to share it. It’s a chance to highlight their voices—and their home spaces—without the danger that comes from asking a person to write something as potentially difficult as a poem. 

I hope for, and have seen, an additional benefit from these workshops. Some of these New Mexicans learn to have confidence in a small thought, an image, or a care, which is actually the beginning of a poem. I already know they have the tools to begin their own poems, and that their perspective might be needed by a reader. They just had to explore enough to realize that. What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project? 

LC: I’m working with small communities and often with a tight turnaround. Scheduling the trips has been a bit of a puzzle, but exhilarating when it succeeds. I’ve had the good fortune to pair with small town arts agencies who know how to connect their neighbors; rural libraries (and the librarians who are truly angels); and the Main Street America network, another valuable resource for reaching people. You will be partnering with the New Mexico History Museum to create poetry broadsides, which will be freely available to libraries throughout the state. Poetry broadsides, which merge visual art and poetry, have been around since the sixteenth century. Over the years, your own work as a visual artist has traveled to solo exhibits and is on permanent display at both The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and St. Vincent Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, among other public institutions. How has being a visual artist informed your work as a poet? 

LC: I credit visual art as a huge influence on my poems. My art medium was fiber; I manipulated texture, pattern, color, and negative space to create my work. Because I knew these elements in my hands already, I was able to transfer them to the page and to each line of each poem that I write. At the same time that I was making visual art, I was mixing music during my fifteen-years as a public radio producer. Listening to segues and focusing on musical genres that land in improvisation and silence also taught me the music of words. I shape my poems through these senses of composition and sonics. I’m listening for my aesthetic and rightness when I complete a poem. Is there a poem on that inspires you and your work in New Mexico? How so?

LC: I want to offer two poems. “Imaginary Conversation” by Linda Pastan reminds us to deepen attention to small details. I build my poems from these details, and I want to encourage other writers to value and transform them, too. Allen Ginsberg said, “notice what you notice,” a directive I give my students often. You don’t need a storm or a grand event to write about; you need only what you care to see and how you want to let it course through you. Another poem I’d like to mention is “What I’m Looking For” by Maureen N. McLane. It reiterates that effort of looking, of allowing the time it takes to look, and even the absence of finding. What a muscle writing is—and both of these poets remind me of the gentle, probing, and necessary work of it.