AWP 2016 was my sudden and massive induction into a community of poets I'd never read and knew I needed to be reading. I was drawn in this way to Lauren Camp for many reasons: her attunement to the world's problems, her love for bringing poetry to older and younger communities outside of the academic universe, and her belief in poetry as something that isn't static on the page but dynamic and carried by all. I returned home, read her collection The Dailiness two times through, and took months to follow up with her about an interview in part because there were so many poems in it that spoke to me, and with an immediacy that made me care. I'm looking forward to spending time with One Hundred Hungers, her latest book. And check out her radio work with Audio Saucepan, as well as her recording and discussion of Jack Gilbert's "Failing and Flying" at the Sundress Publications blog. – HLJ
My first reaction to this poem was to feel as if you’d just confessed something intensely private to me, as if over late-night drinks at the kitchen table.
That’s a wonderful reaction, and oh lord, why am I always confessing things? Lately, I’ve been writing about politics by writing about what I want to turn away from.
In my poems, I commingle analytical thought and optimism. I always want (somehow) to reach the beautiful—and if not a beautiful resolution, at least an emotionally responsive (and therefore beautiful) poem.
RAIL RUNNER EXPRESS CRASH ON I-25 SOUTH OF SANTA FE
One summer day, I witnessed the murder
of speed and money, a train
and armored car twined beneath a pockmarked sun.
I missed the tire squeal, but sat
In the nervous framework of vehicles
that bloomed down the Interstate. An ambulance
had been dispatched. We all gawked
as an EMT tended the scrapes and whispers
flung against the road – in this same threadbare spot
where a gasoline truck toppled, then exploded
several months before, metal
melting to its unsuspecting driver.
Even now I fear the whack, the severed bodies
swallowing thready air.
How much easier it is to be looking over
what has rolled over through light fragmented
on the underside of someone else’s car.
We continue driving forward, frantically strategizing
details and errands until we meet tomorrow’s headline.
But this is my bend in the road,
my wrecked railing.
A personality test defines me as lemon-sour
so I take the test again, changing answers.
This time it calls me blue
And I become a river of blue, flowing back and forth
on the Interstate in my beat-up Subaru,
never putting my compassion down,
never leaving the road with my imperfect eyes.
The voice in this poem, who/what is it? And was there a triggering experience that began this piece?
In an early draft, “Rail Runner Express Crash” encompassed some of the wider world’s problems, including a train crash in DC and terrorism in Tehran and Paris. I referred to this as “other peoples’ worlds,” a term I soon deleted. But perhaps writing that is what led me to focus the lens closer in.
I began the poem in June 2009, following a horrendous year of economic uncertainty (I know I was not alone in this). I'd been making my living as a visual artist for more than 12 years, and suddenly that was no longer an option. People weren’t interested in art. They needed to pay rent and put gas in their cars. They needed sustenance of the most basic kind, and art was too big a luxury to even consider.
So I was entering the job market, a place I hadn’t been in a long time. I was working through strategies for my future. Hence, the personality test. Which job would suit me, now that I could no longer do what I had done for so long? Rather pathetic about it all, I was convinced I had no skills to offer. Truly it was “my bend in the road.”
A situation in the present moment – an accident on the freeway – is sketched here in sharp sensory detail. There’s also a reference to the past, with the gasoline truck that exploded. The violence of these images, did they signify anything larger for you in the writing than an experience of moving past a scene as an outsider?
Everything seemed tinged with danger at that time. It’s surprising to me that you say “as an outsider", I wouldn’t have identified it that way. Yes, I was outside of the accidents, but hardly down the road from my home. When I moved to the high desert 22 years ago, it felt unlike any other place I’d been. I felt connected to the earth, to the space around me. I didn’t feel ownership, but rather, a reverence. When something awful happens so close to where I lay my head each night, it unnerves me. And it unnerved me at a time I was already way out of balance. It wasn’t just an accident; I had to engage with it.
That imperative feels pretty central to the poem, but especially in that bodily felt line “Even now I fear the whack, the severed bodies / swallowing thready air.” There's a paradox – the gawking at violence, the desire to look – against the temptation to "[look] over what has rolled over.” I love the surprise too in how you end the thought about driving forward…“until we meet tomorrow’s headline.” (I'd expected the word ‘deadline.’) But the world’s headline of suffering is really unavoidable, isn’t it?
I was determined to keep that extreme reaction in the poem. It wasn’t part of the first two drafts, but then I went there — into the darkest, worst hole of what could happen. In the version in which I introduced it, I added the line, “I am making this up, / launching into unbelievable tragedy.” But I quickly took that out, because it didn’t matter.
With each draft, I considered deleting the fear, but each time it stayed verbatim as I’d first written it. It seemed overdone, but it was no more inflated and reactionary than how I’d been dealing with my personal situation.
I began to come out of my little, dark shell of worry a bit. Whenever I was in the car, the radio kept talking to me, telling me all the suffering I wasn’t suffering. I could see around me that others were doing far worse. I wasn’t likely to end up sleeping the winter in a tent on the Plaza, freezing to death. Something would be okay. Maybe everything.
The rhetorical turn in this poem for me is when you mention this is your “bend in the road,” your “wrecked railing.” Here the speaker owns up to her personal agency, contrasted with the “we” in the previous stanza. What’s she owning up to?
What felt like a wrecked life, maybe. For the duration of the economic crisis, I couldn’t figure out who I was, what I was supposed to be. Change is so damn hard, Hannah, and yet the changes that came from that time turned out to be positive and necessary. They gave my life deeper meaning. I moved out of the realm of “self” into voluntary service and external reach as a teacher, and found it suited me brilliantly.
Five years before the first draft of this poem, I could sense an impending shift in my visual art, but couldn’t figure where to point my scope. I expected to stay within the realm of art making, and was surprised that writing took such firm hold, pulling me fully away.
And then we reach what I feel to be the apex of the poem which is the personality test. What is happening there, and why does the speaker follow it with an appeal for forgiveness?
I took the personality test to help me figure out what I was suited to do for employment. I expected the test to clarify a direction. Only, I didn’t like the results. And I was clever enough to understand how to manipulate the test. I was desperate for a solution that I wanted, a career that I wanted.
So, having cheated on the test, I needed forgiveness—but not just for the test itself. Perhaps also for holding tight to whatever dark spirit had inhabited me, whatever cheating I was doing of my future and myself.
Why does the speaker become blue? Why the color blue? (Maggie Nelson’s marvelous book, Bluets, comes to mind, though I'm sure you've got your own take on the shade).
As a visual artist, I always avoided the color blue. It was too settled for me, too calm. I craved rust-orange in each piece, even just a highlight of it. I wanted some fire in the work. But for once—in the taking of the test and in my response to the turmoil in life—blue seemed the right color. I was grateful to be labeled as blue, because it had the ability to define the tranquil and composed me I wanted to be.
Maybe tell us a little about your poetry education. And what advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA?
I am proudly self-taught. I have read an insane amount of poetry over the last dozen years. I read three to five books a week and a number of poems online each day. That sounds astronomical, even to me. I host a radio show that incorporates contemporary poetry, so I’m always scanning for exhilarating poems. And then I have to read these aloud, which forces me to embody them. There’s a tremendous lesson in that effort each time.
I don’t want to write like anyone else. I’m very anti-derivative, but I want to know what’s possible. If one writer shows me a door I didn’t know existed, I can go through that door and find another door on my own, and see where that will take me. Show me a line break that cracks open my heart. I’ll cheer for you. Show me a new perspective, a way to tell a story—or not tell a story. I read to discover anything that doubles or triples possibilities, anything that acts like a wishbone.
I try things out in my own writing. I have no qualms about crossing out half the poem and re-integrating a new perspective. As a visual artist, I worked with fabric, but I think my main technique was collage. Revising a poem is in my cells. I was cutting and pasting scraps from my mother’s Ladies Home Journal (over her protestations) as a child, just to make something visual. I still thrill in the process.
I don’t have an evil inner critic. I don’t think about audience for anything I create—at least, not at first. I think about what I want of the work. Is it good enough to satisfy me? (Rarely.) So I go back into it. I read the poem aloud. I let it sit, silently by itself for a while. I ignore it. I forget it. I come back to it, and am ruthless, dispassionate. This goes; this stays. Revision is a kind of conceiving. I am adding life. I am building a strangeness, a disturbance, a beauty, a magnificent thumping to the piece, a scar, a hallway, a space for the thought or image to matter. Can I do these things…? Umm, perhaps. I’m willing to try.
I’ve also had some solid “educational” grounding: classes in oral interpretation in graduate school. Audio Saucepan, the radio show I host. Some dramatization work with a local theater group. Lots of readings. All the times I've curated an issue for a journal, presented at a conference, took my place at the front of a classroom. Also, for the last few years, I’ve been a teaching artist for Poetry Out Loud, the national program encouraging high school students to recite poetry. I had no one to encourage a love of poetry in me at that age; I’m determined to do this for the youth I encounter.
Anything involving youth and literature is a fabulous way to give back. Any “homework” you’d like to assign our readers?
Hand over a poem you feel is finished (or nearly finished, or that you’re stuck on) to a friend or spouse. Do not read it to her first. Do not tell her anything about it. Ask the person to read it aloud to you. Listen to where the poem flows, or where it is choppy. Listen to any difficulties the reader has. Make notes on parts you don’t quite like. What sounds weird to you? Why did she say this word this way? Why is she stumbling there?
That reading will give you new ears for the poem. Let your concerns and any confusion help guide you in revising the work.
LAUREN CAMP is the author of three books, most recently One Hundred Hungers, winner of the Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press, 2016). Her poems appear in New England Review, Linebreak, Beloit Poetry Journal and elsewhere. Other honors include the Margaret Randall Poetry Prize, an Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award, and a Black Earth Institute Fellowship. She produces and hosts “Audio Saucepan” on Santa Fe Public Radio. www.laurencamp.com.