The Joy of Language: David interviews Lauren Camp


David Siew Hii, Shenandoah’s editorial fellow in poetry for issue 72.2, interviewed every poet in the issue. To showcase their voices, the questions in the interview were removed, leaving behind only the voice of the writer. In this interview, Lauren Camp talks about her journey to poetry and how she passes her passion onto others. Read her poem “Cell Theory” here.


New Mexico. Which I love.


We’re in that weird sort of spring where it’s not solid— just up and down and very fluid—and there’s a lot of people wandering around with allergies and misery.


I teach. With the pandemic, everything got folded over. My students, who are primarily mid 60s up to 90 years old, were not very tech savvy but very brave.


They agreed to move over with me to Zoom for the classes. They are the heartbeat of my weeks.


They’re wise and supportive of each other and they’re not striving to be above each other. I don’t know…they’re marvelous and complicated.


I am a very big reviser. I love being in the process. I love moving language around and enhancing and surprising myself with language.


There was a long stretch of the pandemic where I had nothing to say because I was on my same dirt road walking my same path, doing the same thing, day after day, seeing nobody—interacting with nobody. And I don’t write well from nothing.


I can look at every line of this poem and know precisely what it’s referring to. But I don’t think that’s very obvious from the outside. Oh, that was this experience, or that was this perspective. And I like that hidden understanding.


When I look back to the very first draft of “Cell Theory,” there is nothing, not a word that is the same as where it ended up.


I came to poetry from a career as a visual artist, and there’s something about the line as a visual, the line as an experience unto itself.


If I’m lucky, I’m able to enjamb lines in a way that’s not just for my own self-satisfaction. That can make me feel giddy for how it offers other interpretations to the reader. That sort of multiplicity only happens in a poem. It doesn’t happen in other genres. So, the line is not just a unit, it is the unit.


Oh! the language! the sound and the play with language but also the play with building a line. Or a thought.


But it’s the sound of it, the actual reading aloud, how the words sound together, how the vowels sound together.


The music it makes.


There are times when I’m reading a poem to another person or a group and a line will make me laugh because the language is so—it’s not a funny line but the language is so joyful in its sounds that it still can be a deep pleasure to hear this word next to that word.


I mean, it’s breath, breath, vibration.


As I said, I came from a career as a visual artist, but at the same time I was working as a producer and host for our public radio station producing a jazz and world music program. Between some of that, I would read three contemporary poems. For me that reading was entirely vibration.


It was the vibrations and then my breath—reading these poems and voicing them and trying to figure out how: where to stretch them and how to whisper them and how to expand them. That was quite a lesson in how to write poems.


I spend a lot of time with my students looking at some of the things you’ve asked about, like the line or the sounds; I send them off to find the most intriguing sounds within a poem, asking them, what would be fun to actually hear and feel in your mouth?


Even if I’m writing about something that has nothing to do with place, I still need a place to settle in.


“Cell Theory” found its way because I was spending some time in a particular location very close to where I had grown up.


I write about wind a lot. Because it’s happening around me where I live in New Mexico, and I write about sun a lot. You know, I don’t write about rain.


I find it intensely appealing to describe something in a way that is both authentic to me, that feels honest to what I’m experiencing, and also somehow new.


I’ve also written about my father and his childhood in Baghdad, a place I’ve never been. I found it incredibly hard to know if I was getting those place details right.


I find it much easier to take what I can feel and see and manipulate it in a new way, than I do to take something completely abstract to me and try to write it intelligently and poetically.


Place, I mean, it’s the solid space from which I, maybe you, maybe other people can go off and do that investigation, that questioning, that look at history, or whatever else you’re doing.


Of course. Be outside if you can. That’s fantastic.

Lauren Camp is the Poet Laureate of New Mexico and author of five books, most recently Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020). Two new books—Worn Smooth Between Devourings (NYQ Books) and An Eye in Each Square (River River Books)—are forthcoming in 2023. Her honors include the Dorset Prize and finalist citations for the Arab American Book Award, Housatonic Book Award, and Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry.