By Charlotte Jusinski
One of the first things Lauren Camp will do when you meet her is ask you about you. This interview, conducted over coffee at my kitchen table in October 2022, was edited for length and clarity—and also to remove many questions Camp asked about me and my own creative life.
She had just wrapped up a month-long appointment as astronomer-in-residence at the Grand Canyon, announced her poet laureateship right after that, had been published in dozens of journals in the last couple years, and seemed always on the verge of something else new and exciting—but still, she wanted to reach out into the world and learn more, more, more.
The Office of the Poet Laureate, part of the New Mexico State Library, is appointed every three years. According to the State Library, the poet laureate pursues “the goals of supporting literacy and enhancing education while promoting arts enrichment across the state. Through speaking engagements statewide and programs at schools and libraries, the poet will engage all New Mexicans with poetry.” Within New Mexico, many cities and counties also appoint their own poets laureate, and the United States poet laureate is currently Ada Limón. Camp is New Mexico’s second state poet laureate; its inaugural office holder was Levi Romero, who wrapped up his term in August 2022.
Camp has released five books of poetry, the most recent of which is Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020), which received numerous accolades including the American Fiction Award in Poetry from the American Book Fest. She also celebrates the forthcoming publication of two more collections: An Eye in Each Square (River River Books, 2023) and Worn Smooth Between Devourings (NYQ Books, 2023).
Read on to learn more about New Mexico’s poet laureate, what she learned in the dark, and whether she likes the doing or the thing.
Charlotte Jusinski: Can you give me a brief history of Lauren and poetry?
Lauren Camp: I was in Santa Fe making visual art as a career. My series of fiber art portraits, The Fabric of Jazz, was traveling around the country on exhibit in museums and art centers.
At the opening of the show in Kentucky, somebody came up to me and said, ‘I know you made the artwork; who wrote the poems?’ I looked around the room, and it was all my artwork, solo show. There was nothing else.
I said, ‘There are no poems here.’ That person took me around, pointing to the wall text beside my artwork—‘This is a poem, this is a poem, this is a poem’—which was a revelation to me. I didn’t come from a hyper-literary family. My mother was a very avid reader, but not of scholarly books. My father was an immigrant, and [didn’t have the] capacity to handle reading in another language. I had no understanding of what poetry was, honestly.
I returned to New Mexico figuring, ‘Well, if I’m doing this, I might as well know what it is, for real.’ I thought poetry had certain things to it; probably it had to be rhyming and it had to be impossible to understand. Secret things that many people are scared of with poetry if they’re uncertain about it.
I overheard a friend of mine say something about her poetry group and I asked to join. That writing group helped me realize—in the same way that I realized hiking was just walking—‘Oh, poetry is just writing.’
It suited me to be able to fold color, texture, and pattern, oddness and emotion into a poem. Poetry gives me the leeway and spaciousness I need to be able to express something in a way that’s not formulaic.
CJ: You just had this absolute flurry of publications in the last year or so. The simple question is: How much do you write? Because from the outside, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, how prolific is this person?’
LC: You’re not the first person to say I’m prolific. I don’t think of myself that way, which is interesting. I prefer to only write when I have something to write about. This might be something I overhear, something I see, a place I visited. I’ve written through a lot of grief and loss also.
When I have something on my mind, I just hammer at it in multiple drafts. I will start a draft with notes. I don’t care if they’re well written. They are just place-holding reminders—images and sensations that I care to preserve. I guess other people would put this in a journal, but I want to develop them into poems.
I love the revision process. I’m fine with a poem taking months or years to get done. Some of the work you’re seeing has taken me eight years to complete. …
What I’ve learned over time is that the best way for me to write a poem that’s interesting is to layer other selves into it, onto it, which means I am forced to come back to the poem in two months or two years. When I return to the draft after some time has passed, my thinking has changed and new things have happened since. It may be a different season or my outlook may be different. All of this gets braided in, making a richer poem.
CJ: Let’s talk about your month-long stint as astronomer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park. Did the headline say, ‘Astronomer-in-residence needed,’ and you were like, ‘Oh, that’s me’? How did that happen?
LC: Kind of. … They were looking for astronomers and scientists, and they had other disciplines too. The call included writers. It might have even said poets. I thought, ‘Well, okay, I’m a poet so I’ll apply.’ It was like everything else in my life: ‘This sounds challenging and wild and incredible and different for me. Sure, why not?’ I already knew that I love living in a place where I can see activity in the heavens. It was a good chance to learn more. …
So I applied. When they said yes, I was truly shocked. I was really astounded.
CJ: I think there are so many people who, myself included, would take one look at that and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s not me.’ Maybe you didn’t specifically say, ‘Oh, that is me,’ but something led you to say, ‘Let me give this a go.’ What is it about you that allows you to do that?
LC: I didn’t know what I would do with the opportunity, but I cared about the subject. I was curious about the subject and I like to learn. I understood that I was going to be building my poems for an audience that probably also didn’t know much about astronomy. That meant I was in a uniquely perfect place to be able to bridge this space between celestial phenomena and issues of light pollution or whatever I was going to write about for the average person who does not get to see much of anything in outer space from where they live.
CJ: What was your daily routine when you were there?
LC: I had days that were wide open, no structure from the outside at all, and then I had days where I was doing ranger talks or interviews. While I was there, I gathered responses from visitors and created an epic poem built around cycles of the moon.
I did a lot of walking along the rim. I visited all the public buildings, the museums. It was August, and quite hot. I took to going out often for walks in the early morning and every night at sunset and for the hour or two after. Just seeing how it felt to be in the dark, walking in the dark, which is not something that I typically do here. I paid attention to how it felt in my body to be out there with a headlamp, where all I could see was a little ways in front of me, and this great canyon right next to me. …
At the beginning, I was overwhelmed by the grandness of the space. Had I been just a visitor, I could have been awed … but I was also tasked with doing something. That was a little intimidating.
CJ: Were there subjects you found yourself gravitating toward there?
LC: I wrote a lot about dark. Every poem dealt with darkness, but a different darkness than I was used to writing about. I’ve written a lot about grief … but this was just dark, an actual dark that you could walk into.
At the same time, I was reading about light pollution. I was learning the ways that we as humans and communities are messing with everybody’s ability to see the skies. I wanted desperately to include all that in my poems, but I also kept trying to hold back.
CJ: Why did you try not to write about light pollution?
LC: Because it’s hard to write successfully when you have an agenda. There has to be a space for the reader to bring themself to the page and the subject.
I got to do several great ranger talks after dark. The first half of the program, I read poems I’d curated about darkness and the moon and stars, poems dating back to the eighth century through contemporary times. That was planned time for the audience to let their eyes dark-adapt. Then, Rader Lane, a dark skies ranger at the park, gave a laser-guided constellation talk. It was a beautiful combination. Everybody sitting out there in the dark, just looking up at the skies, listening to poetry.
Rader pointed out Polaris, the north star, explaining it as circumpolar. He shared all kinds of fascinating details and stories of the stars that most people don’t know. The last ranger talk, we had 130 people out there sitting on the ground and on stone walls. A very dark night. … I had a red headlamp and Rader had a red headlamp, and everyone else was in the dark. We had already given them the talk about not shining white lights because it messes with your rods and cones, and your ability to see in the darkness.
So there we were, cozied by poetry and all dark-adapted. I was at the end of truly lovely poems by Neruda and Szymborska. All of a sudden, I heard a murmur among the audience, who I could hardly see—a ground swell of comments: ‘Are you really going to do that? No, don’t. No.’
I got a glimpse of a figure off to the left of me, at the outside of the crowd, with a white light. It was two people and they decided to cross directly in front of all 130 people with their vibrant white light held in front of them so they could see their path. …
Everybody was bothered. I still had the stage. My stage was a huge stone boulder. After they had passed, I said, ‘So that was your first lesson in light pollution.’ That was a much better way to communicate light pollution. They could feel the invasion of light in their bodies.
CJ: How much did you write while you were there?
LC: I wrote a ton. I think I currently have thirteen finished poems, which is extraordinary for me—because as I said, I don’t finish things very quickly. I have a number of other drafts that I am holding aside. I want to return to them later, when I can layer other things into them. I want the whole body of work to be poems with different resonances.
CJ: What did you take away from the Grand Canyon?
LC: I miss it terribly. It’s the weirdest thing. I travel, some people would say a lot. Some are really fancy places, and some are really ordinary places, and I think they’re great. But I’ve never missed a place like this.
It’s partly the Grand Canyon, one of the wonders of the world, but it’s partly the spaciousness of the dark that I miss, that is hard to get here. It would be even harder to get it most anywhere else. Every night since I’ve been back, I stand outside and figure out what I can of what’s happening in the sky.
I’m not out there for an incredibly long period of time, but I keep trying to identify a little more. The skies here are not as clear as they are at the Grand Canyon, but I can go from Big Dipper to Polaris to Queen Cassiopeia to—I think that’s the Great Square of Pegasus. Every day, I’m trying to learn a little more.
I took away a real strong sense of the value of darkness for rest—for sleep rest, but also for just personal rest. There was something very beautiful about hiking in the dark. It was a safe place.
It was such a luxury to be given a month to keep watching. Typically, when you go on trips, you’re cramming a lot of things in. Because you’re only there for a short period of time, you have to see a lot. This was more like I could sit on a bench, and I could watch the lightning over the North Rim. I could go out to the same point over and over, and see it today and tomorrow and the next day. That was a real luxury, to remember that you’re looking at a place over time.
CJ: What would you say is your relationship to your reader?
LC: I write for me. I’m fully focused on getting the poem exactly the way I need it to be, which is something different from perfection. I am looking for some kind of surprise. I need to play with the language. I feel a little giddy at the end of a poem. Not because it’s funny, but because it’s done something outside my knowing. I’m completely in the world I’ve made from the poem. It’s a very comfortable space because there’s no pressure. There’s no critical attention coming from anywhere.
CJ: There is no reader.
LC: There’s no reader. It’s just me moving words and lines around. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t come with any danger. It simply doesn’t work. I can go back to a draft and cross off seventy-five percent of it … but that’s fine. It’s OK. … I tell my students, ‘If you keep one good line from something, you’ve been successful.’
It’s a long time into the process before there’s a reader. In fact, not until I have something I feel is basically done. Then I care a lot about the reader. I feel like the circle’s not complete until somebody engages with what I’ve written, until I can share it somehow—but it’s a long time before I’m ready to bring what I’ve written to a reader.
CJ: It’s almost like you’re creating in a vacuum. That sounds freeing.
LC: An inordinate number of people have self judgment, an inner critic. I do everything I can in my classes to try to reduce that angst that people have. Seeing that in others has, over the years, made me wonder when that comes up for me? I’ve had that vacuum since I was a child, making little crafty projects whenever I could.
My parents cared that I did well in school and that was it. I made my little projects on the side and truly nobody paid much attention to them. I guess I was determined or interested enough that I just kept making them.
At some point, as an adult, I started thinking—why didn’t anybody encourage that creative spirit? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if someone had encouraged it, maybe there would have been pressure to do it well. Instead, I just did what I did for me.
In that space of not having an audience, it was only me, moving towards whatever I envisioned for the piece, and I could keep working on it until mom called me for dinner or until I was done or until I felt good about it. There’s so much spaciousness in that. There’s nobody saying, ‘Nope, not right.’ There’s no little annoying critic on your shoulder saying, ‘Not good enough,’ because I had nothing to compare what I made to—other than another piece I had made, or an idea in my mind. The more I look back on it, I feel like that was a gift.
CJ: For some people, that vacuum is the death of their creativity.
LC: Exactly. For someone else, it would have been devastating to have nobody to look at it. For me, it was a good safe space.
CJ: So, everyone and their mother at every media outlet in New Mexico is going to say, ‘What are you going to do as poet laureate?’—Everybody cares about that, and I care about that, but I’m not going to ask it because you’ve answered it.
What I would rather know: What does being poet laureate mean to you?
LC: I feel like I came to poetry through a side door. People opened the door a little more for me at every place I went and said, ‘Come on in. This is what poetry can be. This is what poetry can be in all these different ways, and you can find a space here.’ I feel like that’s what I want to do.
I want to find a way to get poetry to the people who don’t yet know—like I didn’t know—that they can write a poem, that they can claim a poem written by someone else and say, ‘This matters to me,’ or ‘I like this,’ or ‘I agree with this,’ or ‘I feel this.’ … Part of the way I want to do that is to connect poetry with disciplines and interests and organizations that are doing something that is not poetry-related—where poetry can slip in and maybe widen the audience both for that discipline or interest and for poetry. I’m going to be looking for ways to make those connections and I’ll be open to any way for those connections to happen.
CJ: You are a truly empathetic person. Are you apprehensive about a role such as poet laureate as somebody who connects with others very deeply? It sounds almost exhausting.
LC: My brother once said to me some years ago, ‘How do you manage in life, Lauren, when you care about so much? How does it not just completely wear you out?’ I don’t know. I’m excited about going around the state and learning more about different cultures, different communities, different individuals and what they care about.
I’ll have to answer that part of whether it exhausts me or not later, but I think it might invigorate and energize me to learn more about individuals. I really think that the key to everything is the individual. I want to know—who are you and what drives you, what scares you, what are you looking at? That has always interested me. In college I studied psychology, human development, communication. I was not interested in the study of groups.
I was interested in the individual, and I still am. Whether a person has lived in the same place, the same town, the same village for their whole life or whether they’ve traveled the world, I find people really interesting.
I teach a memoir class at the community college. I’ve had people come into that class and say, ‘I haven’t done anything with my life.’ My answer: ‘Of course you have.’ I feel like that’s part of my role, in a way, confirming, ‘Your life matters. It matters to me and I would like to see it, and I would like to honor it.’ I think poetry is one way to do that.
CJ: Lastly, this is one of my favorite questions to ask of artists of any discipline at all: Do you like the doing, or do you like the thing?
LC: I like the doing. I don’t care about the thing. I get excited to have a thing done maybe, but also then there’s that void where you don’t have a thing. You don’t have the process anymore. You don’t have the doing of the thing anymore, which I think is part of why I start a lot of poems.
Then I can be back in that doing process. I like the slowness of the process. I don’t like a blank page. I don’t like finishing a whole big book project and then having nothing. I like being in it. That’s a really glorious, happy, engaging space for me.
Learn more about New Mexico’s Office of the Poet Laureate at poetry.nmculture.org, and more about Lauren Camp at laurencamp.com.
Charlotte Jusinski is the editor of El Palacio.
No Other Place to Go
I was sitting on a bench watching night
move into place. I wasn’t doing nothing
and I wasn’t doing anything about that
either. It was unlike real life.
Simple, such looking without
having to notice. Stars little by little
gathered in the paunch above
and so I was thinking
about darkness and light, thinking gradations
of points and the uses of wings
and just then two people asked
to share the bench. Though they sat no distance
from me, they were only bodies lived
through voices. The mother began to tell
where they home—a concrete jungle she said,
two hours from this and two hours
beamed to another big city. Her husband
right then was down the road, wanting
to photograph the sky. In position,
awaiting. I sat without taking my eyes
from the vanishing, And that was what I was,
happy and whole. She said he lugs
his equipment on trips to find
any dark. She wanted him
to have what they can’t see in Delaware,
the missing data of the impossibly vast.
That night we saw stars fish around
and we filled only with what
they were doing.
From my living room I can see
seven junipers: plant bark and fatty oil, tuber, wood.
Each is a bed, a tunnel, a kingdom.
I can absorb silence or flurries of action.
When night is a clutter of stars, a dark husk
falls over. Ravens unsleeve
from branches. All year, so tired
I’ve tried not to look
at any conclusion. At the back door, a spider eats
in the hub of its web,
then neatens to simple strands. I carry on
a one-sided chat with the weaver.
I’m ready now. My view is here.
Folk Show at Betterday Coffee
That Saturday scattered to an urgent sort of ear
as only sodden winter scabbed the floor. At the counter,
the melodic barrage of foam. A timer clicked.
I began to see everything, the brief landscape of booths and the breath
of a man with an accordion, face full of forehead,
his hands holding heartbeat, then inhale and exhale. Striped socks,
all the sounds
shrugging up heat—
To Open the Tireless Sky
It was a month with water then without.
Around me the supercontinents.
This might not matter to what I didn’t know.
When I was asked to describe darkness
I first sat with my pencil
and syntax and my pad stayed
white: a moon half-
termed in the sky. I stared out to see, to occupy,
Couldn’t begin. Needed lessons. For hours I read
how to uncluster, to become
star tender, a fisher. Underlined letters.
Every night the night
made time for itself, bodied and elongated, and I took
a jacket out
to the thrumming. To stare
up and off, watch it
pull over rough shadows. There was no
front of the heavens, no halfway to study.
What you have here is me in multiple
squattings at a rock
or bench or anyplace thick
with a parcel of dark. I doubted
I’d ever have any
ability to capture what splurged within, but in
those hanks of night
what existed was a door
and a window. An old life explaining the logic
of another. Stubborn and actual
and part of a whole. Why write it at all, this impassable
glint since I couldn’t control it? Why look
for something to force me to worship?
Night was a view of the crowd, a thousand reoccurrences
and spiderwebbed tripletting tracks. Night was
bat and raven and ghosting. I wanted
to loop into
those maneuvered blues
forming and roaming. There was no final sentence.