How Hunger Changes a House: A Conversation with Lauren Camp

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Lauren Camp’s fifth poetry collection, Took House, explores the generative space between silence and speech, hunger and appetite, and intimacy and absence. The poet hovers over landscapes and objects; repetition serves as action, mode of perception, and formal technique. Verbs and words recur as threads. Several poems, including “A Normal Week” and “Splendid,” end in dialope. Mystery develops in the pronouns, and keeps the subjects blurry. In a sense, these poems reveal the habits of a past “I” rubbing against the need of a present “I” to articulate it. In poems like “Hush, Then,” forms of generative silence seem to characterize a relationship. Intimacy itself is complicated by unclear agency and a fluid temporality.

No single poetic form is predominant; form grows from the subject or changes to fit it. Camp utilizes the ekphrastic mode naturally, shifting back and forth as stills blend with six artworks brought as alternate routes into a particular time. The absence of visible stitches in the construction of this book leaves nothing on the surface to separate one motion, or gesture, from another. This unique sense of motion feels woven or loomed, something between a tapestry and the multimedia Nest by Suzanne Sbarge, which serves as cover art.

Took House was selected as an Editor’s Pick by World Literature Today. Camp’s One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016) won the Dorset Prize and was a finalist for the Arab American Book Award, while Turquoise Door: Finding Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico (3: A Taos Press, 2018) was a finalist for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Her work has been translated into Turkish, Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. She lives in New Mexico with her husband, where she teaches creative writing to humans of all ages.

It was a gift to wander through emails with Lauren Camp, to lean against the blurred edges, artefacts, and time-defying motion of her words. In this conversation, we spoke about the role of color and silence in poetry, the relationship between visual art and poetry, and the way the desert has transformed Camp’s work.

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The Rumpus: The book begins with “Appetite,” a framing poem set outside the sections, which presents the reader with a problem, a condition in the first-person narrator that seeks resolution. Recurrent objects like the glass and bottle are set into place, and the third person narrator observes the subject. How did you decide to set “Appetite” apart, and what other thoughts went into the structural assembly of this book?

Lauren Camp: I’m glad you noticed that “Appetite” builds a frame for what’s to come. I wanted that—some clues and a voice of witness, which I only found perspective for in later iterations of the poem.

I make many choices intuitively, but I can say that arranging a manuscript is usually a two-day marathon that feels impossible and full of great responsibility. I watch the poems struggle toward and against one another repeatedly, until (somehow) they move into what feels like a perfect current. In this organizing stage, I begin to actively think about the reader. My goal is to arrange the elements and details as threads and reminders, not necessarily a straight, linear approach, but a path that guides them.

Rumpus: In the first section, “The Exact Color of Welcome,” we meet the narrator in her relationship to specific colors, hues, and shades. I loved “Find the Color of Survival,” and its subtle self-reflective gesture with: “Even in excess / I always see the most trivial details.” What role did color play in this path-like approach?

Camp: Color was the sensation I trafficked in at the start of this collection. At that point, I was still making visual art. For years, I frequently had my hands in dye or paint, or otherwise spent hours moving colors toward each other, trying to find perfect—and perfectly dangerous—matches. I was looking for thrills and secrets. Color was what I responded to, and how I began. It was the motivation. Color has a voice, a way of speaking, of whispering.

I like that this book holds the mystery and uncertainty. The book is built of fragments and emotions and glimpses. I hope Took House invites questions in several other places, too. I was much less interested in narrative than in psychological study and attention to landscape—perhaps the whole story is in those details. If it’s any consolation, I am particularly glad to hear the reader has space to wonder.

Rumpus: This uncertainty generated consistent emotional suspense for me. In “Repetitions” and “Splendid” and “Smote,” there are cycles of drinking, being seen, being defined by the eyes of what seems to be a lover. The retrospective gaze appears in “Hush Again,” and continues to demand silence from the poet, where we revisit the “two chairs and thirsty people.” What influenced or inspired your movement back and forth over the same space?

Camp: I thought I knew what I was writing this book about, but I didn’t. I never quite know where I’m going, and that works for me. The more you probe as a writer, the more you find. And it is more interesting to write what isn’t already clear in my mind. One way I do this is to return again and again to the same space. That kind of repeat sets up a parameter for me as an author, how to look again and look differently at a situation. I am forced to move deeper into the unknowns or the ignored parts.

And the silence… I’ve learned from living with a quiet introvert that such suppression of sound means a stronger awareness of what’s around. If I can be invisible, quiet, gentled—as an author, waiting to see what appears—then I may understand something new. I can watch time move and see it, see the raptor pulling apart its dinner, see the artwork being formed—whatever it is I’m noticing, I’m background enough at this point to do so.

Rumpus: Being “background enough” makes me think of how you foreground objects. That dance between “tolerance and guilt” appears again in “Drops,” where the wine glass becomes a witness who “watches,” as the objects in the house are animated by their silence, their having seen. In “Not to Not,” it is the glass who has agency. How does this thirst tangle with art, agency, and the frame of appetite?

Camp: Was the thirst pleasure or simple need? I couldn’t know the reasons. The choice of draining or satisfying the body engrossed me. I have always had a strong interest in psychology—why people behave in certain ways.

But don’t we all have a thirst, whether it’s for something that nourishes or something that removes us? I’m interested in such spaces of hunger, the empty parts desperate to be filled—with knowledge, connection, history, or some other sort of stimulation (and in this book that includes the raptor encounters and visual art). What better subject than an ever-accelerating thirst… and then such an evanescent appeasement before the need to reload or top off. In some ways, the book is all appetites—and in some greater way, perhaps everything I’ve ever created is, too. Not a research study, but a bracing curiosity.

Rumpus: “Bracing curiosity” informs so much of your work. As a “retired visual artist,” your textile portrait series, The Fabric of Jazz, visited museums across the country. Do you think of the art and text mediums in tandem or separately? What leads you to one or the other?

Camp: I made my last visual art pieces in 2014. Honestly, it’s shocking to realize it’s been that long. There was a very uncomfortable stretch of time where I couldn’t let go and also couldn’t go forward creating in that medium any longer.

Working in fiber was exacting and physically demanding, at least the way I employed the medium. For most of my art-making career, I made portraits, first of jazz musicians, and later, a series on women’s perspectives and issues. Even then, I was always trying to pull in language. When I could, I printed text directly onto the cloth.

At this remove of a half-dozen years fully away from that work, I am clear that I don’t miss it… but maybe that’s because I found a way to fold many of the design approaches I loved into my poetry—balance, emphasis, repetition, white space, etc.

Art is the underpainting to each of these poems, even the ones that are very clearly about something far different. All my time making visual art, building compositions and collecting elements, colliding patterns and textures together, searching for a friction in the color combinations and also a satisfaction or pleasure—I strive for all of this in my poems. I make many of the same choices: determining order, composition and white space, but with poems I don’t have to map them out. They’d be ruined if I did. I make those decisions intuitively (and through revision).

Rumpus: The distinction between mapping visual art and not having to map poems out makes me think of your incredible poem, “Empirical Theories of a Box-Maker,” an ekphrasis in conversation with Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum (1982-1986, Marfa, Texas). Tell me more about Judd’s work.

Camp: Judd’s one hundred boxes were puzzling to me before I went to see them. As it turns out, I’m often surprised by the emptiest art, the work that seems like it would hold nothing—but then miraculously does. I live in New Mexico and it’s only a long drive to Marfa. Because it was doable, my husband and I did it. I wanted to see why in the world I might care about a great deal of repetitive emptiness.

The drive down was filled with the vast, slow desert and, for a while, the smell of cows. The dust split open as we drove into it, through it to the flank of West Texas where the boxes sit in an old airplane hangar. In the many years since we went, I periodically return to it in my mind, remembering the shadows and sun glint that fell into and along those boxes. In that hangar, whether it was illusion or a middle distance, I could find a new order to existence. I felt alive in such complex reflections.

In writing “Empirical Theories of a Box-Maker,” I realized the poem could express all the edges and centers and upended thoughts I could think. The boxes helped me see confinement and space, and the various permutations of each, in new ways. Judd’s remarkable cubes—solid and strict in their construction, but simultaneously shifting down a long expanse—showed me the value of diagonals and surfaces both hidden and clear.

Rumpus: Your third book, One Hundred Hungers, maps the emotional and mental terrain of a first-generation Arab American girl and her Jewish Iraqi parent. Took House, on the other hand, feels rooted in vision and gaze rather than history—intimate, interior, and yet expansive. What defines the relationship between identity and place in your oeuvre?

Camp: Who we are is definitely influenced by where we are, whether in a current reality or in a reflection of the past, whether I locate on a hiking trail, in a synagogue, or a place I’ve never seen.

I began writing poetry after I had moved to the desert. This ecosystem, from terrain to weather conditions and particular flora and critters, fascinated me then and continues to do so. Life demands its positions here, laying claim to what little water there is, or clasping in hard soil or wind.

Somehow, the desert felt familiar to me in a way I couldn’t figure. I began to wonder if this was because of my heritage. For One Hundred Hungers, I pursued and questioned whatever I could of my father’s childhood home: Iraq. I wanted to understand the air, the construction of the buildings, the pathways. I wrote into a place I didn’t know and couldn’t visit, balancing my tangible experiences—shared food and prayer—with what I could only research and imagine. Over and over, it makes sense to me to address the landscape in which a circumstance happens, to find how those details complete or direct the situation.

Rumpus: Do you consider yourself a poet of landscapes?

Camp: What am I a poet of? Here’s what I know: when I made art, I used to be unnerved when a design came too easily. I like the effort of crafting something, of sharpening its teeth or finding its center, or whatever it is that I’m missing at the start. Poetry isn’t simple, and that’s fine with me because simple doesn’t interest me. I certainly write about landscapes, but also inner-scapes, mind-scapes: worry-scapes and pleasure-scapes.

Maybe I am a poet of questions, or of gaps. Is this why I prefer the landscape where I live? The desert is complicated, unknowable. It’s empty and somehow, simultaneously, full—and even if I keep looking at it, walking it, paying attention, I won’t figure it out. All I’ll be able to do is put some words to it… and I know these words will shift next time the wind opens its throat.

Rumpus: In “How to Go from Poetry to Art,” Anne Boyer writes: “To leave the world of objects and enter the world of words was to return to the site of acquired grief.” Does any form of grief play into retirement from visual arts?

Camp: I’m too optimistic to be a griever, by nature, but I seem to find plenty of it to process—whether it’s mine or the struggles and complexity of a larger world. By Anne Boyer’s definition, this would seem to qualify as “acquired grief.” Thank you; it is settling to have a term for it.

I never imagined I would stop making visual art. So many people are desperate to create and have expressed envy that I could—and there I was, pushing away from it. Or being pushed. It was an immense grief to acknowledge that I had to let go of that medium. As with all grief, its ease was incremental, and often so small that many days were trampled by its energy. My good and enthusiastic self was restored over painstaking months, maybe years.

In retrospect, I think visual art wasn’t able to answer all my curiosities. I know it was too solitary for me. Ultimately, the medium, or my efforts within it, could no longer shape-shift to capture what I find to marvel and worry about.

And yet, I can see now that every artistic element and process I valued was flying into the spaces of my poems and nestling there. It’s not a clear parallel; I doubt you’d be able to tell.

Lately, I’ve been turning over this excerpt from Octavio Paz’s “Nocturno de San Ildefonso”: “Poetry is not truth: / it is the resurrection of presences, / history / transfigured in the truth of undated time.” It feels like this fits Took House and my work on those poems.

I love that the truth gets to be malleable. I needed that flexibility. In poems, I’ve learned that grief, too, can be reshaped, if I’m patient. I do not have to be devoted to a solid position. You come to the page with a kind of violence or pity about the grief at first, but eventually, you have the ability to pull yourself to a place that isn’t a hole but a view. And there you stand, looking at it in great wonder.

With Took House, I learned again that objects can be clues. Light and shadow, even emptiness, to my mind, can also be clues. My work was to handpick a few and map around them. I was exhilarated by the effort of giving my undivided attention to grief, as dirty and sloppy as it was, and finding language that sang in that dark.

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Photograph of Lauren Camp by Bob Goodwin.


Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Her writing can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes and Random Sample Review. Her microchapbook, Ribald, is out now from Bull City Press. More at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com. More from this author →