‘And I think it is this sense of connection, in all Kate’s poems, which sent me scrambling for a word like spiritual. Because what I feel when I read Kate’s work is that the great mysteries of the world, the omnipresent magnificence, the unexplainable and the truly awesome, rest in being human among humans. Take your ley lines and chakras and give me the oesophagus and the eyeball, the memory of a dusty school hall, that night, that party, remember the small blasts of happiness, our bloody painful hearts.’
Maria McMillan, launch speech for Kate Camp’s How to Be Happy Though Human
Poet, essayist and literary commentator, Kate Camp has published six previous poetry collections. Her debut collection, Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 1999 Montana NZ Book Awards. Her fourth, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, won the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards Best Book of Poetry. Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals in New Zealand and internationally. For a number of years she has discussed classic literature – Kate’s Klassics – on with Kim Hill’s Saturday spot on Radio NZ.
To mark Victoria University Press’s publication of Kate’s How to Be Happy Though Human, Kate answered a few questions for Poetry Shelf.
So many things can go wrong
inside a human life, it’s almost comical.
You find yourself in a house,
in a night, with everyone you love
breathing in and out somewhere
and if you thought about it properly
you’d just throw up in terror.
from ‘Panic button’
Paula: Have you always been an avid reader and writer?
Kate: Family legend is that I came home from my first day of school and told my mother I could read. She said, oh ok read this. I replied, well I don’t know any words yet.
I didn’t learn to read particularly early, but once I did I quickly became obsessive about it, all the usual reading under the covers, walking down the street with a book on my way to school, re-reading books over and over again.
Paula: Can you name a few poets that have caught your attention across the decades?
Kate: Lauris Edmond is a key one for me among New Zealand poets. I’m reading Fleur Adcock’s selected poems at the moment and remembering what an important influence she was for me early on. And Jenny Bornholdt, her work and mine are so different, and yet I always feel such an affinity with her poems.
In more recent years / decades I’ve got into a lot of poetry in translation. Czesław Miłosz is one I come back to again and again, and Wisława Szymborska. Like Bornholdt, Mary Oliver is a poet I feel is very different from me, but I love her.
Paula: You acknowledge your writing group. How important is it to be part of this as a poet?
Kate: My whole career I’ve had a writing group. When I first started writing seriously I was on the creative writing course at Victoria in 1995, so I was in a weekly workshop. After that finished, around half the course members formed a group together and we met for years. Then in 2003 I joined my current group and it’s been going that whole time.
They are my first readers, my best readers, my greatest motivators. We follow the “Iowa workshop” style where we read our poem aloud, the others talk about it, and the poet just listens and says nothing. It’s such a brilliant, powerful way to understand how a poem is landing.
A liquorice cable
wires hand to mouth.
raced the dawn home.
Asphalt remains lively
weeks after its laying.
from ‘Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars’
Paula: Your debut collection Unfamiliar Legend of the Stars came out in 1998. Were you writing poetry much before this?
Kate: I’d always written poems in a notebook but never really shown them to anyone or thought I’d do anything with them. I knew about the creative writing course at Victoria, I was a student there studying English and I knew that Emily Perkins, who was the older sister of a school friend, had done the course and become a published author.
I thought, I’ll apply for the course three times, if I don’t get in I’ll just give up on it. I got in the first time I applied and it was really only then that I started writing with any focus or seriousness.
Paula: That first book really caught my attention – it felt fresh and rendered the world alive with possibilities. Can you remember what motivated you as a poet then, what mattered when you shaped a poem?
Kate: I think what motivated me then was a sense that I saw the world in a certain way and I wanted to share that way of seeing with others. And I guess I felt the power of poetry, and I wanted to wield that power myself.
What mattered to me then was to write a poem that was clever, surprising, and made you feel something.
Having said that, when I’m actually writing a poem I try not to think at all. About anything. I find that gets in the way. The Canadian poet Christian Bok said “take care of the sound and the sense will take care of itself.” That’s how I’ve always written, just going with what comes up and trying not to switch my thinking brain on until I’ve finished the draft, and it’s time to edit.
Violin was out the back of my flat when I was nineteen.
I would put the speakers in the garden
and play ‘Be Mine Tonight’ again and again
running inside to rewind the tape.
He’s shocked to find I am middle aged.
I’m not shocked. Inside me are Russian dolls
of the women and girls I’ve been before
each more beautiful and unhappy than the current.
from ‘One train may hide another’
Paula: Your new collection How to Be Happy Though Human (you have a deft hand with titles!) is a gathering of new and selected poems. I like the way you have placed the new poems first and then we move through your books from the debut to the most recent. Often the new poems go at the end. I love this choice! Any comments?
Kate: I read a lot of selected poems and I tend to read them backwards, in chunks, so that I’m reading the poet’s most recent poems first. Otherwise with a poet like Milosz you’re starting in the 1940s and the poems can feel really dated. But if you start with the new ones, by the time you get back there you’re kind of in the zone.
That doesn’t really apply to my selected though as my career hasn’t been that long, at least not by Milosz standards! I just wanted to start with new poems because, you know, new poems are always the ones you love the most. The best poem is the next one.
And I go back to Saturday
we dance with other people
other people’s children,
create community with physics.
Memory is a kind of mourning.
We take each other’s hands
as if they were made for that
and we form a circle.
from ‘How to be happy though human’
Paula: Your new book offers perfect routes through the rewards of your poetry. The physical world is refreshed, relationships between things and people are made visible, there are surprising connections, and always a glorious poetic fluency. Did you encounter any poetry stumbling blocks or epiphanies across the decades?
Kate: There was a fairly big gap between Beauty Sleep and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls. I was having a crap time in my personal life, and I felt really stuck creatively. I was scared to write about my failures, my despair, my loneliness, my fucked up life. And I was scared to write about “the human condition” like a Milosz or a Mary Oliver, I felt – who am I to write about the meaning of life? On both fronts my ego and my vulnerability was in the way.
But then I realised, the artists I most admired were writing poems and songs of utter devastation and heartbreak and disaster. And I didn’t think they were losers, I thought they were magnificent.
And I realised that I was never going to be anything other than a middle class New Zealand woman who grew up on Timbacryl adverts and 70s singer songwriters, and that I had just as much right as the next poet to plumb the depths of the human psyche.
I think that book marked a “fuck it” point for me where I decided just to write the poems that are in me, however depressing, distasteful or megalomaniacal they may be.
I take the last few turns in darkness
steep, short of breath
these legs have been mine all my life.
Hot hands. Small nights within my lungs.
We are fortunate to live in a world.
We are fortunate to live in a world
where some person, some man
is painting railings on the zig zag
and when he finished
he could have raised his eyes
and seen, beyond the black-tree hills
some ragged and fast-moving clouds.
from ‘Walking up the zig zag’
Paula: I just adore the new poems housed under the title ‘How to Be Happy Though Human’. Now and then I post a poem that has really haunted me in a new collection – and this whole section haunts me. The poems stick to me – I think the title is a key. These poems are intimate and revelatory, physical and movement-rich. Again the surprising juxtapositions: hanging out the washing, Watergate, your mother. Scenes become luminous. Family matters. There is a poetic heartbeat. Would you see any changes in the poetry process?
Kate: Almost all of these poems have been written since I came back from the Menton fellowship, where I was writing prose – a collection of memoir essays. I can definitely see the influence of that. These poems are looser, more prosy in style, and in many cases are straightforwardly autobiographical. They’re also long. Pulling together this book made me realise that my poems have got very long lately!
Paula: Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?
Kate: Most poems I try to write either don’t happen at all, or turn out to be not that good and get abandoned. But every poem I write that turns out good, I write in one go, in an hour or so. I will revise it later but usually not a huge amount. That’s just my process, it’s kind of scattershot but when it’s working, it’s easy, so I don’t really find any poem hard to write. I just throw away a lot of attempted poems.
My main doubt is whether I will ever write a good poem again. The first sensation when I write something I like is relief.
Tom Waits records the sound of frying chicken
that’s how he achieves his pops and crackles
Our old unit had a crooked arm,
it was a trunk of wood with woven speakers.
As I child I worried about forgetting:
the hexagonal handle, a creamy honey cell,
that flaw in the lino resembling Donald Duck
while the others of its kind looked like grey bells.
sometimes life would seem too big, even then
an empty Sunday when you drifted as a ghost.
I saw Bonnie and Clyde on such a day,
as I recall, in black and white
from ‘Snow White’s coffin’
Paula: What poem really works or matters to you?
Kate: The poem “Snow White’s Coffin” is an important poem for me. It covers a lot of abiding interests for me – found facts, childhood memories, what makes life meaningful when you’re an atheist. It draws on something I thought on a lot when I was living in Berlin, the tension between intellect as the most human thing of all and the intellect as dehumanising. There’s also a tone of anger and despair in it which is quite primal – the word “howling” is in it, which is not a word anyone puts in a poem lightly.
In my last few books, the title poem is a poem that is really important to me – one that functions as a kind of tuning fork for the whole collection.
Paula: Do you have any tips for emerging poets?
Kate: Read poetry by other people. If you don’t like reading poetry, you’re not a poet, you’re just a bit of a dick.
Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?
Kate: Conversations and laughing are my favourite things. I love to sing with my choir. I love to watch Netflix. I love to dance. I love to drink to excess, rarely but with gusto. I love doing escape rooms with my nephew. I love looking out the window while drinking tea and listing to podcasts about American politics.
Victoria University Press author page