One of New Zealand's most treasured poets, Kate Camp's six decorated collections have won her every major domestic literary award and made her a household name in her home country.
Now, her seventh collection, the wonderfully titled How to be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems (House of Anansi Press), brings her powerful work to the international stage.
Often described as an utterly fearless writer, Camp's work mixes highbrow and pop culture subject matter in a technically precise and innovative style. Admired by fellow poets for her craftsmanship, her work is also wonderfully accessible and fresh and has remained so across her storied career.
We're proud to welcome Kate Camp to Open Book today, where she discusses her literary life with us as part of our Poets in Profile series. She tells us about how a habit of her mother's may have nudged her towards a life in poetry, why there are no unlikely sources when it comes to inspiration, and the importance of seeing the beautiful in the ordinary.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
My mother was a high school English teacher. In the mornings she would come into our bedrooms and open the curtains saying: “Awake! For morning in the bowl of night / has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight / and lo the hunter of the east / has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.” (From the Rubayat of Omar Khayam).
She was always quoting poetry and half the time I didn’t even register it was poetry, it was just some weird and – honestly – annoying thing that Mum would always say. But it obviously got into my bones.
I like learning poems off by heart and I have really good recall for things I have heard. I am a very aural person, the music of poetry is so important to me, and that’s probably from hearing so much poetry recited long before I read any.
At night Mum would say, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / but I have promises to keep / and miles to go before I sleep / and miles to go before I sleep.” They may have been written by Robert Frost but for me those words belong to my mother, and my childhood.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
We had a book of poems for children, You Tell Me, by Michael Rosen and Roger McGough. It was full of funny, clever, absurd poems, and my parents would read them aloud and everyone would crack up. I always liked making people laugh, and being clever, and word play – and that book showed me that all those things could happen in a poem.
Emotionally though what affected me was song lyrics. I remember finding “The Streets of London” incredibly moving when I was about nine years old. I would sing it over and over and just wallow in the pathos.
What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?
Probably Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” I know it off by heart, and I love it, even the bits of it that don’t really work.
Even thought I studied English literature, I never studied the Victorians, so I didn’t discover this poem until my late twenties. I love the sound of it, the rhythm and internal rhyme, even the multiple exclamation marks, which I would normally not be on board with.
And then the way it turns to its final passage is just so satisfying, it’s such a grand gesture but feels very earned after we have started in that room, at the window.
I discovered that he wrote that final passage (which starts “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!”) long before he wrote the rest of the poem. It was going to Dover on his honeymoon that inspired the whole first section.
As a practitioner I find that really interesting, and I understand how that can happen – you have the perfect big insight or declaration, but you need some authentic, realist setting to act as a delivery mechanism for it.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
I’m not sure I find any source of inspiration unlikely – I’m very much a magpie and I am not fussy – I’ll eat from the rubbish bin if I need to.
My book The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls shares its title with a book by a medieval Belgian mystic – she was burned at the stake after refusing to take it out of circulation. That probably qualifies as unlikely.
What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
The way it ends. Beginnings are obviously important, but nothing satisfies more than a fantastic ending to a poem. There are some that just explode in your mind – like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”
And on the flip side, I think you can really ruin a poem with a bad ending.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
I am reading Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems at the moment and just loving it.
Like how good is this from “Glory”
“…I want ordinary men and women , / brushing their teeth, to feel the ocean in their mouth….”
That desire to celebrate the ordinary, and especially to elevate private bodily moments, is such a feature of her work. I feel we are kindred spirits.
Kate Camp was born and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She is the author of six collections of poetry and the recipient of all New Zealand’s major literary awards. Camp is also an essayist, a memoirist, and a literary commentator, known for Kate’s Klassics, a nationally syndicated radio program on classic literature that has been running on Radio New Zealand for twenty years. Camp’s work has appeared in many journals at home and internationally, including Landfall and Sport (New Zealand), HEAT (Australia), Brick (Canada), Arc Poetry Magazine (Canada), Akzente (Germany), Qualm (England), and Poetry (U.S.). She works at Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum.