Shannon Webb-Campbell on How Kathleen Hanna, Sylvia Plath, & Elizabeth Bishop Became Her Early Guides to Poetry
It's no secret that the moon has captivated humans forever. Mythologies, deities, and legends abound through history, and the scientific study of the moon, and the race to reach it, was one of the defining obsessions of the 20th century.
So Shannon Webb-Campbell's Lunar Tides (Book*hug Press), a collection that sets out to define identity and self in relation to the moon and all it represents, gets at something deeply imbedded in the human psyche.
These lucid, powerful poems weave the push and pull of the tides and the moon's waxing and waning light in the darkness together with explorations of grief, need, connection, and loss. Rooted in the body and in a history informed by Webb-Campbell's mixed Mi’kmaq/settler background, Webb-Campbell's third collection mimics the moon's place in human symbology: at once mysterious and expansive, personal and intimate.
Shannon speaks with us today as part of our Poets in Profile series, where we discuss the experiences, both reading and otherwise, that have shaped a poet's life and work. She tells us about the instructor who convinced her to stop burning her poems and give herself a chance to embrace the form, how walking around Toronto with Bikini Kill on a discman became part of her journey as a writer, and how her "relationship to poetry is constantly changing" and what that means for her experience of inspiration.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
I used to borrow my mother’s old typewriter and write for hours while sitting on the pink carpeted-floor of my bedroom closet. I hid away because I didn’t want anyone to see what I was writing. I remember feeling a deep sense of shame about the prose-like poems, and would later burn the pages in the woods across the street.
I never meant to become a poet. In fact, I blame Susan Musgrave. I took a course with her during my MFA at University of British Columbia where despite all of my insisting that I wasn’t a poet, or had any idea how to write poetry, she leaned in close, heard the words, and named them poems. Susan ultimately called out the poet in me, and since then I’ve stopped burning the pages.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus,” in high school and was gobsmacked by the line “dying is an art,” and later discovered Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” which echoes a similar sentiment “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Both Plath and Bishop's poetics opened up space for the internalized rage, pain, and grief that I felt when I was young.
As a teenager, I spent my minimum wage earnings scouring used bookstores in Toronto for vintage copies of Plath and Bishop’s collected works while blaring Bikini Kill’s “Bloody Ice Cream” on my discman. While Plath and Bishop’s poems articulated pain, Kathleen Hanna taught me how to move through it and embody it: “The Sylvia Plath story is told to girls who write. They want us to think that to be a girl poet means you have to die.” In a way, it was these three strong feminist voices that offered the will to go on and to write.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
Over the years I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the ocean, art, music, conversations, travel, bodies of water, the land, light, my ancestors, belonging, and most recently, crystals.
Poetry is energy, a life force of sorts. Yet, poems can also be a bit esoteric.
My relationship to poetry is constantly changing, and evolving. It remains a constant companion in my life, and a means of grounding myself in the past, present, and future. Poetry is a means of tapping into something larger, and at the same time obsessing over small minute details, rhythms, and individual words.
What has become most unlikely to me as a source of inspiration is astrology, cookbooks, and art reviews.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
I’ve written poems individually as stand-alone pieces, but also with a view of putting together a collection from the beginning. Though, most poems are written individually with a theme in mind. Lunar Tides is a mixture, as it began as a series of individual poems about grief and losing my mother as a means of coping that grew into a collection with a view of assembling it into a book.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
Sometimes I abandon the poem, other times I tuck it away. Often if I leave a poem and return to it months or even years later, I find something else there. A line or word can spark a memory, an image, or a recollection. Recently, I worked with editor Jonina Kirton and she gently reminded me to keep the lines or stanzas that weren’t working in some of my poems in a folder in order to return to them at some future time. Even old ideas can become future poems.
What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
I think the title of a poem is the opening of a poem, and is equally as important to how the poem ends. How we enter a poem represents possibility – perhaps a question, or a way in, and how we leave a poem is a shift in perspective, and offers a way out. Or vice versa.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
The last book that knocked my socks off was Liz Howard’s tenacious collection Letters in a Bruised Cosmos. No one blends Western and Indigenous poetry and science quite like Howard. Her work is a cosmology of rough magic, scientific knowledge, and ancestral teaching that soar through the night sky with searing insight.
Shannon Webb-Campbell is a mixed Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) settler poet, writer, and critic. She is the author of Still No Word (2015), recipient of Eagle Canada’s Out in Print Award, and I Am A Body of Land (2019; finalist for the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry). Shannon holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and a MA in English Literature at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, and is pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of New Brunswick in the Department of English. She is the editor of Visual Arts News Magazine. Shannon is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation and lives in Kijpuktuk/Halifax in Mi’kma’ki.