Writer in Residence

“I Imagine the Mind Like a Cleared Field,” an Interview with Chad Campbell

By James Lindsay

Chad Campbell’s Laws & Locks is an ambitious debut collection of poetry that is part family history and part memoir. Charting the Campbell family's emigration to Canada in 1827 and shifting to the present, Laws & Locks is an unwavering look at mental health, addiction, and the immigrant experience. Using plainspoken, but moving language, Campbell uses long form sequences to paint a complex picture of the wraithlike way past generations of family affect the future. I wanted to ask him about writing habits and what he’s been working on recently.

James Lindsay: What kind of music do you listen to when you write and do you think it affects your writing?

Chad Campbell: I tend to listen to music that’s mostly instrumental, or where the vocals are hard to make out. Thom Yorke with Radiohead and Atoms for Peace is good for that, largely because it’s often hard to make out what he’s saying, but particularly because in their later work he often uses lyrics in more of an EM style—with a lot of looping, or refrain. But under that umbrella I listen to pretty varied stuff, and it changes depending on what I’m writing about. On my writing playlist right now, there are tracks by John Maus, Caribou, Radiohead, Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerard, Portishead, and Jamie XX.

I read somewhere once that the psychiatrist R.D. Lang used to practice getting himself into various emotional states—working up rage, or sadness—to better understand their character. I think I use music in a similar, if less targeted way—to help me access emotions I might not otherwise be able to at the time. I also do most of my writing at night, at a bar, and so the music helps me to focus and sort of open a window into the writing wherever I am.

I tend to work on one poem at a time, and I find while I’m working on one, I’ll really only listen to two or three songs. Over time the song becomes meshed with the poem, and in that way helps me to return to the particular world of that poem, or at least the one that’s trying to be there.

I’ve been writing a sequence about a nineteenth century inventor, Joseph Faber, who built a speaking machine, and whose often sad life was tangled up the machine, which he named Euphonia. While I work on it I’ve been listening to Go Slowly by Radiohead, S.T.A.Y. from the Interstellar soundtrack, and Wide Open from the Chemical Brothers new album. The first two have a sort of lonely dislocation about them, and a sense of a scale of time outside of our own, which seems to work for Faber. The Chemical Brothers track is more for revising—something with a beat works better for me when I’m revising; it seems to help me concentrate on the rhythm of the language better. It also helps that the dancer in the video is slowly dancing herself into a machine.

JL: Writing in general, and poetry specifically, seems to encourage obsessive habits like listening to the same music on repeat and working in a particular place at a particular time. Do you think there is something psychological that drives these habits, or is it just a matter of routine and convince?

CC: I think there is something both psychological and physiological about routine. Our bodies are rhythmic agents, which function by routines, the overwhelming large part of which are outside of our conscious control. Life arises and sustains itself with and because of them. I don’t think the mind is any different or, said another way, that part of the psychology of the mind is routine. That extends right up from brushing our teeth, to habits like students reading over material at night so their subconscious can have a go at it.

I imagine the mind sort of like a cleared field. Irrigate it, plant seeds, and things will start to grow. This will happen whether we do it with purpose or not, but we can irrigate and plant with purpose. Habits are like the lines we carve in the soil, and what we’re after with those habits, like seeds. Whether our habits grow money, or poems, or in another lifetime, both, depends on the nature of our habits. Now, whether obsession or compulsion enters into the picture I would imagine depends entirely on the person. Whether they are or become problematic, too, depends on the individual—and has to be measured the way most potential problems are: if the start to effect the person’s ability to lead a healthy life. That’s never been my forte, though.

But I don’t think there is anything inherent to writing or poetry that causes obsessiveness or compulsion. That being said, the practice of writing, which at least in my case, and I think in many others, requires us to return again and again to the same site of language, making a series of small changes over an often long period of time, shares borders with obsession and compulsion. But then writing shares a lot of those kinds of borders: solitude can turn to loneliness, remove to isolation, and dedication to obsession. Whether and when we move from one into the other, whether we’re aware of whether we have, I think is something that is always in flux.

Personally, I’ve dealt with obsessive tendencies for much of my life, and know that tending to the things that sustain my life outside of writing—food, love, sex, companionship—keep my obsessive nature, to some degree, in check. But having experienced some of the less pleasant forms, I’m not at odds with myself for my obsessiveness meshing with my poetry. I think again of the field. I can grow miserable or sad things with my habits, or I could find a job and learn to grow money. But I like poems better.

JL: I'm always curious why poets choose poetry as their medium. Your book, Laws & Locks, is a family history and a memoir as well as a collection of poetry. Did you ever consider writing this book as prose? What was it about this story that drew you want to write it as a sequence of poems?

CC: Well, I never intended to write Laws & Locks, in the sense of a collection that focused on family history and madness. The earliest poems in the book, in the section Narrowboat, began as one or two elegies for my grandfather. It just so happened that the time he passed away was also the time when I started being able to write decent poems. But there wasn’t even the semblance of a project at that point; I was still a nervous undergrad at York, and taking things a poem at a time. That was six years ago, and it wasn’t until fairly late in the game, when a couple of my mentors pointed out the thread of lineage and issues of mental health, that the book started to come into focus. But I’m also a little wary of concept-album style collections. At least in so far as setting out to write too deliberately towards one end or another. I like the feeling of exploration more than trying to reverse engineer an idea into poems.

But in terms of why poetry, who knows? I have my suspicions. Part of it has to do with how I feel when I read poetry versus fiction. I can appreciate fiction and be moved by it, but it’s never given me the feeling that I need to write it. Poetry, on the other hand, at least when I started reading it again in early twenties, gave me the immediate feeling that I needed to learn how to write it. I did capoeira for a few years, and I remember the first time I heard the music and saw people playing a game of capoeira. It wasn’t exactly a feeling and not exactly a thought, the way I responded, but a little bit of both: I just knew I needed to learn to move like that. I think it’s the same way for poetry. And it hasn’t changed for me. I read something incredible, and I want to learn how to move in language that way. That’s one of the things I love about poetry, though I don’t think it’s specific to it—that encountering amazing work calls on you, it opens up or lights up a gap between what you can do and what you might do. Poetry keeps opening up that space for me, but not fiction. I’m also terrible at fiction, so there’s that.

JL: It's interesting that you still remain wary of the "concept-album style collections," yet you also mention new sequence is about Joseph Faber and Euphonia, his speaking machine. I loved Laws & Locks "poetry as nonfiction" style and consistent subject matter. Why the wariness?

CC: Some of my favourite classes were in nonfiction and the lyric essay, and some background work was done there for Laws & Locks—and maybe some of that style did carry over. But then, writing about people that are or were alive, requires some of that, I think.

The consistency of the subject matter in Laws & Locks happened naturally over time, though, as opposed to something I set out deliberately to write. It wasn’t until maybe a year before publication that more deliberateness entered into it, once I could see the project that had emerged. I also think you get to a place of critical mass in a collection where poems start to implicate other, missing poems. And the wariness isn’t a reaction to other’s work, there are lots of collections I would consider concept driven or arranged that I love.

It’s more to do with the writing itself. I don’t imagine myself particularly in control of what poems I want to write, and the idea of striving too consciously in a specific direction seems to me to run against the grain of that—imposing a direction that might, and I think likely would, be more interesting if I looked back after a stretch of writing to see what I have. Then again, the new collection I’m working on, having started in earnest maybe eight months ago or so, is already started to pull some pretty particular themes and subjects into focus. But that wasn’t something I set out to do. The better poems stand out from the others, and I follow those to the next ones.

One of the things I like most about poetry is that it stands me in a relationship to experience that I value—of inquisitiveness and uncertainty, and one that honours just how little I know but that still allows me to explore. So I think the farthest, at least right now, that I’m willing to go is to pursue a subject, but not what I’ll say about it. If I were to do that it would change the stance, change the relationship of the work to the world, and I’m pretty adamant it stays an open-ended and exploratory one. Not to mention writing goal-oriented poems sounds about as much fun as eating a Melba toast salad.

JL: What was it that first interested you about Joseph Faber, and what are some of the themes that have begun to be pulled into focus?

CC: It started with a poem called Cardinal Directions that was left out of Laws & Locks, and which in an odd way became a sort of map towards the poems that I’d start to write. I won’t say much more about that, but the first poems that got some traction were about the Great Auks, a species of bird that was hunted to extinction in the mid-nineteenth century. An example of what happens when a demand for something like feathers to stuff pillows and garnish hats, meets an industry capable of supplying it on a massive scale. I wanted to map out some of the beginnings of the place we find ourselves now, where creatures are being erased from the planet almost as quickly, if not quicker, than we can count them.

In any case, a lot of the poems are tracking things that have, or in the process of disappearing—animals, landscapes, and languages. But twinned with that is a section about escape, specifically of getting out of current bodies and into something more durable and lasting—shifting consciousness into clouds or mechanical avatars. The singularity movement is all about that. I started to look into the history of artificial intelligence and robots, which led to the long lineage of automata that stretches back at least as far as Ancient Greece, and beyond that into myth.

Sitting in the early nineteenth century we find Joseph, who led an extraordinarily sad life building, destroying, and rebuilding his speaking machine in at attempt to find them an audience that was less disinterested, or appalled, than the ones in Austria, America, and London. It’s also the story of an artist, a sort of minor poet of the machine world. But those are the bones, really, there’s still a ways to go on the collection.

This is an excerpt from a poem in the sequence, where Joseph is wandering in London after the poor reception of Euphonia at the Egyptian Theatre:

…A boy contorted by factory work, crying

over a hat at the mouth of an alley lured me over,
but the thieves looked at my suit and tossed me

back into the street—a pale, bony fish.
I dragged years of Vienna’s forests

where I can no longer distinguish the white
trilliums from the first words you spoke:

‘Hello, Joseph’.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.