FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH NANCY CAMPBELL

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

NANCY CAMPBELL: While I welcome the label ‘poet’, I might stretch its interpretation. After completing an English Literature degree, I worked for several years as a compositor at a traditional letterpress printing workshop, setting metal type by hand. I loved the alchemical nature of the job, from its perverse demands (the compositor has to read backwards and upside-down) to the exacting process of casting type from a molten alloy of lead, tin and antimony. The vats of hot metal and cans of ink seemed to have a poetic of their own. It’s not surprising that the proximity to these ‘crafts of the book’ influenced my approach to poetry and made the presentation of words on paper very important to me. I’ve been drawn ever since to writers like Ian Hamilton Finlay whose work relies on its visual appearance, and explores not only the borderlines of language but also the material form of its presentation.

In terms of development, although I’d been writing for years, I began sending my work out relatively recently. In Iceland I came across the concept of the ‘skúffuskáld’ or ‘drawer-poet’ – a writer who puts their poems in a drawer rather than publishing them. A large percentage of Icelanders write poems, but most write for personal pleasure. For a long time I was content to be a ‘skúffuskáld’. I only started publishing my work once it became a requirement – as an output of residencies, for example – and then learnt how satisfying it could be to take the work out of its drawer, and discover the helpful exchange that a wider readership brings.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

NC: I’ve read some wonderful first collections this year so I know the standard has been high, and I feel very honoured that Disko Bay is on the shortlist. I am also pleased for my publisher’s sake: Enitharmon Press has shown confidence in my work, especially in times when publishing a known author might make more economic sense than taking a gamble on a new voice.

FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?

NC: During the winter of 2010 I was Writer in Residence at Upernavik Museum, with a brief to create work responding to the museum and the surrounding landscape. Even though I’ve spent much of my life in rural environments, this small island on the north-west coast of Greenland felt remote from everything I knew. I created two books as a result of this residency: the abecedarium How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, made primarily for the community I was living in, and poems for English readers back home, which I collected together as Disko Bay.

It was a period of contentment, living in a wooden house by the harbour where I could brew coffee in the mornings and enjoy stretches of writing interspersed by research through conversations with my neighbours. Yet the darkness of the polar winter may come across in the tone of the collection. I was aware of danger: the threat humans posed to each other and to the environment; the mercurial weather and dramatic daily changes to the ice. Greenland is a place where survival has always been a struggle, and now those who live and work on the ice edge struggle in new ways, as climate change affects their lives. Poems such as ‘The night hunter’ and ‘The lesson’ are key to the collection: they express my ambivalence as an outsider, a poet questioning her role in the finely balanced small community.

Disko Bay took shape slowly over five years as I completed other residencies in Denmark, Iceland and closer to home, including talking to residents of the flooded town of Rothbury during the Words Across Northumberland residency for Hexham Book Festival in 2013. While the ‘Disko Bay’ sequence arose from my own experiences in 2010, ‘Ruin Island’ was written later during a Hawthornden Fellowship. The poem is based on the legend of the hunter Qujaavaarssuk who lived in a distant time when the Arctic was suffering the converse problem to today: too much ice. The last part of the book, ‘Jutland’, considers the connections between northern Europe and the Arctic, looking at migrations across the North Sea and the Greenland Sea, as well as the consequences of colonialism and climate change.

FAF: New question: How do you access poetry?

NC: As editor of an independent art magazine, Printmaking Today, I’m fascinated by the rich culture of literary magazines and how they operate. I’ve discovered many new voices and learnt a great deal from reading Stand (to which I first subscribed as a teenager, after meeting its editor, poet Jon Silkin, at a small press fair in Newcastle); The Rialto; Poetry London; Oxford Poetry; The Interpreter’s House and Modern Poetry in Translation (particularly in its new format under the visionary editorship of Sasha Dugdale). When I’m travelling I listen to podcasts. I hoarded ‘Poetry Off the Shelf’ episodes from the Poetry Foundation to keep me company through the Greenland winter. Back home in Oxford, I’m lucky to be part of a lively and welcoming literary community, attending readings and seminars by excellent poets, from authors who live locally to visiting writers like Nikola Madzirov.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

NC: For three years now I’ve been kayaking on the Thames and these close encounters with the river through all the seasons (and, increasingly, in flood) will form the core of my next collection. Having flown quite a distance across the Arctic in the last five years, I feel it’s time I turn to sustainable transport and look closer to home for my subject matter. ‘Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home, and thought of here?’ as Elizabeth Bishop writes in ‘Questions of Travel’. So staying at home, and thinking of the Arctic, I’m translating (from the French) a wonderful collection of East-Greenlandic songs recorded by the anthropologist Paul-Emile Victor in the 1930s.

In addition, I’m grateful to have received ACE Grants for the Arts funding to perform The Polar Tombola in several venues this year. The Polar Tombola is an interactive dictionary game that invites audiences to engage with themes of environmental and cultural change through language. I hope the project will raise awareness of an Arctic language, West Greenlandic, which has recently been placed on the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger, and the broader issue of how languages reflect location. With its letterpress-printed and book-art components, the game revels in the material form that has for so long been a central concern of my work.