FOWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
LOUISA CAMPBELL: I’d always wanted to have a go at writing, but never had the courage to try because I thought I’d be rubbish at it. Six years ago, I was bedridden with the autoimmune disorder, Lupus, and writing was something I could do propped up on pillows in bed with a Bic biro and hardback notebook. With nothing to lose, I tried the Open University creative writing course, and found that not only did I love every second of it, I was getting good marks. My tutor was John McCullough (at this point, everyone who knows him will be thinking, “Ah! That makes sense!” because John is not only a brilliant poet but a gifted, inspiring teacher).
On the creative writing course, we had to learn about different forms in poetry, and for me that was pointless. Why on earth would anyone want to restrict themselves to writing something like a sestina? Then I discovered “found rhythm” and I was hooked! One of my first poems began, ‘I know it’s ridiculous | to think my dead husband is living inside my dog | but he is. ’ and I knew it was the start of a poem because repeating its rhythm – its music – in my head, it had an enjoyable swing to it.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
LC: At 53, I came to poetry late in life and – having lived through several traumas, and been both mental health nurse and patient – I had so much I wanted to tell the world. My poems exploded onto the page, with lines such as, ‘No, no, no, do not forgive!’ I discovered poetry can evoke experiences that would otherwise be difficult to put into words, and I had a lot of complicated experiences I wanted to explain.
Poetry can create fantastical worlds. In my collection, Beautiful Nowhere, love runs away, pulling the sky down behind her as she leaves; patients turn into paper and fly away. Poetry can evoke experiences such as derealisation, depression, and psychosis, as well as friendship, love and recovery, and in this way poetry explains in a multi-layered way that a textbook could never compete with. As a mental health nurse-therapist, I worked with the dynamic subconscious and poetry does that, too. My poems tend to fall out of my subconscious mind straight onto the page, and I don’t know what I’m writing about until the poem’s written. There’s a poem in Beautiful Nowhere about living with bipolar that I wrote before I knew I had it!
I’ve always had a thing about the benefits of the spiritual experience of connectedness. As a mental health nurse I often organised groups on the wards so that people could share their experiences, leading to several healing moments of people bursting out, ‘Yesss! I feel like that, too!’ Poetry is magical; it creates connectedness between people. As the poet Cheryl Moskowitz wrote in her lush review of my book (published in Under the Radar Issue 28), my poems ‘…embrace craziness as a state of being we all know in one form or another.’
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
LC: My first collection, although there’s plenty of joy and light in it, covers serious issues of trauma and mental illness. Having it published somehow meant I could give myself permission to mess about and play. I think as adults we badly need to play more; to laugh and be silly. Having a poem like ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’, with its ludicrously-long title, and use of only the words “human” and “dog”, shortlisted for the Forwards is a validation of a poet’s desire to fling off inhibitions and abandon themselves to silliness! Sometimes I find the term “word art” more useful than the word “poetry”, and I’m truly excited that this year’s Forward Prize judges clearly get that concept and embrace it.
FP: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
LC: When I write, I’m like a child grabbing its parent’s sleeve, and shouting, ‘Look! Look!’ Years ago, I took my Staffordshire bull terrier, Biggles, to the vet on the bus, and he sat on my coat on the seat next to me. I pictured us from the outside the bus, with a row of human heads interrupted by a dog’s. Looking out of the bus window, I saw people were pointing and smiling. Many years later, I was mucking about in the ‘April Poem a Day’ Facebook group (facilitated by the Devon poet, Simon Williams), and I’d recently been raising money to bring Romanian street dogs over to the UK for rehoming. I remembered Biggles on the bus, and thought how fab it would be if the dogs could simply hop on a plane with the humans, and the poem was born. The poet, Bethan Rees, told me how much she loved it, and I was thrilled, but it still didn’t enter my head that the poem was suitable for submitting to a magazine. I mean, was it even a poem? Then I came across Perverse, which I can safely say has to be one of the most liberating poetry publications in the world. I was incredibly excited when the poem was accepted, never mind published, and then really happy that it had lots of likes and retweets on Twitter, so other people must have enjoyed it, too. I can’t thank the editor, Chrissy Williams, with her out-of-the-box thinking, enough.
Of course, the other thing about ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’ is that – as with everything I write – the poem is steeped in meaning if the reader wants it to be. It can be about isolation, about differentness, or about inclusivity and acceptance. It can be about different ways if seeing – in this case, a dog’s perspective. The title can be a dig at the rule to employ specificity in our writing, or a validation of that rule – it’s up to the reader. But what I’d like above all is for its readers to have that most delicious experience of connectedness – a good giggle.
I have a website (www.louisacampbell.net) which details pretty much all the work I’ve had published, including my collection, Beautiful Nowhere, which ends with a poem entitled ‘Does it Jiggle?’, written in the spirit of ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’, being a celebration of rekindling the joy of childhood. It ends ‘…thank goodness it still jiggles, | and quivers, and sparkles, and shimmers and glows!’
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
LC: One of my favourite poems is ‘We Think We See Richness, Said Dougal’, by the inimitable Mark Waldron, a master of combining fun with the excruciatingly painful experiences of human existence in the most palatable and intriguing ways. Of course, I admire John McCullough, both for his work (that I love so much I find myself stroking the pages as I read it), but also for his persistent humility and generosity in giving encouragement and advice to less experienced poets. I love Rosemary Tonks, and wish she was still alive and writing today. My favourite poems of hers is, ‘Addiction to an Old Mattress’, with all its exasperation – ‘Salt Breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!’ – spat out a little like the Harry Enfield character that exclaims, ‘Poisonous Monkeys!’
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
LC: I’m currently focusing on the joy of play in poetry, and writing a collection of surreal, humorous, prose poems exploring my experiences as a child brought up in the Plymouth Brethren and evangelical Christianity. You can read one of them in this Autumn’s Under the Radar magazine. I’m also facilitating poetry workshops with people at the local resource centre for homeless people. I get an enormous buzz from seeing people who might never have considered themselves any good at writing produce exciting, beautiful poems, and also to witness their healing as they find they can contain their difficult emotions on the page.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
LC: Firstly, be yourself! Use your words; your voice. We already have a Seamus Heaney, a Wayne Holloway-Smith, an Ilya Kaminsky, and they’re superb, but we haven’t yet heard [insert your own name].
If you’re writing just for yourself, be as a self-indulgent as you like. Writing a poem is a wonderful way to vomit difficult emotions out of your mind and onto the page. I’ve found it incredibly helpful for working through anger, which is often a tricky old emotion to express. Sometimes writing a poem’s like sorting out your underwear drawer. It starts off an unruly mess spilling out over the edges, but once you’ve tidied it, everything fits and the drawer closes.
If you want your work published, you need to be looking at what you’ve written and thinking why should someone use minutes of their life they’ll never get back to read it? What’s in it for them? Will they learn something? Will it give them little happy mind spangles? Will it make them laugh, or cry (in a good way)?
And this is a biggie for me (which seems obvious, but I had to hear it from Liz Berry before the penny dropped): if you want your poem published, only submit it to magazines you really love, not to those you think you “ought” to get into.
In fact, forget “ought” altogether; it’s a ghastly concept.