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. How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems (Anansi, 2021), is Kate Camp's seventh book of poetry and the first to be published outside New Zealand.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book made me feel I could call myself a poet – it gave me a sense of legitimacy and of taking my own creative work seriously. I was in my early twenties when the book was written, some of the poems were written while I was at university – it feels like a very long time ago now. Doing the selected poems is the first time I’ve looked back on those early poems for a long time – since when the book came out really. I’m surprised to find that I still like some of the poems, and I can see a throughline to my work now.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My mother was an English teacher who always recited poetry to us – she has an incredible amount of poetry committed to memory. I think the musicality, the power, and the humour of poetry – the wordplay – all appealed to me. I did a creative writing workshop where you had to do both fiction and poetry, but my fiction was always thinly veiled memoir, and wasn’t very good. I just think I have a mind that works in images, in snapshots, in details, and that all fits with the lyric practice of poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I’m almost embarrassed to say that almost every poem I’ve written, I’ve written and largely finished in an hour. I write a lot of poems or would-be poems that I throw away, so it’s not like every hour I spend at the computer yields a poem, but my practice is to sit down once a week, read poetry for an hour, then write poetry from an hour. I’ve been in this routine for 15+ years now and it works for me. Then I’ll workshop the poem with my writing group, often that same night on Facebook video chat – and then make edits and it’s done.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m never working on a book. For me each poem is a discrete, singular piece, it’s only later I might notice themes or commonalities.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings, though I don’t do that many. But when I do I really enjoy them. I lived in Berlin for a year in 2011 and seeing how people read over there has changed my reading style. I used to chat a lot and explain things – probably too much. Now I just get up and read, and don’t tend to say much. It’s more like a musical performance. I have more faith in the listener to be able to engage without me building a bridge for them.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think for me it always comes back to, what is the point of life, since we die and there’s no God and then, isn’t life so incredibly precious and unlikely, especially given we die and there’s no God. I think I write as a mystically inclined atheist, that’s probably why I love the poem Dover Beach so much, because it’s about loss of faith, and an enduring sense of meaning and wonder, and because my mother loves it too.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Pass – not much to say on this one.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with editors but I don’t get very much active editing (like, copy editing) being a poet. It tends to be more about what poems to leave in or take out.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write what only you know – my first creative writing teacher Damien Wilkins said this and it’s still a touchstone. Take care of the sound and let the sense take care of itself – Christian Bok. I have this on the wall above my desk. And then the advice to myself that’s always on my wall – KEEP THE FAITH. It’s there to remind me that I shouldn’t focus on whether I’m writing something good, or something that’s worth keeping, I just need to write for my designated writing time, and trust that eventually something will happen.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s been really enjoyable writing essays, because I get to do lots of editing which is something that I love to do, but generally doesn’t take that long with a poem. A day of reading aloud and editing is so much more fun than the hard work of writing. The fact that I read my essays aloud to edit is probably a reflection of my poet self – for me the rhythm and sound of language is absolutely crucial.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Covered this earlier.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing exercises. At the moment I am using the ones on Poets and Writers: The Time Is Now.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Oh god so many! Feijoas – a fruit that only New Zealanders seem to eat. The air in New Zealand has a particular smell, the smell of the New Zealand bush. The smell of my own pillow when I wake up in the morning. The sense of smell is really important to me and often comes up in my writing.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music, and song lyrics in particular, were probably the greatest influence on my poetic development as a child and young adult – Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, top 40 music of the 1970s – I still find John Denver’s Country Roads very beautiful. The music, the longing, the emotion in songs, and also the cleverness and wordplay have been really formative.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Mark Doty is a poet I absolutely love. Same with Mary Oliver, even though our work is not at all akin. The most important writers to me personally are the members of my poetry group, we have been workshopping together for 17 years and they are interwoven so deeply into my poetic practice: Marty Smith, Stefanie Lash, Maria McMillan, Hinemoana Baker and Tusiata Avia. All are amazing poets published here in New Zealand.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to write a novel, but I don’t think I can or ever will. Ditto learn to play the guitar. In terms of things I might actually do, finishing and publishing the memoir collection I’m currently working on is number one.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have a full time job as well as being a writer, which is as Head of Marketing and Communications at New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa, so I already have ended up doing something else! I can easily imagine myself having become a teacher like my mother, or even a lawyer like my father, if I was hardworking enough. Any job that revolves around words and people I would probably be quite well suited to.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Even as a young child I always had the urge to, and I always knew that I was good at it. No doubt it comes from my mother’s love of poetry, literature and reading which she passed on to us.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Bone Clocks David Mitchell. Why did I wait so long to read it??? Don’t read the blurb or any reviews as they will have huge spoilers (I am very spoiler sensitive). Last film I enjoyed was the New Zealand film Cousins. I’ve just re-watched all of the Netflix House of Cards – I am obsessed with American politics – and despite the last season which is rather silly, I still find it brilliant.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of memoir essays, not an autobiography, but looking at recurring motifs in my childhood and early life in particular – topics include cigarettes, grandparents’ houses, bad boyfriends, and music.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;