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Into Heights and Pauses

By Lauren Camp

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Poets Laureate on Place: A Prose Series

I’m not writing this place. I’m writing into this place.
 

In this series curated by Currents editor Leonora Simonovis, current poets laureate write about what it means, in the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, “to become native to place.” Each of them explores the deep connections they have created with land and people, stressing the fact that belonging is a reciprocal process, not a given right. Three poets laureate start the series over the next three months:

  • Lauren Camp, New Mexico Poet Laureate
  • Farnaz Fatemi, Santa Cruz County, California Poet Laureate
  • Kai Coggin, Hot Springs, Arkansas Poet Laureate
In the last year or more, I’ve been to many quiet places in New Mexico—meeting in circles and tables and libraries to talk about poetry. En route to these outposts I’m often squinting through aggressive sunlight. I notice the climate shifts as cities quickly untangle to reveal rural communities. The sky, of course… my eye can’t take it all in.

New Mexico is the fifth largest state—geographically—in the United States. These backroad trips take me through the hull and rise of neighboring towns, ranchlands fat with grasses or corn fields, or nothing more than elements and surface. Wind sweeps on, haunting, loud. I have been traveling to main streets, schools, and community centers in partnership with the executive director of New Mexico Arts. We pass mesas and peaks, grooved land coppered with shrubs. Where there is any water, the thready limbs of cottonwoods are like offerings. I marvel at windmills falling over themselves.

Not much in this state drops below 4,000 feet. Often, we’re up in thinner air and clean, long views. As I wrote in one poem, “and because / distance sings itself loud here, I can even see lavender / in its savannah with its smoky moss eight towns off.”

Once out of the few populous cities, we are given the schema of high-ceilinged, open lands. It is these that refuse to let me go. This state feels like my true provenance, though it’s not the one I was born into. I worship the barren, the unheard beginnings. Driving New Mexico means finding ruins to either side of my vision: aerated adobe buildings half slipped into earth, places that exist in the past tense, places that have space for roaming thoughts, random memories.

New Mexico has taught me to focus, to notice a detail, a narrowed perspective. New Mexico revels in this, giving up murmurs of color, small wings, every exhale of blushing season.

In this state, the earth shares its dryness with whatever insect or bushtit crosses over it. Coyotes mouth their nightly anthems. I am after every small sign of life, close and far. I want more than to list them; I want to move image through image. I listen and look. There is so much to carry in and patiently chase around my page.

I’m not writing this place. I’m writing into this place, using the specifics of location as the scaffolding for an awareness or emotion that I want to hold (or release). My task is to pull them together.

New Mexico has something I hadn’t seen in my suburban East Coast childhood: sky. By day, it holds forth its generous blue beauty, and at night, a dark that is actually dark.

My days as poet laureate are very full, but night is a little more spacious. When I’m home, I always make time to stand outside my studio, leaning into the darkness for a while, pinning my small self to familiar planets and constellations. I’m not in a rush. This is slow time. And when this feels like not enough, I’ve taken my fascination further. In 2022, I lived for a month at the lip of the Grand Canyon. As astronomer-in-residence, I took as my purpose to see both in and down, up and out. An entire book grew from that study, that searching.

Then last year, I spent two weeks with the Clark Refractor and other telescopes at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. What I saw of the surface of the moon and the globular clusters marked me. I returned home with a sense of source, which even now, works into my poems.

There are so many ways to keep learning about a place. I’ve spent big chunks of time considering a few powerful women who made New Mexico home. In my book An Eye in Each Square (River River Books, 2023), I conversed with paintings by abstract artist Agnes Martin. This gave me the chance to study different stretches of landscape and visual art (another passion of mine). And in Turquoise Door (3: A Taos Press, 2018), I wrote poems about the arts culture of Taos in the early 1900s. I was trying to understand arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and the incredible creative people she brought to the Southwest—including D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, and Ansel Adams.

I always want to widen my gaze, to take in something else, to lift the heavens higher so I can see more. I focus on what has receded, or even what seems not there. Adjusting my words into sounds and pleasurable negative space is one way to keep looking.

  

  

Lauren CampLauren Camp serves as New Mexico Poet Laureate. She is the author of eight books of poetry, including In Old Sky (Grand Canyon Conservancy, 2024). Her work has garnered fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Denver Botanic Gardens, and Black Earth Institute. In 2022, she was chosen as the fourth astronomer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park. Other honors include the Dorset Prize and finalist commendations for the Arab American Book Award, Housatonic Book Award, and Adrienne Rich Award. Her poems have been translated into Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish, French, and Arabic.

Read poetry by Lauren Camp appearing in Terrain.org: two poems, two poems, and two poems.

Header photo by Simmons Buntin. Photo of Lauren Camp by Bob Godwin.

Terrain.org is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.