Mining Life's Dirty Agreements: An Interview with Linda Camplese

I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand contributor Linda Camplese chats with George Wallace

Linda Camplese is inspired by a world out of balance. Her poems can be found in 30 Years of the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival and Walt’s Corner, her voice on Miller Street Memories, and her presence at readings from California to Paris, France, where she splits her life between two very different cultures—not always so gracefully. Find her work in the latest great weather for MEDIA anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand



GW: You seem to be a person of many personal geographies—cultural, physical, and creative, among others. You seem to turn up everywhere from New York to LA and from Boston to Paris, France.

LC: You put that so nicely! I tend to think of myself as "flighty and non-committal." Actually, I've lived in California for 20 years, this is certainly my "home," although I have trouble with that word. I still feel like a tourist. I talk about that in a poem called "Hot Things." I'm originally from a historic, seaside town north of Boston, the clam capital of the east coast. I still have family there and feel connected to my New England, Italian-American immigrant roots. It was a rougher town than it is now, but, that also fueled me as a poet. Paris was an unexpected detour on my way to spending more time in New York City, which remains the great love of my life to whom I'm always trying to return. I had never visited Paris and when I finally did, I just met so many like-minds so quickly, I had to keep going back. I've always worked as an artist, and I love the freedom that being an artist and poet has given me to explore and observe other places, to ask questions so openly and to get to the heart of people so quickly. I think people have different expectations of artists, especially poets…how we see the world and how we communicate. We are safe people for others to freely express their own light and darkness and depth.

GW: Central Coast California is where you call home, a part of the country somewhat less familiar to some of our readers. Tell us about the coastline and coastal valleys and ranges, with their grape-growing fields and their coyotes.

LC: I had never been to California, but, wanted to experience it, and, again, I stumbled on the Central Coast unexpectedly. At the time, I seriously thought all of California was the Venice Beach boardwalk. Then I looked on a map and remembered that Bugs Bunny intended to vacation in "Pismo Beach" (the former clam capital of the west coast) until he took "…a wrong toin in Albuquoique…" and in all seriousness, SLO County, where Pismo Beach is, became my target for the furthest point north I was willing to consider. Little did I know how special a stumble it would be. This part of California presented a certain kind of simpler lifestyle at the time. SLO had the first solar-powered movie theatre, and, backyard livestock and front yard vegetable gardens, many farmers markets. It was also affordable then, and that was certainly a factor. I found my oasis: an abandoned hilltop former motel, circa 1950, that needed an artist to reveal its inner beauty. Room numbers are still on the doors. I have a 16-year old pet pig, and, wildlife abounds. Coyotes, red and silver foxes, bobcats, rabbits, and tarantulas all share my life. There is a pair of owls that communicate across distances: the female in B flat and the male responding in A. I'm actually not a fan of the local viticulture explosion, although I do benefit from the view. The chain of extinct volcanoes are magnificent, we have great hiking, tide pools which really fascinate me, beautiful bays, a University and several colleges, and none of the traffic that claims so many hours of people's lives in other parts of the state. It's more expensive now, but, the year-round quality of life, if we would get some rain, is tremendous.

GW. What's the poetry scene like in the Central Coast area? What community of poets do you call your own?

LC: When I returned to poetry about 7 years ago at the urging of a friend, I was so fortunate to benefit from an established and vibrant local poetry scene centered in San Luis Obispo around Kevin Patrick Sullivan who has been hosting the "Corners of the Mouth" reading since 1984. He also coordinates the SLO Poetry Festival, where I've read. He and his wife, Patti are just fine people, very devoted to the area and the art and poetry community within. I've come to know so many wonderful wordsmiths from so many backgrounds: some serious academic poets, and others, like me, armed only with street cred and sheets of paper, but, all supportive, thoughtful, concerned people who care deeply about the work we make, the world around us, and, showing up for each other. The poets Dave Ochs and Evelyn Cole, two of my earliest "encouragers" established readings further south in Arroyo Grande. The thing that stands out about this group of people is not only how valued I felt, but, how easily our connections were forged. Evelyn said to me, early on, in the most disarmingly straightforward manner, "I can tell from your poems that I love you." I mean, who talks like that except a poet? Every year, I continue to meet great local poets who I've never been introduced, this area is like a treasure chest. Dian Sousa, Youssef Alaoui-Fdili, Celeste Goyer who hosts a terrific reading in Cambria, Jerry Douglas Smith and James Cushing come to mind as more recent local influences. There are so many I'm not mentioning, but, my point is that I think there are few endeavors that create those kinds of bonds between people so readily, in adulthood, and those are the moments that keep me sharing what I write.

GW You have said you 'split your life—not always so gracefully' between California and Paris. Can you expand on that? How's that working?

LC: I am certainly not complaining about living between two of the most beautiful places one can imagine, especially not in the global political and economic climate in which we find ourselves at the moment. I've been extremely fortunate in my day-job as a Creative Director to be able to build, from very little over time, the life I have now. I admit I am not so graceful managing it, though. I have a complex life which includes many obligations that don't always fit so neatly into my version of a fully experiential life. I've learned that clarity is the result of many failures, and some of mine affect other people who may have had to stretch beyond their own comfort in order for me to have the freedom I require as a person, as an artist and poet. I have a 10-year old daughter who has to adjust to Parisian apartment life, the language and culture. She's a trooper, but, recognizing and openly acknowledging that truth about my needs has not made me better at negotiating it. If I interpret your question more practically, then, I'd say my French could be a lot better by now.

GW: What does the Parisian experience represent in your life?

LC: Paris is a fairly new experience, only the last 5 years of my life, and I’m slow to recognize influences. American life looks and feels different, for better and for worse, every time I return. I see and appreciate more clearly, the very American ability to change up our lives, even later in life, to go back to school, or take on a new career, or follow a new path in a way that the French can hardly imagine. From their perspective, if you didn't start "your thing" by 25 years old, don't even try it. It's an outdated way of thinking to Americans, and, unfathomable to me as a person who thrives on change, trying new things with a focus on the process, and, experiencing life as a series of hits and misses. In the other direction, I love that I can leave certain "American-based fears," as I call them, behind. There, I don’t fear cheese or raw meat or dessert or caffeine or alcohol or wheat or salt or fat or sugar or profanity or my atheism or public images of nudity or any number of other things we Americans like or need to fear or reject, and it's a long list! That said, I will never smoke tobacco the way Parisians do, they need to quit that shit. Also, for all their égalité, France certainly suffers from as much racism and sexism as the US, I know that aspect will be hard to leave out when my Paris life begins to filter into my writing.

GW: You have also said that, in your writing, you 'mine subterranean social, political and personal contradictions' for the beautiful, humorous, delicious and poisonous. How does that help us understand 'My Father's Gun,' the poem you've contributed to great weather for MEDIA's latest anthology?

LC:  Well, that poem certainly mines some seriously contradictory family dynamics. It is not as subterranean as my poems often are, but, I’ll give it a try: the man and the gun brought fear into my life, I mean, it was not exactly a sportsman's weapon, and, it was handled and carried quite openly, and sometimes dangerously. I dealt with its presence by finding a personal measure of comfort, framing the gun as acceptable, even compelling, as long as it, and his reputation for being a mean son-of-a-bitch were in the service of my own needs. I think the poem is as unflattering a portrait of me as it is him. I knew I benefitted from his relationships and how they extended down to me and how I could use them, and I did. I accepted that he paid me to forgive his erratic, abusive behavior and that he was teaching me the value and skill of intimidation. I also knew it was a dirty agreement. To give credit where it is due, he also taught me how to make a hell of a good sandwich.

GW: To what extent do you consider writing a solitary versus a communal/social activity? What relationships have helped you 'grow' your art?

LC: Inspiration is communal, partly, because that is where I glean insight into other lives, stories and characters. Also because my education in poetry is still developing and the guidance from those who have lived a life in literature is so welcomed and sought out. The act of writing, for me, is completely solitary. I may have an idea or concept that I’d like to approach with a poem drifting around in my head for months or years before the right experience shows me the correct angle with which to approach it. Although I write more autobiographically now than I ever did, and finally have the gift of time to sit and write every day if I want, I still tend to write about personal experience only when it touches on greater sociological or cultural themes, and, sometimes, getting the two to align takes time and trial, so, my output is still slow.


Read Linda Camplese's 'My Fathers Gun' in our anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand.

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