Photo Credit: Cara Forbes
Niall Campbell is a Scottish poet, originally from South Uist. He published a pamphlet After The Creel Fleet with HappenStance in 2012 and a full-length collection Moontide with Bloodaxe in 2014, which was shortlisted for The Forward and Aldeburgh prizes.
He was named the inaugural winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize in 2014 and is due to publish a new collection later this year called First Nights through the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets.
Hi Niall. Thanks for taking the time to chat. The last few years have been very eventful and rewarding for you with the publication of your debut full-length collection, scooping the inaugural Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, and becoming a new dad – a lot of firsts in there! Having emerged at the other side, are there any specific experiences that stand out for you looking back?
Looking back on it, I think there was a real benefit to having a kid at that time. Mainly as it didn’t allow me to be either too concerned or too cynical about the competition-side of poetry. An hour before the Edwin Morgan Award, my wife and I were bathing our son – and four hours after I was up doing the late-night bottle feed. He kept me honest.
Also, it was special to be on stage that evening and to be able to look off to the side to see Katie and him there. Five months old and he didn’t make a peep through six poets reading. That’s better than I manage…
It was a curious experience, though. For two days my little poorly-maintained blog got about 900 views a day, then on the third day it went back to its usual one or two. It was like being a coalminer who hit a goldminer’s seam – all that brightness and interest – but soon it’s out and you are back with the coal again. The trick is to be happy with the coal.
Other than that – the things that stick out are a few of the readings: Alan Gillis gave an excellent reading from his new book Scapegoat at the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh; Pascale Petit at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh was another standout; and Zaffar Kunial read some really great new work at Ty Newydd as guest reader when I was tutoring there.
I get the impression some of the poems in Moontide, while being steeped in tradition, are also interested in the way in which poetry might create new mythologies (I’m thinking of poems like ‘The Fraud’, ‘Black Water’, ‘The House by The Sea‘, ‘A Sea-skin Tale’). Interestingly, there seems to be a tension where the narrating voice is unsure what form these might take – “I do not know what story this is telling”. Would it be fair to say your writing is attempting to interrogate the role poetry plays in contemporary culture?
I’d really like to say yes to this – but I might be one of the few people who isn’t too worried about poetry’s position in contemporary culture. It just seems strange that we have an art-form that has reading nights and reading circles in literally hundreds of cities, town, local communities and we seem to think it’s not valid or relevant.
A big part of this is down to the focus on judging the health of the art-form by its sales figures, as though this were the primary marker of something’s importance. I wrote about this for The Rialto a year or two back – how you can’t compare poetry and fiction. A major bookstore once had a marketing slogan of “buy book, open book, read book, repeat”. Yes, brilliantly capitalist – and yes, I can imagine it fitting with someone reading fiction – but can’t imagine it at all as being relevant with the way we read poetry.
The dynamic between a reader and a poetry collection is completely different – there is much more ‘investment’ by the reader in a poetry collection – there is a reason poetry has never been accused of being escapism! I think that if you have ‘found’ yourself, or a space that might be yours, in a poetry collection then it would be a peculiar madness that would quickly put this aside to begin the search anew.
Anyway, to pull back from that tangent… yes, mythologies are something I love – they are probably the purest form of storytelling. And their scale is often unashamedly large: they are about human luck, the complications of love, and how we face death. But always twinned with a sense of wonder – and this is so important.
So I love their capacity of dealing with large subjects – but there’s also how they are told: usually sparse texts, sacrificing the texture or detail of description for momentum and intensity – there’s a quality of it in Emily Berry’s poem ‘Winter’ in a recent Poetry Review. The poem is so sparse and so bare – but it is huge. I like things like that.
You have a new collection coming out later this year through the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. As well as a selection of poems from Moontide, it will also feature new poems exploring your newfound status as a parent. Can you tell us a bit more about them and, now that you’ve had time to live with them, do you feel they pick up on any of the themes you explored in your debut or are in dialogue with them in any way?
Not all the new poems look at the role of parenthood, but a large portion do. So thematically there has been that slight shift. In terms of their structure or their composition, I suppose something that recurs is an experimentation moving away from the single voice of a poem – either by using a form like call and reply, or by using snippets of direct speech that unbalance the text.
If you were to take an older poem, say ‘After the Creel Fleet‘, it has a clearly unified (I hope) lyric momentum running it from its start to its end – and the voice is steady and just guides it down. A few of the more recent poems have lines or phrases that are by a different voice; I like this as it can make the poems a bit musically different – and, in places, it allows the poems to be openly interrogatory.
It’s still early, however. I have about twenty poems so there are trends towards this theme and that, and there are stylistic signs emerging – but it’s still too soon to be thinking about these things. Now, for me, is about writing individual poems and not worrying about any larger unity – that’ll come further down the line when the collection is being complied. Then there is the fun of finding what poems are speaking to which others – for now, it’s just about the single poem.
I’m curious to know what direction you think your poetry writing might take next? Moontide evokes the Hebridean outlook and culture brilliantly, but I believe you have lived on mainland Scotland for a number of years now. Do you feel there is still more you want to explore from an islander vantage point or do you forsee yourself writing more about the city?
Well, we actually live in Leeds now – our second spell here. Ach, I’m not too worried about any idea of being cut off from my source. I’ve never really viewed Uist as some sort of pitmine that I’m digging in to; nor some muse that speaks to me. Uist and my life there plays a huge part in how I understand the world. The islander vantage is probably the only vantage I’ll ever have – but it is that, ‘how I understand the world’, rather than Uist being the sum total of my worldview.
The way I see it, those folk writing about the city, are not really writing about the city – it’s always about life: how it is, how it works, its triumphs or imbalances. It’s the same for me. Before Moontide came out I was mentored by Patience Agbabi as part of the Arvon-Jerwood foundation – it’s maybe difficult to imagine two more contrasting poets: Patience writing so brilliantly about urban life, violence and grittiness. But we chimed so well because she knew straight-off that we were both just using the environments we inhabited to write about the ‘other things of life’.
A relevant example might be a poem like ‘Black Water’ from Moontide. It’s a poem that’s centred around loved-ones drinking water from the sea at night – but funnily enough I think of this as a city poem. I wrote this while in Leeds, Katie was pregnant and we had to keep the bedroom windows open at night – she could sleep fine but the noise kept me awake – the poem is an islander’s reaction to the city. I suppose this isn’t about the immediate sensation (the car horns or the traffic on the street) but how it is mentally processed, and this has a lot to do with one’s past. The rhythmic noise of cars passing reminded me of the sea, I don’t ever see it not.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific goals you have set yourself?
There are a few books I’m looking forward to reading: Denise Riley, Ian Duhig and Helen Mort all have new collections out. But half the fun of poetry is stumbling across a new poet – last year it was Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Amit Majmudar – the latter has had a few excellent poems in The Dark Horse recently.
On a personal note, I’m looking forward to First Nights coming out as part of the Princeton series. When the UK book was coming out I was well enough aware of what might constitute a book ‘doing well’ – what shortlists there were, where it might be reviewed, things like that.
But with the US book I have little knowledge of where it might go or what it might do, which definitely has its benefits. A debut book in the UK has its stresses: what happens if it is ignored by X or Y, you don’t want to think like this but I think most people would admit to it. For the US book, and not for the first time, my ignorance will be my bliss.
As for goals – no, no, like an inept footballer, I tend to stay away from those.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It started off, as some poems do, with a desire to be mischievous. I know a few translators, and they are dedicated folk, striving for accuracy and thoroughness – and I wanted to start off by being the opposite: completely incompetent, belligerent, and dedicated only to the fact that you can get away with being a lot more ‘lyrical’ if you say something is translated rather than just writing it straight as yourself. But then, as always, the poem kicks in – and rather than having fun the poem turns around on you.
From the Spanish
Here, let me offer this translation:
Cada loco con su tema –
All parents call their river Discontent
and isn’t that so – just children ourselves,
we travel down the water to
the cot, and spend the nights unloading
the brimming crates of oranges,
since this is what love seems like now;
our raft so small, the pier still smaller.
So maybe it comes as relief
that the translation isn’t right,
and Cada loco con su tema
actually means – A parent writes
their name twice – first on a partner’s flank,
hip-bone to neck, then, with more care,
(and with a clearer, brighter ink)
along their child, from toe to scalp;
I still remember doing this.
So now, what does it matter if
the translation, again, isn’t right
and Cada loco con su tema
means Each madman with their own way;
and my way travelled past the point
when one truth discounts the rest:
earlier I left his dark bedroom –
but still, it’s true, I’ve never left;
and look, he isn’t in my arms,
and yet he’s all I’m carrying.