“Take thought wherever you find it”: In conversation with Camille Ralphs

We talk to Camille Ralphs, author of acclaimed poetry pamphlet Malkin and current president of Oxford University Poetry Society.

Pendle Hill by Damian Entwhistle

Hi Camille – thanks for talking to us. It’s been a really exciting time for you with your debut pamphlet Malkin being so well received over the past year. What’s been your experience of that so far?
I’ve been lucky. I wasn’t prepared for it to be so well received, though of course I’m delighted. It’s given me a lot to think about. Much of the great publicity Malkin has had has been down to the sterling efforts of my publishers at The Emma Press, actually – for that, I’m forever grateful.

How did the idea for Malkin first come about? [Malkin explores the infamous witch trials which took place in Pendle, Lancashire, in 1612]. 
In June 2014, I travelled up to Lancaster to stay with some writer friends. On my last morning there, I crawled out of bed and stared blearily out of my mate’s window. Somewhere in the hills, I imagined, crouched Pendle; and in Lancaster there were reminders, everywhere, of the maligned Pendle Witches. It was an aching thought.

On the train back down to Cambridge, I wrote down a few sentences that had taken off inside my head. I didn’t give myself any time to back out, after that – as soon as I got home, I sat at my desk and started drafting first one poem, and then, slowly, the rest.

Malkin. The Emma Press, November 2015.

Tell us a little more about how you came to be interested in poetry.
As a Sixth Former, I made the most of my scheduled periods in the ‘study’ hall each day… by teaching myself to write in strict rhyming metre and to work within open and closed forms, among other bits and pieces. I had a copy of John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, and later a copy of Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making, and these were enough to ensure that I never again completed a history essay on time.

At that point, I still saw myself as a fiction writer, and I told myself I was writing poetry as a way of improving my prose; it was only after a couple more years, when one of my university tutors advised me to focus on poems instead, that I began to take it seriously. I remembered, then, how fixated on nursery rhymes I’d been as a child, and I started to see this thing as a sort of vocation. Upon encountering the R.P. Blackmur quotation that “[poetry is] language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand but adds to the available stock of reality”, I finally committed, and now I can’t leave it alone.

You’re currently the President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. To lots of people, that sounds like quite a daunting title! As President, what are your day-to-day responsibilities? What are you trying to do in your role?
Is it daunting? I don’t know. I suppose it is, but I made a decision a while ago to just do my best and not get stressed about it. That’s worked pretty well so far! OUPS is an active society, with lots of initiatives under its awning – prizes, reading groups, workshops and masterclasses, open mics, an in-house journal… I suppose my main responsibility is making sure we’ve got plenty lined up for each term and that each member of the committee has had chance to contribute.

I regularly invite poets to give readings for us, of course, and try to keep up good relations with our collaborators (this year, Waterstones and the Oxford Writers’ House) and funders.

One of the goals of the society is to help integrate the university and city poetry scenes, as they have so much to offer each other. I like to think that we also offer members as diverse a representation of the poetry world as possible. Some might assume that OUPS is stuffy and traditional and has a problem with slam and performance poetry, but this isn’t true – we’re open to all sorts!

Camille Ralphs. Image copyright: Matthew Fleming

Often on YPN we’re trying to work out what the best advice is for young writers – which is tricky as writing advice can be very subjective! What are your three top tips for young and aspiring writers?
Advice like this tends to be subjective, as you’ve said, because not every writer is out to achieve the same thing. But I’ll give you three things I wish I’d known as a younger poet. 

Firstly – don’t rush. The single best piece of advice I’ve ever been given by an established figure (in this case, Paul Muldoon) is this: take your sweet time. In your ‘apprenticeship’ period, which can last any number of years, you need to be writing a lot and figuring out your style – you don’t need to publish until you’re absolutely ready. A less than stunning first impression can do damage to your prospects – you have only one debut, so make it sing. Even later, in fact, it doesn’t hurt to be careful: T.S. Eliot published very rarely, and this meant that what he did publish was so excellent that each new poem was an event. In summary: don’t publish for the sake of publication, for the validating smell of ink or hot pixels – “the libraries of the world have yawned themselves to sleep”, as Charles Bukowski would say, over such work. You can do better.

Secondly – don’t expect anything. Be it money or renown, you can’t expect the literary brass ring to appear in your grasp. “This unpopular art”, as Auden calls it, doesn’t automatically come with lots of perks, and you shouldn’t necessarily expect it to (see also Basil Bunting’s poem ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’). The only real perk is, in fact, in the writing itself – the having some way to sublimate your feelings in response to life’s hardships, the having something to offer to the world. “Poetry is worth nothing and therefore priceless,” as Lawrence Ferlinghetti says. So: give because you have something to give, not because you have something to gain.

Thirdly – read widely and imitate. Read as much as you can – make literature a part of your world, and literature will eventually reciprocate. Find a few great poets you admire, and imitate them – all the best poets of the past learned this way (for example, in the grammar schools of the 17th century, attended by figures as central to our literature as George Herbert and Andrew Marvell, imitation in creative writing was a core part of literary and classical education). Eventually, your own ‘voice’ will emerge. Read beyond poetry and fiction, too, and take thought wherever you find it.

Also, get yourself a copy of W.D. Snodgrass’ book De/compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong. It’s tremendously illuminating in parts.

Who are the poets who’ve had the biggest influence on you so far?
Ted Hughes – in his early work’s Anglo-Saxon stridency, and his bleak mythopoesis. His Crow is likely my favourite book, as poetry goes.
Seamus Heaney – in his exactness, descriptively and musically, and his awareness of our history as it impacts on our Now.
Emily Dickinson – in her comfort in ambiguity, expressed not only through word choice but the hinge/bridge/needle of her famous dash. It is Very Important.
Geoffrey Hill – in his extraordinary diction, his attention to the significance of etymology and the fact that all language is “fossil poetry” (Emerson).
Anne Carson – in her imaginative intelligence and sheer range: the greatest example of “the dance of the intellect” (Pound) I’ve found in contemporary poetry.
John Berryman – in his soul-baring slippery syntax and his semi-Shakespearean linguistic reflexivity.
Kamau Brathwaite – in his concrete musical dexterity (see in particular ‘The Making of the Drum’, which made a huge impression on me).
Dylan Thomas – in his bardic song. He is, I think, the greatest musician the English language has (though much of his skill is owed, of course, to Welsh).

Also: the metaphysical poets, always.

More recently, I’ve been paying attention to Ocean Vuong and Warsan Shire and to Tommy Pico. Steve Roggenbuck has proved very, very important to me, too. I’ll take in anything so passionate, I think.

Who’s the first person you show a new poem to?
That depends on what it’s for. If it’s something I’ve been working on outside of wider projects, or something I’m considering publishing soon, I’ll shoot it to my friend Smithy – she’s working towards a PhD in English, so I trust her critical eye, and I also trust that she’ll be honest with me if I’ve written something horrible (we’re at that point in our friendship where insults and offenses, and unnecessary embedded references to Austin Powers, are the norm). I’ve other friends in Oxford and Manchester I trust enough to contact, too, but she’s my first stop on the crit-train.

If the work is something that’s going into one of my larger projects, however, nobody’s allowed to see it yet but Jane Draycott, who’s currently my supervisor. It’s up to her to read my nascent work and tell me whether it’s got what One Direction have referred to as “that One Thing”; and, if it hasn’t, she’ll suggest some new ways of exploring my ideas. It’s helpful that she sets me deadlines, too – every poet needs a kick in the pants now and again…

If you hadn’t gone down the poetry path, what do you think you might’ve ended up doing instead?
Until I was eight or nine years old, my intention was to be an archaeologist. So maybe that’s what I would’ve done. Actually, Alexander Kluge (in his recent Paris Review interview with Ben Lerner) has said that “Poets are diamond polishers. But there are also collectors of raw diamonds – I am a good archaeologist” (referring here to his writing prose). So perhaps in some way the two – writing and archaeology – are not so dissimilar. Osip Mandelstam says that “poetry is the plough that turns up time”; and, as Heaney tells us, “digging” is not necessarily a physical act.

Do you go to live poetry events (if you’re not reading yourself)? If you do, do you find them helpful for you as a writer?
I do, and I do. I find panel discussions and Q&A sessions especially useful, as those are the ones I’ll take notes on and come back to later. But all live poetry events are good places to meet other poets you admire, form poetry gangs, start poetry turf wars, etc. (that last bit is a joke – please don’t do that). A few weeks ago I was introduced to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s fiery call to action Poetry as Insurgent Art through a ‘Poetry and Activism’ event – if I hadn’t gone, I might never have discovered it.

What’s the next project in the pipeline?
A full collection, though I don’t expect I’ll be ready to publish it for another 2-3 years. I’m currently obsessing over the works of John Dee and Edward Kelley (a couple of 16th century seers/alchemists/charlatans; pick whichever you prefer) and I’ve also been consistently interested in ergodic literature (that is, writing with interactive or gamified elements) for some time now, so I’ll see where all this takes me – somewhere exciting, I hope!

Image copyright: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society

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