Nancy Campbell’s poetry is shaped by an attentiveness to language in all its forms: written and printed; spoken and heard; foreign and familiar. She has worked on a number of art books and runs live literature projects. The Polar Tombola toured the UK before generating an exhibition and a book that prompted Marie Claire to name her a ‘Wonder Woman’ of 2016. She has become known for poems about the Arctic, particularly in Disko Bay (Enitharmon), nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016. But Campbell’s work is neither distant nor detached; by writing of ice she alerts us to the rapid warming of our planet, and by exploring the history of remote peoples she awakens us to the concerns of the here and now.
The poet was born in Exeter. Her interest in landscapes and the way they are shaped by natural and manmade forces was nurtured by growing up in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland. She studied English Literature before training as a letterpress printmaker, a craft that informs her poetry, which is just as concerned with the visual and physical as it is the oral:
As a writer, it seems that to commit words to print is always a significant act. Who wouldn't want their words to be presented in the manner that allows them to be most effective? […] The reader experiences a book in space as an object – and over time, as the pages turn. Physical components – layout, binding – affect the reception of the text. As do more sensual elements, like the texture and weight of the paper. (Interview with Theophilus Kwek for Oxford Writers' House)
Campbell has worked on art books and writes art criticism, but she describes her own work as "word-based". In the winter of 2010, Campbell served as Writer in Residence at Upernavik Museum on a small island on the north-west coast of Greenland. Even for one used to rural life, the world's most northerly museum and the small community around it constituted a new level of remoteness. Exploring the historical collection and getting to know the current inhabitants, she began to write the poems which would form the basis of her first collection. Disko Bay both performs and critiques the traditional role of the poet: to sing of people and places. Campbell uses the folklore and traditions of the people she encounters, evoking a world that is cold, dark and cryptic:
People are cruel here: the Danish doctor tells me
those who miss the ceremony must die within the year.
To summon spring, the islanders sing from the mountain,
" Great sun, please settle smiling on our land."
'Kitsissut / The colony'
Many of the poem titles in the first section of the collection have this construction; a Greenlandic word or phrase and its English equivalent separated by a forward slash. For a writer as attuned to the importance of typography as Campbell, this wording is a powerful tool, acting as both a hopeful link and a dividing line in the movement between languages and cultures. In a series of 'songs', Campbell presents the now extinct Qavak dialect originals along with her own English versions.
Translation, migration and hybridisation are concerns that shape Disko Bay. Campbell utilises a range of traditional repetitive and cyclical forms saying that "The discipline […] gave me a means to express the austere Arctic landscape and what I perceived as a human tendency towards constraint and cruelty" ('How I Did It' for the Poetry School).
She also uses the ballad form to succinctly and memorably narrate the folktales discovered in her research. But as an outsider the poet's position is a potentially troubling one, as Campbell herself has noted: "Poems such as 'The night hunter' and 'The lesson' are key to the collection: they express my ambivalence as an outsider, a poet quest ioning her role in the finely balanced small community." (Conversation with the Forward Arts Foundation)
Ballads and pantoums have their own freight of history. By translating the music and mystery of the Greenlandic into 'foreign' forms, Campbell makes a comment about migrations and crossings. Elsewhere she uses Anglo-Saxon riddles and Scandinavian kennings to evoke other migrations.
The middle section of the collection, 'Ruin Island', is based on the legend of a hunter. Qujaavaarssuk lived in a much colder time, when the people of the Arctic suffered the effects of too much ice:
Nothing is too harsh
when you are accustomed to it.
'Epilogue / Words spoken by a hunter who can no longer hear the question'
Changes to our climate are a key concern for Campbell and her poetry aims to raise awareness and challenge conceptions. As the Arctic is physically changing geography becomes less definite and borders and boundaries are blurred: "Cartographers locate / this roving Pole beyond coordinates" ('Ulerussivoq / The Debate'). Ecological issues cannot be separated from the peoples they affect:
When we hear about change in the Arctic, it's often related to climate, but Arctic regions are also experiencing dramatic cultural change. In the last two centuries 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and even more are now considered endangered. Even the official language of Greenland is 'vulnerable' according to UNESCO's Atlas of World Languages in Danger.
The Polar Tombola toured the UK in 2016-17 and asked audiences to imagine losing a word. This idea of play and endangered language is also the impulse behind the abecedarium How to Say 'I Love You' in Greenlandic (Bird Editions/MIEL).
In the final section of Disko Bay, 'Jutland', ice makes way for rising waters, transporting us to Northern Europe and the UK. 'Conversation' is based on Campbell's own interviews with residents of the flooded town of Rothbury during the Words Across Northumberland residency for Hexham Book Festival in 2013. These final poems are more familiar in some ways but ask us to relate to our landscape as intimately as the people of Upernavik do:
The coast is new as a foetus and old as a fossil. The bedrock rebounds from the glacier's weight. Sea bewilders it.
'Proverbs of Water'
Campbell is now based in Oxford and is currently writing a non-fiction prose book, The Library of Ice, for publication by Scribner UK in 2018. During 2018, Campbell will also take on the role of Canal Laureate, a UK-based position devised by The Poetry Society and the Canal and River Trust. Responding to the people and places along 2,000 miles of canal network, she will be creating new poems and pieces throughout the year to be showcased on The Waterlines.
The Canal Laureate role and other new work will foster the departure from Arctic preoccupations evident in her poetry since since Disko Bay. 'Sonnet Fatigue' (published on the And Other Poems website) takes the tricksterish playing with form to a new, more self-reflexive, level. Poems such as 'Fireworks' deal with subject matter that may be more familiar to English-speaking readers (although still with a nod back to the frozen/thawing North):
[…] flaming fusillades broke through the dark
and, meeting constellations, split – like ice
in Arctic waters – to a million shards.
'The Inconstant Ones' explores new, warmer climes:
[…] as I try to imagine how we might have loved
I hear cymbals brush between dancing thumbs,
and the call to prayer shaking swifts from their minaret nests
out over the souk […]
There is a suggestion of a move to more lyrical modes, concerned with the self, the heart and matters closer to home – whatever those slippery words and concepts might mean. It is the interrogation of language and form, and how these might help us to engage with our changing world, which will remain with Campbell wherever her poetry roams.
Disko Bay, Enitharmon Press, London, 2015
How To Say 'I Love You' In Greenlandic, MIEL editions, Belguim, 2014
Campbell's Canal Blog
How I did it: on writing the poems in Disko Bay
"Why I gave up a life in London"/The Independent
Sonnet Fatigue & The Wanderer
Poet profile at Forward Arts Foundation