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Launching How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems by Kate Camp

We launched the magnificent How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems by Kate Camp on Wednesday 9 September. Below is the official launch speech by Maria McMillan – fellow poet, and member of long-running poetry writing group with Kate, Tusiata Avia, Stefanie Lash, Hinemoana Baker, and Marty Smith.

I was once mistaken for Kate Camp. My hair was longer then and I had run into Nick Ascroft on a bus and we were talking and I realised after a while he was under the illusion he was talking to Kate, whom at that time I barely knew. When I explained I was that far less illustrious poet, Maria McMillan, whom Nick also knew, he seemed dubious and later when he got off the bus, he even turned and said, I really thought you were Kate. I felt a strong expectation to confess.

Later, after banging on the doors of IIML for a year or two, trying to figure out how to be a proper writer, Bill Manhire took pity on me and suggested I apply for the newly created Iowa summer workshop, which I duly did. I was arrogant and a little insulted and expected to find it filled with very young second-year English students who didn’t have a clue.

On my first day I arrived and there was quite-famous-and-definitely-not-me Kate Camp, who at first I presumed was there in some kind of teaching capacity. Then up-and-coming Hinemoana Baker and Tusiata Avia walked in and then others and I was utterly bewildered – people who had books out already were taking this course! – until I realised that there I was, in a class of legends, and I didn’t have a clue.

That workshop birthed a writing group, which after various iterations landed on Tusiata, Hinemoana, Marty Smith, Stefanie Lash, Kate Camp and me. It’s in that capacity, a tribute to what the group means to Kate and us all, that Kate asked me to launch this book.

What I learnt in that workshop and in our group, is that real writers never graduate. They’re never done, they’re always curious; if there's a chance to learn more, they’ll take it. There’s a hunger there, and while they may appear calm and contained (ha), stand between them and the ocean of good writing and they will rise up and charge. There’s a commitment to doing the best work. None more than in Kate.

Never let truth get in the way of a good poem, says Kate.

Too many little words, says Kate.

I feel, says Kate, kindly but firmly, that the other lines are so amazing, this one is letting the poet down.

Kate is so skilled, workshopping with her is a joy.

Marty says, 'When I read Kate's poems, I'm standing back, listening to a voice like slow, calm, river water, and I'm looking at a landscape that shifts as I look at it, like a kaleidoscope shifts colour, makes a sudden cut away, shifts dimensions. Inside the poem will be exquisite miniatures, small mirrors, and something will happen, so that when she finishes there'll be the briefest of silences, then an exclamation from each of us, one after another.'

Tusiata says, 'Kate is a rocket scientist in the stuff of life: the details of the outer world and the mysteries of our inner world.'

When I was first writing this I wanted to say that I had a theory. That, without being Goddish or as far as I know at all into vibration therapy or white-boy cacao ceremonies, Kate is our great spiritual poet.

So I duly looked up spiritual for its exact meaning, and it said pertaining to the non-physical world and I realised I had chosen possibly the worst of all words to describe Kate’s work. Because Kate, more than any writer I know, is embodied, is about the physical. She knows that our humanity is experienced through the occupation of these mammalian bodies, in the way we glide through days and nights among others of our kind, and among the things our kind have created. How we live with our past, as we live with our fingers.

The body is a kind of refrain in Kate’s work, like metre or morning. She extends great distances out from the physical self, to the Bedouin, to gulls, to Mars, to the purple moon, to a shuttlecock hanging in midair, to trains, to Stephen Hawking, to Nashville – but she always returns to the body. We know the islands of Kate’s back teeth, the meaty cloud of her eye, Kate standing in a field, Kate lying in bed, Kate dancing. Kate with her arms folded.

Kate is a connoisseur and chronicler of emotion, and I think particularly of grief, of loneliness, of being lost. It is much easier to write of sadness than contentment. She manages both. But even when Kate writes of the grimmest times, there is something elevated in this, something breathtakingly human. She reminds us that sadness is part of it all, and ties us together, and is as much a part of being human, as the back of our knees, or our wrinkled knuckles.

Even feeling lost, even ghostly disconnection, is so dazzlingly observed it feels like a great moment of connection.

And I think it is this sense of connection, in all Kate’s poems, which sent me scrambling for a word like spiritual. Because what I feel when I read Kate’s work is that the great mysteries of the world, the omnipresent magnificence, the unexplainable and the truly awesome, rest in being human among humans. Take your ley lines and chakras and give me the oesophagus and the eyeball, the memory of a dusty school hall, that night, that party, remember the small blasts of happiness, our bloody painful hearts.

Kate, our generous colleague, our friend, the wondrous writer, we are so very proud of you. I invite all of you to raise your glasses to launch with me, this book full of Kate, her new and selected works, and her as always kind, clever advice on how to be happy though human.

—Maria McMillan

How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems by Kate Camp, p/b, $30

Photographic evidence of a book launch
Photographic evidence of a book launch, Third Eye, 9 September 2020