Interview: Anne Campbell

Anne Campbell is a Regina based poet. She has published five books of poems since the 1980s: No Memory of a Move (Longspoon); Death is an Anxious Mother (Thistledown); Red Earth, Yellow Stone (Thistledown); Angel Wings All Over (Thistledown); Soul to Touch (Hagios Press).  She has also published a history of the Regina Public Library, Biblio Files (University of Regina Press, 2017), and co-authored, with Lorne Beug and Jeannie Mah, a book on the built environment of Regina, Regina’s Secret Spaces (CPRC, University of Regina).  Her sixth book of poems, The Fabric of Day: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Thistledown Press in 2017.

Many musical performances of selected poems of the poetry of Anne Campbell, with Tom Schudel’s music, have taken place: at the Mackenzie Art Gallery; at Florida State University; at the University of Saskatoon; the University of North Florida; at the Hugh Lane Art Gallery in Dublin, Ireland; the University of Calgary; in Waterford, Ireland; in Convocation Hall, Saskatoon; at Virginia Tech and Radford University; the University of Regina; the Globe Theatre; at Laurence University in Appleton, Wisconsin; and at Austin Peay State University.  She has worked with various chamber singers, choral groups, vocalists, and individual musicians.


Kristjana Gunnars: Thanks for consenting to this interview, Anne. Congrats on the new book coming out next May (2017) from Thistledown.

Anne Campbell: Thank you. I am really trying to put some effort into this selected and new. I have always felt a bit out of the main stream of Canadian poetry, with my heart in the visual arts and public programming for the arts; but language is my home.  I trust you saw the amazing cover photograph of The Fabric of Day on my web site. Do you remember the photographer, Don Hall? He sees the prairie the way I do, so silent, yet so salient.

KG: Yes, I of course noticed that photo on your new book.  Also on the book Regina’s Secret Spaces. Don Hall is one amazing photographer. I love the eye.  What he sees.  Tell me about the large, open spaces in your poems, your lines and stanza formations.  They seem to be more than a poetic device.  Are you imposing silence on the language, or are you trying to slow it down? Or both?

AC:  The open spaces are almost entirely intuitive; when someone asked me: How do you do it?  I said the spaces are the breaths that fall and that I (or the poem) need to continue.  Or they are the space needed …  for words or images (or persons) to continue, and be felt.

Thinking about it, more prosaically, over the years it may be like musical notation, which kind of writes itself as far as the spaces go. Still I need the spaces! And I like them very much.

KG:  Does the emptiness you incorporate have a relation to where you live, to the landscape?  If so, can you explain how that works?

AC:  And yes, to me the “empty “prairie is the space most filled with salient energy, uninterrupted by “things.”  Life breathing life.  Its [the prairie’s] beauty or life is sometimes more than I can apprehend. The prairie landscape as seen by Don Hall, and in Tom Schudel’s work,  seem to be the photographic and musical equivalent of my desired writing. When I was a kid, I always thought I’d be a translator at the UN.  Is my work translation of image and sound?

KG:  About the translations into music.  You’ve collaborated a lot with musicians and composers; with composer Tom Schudel, but also various performers and ensembles, since the 1980s.  How do you think of the “musical equivalent” of your poetic voice when translated into sound?  Do you “hear” your own poetry when you write?  Are you voicing the language somehow as the words go on the page?

AC:  If there is an equivalent process, it would be me trying to get down words (a musician would hear sounds) and spaces — to produce the artifact that contains and reveals that which has called to be heard. So to speak!

Yes, I do hear my work as — if not musical — as sound that –if not patterned, is asking for a pattern, satisfactory to my body.  However I think words or images come first and then as I start to write I hear (the poem) asking for something “melodious,” and that needs a shape.  Otherwise it troubles my body. Language is not intellectual for me (though of course that is part of it) but physical. Words hurt our bodies, or delight us, or comfort us, as well as telling us something.

As in visual art (I used to do Leader Post visual art reviews) you know where a piece is working, and where it needs more work, or where it’s overworked.

KG: Tell me about the relationship between the “breath,” the “empty spaces,” and sound?

AC:  Breath, empty spaces and sound:  breath is both “breathing,” as in the spaces between notes, which are required and varied, depending on the intent; and for me also actual space — where the length of spaces, or line breaks, are as much a part of the poem as text.

KG:  About that visual art connection.  You’ve worked at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, as well as being visual art reviewer.  You’re now writing a book about Arthur McKay, one of the Regina Five painters.  You’ve talked about the relevance of the photographs of Don Hall to your poetry.  Tell me about your visual art connection; your background in that, and how it has affected your writing.

AC:  The immediate answer is that I see my work (poem) as an independent artifact, much as a painting exists, made by me, with shape, colour, and sense going into the world without me– though carrying something from within me — which may touch or evoke (something) in a reader.

My visual arts “learning,” took place over the years, particularly at the MacKenzie, but also Glenbow, and since.  While doing communication and programming, I had necessarily to learn specifics quickly in order to programme and write about the art work. I lived (and live) amongst art and artists.

In the 70s, because of my friendship with Arthur [McKay] (one of the Regina Five; he taught at UofR) I was invited and attended graduate level seminars and events regularly, with so many that visited, often Arthur’s colleagues: Molinari, Colville, Warkov; in Calgary, Gautier. The weekends would be all art talk. Younger artists were my peers, Victor Cicansky, Joe Fafard, Donna Kreikle. Our grad students too, Wally May, Don McVeigh, so many others, went on to teach as well as work at their art.  Many became life long friends, with life long talk.

I think all of this means … I likely don’t privilege any one art form. It just happens I (we) have a gift/way of expressing in language and so use that. As I said earlier, my heart is in the visual arts; my home in language … and while I have worked in and with music, and fall back to it, I don’t know it in the same way.

But it all started much earlier. As a kid I had some kind of affinity for shape, spent a lot of time outdoors, loving shapes, and in my head making or structuring stories, and I drew interiors of structures. We had very good teachers in the small prairie town we moved to when I was nine. “Mr.” Dreidger, as well as teaching music, showed tiny slides of important historical art work. We could barely see the pictures , but it seemed important. My dad drew small figures. My daughter made wonderful very large mono-prints as an art student; after years as a curator, and raising kids — now part-time in provincial Archives, she works 2 days a week in her studio; we never miss an opening. Like math, maybe it’s in the family.

The first non-church social structure I remember was a museum. It seemed important.  The MacKenzie was a stop every Sunday with my kids in the 60s, along with the National History museum. The night before I started at the MacKenzie I had a powerful dream of meeting a Mr. Buonarotti. I was shocked to learn later it was Michelangelo’s name.

I love looking at art; my sister and I once stopped in a gallery, turned and both said, isn’t looking at art wonderful. When I had such bad jet lag landing in London, that I was ready to return to Canada, I went down to the National Gallery and sat all day, as my mother would have done in a Cathedral, and I became well.

KG: You seem to be equally comfortable in the visual art world and the literary writing world.  Does the relationship to visual arts make you see poetry more imagistically?

AC:  Actually, I segued into poetry from visual art. I’d written non fiction (CBC) and some inadequate fiction and poetry, but my first real poem was in 1976, in my office at the MacKenzie. I was trying to say something impossible to say, to someone.  I would have painted it if I could have, I wrote it and sent it, and the man, a scholar, said, what a wonderful poem! That summer I attended my first session at Ft. San with my teachers Lorna Crozier (I think she might have still been Lorna Uher) and Eli Mandel.  Next summer was Anne Szumigalski. Then years of writers’ Colonies.

Yes, I try to create in colour what I sense kinesthetically. I don’t so much see it as apprehend it, and then try to write it clear.

KG:  I wanted to ask you about Arthur McKay, since you have taken special notice of him and are writing a book on him.  I noted about his work that he was able to create paintings that appeared both rough and polished at the same time.  This was the case both in his process (roughly applying things he later polished down) and also in the look of the final product.  I was wondering if your writing process is anything similar? Because your poems seem very “polished” but I assume all sorts of unpolished elements have gone into them.

AC:  Yes! As above, the beginning is a real sense of something, very rough. I work hard to bring it alive or clear, for someone (even me) to see.  I belong to what I call the Margaret Atwood school of poetry. I remember long ago hearing her say that she doesn’t sit down to write poetry (neither do I) but that she is ready (and committed to work) when poetry appears or speaks.  And I feel the same.  I don’t know where it will lead, but I begin. Later I do a lot of editing.

KG:  I assume you came from a Catholic background?  You have worked for the Archdiocese of Regina as coordinator of Ecumenism.  You mention that your uncle and godfather  Oswald was a Benedictine monk.  And you regularly attend Saskatchewan Writers Guild writing retreats at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster.  Some of your poems come from that space.  Do you consider yourself a “religious” or a “spiritual” poet and writer?  Can you tell me about the relationship between that part of your life and your writing?

AC: As with all other artists I am subject to expressing — whatever is asking to be expressed — through my experience. I liked the drama, music and art of my upbringing, but likely wasn’t devout enough to “lose” my faith. In retrospect one of the seminal experiences of my life was in Grade One in Saskatoon, with Sister Everesta, a Sister of Sion; each day we began by answering her question — where is the holy spirit today children?  Then she’d run down everything from a rabbit hole, to people in Africa, to a desk, to plants (perhaps she was a closet physicist)  to … well everything. We’d all answer, yes, yes, yes. “God” was, well, God; didn’t bear thinking about, too big; and his “son, well,”he” had all the stories. The “holy” spirit suited me.

My experience remains complete wonder that we are here, and that everything is animated. On the other hand, to carelessly paraphrase Thomas Merton, if I thought I was having a mystical experience I’d take a cold shower. I am not comfortable with preciousness of any kind; as one of my theological friends said … you’re a prairie Buddhist.

While I like being around people from different faith and traditions, who work together for common cause  — social justice, housing, “communion”  (we just brought in a refugee family), I am not comfortable in any one place which privileges itself.

In human culture we make our stories/religions in order to help us live within the world/mystery in which we find ourselves. I like some stories more than others, and some are more helpful in living than others, but I can’t commit to any one at the expense of the others, though our new pope seems to be of a similar bent.

So, no, I don’t consider myself a “spiritual” poet, other than that everything is –spiritual/physical — but as a blurb writer once said, (oh, that would be you) it is not easy for me (Anne) to separate the spiritual and the secular, the sacred and profane.  All is intertwined. I experience living in an animated mystery, and I am often … unsettled.

I would no doubt be more comfortable with a “belief.” But once when I was looking for a spiritual home in a church, I sat back and realized I had one – a home – in the arts: visual art, film, literature, music, for that is where “the holy spirit” voices itself, if not giving answers.

KG: This is a nice place to end our conversation; that art, poetry, is the true spiritual home.


Kristjana Gunnars is a painter and writer, author of several books of poetry, short fiction and anti-fiction. She is Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing and English at the University of Alberta, and now works out of her studio in B.C. Her most recent publication is the poetry chapbook snake charmers (above/ground press, 2016). Her web connection is:

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