Niall Campbell

An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett

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Niall Campbell is a Scottish poet originally from South Uist. Niall received an Eric Gregory Award and a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship in 2011. His debut pamphlet, The Creel Fleet was published by Happenstance in 2012. In 2013 Niall won the Poetry London Competition, and an Arvon-Jerwood Mentorship. In 2014 Moontide, his first full collection [https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/moontide-149] received the Saltire First Book of the Year Prize. Moontide was also shortlisted for The Forward Prize, The Aldeburgh Prizes (for Best First Collection) and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize.

Selections from Moontide with some new poems was published in the United States in 2016 as part of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Niall’s second collection, Noctuary has just been published by Bloodaxe and was recently shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection [https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/noctuary-1207, April 2019, http://www.forwardartsfoundation.org/2019-forward-prizes/]. Niall now lives in Leeds.

Maria Isakova Bennett: Niall, we first met in Liverpool in 2014 around the time of the launch of your first collection. Since then Moontide has been a frequent companion. I love the quiet music and persistent presence of the sea I sense in almost all of the poems. They’re poems that deserve re-reading many times and I’ve used lines to successfully inspire many of my classes over the past three or four years. I wonder if you could tell us a little about how the collection came about?

Niall Campbell: I was introduced as part of a recent reading as an ‘unashamedly lyric writer’ – as though I was someone who had tied their colours to the mast in quite a particular manner. But it wasn’t something I was conscious of, certainly not when writing Moontide. I have a few friendships in poetry – but my day to day life has never been immersed in it. Moontide was mainly written while I worked in a bar, and now Noctuary has been split between being a stay-at-home father and latterly being a debt advisor for a charity. All of which is to say that the aesthetic choice of how I wrote never really struck me because I’ve always felt withdrawn from an environment where that is a question that must be navigated. Moontide was written in a five year span of relative successes and failures – where I was just trying to figure out what poetry I needed to write, what principles in writing were important. Music, rhythm – these things I like – I like the creation of a poem that has a sense of solidity and beauty.

MIB: So, in terms of, ‘relative successes and failures’, were you writing other poetry / in other forms over that five year period, but decided not to include this writing in Moontide?

NC: For both books there were a number of poems that I had (finished or half written) that I didn’t include. And both books are probably better for any omissions – usually it is just a case of the poems not working, no weight to them or electricity in the line, though there is sometimes the odd occasion of the poems being fine but maybe not fitting the collected whole and being dropped for that reason. I don’t like the poetry collections that are like pick’n’mix bags – I like to see how things connect, how a writer sustains and complicates a thought over the term of the book’s creation.

MIB: I was delighted to realise that you came from Lochboisdale, as, although I’ve only visited once (when we helped a couple move to the island - I mean ‘move’ in the sense of taking all of their belongings in a truck from Liverpool to Lochboisdale!), it’s a place that’s remained in my memory since. I’d love to visit again. Could you talk a little about the influence of the island (and the way of life there), on your writing and how it feels to live now in what I see as the middle of this much larger island.

NC: I returned home with my wife and son just recently – and returning this time I remembered how special a place it is. I think I had forgotten. It’s the pace of life – the volume of life, maybe. You can walk the causeway from the island of Eriskay to South Uist, a thirty minute walk – and when we walked it, we barely had two or three cars pass us. The rest of the time it was wave-fall and the ‘song’ of the seabirds – so quiet. The place definitely instilled in me my distaste for noise.

MIB: Can you tell us something about your schooling there?

NC: I was 100% not a writer, nor had any ideas of following that route. I went to university with the vague idea of being a history teacher when older. And looking back I am pleased enough it was this way – as too often we are fed the line about writers being aware of it from a young age – ‘I wrote my first novel aged five, etc’. This is fine. But what freedom and removal of pressure to think that you can stumble across something as an adult, a young adult in my case – and become passionate about it, and feel that connection so deeply you very quickly feel that you want to commit your life to it.

MIB: For me your second collection was much awaited and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I jumped at the chance to review it and although space was limited in the review*, I hope I communicated my sense of your collection as a moving hymn to, of, and for fatherhood. I love the way you reveal, without any hint of melodrama, the struggles as well as the joy. Can you talk a little about your experience writing the collection, and about any history of writing out of the new birth of a child which you might have felt drawn to or could highlight for other readers / writers.

* http://www.mariaisakova.com/recognition/review-of-noctuary-by-niall-campbell

NC: Ah thanks – that’s kind of you. I remember judging a poetry prize the other year and a main gripe being that there was too much suffering – as though this is the ‘mode’ of poetry – but no, I’m a believer that things are good, and this book I wanted to be a hymn of ‘things are good’ even if hard or trying or overwhelming. Things are good.

I was lucky enough to be off with my son for just past his first two years, and even now I have been able to timetable work around his care and needs. I’ll not pretend it did my writing time any favours – right until the fortnight before printing Neil Astley at Bloodaxe was checking ‘now are you sure there’s nothing else we can add?’ – and there wasn’t. It’s taken the full five years to get this second book done – but it’s here now, my small book of love.

As for other writers – of course: Kathleen Jamie, Rebecca Goss, Liz Berry, Don Paterson’s poems to his children. It’s a rich ground.

MIB: I love that belief, ‘that things are good’. Do you think the tension between this belief and experience of suffering can be a place for writing? I’ve certainly found that tension to be a place to start writing. Writing from that can feel like a quest which is often fruitful, even if much is edited away. Thanks so much for mention of these writers. I wonder, on a related theme: can you talk a little about poets from the past who have been important to you in terms of influence generally for you as a poet, and how this might reveal itself in your writing.

NC: A philosophical stance is often most interesting in a setting when it is apparently at odds. Look at things now politically – and even in my own job: I have worked for a number of years in a debt charity and have come into contact on a daily basis with the fall-outs of assaults, rapes, child abuse, domestic violence and homelessness – So where does poetry fit in this world? I think poetry very often now is about giving voice to these experiences – and this is positive – but also positive is poetry as an antidote to this suffering, a moment that acknowledges it but commits to saying ‘and yet…’ I read the character Kirilov from Dostoevsky’s The Devils (or The Possessed, depending on translation) as someone with which I have a deep affinity. ‘All is well’ he says, and he says it truly – despite it being a hard and sometimes contradictory thing to say. Looking over what I have said I wonder how it will be taken! The thought was given to the disturbed character in the Dostoevsky novel – but this is how I see it too. For me, to write is to acknowledge myself as being part of a troubled time, but still to be committed to the ‘and yet’.  

MIB: That’s a great reference to Dostoevsky, I admire his work myself too. Artists I have loved and love aren't unaware of poverty, war and suffering, but they choose the option you point toward. I think of your writing largely as examples of beautifully crafted, short, atmospheric, moving, lyrical poems, but it’s always a delight to read your longer poems too and to appreciate how you carry the music through these. I wonder if you could talk a little about any differences in your approach to longer poems.

NC: My main worry when writing anything longer is whether the lyric momentum is there. Does it flow, first line to last, across the page or pages. If you’ll allow me a rather strange memory:  growing up on Uist we would spend weekend afternoons in the summer creating a series of dams along the course of a particular stream that ran into the sea. It was a small stream so we could almost get to the point where we could stop it – the idea being that when ready we would break one side of each dam (let’s say the left) then on the next dam further down you would break down the right side (and so on, alternating). This way the stream would weave left to right rather than evenly. Ach, it passed the time… but the image of it is something I think of when thinking how a poem sustains – does it last? Is it being guided right? Often reading longer poems I marvel at the belief in the poet writing them – I always am wondering if what I’m saying is anywhere near important enough to warrant the reader going along so far with them – a question I’m beginning to pose with my own answer here too!

But yes, my concerns with longer poems are always does it lead, is it guiding the reader and encouraging them on – poor reader, is it worth the long trek.

MIB: Given the beautifully slow way you gather poems for your collections, I wonder if you have any advice for writers who are just starting to complete poems and sending out work?

NC: Ha, a question for The Forward Prize recently asked me to give advice too – and then as now I’d say that maybe you are coming to the wrong person for such things. Advice? Only to be patient with yourself.

MIB: Thank you so much for taking time to respond. I know people will love to read your thoughts. I wonder what’s next for you in terms of writing?

NC: I’ll be trying something different. I’ll be spending the next three years writing an opera with the composer Anna Appleby. Part of the idea behind the project is Auden’s opera The Rake’s Progress written with Stravinsky – and what he, as a poet, brought to the writing of a libretto. It’s not begun just yet but already I’m finding it interesting thinking how the two modes (poetry and libretto) negotiate their music and argumentative intent differently. It’ll be an interesting few years.

Samples of Niall’s recent poems can be found at Wild Court:

http://wildcourt.co.uk/new-work/two-poems-niall-campbell/

A short essay in which Niall discusses one of his poems can be found in Prac Lit:

http://www.praccrit.com/essays/a-new-father-thinks-about-those-running-home-essay-by-niall-campbell/