Poet Kate Camp back in residence

"With poetry ... every time is as likely to be a disaster as a success, even after decades."
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ
"With poetry ... every time is as likely to be a disaster as a success, even after decades."

In double-quick time in 2011, poet Kate Camp got married, won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry and set off for Berlin to take up Creative New Zealand's prestigious Berlin Writers' Residency. She'd travelled before but never lived overseas or even away from Wellington, except for a stint in Hamilton.

For a person who talks a mile a minute but can take weeks to pen a poem, the run-up to the residency and its reality were intense exercises, and hard. That was all good. Camp likes hard. Once she heard she had got the residency, she focused on learning German, which she had cast aside as a schoolgirl at Onslow College as a moderately irksome means to an end. Now the Goethe-Institut offered a teacher and she concentrated hard for an hour three times a week.

Once she got to Berlin, to her apartment in a gentrified area of what had been East Berlin, one of her first concerns was to find a German teacher.

"Learning German is so hard, so difficult. Yet I really enjoyed that struggle and just the thing of living in another country. I did private lessons four days a week, quite intense. It was nine months before I could go out with friends to a pub and have a conversation, but it was one of the highlights of the whole experience, learning another language. I'm still learning back here. I think for anyone, especially a poet, learning a language is fantastic, to think about language in a different way. It confronts your brain in a productive way."

With her new skill she encountered "small defeats and small victories, like calling a taxi. It could be the highlight of the day. Having a plumber in to fix the toilet and doing it in German was quite challenging, really, and satisfying if it works out."

Settling down to writing took a while. Camp's apartment was in a modern block, four or five storeys high and built around a courtyard "with loads of natural light, and bikes in the central courtyard, and lots of trees, massive greenery in the summer with horse chestnuts with their amazing flowers. It's such a different kind of intense city living. People don't have gardens. They live in the parks. The kids run through, swimming in the fountains, things in New Zealand you would do in your back yard."

She found Berliners avoided catching each other's eyes in the street. "They don't talk to each other and there's not a rush of traffic. Berlin is a very mellow city. You see people riding a bike, talking on a cellphone with a dog on a lead."

Graffiti, she noted, was everywhere, "not just in rough neighbourhoods but all over. Their tolerance of it is probably a relic of the graffiti on the Berlin wall, the west side that is".

The 40-year-old author of five collections of poetry has always had a day job, currently in public affairs at Pharmac. In Wellington she limited her writing to one day a week. In Germany, she had five days a week in which to write. It took 2 1/2 long weeks before she wrote her first poem, and then she completed three in four days. She called them Everything Is a Clock, To Myself and A Living Example and they are included in the book she completed in Berlin, Snow White's Coffin.

"I would write for an hour but 80 per cent of the time was banging my head against a brick wall. But no matter how futile, long experience tells me to stick at it, don't wait for the day you feel inspired. For me it's keeping faith. It was 2 1/2 weeks, an hour a day, before the first poem. It was 'thank God this isn't going to be a complete exercise in frustration after all'.

"That's why I love my day job. You arrive, you're competent, you know what to do. With poetry you've no idea. Every time is as likely to be a disaster as a success, even after decades.

"You do have more faith that you've felt like that before. It's a challenge. It was clear to me in Berlin that I was there to work and that was sacrosanct."

Camp was joined for part of her residency by Paul Mulrooney, whom she had married a fortnight before she left.

She joined a choir that practised at a karaoke bar, and became friends with and worked with poet Karla Reimert who wanted to translate Camp's 2011 poetry award-winner, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, into German. Meeting Reimert was "a serendipitous thing".

"She'd said out of the blue 'I'd like to meet a poet from New Zealand'. She is an intellectually curious person and we got on straight away. The book is dedicated to her."

German poets, says Camp, "struggle like we do here". Working on the translation with Reimert every Thursday night was a learning experience, not just because there are four ways in German to say "an hour later".

"When you write a poem you don't necessarily understand yourself, it's not necessary to dredge it up. It's sealed in a glass capsule, you don't need to open it. If you do a translation, you do need to do that. I found it intellectually and emotionally an exhilarating experience."

Reimert, she says, was doing the translation for what in New Zealand would be called "fun", without seeing publication as the aim. "There, there's much more of an intellectual life as an end in itself. In Europe there's a different sense of artistic pursuit for its own sake."

Camp's trips out of Germany took her to Paris, Warsaw, Florence, Rome, Malta, St Petersburg and Ypres. Sometimes, she says, she felt as if Europe was a big war cemetery for New Zealanders. And, yes, she thought "all the time" about Germany's war history. "I'm a war nerd."

Interest in the Holocaust seemed sometimes prurient. "At other times, knowing the history and going to the memorials, how can you think about anything else, thinking about a terrible thing almost in our lifetimes?

"I admire the way they deal with public spaces and memorials and thinking spaces, huge ones down to tiny details like the Stolpersteine, the stumbling blocks."

She believes the approach to memorials shows "the intelligence and ingenuity the Germans so value".

Having lived in Berlin, she feels slightly defensive, since colonial history generally has elements of violence and genocide. Germany has a new generation and "another whole measure of history" since the Holocaust.

Camp came back with a different perspective on creative life. She has always fitted poetry around her day job. After a year in a city "where intellectual and creative life is valued for its own sake, like a life well-lived, not to any end of fame and fortune, I think I love my working life, but it's not what I love the most.

"What I love the most is this other work."

■ Snow White's Coffin by Kate Camp, Victoria University Press, $25.

■ Kate Camp will read from her new book and discuss her time in Berlin at City Gallery at 6pm on Thursday.

The Dominion Post