Still No Word: An Interview with Shannon Webb-Campbell – Lindsay Shane
Still No Word is an orienting device, a map. Shannon Webb-Campbell ventures into the play of forces that give intensity, coloration and form to human existence, all the while setting out the practices we often employ to navigate the unknown twists and turns that come with the unfolding of life.
The book invites the reader to inhabit the emotional fabric of a flesh-and-blood self that is dealing with its context, a self that is trying to establish its identity and make life’s constantly shifting temperament both endurable and workable. It is a sensitive and vulnerable journey that traces trajectories of discomfort and hope and all the movements in between.
The book also shares possible liberating actions that the self may take to move toward or away from the intimacy life asks us to have in relation to our many selves, to others, and the spaces we inhabit. In one moment it can be so very tragic, resolutions reek with hopelessness. In another moment it is shot through with humour and simplicity. In yet another it points to the importance of love, forgiveness, wonder and the courage to stand outside of ourselves. Whether or not the navigational practices employed to care for the self are restorative or destructive is left up to the reader to decide.
Webb-Campbell’s insights inform, maybe even soothe, us. She blesses us with erudition, a type of knowing that is not invented, but forged in the crucible of complex and intimate explorations with the art of living.
Shannon is a friend of mine who I met close to two years ago while visiting Halifax. It was a late August afternoon. I was reading Joseph Boyden’s (2001) Three Day Road , sitting out on a shared stoop, waiting for someone. Shannon and I got to talking.
This interview was conducted in person during a visit back to Halifax in March 2015 prior to the book launch, and was subsequently expanded upon through a written exchange in April 2015.
Lindsay Shane: I was struck by the title of your book. How did you come to it?
Shannon Webb-Campbell: Still No Word is a line from a tiny poem, “A Healer’s Lune.” Given that a lune is only three lines long, each word must pack a punch. The poem, recently made into a song by East Coast Music Award winner Kim Harris, is simple: seek wounded healer, cry out to unseen ancestors, still no word. To hear the poem lifted on the wings of Kim’s voice is truly something else – a whole new poem.
LS: Why this line in particular?
SWC: As the title, Still No Word is meant to capture the call and silent response of the collection, its echo, as well as how the words themselves cannot settle.
LS: Any influences with regards to your writing?
SWC: All poets are in conversation with one another. Some of us whisper, others roar. Time and time again I find myself returning to the work of Sue Goyette, Anne Carson, Pablo Neruda, Sue Sinclair, Amber Dawn, Susan Musgrave, Mary Oliver, and Shalan Joudry. Each offers a sense of home, kinship, or a soft place to land.
LS: What about places?
SWC: I’m a place poet, meaning I write from a geographical space, whether it’s a personal perspective or a particular landscape. Many of these poems are rooted in Newfoundland, my ancestral homeland, a place wild and otherworldly, as well as in Nova Scotia, where I currently live.
The ocean and the East Coast are central to my work and sense of self. I think it’s unavoidable. Anyone who lives here knows the ocean is all encompassing. It calls the shots. The ocean dictates how we live everyday. On nice days we love it. On the rough days we threaten to leave. There is an endurance that is required. Poetry has been a lifeboat helping me stay afloat, storm after storm.
LS: What impulses move you to write poetry?
SWC: Life moves me to write poetry, especially the undercurrent of our emotional wells and our railings against the wildness of existence. I’m a seeker, impulsively curious. For me, writing poetry is an act of witness, of paying tribute, an offering of the self.
LS: Would you consider poetry – the writing and the reading – to be a practice of self-formation?
SWC: Yes. We are always in a state of self-forming. I believe that poetry, both the reading and writing of it, is an exercise of the self on various selves. We are all poems, forming and reforming.
I also feel poetry is a form of embodiment. Poetry helps me feel at home in my body. Poetry holds my queerness, my desire and my Indigenousness. It’s a place where I feel seen and can see out from.
LS: What do you do to collect yourself in order to coalesce your efforts into a poem?
SWC: I find myself hearing words, sometimes lines, mostly when I’m walking or doing the dishes. Poems are everywhere. As a poet you must remain open and flirt with the words and then take them on a date. The first draft stages are mostly all handwritten.
LS: Telling stories is one of the oldest forms of passing on knowledge and evoking imagination. What kinds of knowledge do you feel like you are passing along to your readers? What do you hope to activate in their imaginations?
SWC: I hope readers find a sense of elsewhere and rootedness. I am interested in duality. We poets are tricksters. If I can engage readers to spend time with a single line, a stanza, or perhaps even a whole poem, then my work here is done. We are all connected. Perhaps readers will find a broader vision around their own experience. Perhaps they will pay closer attention to themselves or notice there are bits of magic and sadness in everything we do.
LS: When I say evoke, I realize I also am thinking about the word “teach” or “facilitate”. Are there things you are trying to teach or facilitate within your readers through your writing?
SWC: For me poetry has always been a place to be held and I hope to offer that to my readers. Also, our traumas, fears, insecurities, longings, and love are universal. Poetry binds and reminds us we are not alone.
LS: What did the process of writing these poems and putting them together into Still No Word unlock or uncover in you?
SWC: In writing several of the poems in Still No Word I had to let my small animal self free. Instead of judging or stopping myself, I surrendered to the work. I gave in to the poems and let them become their own entities. Many took a direction unknown to me. I had to learn to let the lines steer the poem, to trust the words. There is nowhere to hide, no place to lie. I believe poetry is the ultimate non-fiction and an incubator of the self and an excavator of hidden selves.
In general, the writing and compiling of Still No Word was a process of regrowth and letting go, of shedding skins and collecting new layers, a means of finding an unknown horizon line. At times it was rather difficult – all the sitting, solitude and second-guessing. And the phase of revision, returning to the poems again and again, was particularly challenging when I noticed that I would rather be dancing, cooking or swimming. Anything else, really. I also discovered that if I stray too far from poetry I lose my sense of self and place in the world.
LS: Can you be more specific about what needed to (re)grow, what you needed to shed or found yourself collecting? For instance, on the cusp of your book launch you wrote a piece for Atlantic Books Today titled “On Losing Your Voice and Finding your Freedom”. In it you speak about how exposed you felt, “like you’ve taken off your skin and are showing your organs to the world,” as well as feeling “ransacked” after all of the years you’ve spent “protecting the most shameful parts” of yourself. Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly (2012), says this about shame: “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists – it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak it, we basically cut if off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to whither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroys it” (p. 58). It sounds to me like the process of writing Still No Word provided a vehicle for identifying and finding your way out of shame, or, at the least, a way of cultivating more shame resilience. Can you speak to this?
SWC: The process of writing Still No Word was navigating the murky waters of shame around exposing the self, trauma and truth. Brené Brown’s work on shame urged me to write “On Losing Your Voice and Finding Your Freedom.” The time between the book coming out and sending it off to the printers was most vulnerable. Now that the book is out there in the world I feel less attached to the words; they are no longer personal, the poems belong to the reader. A former editor reminded me: you are not your book. Your book is your book.
LS: Are there any particular poems where you are like, “yup, here’s my shame, all naked and exposed”?
SWC: At first I felt deep shame around all of the poems. Everything I wrote caused me a deep-rooted shame, a leftover of trauma, feelings of being unlovable, unworthy. Every word I wrote made me want to die. Through time, distance, and therapy, I started to heal the shame-soaked parts and, in turn, felt less volatile.
One of the poems I still struggle with is “Mal’ta Venus.” I toyed with the tenses hundreds of times. I shifted the speaker from “I” to “you” over and over. It’s a rape poem that has taken several forms – a novel outline, an essay, and most currently a piece of narrative non-fiction in This Place A Stranger: Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2015). It’s a relief to no longer have the trauma locked inside my body, eating me alive. I doubt I’ll ever read it aloud.
LS: What do you think it is in humans that makes us want to leave our life-as-it-is when it gets uncomfortable? I ask this because rarely do the characters in your book – be they human, plant or animal – seem comfortable with where they are at.
SWC: The flight-or-fight response is a natural physiological reaction to harm, whether real or imagined. The characters in my book – the humans, plants and animals – have their own means of experiencing, defending, and absorbing trauma. The desire to leave our lives, to separate, withdraw, or abandon, is a means of survival. Poetry isn’t necessarily meant to make us feel comfortable or at peace.
LS: Were there any specific threads you wound up following?
SWC: One of the major threads I grapple with is a sense of belonging – whether it’s being tied to a place, a person, a lineage, or a landscape. Questions of identity, grief, sexuality, and ancestry are central to Still No Word. Threads of love, loss, and longing are constant themes in my work. The poems became refuge.
LS: Whales appear on a number of occasions. What is your relationship to these whales or to whales in general?
SWC: Whales are mystical creatures. Their size alone enchants. Blue whales are the largest animals in existence. Much like the ocean, they are complete mysteries. Whales are part of the creation myth and certainly have inspired many minds. Every time I am gifted with the sight of a whale, a rare and remarkable experience, I am reminded of my insignificance. Whales are sacred creatures. I’m not particularly religious, but I do feel a sense of holiness towards the sea. Ocean-worship is what I call it. Whales are God-like figures, both powerful and omnipresent. Kind of like poems.
LS: You mention that your ancestry is central to your work. I noticed that you dedicated this book to your grandmother, Amelia Beattie, and your great-grandmother, Mary Webb. How have they influenced your life and this work in particular? What did they teach you about navigating life? What words of wisdom have you heard from them that resonate the most with you?
SWC: I wasn’t born before my great-grandmother Mary Webb died. She was a central figure in Flat Bay, a rural Mi’kmaq community on the west coast of Newfoundland, where my father’s from. In a way, some of these poems felt like a prayer to her. She was a healer, bootlegger, hunter and trapper – a midwife to hundreds in the area. All healers are wounded healers. Part of the dedication was to honour her legacy.
My grandmother, Amelia Beattie, is my heart, and in turn, one of my greatest love stories. She died while I was in the process of writing Still No Word. The poems became a way to remain close to her. My Nan had a silent knowing, an understanding of people, places and never judged, yet she wasn’t a sentimental woman. She thought I had too many feelings and liked to cry often. Nan taught me to: arrive and do what needs to be done; spend time in nature; do your laundry with pride; steep your tea; always love by listening; and keep moving through it.
LS: Keep moving through it? How?
SWC: We have to explore and live and find vital lines of travel that go through and beyond what we think we know. And we have to understand that, from the outset, we are going to lose everything we love and that no feeling is ever really final. This is the journey.
Shannon Webb-Campbell is an award-winning poet, writer, and journalist of mixed Aboriginal ancestry. She is the inaugural winner of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award and was the Canadian Women in Literary Arts 2014 critic-in-residence. Still No Word (Breakwater Books, 2015) is her first collection of poems. She previously published several creative non-fiction pieces, letters, poems and fiction in anthologies, including: This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2015), Where The Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets (Goose Lane, 2015), Out Proud: Stories of Courage, Pride, and Social Justice (Breakwater Books, 2014), MESS: The Hospital Anthology (Tightrope Books, 2014), She’s Shameless: Women Write About Growing Up, Rocking Out and Fighting Back (Tightrope Books, 2009) and GULCH: An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose (Tightrope Books, 2009).
Webb-Campbell holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from The University of British Columbia, and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Journalism Studies from Dalhousie University. She lives in Halifax.
Lindsay Shane is an impressionable kinaesthetic junkie with an affinity for strolls (the more secluded the better), the color blue and words that move. When Shane is not exploring an Aikido-based mixed martial art at ungodly hours, she is either studying or practicing a form of manual and movement therapy that reawakens, realigns, and re-educates the human body called Rolf Structural Integration. She lives in Toronto.