This introduction offers one possible context for the interview with the poet Susie Campbell below. This follows the recent publication by Guillemot Press of The Sleeping Place (2023), her second collaboration with the artist and archaeologist Rose Ferraby.
Something of the tenor of Susie Campbell’s activity as a poet is indicated by her work having been included in the Museum of Futures exhibitions of avant-garde Visual Poetry 2017- 2019. Also that she was commissioned to create and perform new work in honour of Tsering Woeser, a Writer at Risk supported by English PEN, for their Modern Literature Festival in 2017. Her time as poet-in-residence for the 2017-18 Mellon-Sawyer series: Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation, led to the publication of Tenter (2020), her first collaboration with Rose Ferraby. She is currently completing a practice-based poetry PhD at Oxford Brookes.
Mary Modeen and I have suggested that deep mapping may be less a cluster of particular methods for producing ‘deep maps’ than a way of indicating a shared impetus to discover more expansive and inclusive forms of practical place-based creative enquiry and action. That’s to say an impulse to exercise a mentalité appropriate to the increasingly demanding psychosocial and environmental concerns we now need to attend to.
Just how that impulse can most productively manifest itself remains an open question, but one to which we need regularly to return.
As this section of the PLaCE International website will suggest, my sense of what is now needed is at odds with the emphasis on digital technology favoured by academics promoting the Digital Humanities. I recognise, however, that that emphasis can produce a work like Sheba Chhachhi’s Water Diviner (2008), one that provides just the type of multi-layered encounter with the simultaneous yet diverse temporalities embedded in place that we now need to engage with. Chhachhi’s site-specific installation for ‘48C: Public. Art. Ecology’, located in the basement of a branch of the Delhi Public Library (itself previously a colonial swimming pool) is well documented in Arc, Silt, Dive: The Works of Sheba Chhachhi (2016), edited by Kumkum Sangari). As Alexander Keefe observes, it evokes:
… a complex way of thinking about the river [the Yamuna, also a goddess] – not just as a hydrological problem to be managed, a pollution issue to be dealt with – and also not just as a goddess to be worshiped by devotees oblivious to the way that industrial and commercial development together conspire to destroy her body – but crucially both, somehow bringing these twinned notions into taboo wedlock (Arc, Silt, Dive p. 341).
To reference Chhachhi’s work in this introduction may seem willfully eccentric. However, one link between the two women is a shared commitment to social activism, not least with regard to gender inequality. The poet Ruth Wiggins, writing about Campbell’s pamphlet Frock Enquiry, characterises her as: ‘an active protester, and a voice for people who have been marginalised, and it is this kind of zeal that she brings to bear in her work’ (See https://mudpath.wordpress.com/tag/susie-campbell/). In that significant respect, and given their willingness to work with carefully calibrated combinations of text and image, the two women have more in common than might at first appear. However, much as I admire the outcome of Chhachhi’s sophisticated and telling use of digital technology, I also believe we need to keep giving serious consideration to the types of alternative approach adopted by Susie Campbell in The Sleeping Place. Why will, I hope, become clear from our exchange below.
Interview with Susie Campbell
Iain Biggs. Before we talk about deep mapping and The Sleeping Place, can you say a little about your background as a poet and, perhaps more particularly, about the role of the visual, the tactile, and the voice in your work?
Susie Campbell. Sure. I've been working as a poet for quite a few years, although previously I wrote more for the theatre. At the heart of my work, there’s a sense of language as a system, a relational system. And so, a lot of the text-based work that I do is around exploring and bringing to the reader’s awareness that relational aspect of language in how we make meaning. But of course, language is also material. Writing has a wonderful visual materiality, particularly when you write in pencil, ink, paint. It is less obviously material when you use a screen or type, but of course even
computer chips use minerals and rare-earth metals. But perhaps the most obvious way in which language is material is its association with the voice and all the parts of the body that are involved in making spoken and performed language. Visual and sound poetry are therefore crucial to my language-based practice.
I am also very interested in the potential tactility of language. I've been drawn to create material objects, garments and textiles that engage with language in such a way that the haptic is activated. For me, visual, sound and textile poetry come together as a way of emphasizing powerful aspects of language which can so easily can be ignored.
IB. How did you come across deep mapping? And why does it relates to your working processes as a poet?
SC. That's a really interesting question, because I think I was working with deep mapping a long time before I'd even heard the term.
Right from an early stage in my practice, I've been very interested in staging self and place as processual. I've always been drawn to open forms which have a sense of being unfinished or have a quality of multivocality. I am particularly interested in using prose poetry because it's a hybrid form. It lends itself to the open-endedness and plurality that has always been an important part of my own poetic. And so before I was familiar with deep mapping, I was already exploring Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about heteroglossia and dialogism, and of course, the work of Deleuze and Guattari on nomadism and rhizomic structures. And so Tenter, my first publication with Guillemot Press, written quite a long time before I'd heard about deep mapping, was informed by my own thinking and reading. But I've subsequently come to realize how much even Tenter resonates with what I have come to understand as deep mapping.
If I could say a bit more about this, Tenter came out of a real concern about what I see as a complete dysfunctionality in this country around the refugee crisis. I believe there’s a serious ethical and moral breakdown in the ability of the UK to understand its own implication in that crisis. Politically and economically, we are involved in many of the global conflicts which have resulted in the displacement of people, and yet there seems to be a complete disconnect between that reality and the political reaction to asylum seekers. This disconnect exists within a problematic relationship to the past. In Tenter, I really wanted to grapple with this by suggesting an unacknowledged wound in the national narrative surrounding the Battle of Hastings. The fear of invasion and the sense of threat from the other side of the channel seems to be very present in the national psyche from that battle onwards. And of course, it comes up again and again, through war after war: the fear of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and Hitler invading from across the channel, all deepening this terror. It’s a wound that is never acknowledged in all the rhetoric about Britain ‘going it alone’ and other such dangerous nationalist myths. And it then manifests in this appalling demonization of the very people who are victims of wars that we’re resourcing with weapons and trade deals.
So Tenter was a real attempt to stage some of that textually. I took as my template the Bayeux Tapestry, the great embroidery which presents a victor's account of the Battle of Hastings. But I was more interested in the work of the women embroiderers who made it and the freedom they had in the borders of the tapestry to subvert this official narrative. Even the materiality of the fabric that they were working with tells a very different story. Through time, the tapestry has been worn and frayed, it's been patched and repaired. This mended fabric becomes almost a living history, made and constantly remade. It’s a great image of memory and ‘the past’ as embodied and sensory, as well as being a process of reinvention and repair. And of course, the damage to the body of that tapestry also seems to me to speak of the kind of damage that I was trying to engage with through my text.
There’s one particular piece in Tenter which uses full stops as though they were needle holes tearing through the page. It tries to tease out how a piece of cloth staged in text might speak of a deep damage to the national psyche. When I came across deep mapping it really resonated with what I had been trying to do here. What I found so resonant is its emphasis on place as a network of relationships that exist in space, and through time. That really connects with my own sense of place. And with my interest in multiple voices, particularly those voices who have not been heard. In Tenter, these are the voices of the women who made the tapestry, the voices of the refugees, the voices of the foot soldiers, whose experience of conflict is very different from their leaders and so on. All of these unheard voices are as much part of what makes a place as all the other narratives. This is what I pull together in Tenter, not in a finished narrative, but as an assemblage with lots of loose ends to fray out. And of course, it’s an assemblage that includes Rose Ferraby’s artwork as another vital element or ‘voice’ running through it.
So just to conclude, I would say that I came to deep mapping out of a practice that was already anticipating many of its concerns. It was only two or three years ago that I really encountered deep mapping thought, primarily through the writings of Les Roberts, Mary Modeen and of course, yourself! What it helped me to do was to validate some of what I was exploring tentatively, and also to inspire and stimulate me to continue the work. I love the sense that deep mapping does not exist as a finished field, it's very much an ongoing debate, an open discussion about what deep mapping can be and should be. It felt very conducive as an environment for my next project, The Sleeping Place, which I undertook with a more conscious awareness of deep mapping as a cluster of concepts, conversations and processes.
IB. You're by no means alone in having developed a process that you later come to relate to deep mapping. That's how I came to it. You mentioned working with the artist and archaeologist Rose Ferraby. What's the value to you, as a poet, of that collaboration?
SC. Well, I think there’s several really important aspects to it. First of all is Rose’s practice itself. I'm inspired by Rose because she’s an archaeologist who believes that art has an important role within the archaeological record.
Although she doesn't, to my knowledge, explicitly use the language of deep mapping, her sense of archaeology is one that resonates with it. Her collage work, in particular, speaks directly to deep mapping in the way it brings together disparate elements but allows them to maintain the ir distinctiveness within a creative space. There is also her printmaking which is a palpably material process. For Tenter, she used rough bits of fabric and textile to make her prints and, even on the page, they retain a sense of this physicality. Many of Tenter ‘s readers have commented on how tactile it feels. And the marks of her work are still very apparent on the page. So that practice is already very inspiring to me.
Rose is also deeply reflective and willing to take part in conversations which have helped me develop my practice. An early conversation with Rose helped to shape the form and poetics of The Sleeping Place. And then there is the importance of having her artwork as an additional element of the book itself. I see both Tenter and The Sleeping Place as having plural authorship. There's my text, there's Rose’s artwork, and then there's all the design and the work done by the team at Guillemot Press. For me, the poetry is not just the text, the poetry is the whole book. And maybe beyond … but perhaps we'll talk about that later!
What I find so wonderful is that Rose’s artwork is responsive to my text but it’s also separate. It’s not just illustration of my words, it’s Rose’s own, independent response to the concerns of the text. And so this creates a space between artwork and text, offering different ways into and through the book for a reader to explore.
I think the final thing that I find very humbling, and very beautiful working with Rose is the humanity in her work. I find something very compassionate and emotional about her work, perhaps because of its tactility or perhaps because of the way that her respect for human mark-making is so present in the work. I find Rose’s work brings a warmth to what could otherwise be a rather cold, theoretical aspect of my work. She brings out the affect in my work. And perhaps my text helps to bring out the deep theoretical underpinning of her work. So working with Rose has been an enormous privilege and I think it has allowed us to create together something which is different from what we create individually.
IB. That's interesting, that balancing of aspects of collaborative work, which I hadn’t thought through. I was fascinated by the archaeological site diagrams and the other visual material that's included in your account of The Sleeping Place on
the Guillemot Press website. In a way, this is a cheeky question, but I did wonder why you didn't include any of that material in the book itself, since it's so evocative.
SC. I'm so glad you've asked that question because I'm dying to explain! I had originally intended to include that material in the book itself. At the back of The Sleeping Place there’s a timeline which shows how important the archaeological site plans were as a kind of template for the text of The Sleeping Place (much as the Bayeux Tapestry was for Tenter). And so I had intended to include examples of these plans for readers to explore. But practically there was a problem. We couldn't get scans that were of print quality. That was the issue at its most basic. I tried. They're huge, these site plans, they're massive! I tried using various scan apps on my phone, and then I worked with museum staff using a much better scanner, but we still couldn’t capture the whole thing.
But I think something positive came out of this. Once I realized I couldn't get print-quality images, I decided I would create some accompanying material. Initially, I thought I would set up a little mini website to accompany the book but then decided to use my own writer’s blog to host all the additional material as I felt there was already the beginnings of a conversation taking place there. And there has been some really fantastic engagement as people have read the blog material alongside the book. Subsequently, Guillemot Press invited me to create an expanded version of these posts for their website to make it easy for people to locate the additional material that goes with the book.
So this links back to what I said earlier about The Sleeping Place being much more than just my text. I suggested it was the whole book. And now I’m saying it is more than the book! The Sleeping Place is not a finished or complete project. It is best read alongside this extra material which sits outside of the book and may continue to develop. Also, in performance, there is a great opportunity for subsequent re-makings of the text through interactions with the audience. Already I have a sense that Tenter is different from the book published in 2020. It has grown and developed through all the different performances, conversations and readers’ responses. I really hope something similar happens with The Sleeping Place. And so, I have come to see the initial obstacle around publishing the archaeological material as a creative opportunity, one that rather resonates with deep mapping and its interest in unfinished forms which can continue to develop and change.
IB. Yes, I was just thinking Clifford Lucas would love that use of the digital. We could call it an open archive, since you've used it to include that material. I think that's really fascinating.
As we both know, The Sleeping Place was sparked by you discovering that your childhood home and garden was built over a Saxon burial ground. Childhood memories, the nature of chalk and flint, and the fact that the site’s a mix of pagan and Christian burials of peoples from different tribes, all combined to give you a sense of the complexity and multi-layered nature of the place. You also saw all this as contradicting the nationalist myth of ‘pure’, ‘white’, Anglo-Saxon origins. Your linking of poetics, archaeology and questions of cultural identity seem to me to parallel Mike Pearson’s and Michael Shanks’ concerns in Theatre / Archaeology and, less directly, with their performance work with Brith Gof. Do you feel any affinity with their work?
SC. I would say deeply so, particularly their sense of what archaeology can be. Funnily enough, although I had worked with Rose on Tenter, I didn’t consciously engage with archaeology until this latest project: The Sleeping Place. But as soon as I started to grapple with the idea of archaeology, I was looking for an approach towards it that would resonate with my own practice. And you very kindly pointed me towards Theatre / Archaeology. The aspect of the book that really spoke to me, was the idea that archaeologists are not digging up a pre-existing past. Rather, they are creating the past in the present as a response to the traces and fragments of what's left behind. This opened up for me a view of archaeology as a kind of a creative construct in the present. This resonated powerfully with my project to stage place as a network of textual processes, and to invite the reader to assemble a version of the past in a creative act of engagement. And my attempt through the book to deconstruct the violent nationalist myth of a white Anglo Saxon ‘originary’ of course also resonates strongly with their outlook and ethos.
Perhaps one of the most valuable of Shanks and Pearson’s creative ‘provocations’ for my own work is their emphasis on the importance of disruptive energies. They talk beautifully about how they see the emergence of new meaning as depending on the perception of instability, and of being able to retain energies of interruption and disruption. And that has become a very important part of my own aesthetic. Some of what I'm trying to do in The Sleeping Place is to allow that disruption to appear on the page. And this links to something else that I love about their work, that they make space for the mysterious and the ineffable. I don’t mean in a conventional religious sense, but in the sense that when we come to encountering place, or the past, or even our own subjectivity, there are mysteries more than we can articulate and understand. Finding ways to document or allow space for that mystery is one of the things poetry can do. And so that really spoke to me.
So just to tease all this out a little bit more, let me refer back to the composition of The Sleeping Place. I wanted to find ways of staging in my text the wonderful mixture of pagan and Christian and multi-tribal burial sites that made up the Saxon burial ground excavated near my family home. I needed a template that would allow me to engage with all this complexity. A complexity that included some of my own personal history as well as its problematic connection with dangerous forms of nationalist, cultural identity. And what became so helpful was the way the archaeological teams documented their excavations of this site back in the 1920s. Their way of keeping a record was just to keep adding onto to the initial document each time they found something new. The site plan becomes a multiple palimpsest full of things added in different colours or crossed out – it is almost a physical rendering of a burial site in process. I wanted to find a way of using this document to stage my own text.
The site plan documents 223 burials. So I created 223 numbered pieces of text. I made those pieces of text out of my own intuitive response to being in the place - walking, feeling, picking up bits of chalk and debris. Once I’d created those 223 pieces of text, I used the site plan to establish a structure and an order. The archaeologists numbered the burials in the order that they were found and I so organised my text accordingly. I then used sound patterning to shape relationships and connections between these randomly joined pieces of text. This process is represented within the text itself by a running motif of the glass beads that were found dotted around the burials but then were later restrung by museum staff. As the beads keep changing order throughout the text, so it becomes apparent that the same words are being restrung into different word-strings. This whole process responds to ideas that I found in Shanks and Pearson about creating multiple assemblages in response to traces of the past. My book invites the reader to connect the sounds and find the patterns, to make their own sense of what is on the page and thus to construct their own version of place and its histories. I think this is quite a profound response to Shanks and Pearson.
The final way that I think their book was so influential on me was to do with an ethical matter. Having created most of my text, I then began to feel a kind of an ethical unease. Because even though these Saxon skeletons are very old, they are still human remains. And so questions started to emerge for me such as: ‘how old do remains have to be before we stop treating them as human and start treating them like museum exhibits’? And once I asked that question, it began to seem quite arbitrary that if bones are one hundred years old we bury them with suitable ceremony, but if they're one thousand years old, we don't. And having myself stripped these bones and burials of their humanity by treating them as numbers, I felt an ethical need to respond to that in some way.
Shanks and Pearson talk about some much older Neolithic burial practices, much older than the practices I was interested in. They explore how it seems to have been the case that there was an element of deliberate dismantling of human skeletons at the point of burial. Perhaps to guard the dead body from mutilation or theft by enemies. But one of the things that also seems to have happened was a reassembling of a representative individual who might stand for a whole family, or a clan, or might represent certain valued qualities. Who knows? There's so much here that we don't know. But that made me think, well, I've disassembled individual burials in a way and so perhaps now I could make something to act as a virtual human. So I found seven pieces of chalk that looked like bone and I created a little virtual skeleton out of them. I used this little creature in a series of poetic rituals which then found their way into my text as a series of numbers, 1 to 7, laid out on the page as a stylized skeleton. And so there is an unresolved and deliberately destabilizing tension in my text between processes which strip away humanity and those which attempt to restore or repair it.
This also resonates with an ongoing concern in my work with an aesthetic of damage and of visible repair, a repair which still acknowledges the harm done. In The Sleeping Place, layers of damage are exposed – the damage done by a reductive and totalizing ‘history’ and the damage of an unethical lack of regard for other bodies, whether they are other humans or other species or the ‘body’ of our environment. The strings of beads that weave through the text have an additional function as an ironic acknowledgement of what it means to treat the ‘other’ so reductively (as beads that can be moved around on a string), and so in recent live performances, I have started to give out glass beads to the audience – 223 glass beads, one for each burial, as a little act of memorial. It was in Shanks and Pearson’s book that I found a commitment to making space for the ethical and the emotional as well as the theoretical.
IB. As you’ve said, the visual aspect of The Sleeping Place is very important, but the poem is also something you perform; an event materialized by your voice as the poet. Speaking personally, hearing you perform elements of the poem at the book launch and reading it on the page are substantially different kinds of experience. Do you recognise that difference and is it important to you?
SC. Yes I do recognize that difference. Perhaps I could start by saying a bit more about the whole aspect of performance. Earlier, I suggested that my poem should be seen as the whole book – not just my text but also the artwork, the book design and production – and beyond the book, to include its accompanying digital material. And ‘the poem’ also spreads out into my performance of the work. And then ultimately, it spreads into all the different readings that the readers and the audience will make as a result of their engagement or indeed resistance! But where that is most apparent is in live performance. The audience can very explicitly be drawn into the whole creative enterprise of making meaning through elements of physical engagement with the book.
So performance is part of that ongoing building of meanings in a kind of a widening circle. But crucially, of course, performance is an embodied activity. And this brings me back to your question about the difference that comes with reading the text aloud.
I have already spoken about my interest in staging place in the text as a series of linguistic processes. But crucially this is a text that draws attention to the material and embodied qualities of its language and asks that the reader engage not just intellectually but also emotionally and physically. This speaks to the idea that knowledge and any kind of understanding of place isn't just an intellectual pursuit but is also a sensory, embodied experience. I hope that the book design and Rose’s artwork draw attention to the visual qualities of the written text but it is of course through reading aloud that the materiality of the language becomes most apparent through its connection with my voice and my breath. Reading the poem aloud is a way of re-embodying language and returning it to its relationship with the physical world.
This goes to the heart of my practice as a language-based poet. Forgive me if I get a little bit theoretical for a moment! For those of us who are privileged to be highly literate readers of written language, it is only too easy to take for granted some of the ways in which language is structured as a discourse. For me, conventional grammar and familiar syntactical organization are deeply implicated in the ways in which we conceptualise and represent the world – and in how we conceive of ourselves in relation to that world. I am particularly interested in the part of grammar that deals with deixis, that is, all the parts of language that help us to orientate ourselves within a piece of writing. Deictics are ‘pointing’ parts of speech that enable us to establish the spatial and temporal coordinates of a text, conventionally in relation to subjects and objects predicated by the writing. It is through deixis that we can make sense of a text that describes a ‘here’ or a ’there’, a ‘now’ or a ‘then,’ by understanding that they are embedded within the discourse itself. Without going too far off the track into linguistics, I will just mention that this is a grammar that developed in written English with the emergence of prose as a dominant discourse across medieval Europe. This is part of a general social shift towards documentation and written evidence, and a decline of the previous reliance on oral sources of evidence. But of course, if it is deixis that helps us establish ‘here, there, now, and then ‘, it then plays a crucial part in place-making.
What I am trying to do is to subvert this more abstract deixis by returning it to the body. So in my text, the reader is offered patterns of sound as a way of orientating themselves in the text. When I read the text aloud, the repetitions and sonic patterning become much more important than semantic meanings. Place is staged in my poem not just as a set of pre-existing subjects and objects but though assemblages of new possible relationships with and in a world that comes into being through the voice and through the body. This patterning is also evident on the page but I feel there can be an overwhelming urge to read almost exclusively for semantic meaning when we open a book. When I read aloud, I can use my own voice to emphasize that the important relationships are not just the semantic relationships, but also the sonic relationships. And perhaps this also starts to subvert the assumption that place is coordinated around the human subject and begins to open up other possibilities for how it might be experienced. That seems to me a very important political and artistic activity.
IB. That's really interesting. I did wonder at one point whether what I had in my hands was like sheet music in relation to a performance of a symphony, for the sake of argument.
SC. Yes, in a way, the book is the piece’s notation. I love notation. John Cage’s work exists as a beautiful poetry of notation as well as music and sound. I would be very happy with this analogy - but that’s probably another conversation!
IB. Okay. Final question. And it's a bit long, but I think you'll get the point. As you know, I've got reservations about what I see as an overemphasis on the digital in deep mapping, particularly by academics promoting the digital humanities. ‘My sense is that in a culture increasingly in thrall to the digital, we need a new and seemingly paradoxical creative mentality, one that's expansive and inclusive. Its approach to the issues around psychic damage and repair, which you address in the DEFASURES project, needs to retain both a sense of the immediate human touch and of the multiplicity of times and places that haunt and inform the cultural resonances of that sense of that touch. Am I reading too many of my own preoccupations into your work here, or do you share in some sense of this need to counterbalance our culture’s growing digitalization and all that it implies?
SC. No, I don't think you are reading in too many of your own preoccupations. I think you are responding to a shared concern in my work as well. I think a lot of what I've already said about the danger of certain constitutive aspects of language being overlooked is also true of the digital. For example, the digital can easily disguise its prioritization of certain kinds of data and its neglect of other sources of information. Having said that, I don't want to create a binary opposition. I’ve used digital technology myself and I'm very interested in those artists who are in dialogue with it and who are trying to find ways of incorporating sensory data into it. But I do have reservations about an over-reliance on digital technology.
Because we haven't got a huge amount of time, I'm going to try to pin this down to a couple of things. I mentioned earlier that I really like the space between Rose’s artwork and my own text. I don’t want a completely homogenous book where the artwork and text are completely unified. I’m interested in something more bumpy and more complicated in the interrelationship between them. I have already talked about how I think this creates a space for multiple interpretations. The digital is often praised for the fluidity with which it can bring together different media. Great. But I also think that this is sometimes the opposite of what I want to do. I don't want to bring things together in a fluid way. I want to bring things together in a more problematic way, where the ‘seams’ are obvious. That’s where I find the potential for disruptive energies I talked about earlier. The digital can be dangerously ‘seamless’ as can certain kinds of writing. If you unpick grammar, you find all sorts of seams and interfaces that we've got so literate in joining, we don’t notice them. We no longer see the ‘architecture’ or the scaffolding! And I think that's true of the digital as well. As I have already said, I'm very interested in how we can heal, how we can repair, but in such a way that the scars are still visible. And so the very fluidity and facility of the digital can be a danger. I am more drawn to the kind of media that has a very evident, tangible materiality. For me, that tends to be paper-based, or fabric based. There's something about fabric, particularly fabric used as a garment, that has a kinship with the human body. I find that when I’ve worked with repairing a damaged garment it has an emotional power and an intensity even beyond my writing. Textiles are involved with the body more directly I suppose. This is why I find the digital is not enough on its own. Beyond the digital, I want the materiality of the book. And beyond the book, I want the embodiment of reading aloud, performance and textiles. So yes to the digital but not on its own, because that would be losing the materiality and texture and the emotional intensity that I think bring about change.
IB. Thank you. That's a great place to end.