Rasmus Meldgaard Harboe interviews the poet, Kimberly Campanello.
The oak box is heavy. The poor librarian has carried it out from the depth of the archives and placed it in front of me, here in London Poetry Library’s study area. I’m opening the lid and looking down at a stack of 796 sheets of semi-transparent vellum paper. On the sheets are printed small explosions and intense streams of sentences, words and, not least, names. Because of the transparent paper, I’m able to sense the next three-or-so sheets as I start picking up the sheets and reading the visual poems, one by one.
Each sheet represents one of 796 dead infants and children. All of them died at a mother and baby home in Tuam, Ireland, between the years 1926 and 1961. The home was run by nuns from the Catholic organisation Bon Secours on behalf of the Irish state. It was the local historian Catherine Corless who found the many children’s names when in 2013 she discovered a register listing their deaths, tangible evidence of the children’s existence. According to the register, the children died of illness or malnutrition. The oldest was nine years old.
Following Catherine Corless’ discovery and massive media attention, the Irish government established a commission in 2014. After six years of investigation, the committee was unsuccessful in finding any register of burials of the dead children, but excavations were carried out on the grounds where the mother and baby home had been. In 2019, authorities confirmed that there were remains of dead children discovered in a discontinued underground sewage tank.
While the case was initially circulating in the media, the poet Kimberly Campanello sent an email to Catherine Corless. Campanello explained that she wanted to create a work anchored in the story about the Tuam children. That work is MOTHERBABYHOME, and that’s what’s standing in front of me at London Poetry Library.
RMH: Those 796 names of dead children must have felt like a very tangible thing, there’s so much identity in a name. What was it like to get your hands on that register?
KC: I think I felt similarly to how Catherine Corless and the people in the village feel about those names. The survivors are still reading out those names, and there’s a lot of community and public art that uses the reading of names as a gesture because it’s so powerful, as you say. You know, it’s all we have in a certain way, our names or the names of others. That was why I had them on each page and knew I had to proceed with the full work, a page for each name. I took all the causes of death away from each name. It felt important to me to not associate those names with their cause of death and instead I list those all together in one poem. Most of them were probably entirely avoidable or treatable or were induced by the conditions in the homes. I didn’t want to erase them, but I wanted them to be located differently so the names could ring out on each page. Working this way with poetry allows you to think about the location and placement of language, to judge the position of language.
RMH: Where did the initial idea for MOTHERBABYHOME come from?
KC: I had already tried using found text to what I thought was a strong effect. I wasn’t inflicting my own outrage and point of view on that text, but through using that language, manipulating that language that already existed, I think those feelings are there. It’s not the poet saying, “oh this really terrible bad thing has happened, I’m gonna tell you about it and all the ways in which it’s bad”. Which for me just feels inadequate a lot of the time. I had an idea about the visuality of the poems. The kind of shattered found language that I was messing around with using the found text and then printing it out on tracing paper. I thought that what I needed to do was make 796 visual poems. If I was going to deal with this subject, I needed to deal with it fully. I needed to put my own poetic aims aside, which is a very different artistic move than most poets make when they’re writing about something political. Because otherwise, I wouldn’t really have any business doing it, you know?
RMH: Aside from meeting Catherine Corless and getting your hands on her files, how did you approach the work?
KC: I set up Google Alerts on my Gmail with the words TUAM, MOTHER and BABY. It’s a kind of digital humanities at work. I had all this source material coming into my inbox, and that’s how I found the things that I used as my source material, which was everything from blog posts that are really politically horrible to the news articles to records to survivor groups.
RMH: Talk to me about the practicalities of creating these visual poems. Are you InDesign savvy, or do you swear to scissors and a glue stick?
KC: No, I just use Microsoft Word.
KC: Yes! It’s really dumb of me.
RMH: Sounds like a nightmare.
KC: I’m not a visual artist, I have no training and no tech. I’ve had people saying to me, particularly other visual poets or people who are in the art world, that I should really just get InDesign. But if I do that, it’s almost like cheating because the challenge of Word offers creative possibilities.
RMH: All these poems are printed on transparent vellum paper. Was it ever going to be just on ordinary paper?
KC: No, definitely not. One of the poems, one of the very early poems that becomes iconic throughout, that image just kind of came to me as a sort of visual impression. Then it was like, how do I make that work? I was playing with doing that with little pieces of paper, which is how [the American poet] Susan Howe works with overwriting. A lot of the poets that I really love do those things. The placement of language and the material is just as important as what’s being said. It’s no surprise, right? You just have to go to The British Library’s manuscript exhibition to see historically how that’s just a thing.
RMH: I love that exhibition.
KC: Yeah, I love how the presentation of text just changes everything. So, the vellum idea—it’s not actual vellum, but it’s called vellum—I think it will last longer. They say that our books today will not last very long, the paper is cheap and will degrade. That’s why the MOTHERBABYHOME box is oak, and why the vellum is high-quality paper.
RMH: Which brings me to my next question, what was the idea with the box?
KC: On the one hand, the box is a coffin. The children weren’t buried in coffins, even though there were advertisements for coffins put out to tender, and the nuns had money to buy coffins, but apparently, they didn’t buy them. They were using state funds and not using them for what it was for. So, in contrast, the box was made with a sense of care. But the concept is also that the poems are on A4 because it’s bureaucratic. It’s my alternative report to that which was being produced by the commission. My report is a report on their report because all their interim reports are in there, and all the reactions to the interim report are in there. It’s a report on all the reports. It is, I hope, a subversion of that report which was profoundly rejected by survivors and human rights experts.
RMH: You say that there was only one way that you could create this huge body of work. Have you ever had second thoughts about how it turned out?
KC: I haven’t had concerns about it since finishing it but while I was doing it, obviously I did. During the process, it was important to me to confirm with the people who were affected that this made sense. I have since had a few human rights experts and survivors contact me saying that this is the real report. It’s not because of anything I did, it’s because of what they had already done, which is reflected in the work and which I’m just presenting, which is what I’m trying to do by making poetry from a kind of ritualised bureaucracy.
RMH: It’s bureaucratic in many ways, isn’t it? Just imagine those mother and baby homes and the power that those nuns would have wielded. The nuns had all the money and power, and then there were the mothers and the babies. That echoes the social divide.
KC: Absolutely. The nuns, the church, religious orders, both Catholic and Protestant, ran a lot of things on behalf of the Irish state and were renumerated for it. And of course, we have the same situation today with private and state providers of support for refugees and asylum seekers or children in care, for example, that are using money but not protecting people’s rights and in fact are treating vulnerable people terribly. Part of why I proceeded with this was that I don’t think this is Irish exceptionalism. Yes, it’s a very specific thing that happened there and it was specific conditions that lead to it. Social, political, ideological, religious. However, the overall shape of it and many of the specifics are similar in other contexts and persist.