Tunbridge Wells poet, Louisa Campbell, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prizes for Best Single Poem 2022, for what she describes as a ‘humorous-yet-meaningful poem’, entitled Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100.
“If you haven’t heard of the Forward Prizes, it’s like Crufts, but for poems,” explains Louisa with a wry smile.
“It feels surreal to have my poem shortlisted as one of the most exciting five poems published in the British Isles this year,” she adds.
Louisa says that she came to poetry late in life so the accolade of being shortlisted for her work is all the sweeter.
“At 53, having lived through several traumas, and been both mental health nurse and patient, I had so much I wanted to tell the world. I discovered poetry can evoke experiences that would otherwise be difficult to put into words, and I had a lot of complicated experiences I wanted to explain.”
‘Having a poem like ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’ shortlisted for the Forwards is a validation of a poet’s desire to fling off inhibitions and abandon themselves to silliness!’
Six years ago, bedridden with the autoimmune disorder, Lupus, Louisa found herself really enjoying writing in bed ‘with a Bic biro and hardback notebook’.
“With nothing to lose, I tried the Open University creative writing course, and found that not only did I love every second of it, I was getting good marks!
“Over the course we had to learn about different forms in poetry, but for me that was pointless. Why on earth would anyone want to restrict themselves to writing something like a sestina? Then I discovered ‘found rhythm’ and I was hooked! One of my first poems began, ‘I know it’s ridiculous | to think my dead husband is living inside my dog | but he is’ and I instantly knew it was the start of a poem because of its repeating rhythm – its music – in my head, it had an enjoyable swing to it.
Louisa had her first poetry collection The Happy Bus published in 2017 and then The Ward, was released in 2018. Last year her most recent work, entitled Beautiful Nowhere, was published and this work is the one that features the poem Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100 that’s been shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prizes.
“Poetry can create fantastical worlds. In my new poetry collection, Beautiful Nowhere, love runs away, pulling the sky down behind it as it leaves; patients become their paperwork and fly away. Poetry can evoke experiences such as depression and psychosis, as well as friendship, love and recovery. In this way poetry explains in a multi-layered way that a medical textbook could never compete with.”
Louisa goes on to say that her job as a mental health nurse-therapist, saw her work with the dynamic subconscious – something which she believes poetry does also.
“My poems tend to fall out of my subconscious mind straight onto the page, and I don’t know what I’m writing about until the poem is written. There’s a poem in Beautiful Nowhere about living with bipolar that I wrote before I knew I had it!”
Although, as Louise explains, there is plenty of joy and light in Beautiful Nowhere, it predominantly covers serious issues of trauma and mental illness.
“Having it published somehow meant I could give myself permission to mess about and play. I think as adults we badly need to play more; to laugh and be silly. Having a poem like ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’, with its ludicrously-long title, and use of only the words ‘human’ and ‘dog’, shortlisted for the Forwards is a validation of a poet’s desire to fling off inhibitions and abandon themselves to silliness! Sometimes I find the term ‘word art’ more useful than the word ‘poetry’, and I’m truly excited that this year’s Forward Prize judges clearly get that concept and embrace it.
‘My poems tend to fall out of my subconscious mind straight onto the page, and I don’t know what I’m writing about until the poem is written’
“Of course, the other thing about ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’ is that – as with everything I write – the poem is steeped in meaning if the reader wants it to be. It can be about isolation, about difference, or about inclusivity and acceptance. It can be about other ways of seeing – in this case, a dog’s perspective.
“The title can be a dig at the rule to employ specificity in our writing, or a validation of that rule – it’s up to the reader. But what I’d like above all is for its readers to have that most delicious experience of connectedness – a good giggle.”
Louisa explains how the inspiration for the poem came to her: “Years ago, I took my Staffordshire bull terrier, Biggles, to the vet on the bus, and he sat on my coat on the seat next to me. I pictured us from the outside the bus, with a row of human heads interrupted by a dog’s. Looking out of the bus window, I saw people were pointing and smiling.
“Many years later, I was mucking about in the ‘April Poem a Day’ Facebook group (facilitated by the Devon poet, Simon Williams), and I’d recently been raising money to bring Romanian street dogs over to the UK for rehoming.
“I remembered Biggles on the bus, and thought how fab it would be if the dogs could simply hop on a plane with the humans, and the poem was born.”
It was the poet, Bethan Rees, who told Louisa how much she loved it, but it was only when Louisa came across Perverse – which she believes is ‘one of the most liberating poetry publications in the world’ – that she thought seriously about submitting it for publication.
“I was incredibly excited when the poem was accepted, never mind published, and then really happy that it had lots of likes and retweets on Twitter, so other people must have enjoyed it, too!”
We now have to wait until November 28 to find out whether Louisa’s poem ‘Dog on a British Airways Airbus 319 – 100’ is the winner of this year’s prize, which will be announced at the Forward Prizes ceremony in Manchester. In Louisa’s category other poets include Nick Laird, Clare Pollard, Cecilia Knapp and Carl Phillips. The overall winner will receive a prize of £1,000.
Beautiful Nowhere published by Boatwhistle Books and priced £9.50 is available from all good bookshops.