Having her take the time to sit down with me was a big honor. Camille T. Dungy authored the poetry collections What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006) and Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010), edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009), and co-edited From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great (Persea, 2009). Dungy has received fellowships from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the American Antiquarian Society and Bread Loaf. She is associate professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.
When did you begin writing? And is that separate from when you decided to pursue a career of writing and teaching poetry?
Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life. So I couldn’t tell you when I began. I made a conscious decision during college that I was going to become an English Major with a Creative Writing focus. And then I made a conscious decision at one point to do an MFA instead of a Ph.D., so there were several times along the way when I made decisions about focusing more deeply on it, but the writing has been there all along. It’s just the decisions and opportunities to make it professional that keep confronting me. ...
That’s always the hardest question for me, because I read every day, and I often read things that are unremarkable to me or unmemorable, and there are some that are incredibly memorable but I wouldn’t call the people who wrote them necessarily my poetic influences, it’s just that one poem that hits me, right? So that’s a really hard question for me because it’s like-- having just gone to the Conservatory of Flowers-- saying, what’s your favorite flower? I can probably pick out some of the flashy flowers, or the ones that were really remarkable, but in a way, the landscape and greenery is what makes that Conservatory what it is. All of those things, some of which flower at different times, come out. I could name names for you, and yet it’s a little bit disingenuous.
Can you speak a little bit to how your race and gender, and other aspects that you feel define you, shape you as a poet?
Yes, I can also send you to a link that you should check out. The Poetry Society of America had a series asking people what’s American about American poetry. They asked me, and one of the questions that they ask is, is there an American poetry, does race and gender play in, and I very articulately answered the question there, so you can link to that. (Find that here) Again, kind of like the answer to your question about who my favorite people are, it’s who I am. So everything I do is informed by it, it informs everything about how people react to me, because I’m a woman, because I’m black, because I’m of a particular professional status, because now I’m a mother, all of those things mean that people relate to me differently and I relate to people differently. So again, I could say there was one time in the third grade when, and that’s true, but that’s only a bump in the fabric, and the fabric is really more interesting to me.
I’ve had discussions about how here’s a belief that black poets should maybe try to make their race invisible, to create work that can be regarded simply as good poetry, not pegged specifically as “black” poetry. There’s also the belief that this is impossible to do, that we cannot and should not disregard what makes us unique as black writers. So I’m curious about where you fall? Would you rather your books be kept in the general poetry section of the bookstore, or in the African-American section, to identify them with your race?
I don’t have any say over that, so I don’t spend much time worrying about it.
And in terms of categories, black poetry versus…?
You know, I’d rather write my poems. Who picks them up, and how… God bless ‘em, I can’t control that. I want to write my poems and sometimes facts of race or gender or now motherhood, or whatever, sometimes those come out really aggressively. And sometimes they’re not there at all, you wouldn’t know it. Sometimes you might think I’m something entirely different than what I am. What I want to be able to do is to write, so what’s important to me is that we make sure that the barriers that keep people from writing, that keep people from education, that keep people from reading, that those are dismantled, and then what people do, some people are going to be really nationalistic, and some people are going to be pan-nationalistic, what they do on the page, that’s up to them. And how they read it, that’s up to me. That’s what is more important to me. It’s why I’m excited to be teaching at San Francisco State, because it is a school that is so broad in its reach, and the mission of the school is making sure to get people who have not normally had access to higher education have access. That’s what’s exciting, what happens there. I can’t do anything about what Barnes and Noble does with my book, so it’s not really worth my energy to fret over it that much. I don’t worry about genre stuff, is this poem more essayistic, is this essay more poemistic, you know, that’s somebody else’s concern, and it’s stuff that really bothers some people. I just need to write.
Probably. (laughs) I’ve now written three books, and each of the processes were very different. With Suck on the Marrow, the one from your question now, it was clear to me that I was writing in a period that was not my own. So I was writing on 19th century, I was writing based on research, not on personal experience. Though it’s amazing how much personal experience shows up even when you’re writing outside of your own skin. So when I’m writing these poems, I’m kind of conscious of how accurate I am to 19th century life, how many of the details am I giving that are realistic to the time that I’m trying to portray? How can I identify human characteristics that are overlooked when we start to stereotype and typecast and look at the sort of surface visions that we have of enslaved 19th century human beings? What aspects of their personalities can I bring forward that you might not otherwise think about? So, as that happens, certain characters started to become more exciting to work with, and I would go back to the drafts of those characters more and more and more. Molly, for instance, and the way that she chooses who she’s going to love. Her agency in that love affair with Shad became really interesting to me, so I kept going back to those poems, and I kept writing her more and then Shad comes forward, because we have to have the foil, and the other person that she’s loving, the opposite side. So I had to write more of Shad, to see how he was responding. So they feed each other, because I’m interested in how to formulate that character and that person in the world in which they live. My first and my third book happened more in the sense that I wrote a lot of poems that started to work around each other. So the poems themselves started to fit together. And in my first book What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, I eventually realized that the fourteen-line poem, most of which are about ten syllables per line, that that was going to be another driving factor, so as I was writing those poems, if they didn’t fit into that form, they went into the save-for-later pile. Each time you’re creating a book, whether it’s a novel in verse, as my second book is, or not, there start to be obsessions, interests that will come back again and again, and as you start to enjoy and be interested in and challenged by writing into that particular container, that’s how a series starts to build.
Inkblot is about writing and social change, and the main connection I wanted to make to social change is through your anthology Black Nature. So it’s called Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and it’s the first anthology of its kind, yes?
Yes. Amazing, right?
That is amazing. Can you speak a little about how black voices have been excluded from conversations about nature poetry?
Yes, well I guess one of the things is, just listen to how you foregrounded this interview, you know, how does your race affect you, tell me where you grew up, about what your gender is, sort of insinuating questions of what your politics are. I mean, I popped in the Conservatory of Flowers conversation, but there was not a question of, what do you enjoy doing? Where do you take long walks? And I think when you ask a certain kind of poet, a poet that you’re going to peg as a nature poet, you look at those interviews, people are like, where do you live? “I live in a house with a big field behind me, and I like to go walking every day” – talk to me about those walks… that’s a whole different question. Here we are in this loud coffee shop on Valencia Street in the Mission. There’s no reason that you would think to ask me about my relationship with the natural world, right? Because there are so many other handles for us that don’t have to do with that relationship, those get first mention, and we’re never going to get to the next question. So that’s one easy answer, another easy answer is that African Americans have a complicated history with the natural world, and that complicated relationship problematizes the constructs that we have: the legacy of romanticism, the constructs we have of nature as a place that you go to for solitude and solace and reflection. When nature was the place you went to to work and be worked, you might have a little different response to it. When nature is the place where your great grandfather got hung, you might have a different relationship with it. So that, too, complicates our relationship with the natural world and the poetry that we write about it. So it’s not as pretty. And the Western tradition tells us that nature poetry is supposed to be kind of pretty. So ours doesn’t show up.
That was my next question, if you want to add anything to it, about how this anthology challenges what we consider to be nature poetry?
Well, it challenges it in all kinds of ways; those are a couple of them. The question about dominion and who has ownership over what gets foregrounded quite frequently in this work, earlier than it does in the Western poetic tradition. There are some things that we’re starting to talk about in more mainstream nature poetics. Things that we call ecopoetics, where it’s really ecologically-, environmentally-consciousness work. So some of these things that I’m talking about are starting to show up, but it was showing up in African American writing for a long time. There just wasn’t a name for it yet
How does this anthology challenge ideas about what black people can and should write about?
Its existence does that. It’s a really broad-ranging anthology, so it follows this continuum from poems that address kinds of connection, to poems that address real, strong conscious or unconscious disaffection and disconnect from nature, and then it returns to a really consciously understood reconnection or attempt at reconnection to the natural world. So there’s this really big range of possibilities of how black people relate to the natural world. So I don’t know, I’m hoping that one thing that this book does is prove that there’s no one black experience. Which, again, makes that answer hard. That’s the problem with progressive thought, that’s why it’s hard to be a progressive politician. There’s no one answer. People were mad at John Kerry because he could never just sort of give a quick sound-bite; you can’t give a quick sound-bite when things are complicated. So I’ll try to give you quick sound-bites, but it’s hard to do. (laughs)
That’s all right. Can you tell me how some of the poets responded to being included in an anthology of nature poems? Any surprise about being called a nature poet?
Yes! I can do that in a quick sound-bite. It was really fun. When I was calling some of the elders, who have been overlooked in this category, several of them told me, “Thank you for seeing my work in this way. I always thought of myself in this way. Thank you for seeing it.” Other writers said, “I never thought of myself in this context,” and they would go on to have books and books and books where deer show up in every third poem or something like that, but it’s so much part of the landscape out of which they’re writing that they’re not thinking of themselves as nature poets, they’re just writing what they see. So we think of these as love poems, or some other kinds of things, you know, like, we’ll look at someone as a sort of great gay male poet, and ignore the fact that there is a deer in every other poem in his fourth book, you know? So it was fun, and it was very often either one extreme or the other, thank you very much for seeing me as people haven’t been seeing me, or wow, I hadn’t thought of thinking of myself in that way. Both of them were very rewarding.
You know what? I did a survey of the book to try to justify its inclusion in a California poetry book prize. Twenty-five percent of the poems in there are about California, written by a poet from California, or written by a poet who had lived in California for some time. Twenty-five percent of the book, which is a lot for a book not labeled a California book. And that just shows editorial bias, because I’m from California, so I knew these poets, I relate to the work, I understood the landscape listed in it. So I think that’s just a lot of my presence in that process. So yes, for Westerners, it really reflects us. It’s twenty-five percent, so all of the other regions are in there too. There is the South, the Northeast, et cetera, but there’s a lot of California in there.
That’s great. Like we discussed about the early part of this interview, on my blog I talk about social change, and I talk about race, gender and sexuality. I admit I haven’t touched much on environmental issues at all, in spite of the fact that much of my creative work includes nature, even while addressing other issues. Do you believe that the environment should be included in conversations about justice, and if so why should black writers or activists in particular be concerned with ecology?
Yes. There are several reasons. One is a global reason and one is a local reason. The global reason is that the majority of the population of this world are people of color, and the majority of populations who are people of color live in spaces that are compromised right now because of environmental degradation. They live in low coastal zones, where rising water tables are going spell big trouble, they live in areas that are prone to desertification, stripping of rainforests, and so on. If we as people of color aren’t globally conscious of environmental degradation, we are wreaking havoc on lots of brown people. So that’s one reason. And what’s a really good way to get people conscious of that? Writing. Then on a more local level, it’s a question of personal freedom, like if I as a black woman am able to learn to feel comfortable walking by myself in the woods, I have opened a space to myself of connection and reflection and exercise that was previously closed to me. Why not take that opportunity to write about it in a way that makes it attractive to other people?
Do you recall a time when you shifted from just appreciating nature, to being more conscious of environmental issues?
Yes, and I talk about that in the introduction to Black Nature. It was probably when I moved to Virginia. The intersection of history and landscape came so in my face, it was unavoidable. So I started paying attention to it differently, it wasn’t just some pretty thing out there anymore for me, it was something that really scared me sometimes, so I had to investigate why. Why was someplace where I always felt comfortable all of a sudden so unnerving? I have an essay that’s going to be out in a second edition of a really great book you should check out, called The Colors of Nature, which is a collection of essays by writers of color talking about the relationship with the natural world. It will be out from Milkweed Editions in February. My essay talks about fires. When I moved to Virginia, people would invite me to bonfires all the time. And I’d be like, yeah, no thanks, that’s freaky. Because, you know, they were usually white people, and they would just burn stuff in the woods, and I was like, yeah there’s a history there I can’t involve myself with. Then I went to Maine and people were burning stuff in the woods, and the history wasn’t there anymore. I’m not in Virginia anymore, so why am I still terrified? Half of these people aren’t even from this country, what am I so worried about? Then I realized, I’m from California. And you don’t just burn stuff outside. So my historical response of the history of my mother’s and grandparents’ lives converged with this really visceral reaction to brush fires and the California hills burning up. I had to leave both of those places of my history, my personal history, my family history, to understand that oh, they actually are really tied together. What I’m worried about is this whole hill and everything on it, me included, burning up. So it was when I lived in Virginia and I had to really face those questions down that I started thinking about it as a social issue.
You say in the introduction that the first section of the anthology, Cycle One titled “Just Looking,” “establishes a framework through which we encounter African American poets recognizing the beauty and potential of open spaces.” As a poet, can you speak a little about how the written word can shift our perspectives and establish entirely new frameworks through which to see what we tend to take for granted, like nature?
The written word is a kind of articulation, right? It’s a way of saying the unsaid. What is it that Audre Lorde says? She says it beautifully…poetry gives us the power to say what’s unsaid so it can be thought… That’s not it, sorry, I’ve got mommy brain. The weird thing about having a baby is it takes your memory. My recall is gone. So [poetry] gives you this – like, here I am, sort of flailing a little bit, but I can’t quite describe it, can’t quite say to you right off the top of my tongue what it is. But if I’m able to go and reflect on what it is that I saw and write it and record it and revise it and get it right and send it to you in writing, clearly and with all of the senses involved, which is what writing does, I have therefore articulated something that I can’t think right now and is not clear to me entirely. Give me two hours at my desk and I could. And that’s one of the things that poetry allows me. And it allows an opportunity for conversation with you, so that we can talk about it in the comfort of this coffee house. You can glimpse inside of my mind, inside my experience, inside my synthesis of that experience into a much more fluid articulation of reality than most of us are really able to achieve as we’re just moving through our daily lives. It kind of slows everything down and heightens it for us. It records things so that we can see things that we’ll never get to or that we might want to get to that we didn’t know. Many of the places in the world I want to visit, I want to visit because of things that I’ve read, ways that people have of describing and transcribing the landscapes that they see.
Note: Here is the quote, from Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury” (from Sister Outsider): “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
This anthology is now being taught in classes at universities. What do you think is the significance of these poems being taught in academic settings?
Super exciting for me, because it means that it will help to change the erasure or absence of these writers from the conversation, so it just broadens the possibilities of who can write about what, and that’s what I love to do. I love the opportunity to help expand our voices. (to her daughter who cooed at that moment) Yes, so when you become a structural engineer, a very well-read structural engineer… (laughs)
You’ve just explained one of the reasons I think writing about this is important, because here you are reading this, a young writer, and you say, “Oh! That’s it, that’s my story,” and you don’t say what people fear you might say, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s my story, so I don’t need to write it anymore,” you say, “That’s my story, I could write that.” Right? That’s why we write, because somebody says that’s my experience, I exist, I’m confirmed, I have a power I did not realize I had. And that’s one of the really great things about writing, is it becomes a mirror for people, but not a static mirror at all. More like the way that a pond mirrors you, but the pond is doing its own really lively thing, and there you are, sort of in that. But you walk away and it’s gone and also not gone. And for me, the disappearance of that landscape makes me mad. And I write essays when I’m mad, when I have something that’s frustrating to me that I’m sad about, I write it. I could just talk about it, I could just complain about it at a cocktail party I guess, but then it just feels like wasted air, it’s just gone, it doesn’t do anything for anybody. The writing does something for me in that I get it out and it did something for you, too.
Another personal note, since this interview is about my personal blog, so I’m going to make this all about me again. I’ve got a tattoo here that says “And the grasses will still be / singing,” which are the last two lines from Audre Lorde’s poem “Prologue.” Very soon I’ll be getting another, it’s the very end of Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
That’s a lot of text on your body!
(laughs) Tattoos aside, these lines have obviously meant something to me for a long time, and with words about nature, these lines and others like them now have a whole new meaning for me, in light of their connection to nature, and that’s thanks to this anthology, so I wanted to thank you for that.
And I could have put so many Audre Lorde poems in this book.
But I want to pause for a second. Because Audre Lorde is a really great example of the mixture between these concepts of social justice and feminism and racial consciousness and sexuality consciousness, and nature. The nature poems that she writes are very deeply seated in these ideas – “The Bees,” in the book, right? Where the girls say something like, “we could have learned honey-making,” after the boys and the teachers destroy a hive, all of her poems are about the close connection between destruction and creation and how we really need to be aware of the fact that what we’re going down is a destructive path, and that that closes off all kinds of possibilities to us. So she’s really a great poet to look to for thinking of how she really very organically mixes in the language of the natural world. And she’s, in a lot of ways, an urban writer. But she very fluidly mixes this natural vocabulary into her work to talk about social justice.
As anthologies like Black Nature are created and read, and more people hear more voices – there are a lot of voices in here that people haven’t heard at all before, as they get into our conversations about poetry and literature, what are your hopes for how it’ll shift our future understanding of poetry and our connection to it?
Well, I hope that when I start opening up other future anthologies of nature poetry, the numbers aren’t as bleak as they were when I was doing the lit review for this book. I mean, where I would read two anthologies, and it was finally on the third that I would see a writer of color listed in the table of contents, and it was always the same writers of color, and often the same poems. I hope that people start to not say what they tend to say, which is “I couldn’t find anyone out there, so I didn’t include them.” Now there are at least a hundred poets out there. So that’s one hope, that in the future that excuse doesn’t exist anymore.