Interview by Courtney Brown
Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry. Her most recent book, Trophic Cascade, was released in the spring of 2017 through Wesleyan University Press. Her debut collection of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journey into Race, Motherhood, and History (W.W. Norton & Co.), was published in the summer of 2017. In addition to these works, Dungy has edited or co-edited a number of anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2009), and her work has otherwise appeared in such journals and magazines as Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The Missouri Review, Crab Orchard Review in addition to featuring in Best American Poetry and The 100 Best African American Poems. Dungy has been the recipient of numerous awards, including an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and a California Book Award silver medal. She has also received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Sustainable Arts Foundation. She currently teaches at Colorado State University. This interview was conducted over email in the fall of 2017.
Interviewer: You have such a keen ear for rhythm, repetition, and internal rhyme. Many of your lines echo throughout the poems of Trophic Cascade like music, both “soothing and alarming,” as you observe of nursery rhymes in the notes for “One to Watch, And One to Pray.” Could you talk a bit about crafting that attention to language in your work? How do you find the balance between that masterful and meticulous curation of words—the precision and detail with which you name the flora and fauna dressing the various landscapes in this collection, for example—and that sense of play with language that seems to birth these incredibly engaging moments of repetition and resonance?
Camille T. Dungy: For me the sound of the words as they are arranged in the lines is one of the keys of good poetry. It drives choices about which words to include, in which order. It drives decisions about where and how to break a line. Sound is a driving factor in nearly all decisions I make as I build a poem. But…how I make those decisions about sound might be a little harder for me to articulate. There are all sorts of terms in the poet’s handbook that relate to how we build sound in a poem. But, also, a lot of it is the kind of innate response that comes from a certain type of consistent training. I care about poetry that sounds good, so that’s what I work to achieve.
From your very first collection, nature has overtly influenced your poems. It is clear just how much the natural world has shaped your work; could you speak a bit, however, about the way your work shapes the natural world, the way you intentionally build a landscape for your readers to follow you into? What is necessary about the landscape that you try to translate into the poems? Does anything ever get left out of the scene?
The very first poem in my first book describes language as “the bank we map our lives around.” In that poem, language is a way of defining a landscape. For me landscape and language aren’t particularly easy to separate. So, it’s not surprising that, like sound, landscape and its components are necessary to my writing. Of course, though, a lot gets left out. All the time. We can never be comprehensive in our descriptions of anything. I have a story about a time, when I was in grade school, when I sent off a balloon and a girl from Manitoba (I’m pretty sure, though this was ages ago now) found it. She dutifully sent back the postcard, and I started to write back. But I tried so hard to tell her everything about where I was from that I never finished my letter. I never sent anything. I’ve always regretted that. That was a lesson to me. You can’t say it all. Say what you need to say, get that out in the world. Then, if you’re lucky, you may get another chance to say more.
In conversation, we spoke a bit about your desire to live in a place where you know the names of the plants and animals that surround you and make up your world—and this desire to name the world around you is certainly evident throughout your poems. Could you talk a bit more about this survivalist instinct to name and to know, how it shapes your poetic concerns?
Perhaps it’s a survivalist instinct. It is. I get freaked out if I don’t know the names of the things around me. Things that may be able to save me (or hurt me) one day. But it’s also a matter of respect. If I know the name of a specific species of bird or tree or grass or flower, I am not lumping those living beings into some generic category that is, by its namelessness, less important than I am. That is unworthy of the time it takes me to give a thing a name. Naming is a breed of compassion and empathy, and both of those are deeply important to me as I write.
I’m also interested in the way that you share poetry. Five minutes into our first meeting, you handed me a copy of Parneshia Jones’ collection, Vessel, and said, “I just read this on the plane, but it’s yours now,” in a way that really felt like, “you should read this, but then you pass it on again when you’re done.” Could you talk a bit more about your philosophy for sharing poetry? How do you see yourself as part of encouraging the growth and spread of a larger poetry-reading community?
Being a writer, for me, means taking part in a conversation that has lasted through the ages, that will continue to last through the ages. Sometimes I have private conversations I’m not going to share with anyone (no one gets the copy of Audre Lorde’s Zami with my notes in the margins), but, often, I see this as a great big party. I want everyone to feel like they’re invited. “Sharing is caring,” as the kids say. And remember what I said above about writing, for me, being an expression of compassion and empathy. Also, when you read well you write well. So, I’m always trying to encourage people to read well so that our conversation, in writing, can be as strong as it can be!
Your debut collection of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, was also just released this year. What prompted the shift in form for this collection? Was there something about the essay that allowed you to communicate in a way that you could not through poetry? How did your consciousness as a poet influence your essay writing? How do you feel your experience crafting this collection will influence future poems?
My answer for this question is likely too long for the space we have here. One answer I can give is that, traveling with my daughter, I began to experience the world in ways that I needed to work to understand. I needed new ways to work toward this new understanding. Essays provided one of these new ways for me. There are modes of understanding available in poetry that aren’t available in any other form. The same is true for the essay, or the short story, for the novel, the play. I wanted access to the brand of knowledge that an essay would give me. As to how the two forms, essays and poetry, influence each other, I’m not sure I have an easy answer. I published books in both forms in the same year. Perhaps they influence each other the same way closely-born siblings might influence each other. Which is to say both completely and not at all.
Now that you are four collections in, what advice do you have for poets early on in their career, who are still working on that first book? Any nuggets of wisdom to keep in mind?
The key, which we hear often, because it is true, is persistence. Persistence. Persistence. You have to write a poem. And then another poem. And then another. The first book is a very hard book to write. But so is the second, the third, the fourth, and, I can only imagine, the fifth and beyond. If you don’t build an attitude of persistence and faith at this early stage, I doubt you’ll have the commitment to continue as the going gets tougher.