Camille T. Dungy, Poet
Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver, Colorado and grew up in California. She received her B.A. from Stanford University and M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Her poems and essays have been published widely in anthologies, print, and online journals. She is also the editor of several anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry.
She is a two-time recipient of the Northern California Book Award, a Silver Medal Winner in the California Book Award, and two-time NAACP Image Award nominee. She was recognized in the Huffington Post Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry for her role as co-founder of From the Fishouse, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the oral tradition of poetry. Recently a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University, Dungy is now a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.
Candace Butler interviewed Dungy at The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Candace Butler: What project are you working on right now?
Camille T. Dungy: That’s a good lead question, but a hard one to answer. It seems like it wouldn’t be a hard one to answer. And maybe a little bit later it wouldn’t be hard to answer what project I’m working on right now, but when I’m between books—as I am right now—there’s a period of time where I’m not working on a project. I’m just working on writing a poem and then writing another poem and then writing another poem. And then there’ll be a point at which there’s a kind of tractor pull that gets created, some sort of gravitational pull of all those bodies that make something clearly be moving in one direction. But I haven’t gotten there yet, so I don’t know. I’m just writing the poems one at a time, and I think that’s a really important thing to remember: that that’s what we’re doing. We think so frequently in terms of books—and that’s an important aspect of things—but it’s not where it begins for poets. For poets, it begins with each poem, one at a time.
CB: What have you been reading recently?
CTD: I am right now re-reading Ruth Padel’s book Darwin about her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, partly because I’m interested in the way poets use notes. And so I was reading a lot of books that are playing with footnotes or side notes or endnotes and incorporated notes and just the different ways that people can document their knowledge—so another book that I really am fascinated by is Jena Osman’s book The Network that often pulls in other information and there’s a poet named Tung-Hui Hu and the book is called Greenhouses, Lighthouses. All these books, in different ways, incorporate external material and have to create a way of citing those sources that I’m finding curious. You know, in Suck on the Marrow it took me the longest time to figure out how to make the notes for that book. And the long poem at the end, “Primer, Or A History of These United States (Abridged),” is the notes section. In original versions of the book it’s just a “Notes” section, and I was so bored by that; I knew there was information that needed to be there for people who weren’t going to know these details, but I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate that, especially since the characters were fictional set in real time. So there was this overlap between what really happened and what didn’t really happen but I wanted to feel like really happened, and how do you do that in the notes? And eventually I figured out that the “Primer” was going to be my way of conveying all the background information that you might need for the book. So I just have rekindled my curiosity in figuring out other poets’ answers to that question.
CB: You’ve mentioned the cover on the 1990 British edition of The Virago Book of Love Poetry “was part of the wonder of the book” for you, and you wrote that “it sent [you] scurrying to learn more about Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo at the same time [you were] discovering more about the poets featured within the covers.” Since the cover is important to you, as it is to many people, would you mind talking a bit about the covers of your books?
CTD: Sure. All of my books’ covers have presented themselves to me as undeniably my book covers. Each time, I’ve been really lucky with that. For What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, my first book, I had a calendar back in the old fashioned days where you used to have desk calendars. You know, they’re journals, and they would have—every week or every month—they would have a different picture on the pages? I miss that, actually, because it was a way to be presented with art that I wouldn’t necessarily see. This particular one, I just flipped open a page—whatever that week or month was—and there was this incredible image by the collage artist James Denmark. I just loved it. It’s just—the book’s title is What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and there’s this woman tripping over air and through a garden with a bowl of lettuce in her hands. And it just seems—and there are other plants growing—and it just seems so perfect for the book. So I wrote to the artist, and he said, “Sure.”
And then, with Suck on the Marrow, I had an idea for what I wanted for the book cover, and my press didn’t like it. And they had an idea for what they wanted for the book cover, and I hated it (laughs). And so it was midnight and Mark Cull, the designer at the press—he’s also the managing editor at the press—said we’ve got to come up with the cover ASAP, so I’m just looking through, you know—the internet existed by that point, thank goodness—and I was just searching and searching, and I was at the Library of Congress website partly because I needed access to things we knew could be free. So I’m just looking at 19th century images and I came across the one that is on the cover of Suck on the Marrow. It’s a candid shot essentially—it might’ve been posed, but it feels candid—of a man standing outside on a frame of what looks like a building is being constructed and it is so clearly central Virginia. I mean, so clearly like the landscape I was writing about. And so there was Joseph Freeman, one of the book’s main characters, standing there. So that was my image. It was chilling how that one image turned out to be so right. They did a beautiful job of the cover, I think, because they used a font that had a kind of old-timey feel and then they let the image completely fill the margins of the book cover so there’s no framing on the image. The whole cover is the image, which I love. And so that made me really happy.
And then I was working on my anthology Black Nature, flipping through a Gordon Parks book looking for writing—essays, right?—that could fit, and I bumped into this image that’s this little boy with a june bug on a string and a little fly is on his cheek and he’s lying in the middle of a field. It’s a complicated picture because the boy is torturing this bug, but there’s this other free bug on him. There’s this youthful innocence but also this violence; it’s perfect for what’s going on inside of Black Nature. And also, while I was searching through books for Black Nature, I came across this photographer named Dudley Edmondson, who had done a book called Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places. It’s a photo collection of people who do really great things in the outdoors: a man who’s a falconer and a woman who’s a prize rock climber and a U.S. park ranger named Shelton Johnson who does a lot of work with talking about blacks in the old west and Buffalo Soldiers. So some really fascinating people who do things outside, and so that was my introduction to Dudley Edmonson. I started looking up his work online. His portraits are beautiful, and I was just interested in him as a photographer, and he had a whole portfolio on birds and my raptor shows up in one of his images. It just had to be this hawk in the middle of this blue sky. He’s coming down and you can see the talons sticking out, and it’s gorgeous; so that I knew had to be the cover of Smith Blue, which is a book about environmental degradation and rapture and horror and love and again the image on the cover seems to be exactly right. Each time I just had the feeling “that has to be the cover of my book and there’s no doubt about it.” So that’s the story of my book covers.
CB: Thank you. You have found inspiration in reading the works of other writers, have listened to Mozart while writing “Requiem,” and have talked about the many truths depicted in Picasso’s “Guernica” mural in your “The Truth’s Superb Surprise” lecture at AULA in June. Can you tell us more about the inspiration you find in other art forms? I know you just talked a bit about all the serendipity in your covers. Do you find more for individual poems or—
CTD: Oh, sure. We could go on and on. Part of the nature of being a poet, part of the nature of being a writer, but also part of the nature of being an artist, is being porous, being open to stimulation and inspiration and finding in unlikely places connection with the human spirit, with your own longing for passion. So I find companionship, I guess, with the work of other artists who are doing the same thing, and frequently I find that musicians or visual artists have found a way to express an interpretation—or a distillation of a hitherto unarticulated thought—in a way that gives me a pathway into being able to articulate it in language whereas they’ve done it in sound or visually; I now have to render that in English, but they help me towards that direction.
CB: Antioch University advocates social justice. Can you approach this issue from a craft perspective?
CTD: Maybe. Can you be a little more specific what you mean?
CB: Well, if you could just talk about how we can incorporate social justice issues into our poetry, into our writing.
Part of the nature of being a poet… is being porous
CTD: Okay. Yes. I don’t see any other more important thing to do in writing. As I said, I think that poetry is an articulation of who we can be in the world. Ben Okri says, “The writer writes because he believes that what he sees is not all that can be.” Or something close to that (laughs). (In an email message to the interviewer on September 16th, Dungy said, “What he really says, in The Times in December of 1991, is “The poet is set against the world because he cannot accept that what there seems to be is all that there is.”) So why not use my poetry to try and make true that this world can be a better place? Why not use my poetry to try and make people uncomfortable with how things are so that they can move towards trying to change things towards something better? Or uncomfortable with how things were so they can move towards trying not to replicate them? Or see those things in their world? One of the most touching moments to me when I was touring with Suck on the Marrow, which is a collection about the abolition movement of the 19th century, was being in a border town in Texas and somebody saying that they didn’t realize that a poem in the book was about the 19th century until they got to the word “abolition.” They thought that it was about then, that moment, and that’s what I want. I want us to see where we haven’t changed, but could. As much as where we have changed, and for the better. Writing’s powerful; it makes the world. And so I think it’s important that the world I’m making is a world that tends toward improvement.
CB: What is your writing process like on a daily basis?
CTD: You’ve got a four year old; I’ve got a three and a half year old. She used to be a great morning sleeper. She’d sleep until eight thirty or nine and I would wake up at five thirty or six and get a good, solid chunk of writing done before she woke up, but…nothing gold lasts (laughs). So now I’m learning to write late at night again after she goes to bed. You know, you’ve just got to kind of wiggle around until you find a pattern that works. But then you’ve got to be willing to wiggle around again, because the pattern will change. You move, your family stops cooperating the way that it did, that coffee shop you used closed, your computer breaks down—you just can’t be completely tied to any particular routine because routines change and if the routine is what you need for the writing, and it changes, then you lose the writing. So I’ve never believed that I have to have a routine. I have what works, and what works for now is what I use. And then something else works, and then that’s what I use.
CB: I read your blog entry on Harriet about the relationship between the writing process and dreams. Are your dreams similar in structure or imagery to your poetry?
CTD: In that post I’m talking about a conversation that I had once with Richard Siken and Heriberto Yépez. We were all reading in the same place, and we had a long afternoon break, and I took a nap. And I got to the dinner and told them all about my dream and both of them are just staring at me like I’m a crazy person. My dream was this long, soap operatic, interconnected thing where there were all these characters showing up—it was like a little soap opera. And Richard Siken says, “If I dream at all, it’s like…green.” (laughs). And Yépez, too, he said that he dreamed in this entirely different way. But both of them, interestingly, the way they said they dreamed, to me, mimicked the way that I understood them to write. And so, I thought that it was intriguing to think that maybe the way our subconsciouses work were entries to the way we are able to write. And I do tend to write more character-driven work and at the time that I was having that dream, I was probably right in the middle of writing Suck on the Marrow, which was a long soap opera with a lot of intertwined characters who come in and out. So I was living in a world of imagined people; my brain was working through that. I still have a tendency to dream narratively, and that’s the way that I lean in my writing. Though I think that my writing is perhaps significantly more frayed narratives than it was when I was having the conversation about which I was talking. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that. I haven’t thought about whether my dreams have changed or whether it’s just that my poems have changed. (In an email message to the interviewer on September 16th, Dungy said, “I’ll say, on further reflection, that my poems have changed a lot since I had my daughter, and my ability to dream has also changed a lot. My sleep is significantly more fractured, stitched together in odd and seemingly improbable ways. So maybe there is a connection after all.”)
CB: When you’re not writing, editing, or teaching, what do you enjoy doing?
CTD: That’s a really good question because those are very time-consuming occupations, writing, editing, and teaching. I like just being one of two things: either by myself or with my family. I should put “being with my family” first, and then “being by myself” because I like them. They’re fun people, and they give me a lot. And they’re very patient with me and the amount of time I spend with the writing, editing, and teaching (the former two of which require me to be by myself a lot). So I like to give back to them, too. I like cooking for said family and for friends and other people who pop by. And then I like being outside in a myriad of ways: hiking or kayaking or…I’m learning how to ski now. I just moved to Colorado—no, I know how to ski, but I haven’t skied in twenty years, so I’m going to relearn how to ski. I’m going to teach my daughter this winter because we’re going to live in the snow. We might as well use it.
CB: Do you feel like you compromise or sacrifice something in your life to write your poetry?
CTD: Sure, absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t think it’s possible to do anything in the world without compromising something. And certainly not anything that takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. I mean, I just said I value my family and I partly value my family because they give me the space that I need to write and to work. And then I know that that’s a sacrifice on their part to do that; I like to honor them for that. But I think, and they think, that I am a better person to be around when I’ve gotten enough writing done, and so it’s worth it to them, too. I actually waited a long time to get married and to a guy who has from the very start been supportive of me as an artist. And so, that was a condition of our relationship, right? I chose him as the person I would commit to because he was supportive of me in that way, but that’s a sacrifice for everybody in some way. I could have had a very different kind of relationship. I might not have been a particularly happy person, but I could have had a different kind of relationship. Yeah, no, writing takes time. Anything that takes time demands sacrifices.
CB: I’ve noticed you have a great command of spacing and enjambment—especially in Suck on the Marrow and Smith Blue. How do you know when to leave blank space, and how much? Is it intuitive? Do you scribble it down that way from the beginning? Or do you find during revision that a poem needs more openness somehow?
CTD: A really good question. No, it doesn’t get scribbled down that way from the beginning, I can say that. And if it is intuitive, it’s not intuitive in that it’s unthought. A lot of it has to do with breath—figuring out how, where I want both the sonic pauses and the visual pauses, which can contradict each other. Sometimes I want a break to be forced where a break is not desired. I want you to stop some place you wouldn’t if you were just reading prose, and think about what it is that you’ve already experienced, and let that resonate for a little while, and then move forward; and that’s where an internal break or a line break can really push against breath, can push against how you would read it if you were just reading the sentence. So that’s one of the aspects. And then I think you’re right about space, I think that I often just—poems might come when I’m just writing them, they might come in blocks—and then I want to figure how to get room into the poem and how to give a lot more of that, and it might do alright. Actually, my newer writing has even more lines that are playing a lot like the poem “Five for Truth” in Smith Blue; you know, lines that are jagged across the page. That seems to be a direction I’m moving in more and more because it is about slowing down experience. When we are in a moment of heightened emotion—pain, terror—it feels sometimes like time slows down. But of course it doesn’t. The reason why it feels—it doesn’t, time doesn’t change, but there’s a physiological reason that it feels like time slows down, and it’s because more of your receptors are open because you’re stressed. And so you become more alert: you see more, you physically feel more, smell more, taste more than you would normally. Because normally we kind of go through life, and we shut down a lot of external responses. And when you’re stressed, you open them all up because you need to have all that awareness. So the reason time feels like it has changed is because you take in five external stimuli in a space where you would normally just take in one. And so you think, well, that must have been five seconds long, but it was really one second long, right? Okay. One of the things that I think spacing a poem can do when you kind of move it out across the page and create more gaps in it and more stanza breaks and indentation and—you’re stressing your reader a little bit. You’re demanding slightly more of your reader, and you’re asking them to see line breaks and changes and pay attention to more end words than they would. You’re creating more opportunity for more stimulus to come in, and time slows down. So if you do it right—they could also just get frustrated (laughs)—but if you do it right, it’s a way of mimicking this idea of time slowing down and more coming in and more responses happening and paying more careful attention to the words than they would if it was just kind of all piled together and they’re running over the language really, really quickly.
You’re paying attention to how the world organizes itself and to the possibilities of how that might be described.
CB: I want to ask you about a specific poem, if I may. The two narratives in “Lesson” are distanced by the white space and italics separating them, but the contrapuntal form confines them in the same place and time. How does a poem like this come into being? Did you have two separate poems that were eventually fused together? Or did you know you were going to utilize this form when you began?
CTD: So “Code” on the other side does the same thing but differently. And I think I might be able to speak to them together. That was a form I was very interested in. This contrapuntal form, or stichomythia, is a Greek term for a winged poem that operates in the way that “Lesson” does. And “Code” is a mutated version of that idea because the one longer narrative subsumes the shorter narrative. Conceptually, in the book, I wanted an understanding that these are two worlds that are living simultaneously and sometimes independently and sometimes not. So sometimes when I have those poems, you can read three poems, and sometimes you can only read two. Sometimes you can extract one side of the poem and get that whole thought, and the whole thought with the extraction removed, and then with everything together. Sometimes you extract part, and the extracted part exists, but the part from which it has been extracted collapses and doesn’t work. That’s sort of what happens when you’re talking about a slave society or a society that is really dependent on people’s labor. Sometimes you take those people out, and the other people kind of keep living without even noticing. Sometimes you take those people out, and it just falls apart. There’s a relatively contemporary movie called A Day Without a Mexican which is based on a W. E. B. DuBois story about “a day in Philadelphia when all the Black people disappear.” What happens at the turn of the 20th century when you get rid of all the black people? What happens in California at the turn of the 21st century when you get rid of all the Mexicans? Nothing happens. It all collapses, right? And so, this is really part of the process. So, yes, I sat down thinking how am I going to create a poem that has independent individual narratives that are self-sustaining but may or may not sustain that other narrative. It’s hard because you’ve got to be able to make the sentence that flows up to the one on the other side work and then—yeah, so it took a long time for me to write those poems. In “Lesson,” all the language is mine. “Code” and “Complicit”—there’s also a poem “Runaway ran away” where I tweak the language (it’s part mine and part ad)—but “Code and “Complicit” are ads that I found in period magazines. In 19th century magazines and newspapers. So I’m using the actual language of the time and then I’m building around it my own. How do I write my own sentence where in that sentence, I’ll use the word ostler? That’s not a word we use today! What’s an ostler, right? And so I would have to kind of create my language to ride up to this 19th century language, which is something I was really trying to do in the book anyway. I was trying to create a contemporary-to-us language that also incorporated—realistically, I guess—the 19th century language. I was trying not to be anachronistic. I was trying to make sure that I stuck with language they would use in the 19th century, descriptions that they would use. So a wealthy person is going to be drinking brandy whereas a poor person is going to be drinking whiskey, you know, and it’s those kinds of details that I wanted to make sure retained their period viability even though I’m not using, you know—there’s no ye’s, there’s no ye old shoppe with two p’s and an e (laughs). I’m not a hundred percent sure that I entirely answered your question.
CB: You definitely did. So what is your advice for an aspiring poet in today’s world?
CTD: I think it goes back to your original question of what my project is, and my advice is to just write poems. To remove yourself from—in the moment of writing—to remove yourself from the marketplace aspect of poetry, and just write a poem. And then write another poem, and write the best poems that you can, and revise those poems again and again. And then to read a lot. You have to read a lot to know what’s out there and what can be out there, but you’re not just reading today’s work. And you’re not just reading American poetry, and you’re not just reading poetry. You’re reading nonfiction. You’re reading fiction. You’re reading visual art. You’re reading music, you know. You’re reading the natural world. You’re paying attention to how the world organizes itself and to the possibilities of how that might be described. And then you’re going to write another poem.