Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Camille Dungy

By Melissa Tuckey

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2018.

Early-bird registration IS EXTENDED to Friday, February 23, at midnight EST at Split This Rock's website. Visit the registration page to register now.

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Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry: Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017),  Smith Blue (Southern Illinois UP, 2011), Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010), and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006). Her debut collection of personal essays is Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton, 2017). She has also edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009) and co-edited two other collections. Camille T. Dungy’s honors include an American Book Award, two NAACP Image Award nominations, Sustainable Arts Foundation fellowships, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her poems and essays have been published in Best American Poetry, The 100 Best African American Poems, nearly thirty other anthologies, and over one hundred print and online journals. Dungy is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

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Melissa Tuckey (MT):  In both your memoir, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, and your most recent book of poems, Trophic Cascade, motherhood is central. In your poem “Trophic Cascade” with regards to the reintroduction of gray wolves, you write, “Don’t/ tell me this is not the same as my story. All this/ life born from one hungry animal, this whole/ new landscape, the course of the river changed,/ I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time/ a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.” I’m curious if and how the experience of being a mother has changed your art, or changed how you think about or approach your writing?   

Camille Dungy (CD):  I wrote two whole books — Trophic Cascade and Guidebook to Relative Strangers — trying to explore if and how the experience of being a mother might have changed my approach toward my writing, my communities, and the world at large. My brief response here would be that the introduction of my daughter into my life has expanded my sense of commitment to hope, to possibility, and to actively working to build strengthening connections between vulnerable communities. I am more aware than ever of our vulnerability. This awareness is partly due to the presence of my child in my life, certainly, but it is also due to the awareness cultivated as a result of living a politically, historically, and environmentally conscious life.

MT: The natural world has been a strong thread in your work. And in Trophic Cascade, many of your poems address the issue of environmental crisis, or loss. The last year has been incredibly harmful for both social justice and the environment. How do you deal with such overwhelm in your writing? What are the challenges in trying to find language in the crisis we are confronting?  What is your advice to writers who are trying to address the ills of the world?

CD: I had already finished the poems in Trophic Cascade before the election of November 2016. Which means that, though I do believe the poems are directly relevant to these times, they were not written in direct response to the immediate political and environmental moment you describe in your question.

Sadly, there is very little about this current state of affairs that surprises me. In fact, there is very little about this current state of affairs that is new. Our nation’s disregard for and violent treatment of people it would call different, would call inferior, would call unwelcome is not a new phenomenon. Though we certainly have seen an increase in the degree of devastation and rapaciousness openly sanctioned by our government, the ideas that this moment of environmental and social/political crisis began in January 2017 is folly. It is a misconception that prevents us from addressing the crises at their roots.

My advice to writers is to pay attention. To continue to pay attention. Look at the root causes of the crises you would address in your work. Every one of my books addresses political, historical and environmental topics similar to those I address in the two books published in 2017. I may come at the questions from different angles, but the questions that concern me, the crises that concern me, have remained consistent. This work we’re doing is constant.

You know those people who run what they call centenary races, or even more remarkably Deca Ironman races? They run ten marathons in a row or finish ten Ironmen. One after another. Day in and day out, they’re completing these demanding races. It’s exhausting, I’m sure, but they know what they’re getting into. That’s what it means to be a social activist, an environmental activist, a civil rights activist, in this country, in this world. You’ve got to do the work, recharge however you can, then put in more work. There will always be another challenge to complete.

MT: I sometimes think the most dangerous thing that can happen right now in this country is the loss of hope. It is such a cynical time. What feeds your sense of hope? Are there books you turn to that feed your spirit?

CD: You’re absolutely right. Part of the strategy of this administration is to force us out of hope. The barrage of new insults, the constant unanswered calls to my Senator’s office, the installation again and again of unsuitable judges and cabinet members, all of that is designed to make us give up, to make us think it will be impossible for us to effect the change we want to see in the world. Simply knowing that the entire point of it all is to make me lose hope is often enough fire up my will to maintain hope.

I read June Jordan (I’m so excited about the new collection of her work!), Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks; and I read my peers, who are producing some of the best literature America has ever seen. Truly. Astounding work is coming from writers of color and politically and environmentally-engaged writers today. That gives me all kinds of hope. We have not been silenced.

And, my daughter gives me hope, and she ignites my determination not to allow my hope to be shattered. I will fight for her and for her dear sweet little friends and for the narwhals and the manatees and the snowy owls and the elephants. And I will cry sometimes for all of them, for all of us, and then I will wake up in the morning and find a new way to fight.

MT: You have a new book of prose and poetry, which seem to be written simultaneously. Did the experience of writing Guidebook to Relative Strangers inform your poetry in any way—I mean, do you have a sense that the two forms of writing are in conversation, as you are writing? 

CD: What I do is write one line and then write another and then another. Some of the lines came out as prose. Some came out as poetry. You’re right that they were written nearly simultaneously, but I wasn’t thinking about it that way. I was just trying to write, and sometimes one mode worked better than another. Sometimes, I was writing prose. Sometimes I was writing poetry. And then at some point one book called to be gathered, and it was not long before the other called to be gathered as well.

I don’t know that the two forms were in conversation for me anymore than night and day are in conversation. Which is to say, one is very different than the other, but they are also really not so different at all. They are both actually always taking place on the planet at the same time. If you take a larger view of the planet, you can see night and day existing at once. I am beginning to think that this hard separation we make between genres might be dangerous. We’re into categories and divisions in this country, often dangerously so. Since one of the things I am working to resist are categories and divisions that allow us to belittle and marginalize one group in favor of another, I’ve begun to interrogate my thinking about all sorts of divisions.

MT:  You are tremendously active, writing, reading, teaching, mothering. How do you make the most of the time you have for writing?

CD: I don’t feel like I DO make the most of the time I have for writing. I feel like I am always wanting to be writing more, reading more, and also mothering more.
I always wish there were more time in my days. I think that at one time in my life I didn’t have to sleep as much as I need to sleep now. Maybe I used to steal more time from myself, as the women poets used to suggest needed to be done for women, and mothers in particular, to find time to write. I think my daughter has changed the way my time and attention can be apportioned.

What I’m working on now is honoring the time I do have. When I’m with my daughter, I try to be fully with my daughter. Device-free time whenever possible. I try to be similarly focused when I have time to be with the page. I listen to a lot of novels and nonfiction on Audible—I’ll tell the world that little secret. It feels like cheating as a writer not to be reading everything from a book, but Audible has kept me in books over the last few busy years. Listening to Audible, I can “read” while gardening or washing dishes or walking to work. I don’t have much curl up and just read time in my life right now, but I’m not willing to give up books just because I don’t have leisure hours.

 I’m not as productive as I’d like to be, but rather than being down on myself about that, I am learning to honor the fact, and trying to be as productive as I can be with the tools I have at my disposal.

MT:  What’s next for you?

CD: It’s always one line and then another line and then another. That’s all I can pledge to myself and the world. One day, hopefully, those lines will add up to something, but at this point there’s no telling what or when that will be.

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Additional Links

On Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy. (National Public Radio)

Frequently Asked Questions: #7,” by Camille T. Dungy (The Quarry)

Visit also Dungy's poems “Arthritis is one thing, the hurting is another” and “Daisy Cutter” (The Quarry)

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Photo by Dave R. Phillips.
Melissa Tuckey is a poet and literary activist. Tenuous Chapel, her book of poems, was selected by Charles Simic for the ABZ First Book Award in 2013. Other honors include a Black Earth Institute fellowship and a winter fellowship at Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She's received grants in support of her work from DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Ohio Arts Council. Tuckey's poems have been anthologized in DC Poets Against the War anthology, EcopoetryFire and Ink: Social Action Writing, and Truth to Power. Tuckey is a co-founder of Split This Rock where she currently serves as Eco-Justice Poetry Project Coordinator. She’s editor of Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology with University of Georgia Press. Melissa Tuckey lives in Ithaca, New York.

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