Camille Dungy: The poet’s journey

Camille Dungy gave a roundtable discussion and reading in Faulconer Gallery this Thursday, Nov. 7, as part of the Writers@Grinnell program. Dungy is a poet, known for her books “Suck on the Marrow” and “What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison,” editor of the African-American nature poetry compilation “Black Nature” and a professor of English at Colorado State University. The S&B’s Kelly Pyzik sat down with Dungy after her reading on Thursday.

Dungy reading in Faulconer Gallery Thursday night. Photo by Eve Lyons-Berg.
Dungy reading in Faulconer Gallery Thursday night. Photo by Eve Lyons-Berg.

Something I noticed in doing background research for this interview was that nowhere on the internet is your writing really described as a whole, and I was wondering, how would you describe your own body of work?

I talk a lot about how I think there are survival narratives. I think each of my books is a survival narrative in its own way. With my first book, it’s “What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison,” and it’s set in the mid-20th century and these ways that people learn to live and love and do the things they need to do, and then I thought I was finished with that. Then I did my book set in the 19th century and I thought I was finished. Then I did my book set in the 21st century and it all just keeps being about survival—how we can survive without destroying.

You mentioned the idea of “genius at the right time” being the key to success a lot today, and I was wondering, what makes that idea especially important to you?

That’s interesting. I’m kind of in that right now. I think it’s really important when we’re thinking about being artists. In this culture, it’s all about individual talent just breaking out and making it. With this realization of the underpinnings of culture and community, a society that really makes that possible and timing, I think as young artists we really need to understand that a lot of it has to do with talent, but a lot of it has to do with dumb luck. It helps the successes not get overly cocky and it helps when we do have setbacks to not completely dismiss our potential.

Your parents were really worried about you being successful, do you think you’ve been blessed with the genius plus timing phenomenon?

I certainly got blessed with the parents, there’s no doubt about that. They were really worried, but they let me do what I needed to do and encouraged me. I think there was good timing, and I do think I asked for things. I make my desires known, I’m not really shy about what I want. A lot of the things I ask for I don’t get, but a lot of them I do and part of that is coming from a family that is encouraging and supported that.

How did they support you?

My mother was terrified that I was going to have to do menial labor or something like that, but she didn’t really say it. She wouldn’t say it until afterward. For instance, when I got my first tenure-track job, she said, “Oh, thank goodness, I thought you were going to have to be a waiter,” but she never said that until after I got the tenure-track job. She kind of held that fear in. It’s not that I didn’t know, but she never articulated it directly. … And then, honestly, they financially supported me—they paid for me to go to college … They organized their lives when we were growing up so that I was able to do that.

Starting from “What to Eat, What to Drink …” until now, how do you think your writing has changed?

Really simple, it has gotten longer. My poems are significantly longer now, they were all little 14 line poems, and that was something really important at that point in my career—contained poetry. I had a limit; I had a set limit of how long I could go on. I don’t know that I was thinking about it at the time, but that was important in the sense that you have tons to say, we all have tons to say, but the sonnet form gave me a constraint on how much I could say in any one poem. I learned that I could always write another poem, that I didn’t have to say everything that was in my heart in any one poem. … Another big difference is that my first book is almost entirely persona poetry. I’m writing almost entirely other people’s stories because in the beginning I didn’t really have that many stories of my own to tell. I didn’t have that tumultuous of a life out of which to pull information, but I knew plenty of people around me who had really densely complicated lives which were very interesting to explore. Then, as I get older, I write more and more personal work because I have more life, I have more story to tell. I gave myself permission at the beginning to borrow other people’s stories until I’d built up enough of my own.

Writing a lot of nature poetry, how outdoorsy are you?

I really like being outdoors, but at the same time I really like my house—it’s a pretty good balance. I kayak, I hike, I’m going to take up skiing again. On the other hand, I’m perfectly happy curled up on my couch with a pot of chili of my own brewing on the stove. I like to be some place I can access [nature], I can see it; somewhere I can see nature regularly. Just while you’re walking, driving down the road, it’s present, rather than just concrete.

What do you want a reader to leave “Black Nature” with?

The simple answer is that how we talk about nature is broader than how we have been talking about nature. The kinds of conversations people in this country have been having about the natural world are significantly more varied than those that have been canonized. There’s no easy answer, there are a lot. Part of “Black Nature” is that there are so many contradictory ways to talk about nature. That, to me, is important, that there are contradictions in our conversation. I think that rather than saying there’s one way of saying something, we need to acknowledge the fact that there’s about twenty-two different ways people are [saying it] and one person might do number seven and number seventeen and that can happen and that’s not wrong; that different, opposing views can be held simultaneously.