Being me, I am, of course, interested in talking about your anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and the work you’ve done that has so shifted perceptions of what “nature poetry” means and is, and who writes it, and why.
But I also want to know what’s happening with you and your work lately that you’re most excited about?
As a lover of your poetry, I was so happy to be surprised by you sending prose to TQ.
You ask me what I’m most excited about and it’s that I’m working in this other genre. It’s not entirely new. I’ve been writing essays for awhile, just under the radar. This TQ4 publication and one coming out around the same time in VQR are part of a book of essays I’m completing. The essays, like “Manifest,” explore intersections between place, history, culture, and life (by which I mean the vital state of living human and non-human beings on this planet). These have, as you know, long been points of interest in my poetry, so in some ways these essays are really nothing new at all. They just provide me with a new way to explore my obsessions.
You also mention something about how my writing “has shifted perceptions of what nature poetry means and is, who writes it and why.” Terrific. That’s what I set out to do. When I write, I want to help shift perceptions (my own included). What’s the point of writing if something doesn’t change as a result of what I’ve written? I could bake a cake and something would change in the world. I could mow the lawn (or rip out the lawn and replace it with xeriscaping, which I am doing), and something would change. I could do lots of things that make real and small differences in the world, and doing those things might make good use of my time and the time of those who take time to experience what I set before them. So, if I’m going to write, I want to make the most of my time and yours. I want to help change our world. This might seem like a lofty goal, but I don’t think it is. (A sign in the family resort I stayed in last week said, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference in the world, try spending the night in a tent with a mosquito.”) Getting people to think about the intersections between our attitudes about nature and our ideas about race and class and culture and history means we’re thinking more clearly about who we are and why, and we’re more able to make necessary changes.
I love what you say about shifting perceptions and the not-lofty goal of world change. For me as reader of your work, the visceral life in your writing, vitality given with a sort of ferocious generosity, is what enables the fresh perception – seeing anew what we thought we knew in a way that enables action, forward motion. Or simply seeing. For the first time.
A bit of an aside, or maybe not: people so often talk about qualities like this as being inherent, magical, essentialized vs. essential choices. To me, they come from an active (and often quite conscious) choice to actually be that engaged; to risk, give, fight, show courage, show vulnerability, all of it. It’s a choice. An active thing. Not an inborn quality that some have (and therefore the rest of us are off the hook) – one that is chosen, and so is the responsibility of all of us who can, in whatever ways we can.
Xeriscaping. Writing. Parenting. Teaching. Loving. Saying no. Saying yes.
Yes! Yes! Always a choice. Or, I might say it is no more or less innate than squatting as a primary resting position is innate. Small children squat when they want to get close to the floor, when they are reading and concentrating on things on their level. Squatting is a thing a body can do from the start, or most bodies can do from the start. But some cultures retain squatting as a primary position and others give it up. Mine is a culture that has given it up and so I have to be conscious about squatting (which is a better position for the body than sitting in a chair) at this point in my life. That answer was a bit of an aside, too, but also not at all. What I do as a writer is notice the world, and to notice the world I have to notice connections. This is a way my brain works, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to train it and actively engage this way of seeing.
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry is a book I bring to every class I teach that involves poetry (or science writing, or reading of any kind, or social justice) because it fills such a perceived hole in “the literature” – explicitly by pointing to the fact that there has never been a hole there – the work had just not been properly acknowledged, gathered and borne witness to in this particular way. There has never been a disconnect or an absence, and dismissals of “nature poetry” abrade precisely because they are so inaccurate about what it is, who does it, who has always done it, how it lives now, and why.
I am so grateful for that book every time I even see its spine on my bookshelf, never mind am able to use it to open doors with people in terms of their own thinking, writing, and being. So one of the things I’d love to know is: what made that anthology happen?
Here’s the thing about Black Nature: the world I reveal in it has been there all along. The writing I collect in the anthology has been there all along. I had an opportunity to work with University of Georgia Press to pull 400 years of a (sometimes) unique vision of the world into the pages of one book. When it first came out people regularly tried to correct me on the title. “You mean four decades, right?” No, I meant four centuries. I have been reading this work since I started reading poetry, and I have been writing such work since I started writing poetry. That this was the first collection of its kind is simply testament to how far we still have to go in creating an inclusive space for a variety of voices in publishing and the classroom. This matters because the world will not change without some new takes on who gets to speak (write, publish, be acknowledged for having ideas of value) and how and about what. Why do you think there is such a backlash against expansion of access to education and publishing platforms? Because it matters who gets to speak and how and about what. It is deeply gratifying to me that I have been part of helping people to see there are other ways of engaging the non-human world in poetry, but you can see from this essay in TQ4 and from my other work that in some ways all I’ve done is stick by my way of seeing the world and believing that this way of seeing the world has value. I’m just doing my thing, and Black Nature was my way of supporting other writers (contemporary and antecedent) who have been doing that thing as well.
This support of other writers, mentoring and leadership – particularly by women – these have been much on my mind of late, in terms of how we make active choices to make room for others, or choose not to. My sense of you is that in many arenas – teaching, From the Fishouse, your writing, your way of engaging other writers – you are always a powerful gate-opener (to put it in TQ mission statement terms). What goes into that for you?
Everything goes into that for me. That is everything to me. I do not believe I am alone in this world, and I do not believe only I have value. If anything I do is innate, it’s teaching and what comes along with teaching (which includes writing, though I’m not talking about using writing as a didactic tool). Well, that and eating chocolate (though I second guess even that a lot lately because of what America’s voraciousness for chocolate has done to the chocolate growing parts of this planet). I love poetry, I love the written word, and I love people and I love the planet, and I love MY people and think other people should love my people too. Why shouldn’t I live a life that directly engages with what I love? How could I not be engaged with all these things I love? I want to make the most of my life, and the best way I know how to do that is to stay deeply connected to what I love.
Speaking of which: paraphrasing what I said in comments upon reading “Manifest” – good lord this is skinlessly, bravely, gorgeous craft of deep intelligence. And so very about themes I am also obsessed by: the naming of things as love/creation/witness/effect, the risk of same, the preservation of what is lost and the stakes of language and naming and human conditions – these as metaphor for writers, but also as precisely what they are, not metaphor at all.
“Manifest” is subject matter that’s been strip-mined into cliché, too often – but this is not that. Not for a single word. And so it is urgently needed. This is one of the best poets we’ve got turning her lines to prose and history and life unskinned. So yes, yes, yes.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Writing motherhood is hard. There are so many cautionary tales against writing about the deep anxiety and inexorable fear that motherhood induces, but these things are true: motherhood made me more afraid and more alert and more in love. That sentence veered into cliché, true, but clichés come from the fact that we have common truths that sometimes feel too common. My challenge with this piece was trying to find a way to talk about all these complicated emotions and ideas in a manner that did not feel dully common but, rather, that rekindled readers’ interest in the world that always is and was and (I hope, though I am not certain) always will be.
Don’t know why this is such a scary thing to do, releasing this into the world. I think it’s because it’s part of a new vision of myself, and it’s always exciting to let others in on what’s going on inside your ears. My other modes of writing (poetry, criticism) are ways of being people have grown accustomed to, but I remember how electric it was in those early days of working on Black Nature when I took it upon myself to say out loud and in writing the vision of the world as I believed it to be.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, and assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. Dungy’s honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Sustainable Arts Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, and Bread Loaf. She has won an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, and a California Book Award silver medal. In addition to two NAACP Image Award nominations, Dungy’s books have been shortlisted for the Academy of American Poets William Carlos Williams Award, the California Book Awards, the Balcones Prize, the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Dungy’s poems and essays have been published in anthologies and print and online journals including Poetry, Callaloo, VQR, and The American Poetry Review. Recently a Professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University, she is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University. www.camilledungy.com