The Aural Aspect, Naomi Extra Interviews Camille Dungy


NAOMI EXTRA: The first question I wanted to ask you is sort of a general background question about your creative journey as a poet, great lessons that you have learned, influences, [or] a marker that set you along the direction of becoming a poet.

CAMILLE DUNGY: There are two very different directions to go with an answer to that question, and one is right at home and the other is far flung.  I had a family that believed in books and believed in literature.  My grandmother was a librarian [and] my grandfather was a professor and a minister, and so there were always books around.  My parents were readers, are readers, and so the idea of caring about literature enough to produce it was encouraged.  It wasn’t looked at as strange in my immediate and extended family.  I had an aunt who was one of the first African American female editors at US News and World Report.  I had people in my family who were writers and leaders, and so that helped. But then, largely because I had a family that encouraged this, I was taken to events and meetings.  I remember being twelve years old and going to hear Gwendolyn Brooks read, how amazingly generous she was to me, this kid who mentioned that I liked writing and I liked poetry. She pulled out of her bag her primer for young poets and signed it and gave it to me.  That kind of generosity from people who were grown poets, real writers, real people who I still admire, that helps too.  So there’s your family, the everyday people, but then I think it’s important to me still now.  I remember the generosity of spirit of Lucille Clifton and of Gwendolyn Brooks, women like them as I kind of went up to them with my silly, like, a napkin, I think. That they took me seriously, they believed that if I believed that I wanted to do this thing and I committed to do this thing…that they didn’t say I’m the famous Gwendolyn Books, why are you bothering me?  And so I try to do that myself for young people and not just young people, all people who say that they care about literature and writing.  And I do. We’re all in the same club, right? And I try to give everybody who talks to me about writing the kind of respect that people gave me.  

NAOMI: Are there any bits of wisdom, lessons that you would want to share with aspiring poets, aspiring writers? 

CAMILLE: Read. That’s it, that’s the number one rule.  Read, read, read. And then read some more. You believe that you have these really important things to say and you do have some really important things to say.  So have a lot of other people.  We’re entering a conversation and so what you need to do is figure out who you are in dialogue with, who you are in conversation with. You get that from reading.  You don’t get that from being by yourself and writing out of complete isolation and never knowing what other people have written.

NAOMI: You mentioned Gwendolyn Brooks; I’m wondering if there are other influences you might mention who really shaped you, inspired you in some way.

CAMILLE: Well, if you’re talking about African American writers, my big three would be Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Rita Dove, who in my opinion are all very different writers.  Their styles, their forms, the way they move through the world is extremely different.  Yet, as women, as mothers, and as writers, and as public citizens, they are all models to me.  With no question, I can just say very easily that I would happily be mistaken for any one of those women.  And then my list continues for pages after this.  I do not confine my reading, writing, or my study to women writers or African American writers or American writers so we could just continue this on with a ripple effect through the ages and the continents. Considering the journal and the audience, those would be the three.  I would say Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Lucille Clifton have all modeled for me the kind of women and writers I aim to be.

NAOMI: Thanks. I want to shift a little bit. I was watching on YouTube some of the really interesting clips there are about Black Nature, the anthology. I was really interested in one thing that you said to the effect of, “It was crucial to me to show that black people have always been about the natural world,” and that really stuck with me.  I thought, with Rebecca Walker’s book Black Cool that’s just come out, I thought about black nature and this kind of ongoing and recent effort to blacken American history, to widen the American reality but also show diversity in America.  And I was thinking, is that a conscious part of your project as a poet?

CAMILLE: That’s an interesting question, Naomi, because the answer is both yes and no.  It’s definitely a conscious part of my process as an editor, and I think over the years editor is as much a part of my tagging as Camille Dungy, poet, professor, and editor. It’s the amount of time that I’ve spent in my life on those things. As an editor, yes, for sure it’s important to me that we have a diverse representation in the publications that I put my name on.  In terms of my classroom, it’s important to me that my students see that there are people doing work that they can do. I had a really great moment in my class last week, where I happened to have an African American choreographer who had teamed with the author who I brought. One of my students said it was really great seeing him up there because, “It taught me that I could do this.” It is part of my design that I had two African American writers out of the thirteen that we were reading and a couple Latino writers and a couple Asian writers because I wanted this diversity of representation for who they were reading and visiting with.  The choreographer was a bonus, he came extra. You know, just the fact that this was the one who this particular guy saw and said wait, that person looks like me. Even though I consciously tried to orchestrate it, this particular one was the one that struck him, and I just thought that was great. I had managed to allow this student to see himself. You know, it’s really important to see yourself out there in the world doing things, because the rare person will do things no matter who they see doing it. Most people do better when they see a leader, when they see an example. That’s how most people work, and so as an editor, as a professor, and as a writer I consciously feel that part of my job is to create those models for those who come behind me. So that’s the yes part of that question. The no part of that question is when I sit down at my desk, I stop thinking that consciously and I start just writing. And what I write and how I write at that point is no longer ideological. I’m writing out of myself, and I suppose my ideology shows and the things I care about show. But if I were writing and really consciously thinking, I need to do this or I need to do that, I probably wouldn’t do the things that have actually turned out to be groundbreaking and weird and unexpected.  Because I would be doing something that was already expected, a path that was already set. And so my surprises to the world may not have happened if I was sitting there ideologically planning.

NAOMI: That is really interesting as a response. I was really struck by the sound of black nature, the pairing of the words.  When I was thinking about these two words going together, I was wondering if the concept was there is something distinctively black about the way black folks talk about nature or if it’s more that these are people who write about nature who happen to be black. Or both.

CAMILLE: It’s also a kind of cheeky title, like the nature of black people, that sort of potential was on purpose. And my editors were not for sure about it because they were afraid of that, and I was like, that’s okay. Let it ride (laughs). I’m all full of contradictions.

NAOMI: There’s lots of layers there.

CAMILLE: I want that cheeky thing. I want this question of how do black people interact with the natural world differently, because there is the significant potential for significant difference to be happening and there’s a lot of cultural, historical confusion behind that. Five hundred years of history, a long history of why those differences would happen. And so to just ignore those and assume that a people who have a legacy of being lumped in with the livestock would not have a different kind of relationship with animals is just silly.  But then, on the other hand, I wanted to show that sometimes there is no difference, sometimes you wouldn’t know. And so I just wanted this book that has this incredibly wide breadth of the potential experiences with the natural world. So the title needed to be a title that was kind of open.

NAOMI: I want to talk a little bit about Smith Blue, which I’ve shared with some of the people in my department in graduate school. We all are sitting around reading it and enjoying it a lot. Along the line of nature, especially with the first couple poems, with “Daisy Cutter,” “A Massive Dying Off,” and “Ice,” I was thinking about these images that come from nature as a way of exploring love and death and different types of things. I was wondering if that was something that was intentional or was that something that kind of happened.

CAMILLE: So that’s back to the question of do I consciously do these things. I was trying to write the best poem I possibly could about my reaction to the shock of going into Iraq, that’s “Daisy Cutter.” Or my reaction to having heard that story, the kind of oxygen deprivation in the ocean that’s causing these crustaceans to crawl up trawl lines. As it happens, part of my vocabulary for doing so is drawing on language that comes out of the natural world. The things I’m trying to talk about are partially often quite personal, but then I’m using my vocabulary, the language that I’m pulling out of my experiences, and I happen to be a person who looks at flowers and tries to identify trees. When you’re stuck, that’s what you pull from. At the end of “A Massive Dying Off” there’s the dream. That was an actual dream I had years before I wrote the poem, but then I got to that point in the poem and it wasn’t finished. I didn’t know how to finish it and- woop- out of the tool set comes this dream that I’d had, and it just dropped right perfectly in front of me. I’m sort of amazed still with that one. I had the dream; it was incredibly vivid and horrible. I wrote it down in my notebook so it stayed, and years later I was able to use it. So that’s what I mean, when I’m sitting down I wasn’t ever consciously thinking, so now I’m going to move to dream state. No, at the moment of the writing of the poem that was what was right and that was what was needed.

NAOMI: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about “Prayer for P” which was one of the poems that I read over and over again, especially attached to the distinct voices in each section. How did this poem come to be?

CAMILLE: Why did you read it over and over again?

NAOMI: I think it was the voices, the shift that I felt between the voices that seemed so intimate. I felt that I had to get into the poem; I wanted to get closer to those voices.

CAMILLE: So that ends up being a pretty good segue from what I just said, because I was just saying I pull out my tool chest and whatever is in it comes in sight. There’s a way in which that sounds easy. But I want to stress that I can do that partly because I keep that notebook.  I keep a practice, I am regularly reading and writing and doing exercises that are my version of running scales if I were a musician. They are incredibly boring and tedious and unsuccessful frequently.  I had for quite sometime been working on making acrostic poems from existing poems. I had been playing with that, it was just an idea that had struck me and I thought that it would be an interesting way to write a poem. It was significantly harder than I thought it would be and most of them were failures. All of them were failures with the exception of this one. What happened was when the woman at the center of the poem died, I was angry and I was sad. The way that sudden unnecessary death creates a simultaneous grief process, you go through all the grieving stages at one time. That was happening when she died. I wanted, I needed some way to address all those emotional responses, and I had been practicing acrostics. I was reading one day and I came across the Cavafy poem, “Prayer.” It was so beautiful and so perfect. I neutralized the pronouns in the Aliki Barnstone translation, and then I had my poem on which to frame for the acrostic. So then because I was trying to write an acrostic which meant that I could only go but so far and had to come back and come up with a capital V (laughs) to begin the next line. I was forced into this incredibly strict form, which was holding all of that unwieldy emotion.  And so all those voices are communal voices, but they’re also probably all the voices of my different emotions happening at the same time. So there’s a lot happening.  I actually wrote that in essentially one sitting. The draft of that poem probably happened over no more than eighty hours. 


CAMILLE: So I have this high intensity emotion and a highly focused form in which to pour it into. I had to make all kinds of decisions about how it would work about the ones that are in italics that are clearly in the voice of a mother’s ghost. I was writing it in a way that there weren’t going to be any capital letters at the beginning of the lines because of how that particular line of the poem worked. My hand got forced by the form that I had selected and it allowed me into what would have otherwise been an unwieldy emotional draft.

NAOMI: We started off talking in more general terms about history, the canon, and the greater American narrative. I was wondering what your thoughts were on where we are in African American poetry. In this moment, if there’s anything unique in terms of aesthetic.

CAMILLE: Oh, I think we are beyond being able to say one answer to that question. I’m not exactly sure we were ever in a place where we could have attempted. But we’re way beyond that (laughs) which is a good thing. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to keep trying. But I think it’s silly to do that. I personally know too many writers with such drastically different aesthetics. If we didn’t happen to be black, nobody would lump us together. But they will because we are (laughs) but I don’t feel like I have to participate in that. There’s just a lot that can happen. This is an incredible time for poetry. And I think that that has a lot to do with access to education. The fact that the desegregation of education worked really well for about forty years. I don’t think it’s working anymore (laughs). So I think we’re going to see a whole other kind of change. But our generation, I’m about to be forty, so basically my generation benefitted from an incredible potential for access to the best schools, best programs, and what has foreshadowed that is an immense diversity of articulateness in American culture, American letters.  And so that’s pretty cool. And then now with the differences in publishing what can happen, who can publish, the Internet.  All of those things mean that people can talk, move across space and time, get ideas and bounce off one another in ways that are unprecedented. I think that the present is bright and the future is potentially brighter. I live in the state of California and our public education system is rapidly deteriorating or deteriorated. If I’m right that there’s a link between the education access and what we’re seeing in the blossoming of American letters, then I’m a little bit pessimistic but I try not to be pessimistic as a rule so...

NAOMI: That really makes me think about what you said towards the beginning of our conversation. If we’re in this moment of possibility- so maybe where we are and where we have been is this space of writing all of our possibility into history in some way.

CAMILLE: Yes, there was, and I was part of it.  There was an explosion in the nineties of history narratives in poetry where people were poetically reinvestigating their past, and often that happened to be their ethnic past. The black poets were doing it, the Asian American poets, the Native American poets were doing it, and white people were doing it. Everyone was doing it. We were doing it probably because it was a bit of a retrospective period of where have we been. You do that, where have we been when you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to go. You also do that where have you been when you have an ability to speak honestly about who you’ve been as a people. I think we came out of a period when people could really be critical and honest and have a broad view of the past. Things weren’t always just perfect. I think we might have passed through that. I feel like now when people are talking about the past, it’s all glossy and romanticized. The other day I saw that somebody wrote “If everybody everyday enacted one moral or ethic from the 1950s this would be a better place for everyone.” And I was like, was that the moral or ethic that wouldn’t allow me to own property because I was a woman or the moral or ethic that wouldn’t allow me to go to school? And that had nothing to do with what this person was saying, they were like wear a hat and be polite to women. I mean, that’s what they were trying to say, but I’m like stop with the nostalgia already (laughs). That’s not going to work.  And so I feel like it’s dangerous when we enter these periods of nostalgia. We’re in a period of nostalgia because we’re in a period of turbulence, the economic turbulence, the environmental turbulence. People are freaked out, and they’re like lets go back to a place that never existed. 

NAOMI: I wanted to ask you about your work with The Fishouse. When you were talking about this being a special time for poetry and a lot of it has to do with the Internet, I was wondering if you could share a little bit about how you are establishing community through The Fishouse and how it fits in with what’s out there.

CAMILLE: Well, The Fishouse really couldn’t happen without the Internet. It’s a model that would be impossible without the Internet. When we started the website in ’05 it was unique. It started because my friend, we call each other twin, my twin brother had a long commute. To keep himself busy he tried to memorize poems; he would find recordings of the poems out loud just to play and he couldn’t find any recordings of emerging writers. He actually sent me a recorder to record some poems he liked and he asked me, because I know a lot of people, get a few people who I might like to hear and record them. We started there and it was just like O’Donnell’s idea to send me a recorder, and now we have two hundred fifty, three hundred writers up there. That was how it kept going. It was- I gave him a list of ten writers, they gave him lists of ten writers, and quickly it becomes exponential. We have a backlog; we can’t keep up with the recommendations, let alone the people who want to be on it. It’s because of the Internet.  All we had to do was send a digital recorder and then we could put it up and it would be heard all over. Now, among the many writers that we have new recordings from, the last two were Amy Lowell Traveling Fellows and another person who’s on Fulbright in Ireland. They’ve taken Ravi Shankar when he was over in South Asia doing work for his amazing anthology of Asian writers. All of these people have digital recorders, and so now it’s not just American writers, it’s world writers because of five American writers who happened to be traveling internationally and recording people. That’s the kind of exponential growth of connection of writers, that’s the jet age and the digital age that have allowed for that to happen. 

NAOMI: And along that similar line, I think being able to hear the audio is really special because a lot of people often say that they find poetry inaccessible, but then when they hear it it comes alive. With poetry being accessible, with the Internet, technology, and YouTube, do you see poetry becoming more popular, more kind of a written form of the people in some way?

CAMILLE: People are listening to poetry all the time. People are talking about poetry all the time. One of the ways that people are really expanding into a world of poetry is through spoken word and print. So it is through the performative side of poetry. I was never in that world; I know plenty of people who did start out in that world and other people who stayed in that world. I know why it’s attractive. Because it is performative, because it is sonically engaging. But the history of the kind of poetry I write, it’s called lyric poetry not because some guy was sitting down writing it (laughs). It’s called lyric poetry because it’s musical. The importance of the sound and the senses to make poetry happen, even if it’s poetry that’s really meant for the page, even poetry that does not necessarily work well out loud in my mind has visually sonic qualities. The way it plays across the page, the silences of white space, the aural aspect of poetry is too ubiquitous and crucial. One of the things the Fishouse did, we make this bridge between what people call academic poetry, which I have a problem with that phrase, the poetry that’s meant for the page and poetry that’s meant to be out loud. Fishouse created the space between those two that epitomized that bridge. I’m proud to be part of that.

NAOMI: Academic poetry, poetry that’s meant for the page, does that mean that it’s not meant to be performed or that it’s more of a private experience between the reader and the page?

CAMILLE: I think a lot of the people who write work like that are not thinking about performance, so they can tune out things that have gone on in the world. Other poets are so bad at performing their work it makes me think that’s not on their mind when they’re writing it. For my own work it’s hard. “A Massive Dying Off,” for instance, is hard to read out loud because of those NPR quotes. How am I supposed to out loud make it clear that there’s an NPR radio announcer talking? So I do have poems that do a lot better for you to read them to yourself than for me to read them to you. I’m still thinking about music when I’m doing them even if that’s the case and I’m sometimes surprised by what’s difficult to read out loud. I don’t realize it would be difficult to read out loud until I have to read it in a crowd.

NAOMI: That was one of the things that struck me. You’re an amazing reader and I was thinking, is that one of the things that’s got to be in the poet’s bag of tricks today, knowing how to read well?

CAMILLE: No, there are plenty of people who don’t read well at all. I think you should because I just think it’s a courtesy (laughs). I don’t think you’re not going to make it as a poet if you don’t. 

NAOMI: I wanted to talk about Suck on the Marrow. One of the things that’s really obvious is your engagement with history. Am I heading in the right direction with the goal of this book in some way?

CAMILLE: That is a happy outcome of that book. The goal of that book… if there is a goal to be had when I’m sitting down to write a poem, that then becomes part of a book. That’s really a project book. Still, to make that happen is another poem and then another poem. Something like a fourth or half of what I write doesn’t show up in a book. While I was writing those poems I was living in Virginia and I was deeply confused about where I was. And so I can look at that book now and realize that Joseph Freeman shares a lot with me. Not that I’ve experienced anything to the degree of the horror that he did, but not knowing the place. He was writing about the place as an outsider who had ended up there and that consciousness of deep confusion and just being confounded by where you were and painfully so, I understood. In some ways you could go through every major character in that book and there’d be something in my experience that translated into this historical account of where it was I was living and trying to figure out how other people who were dealing with their personhood, how they would deal with that within the horrific confines of slavery. History is present and important and one of the things that I was investigating. I was also concerned with how you would be human living in that place at that time. 

NAOMI: It’s interesting that you say that because there’s something that felt very present about it as well. There must have been an incredible amount of research involved.

CAMILLE: Four years, a lot of time. I had two leaves during the writing of that, I had an NEA leave and a sabbatical leave, so a total of a year I had to write, to travel, to go to archives. I went to the American Antiquarian Society, I went to libraries and museums. I visited plantations sites, read newspapers, people’s journals. I was in it (laughs). I was deeply in it. Frequently, because I was on leaves for big chunks of it. I was so in it because I didn’t have to teach composition. I was just writing that book. So that helps. That would be a difficult book to write and then be hopping back out teaching. I did one of them while I was teaching. One of the courses I taught one semester was a slave narrative class and we read 19th century slave narratives next to 20th century slave narratives. We would read Harriet Jacobs next to Ishmael Reed or Beloved. We would think about the ways a contemporary writer would take these things, so I was teaching a class which was forcing me to think about the ways that writers I admire had digested and redelivered the nineteenth century period at the same time I was really studying. My husband coincidentally, when I left Virginia and moved to California, wrote his dissertation on one of the major slave narratives of the period. And I’m sure that part of the reason that we fell in love with each other was because we could both fluently speak 1848. Not many people can do that.

NAOMI: I kept thinking about Harriet Jacobs and Douglass and the voice, it’s a really kind of distinctive voice in Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl. The voice just really seemed to match up with the period.

CAMILLE: Well, that was purposeful. A lot of these things you asked me I said maybe, but that was purposeful. One of the ways that I achieved that was by using nouns that would have been used in the time. The things that I list would be things that would be spoken of in those times. I’m using the objects of the day; those kinds of things were done to keep me in a nineteenth century framework of language. And so reading all of those narratives and newspaper articles and things from the time helped me, as I said, stay fluent in 1848. I suppose it would be a little bit like traveling to some place with a strong accent. When I travel to England, the longer I stay and speak to people about English things, I then start saying loo roll instead of toilet paper. You kind of shift over and you become a part of that world even though they all know I’m still the American. That’s kind of what I was doing essentially, just using the idioms and the colloquialisms of the mid nineteenth century as opposed to the idioms and colloquialisms of the 21st century.

NAOMI: Along the same lines of language and voice, I was thinking about where the body is located in these poems. The body as a site of truth, history, and experience, which seems to connect to the very physical and real experience of being a slave. 

CAMILLE: Yeah, it’s not just an intellectual problem. 

NAOMI: Yeah, that was something that also made it come off the page as well.

CAMILLE: Yeah, and I guess I agree with you. That was, again, a conscious move. In terms of the craft of it, it was a conscious effort to make it not just heavy. It’s not just about the mind. It’s not just about how I think someone would feel, but really how someone would actually feel, all the senses. So I tried to incorporate smells and tastes and physical pain.  All of that so we would be in a multi-sensory experience not just intellectual.

NAOMI: Which isn’t necessarily what one thinks of when thinking of the day-to-day lives, people expect this kind of violence, this kind of Alex Haley Roots (the film) type narrative.

CAMILLE: Yeah, one of the things that was kind of important to me was that I need these people to love. I needed love to happen. Real, actual abiding love. The Joseph and Melinda story and the ways that they held on even when they knew that they couldn’t and that fraught relationship between Molly and Shad. They wanted to be with each other but they were just different. There are a lot of ways that there’s little that’s different between the relationship between Molly and Shad and a relationship that you might have with someone in graduate school. That was important to me. Also, there was all this mega drama going around them. Still, they were just a couple kids who were kind of hot for each other (laughs). I wanted to put a lot of stakes in something that clearly wasn’t going to work. That seemed normal to me, that they could just have a relationship. Period.

NAOMI: Wow. I’m just in awe of what you have done between the two books. I don’t think I have any more questions for you. Thank you, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.