Surviving Is the Crux of Celebration: An Interview with Camille T. Dungy

June 10, 2021   •   By Jasmine Elizabeth Smith

MY FIRST INTRODUCTION to Camille’s work was three years ago at the African American Museum in Oakland. I had just completed my MFA at University of California, Riverside, and a week-long residency at Cave Canem in Pittsburgh. After academic burnout, my partner and I embarked on a two-month van trip to his home in Washington. As we hiked and camped our way up the West Coast, I became acutely aware of how race dictated the ease or lack of ease in which my partner and I navigated these outdoor spaces. While the outdoors and eco-poetics continue to be places of escape and reprieve for me, it often too feels a place of alienation as a Black woman. 


Thus, it was only natural (no pun intended) that I was drawn to Camille T. Dungy’s anthology, Black Nature, that stood on display in the museum’s seed lending library. 


I would return to this anthology and Camille T. Dungy’s work on a camping trip in Roslyn, Washington, this summer. The world seemed a mess. I was once again burned out as many of us were, and everything from the convergence of a global pandemic, West Coast fires, a season of protests and outrage beating back the hands of racism, police brutality, and white supremacy seemed so huge. 


Hiking a grueling 18 miles to Tuck and Robin Lakes, conscious of these ever-present griefs, I recited June Jordan’s “For Alice Walker (a summertime tanka)” from Black Nature. Those five lines of syllabic counts became comfort, as Walker’s presence does to Jordan in the poem, shifting her attention to the seemingly insurmountable events of the time and her grief to the Redwoods in front of her: “These sweet trees: This tree.”


On January 6, 2021, Camille T. Dungy and I were scheduled for an interview to discuss her most recent publications: Trophic Cascade and Guidebook to Relative Strangers. Instead, we watched with dismay as a mob of insurrectionists scaled the walls and stormed the Capitol building to try to overturn the electoral certification. Our interview would take place the next day on January 7, 2021, over a two-hour video conference call.


In what has become a markedly polarized time, Camille T. Dungy’s work and words continue to serve as poignant incentive against binary thinking. Trophic Cascade and Guidebook to Relative Strangers navigate the nuances of incomprehensible loss and joy, and of discovering who we are relative to the ecologies of our most intimate relationships, society, and the ever-changing natural world.


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JASMINE ELIZABETH SMITH: My first question is in regards to your most recent publications: Trophic Cascade and Guidebook to Relative Strangers. Both texts explore motherhood and your relationship to writing and how those two roles are inextricably linked to one another. How do you feel that your relationship to writing has changed as a mother? And what has it also taught you about your writing?


CAMILLE T. DUNGY: I think part of the core of both of those books is the answer to that question. In both books, I am working through what it means to be myself and the person who I’ve always been in the world: which is a Black woman who’s interested in the larger world, including the greater than human world. That’s always been something that has been fundamental to who I am as a person and a writer. And that hasn’t changed.


But there’s this other identity that has been added to my identity, and that’s that of a mother. And so much of both of these books are really thinking about what that looks like. How do those changes manifest in the way I see the world, the way the world sees me, the way I am able to interact with the world, the way that the world can both protect and imperil me and my daughter? I still don’t have a quick, easy answer to those questions. It took me an entire collection of essays, an entire collection of poems, and still beyond to be able to begin to figure out the answers to those questions.


I was delighted with your recurring series “Frequently Asked Questions” within Trophic Cascade. The speaker is asked all of these mundane questions about motherhood and answers each in surprising and often humorous ways. In each of these poems, we see a new layer and revelation about the relationship between mother and daughter.


And I suppose this brings me back to Guidebook to Relative Strangers. In the essay “Body of Evidence,” you describe the alienating experience of being part of a mock election that was held in your second-grade class between candidates Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. You write, “The rest of my class, the rest of my county, the rest of my country — they all voted for the other candidate in a landslide. A candidate to whom — I must have understood this even as a child — my family’s voice, our pain, meant little.” Even at such a young age, you clearly understood that your classmates’ vote for Ronald Reagan was not only an erasure of yourself, but your family’s feelings and your community’s feelings at large and yet your second-grade teacher quickly dismisses these very real feelings by assuring you that the results don’t matter because it’s just a mock election.


How are you navigating this particularly difficult time as an educator and a parent?


I didn’t teach this fall. I didn’t teach any courses at Colorado State University for the calendar year of 2020. And more than once I said out loud, thank goodness I’m not teaching, navigating questions such as how I would juggle childcare while also teaching.


In regards to teaching during the election season, I live in a purple state, so people have different opinions about things all the time, as we have a right to in this country. That’s one of our rights, to hold our own opinions. My own opinion is a right as long as it does not damage the psyche, body, or being of another person. I do not believe that that is what those rights extend into.


This year people have died, people have gotten sick, people have lost: their property, their money, and their sense of self. Teaching in that atmosphere, it seems most important to me that I teach the value of empathy: the value of expansive appreciation of the world around them, the existence of cultures, ideas, experiences that are different from their own, and the mind-altering, really wonderful capacity of compassion. If I could help to teach those things, and I think literature is a gateway toward all of those, we create a culture where we are not as quick to destroy one another because we have learned a little bit more about who those people might be and what their lives might look like.


And we find this empathy you are discussing so acutely within your poetry and in your depictions of the natural world. In Guidebook to Relative Strangers, you write that hardline objectivists would tell you that animals do not feel and that it is electrical impulses, hormonal imperatives that drive their actions, thoughts, reasons, and emotions. I am interested in how a contrary understanding of the natural world and its sentience drives your poetry about nature.


I believe that being alive means sentience, but I do believe that sentience is different. It looks different. The trees live, breathe, eat, think differently than I do. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not living, breathing, eating. They just are doing it differently. Things have their lives move at different paces than ours. They move through different channels other than ours. And yet, because it is different, that does not mean that I shouldn’t respect it.


Not so long ago, and even now, there are plenty of humans who would say that Black people are right on par with, name your nonhuman animal. There’s any number of nonhuman animals that Black people have been directly linked with as a mode of dismissing our intelligence, our emotional capacities, and our worth within the world.


And so if you dismiss the value, the worth in the world, of an ape or a gorilla or a dog or a horse or a mule or a cow, which are a number of the animals that Black people have been directly compared to — if you don’t think any of those are worthy and intelligent — and then you lump the human with that … You see? And so therefore, I just feel like I can’t participate in that. I just cannot participate in that diminishment of the value of another life.


You write “that surviving is the crux of celebration.” In what ways is Trophic Cascade not only a poetry collection about navigating loss, but equally a collection about celebration and joy?


The title Trophic Cascade is a term from ecology. There is a continuance and connection from the trophy creature, often a large predator at the top of the food chain, for a simplified way of thinking about that term, and all the creatures who come in a cascading manner off of that creature.


So tuna — then the creatures that the tuna eats and so on — all the way down to the plankton. And if you were to remove the tuna from that hierarchy, the entire structure collapses. My title poem, “Trophic Cascade,” gives an example of a healthier linked system as we witness the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park.


But in my usage of this term in this poem, and in the collection as a whole, I also realized that I have this other trophy creature: the infant who’s been introduced into my life changed everything in the entire web of my existence. Similarly, the removal of elders changed everything and our entire web of existence. I was thinking a lot about how the addition of or removal of a top entity, a major kind of demanding entity, in these systems of our lives, shifts and changes so many things. And, so, both loss and gain are measured in the concept of trophic cascade.


In “Notes on what is always with us,” you write,


There are things I do not want to say, I said in my journal

Except the not saying won’t return anything you love.
 


The boy is dead. The boy’s mother is dead.


I was trying to write about beauty, but grief won’t stay away


I was trying to write about babies and birthday and birds.

I was trying to write about joy.


It’s not simply about the removal or the replacement, the losses and gains. It’s both. Both make the difference. This may be beginning to be clear in our conversation: I don’t do isolated binaries very well. I’m very often looking in both directions. There’s no way to measure joy without measuring grief. Joy means nothing if we don’t have the opposite to balance it against.


I’m interested in this idea about the importance of elders and the influence of both personal history and a larger collective history within your work. In Guidebook to Relative Strangers, you mention that when you’re writing, it’s never an idle task, because you are never writing alone. And when you are writing, it’s always about history.


What else could I be writing about other than history as a synthesis of our lives? This is just how I’ve always written. It’s just who I have always been. I’ve always been generationally minded.


I was very lucky to have had close relationships with three of my four grandparents. My maternal grandparents lived until I was in my late 30s and early 40s. I think I have had an understanding of the value of multigenerational connection. And that then shows up in my writing and thinking.


Also, I believe what William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


The past is never over. It’s as if it happened yesterday. For example, Ruby Bridges, who was the first Black student to integrate an elementary school in New Orleans, just turned 66 this year. That’s not old. I have colleagues that age. We have plenty of lawmakers who are that age or older.


And that is how not in the past these civil rights questions are. Reconstruction is now. Not in the past. The Civil War is now. Not in the past. That is the reason I believe we’re seeing this cultural divide right now. How can the Civil Rights movement be a past concern if people in today’s society are so deeply and immediately offended by the changes that legislation like the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act have brought upon their lives that they want to change it back?


I have to bear in mind yesterday. You can’t think about tomorrow if you do not think about yesterday. When I’m trying to write about the present, I am also trying to write about the future and the possibilities I would like to take place in the future.


In Guidebook to Relative Strangers, you write, “[P]eople use foils to help them express their desires. They use excuses. They try to hold their tongues. They speak poetically, working through connotation and association.” How does poetry act as a vehicle to truly express ourselves?


Poetry is a vessel that holds language for the most part. But we understand that poetry also does something else with language. It’s one of the reasons people feel uncomfortable around poetry. And because of that, poetry is what I call paralogical. The poet and the reader of poetry can access parts of their experience that logical language, which delivers information to the mind, cannot access.


Poetry, then, gets us into feeling, gets us into memory, gets us into the potential for synesthesia and blurring of senses like, “Oh, you remind me in this poem of the smell of my grandmother’s rose bushes, and being reminded of the smell of my grandmother’s rose bushes takes me into an emotional space that opens up numerous possibilities.”


Is poetry then a means to envision this future and possibility?


Poetry or poetic literature can bring us toward the possibility of a truth and reconciliation, culturally speaking. It can bring us toward the kinds of reimagining we need to survive, such as sustainable climate and political futures.


What are you working on now?


I should be better prepared for that question, but somehow I often find myself caught off guard when someone asks me. I think that is because after I finish a book I can tell you what I have been working on, but while I am in the midst of a book I am still open to the directions it will take me. When you resist binaries in the ways that I do, sometimes it is hard to come up with a singular elevator pitch to distill your thoughts. I can tell you that I have been looking carefully at domestic scenes and trying to think about the ways that what happens in our houses, and in the immediate vicinity of our homes, often directly reflects what is happening in the larger world. We talked a little here about the ways we so frequently use poetic language in our interactions in the world. I think that is partially because, viewed through the right lens, everything about our experiences in the world can be factual and concrete and at the same time can also be construed as metaphor. That’s exciting to me, and I have been trying to write directly into the implications of this truth.


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True Story


            The cat wandered between two women.

In one house, the kibble and clear water.

            Sometimes, bits of roast chicken, even,

sometimes, translucent fish skin.

            That’s the house that first called her

its own and, for all those nights until

            she found the other woman, she’d purred

there without asking for anything more.

            But, I’ve already told you, she found

the other woman. Whose house held

            the wondrous calm of no children. A blessing.

Wet food in the kitchen. Catnip growing

            for her in the yard. The women came

to be like sister wives. Accepting, if not

            companionable. Opening and offering

everything when the cat came around.

            For years this continued. They lived

next door to each other, the women,

            on the wooded west slope of a mountain

whose winding road runners liked to climb.

            The cat lay her body down first on one bed

then on another until the arrangement settled

            into a system as unremarkable as love.

One woman believed, as Issa believed,

            that in all things, even the small and patient

snail, there are perceptible strings that tie

            each life to all others. The other woman

was born in Chicago. There, the lake’s current

            carried a black boy past some unmarked line

and a mob on the white beach threw rocks

            until the boy was no more. She didn’t

side with the mob, this woman, but she knew

            where they came from. She came from

there too. When the cat got sick, the woman

            from Chicago wanted to put her down quickly.

The other woman wanted not so much for her

            to live forever as for her to fully live

every second of her allotted time. Meanwhile,

            winter rain threatened the shallow-rooted

eucalyptus on the hillside. Meanwhile,

            the runners still ran. The women argued

in their divided driveway about how they’d prefer

            to die. Until she didn’t anymore, the cat

continued eating in both the women’s houses.


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Jasmine Elizabeth Smith(she/her) is a Black poet from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of California in Riverside.