A conversation with Camille Dungy
In honor of writer, poet and scholar Camille Dungy’s new book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, there will be a launch event at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 4 at the Old Town branch of the Poudre River Library. Hosted by Old Firehouse Books, the event will feature a conversation with Dungy and fellow author Laura Pritchett. The event is free and open to the public.
Colorado State University Distinguished Professor Camille Dungy is a nationally celebrated poet and writer whose work examines the environment, social justice, history, culture and family.
Her works include four collections of poetry, including Trophic Cascade, which was the winner of the Colorado Book Award, and the essay Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She’s also edited several anthologies including the landmark work Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, the first anthology to focus on nature writing by African American poets.
Over the years, she has received the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowships, and an American Book Award. In 2019, she received the Guggenheim Fellowship to write her latest book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, which comes out May 2.
Audit host Stacy Nick spoke with Dungy about the book, her poetry and her work here at CSU.
The Audit transcript
Hi, Camille. Thanks for being here.
Oh, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Now, when you received the Guggenheim Fellowship, you didn’t originally set out to write a memoir, per se. So, how did the book kind of evolve?
I applied to the Guggenheim Fellowship with a proposal to write a book called “Soil.” So, I was already interested in the ideas of thinking about what grew up from the land around me. But the fellowship came to me in 2020. And so, I had set out a daily writing habit, and I was really excited that I was going to have all day to write while my daughter was at school. And I didn’t have the responsibilities of teaching. And then the 2020 that we all know descended upon us. And my husband was still teaching, he’s Dr. Ray Black in the ethnic studies department. He had a class of 90 students that he had to very, very quickly turn into an online class. And so, he was sort of not around, shall we say. And I was the one responsible for overseeing my daughter’s virtual education. And the book project changed considerably as a result. My questions about what grew up out of the space around me became much more focused on thinking about my daughter and thinking about her education and what kind of lessons we teach our children and how our lessons about the past affect our present and our future. And so that ended up working its way into the book in a way that I could never have predicted. And the intersections between history and family and questions of what expectations are for women as mothers, as artists, as professionals. All of these kinds of questions really came to the fore for me, as they did for a lot of people, obviously, during that time.
As you mentioned, the world was in a lot of upheaval. There was the global pandemic, but also nationally the Black Lives Matter movement was taking shape and calling attention to Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Elijah McClain, just a few of the Black women and men who died at the hands of police. And here in Colorado, there were fires raging. The Cameron Peak Fire burned for nearly four months and spanned more than 200,000 acres. All of these things were happening at once. And I wondered, I feel like writing is usually probably a cathartic experience, but I wondered at that point if you felt you didn’t have any way to get away from the world when you were writing about it, because it was just everywhere.
I did not feel as if I had any way of getting away from the world, you know, during some of those worst fire days. I couldn’t breathe in my own house. And I have a house with very good insulation and filtration systems. These threats were pervasive. And so, another thing that really shifted from my initial idea, from my Guggenheim proposal to what you would have if you picked up the book Soil now, is I had to radically rethink my ideas of what constituted nature writing and why. I think I have always understood that there are a lot of barriers to entry to environmental writing and the general American imagination of who is an environmentally conscious person and what that might look like. That’s always been something that I‘ve been sort of working on, to open these kinds of ideas to a wider range of people. But living in this moment when I couldn’t walk outside without being hyper aware of climate change issues and social justice issues and the needs of my own family made me physically, you know, like, completely embodied the fact that for so many people it is absolutely impossible to just get away from it all and to move into that 19th century, and mid-20th century environmental writing ideal of going out by oneself and just sort of communing with nature in solitude, which I think is so much of the environmental writing tradition. And so, throughout Soil, I end up really interrogating even the desire to go out by yourself, the desire to completely disconnect from the realities of the world. And I began to really want my own writing to accurately express the entanglement that I think so many of us live day to day. So that when I’m thinking about growing things in the yard, I’m thinking about it because I’m thinking about how to make a beautiful, safe, sustaining place for my family; how to help welcome native pollinators to the space; how to deal with my homeowner’s association, who may or may not think it’s OK for me to let things stand over the winter. Right? All of those things are happening while I‘m thinking about caring for my garden, and I wanted a book that expressed that entanglement and that sort of complexity of most of our lives.
With all the different elements, the themes that were involved in the book, motherhood also plays a large role. Would you mind reading your poem, “Ceremony,” for us?
I’d be happy to read this.
No one can fly down to bury his aunt.
The sickness is already there. That’s what
took her. And, anyway, we are stuck
at home. The moon swelled then emptied
into its shadow. We learned this week
the Black singer died. Days later,
the white one. A man in the neighborhood,
young father of four. Lifted over the sink,
our child stood on the ledge and cleaned
the kitchen windows. It is bright outside
most days. Grass is greening up the yard.
An uncle died. Another aunt was taken
to the hospital. The moon swells again.
This feels like the early days of parenthood.
We swap watch. Focus on raising the child.
We’ve seen times like this before, we say.
Also, these times are like nothing we have
ever seen. When I came downstairs today
for breakfast, he was playing “Lovely Day,”
a song we danced to at our wedding.
We danced there, in the kitchen, all of us
howling those high and happy days. Lovely
Day, we sang. Lovely day. Oh! Lovely day.
It’s one of my favorites, I love that. I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind that particular poem.
So, the two singers I mentioned are Bill Withers and John Prine, both of whom are amazing musicians. And their losses hit me really hard in that period where also you hear in the poem the family had suffered a fair number of losses, and just like what was happening around was just piling up. And we were very much at home at that time. And I remember texting a friend, this feels like the early days of parenthood: We swap watch, focus on raising the child. I texted that to a friend who is also a poet, and he’s like, that sounds like a line of poetry. And it was such an intense period and we had so little time. I had so little time to write at that point, but I was requiring myself to take a small amount of time every day to write something. And I just started with those lines and wrote out and around them reporting really what all was going on. A lot of my poems have a lot of space in them, and line breaks and they move all over the page. And this poem is condensed in this one tight column where one sentence flows into the next, flows into the next, and you don’t quite know what leads to the next thing and whether things are connected or not. And that felt very much like how that time felt too, that sort of a lack of differentiation from one moment of shock to another, but also these moments of beauty and wonder, and they all were mixed up together. So, I tried to create a condensed version of that feeling of those early months.
Another large element of this book is your garden and your yard and the work that you do. And in one chapter you note, “The growing of things calms me. Plants stabilize me.” When did you realize that connection? When did nature become such an important role for you?
Nature has always been really important to me. I grew up in this house where if I walked out the front door, I was in a super planned community with terraced streets etc. But if I walked out my back door, I was in an undeveloped wild landscape. And so, for me, that pivot between this kind of built human environment and this greater-than-human, wild, like untrammeled, uncontrolled sort of setting feels like it can be my own backyard, right? And so, I have always felt connected to having a kind of wildness in my yard as opposed to a really, really regimented, monochromatic, kind of very tame landscaping. This house in Fort Collins is the first house where I have lived long enough to be able to make those changes that I can see and watch and direct in that kind of way. So, this is new for me in terms of my own ability to make those decisions about the space around me. But I’ve always had houseplants, always more houseplants than one should have in their house. And I’ve always had this really abiding interest in growing spaces around me.
So, what drew you to poetry, but also specifically ecopoetry?
And my answer goes back to that house I grew up in. Like, that’s my language. It’s my well, I guess, that I go to when I want to think of places of peace and beauty, but also places where I am able to understand how the world works in what feels to me often like really practical ways. I don’t like to say that nature provides for me a lot of metaphors or allegories because nature, it just is. The world around us exists wholly and fully and in really complex, exciting ways. And I just like tapping in and paying attention and observing and recording. That’s just always been interesting to me, and it has never felt separate to me of thinking about what it means to be human.
What do you enjoy about the process of teaching poetry, and what are some of the biggest lessons that you hope to impart to your students?
Well, I’m a fourth-generation college professor, so in some ways it’s just the family business. Like, if I’d gone into law, my parents would have been like, “What, why?”
We’re so disappointed.
I know. Being a professor has always been in the wheelhouse of the possibilities for me. I really love teaching because teaching keeps me engaged with the literature. I have to keep reading. I have to keep knowing what’s new in the world. I have to be able to understand what I’m doing well enough to be able to help other people participate in the practice, in the writing classes that I teach, and then understand what writers do in the literature classes that I teach. And so, it just keeps me really alert and aware and engaged. I will also say that at this point in my life, I feel like teaching. I jokingly call it the fountain of youth and the fountain of old. It’s the fountain of youth because I keep engaged with what’s happening with younger people and I have a connection with what’s happening with language and what’s happening with technology and what’s happening with what people are reading and wearing and saying and calling themselves. And I feel not as out of touch as some other people of my generation might be about how the world is progressing. That being said, sometimes there are chasms of difference, and I see those differences and then I’m like, wow, the world has changed, right? And I may or may not keep up with it. And that’s where the fountain of old part happens. Like, ”Oh, we’re different now.” And that difference to me is exciting, and it keeps me alert and refreshed.
With the idea of changes in poetry and in language and in literature, what are you seeing since you began your career? What kind of changes have you seen that world take?
Right, and that’s a great question. I think one of the spaces that we could talk about it is with environmental literature, that I speak in Soil a lot about the literature I was trained reading, and it was really important to me to use that language because there are different possibilities now that students know about, and it’s really exciting. And so, writers like Aimee Nezhukumatathil and her book World of Wonders, or Drew Lanham and his book Home Place, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which has sold like, I think like 2 million copies or some astounding number. So, we have an Indigenous woman, an Indian and Filipino woman and a Black man from the South writing some of the key environmentally conscious text of the last 10 years. That’s very different from what I had access to when I was in college and graduate school in terms of who was being published. I’m sure other people were writing, but who was being published and who was being championed as the voice of the environment and the greater–than–human world? It was pretty much just white men. And then Annie Dillard sometimes. And so that sort of broader access, and I, I use this term frequently, the broadening of the American imagination, a diversity of voices and experiences speaking of their connections to the greater than human world. Through that broadening of voices and representation, we have new possibilities for being, new possibilities for repair, and new possibilities for creating viable, sustainable options that won’t happen if only one small group of voices has the podium all the time.
The anthology that you edited a few years back, Black Nature, really pushed a lot of that to the forefront. I think that was the first anthology that ever put those voices out there.
Yeah, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry is the name of the anthology, and it was published in December of 2009. And when I did the literature review that I needed to do to prove that that book was necessary because there weren’t other books out there, I read thousands of poems in all the major anthologies, most of the major journals that had been published between 1930 and 2006. And in all of those publications, I found six poems by Black people. And yet in six months’ time, which is a very, very, very fast amount of time to do this kind of project, I was able to pull together nearly 300 poems to expand that conversation of writers for four centuries from the very first Black writer to publish a book in the English language all the way through poets who had not yet published a book as of 2009. And so that work was there. It was present. It was simply that the very closed idea of what environmental writing was excluded those voices. And often it was because of exactly the kinds of things that I’m doing in this book, Soil, where I am definitely talking about the garden and I’m talking about native plants of Colorado and what our particular Northern Colorado ecosystem would look like in an untampered manner. Those are all the kinds of things that one might expect from a nature book. But I also talk about the rate of Black people being pulled over for cycling violations as opposed to white people or the protests that you were mentioning or the fires or like what my daughter’s homeschooling curriculum was. Those things are folded into my environmental explorations, and that would happen a lot with these poets and was why they were being excluded. I think, if you’ll bear with me for just one more moment where I turn into a professor, that one of the big changes in poetry is a shift from what we might call nature poetry to what we call ecopoetry. And ecopoetics is purposely and consciously attuned to the issues of the Anthropocene or the human created changes, which means that eco poems will talk about oil spills and they’ll talk about economics, and they’ll talk about history, and they’ll talk about social justice questions. At the same time, they’re talking about things that might be more typically understood to be nature writing. They tend not to be poems written in that sort of isolated, I am just going out into the wilds by myself kind of tradition. They tend to be part of this collaborative, entangled tradition that I am writing into with Soil. And so that’s another difference that students have, I think students often expect now. If that’s all they’ve really been experiencing, they expect this more complex and, to me, very exciting kind of writing.
And in the book, you delve into a lot of issues, a lot of things that are the more difficult aspects. In the last chapter you write, “It is more than hope my garden gives me. Examples of resilience keep me coming back to walk this path in gratitude and wonder. Without resilience, what is hope but a passing fancy?” When people read this book, what is the message that you hope that they have when they read that last page and close the book?
With all this talk about all the other things I talk about in addition to my garden, I hope that people can read this book and feel a kind of radical welcome that it’s OK to be thinking about other things at the same time that you’re thinking about how you connect with and care for and engage with the greater-than-human world, that it’s OK to be a really busy mother or a son who’s doing a lot of elder care, but also sort of sometimes wants to fancy themselves like an environmental thinker. But I feel like sometimes the message has been that you have to choose one or the other. You know, you have to choose these domestic concerns or these kinds of practical or political aspects of your life or your environmentalism. And I think that I hope that this book helps people integrate the multiple parts of who they are, and also the multiple possibilities of who their neighbors might be, to create a kind of supportive, sustaining community.
Camille, thank you so much for being here today. I appreciate your time.
I really appreciate your inviting me. This was a really fun conversation. And thank you for reading the book with such care.
Thank you for writing it. It was beautiful.
That was CSU Distinguished Professor and poet Camille Dungy. Her latest book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, comes out May 2nd. I’m your host, Stacy Nick, and this is The Audit, CSU’s new podcast featuring conversations with CSU faculty about everything from research to current events.
About Camille Dungy
Colorado State University Distinguished Professor Camille Dungy’s work has appeared in over 40 anthologies along with dozens of print and online venues in the U.S. and abroad.
Dungy’s interest in the intersections between literature, environmental action, history and culture led her to edit Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, the first anthology to bring African American environmental poetry to national attention. She also co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology and has served in several other editorial positions. Currently, she is the poetry editor for Orion magazine and hosts Immaterial, a podcast from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.
Dungy is the recipient of the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and fellowships from the NEA in both prose and poetry.