Attending to Our Nature: How We Write Place and How Place Writes Us
Interview with Camille T. Dungy
by Kristi Moos
On a mild June evening, I sat down with Camille T. Dungy at her home in Oakland, California to talk poetry and place. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
KM: What are some of your favorite writers of place?
CTD: This Spring semester I designed and taught a course called “Literary Mapping.” In it we studied various ways that contemporary Californian writers map place. We looked at place in historical contexts, in terms of geography and topography, nostalgia, emotion, weather and climate, culture, food, roads, you name it. There are so many different ways that we can map place, so many ways to write about place. Many of my favorite writers do this sort of mapping all the time, as if they are drawing on place the same way one would draw on various aspects of English. In fact, the authors I like best make me aware of the fact that the way I use English is deeply informed by my relationship to the place from which I speak it.
Any list I give you would necessarily be incomplete. I read poet after poet and fall in love with them. For example, the way Robert Hass writes California, Northern California in particular, is palpable to me. It’s a place I recognize. Not just when he talks about the landscape, but also when he talks about the people in the landscape and the history of the people. There is something in the way that his poetry conjoins the land, the history, and the fauna that I find rewarding to read.
Outside of California-based writing, I edited Black Nature. Much of the poetry in the anthology is about place; about either trying to claim place or being dislocated from it. When I think about my concepts of poetry that communicates with and about nature, it’s often really based on that: the idea of how we locate ourselves on the earth.
Another book that I’m absolutely enamored with right now is Jena Osman’s The Network. One of the sections in the book deals with the history of New York City, the Wall Street area in particular. This section is an ecopoetics because it’s partly about what happened when the land was taken over, filled in; when we made a financial district out of what was dockland and wetlands. It explores what comes after a natural ecology has disappeared, which is interesting to me.
KM: When you write about place, do you write mostly about places you’ve dwelled in, or rather, places that you’ve simply passed through?
CTD: My first two books are largely place-based, and yet they are not about the place that I was from. They are set in Virginia and in the Midwest; in places where my parents were from. But I am a Californian. Even when I was living in Virginia for seven years, it was very clear that I was the California girl living in Virginia. But there was a way that I actually feel I have more authority to write about Virginia than I do about California. Authority is not the right word: it’s precision. Because I didn’t know where I was, I had to be really right; I had to look things up. I had to investigate and take it upon myself to do the work of getting the details of the place right. When you run into a flora that’s new to you, you have to figure out what it is, how it responds to seasons, how to describe it, and what its implications are. This is very different from writing about a native landscape. I think there can be a significant amount of empowerment that comes with writing into a place that you are coming to know.
KM: Moving with that idea, what do you see as poetry’s role in the battle to preserve landscapes? How can poetry mitigate environmental destruction?
CTD: Both writing and reading poetry require attention. What we need right now is more attention paid to how we treat the earth. There’s a great deal of memorializing and elegy that unfortunately has to happen now because we’ve passed the tipping point on many species and spaces. Sadly, one of the things that poetry can do is create a record of things that are gone or going.
This is drastically different from literary traditions established when there was the expectation that everything was going to be here forever and for us. We’re dealing with the repercussions of such ideologies today. Another responsibility of a writer is to be part of the chorus of memorial. These are two really crucial things that poets can do: they can memorialize and they can call us to attention.
Poets also change the discourse by changing the way we see and talk about things. That’s what I’m talking about with Robert Hass: he delivers the facts of a space, and at the same time, he is telling a love story. Readers are following a love story, but at the same time, they are finding out about a landscape they may not have known about. This mixing of both intellectual and emotional registers allows for a fanning out of understanding. Any action that keeps us talking about who we are and what we are doing in and to the world is an action that serves the battle for a better world.
KM: Speaking in simplified terms, if the intellectual project of 19th century ecological writing was to celebrate natural abundance, and the 20th century marked a shift towards preserving nature from human-caused environmental destruction, what do you see as the intellectual project of ecological writing in the 21st century? Is it still elegiac, or are we moving somewhere beyond that?
CTD: I think it’s elegiac AND… I certainly do not want to be part of a group that is solely singing dirges. Because that would mean giving up before the fight is over. There are things that are irreparable and there are things that can be repaired. The plastic island in the middle of the South Pacific that is larger than Texas doesn’t have to be larger than Alaska (or it’s as big as Alaska but it doesn’t need to be as big as China). There are things we can do. One of the possibilities for art right now is to sound an alarm, to say: stop what you’re doing; look; change. There is certainly a tradition in poetry of instruction. Poetry can say: here are the ways that we can take care of the world and work in communion with it.
KM: Talk about your experience selecting work for inclusion in Black Nature. Did this experience bring any insights or discoveries about nature writing, and in particular, an African American perspective of nature and place?
CTD: I should hope that every experience I have in this life will provide me with insights and discoveries. The collection of the poems that would comprise Black Nature was no different. Perhaps if we collectively moved through the world with a little more humility and a bit more willingness to seek out the answers rather than always believing we have them from the start, we wouldn’t be in quite the trouble we are now. It’s actually a pretty major intellectual failing of this nation: there’s a business mindset wherein people are afraid to admit they don’t know something. It reduces creative problem solving, happy accidents, and a willingness to collaborate.
But that’s not what you were asking, you were asking about Black Nature and what I learned. The short answer is a lot. One example of many is that I learned that there was a difference in how writers wrote about the land after the 1970s from how they wrote about it before. It seemed clear that after the major advances of the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles that African American poets developed a different sort of relationship with the land. There was a greater ability to speak about land as if it were something that could “belong” to them. This is an over simplification because there are still plenty of other kinds of writing. Still, as I say in the introduction to Black Nature, “Cycle Nine, “Growing Out of The Land” is the only group of poems in the book to include entirely contemporary texts, all published after 1970…These poets’ reflections on the positive and negative effects of the personal and collective cultivation of ecological spaces reveal a new mode of thinking and writing about human interactions with the environment.” What I ended up with in that section was incredibly exciting work by writers like June Jordan, Janice N. Harrington, Richard Wright, Yusef Komunyakaa, C.S. Giscombe, Gerald Barrax, Sean Hill, Marilyn Nelson, and Audre Lorde. Sometimes the work was different from the work you usually see from these writers. Sometimes it simply appears different in the context of the work that surrounds it.
KM: So as thinking shifts, so do artistic responses to the world. You’ve talked about ways in which poetry can both reflect and influence how we think about place. Alternatively, do you think that place can influence poetry and thought?
CTD: As an individual writer, there’s no question about that; I wrote very differently when I lived in Virginia than when I was living in or thinking about California.
KM: In what ways was it different?
CTD: When I was living in Virginia, I tended to write about the past. When I was living in Virginia and thinking about California, I often wrote about the future. I was missing home. I was writing in a wishful, conditional tense. When I first got back to California, I was deeply present: I am here now and this is what I am seeing and experiencing. In Virginia, I was trying to figure out why the place was what it was. I had to go way back into history to figure that out. I was literally seeing entirely different landscapes; I was moving back a century in the landscape in order to understand where I was standing when I stood there.
KM: Will you talk about your book, Suck on the Marrow, and in particular, how place and time figure in that work?
CTD: Suck on the Marrow is set in 19th century America, both in Virginia and Philadelphia. It was important to me that it wasn’t just Virginia. When writing about anything, we have to really look at complicity. It is facile to just look at the epicenter of trauma; you have to figure out what that trauma stemmed from, what is provoking it, and who benefits from it. Someone is always benefitting and it’s often not the people at the epicenter of the trauma. So where is it that the beneficiaries reside? And, also, where do we look to find the collateral damage?
In this case, I looked to the North where the economic centers and the cotton mills were. The people of the North were able to use the product of human labor and the North was also, surprisingly to many, the source of a great deal of that labor. In writing about slavery in the 19th century, I couldn’t just say the people of Virginia are the problem. I had to say what was happening around a whole country. What were the attitudes around the whole country about labor, and consumption, about what we buy and what we eat, and who we buy and how we used them. No one gets eaten in this book, but plenty of people are consumed. Thus the title.
KM: You’re talking about how Virginia is not just shaped by Virginia, but also by Philadelphia, by Washington D.C., and by places all over the country. So one geographical location is actually linked to a greater political and cultural geography. That’s really fascinating to me, because you can be sitting on your front porch in Virginia, and the people and ideas of a place that you’ve never been to before are having an influence over where you are in that place and time.
CTD: It’s fascinating and it’s very often overwhelming. It’s hard to get that level of scope in writing, and in feeling. So much of what we’re talking about with geopolitical tensions and environmental degradation gets so big that it’s easy to just crumble under and say it’s too big to think about. In the end, I’m aware I was writing in direct correspondence with the fact of a national strife, but in Suck on the Marrow, I decided I was going to write about six individuals. I placed those six individuals in specific places with very specific relationships to each other. That’s how I did it. Instead of trying to tell the entire history of the world, I told the story of six people across about twenty years. That’s what I could do. That’s the way that I managed. I had to figure out a way to talk about really large ideas and distill them. One of the ways that I’ve managed to do that, in my first two books in particular, was to make individuals real in the face of overwhelming realities.
KM: Can you think of any other writers who focus their work on one specific issue or place that also addressed a much larger framework of concerns?
CTD: I think of John Muir. Of course he was a political activist, but the legacy of what he was able to do was due in large part to the fact that he wrote things down. Because he was such a great place-writer, he was able to reach people who had never been to Yosemite and other places he cared about. People who would never be able to experience these places longed to be there. His writing made them fall in love with Western landscapes. Muir provides an example of the ways that one writer who shares his or her vision of a place has the power to cause major ripples that can go all the way to affecting policy.
KM: John Muir was the one who took President Teddy Roosevelt deep into Yosemite. Muir showed him what he referred to as “my Yosemite” and convinced him of the need to preserve the land. Sometimes, I wonder if Muir’s success in securing the preservation of the land had more to do with his magnetic personality than his nonfiction writing. What do you think?
CTD: I’m sure. And he didn’t get everything he wanted, either, or the San Francisco Bay Area wouldn’t be getting its water from the Hetch Hetchy Valley. But his writing helped develop momentum and helped maintain that steam. And, as you say, he was writing nonfiction. I can think of plenty of nonfiction books that have raised awareness and made things happen, or not happen, as a result of helping people see. If we’re going to talk about nonfiction, we could include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and other works that were definitely ground-breaking in affecting change. I suppose poetry is different. I think that poetry and fiction tend to accomplish this task more as a mind-expanding tool.
KM: So perhaps the feeling of poetry hangs behind the mind as people are going through their daily lives? Would you say that poetry maintains that record of emotion and connection we feel to a place? I’d like to think that poetry directly helps preserve place, but perhaps it’s something greater than that.
CTD: I agree. It is something greater than that. And it is something profoundly more simple as well. Poetry works on its own time, and it reaches people in its own time. It works within its own scope. For example, Walt Whitman didn’t reach his wide readership in his lifetime. But what he kept doing over his lifetime was perfecting and perfecting his work so that his dream of America’s democracy would be most clearly heard and recognized. And so that’s what we can do. We can keep working. We can keep writing. We can dream a dream and write it down and dream another dream that someday someone will recognize the world in our words. When we release our poems into the world, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to shape and protect and record and reveal the places we know and the places we want the world to care about.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of the poetry collections Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great. Dungy’s honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two NAACP Image Award nominations. Dungy is a Professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.