Interview with Camille Dungy
by Interviews Editor, Nikki Barnhart
I’m the interviews editor for the Long River Review. Professor Pelizzon contacted you on my behalf about an interview to include in our latest issue. Your work is so beautiful and powerful and we’re all honored and excited to have you in LRR. I’ve prepared a few questions for you…
First of all, thank you for your kind words, and for including me in LRR. I think so much of being a writer is about being part of a long and broad conversation. I’m happy to take part in a portion of that conversation with you.
The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski said he made a movie once called, “Talking Heads” in which he simply asked people, “who are you, and what do you want?” I love the deceptive simplicity of these questions and I want to frame all of my interviews this semester around them. So my first question is:
1) Who are you, and what do you want?
That doesn’t seem simple at all. I mean, I guess I could simply say I’m Camille T. Dungy. I was always a person who liked my name. There aren’t many women in this country named Camille, so I’ve always felt somewhat unique because of my name. And there are other things that mark me as unique. I grew up in a proudly black family in a predominately white neighborhood, so that’s a way I have been different. I have wanted to be a writer for a long time, even as my peers went into fields like medicine or tech. I have this laugh that makes me stand out to such a degree that people I haven’t seen for years have been able to identify my solely based on my laugh. I’ve gone on for quite a long time about all of this. I guess my answer for you and Krzysztof Kieślowski might be something like I am Camille T. Dungy, and I want to be different. But I don’t want to be a freak or anything. I just want to be myself.
2) I’m really interested in the beginnings of your work – was there a concrete moment when you knew you wanted to be a poet?
I mentioned above that I decided to be a poet when my friends were going into medicine and tech and such. I did my undergrad work at Stanford. I chose that university partly so that I could major in English while also taking the pre-med core. Stanford was open to a diversified student in a way I didn’t see at some of the other schools I considered. During my sophomore year, though, when I was taking O-Chem, Molecular Biology, and Reading and Writing Poetry, all I wanted to concentrate on was the poetry. I dropped the science courses and focused on my English major. That was one instance of what I call doubling down on poetry. Making that decision was a great relief.
In my senior year I had three plans for my future. 1) an MFA program; 2) a Masters of Philosophy on poetry of the African diaspora I would pursue in England; 3) a year-long Greyhound tour of the US. When all the letters of acceptance came in, an MFA at UNC Greensboro seemed the best option, and my course was set yet again. Once I was in the MFA program, I remember a day when I walked across a certain bridge over a certain creek and saw a certain sunset and a certain shorebird and I realized my job, now, was to learn how to describe what I saw and why it moved me. That was another doubling down.
Those are three moments of turning deeper toward poetry that I can recall, but I know that my whole life I’ve understood my world through language. I was raised in a house that respected literature, and I was taken to hear poetry readings from a young age. My mother and grandmother encouraged me to memorize poems. I was never laughed at in school for identifying as a writer. I even spent the last three years of high school in Iowa City, home of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where real people all over town are real writers. I knew that living human beings could be poets, and I thought that was a reasonable outcome for my life. So I guess I’ve always been becoming a writer. Of course, every day we sit down to a blank page we are becoming writers all over again. That process doesn’t stop until we stop writing.
3) What was your childhood definition of a poet and how does that stack up to what you really do today? Similarly, do you remember what your first poem was about?
I just heard this Freakonomics Podcast that explored why we so frequently say, “That’s an interesting question.” It has made me self conscious about saying, “That’s an interesting question.” But, in truth, this is an interesting question. I think I spoke a above about how my childhood showed me that poetry was something real people did and read and loved. I think the first poem I might have ever memorized is the Langston Hughes poem that starts, “Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ life is a broken- winged bird/That cannot fly.” Who knows when I memorized that, but I can bet I was younger than 8. I met Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni for the first times when I was about 10 or 12. And in high school one of my mentors at church was the director of the Iowa International Writers Workshop, another, the poet William Ford, was also an active poet; and I spent a good deal of time in the famed Prairie Lights Bookstore’s poetry section. What all this means, I think, is that I understood that poets write poems. It’s not just something that famous dead people did, and poems don’t appear from nowhere. Also, and importantly, I understood that poets go grocery shopping, too, and if they attend a church they are likely to participate in relatively mundane meetings about traffic flow in the parking lot. Mostly, though, what I understood was that poets work. Gwendolyn Brooks gave me a pamphlet called Young Poet’s Primer that insisted on the importance of reading and revising (rinse and repeat), and I understood that was as much a part of a being a poet as the flashy stuff we see in movies. My dad’s a doctor, and I knew that his life resembled very little of the flashy stuff we saw on screen about a doctor’s life. I guess I intuited that the same was true for what it was to be a writer. All that said, and even though my parents were both academics, I don’t think I had any real idea of just how many mundane meetings about the equivalent of traffic patterns I’d have to be involved in when I became a creative writing professor.
I’m such a big talker, Nikki. I hope you have space for all this going on and on. I am convinced that part of the reason poetry chose me is so that I would have one space in my world of words where I was forced to be more concise. You ask if I remember my first poem. I don’t think I can answer that. I always wrote, really from before I could actually write. So I don’t remember the first poem in the way you’re asking. I do remember the general ideas around some poems I wrote in junior high school and high school. And I remember (with a bit of embarrassment) the thrust of a few of the poems in my grad school applications. I remember that “Ark”— which is collected in my book of rogue sonnets,What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison— was the first time I wrote a sonnet that I considered my own style of sonnet, not something derivative of someone else’s style of sonnet. All of these poems were persona poems in some way or another. I think my own life wasn’t terribly interesting to me, or certainly not interesting enough to write poem after poem about my own experience. I think one of the luckiest things about my development as a poet was my early awareness of the power of persona and the breadth of material I would have at my disposal if I learned to empathetically portray other people’s experiences rather than solely my own.
4) What are some of your favorite influences? Literary, yes, but also non-literary – what inspires you? Music, art, people, places, sounds, feelings?
I’ll always answer Lucille Clifton and Robert Hass in terms of poetic influences, and as I mentioned earlier, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni was in her 20s when she wrote her first ground-breaking collections. This was important to me for some reason. Proof, perhaps, that I could be young and also have something important to say. I’ll also mention Tonya Godfrey here. She was my piano teacher when I was growing up. She catered to my ear, and kept me moving through musical styles in improvisational ways. Also, she made me practice all the time, but she made practice fun. So I learned a kind of discipline and commitment, I trained my musical ear, and I learned how to be adventurous and take chances in art. These were all crucial foundations for me when I left piano and turned more deeply into poetry. Then, of course, I’ve always traveled. When I was 5 years old my family lived for a period of time in northern Nigeria. That was a world unlike any I’d known before. On the way home from west Africa, we stopped in London. That, too, was really different from Orange County, California. I spent summers in Chicago with my grandparents. Granddad was an American Baptist preacher, so the nuances of the Black church are part of my lexicon, but also regular exposure to basic human rites like weddings and sitting in hospital waiting rooms and attending funerals. All these experiences, I know, have influenced who I am as a person and a writer.
5) How do you write? What is your process like? I’ve always felt poetry must be done at an angle – you have to think of things differently than you normally would.
I sit down and I write. Though sometimes I stand up and write. When I drove a lot, I’d dictate ideas into a recording device. The key, I’ve found, is that I write. If I don’t write, I don’t write. That sounds silly and circular, but it’s really the most basic truth I know.
Do you have a deeper question behind that question? I might have a harder time answering because every poem and every book calls for a different process. Just when I think I know how to write I have to learn all over again. Then it comes back to the one basic truth. I have to write if I want to write.
6) You’ve lived in a variety of places – North Carolina, California, Colorado, etc, – how has each place shaped you and your writing, if it all?
Again, I think I might have begun to answer this question elsewhere. Place certainly infuses itself into my writing. What I see around me is all part of what I end up writing. When I lived in Boston I saw people all the time and I wrote about people all the time. When I first moved to Virginia, I was terrified because all I saw when I looked out my window were a bunch of trees. Then I wrote one of my favorite poems, the title poem of my first book, all about those trees. So in these ways place is a huge influence.
I do think, though, that place isn’t everything. I write about places even when I’m not in the, Certain places haunt me and live with me even when I’m not living with them. Reading plays a huge role in what I understand about the world around me and the possibilities for poetry. And also family and interiors and all sort of other things. I think of landscapes in very broad terms: cultural, historical, personal as well as topographical. All these things and my responses to them change somewhat when I move from place to place, but in other ways they don’t change at all.
7) How would you communicate what you try to express in your poetry in a different art form?
Well, that’s an interesting question. Once a composer set my crown of sonnets “What to eat, and what to drink, and what to leave for poison” to music. Three sopranos and a piano and organ. I adored it. He interpreted the poems in such fascinating ways. And I’ve worked with the poet/publisher Curtis Bauer and also with Liz Bradfield on broadside projects in which art has accompanied some of my poems. Actually, I’ve had several such broadsides made by different artists. The interpretations are always different, and I love that about them. I don’t know that I’d have the chutzpah to take on another art form myself. I am doing a lot of creative house painting right now, and it is fun but also proof that my skills may be better focused elsewhere. I do love to cook, that’s the one “art” I’ve maintained in addition to poetry. But aside from the fact that food can sustain, indulge, and at times overwhelm, I don’t know that I would consider it the same as poetry. I will say that when I am cooking badly I am also usually writing badly. Though the reverse isn’t necessarily true. I can be writing really well and ignoring the kitchen completely.
8) What do you believe the importance of literary journals are – have they personally aided you in your publishing experiences?
All hail literary journals! They have aided me in so many ways. All of us. We wouldn’t have writing without them. And forget all the people who say the Internet is going to render journals obsolete. That’s hogwash. We need the curatorial eye that editors bring to their tasks. We need to see new poets up against established poets. We need, as writers, to try our work out in the world. I remember my first few notable publications with great appreciation. When The Missouri Review ran several poems from what would become my first book, that was a turning point for me. It helped me believe in the project, but it helped others believe in it too. (It was from those poems that I had my first Poetry Dailypoem selected. Literary journals are an avenue for writers to feel like writers, but they are also the way that readers learn who we can read, who we might look forward to reading. Oh heavens, I could go on and on in praise of lit journals. I think that aspiring writers should ask for subscriptions to literary journals for their birthdays and holidays. That way their friends and family will be supporting their favorite writers’ futures, and the writers get some good work to read and work alongside.
9) To take a question from the Paris Review’s interview with Allen Ginsberg, do you feel in command when you are writing?
Oh heavens no. I feel exhilarated and cocky and excited, but not in command. That would be so boring. I want to be stretched beyond my limits, unsure of what will happen next. I need to trust that I won’t crash (thus the cocky part), but I only just barely trust that I won’t crash .
10) In your essay, “Tell It Slant,” you talk about the importance of utilizing expectations and rewards in poetry- how do you do this in your own work?
Hmm. That’s an…there we go again. I think the reason “That’s an interesting question” is such a problematic phrase is it is too often used as a place filler. It is too often not an interesting phrase. It’s a way of waiting to say something interesting without suffering an awkward silence. Poetry demands silences. We just don’t want them to be awkward. One of the ways I think about playing expectation against reward is I try not to say what it is you think I’m going to say, even if it seems like it would be the most reasonable thing to say. I don’t want to do something just because I’m afraid to let the poem be quiet for awhile. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. I had to write a whole essay to think through the question, and I referred to several of my favorite poems and poets (Clifton, Hass, Atwood, Darwish). They all do it differently, which is the thing about good poetry. There’s no formula for it. Just a number of possibilities and a mad hope that you come up with the right combination this one time.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t answer your question. Let me know if you want me to try a different approach.
11) What is something you know to be true?
This is a funny question for me at this particular moment in my life. I was teaching my MFA students last week and I said something about something that I believe to be true most of the time and certainly in the case I was addressing. I noticed one of the students giving me a look I remember giving my own teachers when they made proclamations I didn’t believe. I had to work really hard not to laugh out loud right there at the head of the table. The funny thing to me was that the student really really really really had a firm conviction, and the student was incredulous that my conviction was not the same. I, however, have come to understand that my convictions are pretty malleable. It’s quite possible that if the student had spoken rather than just looking at me I would have accommodated the new point of view. (In fact, I did when I prompted the student to speak). Our universe is actually probably part of a multiverse. That’s an amazing fact. There are infinite truths out there. I can’t possibly espouse all of them. When I was younger this would have struck me as a ridiculous thought. I was learning to be an expert. Later it would have struck me as terrifying. Now I think the fact that I cannot know everything is about the coolest truth there is to know.
12) What is something you would recommend to anyone – whether it be writing advice, a recipe, a book, or an afternoon activity.
You probably mean besides my typical advice that a writer must read.
Besides the advice that homemade pizza crusts are really easy to make and truly the only way to go. (This is a truth I learned from your own Penelope Pelizzon in about 2003 and which I have never since forgotten or ignored.)
Besides the advice that Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a gorgeously rendered work of terrifying and edifying prophecy that every human American should read?
Besides the fact that if there are people in your life you love you should tell them you love them even when you don’t really like them because life is short and shortest when you least expect?
I’d probably advise people that plant seeds from big box stores are suspected as being part of the problem with the bees and that you should get your hand on heirloom seeds and plant them and avoid box stores and shop locally whenever and however you can. If you live your life with your hands near the earth and with a connection to the community around you, you’ll have plenty of things to write about, and also, and most importantly, you’ll have a richer more robust life.
Nikki Barnhart is a senior Journalism major. In addition to being interview editor for the Long River Review, she works at The Daily Campus and the Connecticut Writing Project. She enjoys re-watching “The Office” over and over again.