This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011).
H. L. Hix: The “way we carry on” appears in the book at least twice (pages 6 and 19), and in both cases it sustains a double entendre: carry on as in act out and carry on as in continue. Then there is a lot of other carrying: at 21, 23, 31, 37 and perhaps others I didn’t catch. Plus holding on (44) and going on (69). Even if I didn’t have other grounds, I would know from your Black Nature anthology of your attunement to sustainability as an ecological issue. Am I way off base to read Smith Blue as drawing on, and drawing out, an analogy between ecological and emotional sustaining?
Camille Dungy: No. You are not off base.
I love a question that works like that, one where you can give a simple yes or no answer or you can carry on, if you will, for as long as you need and in whatever way you need. That’s sort of how life works. Will I die? Yes. But most of us don’t know how or when or where or in what state of grace and so most of us still have plenty of other questions about our eventual death that we could go on and try to answer. Do these answers really matter in the end? No. But even if they don’t matter in the end, they matter at some point and in some way, and so we carry on with the process of trying to work out these answers regardless of the fact that we know we’re going to be gone one day, and they won’t matter to us any longer.
You see how I got to use the phrase “carry on” several times even in that response? I feel like it’s all we ever do. We carry on: talk on and on and on and on. We carry on: act playfully whether or not the circumstances warrant playful or boisterous behavior. We carry on: trudge forward, make the best of the situation that is offered. We carry on: hold what is given to us, walk with it. We carry on: don’t give up even when we think we should.
All the instances of conjugations of the word “carry” that you mentioned, as in “we carry,” “she carries,” “she was carried away,” show up in the elegies for two women poets who suffered from fatal diseases of the heart and body that I can’t help but think were exacerbated by the weight that the world lay on these women (“Prayer for P” and “Arthritis is one thing, the hurting another”). I was thinking, as I wrote both of these poems, of the physical toll a particular sort of consciousness takes on a body, and it’s not surprising that I so often speak to what it means to carry burdens, hardships and stressors.
I got interested in this quantitative analysis of these specific phrases, and so did a search on the manuscript file for words with the letters “carr.” I found one more use of the word carry, in “Emergency Plan”: “I fashioned a carry-all.” “Hold” or “holding up” or “holding on” show up in the places you mentioned above as well as in a lot of the same poems that use the conjugations of the word “carry.” Some version of “holding” also appears in “Since Everyone Can Never Be Safe.” The phrase “go on” shows up in “Prayer for P” and “Out of the Darkness.” The only instance of one of these phrases that is not in an elegiac poem or a direct commentary on the destructive capabilities of humans is in the closing love poem. In that poem, though, it is the men the speaker is separating herself from who are going on, and though she could join them if she chose, she’s moving on to a different sort of life with a different sort of person. She is carrying on, I suppose, but she’s making a point of trying to do it differently this time. This book is essentially about the damage we are doing to each other and the planet because of the ways we are carrying on (meant there in the sense of acting poorly) and also the ways that we must learn to live and love despite this damage and in light of this damage and instead of this damage. In other words, the way we must learn to continue forward the best ways we can. To carry on.
I knew that I used the phrase in “Daisy Cutter” and quite soon thereafter (in the chronology of the book, though not in the chronology in which I wrote the poems) in “The Way We Carry On.” That seemed like an important repetition to me, so though I knew it would stick out, I let it remain. It is always interesting to see the way certain words and phrases become a set of cues by which we can read authorial intentions. You certainly read my intentions in noticing my fairly consistent repetitions of these particular words. Of course, all of those pale in comparison to the number of times I use the word “remember.” That, too, is directly connected to what I consider an urgent need to work toward an environmentally and emotionally sustained and sustainable world. We must remember what we have done to each other and to the planet if we hope to be able to remedy our actions. Soon enough we won’t be able to carry on if we don’t get this right. We’ll kill ourselves and take everyone and everything with us.
Camille T. Dungy is author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great and assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. She recently served as guest editor for Two Lines: World Literature in Translation. Her honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, a fellowship from the NEA and two NAACP Image Award nominations. Dungy’s poems and essays have been published widely in anthologies and print and online journals including Poetry, Callaloo and The American Poetry Review. Dungy is a Professor in the Creative Writing department at San Francisco State University. http://www.camilledungy.com