In honor of Litmus Press’ forthcoming collection of Leonard Schwartz interviews with female poets, we will offer an ongoing series of transcribed talks from Schwartz’s “Cross-Cultural Poetics” archives.
From CCP episode #221: Ecopoetics. October 19, 2010. Transcribed by Kelly Bergeron.
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest on the phone from the Bay area, I’m very happy to say, is Camille Dungy. She’s professor in the creative writing department at San Francisco State University, and is the author of What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She’s helped to edit a number of poetry anthologies and most recently, she’s edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry published by the University of Georgia Press. Welcome Camille Dungy.
Camille Dungy: Thank you.
LS: Great to have you on the line and to have your anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, in hand. Can you say a little bit about this project and its ambitions?
CD: I can certainly say a little bit about it. The scope of the anthology, as the title says, is Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. I go back as far as Phillis Wheatley, the first African in America to have a book of poetry published, and move all the way forward to contemporary young writers, who don’t yet have books published. So we see this broad scope of time of African Americans writing poetry in the US, and then these poems are infused with different views of the non-human world. I wanted with this collection to broaden our sense of what’s possible for African American poetry, and also what’s possible for what we call nature poetry, and the different ways that people communicate with and about the world beyond the human.
LS: Yeah. It’s very striking. In your introduction to the book, Camille, you write:
For years, poets and critics have called for a broader inclusiveness in conversations about ecocriticism and ecopoetics, one that acknowledges other voices and a wider range of cultural and ethnic concerns. African Americans, specifically, are fundamental to the natural fabric of this nation but have been noticeably absent from tables of contents. To bring more voices into the conversation about human interactions with the natural world, we must change the parameters of the conversation.
And then you go on to say:
The poems and essays collected here serve as an introduction to a new way of thinking about nature writing and writing by black Americans. The traditional context of the nature poem in the Western intellectual canon, spawned by the likes of Virgil and Theocritus, and solidified by the Romantics and Transcendentalists, informs the prevailing views of the natural world as a place of positive collaboration, refuge, idyllic rural life, or wilderness.
Your thinking in the introduction was one of the things that attracted me to this book because so often nature and history are conceived of as opposite terms or mutually exclusive or set up as poles against one another. I think one of the arguments of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry is that that is a mistake.
CD: I believe that it’s not a mistake; but it’s also not the whole picture. There are many people in this world and certainly in this country for whom you don’t go wandering off into the woods to find solace. That is a place that has a legacy of trauma in the very soil and the trees that are there. And so, there is another way of approaching the wild that is not necessarily thought about when you think of the wilderness writers who we have canonized as nature writers. And then the pastoral tradition that is grounded in an idea of the countryside as an idyllic place—a place where you can sort of go and it’s beautiful and lovely to look at the fields. If you’re from a tradition that has been forced to work in those fields, that’s an entirely different relationship again with the pasture and the pastoral. And so there is another conception that can come into that writing. And so, it was important to me to collect the writing of people who were laborers, contemporary poets like Sean Hill and Yusef Komunyakaa, who talk in their poems in the anthology about mowing lawns or working as a shepherd. And traditional poets like Claude McKay and Jean Toomer, who also talk about that legacy of plantation farming, sharecropping etc.… There’s another way of thinking that’s absolutely true about human interactions with the natural, and with the out-of-doors, and beyond-human world.
LS: It’s so striking. I mean one sometimes talks about nature documentaries or certain kinds of nature documentary as in effect nature porn, because the nature is presented unguarded by itself, to be experienced voyeuristically, in isolation from any context. If it’s a documentary about wildlife in Africa there are very rarely people, it’s the wildlife isolated from a more total sense of the environment and it is interesting to think about the ways in which that structure, kind of objectifying nature as such, occurs in a certain kind of poetry. To me, the work in Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry undermines that objectification by putting as you say the laborer and the labor back into the environment.
Camille, I was thrilled to find the poetry of Ed Roberson anthologized in your work, fairly prominently. You begin the book with a poem of his and his poems appear throughout different sections, which I’ll ask you to speak about in a little bit as well. Could I read to you Ed Roberson’s “Urban Nature,” coming off the conversation we just had, and ask you to comment?
CD: I would love to hear you read it.
LS: This is Ed Roberson, “Urban Nature.” [Reads:]
Neither New Hampshire nor Midwestern farm,
nor the summer home in some Hamptons garden
thing, not that Nature, not a satori
-al leisure come to terms peel by peel, not that core
whiff of beauty as the spirit. Just a street
pocket park, clean of any smells, simple quiet—
simple quiet not the same as no birds sing,
definitely not the dead of no birds sing:
The bus stop posture in the interval
of nothing coming, a not quite here running
sound underground, sidewalk’s grate vibrationless
in open voice, sweet berries ripen in the street
hawk’s kiosks. The orange is being flown in
this very moment picked of its origin.
That was Ed Roberson’s “Urban Nature” from Camille Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Could I ask you to comment on Ed Roberson in general and this poem in particular?
CD: Oh, Ed Roberson in general could take its own half-hour show! Just a masterful American poet with a brand new book out I might add, the title of which I believe is To See the Earth Before the End of the World, is a really great example of the way that he thinks about nature and that separation that he has between Earth and world, the human civilization part of the way we think of this planet and all the rest of it. And he has a very keen sense of what separates us and how we are also intricately entwined. Many of the poems by Ed Roberson that I collect in this anthology, including this one you just read, reveal his ability to make comments on the separations that we like to have between ourselves and what we call “nature. We might set up nature as a sort of Hampshires garden world or the Midwestern farm, but not all nature works like that. It’s always there, right? Even in this little street pocket park there are birds singing, there are fruits, there are all of these examples of this larger Earth that exists around us that we can pretend isn’t there if we want to, but it’s always drumming beneath our feet.
LS: That’s great. I associate Roberson with New Jersey, because he taught and was an administrator at Rutgers for a long time. But he also spent time in Alaska, as you point out in the introduction. It’s not New Hampshire or the Midwest, but it’s not going to be localizable to an urban scape either. A desire to be between I think, to define the between where nature and culture, or nature and urbanity interact, or are really conceived of being part of a larger environment, no?
CD: Yes. And he is very cautious about that nature porn thing that you are talking about—about objectifying the animal. A lot of the poems in here, including some comments that Roberson makes, have this commentary where people are looking at the animals and saying “Oh this animal represents my inner spirit.” No actually, that animal is just an animal. It’s not representing anything about me. It is just being. And I think that’s just a really, really, really, important thing to continue to mark. That the animal world, the plant world, is intricately connected to us, but at the same time totally careless of us. It just doesn’t…it will go on, regardless of us. As long as we, of course, don’t eradicate it. But that’s a whole other point.
LS: And what strategies as writers or poets does one pursue in order to work against that eradication? Is nature and appreciation of nature, which is so often seen as helpful, is that actually harmful if it objectifies nature and says it’s over there as opposed to in here with us?
CD: Right. And that objectification also allows for a sense of dominance—a dominion, right? That’s part of what stems from Judeo-Christian ideas of man as the one with dominion over the rest of the Earth. And so we can sort of look at that sweet little savage creature, but we can also control it and destroy it if we want. Many of the poets in this collection speak to this idea. I think of Lenard D. Moore in his “Postcard to an Ecologist,” which is this cheeky poem where he sees a snake in his grandmother’s yard and he’s going to go and kill that snake. It’s written in a poem titled “Postcard to an Ecologist,” which is a sort of commentary on what ecology is. There is a dangerous snake in his grandmother’s yard and “ecology” can only go so far. But that sense of ownership and ability to do what you want with the other inhabitants of the Earth is of course directly affecting African Americans, right? That we became the chattel, we were just another one of the animals that people could control and have dominion over. And so, the post-slavery poetry of African Americans is very often inflected with a consciousness of the danger of the extreme limits of that sense of propriety that can be very troublesome. Poems like Audre Lorde’s “The Bees” and Lenard D. Moore’s poem that I’m talking about, etc., speak to the edges, or the extremes, or the possibilities of cohabitation and also control.
LS: It’s intriguing what you’re saying, Camille. The notion of dominion over nature in a biblical context that begins with the capacity to name nature or give it its name, which certainly as poets, has to be curious, and paradoxical, and problematic for us. How to use language without naming the names in such a way as to objectify what’s named. You have a poem in the anthology entitled “Language,” which I’m hoping that you can read for us. It’s certainly intriguing for me. What I’ve been thinking about is the way in which what ecologists do and what environmentalists do, might help us think more complexly about what language is, so that we can arrive at a language that could enter the environment without dominating it. So I was really intrigued by your poem in this anthology entitled “Language.” Could I ask you to read that poem for us?
CD: Sure. And I’ll just start by saying that I’m glad you asked me to, because here we’ve talked about a lot of the tough relationships that become manifest throughout the poetry in this book, but this poem is one of real joy and praise that a lot of the poets, myself included, really find a home in these spaces, too. [Reads:]
Silence is one part of the speech, the war cry
of wind down a mountain pass another.
A stranger’s voice echoing through lonely
valleys, a lover’s voice rising so close
it’s your own tongue: these are keys to cipher,
the way the high hawk’s key unlocks the throat
of the sky and the coyote’s yip knocks
it shut, the way the aspens’ bells conform
to the breeze while the rapid’s drum defines
resistance. Sage speaks with one voice, pinyon
with another. Rock, wind her hand, water
her brush, spells and then scatters her demands.
Some notes tear and pebble our paths. Some notes
gather: the bank we map our lives around.
LS: You have been listening to Camille T. Dungy reading her poem “Language.” It’s from the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, available from University of Georgia Press. Thank you so much Camille for reading that poem. It’s a wonderful poem, in terms of its silence as one part of speech and the play back and forth between what can be said and can’t be said, or maybe oughtn’t be said, but out of the joy ends up needing to find some kind of expression. So I really appreciated that poem. You begin the introduction by talking about a period of time in your life when you took a job as a university professor in Lynchburg, Virginia, and experienced, I think you say in the introduction, a certain kind of awakening. Could I ask you to talk about that a little bit and its place in the project of this book?
CD: Absolutely. The poem I just read “Language,” is about the landscape of my childhood. The southern California pre-development hills that I used to run in, and I’d have a sense of real freedom, and place, and belonging in that space. And so there was a sense of comfort that I had in that world, but I moved after spending most of my life in the West. I moved to Virginia, which is an absolutely different flora, and climate, and culture. The landscape is entirely different. One of the things that I found there was a tree that was growing in an old swimming pool. It turns out the swimming pool had been filled in with dirt to prevent the desegregation of the public pool. Rather then letting black kids swim there, they just closed the whole thing down. And this tree was growing through the pump works of the pool, and I just found it fascinating and started researching the tree and paying attention to it in all of the seasons. I saw myself drawn into the landscape of the place that was rooted in a history in a way that was very different from my previous connection to a landscape. My entry into knowing things about this town were very, very, frequently tied with the plants or animals that showed up in different places. Often, these were beautiful and wonderful, but also they came along with stories of real cruelty, and brutality. So I found this intriguing, the way in which in one landscape I was able to just live in the land and be separate of the human history and in another landscape I was not able to do that. And so, I saw this happening with my poetry as well, that when I wrote about California it was all nostalgia and longing and when I wrote about Virginia it was fraught. So what does that mean for me as a poet? And then for the community of poets to which I belonged? And the ways that when we talk about the world around us, our history starts to impose upon the world that we’re describing.
LS: That’s so powerful. A tree rooted in history and all of the implications that has for the work one does and the relationship between nature and history. I know one can’t summarize or ask one poem to stand for a whole anthology. We’ve only, I read one, you read one, thus far, but is there a third poem from the anthology that you would be able to read for us at this juncture?
CD: I will read the poem with which I begin the entire anthology, which is a poem by Lucille Clifton, and the title of the poem is the first line of the poem.
LS: What page is that poem on, Camille?
CD: It’s the preface.
LS: Oh the preface, excellent.
CD: Just before the contents page.
surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
LS: That was Lucille Clifton’s poem, which serves as the preface to Camille Dungy’s Black Nature anthology. Can you say a little bit about this poem, this poet, and the choice of this poem as preface to the book as a whole?
CD: Well, Lucille Clifton is one of my great mentor poets. I think she’s one of the great poets of the 20th century. It was very difficult to narrow down the number of poems that I could select for Black Nature from her work, which is deeply infused with very, very, conscious attention to the natural world, and I think that she becomes an example of the kind of poet who gets overlooked. You don’t see her collected in nature anthologies. You don’t see Yusef Komunyakaa, though it also very difficult to separate the natural world out of his work, it’s totally entwined. You don’t see them collected in nature anthologies, partly because there is always under their poems “an other poem.” There are ideas of social concern, historical concern, cultural questions, that get really linked with the natural. So all of a sudden we have to kick those out of the nature poem sections because the human gets involved. In this anthology I want us to really think about the human as just another animal on this planet. The ways that we interact with each other and with the planet can become informative of a new way of thinking about how we think about the nature poem.
LS: Wonderful to hear you articulate it that way and also to think about the shame of conceiving of nature as not having a memory when surely nature, whatever we mean by the term nature, must. To locate history, or to locate culture, to locate narrative within nature, is to insist that there is a memory that would play a part in creating a memory of what’s underneath a tree and what caused the tree to come into being and affect us and that tree in certain kinds of ways. About your anthology, Robert Chrisman, Editor-in-Chief of The Black Scholar, wrote:
Black Nature expands the horizon of black poetry from the frequently anthologized themes of blues, social commentary, and urban pastoral and demonstrates that black is also green, a theme consonant with the twenty-first century.
And then Booklist, in a review of the book, which I thought was quite accurate:
Just as nature is too often defined as wilderness when, in fact, nature is everywhere we are, our nature poetry is too often defined by Anglo-American perspectives, even though poets of all backgrounds write about the living world…. Dungy enlarges our understanding of the nexus between nature and culture.
So really great to have the book out. I know you did a talk pertaining to the book at Poet’s House, not too long ago. Evie Shockley was involved with that, and yourself. What kind of responses and reactions publicly are you getting to the book?
CD: It’s been really wonderful. I’ve had events all over the country, Poet’s House in New York, as you said. UC Berkley. I’ll be at an event at the very end of March in Pittsburgh, so it’s been all over. There was one in Notre Dame. It’s the first anthology of its kind, which is pretty phenomenal to me to think about, and then other people, when you say that, they think, really? Because once you collect the poets it seems obvious, but it hadn’t been before. And so it’s been really delightful to be able to bring these poets to light in a new way. I think as I was pulling together the body of the anthology and making the requests, it was always so wonderful to speak with the older poets in particular, who were just relieved to finally be read in a way that they believed they had been writing, but nobody had seen yet. And so, it’s terribly exciting to be part of that uncovering, or bringing to light. And I think it’s refreshing to readers, as well.
LS: Absolutely. You know it is a great book to have in existence now. And there are certain discoveries that I’ve certainly made reading Black Nature. Camille, are there other projects of yours forthcoming, or either related to this anthology, or independent of this anthology, that we should be looking out for in the near future?
CD: I have two books of my own. The collection Suck on the Marrow just appeared in January of 2010 and that also came out of Virginia and looks at 19th century African Americans in Virginia, so I deal very frequently with some of the same conversations that we have in Black Nature. Of what it means to be one of the livestock in the world.
CD: And then my third book Smith Blue will be out from Southern Illinois University Press in June of 2011. And it is very grounded in 21st century ideas of our connection to each other, and by each other I have a very, very, large view of that, which of course includes animals and people beyond America, and etc…. So it’s perhaps my most ecologically focused book yet, Smith Blue.
LS: Interesting. One gets some sense of the way in which your work as an anthologist in Black Nature informs your new and forthcoming writing, as well. Camille, thank you so much for coming to the phone and thank you really for doing an anthology. You spoke of it as joyous, but I know also from personal experience that it’s labor intensive and involves a great deal of sifting and a great deal of tough decision making, as well. So thank you so much for Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.
CD: Thank you for having me; it’s been lovely to talk to you.
LS: The pleasure has been ours. We’ve been speaking to Camille T. Dungy. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry is the book, an anthology published by University of Georgia Press.
Camille T. Dungy is author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. 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 is a Professor in the Creative Writing department at San Francisco State University.