Interview: Camille Dungy

Right before her keynote speech and poetry reading at the C.D. Wright Women’s Conference, Camille Dungy sat down with four of Arkana’s editors to discuss her writing process. 

Arkana: A lot of your books involve issues dealing with race, social injustice, womanhood, love, and loss. How much extensive outside research do you typically do? And can the research change your ideas when you dive into that?

Camille Dungy: There’s two different ways of thinking about research. There’s a version of research which is “I need to know more about Maine’s involvement in the Civil War” because I don’t know anything about Maine’s involvement in the Civil War. So, I have to go and do direct research to figure out what I need to know about the Battle of Petersburg. 

There’s another kind of research called experiential research. You’re moving through your world and happen to walk past Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son’s church and think, “Oh, what’s the story behind this?” So you go and read the placard and maybe that takes you down another track of reading more information. Or somebody mentions in passing, “Oh, did you know that Harriet Beecher Stowe was here while she was writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” And somebody else later says, “Did you know that Chamberlin who accepted the arms” and, you know, those two pieces were two separate conversations or readings. And when you’re writing you’re like, “Wait! I have this material in my head that I can yoke together on the page.” I think that’s research too. Listening to the world, paying attention, watching and looking is a mode of research that’s as necessary as “let me get myself to archives” and “let me sit down and let me really follow a track carefully”. 

And, so, an answer to your question is, I’m always doing research. I’m always taking notes. I’m always compiling as much information as I can because I never know when it’s going to be useful.

A: What was the editorial process involved with Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry?

CD: In some ways you can say that book came together very rapidly. The query from the editor came in 2006 and the book was published 2009. That is really, really fast. That was, also, a lifetime of work. So, I had all these poems. When I respond to a poem or a poem resonates with me, I type it into my own computer so I can feel the process of what it is to have good language. So I already have this admired poems file. Many of the poems or siblings of the poems that are in the anthology were already in that. And, then, I lived in the Bay area at the time, so I could go to the Stanford Library and the Berkeley Library and have access to, probably, 80% of all the books ever published in America. And then I went to the Poet’s House in New York. And I went to the Emory African American Poetry Archive and a couple of other places where I was able to sit and dive deep into the histories and the catalogs of American poetry. And since these things aren’t going to be cataloged as environmental poems or nature poems, that was part of the problem. People didn’t see them that way, so I had to read widely in order to discover things that would not have been cataloged or key-worded with that subject matter in mind. 

A: What inspired you to write your essay collection of Guide Book to Strangers?

CD: A number of things. The easy answer is I’d been writing all along and my life looked a certain way as a writer in my mid-thirties. Then I had my daughter and the world changed around me. Not only did my world change, and the different kinds of decisions I had to make, and the way I had to organize my life, but also people’s reactions and responses to me changed. I would enter into spaces where I would not have had certain kinds of conversations and interactions, often quite intimate, that would not have happened before this kind of ambassador was sitting in my lap. 

So, I became interested in both what was happening with people and me. Why do we like kids so much? Who are these entities in our lives? What’s the neurological situation that is happening in our minds and theirs? I also became interested in the scenes behind the curtains I never got to peek behind or never been asked to peek behind. So, I felt like writing into those openings that were then available. And off we went. And there was a book.

A: How do you normally get your ideas for poems? Do you have a set routine that helps bring about those ideas?

CD: I have no set routine. I don’t believe in set routines. My body rebels against routines. Also, I’m afraid of them. I think if you become really dependent on some routine and if something in your life changes, you no longer have access to that routine anymore… I just refuse to be beholden to some routine and having to blame that for my inability to write. So, no. 

In terms of routine, the only thing that is routine in me is that I always want to pay super astute attention to the world, and I record what changes and shifts over time. I think you need to make time for writing. You need to prioritize writing and reading. Those are the only routines that are important and valuable to me. 

In various times in my life, I have different programs that I’ve implemented to help the writing happen, support, and revise it. But, they shift and change because of the needs of what I’m writing shifts and changes, and, because the needs in my life shift and change. I have no magic bullets. I have lots of prompts and lots of ideas, but they will only work for me.

A: Okay, a little bit of a shift from writing process. How do you feel the contest culture has affected the literary landscape? 

CD: Affected the landscape of poetry? I don’t know any other landscape. That’s been the landscape my entire publishing career. The primary mode for an unknown poet publishing a book is through a contest. There is the possibility that you can write a query letter and somebody will respond to you that way. It’s unlikely as an unknown writer that it’s going to come to much. And, there’s the possibility that somebody will drop from the sky and will say “I read your poem in a journal,” or “I saw you at a reading and I must publish you!” I mean that happens sometimes, but that’s fairy-tale stuff.

For most of us, we get published via contest. And that means your manuscript needs to be able to compel one or more screeners and a judge. That means your manuscript can’t be flabby. It means your manuscript needs to be powered up from the start and it has to stay powered. Some people say your manuscript might have to be about a thing. It might have to be a “project book”. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, I think what happens is what people called “project books” are unified fields. The writing kind of holds together in terms of ideation, form, and feeling in important ways. The project could be a tonal project or a thematic project. It doesn’t have to be about the founding of Coca-Cola. Because there are, I think, what people call “project books” that are not good and are not winning prizes. 

All the things I said a contest winning book has to do, a book has to do. You should start strong, stay strong, and end strong. That’s what a book should do. And, so, it may be that what contest culture is doing is asking manuscripts to do that sooner than they may in an older model where you have an editor massage it into place. But, at some point, that’s gonna have to happen for the book to be effective. So, it just happens earlier now.

That’s where we are. There are so many things which we can freak out and fight about and push against, I don’t feel like that’s one of them to me.

A: So, with new poets, new to the literary game, would you say the first route should be submitting to contests?

CD: No. I think that for poets, the first thing you need to do is build a community of peers. So, yes your MFA program, but also writing conferences and things like Minnesota Northwoods or Bread Loaf. In that sense, you are building not just a top down meeting faculty, but you’re also meeting your future peers. So that to me is a priority for young writers. In doing that, you also build your readers and opportunities where people have things happening. The next thing you should do is read literary journals, and then publish in literary journals that you feel a comradery with. That’s another way to build reputation, a readership, and how you build your generation’s literary landscape. Then you can worry about the books. 

This might be different for novelists. They have to write the whole damn thing and I don’t know how ya’ll do it. But, it’s like you’re silent for five years and “Boom! I have a thing!” But that’s a different long game. But, for nonfiction writers, short fiction writers, and poets, you need to publish in literary journals.

A: Denise Levertov once said “You can smell the poem before you can see it.” So, do you sense that a poem is on its way sometimes?

CD: Well, if Denise Levertov said it, it’s true, because Denise Levertov is a genius. But, I don’t know if it’s true for me. I don’t have a very good sense of smell, so maybe that’s why. 

I think that I’m writing to discover, realize, and kind of map a contour. But, if we are going to stay in line with Denise Levertov’s statement, everything we discover on this planet and beyond was already there. We aren’t actually discovering anything. We’re just encountering it, and figuring out how to map it, and how to describe and name it. It is that process of coming into writing something. It’s finding it and getting the clarity with which I can then articulate that thing that was already there.

As a working mother whose livelihood as a poet-lecturer depended on travel, Dungy crisscrossed American with her infant, intensely aware of how she was seen as mother and black women. Her experiences shaped her debut collection of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of four award-winning books of poetry and the editor of two anthologies.

Image Credit:  “Tiny Garden 2 (Moon Of Roses)” by Toti O’Brien

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