by Camille T. Dungy
W. W. Norton & Company, 2018; 256 pp.; $14.67Buy Book
As a poet, author, lecturer, and scholar, Camille T. Dungy is a literary powerhouse. Dungy is the author of four poetry collections, the most recent of which, Trophic Cascade, was the winner of the Colorado Book Award. Her poems and essays have appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines including Best American Poetry, Guernica, and American Poetry Review. She is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and two other poetry anthologies, and in 2020 she became the poetry editor for Orion magazine. Dungy’s recognitions include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation award, an American Book Award, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and many more. She is also an English professor at Colorado State University and travels around the country to lecture and teach.
Literary Mama reviewed Dungy’s essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History in 2018. Roxanne Gay praised the book, calling it “An elegant, meditative love letter to the life of the writer, the natural world, histories from which we cannot nor should not extricate ourselves, Black womanhood, Black motherhood, and the unabashed joy of raising up a Black girl. . . . [A]s intimate as it is expansive.” Recently, editor-in-chief Amanda Jaros connected with Dungy over email to find out more about her successful writing life.
Amanda Jaros: In your book Guidebook to Relative Strangers, you write a lot about your daughter, Callie. In those pages she was very young and you were navigating life as a new mother. How has your writing about Callie changed as she has grown? How do you feel about writing about your daughter now?
Camille Dungy: The essays in Guidebook to Relative Strangers stop when my daughter is about four. I joke sometimes that four is around the age when children stop being sentient luggage. There are years when you can pick up a child and put them where you need them to be. They have wills of their own, of course, but they are still small and they don’t have a particularly large English vocabulary. Around the age of four, their language skills improve so that they are able to clearly articulate their desires in ways that those of us obtuse enough to believe words are the only way to communicate can understand. And they get bigger, heavier than the allowable weight for baggage. I had to stop working on the book at some point, and the moment just before kindergarten, when my daughter shifted away from being sentient luggage and into the age of reason, seemed as good a point as any. My daughter still shows up in my writing, because she is a major part of my life. I still make sure to write about her with the kind of compassionate ethic I hope she will offer to me when she’s telling her own stories about our lives together.
AJ: Guidebook to Relative Strangers is a beautiful blend of stories that explore everything from watching your toddler learn language, to seeking understanding about African American history, to the challenges of being a Black nature writer, to a particularly painful hike through the Adirondacks. What do you hope people walk away from this book thinking or feeling?
CD: I want this sense you have alluded to, that my life as a Black woman, mother, artist, and traveler is varied and nuanced and rich. Luckily, this is less and less an issue as more Black and BIPOC writers are being published, as more Black and BIPOC stories are moving through mainstream media (I have a meditation in the first essay of Guidebook to Relative Strangers about my complicated feelings about the term “mainstream,” but I’ll let it stand now for the ease of continuing this conversation). Too frequently, before this current flowering, depictions of Black women in America have been incredibly limited and limiting. Among other things, I am pushing against the limitations placed on me and on my daughter by white America’s limited imaginations about the experiences of the lives of Black women.
AJ: You are a powerful force in the literary world. You write poetry and essays, you teach and lecture, and you edit anthologies, judge contests, and do many interviews like this one. What is your favorite aspect of your writing life? Why?
CD: I don’t know if I see myself as powerful, but I do see myself as busy. One thing I’ve begun to learn is that I don’t have to say yes to everything that is asked of me. People will ask a lot, and they will ask it often, and they will keep asking even after I am too exhausted to give anyone, including myself, the best of anything that they want. So, I have had to learn to say no to things that don’t serve my mission, or to things for which I will not be able to give the kind of care and attention all endeavors of value deserve. Which is a long way of saying that if I have said yes to something, I think it matters. And that is a way of saying that if I say yes to a project it is a favorite project. Reading, and writing, and aiding in the dissemination of new and overlooked work (editing and judging), and teaching the current and next generations how to become the best readers and writers and editors they can be: all of those activities are deeply important to me. All of those activities are ways that we can work to expand our imaginations so our thinking and our culture and our literature can become more inclusive, more exciting, more robust. I love doing it all. But, also, I have had to learn that sometimes saying no is necessary so that I can give what I want and need to do the energy it deserves.
AJ: Women, particularly women of color, have long been ignored and/or discriminated against in the literary world and you write about many of your own experiences of racism in your books. The literary community has a long way to go to find true equity. What do you think would help writers, publishers, and editors make significant and lasting changes? How do you feel about being one of the leaders shifting the narrative toward equality and inclusivity?
CD: Hmmm. I have to admit that this question sort of stops me cold. I guess I feel like these answers are already out there. If I am a leader in shifting the narrative toward equality and inclusivity it is because I have insisted on writing the world as I have experienced it, and I have insisted on making a place for these stories in the literary world. There are a lot of books already written that address this very question, and there are more and more books coming every year. (I hope to add my own new book of nonfiction to this conversation soon.) So, maybe I would tell your readers to be more careful, open, and wide-ranging readers. Pick up some Octavia Butler (any one of her many books will give lots of insight into this question). Pick up Nefertiti Austin’s Motherhood So White. Challenge yourself to read something that challenges your position of comfort and your faith in your own goodness such as Carol Anderson’s phenomenal book White Rage. For that matter, read my book Guidebook to Relative Strangers and ask yourself why my experience of traveling through America was both so different from and also perhaps so similar to what your own might be.
AJ: I love Orion magazine and was excited to learn you are the new poetry editor there. What are your hopes and goals for taking on that position?
CD: As I said in response to earlier questions, I relish playing a direct role in opening the world of literature to more voices. My experience editing Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, which was the first major anthology to collect environmentally-focused Black writers, taught me that part of why Black and BIPOC writers have been overlooked by the publishing industry, and also by those who teach literature, is because people don’t know where to look and they don’t know what they are seeing when it is right in front of them. As an editor, I can help teach people how to see and I can help people understand what it is they’re seeing. And we all get more good literature as a result. It’s like a quintuple win.
AJ: As a mother, editor, and person with a regular job, I often struggle to find time to focus on my own writing. How do you find time for yourself and your personal projects? How do you maintain balance?
CD: There’s an essay in Guidebook to Relative Strangers called “Differentiation.” That essay was written twenty minutes a day. Life was crazy. My kid hardly slept. I didn’t have long stretches of time in which to write. So I just asked myself to write for twenty minutes a day. No more and no less. When I wrote, I had to pay attention to the world in a careful, writerly manner. I had to record dialogue whenever possible, and details like smell and taste and how things really looked. After weeks of these twenty-minute recording sessions, I discovered I had the pieces I needed to write that essay. If I had waited until I had a long stretch of time to record everything, I would never have been able to write that essay. I needed the tiny pieces in order to build the whole. My biggest advice to mothers who are also trying to be artists is to lower your expectations for yourself. Five minutes a day. Ten minutes a day. Heck, I have one whole essay I wrote because I set my Fitbit to buzz a few times a day and when it buzzed I wrote down everything I could for one minute. One minute, five times a day. Eventually, it all came together. But, again, had I not taken those tiny moments over the month, I would have faced a blank page when I finally had a chance to sit down for a few hours.
AJ: Do you have any advice for mother writers, particularly during this unprecedented time of the pandemic?
CD: I am going to say here that I believe one of the biggest gifts the COVID-19 shutdowns have given me is the release from the guilt of spending several hours a week watching really formulaic G and PG movies and TV shows. I have watched so many of these with my daughter. At first they were painful, but then I released myself into the pleasure of bright costumes and poppy music and mildly predictable but also totally engrossing plotlines. I used to consider this sort of thing a waste of time. But now I consider it both a mode of recharging and a way to think about what it is that engages people. I love the way these movies can get me to laugh, to genuinely laugh, which means they have found ways to surprise me even when I think I know what’s coming next. There is a lot more color in my writing now, because I have found I love some quality art direction with an eye for bright colors. Learn how to live your actual life in a way that nothing you do is a waste of time, even those things that feel like they are diversions. We all need to rest. Resting is not wasting time.
AJ: Who are your motherhood heroes?
CD: You mean beside my own mother and grandmother? They were both incredible women. The kinds of things Black mothers had to do to keep their families going before the 1960s is nothing short of astounding. And the ways my mother balanced her own career with the needs of her family is also something that I deeply admire. My mother always surrounded herself with powerful and compassionate women, so many of those women became models for me, too. If you’re reading this and you were a friend or close relation to my mother in the last decades of the 20th century, I’m thinking directly of you. Also, Lucille Clifton, who found a way to write some of the most powerful poems of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, all while raising SIX kids! There are many days when I thank these women for modelling the kinds of things that I might be able to do.
AJ: How do you define success?
CD: We made it through another day. We did no irreparable damage. We shared love. We expressed our gratitude to many forms of creation. That, to me, sounds like a really good day.