Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffith

In an interview published in The Sun (June 2018) you said:

I don’t believe anything is over. The Civil Rights Movement was a core moment. The lessons it taught us — about social activism and political engagement and strategy — are still very much in play. Many of the people who were active in that movement are alive today — and not particularly old, either. Ruby Bridges, the kindergarten student who helped desegregate schools in New Orleans, turned sixty-three last year. She’s not even old enough to retire!

The Civil Rights Movement became a model for the Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and much of the anti-war and anti-poverty movements. Who we are as activists today was shaped in many ways by the Civil Rights Movement. And the fundamental questions it raised have not gone away. As a culture, we are still learning how to be civil and how to acknowledge each other’s rights.

Is this still true for you?

It is! It’s all still true. (Though Ruby Nell Bridges Hall will actually be 66 in September of 2020, so I suppose now she is old enough to retire. It is past time for us younger folks to be doing the hard work, and thankfully many are rising to the occasion.) This is why so much of my poetry, which is in many ways about the moment we are living in right now, is also so deeply steeped in history. History stays with us every step of the way.

Conspiracy

By Camille Dungy

Poem

            to breathe together

Last week, a woman smiled at my daughter and I wondered
if she might have been the sort of girl my mother says spat on my aunt
when they were children in Virginia all those acts and laws ago.

Half the time I can’t tell my experiences apart from the ghosts’.

A shirt my mother gave me settles into my chest.

I should say onto my chest, but I am self conscious—
the way the men watch me while I move toward them
makes my heart trip and slide and threaten to bruise
so that, inside my chest, I feel the pressure of her body,
her mother’s breasts, her mother’s mother’s big, loving bounty.

Tell us more about the title of your book. Why Ugly Music?

The title was taken from a line in my poem “Diary Entry #1: Revisitation”: “You’ll fall on the world / like and ugly music.” I didn’t realize how influential music was to my poetry until putting together this manuscript. Not only have individual songs influenced my work, but also the language of music appears over and over in my poetry. To me ugly music lives in the space between cacophony and euphony. It’s not exactly inharmonious nor is it beautiful. This book is my tribute to all the sounds of my life, the songs, the noises that have added up to this moment when I must play them all at once.

I haven’t stopped stealing chapsticks from Target. I haven’t
stopped questioning the afterlife. My mother
sings to me every year and I’m still
dying. I’m measuring distances
by the ache in my throat, the border
of my body, navel to pussy. Is this
my punishment for slipping the small cylinders
so easily into my pocket? I have faith
that all the pretty people
are prettier than me and all the pretty people
are geographically out of reach.

Your book, “All That Shines Under The Hollywood Sign” what’s the significance of your title?

I’m a native Angeleno, the lore and the lure of Los Angeles and Hollywood is ultimately what’s shaped who I am.  I’ve always been infatuated with Hollywood and it’s rich history. This book is just my way of saying thank you.

Artwork by Scott Aicher

Part #1

Palm trees
standing gorgeous
erect and regal
they call to me
they whisper things
to each other

Why do you write about menstrual blood, clitorises, and multiple orgasms?

Because the body is beautiful, our anatomy is beautiful. I want to celebrate its power and its limitations. Because these are experiences inherent and integral to womanhood, that are yet shamed, politicized and fetishized simultaneously. How many people out there are ashamed of the way their labium is shaped? Ashamed of their size, the slope of their breast, the stretch marks on their skin? Who out there has experienced sexual trauma? Puritan repression? Molestation, assault, rape? Who’s been told that their sexual preferences or gender are unnatural? Who is unable to orgasm? Who orgasms too quickly? Who’s been told they are ugly? Who’s been told they are too sexy? So much silence and pain. How many girls are terrified to go to school because of their cycle, told their blood is gross and stinks? How many were taught that marriage would save them? Told to be more attractive but remain pure virgins? Did you know the ‘father of gynecology’ was a slave owner who experimented on black women because he believed they didn’t feel pain? A father of gynecology. Can you swallow the irony? Did you know midwives and healers were deemed witches and cast out of society? Look up the rate of this country’s infant mortality. Did you know priests are still abusing young boys in silence and circumcision is rooted in sexual oppression? Our bodies are our temples, the only thing we truly own. Why can’t I talk about my nipples the same way I talk about my feet? I fed and nourished my son with my nipples. I bled to create and birth him. How is this not poetry? I name body parts because they need a voice. I name body parts so that I might heal, so that we might heal. I believe we have all been traumatized by the structural values of the patriarchy—and language can call it out, name the thing, heal the thing. Language can destroy, yes, but it can empower, too. Language can be a lie, but it can also be true. It can shine light into the shadow. The shadow is the reason I write. To talk to demons. To excavate the inside so that I might see, understand, know the outside more clearly. Our personal and collective traumas are asking us for a throat, a tongue, a song, an utterance, something, anything. I write about menstrual blood, clitorises, and multiple orgasms because I do not choose my themes, they choose me.

Sylvia,

Aren’t we all looking for a way out of the owl’s talons?

A way not to remember

the honeybee’s sting, the shape of a boot on your back,

all the nights your breasts would leak, a child,

the sucking, the screaming.

Aren’t we all looking for a way not to remember

the poems that cry us to sleep, the little ghosts

we carry in our hands, dare we tell?

Forget the Ativan, the razor, your car in Little River.

You wrote in blood, and for your sacrifice, I thank you,

dear Poetess, dear Mother, you took care of your children

the best you could. I’ve heard the stories.

Okay, let’s start with the title of your debut collection, ‘all these urban fields’ — what are urban fields? What does this mean to you?

Hey, me! A very good question right off the bat, if I do say so myself! A friend once texted me, ‘i was on the subway & saw all of these air conditioners sprawled out on the roof of an apartment building, like this whole field, & i finally got it, i got your title!’

If that text doesn’t fully answer your question, then let’s go with this: I lived in Brooklyn — urban — for two years, and while it was a daunting experience in many ways, it was also incredibly fulfilling. That being said, I could not have lived there, could not have fully survived, I don’t think, without drawing from the experiences I had on a farm in Vermont — pastoral – and my trips to smaller towns in Massachusetts. I think, in essence, the title — and the collection as a whole — is meant to be an ode to both types of landscapes, to how well they balance one another out.

i.

interest me, in me, lost woman amongst the garden cubes.
the fire that, finally, really burned, in real time — our home
in maine drowned under the saint george river.                       yes I

tore the body

that we wanted

plucked the weeds we wetted
(the bare chests)

when the bears crawled, at night, to our bed (burned),
we made it out alive because we were not yet sleeping.

it was alright because you — gosh — held my hand

Let’s not do this. How much meat are on these bones?

I … don’t understand?

 

Where do you go from here? What’s next? Is this book thing as big a deal as you thought it would be?

Well, yes, it’s a very big deal to me, it’s everything I’ve worked for since I was a teen, for three decades, it’s . . .

She says, Mama, I feel two beats on each side of me, so I think I have two hearts. I answer, When I was a little girl I read about the earth and the way it spins. Then at night when I lay in bed beside the big window in my room, and the crickets and cicadas sung to me through the dark while the scent of honeysuckle crawled past the window’s sash, I’d have moments where I felt myself spun too, whirling very fast, as if I’d returned to that playground ride where the older kids kept running the carousel faster and faster, and eventually I whipped into the air, a little flag of blonde hair and corduroy snapping to and fro, my scream lost in the wind. I thought I was going to die. I’d recall that chaos, that lost control, later when I’d been tucked into my sheet and my hair smoothed and my mother sang goodnight. When she left the room I became the axis on which the world spun, whirling with it and growing dizzy from insect song and the scent of flowers opening in the humid dark. It is amazing what the mind draws forth. I tell her, I like your two hearts. I imagine they are birds, though I will tell you about your blood and the way it carries a word, repeated, through the pathways of your body. I want you to believe me. And yet, I want for you those summer nights, too, when you lie awake and imagine all the ways you don’t.

Photo credit: Farah Sosa, Courtesy of the California Arts Council

Why are your Poems so Dark?

I hesitate to define poems as light or dark, because I think the poem exists as it is, in its own sphere, its own space.  A poem tells its own story, and poems are supposed to tell some sort of essential truth. There is light in the world and darkness, of course. When we write from the dark space, we are simply tapping into one of the parts of the world that exists and needs a voice.  Many people who read my poems, tell me that my work has opened up a space in them that they didn’t know existed , or didn’t give permission to exist. I think in order to be fully in touch with ourselves as a writer, we need to allow all of the shades of our writing to make an entrance into the room.

The sky has never forgiven you
for your blackness

when you fly
inside the backdrop of night
I am the only one who sees you

you claw your way
into my dreams
but I cannot
find you in the morning

Why?

Fuck him, he deserves to be devoured.

 

Who?

Mark and I often send pieces of Art and/or Words to each other. More often than not, we ignore them! But sometimes a piece will inspire the other to create something. It works both ways – Art & Words and Words & Art.