Camille Dungy: The TNB Self-InterviewBy Camille Dungy
September 28, 2020
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.
In an interview with The Colorado Sun (March 2019) you said:
The title of the book, “Trophic Cascade,” speaks to the way that the removal or replacement of a top predator can shift the circumstances of lives all around it. Throughout the book, I think about the human experience in broad terms, often in ecological terms.
Do you stand by this statement?
Absolutely! This statement is true both for the title poem, “Trophic Cascade,” and for the book Trophic Cascade as a whole.
In an interview with Courtney Brown titled “Naming is a Breed of Compassion and Empathy” (December 2017) you said:
For me the sound of the words as they are arranged in the lines is one of the keys of good poetry. It drives choices about which words to include, in which order. It drives decisions about where and how to break a line. Sound is a driving factor in nearly all decisions I make as I build a poem. But…how I make those decisions about sound might be a little harder for me to articulate. There are all sorts of terms in the poet’s handbook that relate to how we build sound in a poem. But, also, a lot of it is the kind of innate response that comes from a certain type of consistent training. I care about poetry that sounds good, so that’s what I work to achieve.
Can you be more specific?
Not really. The specifics change poem by poem. I can tell you this, I always read my poems out loud while I am drafting and revising.
To stick with this question of empathy, you had a conversation with Cate Lycurgus for 32 Poems where you said:
I guess, to me, there are some ways in which I think it is very dangerous not to believe we have most everything in common with most everything else. This sense that we can’t empathize with other humans or with nonhuman life because our lives are drastically distinct and particular…I guess I can’t really go in for that. I am not, in fact totally, different from you is the thing. There are a lot of things we have in common despite the personal and collective histories that also give us our particular sets of experiences. I am as interested in the commonalities as I am in the ways we use those commonalities differently. This is true with humans as it is with nonhuman life. I am interested in commonality and all the potential commonality can breed. To speak up for the life forms of the world in this sort of radically empathetic way is, as you suggest, a kind of witness. It’s also a kind of activism. And it’s also a kind of love.
Care to expand?
The universe is infinite and ever expanding, but I’ll let the quote above stand as it is.
In an interview with Melissa Tuckey (February 2018), you say this:
My advice to writers is to pay attention. To continue to pay attention. Look at the root causes of the crises you would address in your work. Every one of my books addresses political, historical and environmental topics similar to those I address in the two books published in 2017. I may come at the questions from different angles, but the questions that concern me, the crises that concern me, have remained consistent. This work we’re doing is constant.
You know those people who run what they call centenary races, or even more remarkably Deca Ironman races? They run ten marathons in a row or finish ten Ironmen. One after another. Day in and day out, they’re completing these demanding races. It’s exhausting, I’m sure, but they know what they’re getting into. That’s what it means to be a social activist, an environmental activist, a civil rights activist, in this country, in this world. You’ve got to do the work, recharge however you can, then put in more work. There will always be another challenge to complete.
So, are you saying that you understand poetry as a kind of activism?
One of the things I am saying is that poetry is a kind of activism. It is not enough, because one mode of activism will never be enough, but it is a necessary component. Here’s a quote from Toni Cade Bambara that I live with and that I love: “The role of the artist is to make revolution more irresistible.” I hope my poetry can serve as such an ignition.
Finally, in another interview (March 2018) you said:
Language is the seat of so much power and, like all power, we get to decide whether we use it for good or ill. I can’t remember a time I haven’t known that. Perhaps because, as a black woman, I have always known how common it is for language to be used against me. I think I have also always known about this power because I have found great joy in language, in writing and speaking and thinking about the many things words can do to make the world a more beautiful and loving place. There was a bully in my elementary school who liked to use his Dobermans to intimidate me. I would make it past that bully and his Dobermans and walk into a house where someone said, “I love you, beautiful.” I’ve always known that language can do revolutionary work in this world.
Do you want to leave those as your final words?
Yes, beautiful, I love you.
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