blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1

A Reading by Camille T. Dungy
February 18, 2021

On February 18th, 2021, poet and essayist Camille T. Dungy read from her most recent poetry collection, Trophic Cascade and her nonfiction book, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, in a virtual event in VCU’s Visiting Writers Series. Of her work, David Wojahn says: “it is nothing less than an attempt to reconcile our divisions and reaffirm our bonds with nature . . . Dungy places such an utter faith in language’s incantatory and restorative powers.”

The question-and-answer period that followed is not published as video, but is presented below as an edited transcript.


Katy Scarlett: Thank you so much for being here. As David mentioned in his introduction, Trophic Cascade oscillates a lot between opposing themes like creation and destruction, and evolution and extinction; I wonder if you could talk about how you approach form as a way of holding those tensions throughout the book.

Camille T. Dungy: Absolutely. I alluded in that one reading, “One to Watch, And One to Pray,” that I was obsessed with one sentence poems. I'm always interested in how long a poem can hold a certain kind of tension before it collapses on itself and one way to do that is syntactically: how long can you make a sentence last? You can hold the sentence and you can hold its thoughts without it crumbling or just making an obvious stop that you're passing beyond, so the function of the sentence and the movement of the sentence against the line break is very important to me. I also really like a quality line break; those are important to me.

My first book is entirely rogue sonnets, it's all fourteen lines or multiples of fourteen lines, and most of those poems have a kind of syllabic count, so I often pay attention to syllabic counts in my work a little bit less than metrical counts, I'm sort of more nterested in the beat structure than the accent structure of a line.

Trophic Cascade has a golden shovel in it. It also has some other kind of forms that just hold me and get me to focus on other things. They keep my frontal cortex engaged in something else while I allow that dream brain to do its work and surprise me. So that's part of all these formal and structural considerations. They allow me to come right into the dreamwork of things while also giving something just enough structure that it doesn't collapse.

It’s true for my essays too. I often for essays will create some external—and I hope often invisible—kinds of rules that keep me focused. And it also keeps that critic in my brain busy, like that critic in my brain could be counting syllables and not telling me that the word that I'm using is wrong or the idea that I'm driving into is horrible.

Danielle Kotrla: Thank you again so much for a lovely, lovely reading. One of the things and relationships that I found really interesting throughout the collection was that of the speaker and even of the speaker's body to that of the nature/culture divide, so I’m curious to hear you speak about how you approach the triangulation of this relationship in your poems and also how you see the speaker working in relation to, or with, the different environments and landscapes that were presented throughout the collection.

CTD: Wow, that's a really great question, and it ends up being a little bit hard for me to answer, I realize. I spent 2020 writing a book about that question, so I think it's 325 pages of answer to that question, but a kind of condensed, distilled version is: I'm not sure I trust that nature/culture divide.

I think that that divide has gotten us into a lot of trouble, I think that divide puts us in a position where nature is out there—someplace far away—it's some place where only certain privileged people get to wander and explore and be safe, and it means that we are not engaged directly with the greater-than-human world in a manner that makes it pressing to try and save it.

We do not care about places that are not part of us, which I wish weren't true, but most of the examples that I have of our contemporary way of being in the world suggests that if we can say that something is other and something is separate from us, our ability to care for it and about it decreases. And so, to me in my writing, I have always tried to bridge those divides and to build a really deep interconnection between my lived human-built environment experience and the greater-than-human experience that surrounds me and that I live in direct communion with all the time.

Kathleen Graber: That was a terrific reading. You read so many of my favorites, so it felt like a greatest hits mixtape, so thank you for that. I think I’m going to end up asking you a question about another divide that may not be serving us as well as it could, and that's the divide between creative nonfiction and poetry. I thought some of the poems that you read could have been essays, had you chosen to make them essays. They are so capacious in what they're inviting in and what they're bringing into conversation, and so I'm asking this somewhat on behalf of our graduate students who write in multiple genres, maybe say a little bit about what you see as the difference between poetry and essay, and then also how you decide what wants to be an essay and what wants to be a poem.

CTD: Well, one thing that I would say is that I frequently double up, so I have a number of poems where I’ve written the poem, and then I end up writing an essay too, or vice versa. They’re sort of partnered pieces in that way.

There are at least two poems in Trophic Cascade that are excised from failed essays from the draft for Guidebook to Relative Strangers, and they just didn't work as essays; there wasn't enough for them to hold as essays, and they work very well as poems. And that—speaking of the kinds of persnickety things that I will put on essays too—they're from this series where each section of the essay was comprised of exactly 700 characters.

One of the beauties of the essay for me is it's a different kind of persnicketiness than poetry has. I can get up from the middle of an essay, walk away. I don't have to be in that sort of trance state that I was trained in in order to write poetry. I had to go into a kind of Coleridgean fugue state with the opium pipe and such, and nobody can knock on the door for hours while the poem is being constructed, but my joke is that once I had my daughter, I realized that a person is knocking on your door every five minutes, and I needed to figure out a way to write that could be interrupted.

So that, for me, is one of the fundamental differences between poetry and essays. In the drafting of my poems, I am less interruptible than I am in the drafting of essays. I think that this is because I begin essays with an idea of where it's going and the magic of the essay is what arrives in the process of getting to where it is that I'm going. Whereas with a poem, I begin with the magic, the sensual response, the word that I’m lingering on, and the process of the poem is the arrival to what that is all about, so I begin the essay with the “why” and I end the poem with the “why.”

Jessica Hendry Nelson: You sp oke earlier about line breaks, and as someone who writes both poetry and creative nonfiction, I just wondered if you had anything to say to creative nonfiction writers or prose writers in general about line breaks and about the way that you think about line breaks that also applies to prose.

CTD: Absolutely. When we were typesetting or doing that final stage of taking something out of manuscript and putting it the design part for Guidebook to Relative Strangers, I was like the problem child for Norton, because I had all these different kinds of divisions in the essays because I wanted longer beats between different breaks, and so there was like the stanza break or the stanza break that has a mark on it that's even sharper in a poem or the stanza break that has like a new number and starts on a new line and it's really a new section.

I was bringing these kinds of different breaths between moments into the essays in a way that the designers for that book we're not used to and I had to really think about what I was asking to transfer over from the expectations for poetry that were viable for an essay and what was not viable.

I think one of the things that nonfiction writers should really think about is how much your reader can absorb before they need to put the book down and just breathe a little bit and kind of reflect on what happens. As a nonfiction writer, how are you guiding the moment when the book gets put down? Because the book is going to get put down, there is going to be a moment where the reader has to go and refill their coffee or just think about what you said.

Are you, as the essayist, signaling to them: just stick with me for two more paragraphs and then you'll see, there will be like a double space here, and you'll know that this is actually a place where I give you permission to walk away for a little bit?

I think non-fiction writers often just give all the information—it's just like super dense—and we don't give our readers the kind of space to reflect and to breathe and just get up and pee that poetry collections give. And I think we should do it a little bit more.  

Katy Scarlett is a second-year MFA student in poetry and creative nonfiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Danielle Kotrla is a third-year MFA student in poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University and associate editor and lead pagebuilder of Blackbird.

Kathleen Graber is a professor of creative writing and English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Jessica Hendry Nelson is an assistant professor of creative writing and English at Virginia Commonwealth.

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