It brings us great pleasure that, beginning with the Autumn 2020 issue, Camille Dungy will take on the role as Orion’s poetry editor. After five years, former editor Aimee Nezhukumatathil has decided to move on as she launches a new book and deepens her teaching and writing practice. Luckily for us, Aimee will remain close as an Orion columnist. (Here is her five-year editorial retrospective.)
Camille Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade, and the essay collection, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History. She has edited or co-edited anthologies including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Fellowships in poetry and prose, and an American Book Award. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter, where she is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University.
Orion staff pooled together seven questions for Camille about her new editorial post, about gardening, literary mapping, and the function of poetry as we wade into these mysterious and unsettling times ahead.
What types of literature did your parents and family introduce you to?
I come from a family of readers. There were books everywhere in our house. More than once I’ve heard someone ask one of my parents if they are going to be okay with some long wait (at the car dealership, a doctor’s office, a gymnastic meet, etc…) “I’ll be fine,” they’d answer, “I have a book.”
The books I’ve always been surrounded by are eclectic and varied. Fiction, history, natural history, cultural criticism, biography, poetry, drama, social science, medical history, world civilizations, travel. You name it. Nature, Culture, Place: the folks in my family have always been interested in reading about such things.
How has teaching poetry changed for you over the last ten years?
Back in 2009 I was asked how teaching poetry had changed since 1999, and my answer then was the same: Access. Access is the biggest change. I used to have to type or photocopy poems I loved in order to more easily share them with students. Now I can send them links and they can read the poems on the computer or their phone. I still buy a lot of poetry books and assign books and journals for students to read in class, but the fact that it is easier than ever for students and readers to access individual poems is a game changer. There are so many more entry points because of this greater access. So many more ways people can come to love individual poems. Through these expanded points of access, they can come to love more and more poetry.
In order to create the changes that so urgently need to be made,
we must make revolution irresistible. Poetry is one way to do this.
What is teaching poetry like during a pandemic?
A lot of this is really horrible. People are in great pain. There are incalculable losses suffered day after day, many of which we may never fully know about. These are immensely difficult times. But here is one upside that I would like to focus on as I answer this question. Some people are figuring out what it means to be themselves in their own spaces. Before the pandemic, when I taught poetry, I would be teaching people in my space, a classroom or some other fabricated community away from their own homes. Now, I Zoom into their spaces.
What this means is that we are talking about making a life for poetry within their daily lives, not outside of them. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to figure out how to carve space for this craft from the fabric of your actual life. So often we go away to some other place to learn about being a writer. Then, when we return to our own space, we seem to forget many of the lessons. One of the positive aspects of teaching poetry during the pandemic is that the lessons people are learning become implemented right there, right in the place where they write. And that’s a good thing, or at least it’s the start of something that could be very good.
I see you teach a course in “Literary Mapping.” Can you explain what that is?
One thing a good writer can do is to map the world of her imagination in such a way that a reader feels as if they could walk around that world and not get lost. This is too often an overlooked element of quality craft. When it is pulled off well, it can be amazing. How many of our readers had a map of Middle Earth on their walls when they were growing up? That is an example of excellent Literary Mapping.
Even without the illustrations in those books, a careful reader could draw their own map thanks to the words on the page. When I first read Tommy Orange’s There, There (Knopf, 2018), I quickly developed a sense that I knew exactly where one character’s house was situated thanks to references to landmarks dropped throughout the book. By the time they finally named the street, I was thrilled to know my own interpretation of the map of Orange’s Oakland had been correct. I was personally familiar with the neighborhood, and clearly so was Tommy Orange, because he drew a map so well with his words that I could place his characters before he even gave me the name of a street.
There are poems that do this, too. Classic examples would be C.S. Giscombe’s Giscombe Road (Dalkey Archives, 1998) or much of Frank O’Hara’s work. I’ve been recently drawn to Allison Adair’s The Clearing (Milkweed Editions, 2020) and Molly McGlennen’s Our Bearings (University of Arizona Press, 2020) for the ways they use setting to further develop their subjects. I am always interested in the ways we create maps with language in our poems, fiction and essays.
One cool thing about teaching is you sometimes get to spend a whole semester talking with other people who are interested in the same things. Thus, my class on Literary Mapping. The last time I taught this course I was in San Francisco and exclusively taught books set in and around Northern California. Now I live in Colorado, so the books we read will be different when I teach the course again.
I hear you’re an avid gardener. How does gardening play a role in your creative life?
Gardening is its own thing. It wouldn’t be any fairer to use gardening as a tool for writing than it would be to use cooking as a tool for writing. Cooking and gardening both feed me. If I am not fed, I can’t write, but cooking and gardening are also their own occupations entirely. That’s important. It is important to have a life beyond writing if one hopes to ever have anything worth writing about.
In this environmental, social, and political inflection point, what do you see being a primary function or role of poetry during this time?
I was recently reminded of a crucial Toni Cade Bambara quote: “The role of the artist is to make revolution more irresistible.” In order to create the changes that so urgently need to be made, we must make revolution irresistible. Poetry is one way to do this.
What was the most earth-shattering poem you’ve read this year?
That is impossible to answer. I read a lot of poetry, and if it sticks with me at all it is because it has shifted my world in some way. I am from California. (Well, I am and I’m not, but that’s a long story for another time.) When people think of California, they often think of earthquakes. But when they think of California and earthquakes what that usually means are the catastrophic ones: 1906, Loma Prieta, Northridge-level quakes. The big ones. The “earth-shattering” kinds that reorganize skylines and destroy freeways.
For about a week when I was living in Oakland, I kept an earthquake tracker on my phone. It notified me every time there was an earthquake. That thing went off all the time! All the time! There are so many tiny, imperceptible earthquakes happening on those fault lines. Let me clarify this. They may seem imperceptible to most of us, but someone is paying attention. Otherwise, that app couldn’t send me all those alerts. And they may seem tiny, but they are doing the work of moving the earth. (Stick with me, my extended metaphor has almost reached its culmination.)
There certainly are capital-B Big One poems that shift my thinking. But I don’t want to overlook the many other ones that also, when I read them, do the work of moving me. So, prepare to look for both kinds of poems in the pages of Orion.