Camille T. Dungy Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Orion’s poetry editor Camille T. Dungy is an essayist, poet, professor, avid gardener, outdoorswoman, and semiprofessional pancake maker. She also has some strong feelings about mosquitoes.


There’s a spider in the room; what do you do? 

I tend to say hello and trap her in a cup, which I then take outside and put in or near a bush. Though, I will admit that really big spiders, like wolf spiders, sometimes don’t get such treatment. In fact, I actually can only think of one encounter with a wolf spider, and I freaked out. It was years ago, when I was in the process of remodeling our basement. Poor thing was just living her life in a quiet corner no one had entered in years. I was not kind to that spider. I still recall that particular crunch with some shame. I’m working on overcoming my biases in this regard, but I would advise any wolf spiders nearby to keep their distance for the time being.


What is your most treasured comfort meal? 

I tend to love foods in cycles. One summer, all I want are bowls of cold cucumber, dill, and kefir milk soup. The next summer, comfort equals a nice garlicky bowl of salmorejo (tomato bread soup). The next year, cold watermelon, honeydew, or cantaloupe soup with sherry or lime juice. I think the comfort I treasure is knowing that when there is a particular alignment of tastes I crave, I can enjoy that taste with fresh ingredients and people I love.


Would you jump at an opportunity to go into space? Why or why not?

How long would I be in space? Would I really be going to space space, or to the moon, or into outer orbit on the space shuttle or something? Or would I just be going to near space. I mean near space sounds sort of cool, but there are a lot of other more pressing concerns on which I would prefer to spend resources. But I’d have more trouble turning down an opportunity to walk on the moon.


Have you ever been bitten by an animal, wild or domestic?

I assume you’re not counting mosquitoes and midges or nips from a house cat?


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?

I grew up in a house in the desert with a beautiful garden within fifteen minutes of the ocean . . . I win!


My favorite tree in the world is _____.

I really really really like the blue spruce in my front yard.


Nature would be better without _____.

I refuse to answer this question. Mosquitoes are the cornerstone of the diet of thousands of species. That’s one pest I could do without, but most other living beings on this planet are directly dependent on mosquitoes or on animals who eat them. What does it matter what part of the web of life I think I could do without?


What is something you’re looking forward to?

A bit of quiet on a summer night with a great sunset and a cooling breeze.


Do you like scary movies?

Not movies marketed as scary movies, no. Not at all. The world has enough scary things. I don’t seek out fear for entertainment.


Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

When it was really cold this winter, -12°F, I wet some linen trousers, a light turtleneck, and a wig, and I took them outside, where they froze. Then I reshaped them to look like a woman was running in our yard, with her hair flying away from her. It turned out to be this sort of awesome 3-D sculpture made out of frozen clothes and a wig. It stayed there until the temperatures got up close to 30° and the ice in the fabric melted. I had no idea this was a talent worth pursuing, but now I want to make a frozen clothes sculpture in the garden every winter.

Read more of Camille’s thoughts in her conversations with poets Kaveh Akbar, Major Jackson, and Ada Limón.

If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

I make pancakes nearly every weekend with my daughter. They are delicious. We use a doctored version of Deborah Madison’s recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, with substitutions for altitude and our family’s taste. Our secret ingredient is a Meyer lemon sugar I make annually with the zested rinds of Meyer lemons that lovely humans who live in California send me from their trees. The sugar requires backyard Meyer lemons. The store-bought ones are waxed and not as fragrant, and you can’t dehydrate those waxed peels with the sugar the same way. Once a year, I make several pounds of this sugar, and my daughter and I slowly work our way through it, two tablespoons at a time, until the following November, when I find myself hoping some California friend’s backyard tree produces enough lemons that they’ll think to send some to me. Thus far, for the ten years I’ve lived away from California, I’ve been blessed by good fortune. The sugar I make is delicious, and with it our pancakes are extra special. Come over and join us sometime.


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

I do a decent owl.


What are some of your favorite words?

My favorite word is lathe. I love how it sounds, and that it sounds a bit like what a lathe does. I love its tall l and spiraled-out e. Lathe is a beautiful word.


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

Lauren Olamina from Parable of the Sower, but even more than that, Octavia Butler, the author of Parable of the Sower and so many more visionary worlds. Despite a lot of odds stacked against her, Butler created the world she wanted for herself and her characters, and in the end many who have come along afterward and are proud to count ourselves among Octavia’s brood.

Also, speaking of following dreams and bouncing off our question about outer space, the astronaut Karen Nyberg is a personal hero. Our kids are around the same age. When I was figuring out how to travel for work without bringing my daughter along with me, and I was fretting about it in the way that our culture makes it common for working women to fret, Karen Nyberg was preparing to live on the space shuttle for several months. I wrote about all of this in my first collection of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers. It’s not that Nyberg didn’t fret about being away for so long. But, Nyberg told Parenting magazine, she realized she should continue to pursue her career, which for her meant she should move forward with plans to live on the space station. “I don’t think I would be setting a very good example for my son if I were to give up on my dream.”


You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?

Do the people I love get to be suspended from time alongside me? If not, that sounds like a scary and possibly irreparably problematic proposition. I’m not sure I’ll partake.


It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it? 

I am quite ecumenical when it comes to what constitutes the perfect beverage.


Are you a morning person or a night owl? 

I used to be one, and now I’m the other.


Do you remember your dreams?

Usually. Or often. Or maybe nowadays it would be more accurate to say sometimes.


Are you optimistic about the future?

Usually. Or often. Or maybe nowadays it would be more accurate to say sometimes.


Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain?

I think, for the sake of our future, I will ask for more rain. Most of the places I love need more rain. No one really ever needs a piña colada.


Sweet or savory?

When I first spent time in England in my college years, one of my favorite discoveries was that, in the cinema, they sold half-sweet and half-salty popcorn. This was a revelation. You don’t always have to choose one or the other. Both have their place.


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

I imagine you mean a good smell. A lot of bad smells stop me. But I really like the smell of citrus blossoms. I was recently in Morocco when the citrus was just beginning to blossom, and I stopped in my tracks to lean in and smell lots of trees.


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?

The deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police. I continue to circle back to this terror in my books. In my most recent, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, I also worry about fire. Often, simultaneously to that other threat. Sometimes, it’s a wonder some of us can get out of bed every morning. This world can be a scary place. Which is why I don’t watch scary movies. I’ve got enough terror to think about just getting through most days.


Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a house in the desert with a beautiful garden within 15 minutes of the ocean . . . I win!


Are you the same person you were as a child?

My dad has a saying that seems more and more true by the year: “People don’t change as they grow older. They simply become more so.”


What song or album reminds you of high school?

I refuse this question. But our music was the best music. (Except when it was the worst.)


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager?

You know, that’s a fascinating question. I really don’t know. I feel like whatever memories I have are either singular special moments, or maybe not Friday nights? Nowadays, we like a good movie night at home. Not scary movies though.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

In my own healthy, happy body, near to the people I love, who would be in their own happy, healthy bodies as well.


Do you step on sidewalk cracks?

I love both my mother and her back. So, not if I can help it.


You’re in a desert island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?

Can I clarify? Is this a desert island, or is it a deserted island? Those call for very different answers.


What would you like to be most remembered for? 

Kindness, perfect pancakes, and some gorgeous and memorable writing.


What flower would you want pinned to your breast when you die?

Wow. I feel like I should clarify again. I assume you mean after I die? Not like someone is going to pin a flower on me in some kind of kung fu death-strike maneuver? Or will there be a venomous spider or the honeybee who delivers my ultimate sting lurking inside the flower? I don’t think I want an open-coffin kind of burial, so I’m not sure who would be seeing said flower. But I really like the simple grandeur of the gerbera daisy, and I love those purple irises with the yellow tongues. Though I don’t think either would necessarily work great as a corsage pinned to my dress, you could scatter them around my mushroom suit or whatever it is I’m wrapped up in at the end.


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

I’d prefer not to be a mosquito. Even though, in a lot of ways, mosquitoes are among the most important beings in the world.