Orion’s poetry editor Camille Dungy recently sat down with poet, friend, and Orion board member Major Jackson to discuss their thoughts on literary stewardship, environmental writing’s complicated legacy, the sacred inner lives of Black children, small towns, urban parks, building community, talking to foxes, and connection to the natural world.
Major Jackson: Hi Camille. Thanks for sending your poems. I do not know how I missed it before, but “This’ll hurt me more” is such a powerful poem.
Camille Dungy: Thanks. You know, when poems are not in a book yet, they just float around and are easy to miss. If you catch it, you catch it. But there is an astronomical amount of new work out there, and so much of it is really good work. I read a lot, but there is no way I can keep up. I’m with you, often thinking, wait, how did I miss that? I remember talking to Robert Hass once, and he was saying how back in the day, there would be two books that would come out that year. You’d just be waiting for these few books. Can you imagine? I can’t imagine that; I can’t imagine a world where there aren’t fifteen really quality books dropping every month.
Major: My myopia makes me wonder about literary culture and the gargantuan task of curating for a wide readership. Are there enough publishing venues for writers of varying aesthetics, especially writers doing radical breakthrough work? It puts the onus on editors and publishers to be acutely aware. Perhaps a keen consciousness is the measure of our value to the culture—our ability to possess a width of seeing, an openness and understanding, alongside a relationship to traditions before. And that understanding has to be so honed and fine-tuned to make discernments. I am not sure it is possible to possess that kind of radar? Is there a responsibility and expectation that somehow, as an editor, one will come across work and instantly recognize that it needs to be read because it epitomizes that modernist injunction of newness? Or, because the poem, story, or essay fills a gap in our conversations, brings something that has not been uttered before?
Camille: Or it expands on things in necessary, vibrant ways.
Major: That’s right. Does it continue a conversation? Certain editors are capable of honoring expansive work and are able to see where it rests in context. My point is that there is a dearth of venues, and maybe even a dearth of sensitive editors—readers, too. We are not acculturated to embrace iconoclastic works that challenge convention, which is an important aspect and continuation of experimental avant-garde aesthetics. Well, sometimes I think even those binaries prevent us from seeing the work that exists is in the interstices, or the work that falls outside preconceived tastes.
Camille: I think, in so many ways, you and I have both faced that question our whole writing lives. The knowledge that we are not operating as artists, as writers, in isolation, but that we are part of these communities that are doing work that excites us, work that, for the longest time, wasn’t being seen in the ways that we understood it could have been seen, or should have been seen. Then we both did some interventions. And I would argue, your work with the Dark Room Collective folk, and my work in Black Nature were pretty radical interventions. But that was also the work of fired-up young people just living our lives, making space where there was no space, in a way perhaps only young people could do.
The question for me at this stage of life is, How do I keep that energy, that kind of innocent ambition? Because it was very different than calculated careerist ambition. Those are not the same thing. I think that innocent ambition is the belief that you have something to say, and somebody to be, and that you are the only one to say it, and that’s really different than an attitude of I’m going to do this for the prize. I think, in a way, not being seen helped that, because there were no prizes being given for the work that we were doing back then.
Major: Or venues.
Camille: The motivation was never I’m going to do this so I can get into that place. Because that place had never invited anybody like me before. Getting back to your thoughts about curation, I wonder, once that initial wall has been breached, and some space has been made, and that new place gets comfortable, how do we keep making space for newness? How do you keep making space for your own next voice? Because I always want to be doing something new. I don’t want to rest on what I’ve already done.
Sometimes as an editor I feel like I’m working against an eddy. You’re going with the stream, but then there’s that moment where the stream will kind of suck you in and you’ll just stay in that swirl. And it’s not like you aren’t working really hard already, but you’ve got to work even harder to really paddle through that current and start moving forward again. I think with prizes, with magazines, with anthologies, what often happens is that you see the same names, the same people, writing the same poems. I don’t want to be the same person writing the same work, and I don’t want to be the editor choosing the same work over and over again. I want to get out of that eddy and off that river, and go walk in the meadow sometimes. So, we know these five authors? Who are five more? Now ask those five authors who they’re reading. That’s an easy way to start. Ask those five and then the next five and the next five, and soon you’ve got forty-five new people to read.
I’m often thinking about what vision means, what our expectations for vision mean, but also how differently our lives can be when we correct vision.
Major: Travel is important to both of us in terms of keeping fresh eyes and a sense of vitality as writers and editors. Movement is a part of a vigor of mind. Reading different authors is the equivalent of reading different landscapes. Thinking about curiosity, apprenticeship, innocence, passion beyond careerist modes or rewards, I was recently talking with another writer about contemporary poets and who we are in conversation with. We agreed that Lucille Clifton’s iconicity is an important model for a number of poets of our generation. Frankly, in this regard, I cannot help but think about myself except in relationship to other writers. I cannot conceive of my life without their examples. I am always excited to find someone who is willing to discuss influence rather than fellowship deadlines.
Camille: I have a question related to how we get people to read more widely and move beyond their comfort zones. At this point in literary history, someone like Lucille Clifton is canonized, right? As you said, she’s an icon. But when she was alive, people didn’t really get her. They thought her poems were just puff poems. Oh, it’s all just domestic woman stuff, talking to foxes, being all woo-woo with Ouija boards. People didn’t like her. And when I could, I would talk about why I loved her so much. Of course, I was not alone in that, and enough of us kept at it, and public opinion changed. Something similar is happening with Wanda Coleman now. I thank Terrence Hayes and Tracy K. Smith for the work of using their public voices to bring light to this amazing writer. I’ve always loved Wanda Coleman, but again, she was not really talked about. So, what is that? What’s the work for us as editors and teachers and writers, when dealing with the fact that honestly, a lot of the really good stuff isn’t going to be seen accurately or revered initially?
Major: As writers of poetry, we negotiate early on the possibility of invisibility or cultural irrelevance, which is, ironically, also our superpower. Extraordinary poets who were household names a mere decade ago are no longer discussed as part of the zeitgeist, understandably so. Then again, poets such as Robert Hayden and Lucille Clifton were in a way victims of a rhetoric that marginalized their work, which is why I see your editorial work as extremely important and why I use the word interventionist because, for example, when I first read Lucille Clifton’s Two-Headed Woman, I instantly admired its artfulness. Yet, there are times when the politics of a moment exceed the art and we need, or believe we need, poetry that visibly advances an agenda of Black progress in America. When we invoke such a lens with the belief it is the most important lens, then certain voices will get pushed aside or, even worse, dismissed.
I think Ed Roberson, for example, is a very important American poet. But if you are carrying a post–civil rights lens, one may miss the relevance of his work, even though you and I both know underneath the surface, his poems widen ideas of freedom and being and seeing in the world. Anthologies such as Black Nature are terrific because they allow for amplification of absent voices. Black Nature shines a spotlight that allows us to recognize the tradition of African American poetry within American poetry. It is difficult work, and as editors, we do not kvetch enough about the complexity of caretaking traditions, of honoring legacies while also paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment, too.
Camille: One of the words we seem to be circling back to frequently in this conversation is myopia and correcting for it. I have such severe actual myopia that I can’t even wear contact lenses, so I’m often thinking about what vision means, what our expectations for vision mean, but also how differently our lives can be when we correct vision. I have these corrective lenses that give me the ability to see the world clearly and broadly. If that’s the case with my actual body, why can’t that be the case with my mind? Can’t I continually figure out what corrective lenses I can apply so that I can see better—more clearly, more broadly, more precisely? I’ve got to get this readjusted every year. Why do I not expect that for my inner eye, for my poetic vision?
With that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about what you think the myopia of nature poetry is, and how it has and has not served us as writers and as readers.
In some ways I think the expectation to find certain things in nature poetry is actually beneficial because it means that, as a student, I can sit down with a certain expectation of what I’m going to find. Those kinds of parameters can be helpful. But it has also led to so much work that was really engaged in unconventional thinking about greater than human interactions getting dismissed or overlooked. And it has led to some really problematic continuations of settler colonialist mentalities about pristine landscapes and who can and can’t be in different spaces, and some really troubling social and cultural extensions of that narrow lens.
The legacy of who can and can’t enjoy the escape of nature is still very much alive.
So, when I first encountered your work, I was fascinated by those early poems out of Philadelphia. I thought, See, this is what we don’t get to see. We don’t see this idea of the greater than human world in an urban setting in a way that you worked so well into your first two books. Now you’ve got your space in Vermont, and in many ways your recent poems feel more conventional to my expectations for an environmental poem. But there’s still so much human in your work, so much about what it means to be a man in nature. And in that way, some kinds of thinking about what environmental poetry should be might say your work doesn’t count.
Major: I appreciate that. You’re asking me questions that I want to pose to you. I’ve been contemplating this lately. One year I taught an African American environmental poetry course. I used Black Nature. I had six students.
Camille: I love those classes. They’re my favorite. Because those six students want to be there. The administrators hate those classes, but the conversations are great.
Major: Exactly. You know where I am going. What was interesting about the class was that, of course, it was not limited to poems about the more than human world, because we are also talking about history, questions of labor, how seemingly unrelated experiences shape our relationships to land. We have a sociological as well as philosophical understanding.
My reading of different landscapes is owed to my early orientation of being born in Philadelphia yet having also spent the first twelve summers of my life in Nashville, which at the time, was far more rural, and those summers felt like a long education in learning to see, so that I could return to a northern city and begin to discern and make sense of the prolongation of rituals, seasonal and otherwise. My great-aunt maintained plots; a peach tree grew in her yard; her chicken coop terrified me, a far different reality than the gridded streets of North Philadelphia with its brick row homes. Yet, too, we lived near community gardens; I still see those rows of vines, plastic watering canisters, bottle trees. Like, it was such a radical thing to observe that kind of devotion. Of course, in a way, I was prepared for life in Vermont, which continued my fascination with living and occupying contrasting natural spaces. This past winter I was snowshoeing with my family, and they were getting frustrated because I would stop every few feet . . .
Camille: To look at things. To listen to birds . . .
Major: Pointing out tracks in the snow, pointing out the bark and noticing where the deer had been. It is an ongoing fascination. Observing the seasons and the forest of Vermont, not as some fetish of a pristine environment, but very much with what you were mentioning earlier, maintaining fresh eyes. I think it very much has to do with where I’m settling in my life right now. There’s a moment in “Trophic Cascade” where you make a comparison between reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone and the resulting ecological chain reaction of that with what it means to enter into a new phase as a mother, and all the senses that develop from that particular space really drive you, and I think it’s a similar sort of transformation or transition that I am going through.
Camille: It sounds like you’re talking about feeling connection. The way we’re talking about these communities, the writers, living and dead, who we connect with, and then those deer, those wolves, those blue jays, and all of those other lives. The animals on your great-aunt’s land. Those lives have value that I see myself in continuity with. And I don’t see that fact as antithetical to the fact that I am a person living in a built structure who drives her Honda. I can be the person who has this greater connection to all living things, but I can also be a person who’s living in the contemporary modern world. I do encourage young people to live outside a major city, but I’m not talking about living off the grid and building your Walden cabin.
You’ve lived in so many different spaces. Do you sometimes feel that living in a smaller town, your life’s busier, or at least more connected? In a big city, nobody knows who you are, so you float through it, but in that small town, you know the restaurant owners and they know what you like to eat. That leaves me feeling tethered to the world, feeling part of the weave of the world around me.
Major: I enjoy living in a manageable town; however, it comes with certain challenges. The reward of living in a small city such as Burlington, Vermont, or even smaller, Rochester, Vermont, is that they offer themselves up for greater scrutiny. Every time I take a hike up Flanders Hill, which is near my home, I stop at this rock at a bend along the trail and snap a picture. I try to make sure the camera is in the same position on my chest as previous occasions, so that I can watch over time how the pines and maples grow. When life retreats during winter, I am able to observe a change of the season that feels at once predictable and unique. Small towns have that way of lending themselves to close examination almost to a fault, at times.
Speaking of turns in the road: your discursive poems model how to manage such rhetorical shifts. I’m thinking of your poem “This’ll hurt me more,” where you are addressing America, almost tantalizingly, with the narrative of being pulled over with your father. I find the poem immensely moving, the younger you looking out the back window of a car, imagining doing figure eights on a frozen pond. There’s something about seeing you in that particular moment, not disinvested from what’s happening—your father pulled over by the police with his family in the car, uttering I’m just going home—but inhabiting the role of the imagination, maybe not as survival, but as a natural place that a young girl would go. It is such a stark juxtaposition. The inner life of a Black child, I think, is one of the most sacred places on Earth. You took me there in the midst of what we understand to be a highly charged political moment.
I needed to read that poem. I’m going to call it the Dungy effect, but part of the allure of your work is your reinvention of metaphors, so that they become purposeful and useful in the moment. So, in the natural world the California fires are what they are, but they also represent a certain ecological breakdown, and one of the more visible markers of what we are up against when we talk about how climate change is visible. But to use that as a metaphor for an interior, or at least a situational moment, that flaring up within our own country writ large, becomes a really, really powerful reinvention amidst the frozen ponds, amidst the lilac booms. You say it plainly: “the imagination can accommodate whoever might happen along.” To some extent, as writers, we constantly search for a language that achieves precision. We’ve a curiosity that has us hone our relationship to the world.
But I want to push back a little against that because as much as I believe that phrase, “the imagination can accommodate whoever might happen along,” I’m not sure it works that way for everyone. I’m not sure the average person can activate an imaginative or creative response, in a way that might serve them during difficult moments like you narrate in this poem.
The inner life of a Black child, I think, is one of the most sacred places on Earth.
Camille: Well, in my poem, it’s a limited imagination. They’re just looking for any Black man. And my father will do. To return to that myopic, that negative, that limited imagination that is deleterious and dangerous and often fatal. Fatal in a number of ways. Fatal in the way that if the imagination is looking for just any Black man, a specific Black man may wind up dead, but also fatal in the way that our ability to expand and advance and love is limited. Any time you can’t expand and advance in love, you risk death. One of my battle cries forever has been, it’s really, really important that we diversify the environmental conversation. Who’s talking about this environmental catastrophe? Because there are answers that we don’t have yet. The more people who are talking, the more likely we are to get the answers that will save us. Because clearly, we don’t have the answers yet.
Major: Connection and community and hope—we invite different voices so that we can advance beyond the limited conceptions of the natural world. Again, thank you, thank you for that vision. Some of the limitations of the writings that we’ve been seeing involve an idealized view of the natural world as this immaculate space. But, too, thinking about diversifying the conversation. We should also interject here the fact that people simply could not breathe, and so the natural spaces, even for Black folk, provided respite. I’m thinking about this provocation, W.E.B. Du Bois writing about going to Idlewild in Michigan, which was at one point the largest resort for Black people. They called it “Black Eden.” He had to travel on the train through what he called twelve hours of Jim Crow. And once he gets there, he reports on the food, the Black folk also there, but he says this toward the end, it becomes our responsibility to maintain these places. I’m intrigued by how stewardship becomes part of Du Bois’s vision.
Camille: I can return to that stewardship question, but I feel like I need to also stick here with the moment, like he had to go twelve hours by train because there were virtually no Black resorts of that sort available in the American Southeast. There were some on the coast in New England and one in Maryland; there was one here in Colorado. But the number of places, of resorts like this, that Black people could legally go to for a camping trip in America, we could probably count on two hands. And so this question of who gets to enjoy nature as like—
Major: A place of leisure.
Camille: Yes, a place of leisure. And escape. If you were Latinx, if you were Black, half the time if you were Italian or Jewish, you didn’t get to do that. But that didn’t mean the people didn’t find their own ways to camp. They did find their own ways to create those spaces, but it wasn’t easy. My own father has a Boy Scouts story about traveling to a major camp or jamboree and being kept separate from the rest of his otherwise white troop on the segregated train trip. It is really important to recognize this is not old history. Ruby Bridges is only 67! This is not old, right? That means that all the kids who wouldn’t go to school with her, or whose parents wouldn’t allow them to go to school with her, for an entire year, are also only 67. So this legacy of who can and can’t enjoy the escape of nature is still very much alive.
Major: Which is why urban parks become important for diverse populations in large cities.
Camille: Definitely. And urban gardens—backyard gardens, too. People find a way. But I also think that question of stewardship gets complicated because of all these legacies of exclusion. Like, why am I going to steward this thing that didn’t even allow me access? We have to bear in mind these legacies of exclusion.
It’s a similar thing when we talk about pollution. People can point fingers at Africa or India, say those polluters . . . but of course one of the major polluters in the world is North America. We’re good at casting blame away from ourselves. These old conversations about stewardship need those corrective lenses. We need to open up ideas about scales of culpability, scales of access, power, duration—all of these things. Collectively, I think that we all have work to do. And some of us have more work to do.
Major: I’m thinking about the mission of Orion and thinking about our own work. So much of society’s impact happens at the level of policy, which can be invisible, you know, organizations working in alliance with other organizations, unseen committees that propose legislation, which hopefully finds its way toward a greater good, toward the idea that reaffirms Lucille Clifton’s assertion, “the earth is a living thing.”
How can writers, artists, those working in the humanities conceive of their work as having impact? Does that happen by doubling down on the aesthetics, on the art itself? Or is it thinking more deliberately about how our work might be employed, or deployed? Thinking about who is the audience? So, for example, you could have written a poem about your father being stopped by the police, but you engage the natural world by bringing in a natural space.
Toni Morrison writes somewhere about the pristine, about great horrors that happened in pastoral settings of great beauty. You could have written very simply about your father being stopped by the police, but you went to other places, to the imagination, to this history, to the history within our own community of state-sanctioned violence. There’s a level of complexity there.
Poetry can bring seemingly disparate things into one space, and that’s one way it can be politically useful, can help change minds, can help us see ourselves differently, and expand how we understand the world.
Camille: One of the things that is most exiting to me about all the best writing going on right now, all politically engaged writing (and I think environmental writing has always been politically engaged) is how it requires a roving eye. A roving eye can work well at a distance far enough to accommodate a number of different nonrelated possibilities as data points, as touchstones, to show a kind of commonality. How a writer can connect firestorms and blizzards and tornadoes, and also questions about police, and whatever might happen in whichever elections are coming up, and how all of these themes are interconnected. And poetry is a place that through metaphor, through image, through just pure fantastical language, and the beauty of alliteration, you can gather these themes, these spinning planets that seem to be millions of miles apart, and make them into a connected galaxy. Poetry can bring all these seemingly disparate things into one space, and that’s one way it can be politically useful, can help change minds, can help us see ourselves differently, and expand how we understand the world.
Art can help both slowly and quickly. Major fast change can happen in response to writing. We have examples of that. But there are also those slow centuries-long glacial-pace changes, too. But glaciers shape landscapes, right? A glacial pace can be as important as a lightning-fast pace. I think that is the responsibility of poets, of editors—to be able to put the poems into place so they can spark change at any pace.
Major: I don’t think anyone could say it better, and I love the metaphor of it. You found the metaphor of the constellation.
I have no prescriptions about American poetry other than the fact that I know that it’s ongoing and inevitably there is modulation happening and change happening. Our relationship to language is happening. Earlier you mentioned the role of love, and the need to connect, and I do feel like writers are the ambassadors of that impulse. But I think we have a lot of examples of writers mining a particular locale as a way to approach larger questions, larger problems, to reenvision history and humanity.
Camille: Okay, I want to close with a Major Jackson line of poetry. Because I feel like what we’ve been talking about all comes down to what you say right in the middle of this poem, “Let Me Begin Again.” You say, “. . . This time, let me circle / the island of my fears only once then / live like a raging waterfall and grow . . .” You’re going to grow something. It’s a beautiful line break. And I’m just going to leave with that superpower of poetry, where that word grow does that, where we understand growth to happen. We are acknowledging the island of our fears and circling it. But then living like this raging waterfall, just letting the water go while we grow.
Major: That’s so kind.
Camille: I think that’s our job. It’s our job as writers. It’s our job as editors. It’s our job as advisory board members. It’s our job as environmentally conscious people. To be aware. We’ve got to be aware of our fears. We’ve got to be aware of the history. We’ve got to be aware of all the pitfalls and then fix our vision and grow.
Camille T. Dungy has authored an essay collection and four poetry collections, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has edited three anthologies, including Black Nature. Dungy is a distinguished professor at Colorado State University, and Orion’s poetry editor.
Major Jackson is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, The Absurd Man. His edited volumes include: Best American Poetry 2019, Renga for Obama, and Library of America’s Countee Cullen: Collected Poems. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, he has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Award, and has been honored by the Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress. He is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, and the poetry editor of Harvard Review. He is also an Orion board member.
Catch Camille’s 2021 conversation with poet Kaveh Akbar.
Read Major’s thoughts on the perils of hiking while Black.