- A Conversation with Camille T. Dungy
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Camille T. Dungy is a poet, essayist, professor, and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Trophic Cascade, Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Dungy was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019, and her debut collection of personal essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has edited several anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Her work has appeared widely in anthologies and in literary magazines, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, VQR, and Guernica. Dungy is currently a University Distinguished Professor, teaching in the English department at Colorado State University.
This interview was conducted by e-mail between December 2020 and February 2021. [End Page 169]
Could you tell us a bit about what initially drew you to writing poetry?
I grew up in a family that values literature, poetry included, so I was reading poetry and having poetry read to me from a very young age. I remember memorizing my first poem in kindergarten or first grade. I have always loved the taut power of a poem. The way some of us love watching world-class sprinters do their thing. Those quick bursts of power and import. That's exciting.
Your first book of poems, What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, is a collection of loose sonnets. Much of your later work is formally conscious but still free verse. How has your relationship to form evolved over the course of your career?
I often think that landing on that rogue sonnet form in my first book was one of the best things that could have happened to me as a writer. It taught me a lot about the power of rigor and tradition as well as the power of improvisation. My whole career I've played with toggling between using elements of received forms and resisting them. I love counting the syllables in my lines, the beats in each line, the number of lines in a poem. The ways that rhyme can work to suggest a familiar form, even if the poems don't exactly and perfectly implement that received form's rules. I like paying attention to what forms may echo through my poems. My parents listened to a lot of jazz when I was growing up. Listening to jazz, you can often hear the echo of classic songs from different traditions buried inside songs that sound nothing like those referent pieces but which are also clearly shaped by the referent pieces. I like to play with traditional forms in a similar way.
I love the comparison to jazz here, and the idea of form echoing through a poem even when it doesn't fully conform to its rules. A lot of poets whose work I'm drawn to take up sonnet variation in this way—Wanda Coleman's American Sonnets, Terrance Hayes's American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and more recently Diane Seuss's forthcoming frank: sonnets. Do you think there's something particular to the sonnet that makes it a good site to explore this meeting of tradition and improvisation? [End Page 170]
Absolutely! The sonnet is already like a little argument. A mini-essay. Like those five-paragraph theme essays of our school days. You open the sonnet with a set of expectations of what a sonnet will be (for instance: about love, both attainable and unattainable), and the sonnet proceeds for a while either confirming or disabusing you of this expectation. Then the poem goes a bit deeper into this idea until the volta around the eight or tenth line, depending on how traditional the sonnet is. At the point of this turn, the poem either moves even deeper into the line of inquiry or turns in another direction. Then, depending on the kind of sonnet it is again...