Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and coedited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. Her honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, and a fellowship from the NEA. Dungy is currently a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University. Her poem “Trophic Cascade” from the May/June 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review can be found here.
What was your original impetus for writing “Trophic Cascade”? Did you begin with a line or phrase? With an image? With the poem’s overarching animating impulse?
The original impetus for this poem came from learning about what happened after the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. The idea that the river changed its course as a result. Holy wow. That just blew me away. I think I must have written down the chain of events. At some point I broke open into the connection I suggest toward the end of the poem. I don’t remember when that connection happened, when or why I made the turn that makes the poem a poem and not just a recounting of known events. Sometimes I remember those sorts of things, but in this case I do not. I was lucky enough to be at an artist’s colony at the time, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and my life was in something of a dream state. I remember sitting out on a huge tree stump that had been carved to make a bench when I began to draft the poem. I was overlooking a remarkable Northern California Coast Range valley, the Pacific in the distance, the occasional hawk circling overhead. That part I remember, but I can’t remember what got me from the first part of the poem to the last part. The drafts are all on the back of scrap paper so I couldn’t tell you the order of their development even if I could find all the scraps.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Since I began writing? Or since I began writing this particular poem? I’ll try to answer the former, though each poem happens in its own way, so I don’t know that I’m going to give you a particularly honest or accurate answer. This particular poem feels like it wrote itself, but that’s probably just because I can’t follow the chain of events that brought it to completion. Why and when did I decide to align the poem on the right hand margin? I don’t have notes about my decision to do that. I just remember thinking that seemed like the thing that needed to happen and once it was so it hasn’t seemed there could or should be any other way to see the poem. I am interested in the roughness being at the beginning, not the end of these lines. Anyway, it’s possible that my writing process has changed in that I’m more willing to revise for ages and ages and ages, but that’s been the case for much more than a decade, so I guess I’m thinking about how my writing has changed since I was a kid (I have written poetry all my life) rather than how it has changed in recent years. I don’t even know if I can answer this question. Things change and also they don’t change. That’s the way of all things. There are lots of different ways my writing or writing process seem to have changed, but if you look at them too long the arguments that anything has changed start to fall apart. I’m not writing 14-line sonnets anymore, but I remain deeply committed to the argumentative/rhetorical strategies allowed by that form. I’m writing essays now in addition to poems, but I obsess over each word, phrase, line, and break in the way I have always obsessed over these in poems. It is as impossible to change as it is not to change.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I suppose I’d have to say the entrance into my world of my daughter. But, I don’t know that I’d say that this development has been, for me, non-writing related. So, maybe I should say cooking. I have learned that my skills in the kitchen are directly correlated with my viability at the writing desk. I’m an improvisational cook, even an improvisational baker, and when my experiments consistently fail or I’m uninspired, the same types of failures are often happening in my writing.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Mine is a two-for-one answer. I was told before the publication of my first book that I couldn’t write sonnets that didn’t follow traditional rhyme and metrical schemes. I didn’t listen. I learned to manifest clearly the reasons I refused the confines of this received form even as I engaged directly with it. Wyatt and Shakespeare, Keats and cummings all found their own ways of writing sonnets. Why shouldn’t I be able to find my own way as well? Telling me I can’t do something is the best way to get me to figure out how I’m going to manage to pull off that very thing.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m working on a new collection of poems. “Trophic Cascade” is currently its title poem, but who knows if the book will keep that title by the time I am finished. Also, I’ve just finished a collection of essays. Part travelogue, part cultural criticism, part instruction manual on how to take a lap child along on a multi-state book tour. Right now it’s called A Guidebook to Relative Strangers but, you know, life is change.