What to Eat, What to Drink, Where to Go Next:
An Interview with Camille Dungy by Sean Hill
Camille Dungy is the author of What to Eat, What
to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006), and
has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts,
The Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, and the American
Antiquarian Society. She is assistant editor of Gathering Ground:
A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade (University of Michigan
Press, 2006). Dungy is currently Associate Professor in the Creative
Writing Department at San Francisco State University.
Sean Hill's poems have appeared in literary journals
including Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Indiana Review, Ploughshares,
and Pleiades, as well as in the anthology Blues Poems.
His first book, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, is forthcoming from
the University of Georgia Press in 2008. He was recently awarded a grant
from the Jerome Foundation and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford. He
has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bush Foundation,
The MacDowell Colony, and the University of Wisconsin, and scholarships
to Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
Sean Hill: In a reading on the From the Fishouse website
you say the poem "The Preachers Eat Out" was the first poem you wrote for what
would become What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison.
Could you talk about the sensation of feeling the poems begin to "form an orbit
and create a little planetary system" and how that directed or changed your
writing process—the difference between writing poems and writing a manuscript?
Camille Dungy: I'd written some of the poems that appear in
What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and collected them
in manuscripts of other names, names I've since forgotten because they were
eclipsed by this project. When I wrote "The Preachers Eat Out" and then the
other two poems I thought were a three sonnet series that would be just that,
a three sonnet series, I realized that I had much much more of this story to tell.
I was talking about Thornton, but not about his wife, and being a card-carrying
feminist I knew that just wouldn't do. But then their stories only told part
of what needed telling, so then I flipped to the other side, talked about other
parts of my family. But then that too was only part of the story, and so then
I went digging up other models and memories, and thus came the poems that
comprise the middle section.
From the initial revelation to the complete reformation of the manuscript into
the form we know it now was a quick whirl of time in comparison to the tedious
plodding that had produced the previous poems. Until that gravitational pull
gets to me, I'm just writing one poem and then another poem and then (heaven
be my friend today) another poem, hoping each day that there will be some compelling
direction to take my words. Once gravity sets in I don't have to worry about whether
or not I'll fall. I know I will. Though I still need to sit down and write one poem
and then another poem, it's not like I'm floating out there not knowing whether
I'm going to go up, down, or backward through the wall. It seemed like, once I
had the revelation with "The Preachers Eat Out" and its companion pieces "Greyhound
to Baton Rouge" and "Service Station, Tennessee," before I knew it I had this whole,
formed book rather than a bunch of poems I shuffled around trying to make them work
against each other in some sort of reasonable way. A lot of the old poems fell out
of the manuscript, but some stayed because I think the idea I finally followed to
its conclusion was always in me. The older meditations just needed the proper poems
to resonate against.
SH: The majority of the poems in What to Eat, What to Drink,
What to Leave for Poison are sonnets. How did you become overtaken by the
sonnet? Did they precede the poems, the pull of the project, or the familial
history related to you by your grandparents?
CD: This question connects a bit to what I've just said.
"Ark" is probably the oldest poem in What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave
for Poison. When I wrote it I'd been playing with the sonnet, but this
was the first time I really thought, by golly, I've got my own way of handling
the sonnet. You know the difference between imitating other people's forms
and methods and figuring out how you can make them your own? With "Ark" I felt
that ownership for the first time. But there it is, lined up against the Thornton
poems, and it fits there perfectly, the religious stuff, the reticent sexuality,
the hope and fear, and so, though it was produced at a different phase, I think
it came into itself when it was set up against the work that finally comprised
The sonnet might be one of those things I return to again and again. I love
its compactness. I love the fact that there's this little argument inside it.
I love it's turn. I love how little space there is and how the heavy tradition
of the form requires that much be said but said succinctly. I keep looking for
a metaphor that matches how beautiful I think a sonnet is. I keep peeling down
to the core when I write them. I start with these gnarly drafts and hope by the
end to get to some hot, graspable, expansive beauty. The flower metaphors always
break down, and onions stink. One day I'll come up with something that adequately
mirrors what I think it's like to write a good sonnet, but then maybe I won't
need to keep trying to write them, so I'm not in a hurry.
In my mind, by the way, every poem in the book is a sonnet. Some are double sonnets.
Some play far faster and looser with the rules of a sonnet, but they are all 14 or
28 lines. I call then rogue sonnets. One of my old teachers called them shadow
sonnets, but being black and a woman, shadows have some connotations I don't want
to lurk about in. Roguery, though, that's the whole point of the book. These are
folks who take the restrictions and traditions that have been handed to them and
they do what they can to make beautiful things with their lives. They aren't
allowed to act just like Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Shelley, nor would they
want to. They do things their way, and so the fact that the sonnets follow some
rules and flaunt others is a direct reflection of their subjects.
SH: You mentioned that your older poems needed "the proper poems
to resonate against." Could you talk about ordering What to Eat, What to Drink,
What to Leave for Poison? I'm specifically interested in how you chose the
order of the sections, and what led to your decision to set apart the poem
that closes each section. What did the process of ordering What to Eat,
What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison teach you about ordering a manuscript?
CD: Well, the nature poems are something like punctuation.
Nature's all around us, it's part of our everyday lives, but not always incorporated
into our everyday lives, so those poems mirror that idea. If I were to carry out
the punctuation analogy, punctuation guides the way we interact with language,
but much of the time we don't pay much attention to it and sometimes we abuse it.
The nature poems speak to similar longings and struggles as the sections that
precede or follow them, but they are also outside and separate from those sections.
I guess the book's full of investigations of the ways things and people can be both
a part of and apart from.
I was writing the book while living in a region I didn't understand, and the nature
poems are meditations on what I did understand about places I had been. There is
a progression in them from comfort to exile to a new kind of comfort, so they sort
of bookmark the transformations that happen in the body of the book. As I was
building the book the poems got moved around and around and the sections changed,
but once the poems that are in the book now were all written, the order became apparent.
The fiestiness of Thornton and his family seemed like the way I wanted to end the
book. The release found through acceptance and abandon in the title poem, the last
poem in the book, mirrors the kind of mood I wanted to set with the Thornton poems,
with the progression of the book as a whole. The poems in the first section
incorporate a different kind of struggle and set a mood I'd rather use to start
a progress than end a journey. And the poems in the middle section address the
lives of a broader community, the people in them have bridged some gap of
understanding for me, and so I guess it seemed appropriate that their stories
served as a bridge from one kind of struggle and resolution to another. There are,
I guess, a lot of different forms of bridges in this book.
SH: In the current marketplace, where many poetry books are
published through contests, when you knew your manuscript was ready to be published,
how did you go about getting it published? What have the life of the book and your
life been like after its publication? How have things changed? Is it what you expected?
CD: This is a HUGE and multifaceted question. Here's my best shot
at an answer. I guess it was a little under a year from when the book was finished
finished and when it was picked up by Red Hen Press. I'd been sending it out in various
versions for awhile, but I knew it was finished when I started working full time on
another manuscript project. It was less than a year from the abandonment of further
revisions on What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and
the time that Red Hen took the book. So maybe the answer is to abandon a book
so it can find its way in the world. The problem is timing the abandonment correctly.
Anyway, I'd sent it out to contests for quite some time, and the book was published
as a result of one of those submissions. Not on the contest, but they'd liked it
and asked if I would resubmit when I revised. I'd made some changes, so I sent
it to them, and now there's this book.
As to the second portion of your question, you know how you have some landmark
birthday and for weeks, months, maybe years you wonder how your life is going to
change after that birthday and the answer is always not at all and totally? Well,
that's the thing with a first book. I am still the same woman with the same issues.
Some worries went away, some new ones came to take their place. I have this book
I can look at, touch, read from, and react to, but it's not like I woke up the day
the book was published and experienced some sort of complete transformation. I
think I was probably hoping I would, like when I turned 21 and thought life would
be totally different, exciting, free, full of adult responsibility, sexier, smarter,
richer. It was. And it wasn't.
SH: Speaking of life changing experiences, you're a graduate of
the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro. I'm wondering what your MFA experience was like.
What did you love about the program? With hindsight is there anything you would have
done differently yourself? Is there anything you would have liked to have seen changed
CD: I ended up in Greensboro for a few reasons. I was young
when I went to graduate school and had the idea that I knew a lot, as people in
their early/mid-twenties tend to believe. But I didn't really know a lot. What
I did know was that as an undergrad at Stanford I had a former Stegner fellow/Jones
lecturer as a creative writing instructor and I really admired her. She'd gone
to Greensboro, and I figured if she'd come out of that program the program was
worth adding to my list. Also, Alan Shapiro taught there, and Alan Shapiro was
a poet I would have liked to study with. And I'd never lived in the American
South and I believed in new experience, so when I was offered a fellowship at
UNCG I figured, "Hey, two year free trial offer of the American South. Why not?"
As with all free trial offers, my term in the Southeast was much longer than
I expected, and it was much harder to extricate myself than I could have ever
imagined it would have been. I think my agreement must have been written in
Roman numerals and I omitted the cross bar because I ended up on the East Coast
for 11 years instead of II. But I have an MFA that set me on a good track and
so, I guess, how I got there is less important than what I got from the experience.
I have to say that I feel like my MFA experience was a long time ago, so it
would be hard for me, with any level of conciseness, to tell you "what [my]
MFA experience was like." It was two years of my life, right? Three if you
count the year after when I was chosen for a 1-year faculty position. So,
it would be a little hard to distill that to a paragraph or two. I learned a
lot about writing, but there was a lot I didn't learn until later. Turned out
Alan Shapiro had left for UNC, Chapel Hill, so I didn't get to work with him in
grad school after all, but I worked with Stuart Dischell who has continued to
be an amazingly supportive mentor. I also had to work with some people who,
consciously or not, did their best to break me down, and not for the purposes
of helping me build myself back up, but that's as much a part of the game as
anything. I fell in love. I fell out of love. Repeat. I learned to drive stick.
I discovered how to write my form of the sonnet. I had a migraine that lasted 13
days and then I gave up caffeine and blue cheese and figured out how to not
get those migraines anymore. I mean, I lived my life for three years, and
I also went to school and learned things that have been the foundation of how
I live and write today. A lot of people think of MFA programs as this bubble
time when you're just writing poems, and that's true in the same way that it's
true for any kind of academic program. Medical school is a time when you're
focused on learning how to be a doctor, but you're also going along living your
With hindsight there are a lot of things I would have done differently and plenty
I would have changed about my experience in a white, Southern institution, but
who knows what those differences would have achieved aside from that I would now,
from probably a different desk with probably a slightly different life, be saying
there would be a lot I would have done differently. My life is the life I've made.
I try to accept it and move forward rather than spending too much time trying to
reshape the past. There were wonderful things that happened to me as a result of
that time, so I sure wouldn't pass up the whole plate of food just because I didn't
like a couple of the sides. That said, in the future I might be more aware that
certain plates are likely to come with less than appetizing sides. Sometimes I'd
sit down and just eat the stuff I wanted, sometimes I'd make sure to order something
else. It would depend on what I needed at the time.
SH: Could you speak about your experience with Cave Canem?
How did you find out about it? What were your expectations? What was the reality?
What is its importance to you? What is its importance to American poetry?
CD: I was the Assistant Editor of the Gathering Ground: A
Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade, which means that I read
(repeatedly) every poem that was submitted for and included in the anthology.
I corresponded (repeatedly) with every poet, I bemoaned the absence of poets
whose work isn't in the anthology, I saw, in other words, daily, for a period
of about 18 months, the breadth and depth and liveliness of the creative output
of this community. People talk about Cave Canem as though it represents one
aesthetic, one demographic, one project, one phenotype, one region, one kind
of oneness. I've worked more closely with the poets and poems of Cave Canem
than perhaps all but a dozen other people on this planet, and I know none of
that is true. What I think Cave Canem is doing for American poetry and
poetics, whether people realize it right now or not, is widening the possibilities,
making a space for difference and growth and experimentation and support that
has never existed before. People might look at CC now and see some of the larger
figures and think they know everything that's going on, but I have seen much
much more than that, and I trust that the flood is coming soon (and I mean that
as a good thing, though I know the idea is scary to some folks).
SH: As Assistant Editor of Gathering Ground you were
charged with showcasing Cave Canem poets. Could you talk about your similar
involvement in From the Fishouse, an online audio archive that "showcases emerging
poets"? According to the website you're the President of the Board of Directors
and on the Selection Committee. How did you become involved in this project?
Could you also address the importance of this project?
CD: The short answer to this question is that I believe the best
poetry is not just read but is also heard. The hearing can happen in the reader's
head, sure, but it's all the more exciting when it's heard out loud. Matt O'Donnell,
the founder of From the Fishouse, believes something similar. He used to record his
favorite poems to listen to on the commute to work because he couldn't find recordings
of new writers he liked. Once he sent me a tape recorder and had me record a couple
poems he remembered from a workshop we shared in graduate school. Matt figured he
wasn't the only person who believed poetry is as much an aural and oral art as it is
a visual one, and thus he started From the Fishouse. Instead of old fashioned tape
recorders he's using MP3 recorders now. You hear the poems online instead of around
a fire pit or in a feast hall. Despite the new technology, the concept is ancient.
The line between spoken word and poetry is not so divisive as some would have it.
My email signature reads, "Hear the Word," and includes a link to From the Fishouse.
I love reading my poems out loud and I love hearing poems read well. Like Matt,
I know I'm not the only one who loves to hear good poetry that's read well, and I'm
excited to be part of a project that helps people access it.
SH: Could you talk about your current project, Suck on the Marrow,
Chew on the Bone, and its impetus?
CD: When I finished What to Eat..., when I had come to
the stage where I knew I needed to start writing new poems or I would over masticate
the book and render it pulpy and dull and also something I hated, I decided I was
tired of writing sonnets. I was tired of writing about people I knew. I was tired
of writing about people who really existed. I wanted to make up characters. I wanted
to play with lots of formal strategies. I wanted to experiment with persona in new
and different ways. And also, I had just gotten back from Ghana where I had spent
some time in the slave forts and I wanted to think about that. And as it happened
I was working at Yaddo which, as I discovered in a series of serendipitous events,
happens to be right off the highway we still call "The Northway" which was a major
runaway slave corridor, and I wanted to think about that. And so, I did think about
all these things. And more. Some of the poems in this collection (still a collection,
it's not published as yet) are the result of these speculations. More speculations
followed. About 3 years of research. Many more serendipitous events (see my commentary
on the NEA website). And, in the end, I knew that collection was complete when I wrote
a series of three sonnets. You might recall that I started the project that became
What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison when I wrote a series
of three sonnets ("The Preachers Eat Out," "Greyhound to Baton Rouge" and "Service
Station, Tennessee"). I'd come full circle. That which I was avoiding was no longer
worth avoiding. The sonnets are different in Suck on the Marrow, but the
point is, the impetus for the poems was no longer resistance. It was discovery.
That's an exciting progression.
SH: Were you saying in your last answer that your progression
from resistance to discovery was in terms of form, or in terms of both form and
subject? It seems that what you're saying is your resistance was to subject and
form and that at some point you rounded the corner into discovery, returning to
the terrain of the sonnet from a new direction. Was your return to the terrain of
the sonnet from a new direction the discovery you were referring to, or was it also
your approach to characters and subject? What did you discover?
CD: I almost always speak in terms of both form and subject.
Form and content. They are co-determined entities in my writing, so though I came
into the question talking about form (the sonnet and my desire to escape it's hold
on me), it didn't take long before I started talking about subject (what the sonnet
might and might not allow me to say and do in a poem). So, my return to the terrain
of the sonnet from a new direction was the discovery I was referring to (or one of
them, there were, of course, others). In terms of the sonnet, that direction had
to do with the way I wrote these new sonnets (longer lines, different kinds of
internal play) but also had to do with what I wrote about within the sonnets and how
I accessed this new material. For me the what and the how are never very far apart.
And then you ask what I discovered. That's a huge question, Sean. The answer I want
to give is, read the book. There are things I can articulate separately from the poems,
but mostly I want the poems to speak for themselves. Also, and honestly, I'm in the
active process of moving into yet another project, and so the deep reflection into
the previous project that last question requires isn't high on my priority list.
It takes me awhile to separate from a project to be able to work on something new,
and I'm just now achieving that separation from Suck on the Marrow to
the extent I desire, so I'm rather disinclined to look back at those sonnets and
parse them in the way you're asking. When I'm far enough into this new project I
could easily answer your question, but I'm weaning the older baby, which means I
need to be in a different room.
SH: Your comment that you wanted to "make up characters" and
"experiment with persona in new and different ways," along with your historical
focus on the slave forts and the Underground Railroad, brought to mind a few lines
from Cavafy's poem "Kaisarion." They are "Because we know / so little about you
from history, / I could fashion you more freely in my mind." Could you discuss
in more detail the work you're doing with history in this new collection, and
the way you fashion your characters from that history?
CD: Well, I read a lot of slave narratives, some novels, some poetry,
some history texts, I spent a month and a week at the American Antiquarian Society
in Worcester, MA touching newspapers and almanacs and recipe books and letters and
children's books and sheet music and broadsides and wanted posters and sales slips
and maps and and and and, and I traveled, I talked incessantly about the antebellum
19th century, I generally steeped myself in the period until I could feel like I
actually recognized streets in Lynchburg, VA and Philly (the two cities that feature
most predominately in the collection) as they were in the 1840s and 1850s. Then
I inhabited those streets and my pages with people who would be doing things they
would have been doing in those times and those places but in terms of circumstances
I presented, that I created. I used lots of nouns, lots of words and objects that
would have been in people's mouths and hands, but I don't write using archaic diction.
I write in today's language about yesterday. We're absolutely different than we were
then. We're not so different from how we were then. These people should read as true,
but they are my own people, my own creations. Cavafy is right, as he often is. I could
"fashion [them] more freely in my mind" for the very fact that they were my fictions.
My sister's a historian, though, and she studies the 19th century, so for that reason
alone I knew that these characters had to be viable for people who didn't know the
era as well as for people who knew it really well. Viable and factual are not the
same, but they often overlap.
SH: I recently went to a Kara Walker exhibit; she was quoted on
one of the placards as saying that her silhouettes’ engagement of history will be
relevant as long as there is racism and tragedies like Darfur occurring in the
world. Could you talk about the ways you see your contemporaries (black, white,
and other) using/engaging history/histories in their poetry? Does there currently
seem to be a greater interest in that kind of work? If so, why do you think that is?
CD: I love Kara Walker! I love the nuances and textures and in your
face mash up that her work offers up. So many confluences of ideas and presentations
she's got in those pieces. And I am glad to even be mentioned in relationship to
her because I do want to achieve a similar type of mash up, a textured mixture of
very very now and very very always. I mean, we didn't just spring up out of nowhere,
now did we? History is our bone and blood and DNA, our skin, our food, and the water
that makes up most of who and what we are. We are a record of all that's gone before,
and yet we manage to be forever trying to make it new.
I've got a poem, "Dinah in the Box," in Suck on the Marrow about a woman
who packs herself in a box to escape slavery. Of course, as another character says
in a later poem, "Met a woman today thought she’d shipped herself/off of harm’s door
porch. You’re just free of Virginia,/I scolded." Dinah might have escaped southern
chattel slavery, but the antebellum north did nothing to guarantee a free and
prosperous life to blacks or the poor. That's history, yes. Still, how many
people put themselves in cargo holds, washing machine cavities, freight trains, or
in some other way struggle to smuggle themselves north or across the Pacific, to
the US, this "land of the free," only to find themselves on the door porch of
new brands of harm like indentured servitude, sex trafficking, the danger of
imprisonment or deportation? "Dinah in the Box" is set in 1842, but what the
woman is driven to do, and why, and what she faces after doing what she does,
the same things are happening all around us today.
So, sure, What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and the
manuscript Suck on the Marrow take their cues from history and are
primarily set in the past, but, to borrow Faulkner's phrase, "The past is never
dead. It's not even past." I think if contemporary poets are paying attention to
that fact it is only because contemporary poets, like so many poets from so many
ages, strive to articulate the truth of who we are and how we came to be that way.