A Conversation between Camille Dungy and Matthew Zapruder
Camille T. Dungy is the author of Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster: 2023). She has also written four collections of poetry, including Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017) and the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W.W. Norton, 2017). She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. Dungy is the poetry editor for Orion magazine. A University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University, Dungy’s honors include the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, and fellowships from the NEA in both prose and poetry.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Father’s Day (Copper Canyon, 2019), as well as Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017) and Story of a Poem (Unnamed, 2023). He is editor at large at Wave Books, where he edits contemporary poetry, prose, and translations. From 2016-17, he held the annually rotating position of Editor of the Poetry Column for The New York Times Magazine, and was the Editor of The Best American Poetry 2022. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Matthew Zapruder: Camille, I’m holding your gorgeous new book of prose, Soil, which is subtitled “The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.” There is so much information in that title, both about the contents of the book, and why you felt compelled to write it. Can you talk about that, and about how and why this project began for you?
Camille Dungy: I believe in titles. The best titles offer readers a glimpse into what they might expect while still leaving room for discovery. Which is what happened to me as I worked on this book. I thought I knew what I was doing, but the process offered ample room for discovery. I had a conversation recently where I said this book turned out both similarly and differently to what I expected when I wrote the proposal for the Guggenheim Fellowship that afforded me the time to write it. The book was always going to be about what grew out of the soil around me, but in the end that’s about the only thing that stayed the same. I thought, for instance, that the book was going to be entirely poetry. There are still some poems in it, but it’s now a prose narrative infused with poems and visual art. I love how the writing of the book revealed to me the best way to tell this story, and that the best way meant a variety of ways, not just one mode of telling. Since the book ended up thinking a lot about the importance of encouraging a diverse landscape, I wanted the book itself to embody the vibrant possibilities of diverse ways of being and thinking.
I’m not entirely sure I answered your question, Matthew, but one of the funny things about working on a book for an extended period of time is that sometimes I lose track of what my hopes for the project were at the start because I have to focus on directing the book to what it wants to be when it’s finished. One of the things I loved about your new memoir, Story of a Poem, is how you help us see this progression by sharing one poem and its many drafts as well as some of the things happening in your life and mind as these revisions progressed. It’s a revelation and a deeply generous offering. Your book speaks to some of this, but can you describe something that surprised you as you witnessed yourself in the act of articulating your writing process?
MZ: Camille, it’s so interesting that the book began with the idea that it would be all poetry. In a way I guess you could say that was the soil, from which this story grew? Or vice versa? Both? I would love to hear more about what happened when you started to realize that prose was necessary, in this particular story, in addition to the poetry, and how you began to add to and change your original conception. And what you think of the relationship between them.
I’m fascinated by those sorts of moments when a writer realizes something and has to adapt. In a way I guess that is what writing is to me: that constant response to what has come before. In Story of a Poem, I wanted to illuminate as much of that as possible, by putting myself in a position where I had to, as you say, witness myself in the act of making something, and in the act of trying to articulate what was happening as I made it.
What surprised me? I guess everything. For one thing, I was surprised at how almost everything I thought I believed about poetry was only half of it, and that I almost always was convinced by the opposite as well. Just to take an example, I have always been someone who has believed that whatever agenda or purpose one begins a poem with should be subordinated to new impulses that arise when writing, even if, and especially when, those new impulses seem to contradict the original idea. This was the true freedom of poetry, a lack of responsibility, at least to the initial idea. That was practically an article of faith for me, and something I have written about, said to class after class of students, etc. It’s the central thesis of a previous book I wrote, Why Poetry.
But I found, in writing this book, that I felt more responsibility to the poem I was making than to the prose, in which it turned out I was able to be wilder and more wandering. So for me at least, the purposes of the different genres reversed themselves. The poem felt like it had always had a deep purpose, from the very moment I first began to write it (and before!), which had to be excavated. This took months, and the book is in part the story of that uncovering. This was exciting, and also something I felt I needed to investigate in the book itself.
How about you? What did you discover? It seems to me that there is a giant metaphor about diversity, soil, growing, gardening, which is infinitely applicable to our lives. Was that something you came upon in writing, or something you knew before and wanted to explore?
CTD: One of the things l learned when I published my first book of prose in 2017 (Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History), was that readers of nonfiction often have a much tighter bond to a particular idea about truth than do readers of poetry. I also published Trophic Cascade, a poetry collection, in 2017. Though Trophic Cascade was the most vulnerable and maybe (let’s say) confessional book of the four poetry collections I’ve published so far, it was with readers of Guidebook that I felt a sense of truly tearing back a curtain. I think contemporary poetry readers are equipped to understand that all poetry, even the most self-revelatory, has an element of the persona. But with prose, that’s not the climate. The meanings and understandings of truth and revelation are different for the two genres. So you asked what I realized when I understood prose was necessary for Soil, and I think one thing was that I wanted a form that didn’t allow me even the modicum of artifice and masking that poetry offers. If I say I am hurting, I want that to be taken at face value. And then I want to be able to dig in deeply and give facts and data and PRRI studies and personal stories and historical tidbits and botanical details to help support that truth even further. This is all possible in poetry and some of my favorite poets are really really good at merging social science and history and biological science into super compelling poems. But too much of that often weighs my own poem drafts down. I wanted to find a way to communicate all of this truthful personal and cultural information and also write something compelling, and I understood that prose was my path.
I’m thinking too of your comment about metaphor. Most everything I am writing in Soil operates really well as metaphor. But they also are facts. Near the end of Soil, I describe an enormous wildfire that burned close to my house for 5 months in 2020. “The Cameron Peak Fire was the perfect metaphor for many things,” I write. I go on to list five of the most pressing potential metaphors related to the lines of inquiry in my book. But then I go on, “And also, the fire is its very own thing.” Prose gave me the liberty to baldly state both the metaphors and the facts. Of course poetry can do that. The best poetry always does that. But I’m not sure readers of poetry always ask poems to do both, nor do I think that’s something I want readers of poetry to do. So the poems in the book get to live in their own way. Like when I finally fell fully in love with the lake near our house because I stopped comparing it to an ocean. Let the lake be the lake and the ocean the ocean. Same with prose and poetry. Let them do their own things and do them well, and let readers appreciate each for its own truths.
Let me quote you now. Here’s my first sticky note in the book. I was trying to just read for pleasure, and then I kept running into lines I felt articulated ideas so well that I started carrying around my sticky note pad with your book. Here’s a quote from Story of a Poem that feels like it’s in line with some of what I just said. But maybe you’ve got a different take on the stakes of this sentence that you could share: “Poetry gives us the great gift of allowing us to forget, momentarily, that communicating is mostly functional.”
When I write poetry, I often feel like I can be deeply self-revelatory without the same risks of prose because readers accept poems as being more than purely functional. But as I wrote the prose of Soil, I often found myself having to revise toward a different kind of honesty. One where I wasn’t working to protect myself. I first wrote that sentence with an unidentified and passive agent, “didn’t work to protect itself.” Prose is functional. The moment I write “I” there is no other subject but me, so there are different stakes and different kinds of vulnerabilities. I’m not sure that’s true the same way with poetry. Poetry admits more possible “I”s. In Story of a Poem, you later go on to talk about pronouns and their squirreliness in poetry. I wonder how much questions of vulnerability and self-revelation are tied into the choice of prose vs. poetry for you.
MZ: I love so much of what you wrote above. “Like when I finally fell fully in love with the lake near our house because I stopped comparing it to an ocean. Let the lake be the lake and the ocean the ocean.” “Comparison is the thief of joy” is the mantra of our house.
A metaphor is so much stronger when it is grounded in fact, don’t you think? That feels to me like it is a truly magical act, to transform or change something that has a place in what we call reality. Or like what Lorca writes, that once people discovered that it wasn’t giants that they had invented, but drops of water that had made those giant caverns, everything became far more mysterious and wonderful. The greatest poets can move into that space of the dream, while still making the stone stony, and bringing all the mortal stakes along with them into the land of myth and alteration.
By “functional” in that quote above, I really mean something like, “merely informational.” Poetry can foreground the emotive, affective aspect of communication, though as you correctly point out, it can also be informational, documentary, advocating, and so many other things. Almost anything. No, anything!
I love what you are saying about the way readers of contemporary poetry understand, implicitly, that the speaker in the poem is not necessarily equivalent to the person who is writing, which can be both a freedom, but also a limitation. That is so true! And therefore prose is so necessary to pierce that beautiful, productive illusion. That at least partially explains why I feel so much more vulnerable in writing prose. I thought it was because there were just more words for me to reveal my worst qualities, the ways in which I overexplain and become strident and argumentative and weirdly insistent on minor issues, etc. But I really think you are right. I feel this poetry mask, even if it’s a completely transparent one that looks exactly like my face, slipping off when I write prose. I also know what you mean about facts weighing down the poems. Some poets can pull that off, but not me. My music is too vulnerable to the pressures of the real, I guess.
Speaking of the pressures of the real, how hard was it for you to write this book, spiritually, emotionally? Did you feel relief? Deeper fears and sadnesses?
CTD: In his poem “Adam’s Curse,” W. B Yeats writes:
…A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught….
Now make that a whole 300-page book. I think you’re right that one of the daunting things about prose for people trained as poets is all the words. So many words to stitch and unstitch! When we do so with a poet’s eye, really thinking about each word, the music and structure as well as the “plot” and the movement, boy howdy. That can get rough. Both in terms of time and in terms of emotional and creative energy.
And we were both working on these projects in the midst of COVID shutdowns and catastrophic wildfires and an election and major social unrest. My daughter was home from school and I was the one overseeing her remote learning. I get tired just typing all that. I’m still not entirely sure how I finished that book. So, yes, at this point I feel immense relief. But during the process I think it was despair that I was often feeling.
I do think, though, that the book is the book it is because of all those pressures. For me, it was a matter of writing it all, bringing in the real, or not writing at all. I chose to write the real, which makes it a different book than many of the models I was trained with.
Another one of the things that often felt hard as I was stitching and unstitching was the work to make my writing as honest and open as possible about the realities of my daily life. Which means, among other things, that my daughter shows up a lot, along with details about what’s in the dryer and the crockpot and what her math enrichment assignments looked like on a particular day in 2020. Including these sorts of quotidian domestic details felt so out of step with so much canonical 19th and 20th century environmental lit, and that dynamic also became something I think about on the page.
I adore the ways you write about your son in your book, and the ways you’re honest about your own growth as a father and into a more expansive human. That’s so much a part of writing the difficult but honest work, I think. Being able to look critically at ourselves at the same time as we look critically at our worlds.
How hard was it for you to write about your son? Do/did you worry about people’s reactions to your revelations about your own reactions to and others’ interactions with him? What does it mean to write lovingly but also honestly about our relationships with the people we love?
MZ: Honestly, Camille, it was really hard. I mean, it wasn’t hard to write about him, since I think about him all the time. So writing down whatever I was feeling or thinking about was not difficult. But as you know yourself from being a parent, whatever you are feeling in a particular moment—whether it’s frustration, warmth, fear, elation, deep heights and canyons of heretofore unfelt love, pride, calm, even nothing—is fleeting. My poems in which he appeared would capture one of those particular moments, those states of being. They were deeply true. Yet I felt a great sense of responsibility, and yes, even terror, that if someone only read a single poem, or a few, they might get an impression of him, or of my feelings about him, that did not come close to representing the range of experiences we were having, and how he and I were changing. I feel that same responsibility all the time, even writing about him now.
I tried to write about that very difficulty in the book, and to talk about how poems have this amazing power to communicate a single experience, and to immerse the reader in it. But this power of poetry can also be its limitation. So I needed prose. Which, even as I wrote about writing a poem, in turn could be the seeds of another new poem. A never-ending process, I hope.
All this was compounded by the fact that I felt a new sense of responsibility towards people who are neurodivergent. I did not want to misrepresent their experience, or generalize. So I tried to write not so much about my son, but about my personal, individual relationship to what was happening. I think the book is not really about my kid, but about me as a father. And the book of poems is called Father’s Day. Making sure I drew a line, where I was focusing mainly on my experience, and not trying to characterize him or pin him down as he grows and changes, felt like the most loving way I could write about him. Along with celebrating his awesomeness!
But just as you said you needed prose to come out from behind your poetry mask, I needed the prose because of what the prose could do with time that poems could not. It’s funny, now we are two poets talking about how great prose is! Like these prose writers need the glow up. They are already glowing.
Your prose throughout the book is so lyrical, not merely in the beauty of the writing, but also in how the writing alternates between lines of poetic perception and more factual or daily ones. For instance, the gorgeous lines “The garden kept its own council. It waited. Not on me, but on the warmth and lengthening light” are immediately followed by the following sentence: “Gardening books suggest I should keep some plants in the yard for winter interest.” It would take a poet to shift between those modes, and also to notice and single out that weird phrase, “winter interest!” In this way, your prose seems deeply poetic to me. I mentioned Wallace Stevens’s term “the pressure of the real,” which he says must be resisted with a kind of violence, to make a space for the imagination, and poetry. But he also writes that the all-commanding subject matter of poetry is life. So it’s a weird thing: you use the stuff of life to push back against the stuff of life to make a space for the stuff of life to be recombined into poetry. Like digging with a shovel made of dirt, or stitching with a needle made of thread.
In the very moving conclusion to the book, you bring together the various strands: lethal police violence against Black youth, fire, terror, the particular details of your gardening and the landscape in which it occurs, your own mothering. I feel like you leave us with hope, but also (as the best poems do) with plenty of troubled thinking too. Trouble feels like an important word toward the end of the book, in the name of the calamity assigned by the accidental poets who are in charge of officially naming such things: East Troublesome Fire. “Sometimes I think I worry about catastrophe too much. Sometimes I think I don’t worry enough.” If this doesn’t sum up the contemporary condition, I don’t know what does. Did this book help you with your troubles? Can writing do that, for the writer or the reader, without slipping into etherizing us into a state of complacency?
CTD: [Dear reader, what you don’t know reading this interview is that it took me a long time to respond to this most recent question from Matthew. We’d been zipping along, providing a question and response at a rate of about one volley per day. Then this question came and I sat on it for a week. I read Matthew’s words and felt deeply moved by them, but formulating a response felt nearly impossible.
For one thing: life. Matthew’s volley came the week of my daughter’s birthday and I was focused on making sure her day felt special. Plus it rained at odd times every day that week, but I had some crucial, though not at all glamorous, gardening to do (pulling bindweed from an area we’ve seeded with native grasses) so most non-rainy hours I was outside on my hands and knees battling the forces of evil. Also I don’t really know how to answer the question of whether writing about trouble helps me to feel less troubled. I’m inclined to say that I don’t think it does.
In the end, Matthew and I agreed that the response I mustered felt like the best place to end our conversation, so here are those final words.]
Soil was an incredibly difficult book to write. For several reasons. I wrote it during one of the most practically and emotionally difficult years of my adult life. Somehow in the midst of overseeing my daughter’s remote schooling and all the other chaos of the height of COVID, I managed to focus on drafting this book for at least twenty minutes a day. Sometimes that’s all I had. Just twenty minutes. I write about some really difficult subject matter, as you mentioned. Globally and culturally traumatic subjects and also personally traumatic situations. But revising the book was often as difficult as the initial drafting. Writing twenty minutes a day meant that by the end I had an unwieldy mess on my hands. And then I had this whole new tough project of shaping the chaos. I remember one conversation with my writing group when I said I didn’t think I could do it. The group reminded me that I was writing about some of the most painful moments in my life, so of course going back to dig into the manuscript was going to be difficult.
And another complicating factor is that some of the worst things I describe will never have a remedy. Elijah McClain will never be alive again. That more people know the circumstances of his death thanks to what I’ve written is a good thing because I can hope that increased awareness will mean better outcomes for other people in the future. But Elijah’s death will never be a good thing. Writing doesn’t provide a resolution for such horror. You know? In your book, those children separated from their parents at the border are likely still separated from their parents. The scars of our nation’s policies will traumatize those children and their parents for the rest of their lives. And we should all hold the responsibility for that trauma. And where do I go from there? That’s what stumps me over and over. How do I turn from a truth like the racialized violence of the murder of Elijah McClain and then say…but let’s talk about joy!
Facing such irredeemable horrors made writing Soil very difficult.
Facing such irredeemable horrors makes being alive in this world very hard sometimes.
But one of the miracles of being alive is that somehow most of us figure out how to keep going. And doing so, moving forward despite everything, introduces me to surprise and splendor and, yes, moments of hope and joy. And so I found it necessary to find ways to write about those moments of pure glory as well. This is one of the ways I resist the complacency that violence and terror sets out to impose upon me. That complacency would have me believe there is nothing I can do to resist, so I might as well give in to fear and frustration. I’m not ready to give in. So I keep looking for beauty, for hope, for things I can work on, for weeds that need pulling, for joy.