Broadening the Scope of the Environmental Canon: An Interview with Camille T. Dungy
Some books defy categories. Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2023) by poet Camille T. Dungy pushes the limits of what readers might expect from any genre. Is it memoir or environmental literature?The book covers so much terrain: Black history, gardening in the West, motherhood, and the care and cultivation of a variety of plants with chronicles of Dungy’s life that jump around from childhood into 2020 with stops bringing her time in California and Virginia into the story. This book teems with life.
At one point in the book, Dungy addresses questions about Soil’s content: “But what’s with all this history? This book is supposed to be about my garden. And it is.”Dungy describes the book as a bit like a compass rose: resembling a sun with rays shooting off, and covering a lot of ground. “I wanted the experience of reading the book almost to not feel linear, to feel circular and radiating in the way that I think. That’s how I experience life.”
Author of nine books of poetry, Dungy and I spoke on the phone to discuss writing cross-genre, the importance of bringing your people onto the page, and planting seeds but being open to surprise.
The Rumpus: With this idea of yours of the “histories of soil,” the physical world is not disconnected from the world of our ancestors—you intertwine history with the physical act of gardening. There’s this moment where you tied Thomas Jefferson’s admission of claiming people as his property—the reason he ended their cultivation of tobacco—to your desire to grow what you want. “I have histories like this in mind when I insist on growing what I please in the soil that surrounds me. There is power to be generated from cultivating whatever might sustain me in whatever way I wish.”
Camille T. Dungy: Sometimes, I want to push against the sense that everything that’s there, living in the world, is for me, and that we’re just planting and harvesting resources all the time that are made for direct human consumption. At a deeper level, that ties into some really dangerous and damaging behaviors and practices. So, with my yard and my garden, I like to constantly be rethinking what my relationship is with the other living beings around me and how I can make that relationship not be purely that they are all living and growing for me.
Rumpus: Also, you have the power to grow whatever you want.
Dungy: That’s really important to point out. I can grow my arugula, and when it bolts too early, I can let it go ahead and flower and go to seed, and the next season I’ll have more arugula because I am not dependent on that for my personal sustenance or my family’s sustenance. That’s one of many things that we can depend on, but I’ve also got some great farmers’ markets here and other ways that I can access those nutrients.
Part of it is the acknowledgement of a privilege that I can make those decisions, but also in acknowledging that privilege, I’m very aware of people still alive today and ancestors who did not have that ability to make those choices. So, when I make those choices, I am exercising a kind of freedom that I am consciously aware of.
Rumpus: You mention wanting to tattoo a Lucille Clifton line of poetry from “mulberry fields” that says “bloom how you must I say.” What has it taken for you to bloom as a writer? What kind of supports or practices or people have helped you bloom as a writer?
Dungy: That is a really great question. Soil is my ninth book with my name on the spine, so, this is not a debut. I’ve never been in this rodeo before, and it was very different. This is a very different, and often very difficult process of writing because it’s a book-length narrative. Having been trained as a poet and then thinking about how to sustain a narrative for two hundred eighty pages was a real challenge. I have a team of folks who are great—people call them beta readers, but I’m calling them alpha readers. They were great first readers, and they were fantastic at seeing the whole picture for me and asking me really important questions, one of them being about my target audience.
It’s a question that writers get asked a lot: who’s your audience? I think it was important to challenge my initial thought of who my audience was. In initial drafts, the book was much more defensive and much more like, “I’ll show you.” As I let go of that sense of trying to convert people who may or may not agree with me, and just talking to the people I loved and who I know love me, the whole tone of the book really changed. I hope [the book] becomes much more welcoming, more like a conversation with somebody you’d like to get to know. That that was a kind of ethical challenge with the book. It also structurally shifted things.
Rumpus: You write about Annie Dillard and this idea of being alone for hours to observe and be in nature. You ask, where are their people? You also speak to the fact that nature writing / environmental literature hasn’t really been done much from the perspective of either working parents or writers of color. How can we add to the canon in a way that paints a more complete picture?
Dungy: When I published Black Nature, the anthology of Black nature poetry, back in 2009, and when I was collecting the poems for it, one response that I received from poets was gratitude that I saw them. They had been doing this work their whole careers, and nobody had recognized it as environmentally-influenced poetry, which sometimes is just astonishing that that wouldn’t have happened.
I think of a book like Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City where the landscape around his childhood hometown is as key a character as any of the people in his family or his community, but because it’s so much about Black Southern life, it was categorized in all kinds of ways, but not as environmental literature.
That’s one of the real keys: if people are writing about parenthood, writing about what’s going on inside the home, you’re bringing a lot of people with you. If you do these reflections back and forth, between what’s happening on Tinker Creek and what’s happening in Roanoke, Virginia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, huge cultural, social change moments, then Dillard’s book would not have been categorized in the ways that it was. It would’ve been politically polemical.
We do this to Thoreau still, right? We talk about Thoreau almost all the time as an environmental writer, but don’t talk about his abolitionist work. Bringing those two aspects of his thinking and action together seems to be really difficult for people.
I guess I’m just saying—Enough of that kind of divisive thinking! We are not going to be able to move forward in any kind of sustainable way without figuring out how to integrate the many aspects of our lives. That means integrating our relationship with the greater than human world, with the built human environments and culture and economics and history. We just can’t make the changes that we need without merging those parts of our thinking and being.
Rumpus: You refer to “trees are people too”—and this idea of “what folly to separate the urgent life will of the hollyhock outside my door from the other lives—the family I hold dear.” I don’t think of myself as being a reader of nature writing, but this made me wonder if maybe there needs to be a restructuring of categorization?
Dungy: I think one of the reasons that people feel like they may not be interested in nature writing is because of the limited scope that nature writing is expected to contain. So frequently it has been represented as people just wandering out into the mountains and finding themselves, by themselves. I just don’t get to do that. It’s just not a thing that I get to do for a variety of reasons: because I have a child, because I am a Black person in a country that purposely, legislated against my being able to wander out by myself. The legacies of that legislation still exist in access, for Black people to the outdoors, because I have a commitment to community that makes me feel like I’d really rather be spending time in community than wandering around out in solitude.
All of those things keep me from being particularly interested in a canon that seems to be about white men in solitude in the mountains. Obviously, that’s not the entirety of what that canon is. Obviously, it’s more complex than that, but that’s not the message that gets passed along so frequently. The more we can complicate the message—complicate is the wrong word—broaden the scope of the environmental canon, the more people will feel welcome inside it and will be able to see the possibility of their involvement and engagement.
Rumpus: As a writer who’s also a mother, Do you think that there might be a bias against incorporating the domestic as a lens that is limiting or not want to be classified as a “mommy writer?”
Dungy: Oh, I think it’s absolutely true. I think the people are quite worried about that because of how derisive that statement is. Remember that whole era of “chick-lit,” right? If you called a book “chick-lit,” it instantly diminished its literary importance because it was addressing interests of women identifying people. That’s what is frightening. I know that I have been directly impacted.
At some point after some round of judging for one of my books when one of my books was a finalist—later, after the fact, I heard that some of the conversation was like, “Well, this is just a book about motherhood.” Like, “what makes that award-worthy?” The book may or may not have been award-worthy, but the point that the reason it couldn’t possibly be award-worthy is because it was about motherhood. That was relatively recently that that conversation was conveyed to me.
I can see why a writer would then say, “Well, I’ll make sure the next time to write ‘more universally.’” But so frequently when people talk about universally, it’s not actually universal. It’s writing to appease a particular segment of society and their eye and what matters to them, right? That’s what makes it universal. So, for me to write about my experience because I am a Black woman mother in the West—that makes me not align with the universality of a white male reader in the Northeast. But good literature crosses these membranes and barriers.
Also, good readers allow themselves to be taken across these barriers. And that became—back when I talked about my team who really helped me rethink the audience—what would be the point of me trying to win over that guy? There’s no point. He’s not winnable. But there’s all those other people who are willing to see the world differently than they knew, in one group, and another group who are eager to see the world represented as they know it. And those are the people with whom I am going to communicate.
So therefore, it matters a little bit less to me because I know I have been reaching out to these people who I know exist. It matters a little bit less to me what those people who are going to derisively dismiss the work because it’s just about motherhood. Because it’s not—it’s also not just about motherhood.
Rumpus: Soil is the story of a Black mother’s garden—it’s very intentional using that word on the cover as part of the title. Your depiction of parenting and art-making in 2020 is spot on when you said, “I could sleep or write or garden or clean house or help my daughter, but I couldn’t do all or even most of these things. Which needs, which lives, which wills, which words, which stories ought to have priority?” It’s 2023, were you able to figure out what your writing practice is and get back to that after homeschooling wasn’t on the table anymore?
Dungy: I just would have to say that I am still working on this. The other day, my husband came in and asked me how my day was, and if I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. I was like, “The day was a waste. I didn’t do anything. I accomplished nothing.” I was very down on myself. And then I ate dinner and after I had had a little sustenance, I thought, “You know, I actually did a lot. I didn’t do all the things because there’s too many things and I will never be able to do all the things.”
If I acknowledge what I have accomplished, then look at it like a positive as opposed to a negative or, additive instead of subtractive—at that point I start to do this thing that lots of creativity coaches and mental health people suggest. I begin my day with a list of three tasks that I really want to accomplish or make progress on. Anything else is gravy. Anything else I do is like, “Yay!” If I manage those three tasks, then, I can feel like I did my thing.
Maybe, for me, that comes from having come out of those years of overseeing my daughter’s remote learning, which lasted longer than it did for many other people. She was in remote learning all through the end of the 2022 academic year because my parents and I are immunocompromised. She just decided she didn’t want to go back into the school setting. The first week that the kids were supposed to start school in-person again, her would-be teacher came down with Covid, and she was like, “Woo, so glad I didn’t do that.” So, we did that remote learning thing for a year and a half. It was a lot. I guess it just taught me new things about balancing. I mean, I got the book written so I did something pretty big, but some other things didn’t happen.
Rumpus: Poetry breaks in the book add tension, stillness, and a different reading experienc than the prose. Did the writing of the poems come after the essays, before them, or during? As a release or distilling of what you had said before?
Dungy: They were written at the same time. Sometimes I just think differently, in the two forms. They might be written at the same time as the prose work. They distill the thoughts in different ways. In the past I would have set them (poems) aside and put them in my next book of poetry. But I just felt like they were part of this project as well. The poems were part of the thinking that I was doing as were the photographic images. Also, the presence of the poems and the presence of the images speak further towards the wealth of experience that’s available to us when we embrace diversity. So, having these different ways of seeing and understanding and interpreting the message of the book felt in line with the message of the book, which is that there’s not just one way of seeing and being in the world.
Rumpus: You spent some time in the poet Anne Spencer’s garden in Virginia. You describe Spencer’s words as “seeds that fly from miles and miles on the wind.” What kind of seeds are you planting in Soil that you hope take root?
Dungy: Well, one, is the seed of grace and patience—just understanding that some things take a while to grow into what we want, and they may not grow quite as we would expect them to and, so, being open to surprise and variety.
Also, ways of thinking about how to cultivate a welcoming environment like in your own backyard, how to think about the history of your place, the relationships with those who live around you, human and non-human, the kind of historical hurts that some of us carry and the ways to be gracious and welcoming in light of those.
Author photo by by Beowulf Sheehan