Friday, June 26, 2009

Camille Dungy

Camille T. Dungy is author of What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006) and Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, forthcoming January 2010), editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, forthcoming December 2009), and co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great (Persea, 2009). Dungy has received fellowships from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, the Dana Award, and Bread Loaf. She is associate professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.


Sing the mass—
light upon me washing words
now that I am gone.

The sky was a hot, blue sheet the summer breeze fanned
out and over the town. I could have lived forever
under that sky. Forgetting where I was,
I looked left, not right, crossed into a street
and stepped in front of the bus that ended me.

Will you believe me when I tell you it was beautiful—
my left leg turned to uselessness and my right shoe flung
some distance down the road? Will you believe me
when I tell you I had never been so in love
with anyone as I was, then, with everyone I saw?

The way an age-worn man held his wife’s shaking arm,
supporting the weight that seemed to sing from the heart
she clutched. Knowing her eyes embraced the pile
that was me, he guided her sacked body through the crowd.
And the way one woman began a fast the moment she looked

under the wheel. I saw her swear off decadence.
I saw her start to pray. You see, I was so beautiful
the woman sent to clean the street used words
like police tape to keep back a young boy
seconds before he rounded the grisly bumper.

The woman who cordoned the area feared my memory
would fly him through the world on pinions of passion
much as, later, the sight of my awful beauty pulled her down
to tears when she pooled my blood with water
and swiftly, swiftly washed my stains away.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem began a long time before it was completed. One summer, while working in England, I took a trip to Bath. Some travelers are better able than others to remember to look both ways when crossing English streets. At one major round about, my colleague and I witnessed a tourist fatally hit by a tour coach (bus). Leaving the event with a mixture of shock, horror and—I will admit now—morbid fascination, my friend said, “You’re the poet. You have to write about that.”

I took this as something of a double dog dare. The event was shocking and moving and I did want to write about it. I felt a sort of responsibility to memorialize the event I’d witnessed and the life that had ended right in front of my eyes.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Easier said than done, writing a poem about an event like that. I tried all sorts of entries into the poem, none of which seemed to work. They were all too voyeuristic or titillated by their own morbidity or just plain dull. I tried for a whole year, came up with nothing.

At the end of that year, I happened to attend a concert of Mozart’s Requiem. It was during that performance that I heard the phrase, “Will you believe me when I tell you it was beautiful, my left leg turned to uselessness and my right shoe flung some distance down the road?” I say “I heard” because the lines came into my head as if spoken. I wrote them down on the concert program but, as I was in the middle of a major move, I didn’t go any farther than that.

Several months later (I actually think it wasn’t until the following spring, nearly two full years since the precipitating event), when I had fully settled into my new home (this poem, then, traveled with me from England to North Carolina to Boston and finally to Virginia), I ordered a recording of the concert I’d attended, played it over and over and over, and, finally, was able to construct the poem in the form in which it now appears. None of the rest of the poem came as easily as the first line I wrote down, but at least I had a point of entry after that.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

In the case of this poem, I think it’s a pretty lovely combination of inspiration and perspiration. Certainly, the poem wouldn’t have happened had I not been willing to put in all the sweat and years and tears, but at the same time, there are aspects of the poem that were dependent on pure, beautiful and horrible, inspiration.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Two technical frameworks went into constructing this poem. First of all, I decided to write it in the manner in which I received Mozart’s Requiem. So the poem is broken into five stanzas to represent the five movements of Mozart’s version of the mass. The epigraph at the front (which is my own writing) represents the “Ave Marie” that opens the mass. As I recall, I actually listened to each movement as I wrote each stanza.

By the time the poem entered What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, I knew I was writing sonnets, so the poem was reshaped slightly so it fits into twenty-eight lines (a double sonnet) and reflects some of the components of the sonnet I privilege in my collection.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Referring back to my submission records it looks like about four years and ten rejections before it appeared somewhere.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It varies from poem to poem, but I usually wait at least a month, just to be sure the high doesn’t wear off. I like to be sure I’ll be happy to see the poem in five, ten or more years. Sometimes I get really excited and send something off right away, but not usually. Also, though, I have to admit I only submit in sort of submission binges, so it’s likely the poems are just hanging out waiting for me to get the energy for a round of submissions. Nothing more carefully calculated than that.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

Well, I really saw the guy die. And all those things I describe happening around him and to his body I saw too. Of course, the “I” of the poem is the dead man, so I guess that’s a fiction.

Is this a narrative poem?

I guess. But, then again, I guess not.

If forced to classify your poem, would you call it a dramatic monologue or persona poem? Neither? Both? Something else entirely?

Oh dear, you’re going to push the issue. I don’t suppose you want me to say neither and both, something else entirely.

Here’s the thing. The poem came to me as it came to me. Though I was aware of the structure of Mozart’s piece, and though I was trying, finally, to think about some of the ways a sonnet can work, and though I often write in the voices of others because I find the world and its inhabitants infinitely rich and compelling, and though I wanted to be true to the truth of the situation without being bogged down by the facts of the situation in order to report what happened but also transcend what happened, I never had in my mind, “Hey, I think I’ll write a dramatic monologue” or “Gee, what I need are a few more persona poems in my collection.” So, in the end, I don’t know that I’m equipped to answer this question.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I can’t even begin to recall. If I were to pull out my journals from the time I could tell you because I always keep a record of what I’m reading in my journals. This is for no more noble reason than that I only really remember things when I write them down and at some point early in my career as a reader/writer I grew tired of rereading things I’d already read but hadn’t registered. But, I am on a plane right now headed, coincidentally, to Boston (the town I moved from ten years ago just after first hearing the Mozart Requiem concert), and all my possessions are, as happened when I was writing “Requiem,” in boxes. So I can’t go back and recreate the past for you.

There’s the Requiem mass, though. That’s a beautiful mass. You should read it some time.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

My ideal reader: one who reads with care and patience and lights in her eyes and heart.

My particular audience: Heavens, I’m an American poet. I won’t deign to be picky.

Also, I’ll add, I am often surprised by who is moved by my poems, so I wouldn’t want to be silly enough to close anyone out before the poem’s even started.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I sometimes have readers. I’m sure some of them read this poem at some point, but like I said, I was in a period of extreme transition at the time, so I don’t know who the readers would have been. In the cases of What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison as well as my forthcoming collection, Suck on the Marrow, my readers often saw whole manuscripts rather than individual poems. It’s not an unheard of way of doing things, I suppose.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Wow, another broad question. In many ways I don’t think this poem does differ from my others. At least not the work in the two collections I’ve just mentioned (the collection I’m finishing now is pretty dramatically different from these two and so I won’t really bring it into this discussion). “Requiem” reconsiders a received history, it is in and/or around a persona, it is crafted with careful attention to one or more formal considerations, it’s written around music….Then again, every poem is its own poem, and so I could come up with a list just as long of the ways “Requiem” is different than the poems with which it shares space in What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison or its closest cousins in Suck on the Marrow.

What is American about this poem?

Ha! That’s funny. It’s a poem about an incident that happened in England to an Italian tourist, written alongside the score of an Austrian composer (whose concert I attended because of an invitation from a Middle-Eastern friend. Perhaps what is American about this poem is its multi-national origins.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

In answer to the question above regarding what some of my rules in terms of when I feel ready to send a poem out for publication, I don’t submit for publication until I feel a poem is finished. If I feel like I’m abandoning the poem, it stays in my drawer.


  1. The ending of the poem sure sounds like Randall Jarrell...

  2. One of your best interviews, Brian. And it's no surprise that the ending of the poem might sound like Randall Jarrell, since Camille took her MFA at UNC-Greensboro, where she may very well have been a RJ Fellow. I can't recall--it's been many years since she was in my workshop that one semester I was Guest Writer there. Way to go, Camille! Great photo. And working from music really resonates with me. I once tried to write a poem in sonata form, inspired by Schubert. It's one that I abandoned.

  3. Great piece. Love the mention of a double dog dare...
    they will sometimes get me moving

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