The University of Wyoming Libraries hosted award-winning poet and writer, Camille T. Dungy, for a virtual reading of her work on October 24, 2020. Dungy was born in Denver and has written and edited publications that often explore the ties between race and the environment.
Wyoming Public Radio's Naina Rao spoke with her about how she got started with poetry, her reflections on her journey, and what she thinks about the state of society today.
Camille Dungy: I feel like I have always been a writer, my mother would say that I was writing before I could actually write before I had the English letters down on the page, but I would scribble things. So that has been, for me, always part of how I've digested and learned to understand the world around me and condense that into poetry down on the page and that kind of way.
Naina Rao: I know that you tie race and racial inequality a lot to the environment in your work. How did you get into that? How did you get into writing about the environment and about nature and tying it to race?
CD: Yeah, I think that that's one of the things about being from the West is that there are not drastic divides between the human environment and the - what we call the natural world here, right? So, the Mullen Fire is one hundred and ninety thousand acres burning mostly in national forests, and the Cameron Peak fire, and the East Troublesome fire… And then the moment they go out of that, they are threatening whole communities and towns. And even when they're like — I'm really watching, this East Troublesome fire and with great concern, because I really care about those structures that are right in the Marine Valley Park, where it is like leaking towards the visitor center there and a little cabin that I had an opportunity to live in.
Our backyards are the space that other people would call the 'wild' or the 'environment' that so many of us have our livelihoods connected directly with livestock or with other kinds of resources… resource connections with natural resources and things. And so, I think I just never created that division in my head, right? I never created a vision that was like, 'this is nature', 'that's the environment', and 'this is human', and that they were somehow separate. I just always understood that what happened to the greater than the human world, happened also to me. I am inhaling the smoke. For nine weeks, I've been inhaling the smoke of the burning of the forest, right? That it is directly affecting my health, my viability, my energy, my child's health. So, I don't see a need to create that kind of separation.
NR: Do you experience that often? Like, do you come across that 'divide' that people tend to make?
CD: So that kind of division is built into the American environmental movement's ideology and language and structure that, when we talk about the environment in that conversation, we're often talking about wilderness, and we're talking about some kind of 'great away'. That is a fable. It's not… it has never existed. And the way that it was created was, by and large, the removal of Native people, who were living on and using those landscapes in ways that were different from the needs and desires of the wealthy white people, who wanted access to those lands.
And […] as far as Black people are concerned; we have also been erased and removed from those landscapes… often legally not allowed to enter some of those spaces. Even once those laws shifted and changed and we had, quote-unquote, 'free reign' to move around, it — the legacies of those exclusions remain.
And so, in the sort of imagination of what environmental interests suggest, it's like, the tree hugger who goes hiking in Yosemite far, far away from everybody. That, that doesn't — it hasn't been created as a space where people of color are, quote-unquote, 'supposed to be', right? The story of the man birding in Central Park recently is another example about why he couldn't be birding in that space, that that wasn't an expectation of what this Black man would be doing in that space.
There is all kinds of work, my own writing, and a lot of environmental activists, many other writers who are pushing against these limits of imagination, as I call them. But it's a long legacy that we're fighting against. And I think that it is true that often, communities of color have an equally difficult time of imagining themselves in these spaces. But a lot of it also has to do with the storytelling — whose stories are being published? How they're being spoken about, who is seen in advertising, who does REI have on their covers? You know, all of these kinds of things make a difference.
NR: Now, I'm more curious about your — because you're also giving a reading in a very weird time in the world. And… what do you think is going to be different and what do you hope the people attending will take away from this reading?
CD: This time that I have with you, will be a time for you to recenter and to breathe again. And to find some alternative path forward… ways to kind of keep going, maybe to redirect. That after the short time that I'm with you, that hopefully, I can kind of just give you… a time for reflection and calmness and re-centering.
NR: Well, thank you, thank you so much, Professor Dungy, for taking the time to talk to us.
CD: Oh, thank you for making it happen. I really appreciate it.