2014 Featured Festival Poet: Camille Dungy

Posted on by Michele Russo, Poetry Coordinator
Photo by Ray Black, University of Georgia, courtesy of PoetryFoundation.org

To get to know Camille Dungy, watch her read “before her heart, a mechanical aperture, closed” which starts at 7:50 here:

The poem risks heading into the world of cliché—a love poem which connects with nature and which relies on images of the heart.  Yet, the poem is so grounded in the whole body, and in an intimacy with the natural world and transcends our ideas of “heart.”  The “squabbling quail,” the “pit of her navel,” are super-condensed gems which zing out to our subconscious minds and grab us with their beauty and genius—a squab is a kind of pigeon. And if you were like me, the “pit of her navel” brought to mind images of plums, peaches, and oranges.  These images are  interspersed with the incantatory “she’d been waiting, she’d been waiting.”  The longing being  expressed  becomes a constant, a refrain for this heart we are getting to know.  Only through a rich relationship with nature, and with longing, could this poem’s beauty be achieved.

Camille Dungy’s poems carry this depth and groundedness whatever the subject matter may be.  Suck on the Marrow, which won the 2011 American Book Award, tells the stories of African Americans in the 19th century–fugitive slaves, kidnapped Northern-born blacks, and free people of color.   The poet—and in a way, the poetry–becomes almost invisible in these poems, allowing the subjects to tell their stories in their own language.  While we are getting bits of these characters’ stories, it is clear that Dungy has lived with them.   We want to know more, and we sense that there is much more to be told.  Take for example this poem which is part of “From the Unwritten Letters of Joseph Freeman:”  (Freeman is a kidnapped Northern-born black man. )

(February, 1841)
Do you ever start at night believing
I might be dead?  I leave my body
sometimes, Melinda.  Is that all dying is?
Remember how I’d scold you
when the stew was thin, believing
I needed a thick stock to forge muscle
for all the work I had ahead?
Your stew would make me big again, Melinda.
Sometimes we have to trap, skin and roast
possum, rabbit, snake and squirrel.
Except for that, I have swallowed naught
but salt pork and coarse meal in all my days
away from you.  But I work just fine.
Ever your beloved husband.

Dungy’s poems tell this story—and many others—leaving us wanting more, and sensing that there is much more.  The poems  are real and true because she has researched and developed these  narratives  in her imagination over time.  She has lived with these characters and holds them close to her heart.  As a reader, you can’t ask for a richer and more provocative experience than to take in these gorgeous and wrenching poems.

We are very fortunate Camille Dungy will be with us at the 2014 Festival and we are especially excited for her events with students and teachers who come on Teacher Day and High School Student Day.

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We encourage you to use the “Comments” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet. In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2014 Festival Poets.

For more information on the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org

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