Camille Dungy’s Poetry Celebrates All Kinds of Diversity

Today FF2 spotlights the work of Guggenheim-winning poet Camille Dungy! We celebrate Camille today in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of her remarkable poetry collection, Smith Blue. Throughout its twenty-six poems, Camille focuses on ideas of life, death, and the power of the natural world—all themes which recur in the entirety of her work. In her own words, Camille’s poetry “combines history, landscape, culture, family, and desire.” Specifically, her collections exhibit stunning examples of ecopoetry, or poetry which deals with earth’s ecosystem: its beauty and the jeopardy into which it has fallen. Throughout her work, Camille combines the living, breathing world of nature with human conflict and emotion to form an interconnected web of life and poetry. 

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1972, Camille split her time growing up between her home state and California. Both locations brimming with natural beauty, the sights and sounds of her childhood informed the sort of work she would create over the course of her career. Camille earned her Bachelor’s at Stanford before going on to be awarded her MFA at University of North Carolina Greensboro. Since then, Camille has published four poetry collections. In her debut, 2006’s What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, Camille uses transcendent verse to craft stunning visual images in each and every line. In the collection’s titular poem, she teasingly yet sincerely invites the reader: “The song is drink, is color.   Come.   Now.   Taste.” 

Her poetry—dark, beautiful, and unflinchingly raw—reexamines wounds often overlooked.

Four years later, Camille takes her next collection, Suck on the Marrow, to a place of extreme reflection and pathos. Set in nineteenth century America, the poems ask their reader to imagine the stories of the enslaved individuals who lived here before us. Though Camille uses fictional characters, the stories she tells are far from invented. Her poetry—dark, beautiful, and unflinchingly raw—reexamines wounds often overlooked. Instantly resonating with its readers, Suck on the Marrow won Camille the 2011 American Book Award.

2011’s Smith Blue fashions itself a “survival guide for the modern heart.” Above all else, the poems which weave together its framework preach perseverance through adversity—and stopping to remember the beauty of a sometimes ruthless world. 

Five years later, with Trophic Cascade, Camille leans much more heavily into the world of ecopoetry. Though always heavily infusing her work with natural images and themes, Trophic Cascade stands alone in its unwavering commitment to the relationship between human existence and the natural world. The work’s main conceit is a comparison between maternity and the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone. In her review of the collection, FF2 contributor Hannah Lamb-Vines calls Trophic Cascade “radicalism through observation.” Hannah explains, “Camille’s poetry suggests that magic exists in every particle of matter, including our own. These poems recognize the sacred in everyday life, point out the magic in medicine and mothering, the life in death, the joy in responsibility to our families and to our ecologies.” Trophic Cascade was selected as the winner of the prestigious 2018 Colorado Book Award.

Camille is not only a poet, but also a writer of essays and long-form nonfiction. Camille’s 2017 prose debut, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, chronicles her and her daughter’s many journeys across the United States. With an emphasis on themes of race and motherhood, Camille presents to readers her own experiences as a Black woman traveling through America while contextualizing the present with important histories of the past. Guidebook to Relative Strangers debuted to success and praise, and became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Camille’s next book, 2023’s Soil, is an achievement of both environmental and social justice. In it, she tells the story of her attempts to diversify her own garden in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood. Camille’s prose reveals her message slowly like an unfurling bud. Once again, Camille presents the sensitive network between the human and natural world. This time, she challenges forced homogeneity, and proves that both social and ecological diversity are vital for the maintenance of life on this earth.

Camille’s work also appears in several reviews, journals, and anthologies, including, of many, the American Poetry Review. Camille herself works as an editor for multiple publications. She is the poetry editor for Orion magazine and the poetry co-editor of From the Fishhouse. Additionally, Camille is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Poetry. A cause very dear to Camille’s heart and her own writing, Black Nature represents the “first anthology to bring African American environmental poetry to national attention.” 

Camille is a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, as well as a recipient of the prestigious 2021 Academy of American Poets fellowship and the 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship. Outside of the written word, Camille is the host of Immaterial, a podcast from the Metropolitan Museum of Art which dives into artistic materials and what they can tell us about our own history. Currently, Camille is also a Distinguished Professor within Colorado State University’s English Department.

Camille’s work meticulously combines the man-made world with the natural world from which it sprung. Her poetry is not mere entertainment, but a tool its readers may use to reflect, protect themselves, and even from which to draw strength in the anthropocene era. Thank you, Camille Dungy, for your brilliant poetry and your commitment to telling stories of ecologic and social diversity and wellness.

© Reese Alexander (5/18/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Visit Camille’s website here.

Read Hannah’s review of Trophic Cascade here.

Visit Camille’s Wikipedia page here.

Check out Camille’s Instagram here.

Order Soil here.

Order Trophic Cascade here.

Order Smith Blue here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Headshot of Camille Dungy. Image Credit: Beowulf Sheehan, 2024. camilledungy.com  All Rights Reserved.

Middle Photo: Cover of Camille Dungy’s memoir Soil.

Bottom Photo: Poet Camille Dungy at the Poetica 9 Festival for World Literature at the University of Cologne in Germany. Image Credit: xChristophxHardtx / Imago / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2WE5W4E

Tags: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Poetry, Camille Dungy, ecopoetry, From the Fishhouse, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, Immaterial, Orion, Smith Blue, Soil, Suck on the Marrow, Trophic Cascade, What to Eat What to Drink What to Leave for Poison

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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