Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reading Attended: Camille Dungy at the Central Arkansas Library System

62º ~ sound the bells, it's foggy out there friends and fans of the weather, we're on the cusp of fall & temperatures are finally stabilizing into a more comfortable pattern

Life has been fast and furious and a bit stressful these days.  Lots and lots going on with school and I received papers from all of my students on Monday.  In the meantime, Lou-Lou's blood work is not good and we continue to go through testing to find a better approach to her treatment.  My own health is nearly back to normal after a three-week stint of sinus infection / serious head & chest cold.  All of this is not to whine but to set the scene. 

There were three or four literary events in central Arkansas last night.  I'm not sure why this happens but it seems to happen at least once a semester when people at different institutions all decide one day is the perfect day for their reading/performance.  I had narrowed my choices to Kevin Brockmeier reading just down the street at UALR or Camille Dungy reading downtown.  Then, all of this other stuff seemed to get in the way and I was ready to say 'uncle' and just sit on the couch.  Somehow, I rallied in the afternoon and made my decision.  I am soooooooo glad I did, as the night uplifted me and energized me in a way that only literature can.

I chose to attend Camille Dungy's reading in part because I've seen Kevin read several times and I know I'll have other chances to hear him because he lives here in Little Rock.  If he ever comes to a town near you, do yourself a favor and go hear him.  He's an amazing fiction writer and a great reader.

Wish my author photo was this glam!
I had heard Dungy read at AWP as part of a panel in the past, so I knew I was in for a great night.  Dungy came to Little Rock as part of the Poets House "Language of Conservation" program.  We were so lucky to have our zoo chosen as one of five across the country to be funded for poetry installations (Joseph Bruchac was our curator for the project and each poet-curator traveled to the other cities to give readings at the various libraries).  While Dungy is the author of three books of her own poetry, she is also the editor of Black Nature, an anthology of poetry that explores nature writing by African-American poets.

I loved Dungy's set list.  She began with a poem from her first book What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (which just may be the best damn title ever).  Then she read a few poems from the anthology: Lucille Clifton (may she rest in peace), Ishmael Reed, Marylin Nelson.  Then, a few poems from Dungy's most recent collection Smith Blue, an amazing book from Southern Illinois University Press, one of my all-time favorite poetry publishers:  "The Blue," "On the Rocks," and "On Ice."  Then back to the anthology:  George Marion McClellan and Arna Bontemps, two poets new to me whom I plan to find out more about, especially Bontemps.  On to Dungy's own Suck on the Marrow (she is awesome at book titles!) for "Aspire" and "Survival."  Then the anthology for Robert Haydn (favorite!!!), Gerald Barrax, Sr. and Anne Spencer, another I really need to find out more about.  Dungy concluded with two of her own poems "What a Snakehead Discovered in a Maryland Pond and a Poet in Corporate American Have in Common" and "How She Keeps Faith."

Yes, I was scribbling furiously to get this all down, but I was able to stop and absorb the poetry, too.  Dungy is an AMAZING reader.  She gives each word its due.  No rush, no fuss.  Pure love of language embodied at the podium. 

I found myself intrigued by her comments regarding black nature poetry.  She pointed out that for African Americans, a relationship with nature is not one of the Romantic ideal.  It involves a tie to having once been considered property and a part of nature itself.  It involves a tie to toil.  That was the word she used, 'toil.'  And this set me to thinking about my own relationship to nature in my work.  As a lot of my poetry is based in the landscape of the rural Midwest and the agriculture that includes, I realized that the word 'toil' rang true for me as well, although certainly not to the extent of an African-American history with slavery.  Still, when you grow up around working farmers, there is a love of the land and a respect for the natural world, at the same time one is fighting against the elements as well. 

I also loved what Dungy had to say about being a nature writer.  She said that to do so one has to observe closely, that it is a matter of what we look at and how we look.  So, when she was on a cruise in the Antarctic to mark her father's retirement, Dungy watched and watched and wrote observations of everything.  She was able to see that this land of ice of "millennia on millennia of cold" was melting.  She was able to see that the penguins in Antarctica were being plagued by ticks that should have died off due to cold but were now thriving in warmer temperatures.  Then, she was able to take all of the political and emotional importance of those observations and weave it into her poems.

I'm still stunned.  

Here is the beginning of "Survival" from Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010)

The body winnows.  The body tills.  The body knows
sow's feet, sow gut, night harvested kale.  The body knows
to sleep through welted dreams, to wake
before the night succumbs to morning.

If you don't own one of Dungy's books, then go out and remedy that as soon as you have enough change in the cookie jar to do so!

Finally, I was so happy to see two former students in the audience, both of whom attended the Big Rock Reading Series last week.  Talk about growing a community!  Jessica Otto was once a student of mine at the Arkansas Governor's School back in the day.  Toby Daughtery was a more recent student of mine at PTC and I've written about his inspirational story before.  I was so happy to see them both in the room!  (Sorry y'all, the pics we took didn't work out.  Next time!)

Many, many thanks to Camille Dungy for coming to Little Rock and sharing her work.  Her reading was just what this weary soul needed.


Molly said...

Every day, it seems, stumble upon another book/poet I feel I *must*read. Camille Dungy is now on my list. Thanks for the great write-up of her reading.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Me too, Molly. The great thing about books/poetry? No expiration date!

Rack 'em and stack 'em and get to them when you can! :)

(In Die Hard 2, Rack 'em and Stack 'em is used to refer to putting a bunch of airplanes in a holding pattern around the airport under siege.) :)

Kristin said...

I had never heard of this poet, but she's on my list! Thanks for such a wonderful write up--I'll keep my eyes open for her should she ever read near me.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Kristin, you won't be disappointed!