You Gotta Read This: Black Nature
It’s officially the Christmas holidays, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint you to know I’m not really a cocoa-drinking, sitting-around-the-tree-and/or-fire kind of sister. And let’s not even talk about participating in Kwanzaa. I don’t knock it, but I like my made-up holidays to be several hundred years old before I become a willing zealot. No offense, y’all.
I like to spend a lot of time by myself over the holidays, taking stock of my life, and giving thanks to my Creator for the year I’ve been allowed to keep living. And I tend to read a lot.
This year, I’ve been taking the time to go through a beautiful anthology edited by one of my Sister poetry-pals, Camille T. Dungy, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2009). I promise you, one day I will talk about a book I haven’t written or one that I’m not in, but I am in Black Nature. I was really flattered when Camille asked me to be in the anthology, alongside many other seriously super-bad black writers. I never really considered myself a nature writer, but neither do a lot of other black writers, either. That’s part of why Camille’s anthology is so important—it destroys stereotypes about African American culture and writing.
I’m also sort of jealous that Miss Camille thought of this idea for this book before I did. In case you didn’t know, my ego is so big, I believe that I should be the one who invents all important ideas first when it comes to writing. Me and Toni Morrison, that is. And when that doesn’t happen, I get real salty. This anthology is so good, I was like, “Dang! How come I ain’t think of this first?!”
So you know, I mean it when I say, “You gotta read this.”
Aside from Black Nature, Camille T. Dungy is author of Suck on the Marrow (forthcoming from Red Hen Press, January 2010) and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006), and co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great (Persea, 2009). Camille has received fellowships from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the Dana Award, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She is associate professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. And check her out on her brand new website: www.camilledungy.com
That is her official bio. Let me also say this: Camille beats out most other sisters I know for the hardest working black woman in poetry–a Jane Brown, if you will. She is surpassed only by a couple others—besides me, of course! I don’t want to hurt nobody’s feelings, so I won’t say who the other two are.
And she’s just a real nice lady, too. I like my writers nice as well as brilliant. I try to be fair, but I don’t really believe I’m going to focus on any book written or edited by somebody I can’t stand. This is my blog, so that’s my choice, I believe.
Honorée: Miss Camille, I know everyone asks you this question in interviews, but I need to know, anyway: what made you think about compiling an anthology on African American nature writing?
Camille: I was mostly minding my own business, delivering a reading of some poems about the undeveloped California landscape where I grew up and talking about how race and region and history and gender influenced my comfort levels in the natural world. An acquisitions editor from The University of Georgia Press approached me after my reading and said he’d never really thought about black people writing about nature before. Did I think I could come up with a couple more poets who did the same thing? I said I figured I could manage that. Three years later we have Black Nature, which collects 93 of us: 180 poems and 11 excellent prose introductions.
H: Most people I know—and this includes black folks—aren’t aware that African Americans write/have written about the natural world. Do you think this is because, today, African American seems to equal “urban?” And why do you think that is?
C: In the introduction to Black Nature I speak directly to this question. In the early part of the 20th century the majority of North America’s black populations relocated from the rural south to the urban north (or urban western cities like Oakland and Los Angeles). That population distribution has remained relatively constant through this first decade of the 21st century, though it has begun to shift again in a pattern I am eager to track in the coming decades.
So, yes, I think the mere fact of where population centers reside has a lot to do with how our presence in and writing about the natural world has been erased. I also think that there have been conscious and unconscious efforts to separate people from the land. I mean, nature doesn’t have to equal wild or rural. What about all those birds that lived in the trees just outside my San Francisco apartment? What about the downstream repercussions of polluted watersheds? But it might behoove certain systems of oppression to keep African Americans removed from nature. Black people might begin to feel a connection to the land once a communion was (re)established, and, well, the Lord isn’t making anymore land.
H: Do you think this anthology will open up perceptions about black writing, specifically what “black is or can be”?
C: I hope so! I hope so! I sincerely and truly hope so. There’s a hilarious video to be found on the internet wherein Blair Underwood, on a hike, is dogged by a string of white hikers who can’t believe a black man is out on the trail with them. Then photographers from Vibe come along to check him out too. It’s hilarious and heart breaking. I hope Black Nature can help expand our understanding of the broad array of interactions African American can have and have had with the natural world. I refuse to accept limitations, and for too long perceptions of what blacks do and how we write have been dangerously limiting. I certainly can’t fix all of these false perceptions, but hopefully this anthology will address some.
H: The anthology covers four hundred years of black nature writing. Why did you feel the need to go back that far?
C: Black poets have a long tradition of incorporating treatments of the natural world in their work, but it is often read as political, historical, or protest poetry—anything but nature poetry. It was crucial to me that Black Nature reveal this connection from the very beginning of our experience on this continent so readers could begin to rethink presumptions about who writes about nature and how. When Phillis Wheatley writes, in “On Imagination,” “Northern tempests damp the rising fire,” she is talking about both the weather patterns of New England and the cultural climate in Boston, a cultural climate that allowed the enslavement of a brilliant young woman who might, in a different “climate,” have aspired to be practically anything.
H: And who is the most fabulous black 16th century nature writer you know?
C: Leo Africanus, the 16th century scholar and diplomat who Yeats channeled in the early 20th century and who some say was the model for Shakespeare’s Othello had some pretty amazing things to say about the world. But since I’ve been focusing pretty specifically on American poetry for the last three years, I had to move forward in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ll repeat my great admiration for Phillis Wheatley. Throughout her work she makes surprisingly lovely and often provocative references to the natural world. Moving a bit further forward in history, I’d say George Moses Horton, who was born in North Carolina around 1797 and earned money by using his considerable poetic talents writing for the Southern gentry who attended The University of North Carolina before the Civil War. Even further forward still, Albery Whitman (1851-1901). I was happy to be able to include a fairly long section of his epic poem, Twasinta’s Seminoles; or, Rape of Florida, in this anthology.
H: Many of the writers in the anthology are contemporary and know each other because, well, the black writing scene is so small. This sort of page gathering of black writers took place during the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance as well. Did you arrange your anthology like this on purpose?
C: I must admit, sometimes during the process of editing this anthology I thought of and referred to The Book of American Negro Poetry (ed. James Weldon Johnson), The Poetry of the Negro (eds. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps), The Black Poets (ed. Dudley Randall), The Garden Thrives (ed. Clarence Major) and the many other groundbreaking (pardon the pun) African American poetry anthologies I grew up reading.
Developing within the post-Civil Rights Movement, post-Black Arts/Black Power Movement poets created new ways to thrive. I hope the “page gathering” in this cycle as well as throughout Black Nature has the capacity to make the same sort of mark as some of the anthologies that have shaped me most as a reader and writer. If that’s what you mean, then, yes, I arranged my anthology like this on purpose.
H: What do you feel is accomplished by having living black writers “speak” to each other?
C: I guess what I’d have to say is that I think, as writers, we’re always speaking to each other. Whether we know it consciously or not. We’re speaking to living writers, but we’re also speaking to writers long passed. And I’m not just talking about black writers either. Many of these poems directly confront the likes of Wordsworth and Thoreau and Christopher Marlowe and commune with John Clare and Walt Whitman and Neruda and Virgil. The moment we choose to write we enter into a conversation with the ages.
H: Can you give us a poem of your own that embodies your love of nature?
C: I want to take this opportunity to say that not all the poems in Black Nature are about a love of nature. My own work demonstrates a great deal of this ambivalence. The newest collection of my own poems, Suck on the Marrow (due from Red Hen Press on January 15, 2010!), is set in the 1850s. Some characters are enslaved on Virginia farms, others escape through woods using dead animals to throw slave tracking dogs from their human scent trails, still others watch migrating birds return to Philadelphia nests each spring knowing all the while their kidnapped, forcibly enslaved loved ones will never return home. So, though I am always reverent of nature in my writing, I am not sure it would be accurate to say my writing, or much of the other writing in Black Nature, always reveals an ecstatic or uncomplicated love of nature.
Here’s a poem that speaks more directly to your question. This poem is from my first book, What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, and can be found in a section of Black Nature called “Nature Be With Us.”
Silence is one part of speech, the war cry
of wind down a mountain pass another.
A stranger’s voice echoing through lonely
valleys, a lover’s voice rising so close
it’s your own tongue: these are keys to cipher,
the way the high hawk’s key unlocks the throat
of the sky and the coyote’s yip knocks
it shut, the way the aspens’ bells conform
to the breeze while the rapid’s drum defines
resistance. Sage speaks with one voice, pinyon
with another. Rock, wind her hand, water
her brush, spells and then scatters her demands.
Some notes tear and pebble our paths. Some notes
gather: the bank we map our lives around.