Q&A: Professor Camille Dungy talks African-American nature poetry and how it relates to writers today

In honor of Black History Month, people of Colorado State University come together to reflect on the literary diversity within African-American culture.

Camille Dungy is an award winning poet and CSU poetry professor. She was born in Colorado, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and Camille Dungy has compiled an anthology of African American nature poetry. Photo by Stephanie Mason.masters degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.


Dungy talked about her publication of “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry,” the first anthology of its kind. This anthology won the 2010 Northern California Book Award Special Recognition Award and was a 2010 NAACP Image Award Nominee.

What is your nature poetry project?

The book is called “Black Nature.” It is basically four centuries of African-American nature poetry. It is brand new in the sense that it was the first of its kind ever published. It has helped to change ideas about who writes about the natural world and the ways that different people do that. In the eyes of the publishing world, it is ancient. I think if you look into the ripple effect of whom the poets were and the anthology of how nature poetry is being taught as a result of it has started to take effect.

What does African-American nature poetry consist of that differentiates it?

It is 400 years. It really looks at the variety of different ways black people in America have been writing about the natural world. It really thinks about the fact that very frequently black writers have not been included in the cannon of nature poetry because they are writing about the natural world in often very different ways. There was a way in the 2oth century in particular that those dialogues were not part of what we went through when we went to nature poetry. We wanted nature poetry where you walked into the world, and you walked into the mountains and you found yourself. What’s happening now in the 21st century is more and more people are becoming more aware of kind of cataclysmic effects of environmental degradation of population and global warming. More and more people have been writing in the way that African-American writers have been writing. This is where they are talking about a connection between economics and the natural world. These writers are kind of coming into the conversation more frequently in a way that is very exciting.

How do you think these recent economic understandings are relating writers back to the way African-American poets have written for centuries?

You just can’t ignore it. There is more and more research density. There is more and more awareness that we are going to have to really worry about distribution of water. I think part of what’s happening is that we just can’t ignore it any more. The natural world is imposing itself upon us in a way we cannot pretend is separate from our lives.

What inspired the unique connection to nature in African-American poets over 400 years ago?

We were brought here as livestock and we were brought here to work the land. When you actually aren’t engaged and dehumanized, that very kind of consciousness develops in awareness to the land. There is kind of this tradition to western nature poetry that is about objectification and idealization of the landscape. Kind of city boys writing about how lovely it would be to live in the country. There is a large body of African-American poetry that comes from the South. Those are country boys and they themselves or direct relatives were working the land. That mentality shifts everything. I grew up in the American west, hiking in the mountains. I was deeply engaged in the natural world around me and that was important to me. Understanding the landscape that I walked through and connecting with the landscape was really important to who I was as a human being. I do think another thing to think about when considering African-American poetry is a legacy of being pushed away from the land. There is a lot of memory with being pushed away with loss. There are major periods in African-American literature where writing is engagement in dislocation.

Why was taking on this project important to you?


I was tired of not seeing myself in the literature. I knew I belonged there. I knew that there were things I cared about in my own writing and that they were subjects and material that writers that I admire were addressing. They needed to be showing up in the books. If I didn’t do it, who was going to?

Collegian Reporter Stephanie Mason can be reached at news@collegian.com or on twitter @StephersMason.