Camille Dungy: Orlando Poetry Judge
“Creative insight exists in more of an aquifer then a well. Creative insight is always below the surface. Maybe the issue is access, not availability. Find a new place and a new way to plant your well. Find new technology to get the water out. Find a form that tests your limits and write into that form.”—Camille Dungy
AROHO is pleased to announce Camille Dungy as the finalist Poetry judge for the Spring 2015 Orlando Prizes. We asked Camille the following questions about her own writing and her advice for women writers:
You are interested in telling the stories of African American women from past eras as well as today. What inspired you to tell these stories? How much research was involved, and did that research feel creative as well? How do you find stories you are excited about?
Why would I not be interested in writing about people like me? I am interested in the world around me. Writing into history and into lives that reflect some part of mine helps me understand who I am and where I am and why. There are a few ways I do research. One way is to read (books and newspapers and letters and museum placards, etc, etc). Another way is to pay attention to people as they talk, act, and live in the world. Such research can be time-consuming. I might say that I spent four years researching Suck on the Marrow in order to be able to accurately represent the 19th-century world I write about in that book, but paying this kind of focused attention to things that matter to me is how I live my life, so the four years of research were also four years of richly living my life. I am endlessly curious about people, living and dead–I don’t believe the dead are really gone, just a little more difficult to discern sometimes–so reading about people and paying attention to people and writing about people is both creatively and personally rewarding.
You were a finalist for AROHO’s Gift of Freedom. Can you talk a little bit about what that application process was like for you? Do you have any advice for women who are considering applying?
It feels like ages ago that I applied for the Gift of Freedom award, though I know it was not. I can remember that the idea of being supported to focus on my craft was quite appealing, and that I took great care in considering a research proposal that would serve me as well as a larger community of women. I don’t think that I’m writing just to serve myself.
Do you have any activities that jump-start your creativity when the well is running dry?
Creative insight exists in more of an aquifer then a well. Creative insight is always below the surface. Maybe the issue is access, not availability. Find a new place and a new way to plant your well. Find new technology to get the water out. Find a form that tests your limits and write into that form. Work with persona and try to truly and compassionately explore another person’s life. Write about something that scares you. Write about someone who scares you. When your critic says ‘no’ let your pen find a way to say ‘yes’. Sit down at the desk and write on a regular basis so your brain learns to accept the task as a given. Read books you love and practice their techniques like painters practice copying the Old Masters. Don’t give up on your creative reserves. They are there. They are always there. But, also, I’ve learned that sometimes I need to let my creative reserves rest awhile, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes I’m thinking and plotting and building connections or just living my life, not writing anything down on the page. I can go back to the old watering hole when it has had some time to replenish.
What is one resource you wish more women writers had or knew about?
Women need a greater lack of humility. Too much humility over powers the sheer presumption we need to write and publish what we write. I doubt this is what you mean by resource. You probably want a website or a self help book or better access to child care, but being willing to ask for help with child care means not being too humble to ask for help just as submitting your poems to the top magazines means not being too humble to believe your work has a chance at the top. We need to kick humility to the curb more often and believe that what we want to do with our lives is the most important thing in the world. To really act on this, we need people around us who are willing to believe that what we’re doing is the most important thing in the world. Don’t be too humble to believe you deserve the best partners in your life.
Is there anything you hope to discover in the Orlando poetry submissions?
I am always thrilled to discover vibrant, compassionate, and mindfully-crafted poetry. I’m sure I’m going to be overwhelmed by the submissions this year.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. Her honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, and a fellowship from the NEA. Dungy is currently a Professor in the English department at Colorado State University.