Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, Camille Dungy, an academic, mother, and poet, shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.
Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships.
- Camille Dungy
- Dungy, C. T. (2017). Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. WW Norton & Company.
- Dungy, C. T. (2017). Trophic Cascade. Wesleyan University Press.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1816). Kubla Khan. (written in 1797)
- Baldwin, J. (2013). The fire next time. Vintage.
- Ta-Nehisi, C. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
- Joan Didion
- Dungy, Camille (2020). This’ll hurt me more.
- Macdonald, H. (2014). H is for Hawk. Random House.
- Duke Lemur Center
- Ruth Ellen Kocher
- Cave Canem
John: Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, an academic, mother, and poet shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Camille Dungy. Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships. We’ve also worked together back at Duke when we were teaching in the TIP program for a number of years in North Carolina. Welcome, Camille.
Camille: And it’s great to be here. Hello.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
Camille: It’s summertime, so I make this big concoction that I turned into an iced tea with all kinds of herbs and flowers and roots and things like that. It probably has way too many healing properties and so it goes over to being stimulating and exciting.
Rebecca: Sounds good. [LAUGHTER] It sounds exactly like what we need right now.
John: And you did talk in your book about enjoying tea rather than coffee. So, it was nice to see that as well.
Rebecca: Clearly a good reason to be a guest.
Camille: Absolutely. I am a firm believer in the power of tea.
Rebecca: How about you, John?
John: I am drinking Tea Forte Blackcurrant tea.
Rebecca: Ah, an old favorite, huh? [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: And I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea today.
John: So we’ve invited you here to talk about Guidebook to Relative Strangers and about some of the challenges we’re facing during these really challenging times. Could you tell us a little bit about your decision to transition into nonfiction for this work?
Camille: Absolutely. I’m not entirely sure that transition is the best word because I published a book of poetry within months of publishing Guidebook to Relative Strangers. So, branching might be a more accurate phrase for what it is that I was doing, or am doing when I’m writing prose; it’s just a branch of the writing process. But prose allows different kinds of depths of inquiry, it allows me to kind of stick with something for 20 pages in a way that I haven’t figured out how to do in a poem. And, in all honesty, when I was writing many of the essays in Guidebook to Relative Strangers, my daughter was very, very young, and I was trained in what I call the person from Porlock School, which is a kind of play on the Coleridge poem, Kubla Khan, where he goes into this deep reverie and he’s in this trance-like state and he writes this beautiful poem, and then the person from Porlock knocks on the door to sell him something, and it interferes with his reverie and he’s never able to return to that poem again. But, when you have a small child, you have a person from Porlock knocking on your door every five minutes, [LAUGHTER] and I needed to figure out a way I could keep writing, even through all of those interruptions and shifts and changes. And it turns out but for me writing prose, I can walk away in the middle of a word, come back some hours, days, even months later and pick up where I left off. And so it became a mode where I could stay and continue to write even as I was figuring out how to adjust my life around this new human.
John: I think Rebecca can relate to that very well right now.
Rebecca: Yeah, I was just thinking, yes, I have been transitioning and doing some other kinds of creative work currently, with the shifts and what have you of having a small child, for sure.
John: Rebecca and I recently completed a faculty reading group this summer that included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. These were both written to pass information from one generation to the next to help prepare for survival in a world characterized by systemic racism. Guidebook seems, in some ways, to be a similar message from you to your daughter. Did these authors perhaps influence work?
Camille: Baldwin is actually writing to his nephew. And that seems also important in this idea of the expanded view of who our children can be that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a child that was birthed from your loins, as it were. And in the case of influences, Baldwin always and absolutely fundamentally is one of the major writers in the English language, in my opinion. He’s just a fantastic writer. And so is always an influence and a guide and an ambition [LAUGHTER] to be able to write as saliently and sagely and attentively about person and culture and identity and community and self as Baldwin was able to write. Coates’ Between the World and Me came out well into my writing process. In fact, I think I was probably already at press by the time that that book came out. So, I’ve read it, but I don’t consider it to be an influence. You know, we’re roughly peers, I think Coates and I in terms of age and such. And so there are many similarities, I think in our perspective on what it means to be Black in America today. And having both claimed Baldwin, to different degrees and in different ways, that it becomes unsurprising thst there’s that kind of reflection. I would say that another influence of mine was, and this is more closely to having to do with being from California and being a mother would be Joan Didion. And there’s a lot of the work of Joan Didion, the way that she works as a journalist and a reporter and talks about history and enfolds history and historical commentary within a contemporary view of the world. And also the ways that she really juggled being a mother of one child, became also a model and a directive for me, as I was writing.
Rebecca: In the first chapter, you observe that Americans don’t care much about the things that concern people who aren’t like them. And when you belong, you can overlook the totality of otherness, the way that being other pervades every aspect of a person’s life. As someone who is white and had often avoided conversations of race and in trying to actively engage in them, I think you’re really capturing something that a lot of white folks experience by using words like colorblind…
Camille: um hmm
Rebecca: …and put out into the world. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Camille: Well, I mean, I can talk about it from my perspective, I actually don’t fully understand the need for that level of erasure. But, one version of it has to do with white supremacy, which we do understand. It’s this kind of power drive to dominate and eliminate the importance of others. But, I don’t think that that’s the drive that you’re talking about, and that antagonistic view of what white supremacy means. I think what you’re talking about has more to do with ease and creating a sort of placid world where everything seems simple and direct and understandable and never uncomfortable, and the moment you begin to engage identity in a way that brings in history and oppression and marginalization and isolation and any of those things, the dinner party gets uncomfortable, [LAUGHTER] and the conversation gets uncomfortable. And that is frustrating to people who are trying to make a sort of placid world. And it’s easier then to just pretend as if everybody is the same, and there’s no differences, and there’s no frustrations and there’s no systemic roots of violence and a separation and suppression…. which is easier for some people, obviously, than others [LAUGHTER] to believe and to carry on that charade. And so I feel like when I’m navigating, I’m very, very frequently navigating primarily white environments. I’m always sort of threading that needle of people wanting to be comfortable and have everything be nice and easy, and I’m sort of raising my hand and saying, “Hey, here I am in the room with all these realities that may or may not frustrate your attempts at that kind of simplicity.”
John: Could some of that be because the beneficiaries of privilege might find it easier not to contemplate that and to just wipe that whole issue aside?
Camille: Absolutely. It’s a lot simpler to wipe that whole issue aside. It’s a lot simpler not to interrogate your own complicity in institutions of systemic oppression. It’s a lot easier to see yourself as the nice person who’s having this dinner party and is inviting all these people into your home, then to understand the history of redlining that meant that you and many generations of your family were able to have homes in this neighborhood, whereas mine was only able legally to start living there in the 1970s. So, those kinds of conversations get really, really quickly uncomfortable for people, and so it seems easier to not have them. I don’t believe in that ease. I don’t believe that that ease is productive in any way towards moving us forward. But, I do think that right now, what we’re seeing in this country is that tension between the ambitions and dreams of our founding fathers and the omissions of who were included in those dreams, and what it means that those dreams were really always only written for a very small margin of people. And we’ve been pushing and pushing through the centuries to create a more inclusive reality. And as we do that, we really have to look at the history and understand what it is. And so a lot of my writing does that. I’m writing about the now. I’m writing about my own life and my own family and my own experience, and I cannot do that without then circling back to the historical precedents that got us here.
John: You describe a story that your maternal grandmother told you about why your great grandfather left Shreveport. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about that to help put this in perspective?
Camille: This story is really interesting, and as I told it in the essay, it’s a little bit confusing because, I don’t know where my grandmother was in this story. At best, she was an infant, my great-grandmother might well have been pregnant with her at the time. She tells the story as if she was there, but it’s difficult to understand, with the dates as we understand them, how that knowledge would have been there. And so this becomes one of these examples, like it’s impossible for my family to retell this story without really kind of being bodily involved in it, even though it may have happened before those people who I am familiar with were ever actually alive. The story is that my great-grandfather had a thriving metalworking business, and it was so thriving as to become a threat to the white people in the community. And so, one day he arrived in his shop and found the body of a cousin who was working with him, laid out dead on the table with a note attached, telling my great-grandfather that he had to be out of town before the sun set. And so he had to get together his entire family… If my grandmother was an infant at that time, that would have been about six children, and get all of them out of that home and into a new place, in a new state, quite literally. And so that kind of threat against a man who had a thriving business and was doing really well and therefore became a problem to the established order of things, that the threat was leveled by way of a murder, right? And the threat of more murder and more damage… that danger and challenge also [LAUGHTER] lives on in my family through that story and lore. And I know it’s part of the way that my grandmother lived her life and the way that she raised my mother and the way my mother raised me. So, that was over a century ago now, and it still lives quite as in the present in my family.
Rebecca: Earlier, I was reading one of your more recently published poems, “This’ll hurt me more,” and I was thinking about how, as you were describing the nonfiction or prose version, connecting your present with the past comes up a lot in your poetry as well. Can you talk a little bit about the use of the “switch” in that poem, and how that connects to the past and present?
Camille: In that poem, it really began with me looking out my window here in Colorado and seeing this kind of lilac bush and thinking, “Oh, that looks like the kind of thing my grandmother would have told me to go out and get a switch, if she was going to spank me.” I should say here, I actually don’t ever remember my grandmother spanking me, I just remember her threatening to spank me, and that was enough… [LAUGHTER] … like sufficient. But I was always fascinated with that word “switch” and where it came from. And it was years and years before I could ask my grandmother where, and she had no answer really, it was just that it was the word that she was raised to use for some sort of thin device that you would use to spank an unruly child. And then the poem goes into a number of situations in my own life, where people are actually punished or threatened with punishment or actually die and the danger that exists in living as a black person in America, and so it all, as much of my writing does, it braids and builds and folds and there’s multiple different stories that come into one space to come to a final cohesive statement.
John: One of the things you talk about quite a bit in your work is issues of identity. In your book, you talk a little bit about the very many names you assigned your daughter when she was young, in different circumstances, while recognizing that eventually she has to choose her own identity in our teaching, should we focus a little bit more on issues of identity? A group of faculty at the college participated in a MOOC on creating inclusive classroom environments, and one of the things that was emphasized there is having students explore their identities. Could that be an effective teaching strategy?
Camille: I use it, [LAUGHTER] always in my writing, and I try to be really pretty open about how I introduce that. So, for instance, in introductions, I will quite often ask for information about what name do want us to call you? Where are you from? And that may not mean your postal address. It may be like where’s your heart from? I now have been pretty stable for this portion of my life, but when I was in graduate school and I never really felt like I was from where my mail went. And so I always want to actually hear where my students really call home. And that seems to be an important part of identity, to understand that. And another one, we often say, you know, what’s your pronoun? And there’s very direct reasons for that question. But I feel like that question also may put people who have alternative pronouns in a unnecessary spotlight, right? When there’s one person in the room who goes by an alternative pronoun, then they become the different one. And so I offer that as a possibility, and I also say that one of the reasons that we ask for your pronouns is that we don’t want to misidentify you, right? We don’t want to misgender you or call you something that you don’t respond to. And so if there are other things that we may not be able to see about you, but are important to who you are that you don’t want to be misidentified in this way, please feel free to bring that into the space here now as well. And in that space here in Colorado, for instance, we have a lot of people of Native American descent who don’t read that way visually, but it’s an important part of their identity. And that’s a space where that can come out. And what other ways that people with invisible disabilities or who are differently abled in some kinds of ways, that’s an opportunity for them to bring that forward. Like, sometimes I may be recording things, or sometimes I may be doing something that looks kind of off to the norm. And this is my time to just tell you that this is going to happen, so it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It just becomes a space where in the very beginning of class, we can just say who we are, and say how we want to be seen and how we want to be known. And in my creative writing classes, it’s become really freeing. I’ve had a number of students who then, for the rest of the semester, are able to write into that space without a whole bunch of questions and workshop about who is this and why is this because that’s already come forward. So, yeah, I just think it allows for those kinds of questions, and those kinds of openings and opportunities… allow for community to be built, in which we actually understand people for who they believe themselves to be. That seems important.
Rebecca: I think It’s interesting that you’re bringing that up in the context of creative writing and how it can be freeing. Do you find that when people are trying to hide their identity, for whatever reason, it prevents creativity or prevents them from having a voice in the way that maybe they want to?
Camille: I don’t know. I mean, so many things prevent creativity. [LAUGHTER]
Camille: …I think just innumerable things. And so in some senses, yes, that can be something. If you were really ignoring something at the core of you, something that’s troubling you or guiding you in some way and you can’t acknowledge it and see you, it may make honest writing harder. It may make honest revision harder as well, because people might see things and you resist that. On the other hand, you know, H is for Hawk, right, which is partially about Helen MacDonald’s own story of grieving but it’s also partly about E.B. White’s, like lifelong closeted self and the ways in which that lifelong, tortured ,closeted self also helped write some of the great books of the 20th century, because he was grappling with staying closeted in those ways, and it came out in fantastic characters. So yes, in some ways, I think, for me, it is important to be open and honest and searingly truthful, but I don’t think that, necessarily, it would be on the whole right to say that you could never write good [LAUGHTER] writing if you’re not honest in that way. For me, the reason that that’s important is… I just don’t think many of us have very much time. I think we’re all just incredibly busy all the time. Now, during the time of COVID, our busyness manifests differently, but we’re still busy. And, now there just seems to be so much more laundry. I don’t understand how there’s more laundry. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I agree. It’s like, skyrocketed, right?
Camille: It just makes no sense. So, these kinds of things… and I just feel like if you’re going to give me the time to sit down with something that I’ve written and spend 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 12 hours, reading one of my books, you should be actually reading truth, right? You should be reading an honest representation of life as I see it, and know it, and understand it. And so it’s a way of my honoring your time and your care with my time, with my book, that brings me to write with sometimes frighteningly radical honesty about my own life.
Rebecca: Thinking about time moving into fall classes and things, how are you thinking about time, and helping students think about time?
Camille: I’m trying to think about how to teach in… and we’re supposed to go back, but I just don’t believe it to be true. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think it’s really going to happen. And I don’t think it should. And so I’m trying to think about my classes in a really hybrid form that allows them to write out of their own worlds and the class to be happening kind of asynchronously for some portions of it, not all on Zoom, some audio elements, so that they can hear my lectures while they’re doing their laundry, [LAUGHTER] or out taking walks or doing these kinds of things. And some of those audio lectures would have, like pauses, where they would be given writing assignments right in the middle of their lives. I think this summer, I’ve taught a couple of online courses, the community of writers, which is a week-long course with the students and faculty have to write a poem a day, every day, and one of the things that I thought was really great about it in the virtual form (they called it the Virtual Valley this year) was that the students then had to make a space in their own homes, to create this habit, and to create this practice in the place where they live. Normally you go to California, you’re in the valley, you do this thing, and then you come home, having been somewhat transformed by this experience, but how do you translate that back into your normal life? Now, they’re in their homes, they’re in their lives, they’re telling their family, this is my hours, where this is my task to do, and, hopefully, that continues into the rest of their days, right? …that they built this sacred space. And so, that’s my hope, is that I can help my students in this more hybrid form to be able to do what I’ve always been trying to teach them to do, to build a practice. John knows me way back when I used to teach at TIP. There were these things that I would do, and our old director just thought I was a hoot, because I would have to get permission to take the kids to the Lemur Center or to take them to… Remember…, what was that place called? The Rainbow Co-Op. or something. There was that weird, like Co-Op that was off campus, and some of these kids had never been to a grocery store that wasn’t a Safeway or a Kroger [LAUGHTER] or something like the giant box store. And this was like, they had like little mini bananas that were green, or red. And they had all kinds of like the bulk bin, and I would have these kids walking up and down the aisles looking at food that was packaged really differently than what most of them had ever experienced. And that was the exercise. I didn’t really care. The poems were bad because they just had this experience. It was like not about how good your grocery store poem was, it was about how good their powers of observation became, when they were moved into a slightly different environment. And so that, to me, is always the key, right? …that’s at the base of Guidebook to Relative Strangers is all of a sudden, I’m traveling all over the country, I’m in these different environments with a new sidekick, right? [LAUGHTER] I’m traveling with my daughter, which meant that I all of a sudden have really different interactions with people than I’d have before. And as a writer, my job became chronicling that and figuring out why this felt different and what got revealed because that little schism was created that had enough difference that I was forced to look… and that, to me, as we move into the fall, and I honestly think, I’m a Doomsayer, but I honestly think the spring of 2021 also, we’re gonna have to help our students, and our colleagues, and our administrations, learn how to just accept this reality as a reality rather than trying to swivel back to what it was before. What is our new reality? What do we see? What are the advantages? and how can we build on those?
John: I think we very much agree with that. [LAUGHTER] We didn’t have any say in how instruction was being organized here, but I’m really worried about it, not just because of the health risks, but also because of the pedagogy involved.
Camille: Um hm.
John: … that teaching a group of people who are wearing masks and who are far enough apart so they can’t comfortably talk to each other, is going to be a very different, and I don’t think, a very productive environment. But, we try to support people as best we can. It’s going to be a challenge, in any case.
John: One place in the book, you note that in 2013, you were one of only 12 African American female professors in your field. And that’s not uncommon in many disciplines. It’s certainly true in economics as well. What are the costs of the lack of diversity in higher ed?
Camille: Yeah. So now, I’ve kept a running tally with the women, Ruth Ellen Kocher, who was the poet with whom I started this tally and started thinking about this. Now we’re up to about 22. So, that’s actually a radical increase. [LAUGHTER]
John: Well, as a percentage it is.
Camille: But it’s still a very small number. So, my husband just turned in his tenure materials, and in the process of doing so he discovered that they were 16. I’m pausing because I don’t remember what it is 14 or 16. And the reason is, for my study, it was one of those numbers and his study is the other number, right? And so not that much different for 1100 faculty members to have 14 or 16, Black tenure line faculty, and that’s male and female, and I think one transgender person in that number. So, that’s not very much. The cost of that is, at a school with 1100 faculty members, it’s very, very likely that students will never have an African-American professor, that they’ll just go through their whole education system without ever having one. I thought about when it was that I’d ever had contact with a black faculty member in my field. I had one female professor in college and one male professor who told me that I shouldn’t try and become a creative writer, because… I guess he was trying to protect me… but because it was so competitive and difficult to feel that I shouldn’t bother, and I should do something else. So, in terms of supportive faculty members, that means something, right? …to not have ever had somebody who looked like me, for whatever complicated reasons we might say, had experiences like me, who was on my side. In other ways, those three faculty members that I can think of, which is a lot… if you ask people in my age how many, to say I had three at all… they were all literature people, they weren’t Creative Writing people. But, they weren’t actually particularly similar to me. They had really, really different upbringings. They were regionally very different. They were obviously aesthetically different, because they were in literature and not creative writing. So, I actually never really had the kind of mentor that other people very frequently have, moving along the way. I had mentors, I had support. You don’t get to the position where I am in the world without having mentors and support, but I didn’t have black faculty mentors and support until I was already in a tenure-line position. I was going to become a professor. I’m a fourth-generation college professor, it was going to happen. The likelihood of this being the path that I took… my sister’s a professor, the woman I chose as my daughter’s godmother is a professor, like this is in my blood. This is who I’m going to be. But what about the people for whom that is not the case? The first-generation college students, they have no idea what this could look like. If you can’t visualize yourself in those positions. If you don’t have people who you feel that you can trust that you can go to for advice. If you have people who have unconscious or very conscious biases against African Americans and their intelligence skills and their organizational skills and their sense of comportment, or any of those, and those biases get passed down to how they treat you in the classroom. All of those things become deterrents for people’s ability to thrive in this chosen field. And I think the more that we can eliminate those kinds of obstacles by increasing the kinds of people we see who may look like a person who we believe we may become in the future, the more radically inclusive our democracy can become. I just think that that’s important. I just think that our ability to become the best of who we can possibly be is, in many ways, influenced by what we see around us as possibilities. That was a long answer,
John: …but a very good one. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Yeah. It’s an important one.
Camille: It’s a complicated question, right? It’s a really complicated question. Obviously, it’s not something that’s going to be able to happen overnight, based on the fact that the doubling of the number of black women poets in the country, it’s a doubling of that number, but it’s still only about 22. But I also think that there’s lots of small ways where this happens. And so it happens in who’s at the front of the classroom. It happens based on who’s on editorial boards for magazines, journals, book publication houses, because that decides what materials that come forward for publication appear to be relevant, necessary, interesting, right? It happens on what kinds of people are agents in the representation houses. It happens in terms of what kinds of summer opportunities people have? I know that Cave Canem, which is a home for black poets, which was founded in 1996 and has a summer workshop fellowship and also has a lot of regional workshops that they do all kinds of programming, like the kinds of programming that have come out of Cavey Canem over the last… what is that now?… we’re at 25 years… is incredible. But that was the first time that I encountered black poets at the head of the classroom. I was already a tenure-track professor. And that was the first time that I had black teachers teaching me poetry. And it changed the kinds of conversations that we had to have in the classroom, right? There were certain kinds of cultural cues that were just… we didn’t have to… let’s pretend we’re translating from another language, Like we didn’t have to italicize those Spanish words. [LAUGHTER] Because they were just moving in and out from Spanish and English is just like what huge parts of the culturism in America do. And so I italicize the Spanish words, this is a very strange kind of colonial idea of those are different than us. And many writers who work between Spanish and English have been really pushing against that marginalization of the Spanish language through italicization. So those kinds of things change our writing, and we get more teachers, we get more people publishing, we get more people writing and talking about that. I think our literature flourishes. And when our literature flourishes, our imaginations flourish. And when our imaginations flourish, our culture can thrive.
Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] …exclamation point. 32.02
John: You mentioned that there was expectations that you’d go to college. And I think also in your book, you noted that this goes back a few generations in your family, at least your grandmother’s generation, where I think you’ve said that all the siblings went to college and your grandmother’s cohort, all 12
Camille: of those children who were born between roughly 1900 and 1930. All 12 of them went to college. That’s incredible. It is.
John: When I read that, I was thinking one of my grandfathers only had a sixth-grade education, and that was not that uncommon at the time. So that gave your family quite a bit of an edge that many of our first generation students, as you noted, don’t have today. It is something we need to address. One of the things you mentioned in your book is that you would diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And I didn’t know that until I read this. So how are you doing with it now?
Camille: Many of my friends and acquaintances only five bucks, I’ll get these texts like I didn’t know I’m on page thought of that. I didn’t know that sorry. Okay, which actually circles back to that radical honesty, conversation. It’s not something I talk about. It’s not like I don’t lead in conversation with it. It’s not really part of my outward spoken identity. And yet, I didn’t feel like I could talk about the vulnerability of my body without talking about that aspect of it, and of my experience, and a lot of these essays would have been written around the time of the big Obamacare debates and in many ways, the reason that I am fine and nobody has to know this about me is that I have excellent health care because I have really good insurance through my employer. Ask stay employed because I can’t run the risk of not having medical insurance, as so many people in this country are in jeopardy because of their state of employment or not employment or the ways that their employers set up medical care. We put people’s bodies at risks, their lives at risk, their ability to live productive, non sick lives. So that was, I don’t write that directly into that essay, it’s body of evidence that there was that conversation was going on around. And so in that sense, there are a number of things about who I am in this country, being a woman of childbearing age raises my mortality risks significantly in this country above most other developed countries and being a black person obviously raises my mortality risk in this country exponentially. And then having this chronic condition means that at any moment, and you know, any morning I could wake up and everything could look different, which is the case for everybody but it But right there in my brain and in my nervous system in a way that it’s not the case for other people. And so I just felt like to write about that sense of kind of perpetual background Jeopardy that I live with. I had to include that other piece. But the long or the short answer to that is I am doing great. I’ve got a really fantastic medical team and really great treatment. And I’ve mostly don’t even notice that that is an issue.
Rebecca: Maybe one of the last things that we can add a little bit about is maintaining the career while raising a child. I don’t know it’s a particular interest to me. How old is your child, Rebecca? She’s three.
Camille: Oh, my goodness, those are good years, but wowza.
Rebecca: You’ve noted that several women writers lose essentially out on an entire book because of family. Can you talk a little bit about your experience being a mother and an academic and a writer, and then also maybe how that is playing out differently for folks during the pandemic. Well,
Camille: right, I mean, I do definitely feel like the pandemic has brought forward a lot of buried realities in this culture. And so nothing new has manifested because of the pandemic, but because of the stresses on our culture due to the economy issues. And due to the kind of peril that the virus causes. We’re seeing so many things. And for the most part, we’re seeing child caregivers who are very frequently women bearing the brunt of this situation, and not a particularly active interest in figuring out ways to accommodate this fact. Right. So plenty of people are like, well, we’ll just send the kids back to school and that’s gonna be their childcare. I’m like, Well, I don’t know. But every single one of my daughter’s teachers has children. So now, they’ve got this complicated question of like, how do they take care of their own children? Wow. Taking care of my child, my friends in France are getting paid to stay home and watch their children by the government. That’s the way that that is happening and many other first world nations, but not here. This is not your question. My answer part of it is like, there’s really no way to talk about a lot of these things without going in a lot of different directions. And so I feel sometimes my essays are really leggy, and that they’re braided essays. And they follow several different narrative threads at one time, and I hope that they tie together, but they just definitely go in a lot of directions. And that’s part of why essays could work because I can really dive in and talk about those things at great length in a way that I have not found myself to be able to do in poetry to that degree, but part of it is because I just don’t think that any of these questions have easy answers. Did they have any answers? We’d answer them already. We’d have dealt with it right? But they don’t And so we need to look at them in lots of ways. I think to be artists at a mother is an incredibly difficult thing, or a working person and a mother is an incredibly difficult thing. And I don’t think our country was designed to support that. Now I’m going to circle back to history again and say, you know, like, our country was essentially designed on slavery, and servants, right? It was built on the idea that other people would be helping the wealthy and the powerful to do all their daily things that they would be nannies in the house, that they would be House Cleaners that they would be cooks and maids, and etc. And as we mechanized and created vacuum cleaners and washing machines and other sorts of devices that would take the roles of those poor white or black or Latin x workers, then who took that over, it was the middle class women, right that they were then be put In the vacuum cleaners, they would be running the washing machine, it was like never really a system built in to figure out how the labor gets done. And the work outside the home gets done. And we just never evolved. And we’re seeing that now. And so those of us who are working parents, particularly working mothers, and then if you add to me, like, I’m an artist, I’m a professor and writer, that’s really two jobs. It’s hard to have two jobs and raise a child, I have a really great partner. And so I have the faith in the fact that my kid is not going feral in the process, and I don’t have the kind of partner who kind of tabulates like, I’ve watched the kid for eight hours. Now it’s your turn for 12. And so that really helps me that I have that. And I also have figured out just I write her in to the work, what I’m living in now is a world where I’m observing my child a lot and so those observations end up in The work rather than trying to separate those two things, but get included. And I think my other piece of advice for working parents who are sort of trying to do another thing, like being an artist is to just people talk a lot about stealing time. But I would call it more like making time just finding those little pockets of time that can accrue to become something pole. So there’s a essay at the very end of the book called differentiation, which only was able to be written because I was completely overwhelmed by I think she was three and a half or four years old at the time, and that was an incredibly time consuming era. She loves books, but she couldn’t read yet. So who was reading those books all the time, right? She loved art, but like you couldn’t leave her alone with watercolor. So you know, it’s just like full, complete involvement as a parent, so I just wrote for 20 minutes a day. That’s it. 20 minutes a day I recorded Everything that I could. And eventually that 20 minutes a day became the feed work for what was the essay, I wouldn’t have been able to write that essay without all the detailed notes that I had been taking in the 20 minutes. So those 20 minute exercises were not the essay, but the essay could not have happened without those. And so that’s the permission that I like to give to working parents is you don’t have to write for eight hours a day, like that model probably just isn’t going to work and you’re going to be frustrated trying to find it, what’s the minimum amount of time, what’s the minimum maximum that you can create for yourself, and for me, it was 20 minutes. For some people, it may be as small as five, but that just brief period to just record all you can to be that person you want to be with the knowledge that you’re preparing the soil for the time when you have time again.
John: You mentioned earlier the issue of the fragility of the body, especially black bodies. One of the things you describe in your book is the experience of being pulled over by the police in Minnesota. And you place this in the context of things happening, man, which sound remarkably like things happening now with Trayvon Martin at the time, Jason Harrison, Eric Gardner and camera rice. So could you tell us a little bit about that, and perhaps what types of things we might want to do in our classes to provide support for students when these things happen?
Camille: Ah, right, the experience of being pulled over in Minnesota, so close to where later that falando casteel death happened in the same general area after our pullover and now we have the George Floyd story. And then I also speak in the same essay about a lynching that happened in the town we visited in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier in the 20th century. And I think one of the things that’s important to me When I think about all these just ongoing brutality against black people in this country is that ongoing nature is that for some Americans when this new name or this new incident crosses the headlines, it feels like, Oh, this is today, there’s just horror that has happened just yesterday or just last month. And for many of us, we’re like, oh, again, another, right, and the names pile and the incidence pile and the terror which is what the point of it is, the terror piles up and the fear of moving around freely and a lack of belief that we can move around safely. It comes from years of systemic violence and being passed off as individual incidents. And so to me part of the importance of writing about these things in such a connected manner is to talk about the ways that these seemingly individual incidents are part of a culture fabric that needs to be reworked entirely. And part of what happens for me, I think being a writer is a way of being a teacher is that when you write these histories, you write these ways of digesting and understanding and coping with these histories. And you provide tools for your readers slash students and to be able to address them as well. But part of it again comes from honesty and openness, both on my part as the author to write the stories as accurately and in as much detail as I can and has to do with the readers to be able to absorb and be willing to really, truly acknowledge circling back to the conversation that we had earlier about discomfort to be able to sit with the discomfort and then not just push it away, but to work to try and make fundamental change. And so as teachers, one of the things that we need to do really listen to our students, when they express the kind of discomfort that you’re talking about john, I’m really understand how the institutions with which we’re affiliated are either repeating these kinds of traumas, either by ignoring or pushing them aside or trying to diminish them or just not addressing them for the students. And by truly listening into by truly trying to make systemic change within the institutions with which we have any power connection, which may just be our by your own classroom, it may just be that classroom that we’re in that we can create a space of true comfort and true seeing for people. And it’s not easy. As I said, that space for black poets that I described 20 years ago. It’s 25 years of work and effort and community engagement and growing new poets and growing new teachers and new professors that that new boom of young black poetry professors have come through that organization and have built and developed some kinds of communities. And so how can we be part of building communities, organizations, structures, classrooms spaces that create this kind of support that mean that those who have died before us don’t die in vain, but really become part of true change? So I’m heartened Yes. I’m heartened by the summer and the summers kind of large outcry towards social justice. I’m also aware of the fact that I have seen searches like this over and over and over in my own lifetime. And so I want to make sure that the momentum lasts and that the energy and the outrage remains not just for those of us who are at direct risk, but for all of us because I think all of us are at direct risk, whether it’s your body on the line, or not.
Rebecca: Definitely powerful things to be thinking about really finding ways to support students and our communities that we live in, and the communities we don’t live in.
Camille: Mm hmm. you volunteered to do a reading for us.
Rebecca: Alan heard or got volunteered.
John: I think it was
Camille: recently, the perfect word for that, which is to be voluntold.
Camille: We do a lot of that.
Camille: Yes, I will be happy to read I’m gonna read a poem from Trophic Cascade, which is the collection of poems that came out within months of Guidebook to Relative Strangers. And some of these poems were written in the same mindset or the same kind of sensibility that the FAA developed. And so this poem that I’m going to read, came out of a trip, as many of the essays and guidebook to relish show strangers come from trips. This came from a trip into the San Francisco Bay. I was living in Northern California at the time and I went into the San Francisco Bay, there’s an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the prison An island most people are familiar with is called Alcatraz. I probably don’t need to tell you anything about Alcatraz. Except for that, you know, it was really difficult to escape from Alcatraz, there’s another island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, which is called Angel Island. And it was the closest relative in our time would be the immigrant detention centers of the day. People say that it was very similar to Ellis Island because it was this immigration stop off point. But you only ended up on Angel Island if there was an issue with your papers. And so in some senses, it was much more like a prison or detention center where you’re held for untold amount of time until you were either sent back where you came from, or allowed to go into San Francisco. So this poem is kind of doing the same thing that I’ve been talking all along about bringing in history and also my contemporary situation. And the other thing that we didn’t talk about very much and guidebook to relative strangers is my I sort of obsessive interest in ecological environmental questions. And so that also is coming into play in this poll. What I know I cannot say we sail to Angel Island, and for several hours I did not think of you. When I couldn’t stop myself Finally, from thinking of you, it was not really you, but the trees, not really the trees, but they’re strange pods blooming for a while longer. A bloom more like the fringe fan at the tip of a peacocks tail than anything I’d call a flower. And so I was thinking about flowers, and what we value in a flower more than I was thinking of the island or its trees and much more than I was thinking up you. recursive language ties us together. linguists say I am heading down this road. I am heading down this road despite the caution signs and the narrow shoulders I am heading down the curvy road despite the caution signs. And then narrow shoulders because someone I fell in love with wants to live around here, right there. That is an example of recursive language, every language. Nearly every language in the world demands recursion. Do things bring us together more than our need to spell out our intentions, which helps explain the early 20th century Chinese prisoners who scratch poems into walls on Angel Island. And why a Polish detainee wrote his mother’s name in 1922. I was here, they wanted to tell us and by here, I meant the island and they also meant the world and by the island, they meant the world they knew. And they also meant the world they laughed, and the world they wanted to believe could be there as the world they knew required passwords. Think of Angel Island immigration station is purgatory, the guide explained he told tales of paper files Others picture Brides, the fabrications of familiarity, so many lives depended on inquiries demanded consistency. Despite the complications of interpretation, an English one would ask how many windows were in your house in the village? How many ducks did you keep? What was the shape of the birthmark on your father’s left cheek? and Japanese and Cantonese, Danish, Punjabi, the other answered, then it all had to come back to English. The ocean is wide and treacherous between one home and the other is there can be no turning back. No correction once what is said is sad. Who can blame the Chinese detainees who car pawns deep into the woods on Angel islands walls? Who can blame the Salvadoran who etched his villages name? A few things tie us together more than our need to dig up the right words to justify ourselves. Travelers and students we sailed into the bay disembarked on Angel Island. I didn’t think about you, which is to say the blue gum Eucalyptus is considered a threat, though we brought it across oceans to help us desired first for its timber because it grows quickly and was expected to provide a practical fortune. And when it did not enlisted as a windbreak desired still because it is fast growing and practical. The blue gum has colonized the California Coastal forests, squeezing out native plants dominating the landscape and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate the blue gum Eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing, by which I mean to say from their paws. You know what I mean? I hope their original home from the well of their longing blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me? I absolve you You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.
Camille: I have a thought that there was another poem that might be a better tie in to everything that we said and it’s much shorter. Can I read that and then you guys can decide which one you want to use, we decided to use both. Here is the next poem. This is a poem from my collection trophic cascade, which as I said, I was writing along the same time that I was writing guidebook to relative strangers. The incident that I described in this poem happens on my daughter’s second airplane flight. The first airplane flight she ever took, we went home to meet her namesake great grandmother. And the second airplane trip she ever took was work trip with me. She was four months old, and I went to Washington DC to do some work with the National Endowment for the Arts. So you can picture this child as a very, very young child in this poem, frequently asked Question number seven. Is it difficult to get away from it all? Once you have had a child I am swaying in the galley working to appease this infant who is not fussing, but will be fussing if I don’t move. When a black steward enters the cramped space at the back of the plane, he stands by the food carts prepping his service. Then he is holding his throat, the way we hold our throats when we think we are going to die. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He is crying. Oh, my God, what they did to us. I am swaying less my brown baby girl make a nuisance of herself. And the steward is crying, honest man tears seeing you holding your daughter like that. For the first time, I understand what they did to us, all those women sold away from their babies. he whispers. I am at a loss now, perhaps I could fabricate an image to represent this agony. But the steward has walked into the galley of history. There is nothing figurative about us.
Rebecca: so vivid, so powerful.
John: I was just going to use exactly those words so powerful,
Rebecca: and really appreciate the level of detail be in that moment.
Camille: And I think for me, it was one of those first experiences like really vivid experiences of Wow, I’m having an entirely different interaction with this person that I would have had before I had this baby in my arms and that interaction is absolutely about the present moment. And it’s just Deeply inflected by the past and a path that neither of us ever physically lived through, but which we are historically always reliving. And so the concerns in that poll essentially became the lens through which I wrote all the essays in the collection,
Rebecca: I always find it really interesting how having a child opens up conversations that maybe one wouldn’t have had otherwise, it would have been unspoken, otherwise. Mm hmm.
Camille: All kinds of conversations and with people you wouldn’t converse with. I like to tell a joke that when she was little, and she traveled with me, and we traveled a lot, and then the kid by the time she was three and a half had already accrued her own frequent flyer, award ticket, but often on flights, like Southwest are the kind of place where you could choose your seat, I will very frequently have an empty seat next to me and it’s just unconscious bias, and people just leave the seat next to the black person open, which honestly is sort of fine in those kinds of instances, right? It’s like one of the very few times where that works out. Okay, but it never worked out with the kid. And I was always like, I’ll get that MTC. And then I can put the baby in the MTC and then I wouldn’t because the unlikeliest of people would come and take that seat because they wanted to sit by a baby. And then they can’t talk to the baby, they can only talk to the baby’s keeper, right? And so like, we would end up having these conversations that I would never have had, because they would have never put themselves next to me. And it was a beautiful thing. And it seemed to be worth recording and thinking about both what had divided us and also what bridged us.
Rebecca: I think that segues kind of nicely into the way that we always wrap up our broadcast, which is asking, what’s next so many bridges to the past? And
Camille: what are the bridges to the future? I know, I think I’m doing the same thing. I’m writing poems and essays and I can toggle back and forth and it just depends on how much time I have and what my mood is and what my level of obsession is. I’m really thinking I’ve lived in Colorado for seven years now. Which is longer than I’ve lived in one home for a very long time. And so I’m finding myself really rooting down. I can’t travel right now because of COVID. And I’m so I’m looking out my window and walking around my land and thinking about where I live in deeper, more complex ways. And I’ve had the ability to do and it’s been pretty interesting on the page to see what new discoveries I’m able to make. And a lot of them are just new discoveries. I’m making, like other people know these things. And I’m just coming into their knowledge. And so that’s always fun. Well, thanks
Rebecca: for such a wonderful conversation and being so generous with your time.
Camille: Thank you.
John: Thank you. It’s great to talk to you again. It’s been far too long has
Camille: been john, it’s really good to see you and talk to you and Rebecca, thank you for your part in this conversation.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.