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SunLit Interviews

SunLit interview: Environmental crisis, devastating violent acts of a shared history propelled poet Camille Dungy

The CSU professor's collection "Trophic Cascade" explores "the overlap between the human world and the greater than human world"

Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry.

Most recently, she wrote “Trophic Cascade” (Wesleyan UP, 2017), winner of the Colorado Book Award, and the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History (W.W. Norton, 2017), a finalist for the Colorado Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

She is a professor at Colorado State University.


What inspired you to write this book?

The title of the book, “Trophic Cascade,” speaks to the way that the removal or replacement of a top predator can shift the circumstances of lives all around it. Throughout the book, I think about the human experience in broad terms, often in ecological terms.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

“Trophic Cascade” by Camille Dungy.

This is always such a hard question for me because, as a writer, professor, and editor, I read for a living. There is so much amazing literature happening in the world today, it’s almost impossible to narrow my answers down. Four authors I’m really excited about at the precise moment I’m typing this response: Tracy K. Smith, “Watershed”; Tiana Clark, “I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood; Ross Gay, “Book of Delights”; always, Lucille Clifton.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

“What I Know I Cannot Say” feels representative of the book in many ways. The overlap between the human world and the greater than human world, as well as the questions the poem calls about how we treat each other, how we come to love each other, these are the central questions in “Trophic Cascade.

Poet Camille Dungy. (Provided photo)

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

When I took the trip to Angel Island, location of a former U.S. immigration center that shares a historical connection with contemporary detention centers, I wondered how I might write a poem about my experience. The poem I share here is what I eventually produced. There are a lot of instances like that in this collection: many times when I experienced something that felt large and necessary to consider more deeply. Writing the poems allowed me new ways of thinking about them.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

Many poems of this book were difficult to write because they directly confront some of the devastating and violent acts of our shared American history as well as our shared environmental crisis. I find this sort of truth telling to be rewarding, necessary, and ultimately healing, but that doesn’t mean that the process of excavating these truths isn’t harrowing.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

The blue gum eucalyptus (the ubiquitous Californian coastal tree) is an immigrant.

What project are you working on next?

I’m always writing one line and then another line and then another line. Soon enough, all those lines add up to something. I don’t like to rush the revelations, or I run the risk of missing out on the next and most necessarily revelatory line.

— Buy “Trophic Cascade” at BookBar

— Excerpt: A poem from “Trophic Cascade” by Camille Dungy

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