LJ Talks with Award-Winning Poet and Professor Camille T. Dungy

In her latest book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, Camille T. Dungy interweaves the themes of history, memory, motherhood, environment, and culture with the experience of planting a garden. She talked with LJ about those intersections and their impact.

In her latest book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, award-winning poet and professor Camille T. Dungy interweaves the themes of history, memory, motherhood, environment, and culture with the experience of planting a garden. She talked with LJ about those intersections and their impact.

The theme of interconnectivity runs throughout your book, as you show how people, plants, and other species depend on one another. How can we foster a sense of interconnectedness in our communities?

I write in Soil about a neighbor who stopped to help me and my husband when we were struggling with protecting a big pile of landscaping material from being blown away by the wind. We’d never met this man before that moment, but he saw that my husband and I could use some kind attention. This neighbor lives a few blocks away. Over the years, I’ve come to form a sweet connection with him and his wife. All that started with a simple short greeting. The interconnectedness that I witness in my garden is often seemingly fleeting, incidental. But when I spot the unassuming Ridings’ Satyr butterfly in my yard, I know I’ve built an environment of welcome by cultivating the grama grass and flowering plants and bare soil that the species needs. When we pay attention to the needs of others in our communities, we work to build such spaces of welcome every day.

Your reflections on motherhood were particularly resonant. What lessons do you hope that your daughter takes from the book?

So often I feel as if I’m learning from my daughter, not the other way around. Maybe that’s one of the lessons I want her to take from the book. We should always be open to learning new things about ourselves and the world and each other. Without new learning, there can be no new growth.

History, particularly environmental history, is an important part of the book. Were there additional historical figures whose stories you wanted to include?

What a great question! I spent so long writing and revising this book that I feel confident that the stories I’ve included are the stories Soil needs. I loved learning more about Mary Cassatt and Thomas Nuttall, and I loved coming to know Anne Spencer more deeply and even learning more about my own family’s history. This isn’t a historical figure, but there’s a woman named Maggie in Englewood, FL. She walks the beach every morning from March to November (unless there is lightning) so that she can monitor and help protect sea turtle nests. In the end, I didn’t bring Maggie’s story into Soil, but I have deep respect for Maggie’s dedication to creating a space on her stretch of beach that is safe for these amazing mother turtles and their young. She lives out an ethic that is completely aligned with the goals of my book.

The book comments on global warming and its effects. How can people and communities best prepare for these changes?

On a personal level, we can consume less, continue to move away from nonrenewable energy and resources, and plant more and better vegetation for our local environments. That last one is fun for me, so it doesn’t feel like a chore…. I have been fascinated by what happens when I find less water-hungry plants or figure out more efficient water use and water storage practices for our drying Western landscape. But this can’t be the responsibility only of individuals. We need corporations and big government to act in the best interest of the planet, not the immediate rewards of profit.

You describe how certain plants evoke memories and inspiration. Which plants currently speak to you?

Colorado winters last a long time. Our snowiest month is often April, and it’s not uncommon to get several inches of snow the week after Mother’s Day. It is funny because, since Soil is due [to be released] on May 2, people have been asking me to describe what’s currently in my garden for months already. But there is not much to look at in our garden for the first third of the new year, other than the residual brown stalks I leave up to provide food and shelter for insects and birds. Maybe that’s what’s speaking to me right now? Maybe it is helpful to be reminded that quiet times are necessary for survival. That it’s okay not to be flashy and showstopping every day of the year. That alternate modes of beauty and grace and existence are also deeply important for everyone and everything.

Which authors inspire you?

I read poetry, fiction, and nonfiction voraciously. I have a daughter in middle school, and we often listen to middle school audiobooks together. Right now, she and I are deep into the “City Spies” series from James Ponti. We love it because all the characters are smart and kind and truly inspiring. They come from all over the world, and their racial and ethnic and personality differences make the team stronger. The characters [who are girls] are just as creative, intellectually savvy, and physically astounding as the guys, and the books in the series play against a lot of boring gender and cultural norms that show up in many other middle-grade books. I am always drawn to writers who push past expectations to create new ways of thinking on the page. Writers who inspire me in these ways include (but are certainly not limited to) Ross Gay, Brenda Hillman, Ada Limón, Joy Castro, Kathryn Miles, Rebecca Brown, Maggie Nelson, Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Louise Erdrich, Cathy Park Hong, Susan Orlean, and Anne Spencer.

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