Camille T. Dungy is also the author of What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006), a finalist for the PEN Center USA 2007 Literary Award and the Library of Virginia 2007 Literary Award. A recipient of an NEA grant, she recently edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2009), a finalist for the 2009 NAACP Image award and Northern California Book Awards Special Recognition Award winner. She also co-edited From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great (Persea, 2009). She’s currently associate professor in the creative writing department of San Francisco State University.
Your book takes the reader back to the 19th century, to the decades heading toward the Emancipation Proclamation, but the oppressive life on Jackson Farm in Virginia is as palpable as ever. I’m intrigued by the love narratives–between Melinda and Joe, between Molly and Shad–how these couples are drawn together and kept apart by the same desires, namely escape and survival. What took you to these particular characters and why is it important (even during the Obama era) to revisit one of this country’s most troubled historical periods, when “if you’re born black anywhere/ you’re most unlucky”?
I am interested in writing real life stories, whether the characters I am detailing are fictional or truly walked this earth. By exploring the challenged love narratives between Melinda and Joe, and between Molly and Shad, I was able to examine the characters’ strengths and vulnerabilities as they might be revealed only to, and by, their most intimate companions. It was a way of rendering potentially two-dimensional characters as fully as I possibly could. Who and how and if people can choose to love is a question as relevant today as it was in the 19th century.
The “Rebecca & Dinah” section of this book is devastating: one woman is repeatedly raped by her master, the other runs away from this household only to land in a brothel, where the rape and abuse of black women is performed under the guise of fantasy. It’s difficult to gauge what’s a worse fate when neither woman can fully run away from her skin. And when Madame Jane tells Rebecca, the fresh body at the brothel, “you’ll be a platter for their cornbread/ a skillet for their sauce,” she might as well be speaking to Dinah. You conducted extensive research on figures like Dinah (among others), at what point did they come to life on their own and cease to be shadows in the archives, and what was this transformation like in the writing process?
The writing process doesn’t really take off until I manage to transform my research into a new, and immediate, sort of reality. Otherwise I suppose all I’m doing is taking notes. One thing I must manage to do is digest the materials I encounter in research to such a degree that I can reinvent the stories as entities different, and separate, from the anecdotes I discovered in archives and books. It is only at that point that I am able to start really writing poetry. The reality is, women throughout time have either “chosen” to barter their bodies for power or suffered disempowerment through the abuse of their bodies. A Latina reader from Texas told me that, encountering “Dinah in the Box” out of the context of the rest of the book, she did not realize that this poem was set in the 19th century until she came across the word “abolitionist” nearly 3/4 of the way through. I took this as a great compliment because it indicated that the story I told didn’t feel like a side bar in a history textbook. It touched that reader like the stories of women she knew. It’s a question of specifics. I must thoroughly detail the interior and exterior space around the character I am creating. What’s touching her skin? What does she have nightmares about? What smells trigger her most secret desires? The archives don’t tend to tell us these aspects of a story, but poetry must.
The final section is dedicated to Melinda, living in Philadelphia. Her freedom comes with a hefty price (which I will not reveal to the readers). Anti-slavery committees are generating momentum, but with great resistance. Melinda will become one of the era’s “institutional memories” since it’s clear she will live to see the abolition of slavery. Why were you most attracted to the stories of the women?
In many ways, Suck on the Marrow began as a departure from my first book. What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison is a series of rogue sonnets, 14- and 28-line poems that conform to specific restraints, written about people who actually walked the earth, and first triggered by the stories of two men. I thought I was going to write a book that didn’t use sonnets, but the poems in Suck on the Marrow are often constructed around restrictive and compulsive forms, including sonnets. I thought I would write a book that didn’t rely on the stories of real people. My answers to the previous questions should make it clear that, in the end, the people in Suck on the Marrow needed to feel as real as anyone with material fingerprints might. I wanted to write a book that revolved around the stories of women rather than men. Though half of the world’s history is a woman’s story, this part is less frequently told. Reading 19th century history texts I was constantly struck by questions about what the women at the margins of the narratives were doing and feeling. Thus, Melinda’s story, and the stories of Molly, Dinah, and Rebecca, became central to the formation of my book. In the course of writing Suck on the Marrow, however, I acknowledged that I could not be true to these complex women without accurately rendering portraits of the people they fought for and against and loved. So then came Melinda’s Joseph, Dinah and Rebecca’s Jennings, and Molly’s Shad. It is clear that each of these women will live beyond the timeframe of this book (a fact that is not an equal certainty for the men), but you are right to assume they will then fade into the shadows, composite memories without shape or specifics or name. I guess I felt compelled to extract these segments of their stories from the margins and give them contour and life.
You’ve done plenty of work as an editor: besides Black Nature, you also co-edited From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great (Persea Books, 2009), and were an assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade University of Michigan Press, 2006). How did developing a critical and discriminating eye help you in selecting archival material that would prove useful in the writing of Suck on the Marrow? (I’m particularly impressed by the piece at the conclusion of the book, in which you comb through an extraordinary amount of documents to construct this “found poem” or cento.)
“’Tis of Thee, Sweet Land,” the cento to which you refer, is a compendium of much of material I was not able to use directly in poems but which reflected upon the nature of the book as a whole. Though the bulk of the book individualizes experiences suffered through the institution of slavery, the language in this final poem comes from sources as far ranging as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, ex-slaves recorded through the WPA, and pro-slavery newspapers. It was important to me that the book end with the reminder that, in addition to being a plight born by individuals, slavery was and is and always will be an intrinsic part of the fabric of this nation. That said, with the exception of the notes section, “A Primer, or a History of These United States (Abridged),” all the poems in Suck on the Marrow were completed before I took up the 3-year task of editing and co-editing Black Nature and From the Fishouse. Perhaps it was the “critical and discriminating eye” I developed combing through all the archival materials required to produce Suck on the Marrow that gave me the attention and discipline to edit two 100-poet anthologies at the same time. Certainly, my elation locating forgotten texts and frustration at not having been able to locate other necessary texts spurred me along whenever the editing projects began to feel too onerous. I could at least be responsible for making sure posterity and a contemporary readership did not have similar difficulties with the subject matter of these two anthologies. When it came time to write a notes section for Suck on the Marrow, something I knew was required since the average reader has not spent half a decade studying 19th century American history, I knew I had to write something that was at once inviting and informative. This explains the way I finally constructed “A Primer.” The process of editing the two anthologies gave me the distance and insight needed to creatively formulate this necessary component of Suck on the Marrow.
(Photo Credit: Ray Black)