Benny Sisson recently took a class offered through the Poetry Center called Writing Your Community. As part of the requirements for the class he taught an 8-week long creative writing residency at a local Tucson Public School. For tips on how best to approach the classroom, he interviewed the poet and essayist Camille Dungy when she came to Tucson to read for the Climate Change & Poetry Reading Series.
I sat down with Camille Dungy on a Friday at the Poetry Center, the morning after her Climate Change reading on November 17th. I was very excited to be able to pick her brain after listening to what she was passionate about in her own work, and hearing about how she relates to her students during times of grief or difficulty. She is on a path that I, as a poetry undergrad, aspire to throw myself into. She told me how teaching and writing are essentially linked in all writers’ attempts at self expression as well as how the collaboration with others and their ideas brings pedagogy to the forefront of her approaches in creating and understanding the people around her.
How do you think the area where you teach now (Colorado State University), compared to your own education or other places you have taught, affects the way your students learn and the way you relate to them?
I went to Stanford for undergrad, so I went to what we understand as a large university. But, the undergraduate class at Stanford is relatively small . . . you knew a lot about your class and classes on either end of you, but it was also an elite university with a lot of resources and a lot of access . . . so that was what I kind of understood as a starting point. Then, I went to a state school for graduate school, with fewer resources . . . and then the first university [where] I had a tenure track job was a small college in Lynchburg, Virginia, its now call Randolph College . . . it had 700 students when I was there. So those kinds of different experiences meant that when I moved from there to larger universities [like CSU], it was all about figuring out how, on those first days of a creative writing class, to come together and ask, even though all of our experiences of life are so different, how can we learn to translate across the board? Having learned or taught in so many different kinds of institutions or with so many different kinds of students, in the end all we need to figure out is how to communicate what’s inside us to other people. So in some ways the trappings of the university around you make no difference in the end to how you teach that fundamental thing. We come from different places of privilege or resources or sizes and all those kinds of things, and that is somewhat important to understanding how I teach in terms of what resources I am able to bring into the class, but in the end it hasn’t proven to be terribly important.
In terms of teaching and being a writer, does it come from the same place? Does it come from two different passions or do you believe writing sets you up for a world of pedagogy?
I have two answers to your question:
One practical answer is that artist need patrons, and for the latter part of the 20th century, in some cases, and I am lucky enough to be one of those people, on into the 21st century, the university system has been a very good patronage for the arts. In all ages of man you will find some patronage for the arts . . . and I don’t know what that is going to become because of changes in ideas about funding public education. This may not remain. But that’s a practical answer. Another answer is simply that writing is what you say, it’s pedagogy, there is some element of writing that is always didactic, some element that is always about teaching, communicating and sharing. I happen to be a writer who is as interested in talking to people about my own work but also about the work of the community of writers of which I am a part and in helping to train the next generation within that community of writers. I am totally interested in that and I do see it as completely connected. I understand how lucky I am to have come into a moment where . . . what I get to do is help expand peoples minds! A lot of them! At the same time I’m doing the things that I am doing within my own work.
So it is your own self-expression that offers inspiration? Or is it more about the facilitation of others' creative expression?
I think of it as a trinity: Reading, writing, teaching. Those three things. Teaching and editing are also kind of linked, that’s another way you can disseminate— to the 5,000 people who bought the book as opposed to the thirty people around the classroom. But reading, writing, teaching, these things are connected to me. I become a better writer when I read the work of others. In order to be a good teacher I have to read the work of others, and that helps me be a better writer as well! And then I’m writing and then I think how am I doing this? What am I doing in my writing and what am I trying to do with my writing? I’ll think about that and that will help me explain it to my students in the next generation. So it’s all happening together.
During your reading, you spoke a little bit about how, in light of the election and things changing in the world around us, your students feel like their work needs to contribute to a larger conversation. Can you talk a little bit about that? How did that affect you? How did you react?
The first time I heard it, it was really interesting. We [a student and I] were just talking about the election and I asked her how she was doing. She was very distraught. And my answer with grad students in particular is, that they are there to write! That is their job, so frequently when they get upset about things that are happening around them, I ask “Well, how is your writing?” or “What is this doing for your writing?” and she said “I just don’t know. I feel like I have to completely reimagine my entire project because it has to be relevant. I have to write something relevant. I don’t know what that is going to look like yet.” And I was surprised. It was kind of mind blowing. Then, I heard it several more times. Even here in Arizona! It is a matter of doing this thing, [writing], that takes a lot of time, it takes a little bit of selfishness. You’re not with your community, you’re not protesting, you’re not doing “anything” but writing. In order to feel like you are not doing something that feels self-indulgent when there is a world of hurt going on around you and you want to be of some use, it’s a matter of figuring out how that writing can be of some use. There is a precedent and it happens, it’s not an impossible task to set for oneself as an artist. Relevant, politically engaged, community motivating art is a real thing. It was just interesting in a course of a week to have five students say, whoa, that’s what I need to be engaging in now.
Is that a difficult message to get across to your students? When you find them in turmoil or in a struggle to find their own inspiration, what’s hard about that? What’s hard about teaching poetry?
I taught a class here on Wednesday before my reading and the topic was “Writing Past Pain into Possibility” and of course, with this week for many people, that question becomes even more relevant. So what I did was talk about the mechanics of poems that are directly engaged in protesting loss, and the different ways that they do that. Different writing strategies like the way writers use punctuation, the way they use repetition and the ways they turn a joke, or define their terms, all of these poems utilizing these things are opening up our minds and breaking our hearts open, or giving us strategies for coping and resisting. And then we also looked at poems of celebration! Poems of acceptance and motivation, and that’s important too.
You can look at the fundamentals and techniques of really good poems, and they can give you these instruments of action and hope.
As someone who aspires to take a similar path in terms of education and writing, what would you say I should know moving forward into the world of teaching English?
I have two standard pieces of advice, and I also recently heard a piece of advice from Gregory Pardlo, which I’m going to steal because I think it’s really good. So, I have three. One of mine is to keep writing, which is harder to do in this moment in our history than ever. You probably take a lot of notes on your phone, or voice dictate things. Even I am less likely to haul around a journal! But we don’t use that material immediately, and if we don’t it doesn’t stay. So we have to write things down, and making that a practice is key to being a writer! You’re not a thinker! You’re not a talker! You’re a writer. You need to write things down. Another one is to just read. You have to read, a lot. Read the literature. We need music, or fluff, or Buzzfeed lists, but you need good literature otherwise you can’t enter the conversation! You’re not versed in that language. Those are the two that I always give.
Pardlo came to my campus this semester and the same questions got asked of him, and he said travel! And that excited me, because when you travel you get outside what you know to be true and you see the world from other experiences. You see yourself from other peoples' perspectives and that enriches you immensely. So I am now adding travel to my list of advice.
How do we keep the conversations you spoke of during your reading going? How do we as educators help people understand and empathize with the oppressed or the people effected by climate change or any other real world form of negativity?
This is a question we all have to face right now. All these things come back to us somehow. We are all connected. That is my thing with conversation; there is nothing that happens on this planet that does not affect you. It could take longer to affect you, or you can keep yourself holed up and you could act like it doesn’t affect you, but even that is affecting you because you’re building up your gates. There is nothing that doesn’t affect all of us so we need to, as educators, keep people talking.
Photo Credit: Hannah Ensor