“Although the literal act of putting words on the page is a solitary activity, no writer is ever alone. There are always those mentors, those students, who engage in a communal effort of creation.”
--Lee Martin
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(Prageeta Sharma, Patrick Rosal, Myung Mi Kim & Regie Cabico at the Kundiman workshop/retreat)


Thursday night I went to a reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, where I had the chance to hear Hugh Behm-Steinberg and D. A. Powell read from new work. I bumped into Catherine Brady and Richard Silberg and several other writers while I was there. A weekend of communal activity had begun.
Friday I went back across the bay to hear the fiction writer Thomas Glave read from his moving new collection of stories. The writer Stewart Shaw sat beside me for the event, and afterwards Thomas and I took the BART back to SF and, over wine and fried squid bits, talked writing and family and place and writing and work and writing and love and writing and apartments and writing and writing and writing.
Saturday a former student of mine and I went to the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalyis to hear the poet and analyst Alice Jones in discussion with Cole Swenson. Audience participation included questions and comments from poets Forest Hammer, Mari L'Esperance, and Brian Teare. After that reading, I ran back to my apartment and drafted a poem.
I spent the greater part of Sunday afternoon discussing The 2009 International Writers' Workshop in Ghana, West Africa with it’s director, the poet Shane Book.
Tonight I am having dinner with the poets Joseph Lease and Donna de la Perriere. Poems will certainly be mentioned, and there will be talk of po-bizz since Donna’s in the happy early stages of touring with her new book.
My life here in SF is chock full of poetic community. I know of 12 writers living within just 3 square blocks of my place. It’s always amazing to see what groups of poets living in close proximity can do. (I think of the Dark Room Collective, the coalition of Black writers living in Boston in the late 1980s and early 1990s which included such members as Major Jackson, Sharan Strange, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young.) But not too terribly long ago, I lived in a part of the country more like the rest of the country. By this I mean I lived in a part of the country that did not have enough writers in one neighborhood to support a hefty anthology.
When I lived in small town America I often had to look elsewhere for community. I traveled some summers to Cave Canem, the workshop/retreat founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady as a “Home for Black Poetry.” The name means “beware the dog,” and the icon resembles the mosaic on the doorway of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompei but for the fact, in the case of Cave Canem’s emblem, that the dog is free, it’s chain is broken. Through Cave Canem I have found mentors and students and readers and friends, a chain of community I hope does not break.
When I lived in Virginia I traveled sometimes to meetings of the Carolina African American Writers Collective. It’s founder, Lenard D. Moore, is dedicated to supporting what he calls the “important literary work” of the collective’s membership. CAAWC members including Carole Weatherford, Evie Shockley, Raina J. Leon, Mendi Lewis Obadike, and DeLana R.A. Dameron attempt to honor this goal.
I love it when writers build their own communities, their own networks and organizations, collectives, and coalitions. This institution building, though separate from the necessarily solitary act of writing, seems crucial to keeping writers’ spirits alive. Kundiman, the organization founded by Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi and “dedicated to the creation, cultivation and promotion of Asian American poetry,” just closed the application period for their summer 2009 workshop/retreat. Frank X Walker and his Affrilacian poets just finished an extended tour. There is the Lambda Literary Foundation, “the country's leading organization for LGBT writers and readers,” which in the recent past has held its own retreat. There is Con Tinta, “a coalition of cultural activists (Chicano/Latino poets and writers) who believe in affirming a positive and pro-active presence in American literature.” Each of these organizations provides, for a few poets or many, an audience that encourages growth.
Those of us who have written in a space where there seem to be no allies likely understand the need for such organizations. Even within spaces built to foster community, micro-communities often and necessarily emerge. Cave Canem was formed after an experience at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, the Black Took Collective was formed by Cave Canem Fellows. At the Sewanee Writers’ Conference years ago, I found my allies. Jane Satterfield, V. Penelope Pelizon, and Shara McCallum have remained trusted readers, supporters, and friends. We push each other to take risks, we encourage each other after failures, and we applaud each other’s success.
I agree with the writer Robert Lax (or perhaps it was Thomas Lux, my handwriting is unclear) who said, “I think you really need to be alone during a good part of the day…. I think that the isolation itself brings things to the surface that otherwise just remain hidden. And that you get to know yourself as a writer by being alone quite a bit.” I write in a walk-in closet with the closet door closed and my bedroom door closed and the window curtains closed and sometime, even, with earplugs in. I write in isolation whenever, and as completely as, possible. Still, when I leave the closed cloister where I write my poems, it’s helpful to know I have a community of readers and mentors who will challenge and support me, who will point me toward new questions and help prompt new poems.
It’s great if that community can sometimes be composed of living, breathing contemporaries. It’s good to note, as the poet Lola Haskins is fond of reminding me, that those we aspire for community with ought to also include the timeless poets, those who lived and died long before our day. What a lucky community to be a part of! With the writers of all time around you, isolation need never be something to fear. Larry Levis speaks to this eloquently in his poem “Sleeping Lioness”:
“…Everyone else in the world is in bed with someone.
If they sleep, they sleep with a lock of the other’s hair
In their lips, but the world is one short,
An odd number, and so God has given me a book of poems….”

Originally Published: March 23rd, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. March 24, 2009
     Christopher

    Fine, fine post! (and am a fan of Brian Teare, F. Hamer, and Powell and Glave!)

  2. March 24, 2009
     mearl

    Camille,
    You’re lucky to have both a “living, breathing” community and a community of “timeless” poets. I get along very well with the “timeless poets”, but I hardly know any breathing ones. In fact, compared to your life I feel like Rilke at Duino. And of those poets I do know, only one of them lives in Coimbra, the rest are spread around Europe and North America. One of my favorite programs on my computer is that little clock that can read all the different time zones – that’s about as close as I get to community. In fact I can go days at a time without even speaking English.
    So when I read your post I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Indeed, one of my experiences here at Harriet is to feel my “awayness” more acutely. And I wonder if there are other models of the “examined” life of poetry than the one Harriet is trying to build, and that you are living to its fullest? Is it a question of age, generation, temperament? I left a thriving community (New York of the early 80s) when I was in my early twenties. Of course that was a different kind of community, more ramshackle and improvised than the one you describe a quarter of a century later. But it was a community, I studied at Brooklyn with John Ashbery and later, as his personal assistant (before computers, spell checkers and the internet) I was thrust right into the middle of not only the art world, but the poetry world, and like you I had tons of friends: poets, artists, musicians, economists, etc. One of my duties for John was to go to all of the events with him, including the parties.
    And yet, at a certain point, it all became too much, and I made a kind of half-conscious decision to leave the states for good. At first I lived in Paris mostly, where I’d been before, had a place to stay, and could get by linguistically. But I spent time in Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Holland, before finally settling in Portugal, where I took a job teaching at the local University. There I hung around with scholars, some of them avid readers of poetry, and good critics, so I didn’t lack for readers. But it was nothing like the intensity you describe, or the intensity I’d left behind in New York.
    I finally left teaching (I never, of course taught creative writing. I taught, language, American culture, translation…things like that). But I was never really happy doing it. And I was always dogged by the idea that I had given up something precious by leaving America. But isolation, near total isolation from communities had become necessary. It was the only way I could write, and my work changed profoundly because of it.
    I guess there are a few different ways to go about this life of being a poet. I’ve been very hard, in print, on the way you describe. But I feel now that my critique sometimes tends more towards self-defense and belies a kind of envy; that it is a way to deal with having said, as Robert Graves did, good-by to all that.
    I have always believed poetry, at least since the late 18th century – and that is where our particular poetic tradition properly begins – to be a profoundly solitary activity. Solitude is where one sheds the ego (since it has nothing to reflect itself off of) and develops a self-critical ability, where, away from the noise of contemporary life, one learns to see oneself and the world more clearly. The poetry that comes out of that is designed to give individual readers access to their own inner world, their own solitude. My notion, even at a young age, was that community needed to be sacrificed in order to connect through the world of the poem.
    I wonder if I got that right, or if I got it completely wrong? Reading such an articulate and lyrical and, indeed joyful account such as you have given us in this poet, at least lets me know where I stand, and brings into high contrast what I’ve left behind. As to which is the right path, well, that’s anyone’s guess.
    Martin

  3. March 24, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Martin:
    There is no "right path." There is only the right path for a particular poet at a particular time.
    When I was living in the south I could go days without speaking to people as well. Living in the south presented me with a particular kind of isolation I treasured for how it helped me be productive and original. But I am a highly social creature, and so I sought the stimulus of the city as a counterpoint. Sometimes, now, I lock myself in the closet with the earplugs because it all gets a little much, but for now, this is the hive in which I generally thrive.
    One more thing, you mention the Romantic tradition and its solitary impulse and the fact of its primacy in our poetics today. Yes yes, certainly. But I want to point out that several of the organizations I sited are not purely Western in their origins. Many writers of color have communal imperatives we draw upon, and these are as important to us as the solitary. Sometimes they live in contradiction to each other. Contradiction can be beautiful.

  4. March 24, 2009
     mearl

    Camille,
    You’re good to remind me that there is no right path and that the paths poets take have more to do with the particularities of their lives. I tend to dramatize, polarize, generalize – I’m still learning the skills of subtlety.
    But more important, much more so, is what you say about the communal imperatives of writers of color. Is this, do you think, a larger issue, or a smaller issue, than poems themselves? Or is it an inseparable issue?
    I was paying close attention to what you had to say in your post about this imperative and the groups that you’ve found along the way. I was astonished to find out that so many different organizations exist.
    I’m sure you know that I am determined to understand your poetry, irrespective of the particularities of your life. That’s the final measure in the end, and that’s what separates poetry from all other written discourse. Poems, like piano sonatas, are meant to stand alone, released, finally, from the conditions of their production. What I’ve read so far of your work doesn’t speak of any kind of inclusiveness, or exclusiveness. It’s just pure poetry.
    (Actually, I haven’t yet read it at all…I’ve heard it, listened to it…at Fish House and on You Tube. That, in and of itself, is a novelty for me, since I really am a creature of the text. I’ve never come to a poet through listening first. But you read beautifully and the architecture of your poems sets itself up so cleverly in the ear.)
    The experience of writing poetry in America is in itself ostracizing; for poets of color it must be doubly so. James Baldwin said as much; for him being a writer who was both black and gay was a kind of double hex. His answer was to move to France. It is not that racism doesn’t exist in Europe, it does…but it is different and based on different historical realities. Baldwin found a way to thrive because his “difference” was different in France.
    When I lived in the states none of these groups of the like-minded, like-gendered, like-colored really existed in terms of poetry, or they were just getting off the ground. That is why I am so curious about your list of different congregations.
    That doesn’t mean I wasn’t highly aware of race relations in America. I lived in Spanish Harlem, taught in Bedford-Stuyvesant and was married to a woman from Port-au-Prince.
    Besides the normal things that come out of wonderful relationships (while they remain wonderful) there was a practical side. She helped me with my French and my reading of French poetry. But the most curious thing of all was the way that color, otherness, and the simple unlikeliness of the whole thing quickly faded into irrelevance. This must be something that happens with interracial couples – we quickly forget the fact of color. Until of course we are abruptly reminded of it by the world. And those reminders come in many forms.
    I think in the end, the same thing should hold for poetry. I’ve had the chance to translate Lusophone African poetry, both black and white African writers. When you’re in the middle of that experience, the language experience, you tend to forget who’s what.
    What do you think, should we be mindful or forgetful of the fact of whom we are? Locked inside our closets with our earphones in are we interested in us, or the English language, poetry itself, or the identity of the poet? Our own voice, or are we somehow trying to trick our own voice, side-step it? These are important questions for me, doubly important since here in Portugal I am confronted with my own foreigness every time I step out my front door. Actually, I don’t even have to leave the house. For instance tonight I cooked octopus for dinner. When was the last time you cooked octopus? I’ll send you the recipe if you’d like.
    Martin

  5. March 25, 2009
     Camille D.

    I tend to prefer squid to octopus. I cooked squid last week, but the texture of octopus tends not to be to my liking. Still, send your recipe. With the right preparation, much can be made palatable.
    As to your other, intriguing, questions, I'm curious what the Harriet community has to say. I've got my opinions, but I'm just back from the opera and would prefer a chorus of voices (with orchestration, perhaps!) to a two party dialogue.

  6. March 25, 2009
     Patricia Spears Jones

    HI Camille-I think it is always good to talk about community. In New York and for decades now there have been several that I have been involved in: The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church; Poets House; back in the day Nuyorican Poets Cafe; and cliques and groups that centered around bars and colleges. The Project has evolved over several decades and its continued evolution shows how communities shape and re-shape themselves. And yes, many groups grow out of challenges found while participating in other groups. Cave Canem's start is a case in point. But the greatest way that poets create community is to seek out; work with; read/critque and otherwise build each other up. While the blogosphere helps, your discussion of various readings, salons, book launches, etc. feels ten times more dynamic. Last week I read at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center and heard Nicole Cooley for the first time and read w/ Serena J. Fox whom I met at that Squaw retreat back in the 1990s and Kristen Prevallet, who read a wonderful Ed Sanders inspired piece. At the same time Charles Bernstein was reading at the Bowery Poetry Club and later that evening Cheryl Boyce Taylor was hosting Calypso Muse in somebody's living room in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Now what this says to me is there are many ways for a poet to participate as listener, reader, organizer--to find ways to create and sustain community. But both you and I live in cities which makes creating any kind of artistic community that much easier--more venues, more people, more opportunities. But it can also disperse energy.. I hardly ever use the word balance, but as we find ways to work with and support and advance our work in community, we need to be as respectful of the times for isolation and contemplation as we are for moments of congress. This is a fascinating time for American poets when you think about it--we are discovering affiniities and differences that sharpen our language and expand our vision (I hope). Your commentary on just a slice of life as a poet in the city is one way of looking at how this is all happening now.

  7. March 25, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Seems to me that our own voice is so much informed by other voices, that the distinction between one's own voice and other influences is not always a clear one. Just the fact of other poets having written offers community to me in solitude--and changes "my" poems. But the feeling of being inspired by living, actual three-dimensional writers (and other artists) is a powerful one, and vibrant to read about, as Patricia points out!