Thursday, January 10, 2019

#57 Backstory of the Poem "Natural History" by Camille T. Dungy. . .

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***This is the fifty-seventh in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 

Bottom Left:  Camille T Dungy in front of a Indie Bookstore with her poem "Nulipara" in the window.  April 23, 2018.  Copyright permission granted by Camille T Dungy for this CRC Blog Post Only.

#57 Backstory of the Poem
“Natural History”
by Camille T. Dungy

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?   There is a lot of writing that happens for me in an
unarticulated way—that’s not written down as I work through the poem. That’s where the leaps happen that take me to what I recognize as poetic thinking. Something seems to change in the music of the language and the vividness of the images in this progress, though I can’t always clearly articulate the precise steps that get me through the changes.
“Natural History” was written during a time when I was mostly composing on the computer—making the changes on the computer rather than by hand. So what changes I have are recorded only because I saved entirely new files. I don’t tend to like this method of revision because it doesn’t leave a record you can return to. There aren’t as many print outs with scribbles as drafts of my poems will sometimes produce because I was trying to reduce paper waste.
What I can tell you is that I visited the California Museum of Oakland with some other poets in the spring of 2015. 
Jane Hirshfield, Brenda Hillman, Stephen Motika and Reginald Harris were among the group. We all got to see some of the museum’s collection, and a hummingbird nest was among the artifacts we could touch. I found the nest magical, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time.
The Rufus Hummingbird is a migratory bird (Below), and I started thinking about the ways I understood my need to move, but also my need to return to various places I call home. At one point in the production of the poem that’s more of what I was focusing on, the question of migration. Somehow, in this process, Mrs. Jeffers came into my mind. And then the poem took off and I left most of that other stuff behind.

That’s how I remember it, at least. But working on this for you, I’m seeing a different record. I can see where I chipped away at ideas to hone them and tighten them. Where I cut out whole lines of narrative and logic. Where I pushed in more deeply to others. My answers down through these questions will speak to some of these places where the poem changed during the process of drafting it. (Right:  Camille T Dungy in her garden in Colorado. April of 2018.   Copyright permission granted by Camille T Dungy for this CRC Blog Post Only.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail.   Well, as I said, the poem got its start in the artifacts room in the California Museum of Oakland, a wonderful Bay Area institution. When I think of it to describe it in detail I remember their First Fridays celebrations, with food trucks, music, and art activities for the kids. I remember their koi pond (Above Left) and their giant stairs. I remember the place as entirely welcoming. 

We were members and went a lot when we lived in the Bay Area. But at the time of the visit when I held the hummingbird nest, my family wasn’t living in Oakland anymore, so I am overlaying different memories onto this description.
On the day I held the bird’s nest, we poets were exploring the natural history collection primarily. I also remember learning things about the bears of California,  (Right:  Attributed to California Museum of Oakland) some butterflies, some plants.
I hadn’t lived in California for about 18 months. I’d flown in from Colorado, and so I was already probably thinking about being displaced from California, separated from the place I thought of most frequently when I tried to conjure a sense of home. The poem would have actually been written in my home in Colorado, but I have no image/memory of that writing space when I think of the creation of the poem. Isn’t that funny?
Instead, I picture my writing space in our apartment in Oakland,  and the converted hayloft that served as my study in the carriage house I rented for the last several years I lived in Lynchburg. That carriage house will remain one of the best places I ever lived. The carriage house and the mansion it served had been built by the man who owned the trolley companies in Lynchburg. He had a giant circular drive and a trolley track that could bring the trolley right to his front door. The carriage house seemed enormous. The dining area could easily accommodate a dinner party for 8. 

My section of the carriage house had two finished floors, plus there was a whole other efficiency apartment downstairs where an old War vet had lived. Even though the rooms were big, there was something close and cozy about that place. I call the upstairs a hayloft, but it felt more like a garret, with huge windows on the two short sides of the house and a roof line that sloped right down to meet the floor on the long sides of the house’s rectangular footprint.
The apartment in Oakland I imagine when I think about this poem had a back deck that looked over a burbling creek. I could hear the creek from the study I shared with my husband. (Left) That study was packed floor to ceiling with all our books, and papers, and the junk of two active writers’ lives.
In all cases, the spaces I imagine when I think of this poem (even the interior Mrs. Jeffers’s house and the artifacts room at the museum) are tight and kind of dark. By comparison, the study where I would have actually written the poem, is the 3rd bedroom in a perfectly normal 1980s subdivision house. 
There’s a big window facing the cul-de-sac, with a view of a blue spruce tree and the Front Range of the Rockies. That space, the space where I would have written most of the drafts of this poem, was deep in the background in my imagination. I don’t have any recollection of its gray carpet or bright windows. Even though in early drafts I mention Colorado, I’ve cut that place out of memories related to this poem. (Above Right and Left:  Flowers blooming in the yard of Camille T. Dungy's Colorado home.  Copyright permission granted by Camille T. Dungy for this CRC Blog Post Only)

What month and year did you start writing this poem? Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us?   According to my calendar, I was at the museum on March 17, 2015. I started writing the poem fairly soon after that. There’s a note in my journal from that day.
I found a document that was first created May 5, 2015 and revised May 7. It has two whole stanzas that don’t appear any longer. One thing this early draft reveals to me is there was an additional trigger I had completely forgotten, because it was wiped out of the final version of the poem. I’d gone to visit the University of Connecticut at Storrs somewhere near the end of a brutal East Coast winter. The sidewalks were slick with snow run-off, and I was struck by how different that was from where I grew up in California. I’ll include the first few stanzas here, so you can see here how quickly I started into the poem that was published after I moved past the triggering details about the snowmelt. It even seems as if I stopped mid-though in the second stanza of this draft. What is that “Not” connected to? This untitled draft jumps straight from that incomplete sentence to the complete thought that would become “Natural History”:

Winter had been especially
what it is expected to be
in those parts. A thick misery
of blizzards punctuated by
school closures. Unmitigated
melt turned upper campus walkways
to spring beds.

I haven't lived there for thirty
years now, but in the place I grew
up we drove to snow then drove back
home when we wanted. I think this
means something about who I am
capable of becoming. Not

The Rufous hummingbird builds her nest
of moss and spider webs and lichen.
I held one once—smaller than my palm
and sturdy in its fragility.
Stop moving so much, an old woman
I knew back in Virginia told me.
Why her words come to me, the woman
dead for the better part of this new
century, while I think of that nest
of web and lichen, I cannot say,
but she had known my mother's parents.

More digging in the files on my computer reveals an even earlier poem draft, typed on May 1, 2015. This file was called “The name of the mummy.” I can’t even tell you why I gave the file that title, except that I must have been valuing the idea of what gets lost over time, like the specific names and identities of people who have died.
It seems that in this version I was thinking a lot about a 2014 trip I’d taken to London and the British Museum (Right). Here are some lines from that version:

I also thought that maybe, I am more like the hummingbirds
who pass through my new Colorado home town on their way
to and from the mountains than I am like the woman
whose body I saw last year at the British Museum.
When she died, they threw her body in a pit and everything
liquid inside her leeched into her native sand. She is always,
then, somewhere besides where her body resides. I like it
right here where I am, said the old woman I used to know
in Virginia.
You can see one line that held over into the final version of “Natural History.” “I like it/right here where I am.” Though even that looks different on the page in the final version of the poem. None of this information about the museum, or even the fact that I live in Colorado, makes it directly into the final version. I probably took these lines of inquiry out because I wanted to focus on the tension between California and Virginia rather than all the other places this draft brought into the conversation. (Above Left:  Camille T Dungy reading from her poetry collection Trophir Cascade, which includes the poem "Natural History".  Copyright permission granted by Camille T. Dungy for this CRC Blog Post Only) 
The May 1 draft is 67 flabby lines. The May 5/7 draft is down to 42 lines and has a lot more lines that, in spirit or fact, stay through to the poem that was collected in Trophic Cascade:

The whole lot of them, even then,
in their twenties, must already
have been old as God—that daily
election called between safety
and sanity too often tore
them down. The woman's husband
had been a laborer, what sort
I regret I don't remember.
He sat on their front porch all day,
near his oxygen tank, waving
to the occasional passing

Buicks and Fords, praising the black
walnut tree that shaded the yard.
She left the porch sometimes to cook.
Mostly, the Virginia breeze passed
through the porch eaves and we listened
to the swing chains.  No one talked much
when I visited.

This feeling that everything came together very quickly is a feeling I often have about poems I am particularly happy with, but it is almost never the actual case. What actually usually happens is I overwrite and then chisel and shape until the poem that I’d been meaning to write all along emerges. Note that I shift word order often between this draft and the final version. I add or remove prepositions. I condense in places and add details in others. Note that by the final version I’ve named “the old woman I used to know” and her husband, so that they are no longer generic old people, but actual people who are connected to my life. In doing that I would have come to other specifics of how she came to be in my life and why she mattered. Once I named her, the play with
Jeffers and Jefferson would have been made more available to me, as well as the detail about her yeast roll recipe, which doesn’t show
up until a later draft. Neither of these two versions have the information about the sofas or the moth balls. I remember feeling a rush of excitement when I came to those images, and the shifting of expected language they allowed.

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final?   It’s hard to say how many drafts because I composed so much of this on the computer. I can only really see it if I made major changes. The details and dates of small shifts from lines like that daily/ election called between safety/and sanity” to the final version’s “the daily elections/ called for between their safety and their sanity/ must have torn even the strongest of them down.” would only show up if I saved the poem as a new document.
At some point, for instance, I realized that the last time my grandparents lived in that place was closer to 1952, not 1942, so that’s why I changed the date. I can’t say I’d call such a revision a new draft, nor that I would have even noted the change on a
marked up print out of the poem, but it’s an important change that would show up at some point in a new version somewhere along the line. A version of the whole Trophic Cascade manuscript dated July 7, 2015 shows the poem appearing almost exactly as it does in the book. So that’s a pretty quick progression from the messy draft I was working with in May.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why?   I still smile when I think of Mrs. Jeffers’ yeast roll recipe. And I still miss her. Rendering her clearly in the poem was and continues to be important, and moving, to me.

Has this poem been published before? And if so where?   Timothy Donnelly asked for a poem for Boston Review and so I put some elbow grease into polishing this up and sending it to him. I know that the Boston Review version has a few minor differences from what appears in the book, but these differences are on the level of the word, and centered around the part where I am naming Oakland, the museum, and Court Street. Court Street was the church where my grandfather was the minister and where Mrs. Jeffers attended until her death, but I decided this wasn’t a relevant detail for the poem. Thanks to the Boston Review publication, “Natural History” poem was honored with a Pushcart Prize and published in that anthology. In 2017, it appeared as the first poem in my 4th collection, Trophic Cascade. Now you’re reading is here!

Natural History

The Rufous hummingbird builds her nest
of moss and spider webs and lichen.
I held one once—smaller than my palm,
but sturdy. I would have told Mrs. Jeffers,
from Court Street, if in those days of constant flights
between Virginia and the West I’d happened
on that particular museum. Any chance
I could, I’d leave my rented house in Lynchburg.
I hated the feeling of stuckness that old city’s humidity
implied. You need to stop running away so much,
Mrs. Jeffers would say when my visits were over
and I leaned down to hug her. Why her words
come to me, the woman dead for the better part
of this new century, while I think of that
nest of web and lichen, I cannot rightly say.
She had once known my mother’s parents.
The whole lot of them, even then, in their twenties,
must already have been as old as God. They were
black—the kind name for them in those days
would have been Negroes—and the daily elections
called for between their safety and their sanity
must have torn even the strongest of them down.
Mr. Jeffers had been a laborer. The sort, I regret,
I don’t remember. He sat on their front porch
all day, near his oxygen tank, waving occasionally
to passing Buicks and Fords, praising the black
walnut that shaded their yard. She would leave
the porch sometimes to prepare their meals.
I still have her yeast roll recipe. The best
I’ve ever tried. Mostly, though, the same Virginian
breeze that encouraged Thomas Jefferson’s
tomatoes passed warmly through their porch eaves
while we listened to the swing chains, and no one
talked or moved too much at all. Little had changed
in that house since 1952. I guess it’s no surprise
they’d come to mind when I think of that cup
of spider webs and moss, made softer by the feathers
of some long-gone bird. She used to say, I like it
right here where I am. In my little house. Here,
with him. I thought her small-minded. In the winter,
I didn’t visit very often. Their house was closed up
and overheated. Everything smelled of chemical
mothballs. She had plastic wrappers on the sofas
and chairs. Everyone must have once
held someone as old and small and precious as this.

Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently 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 National Book Critics Circle Award. Both appeared in paperback this fall. Dungy has also edited anthologies
including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great.
Her honors include NEA Fellowships in poetry (2003) and prose (2018), an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and she was named a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award honoree in two categories in 2018.
Dungy’s poems have been published in Best American Poetry, The 100 Best African American Poems, Best American Travel Writing, and over thirty other anthologies. She is a professor at Colorado State University.


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

039  November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”

040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”

041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”

042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”

043  November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”

044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”

045  December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”

046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”

047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”

048  December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”

049  December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”

O50  December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”

051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov

052  December 27, 2018
“Under Surveillance”
by Michael Farry

053  December 28, 2018
“Grand Finale”
by Renuka Raghavan

054  December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry

055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo

056  January 7, 2019
“The Seamstress:
by Len Kuntz

057  January 10, 2019
“Natural History”
by Camille T Dungy

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