“Baby, you were meant to be whole,” recited poet Camille Dungy at her reading at the Co-op Bookstore Tuesday. Dungy is UConn’s spring Aetna-Writer-In-Residence, and the author of three books of poetry: “What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison,” “Smith Blue” and “Suck on the Marrow.” She is the editor of various publications, such as “Black Nature,” and is currently a professor at Colorado State University.
Her poetry is deeply human, touching upon a variety of social issues, and is further accented by Dungy’s expert and commanding presence. One such lingering line came from her poem, “The Preachers Eat Out”: “My one regret is that we don’t have appetite enough to make you break every plate in this damned room.”
She read a selection of pieces from all of her books, and offered detailed backstories for each of the works. One such explanation was her conscious shift from writing about real people, either family members or public figures such as Ella Fitzgerald, to fabricated characters from her mind. However, Dungy realized that, “the fact of making things up is that there’s always something real, there’s always some kernel of human truth.”
In her works, Dungy draws from a variety of other writers (at one point, she quizzed the audience on Gertrude Stein’s last words). This was exemplified when she read a newer poem that drew inspiration from Gwendolyn Brook’s classic “We Real Cool,” as well as Terrance Hayes’s acrostic poetry. “We knew we’d blow our cool sooner or later, probably sooner,” read Dungy, echoing the short-fuse and ill-fate of “We Real Cool.” “Beauty or hell – no difference, the bell would ring soon,” was the haunting last line.
Dungy honored professor Penelope Pelizzon in a self-described “pessay,” a poem-essay, inspired by a drive they took together, called “Ars Poetica: Mercator Projection.”
Dungy really shone when she read a piece from a series called “Frequently Asked Questions,” currently in progress. “I’m really thinking about what it means to be lost in the process of writing,” she said. “There’s nothing figurative about us,” ended the piece in a wonderfully ironic line of poetry.
This was no passive poetry reading; Dungy’s presentation was completely engaging and charismatic, from beginning to end.
After the reading, Dungy honored the audience with a question and answer session, discussing such issues as personas while writing, finding a place as a black woman poet, to the importance of reading Pablo Neruda.
Kaitlyn Ernst, a senior, bought her book immediately after the reading and said, “I loved her way of using personas and infusing humor.”
“I liked to see her poetry develop over a timeline,” senior Sofia Filan said.
“I thought her voice had a lot of character, and I really liked the way she connected her separate collections and explained them,” added senior Kerrylee Pelkey. “Her friendship with Professor Pelizzon was inspiring.”
In addition to this public reading, Dungy will also conduct private poetry tutorials with six selected students.