Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Camille Dungy
The Age of Discovery,
Or What it Means to Stumble on Something That Has Been Here All Along
(Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry)

When I began to compile Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press: 2009), I conducted a thorough lit review of anthologies and journals that represented poetry about the natural world. Turned out, the world represented by these texts was predominantly viewed through the poems of white writers. When black writers were represented, it tended to be the same few writers, even the same few poems. About four writers. About eight poems. I did not see the work of writers I deeply admired, whose poems I’d been collecting since I started thinking of myself as a poet. I didn’t see the work of writers whose work I understood to be inextricably linked with the natural world.

I did not see the work of Lucille Clifton, though her poems communed with foxes and gave sacred and practical voice to waves and rocks and fields of mulberries. I did not see Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems from Magic City, a book wherein the pressures of the natural environment play as large a role in the lives of the human figures as history and family and economic circumstance. I did not see the work of Ed Roberson, who won the Shelley Memorial Award in 2008, partly for his ground-breaking ecopoetics. I certainly didn’t see the work of these poets’ predecessors. With the occasional exception of “I’ve Known Rivers” by Langston Hughes, the only black poet some people care to recognize, it seemed as if nature poems by Black writers hardly existed prior to the 1980s. No Anne Spencer. No Robert Hayden. Certainly no George Marion McLelland. In my lit review, I did not see collections that recognized the presence of writers I knew were talking about the natural world in fundamentally important ways.

Like the barreleye fish, with its transparent head and green orbs for eyes; a bald parrot; the miniscule gecko known as Lepidoblepharis buschwaldii; a Columbian beaked toad that skips the tadpole stage and hatches straight into life as a toadlet; four or five dozen new species found along the Antarctic sea floor; the long-nosed tree frog and a tree mouse from New Guinea; the 90+ African American nature poets whose work I included in Black Nature represented a vibrant diversity whose presence was undocumented before December 2009. Like the newly photographed deep-sea chimaera that evolved independently of sharks over 400 million years ago, these have been around all along, but we’re only just now figuring out how to see them.

These comparisons to hitherto unobserved creatures in the biosphere are potentially problematic in a way that demonstrates part of the reason for the absence of African Americans from so many collections of writing about the natural world. Consider our history in this country, a history that relied on yoking Blacks with the rest of the chattel. After all we’ve accomplished and the struggles we’ve been through to do so, how dare I sully our achievements by comparing Black writers to animals. History and culture present complicating factors when we try to talk about Black poets in America, and our relationship to the wildness of the world are influenced by race. The poems collected in Black Nature probe what it means for a Black poet to write about nature, what it means to be separate or inseparable from the natural world. Though all of us are animals, in the truest sense, and humans are nature, many writers, black and non-black, ecologically-focused and not, struggle with the complexity of this truth. One of the most interesting things in the process of editing and living with Black Nature has been exploring how this struggle has informed our poetry.

Black Nature gave me an opportunity to broaden the scope of what it means to write a poem that takes as its subject our “natural experiences.” While I began the compilation of this anthology thinking this would be the definitive collection of such work, I sent the manuscript to University of Georgia Press hoping it would be a cornerstone, a text that would help lay a foundation for many more. I am pleased that two of the major anthologies to be published since the appearance of Black Nature included significantly more writers of color than ever before. Several of the poets represented in The Arcadia Project (Eds. Joshua Corey and G. C. Waldrep. Ashata Press: 2012) and The Ecopoetry Anthology (Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street. Trinity University Press: 2013) were featured in Black Nature. It thrills me that Black Nature has been a part of the expansion of conceptions about who could talk about the natural world and how.

Several of the poets whose work I collected in the anthology expressed relief and satisfaction at finally being recognized as poets who directly engage with the natural world. These writers wondered why they’d been excluded from collections for so long. Other writers were surprised by my queries. They did not see themselves as “nature poets.” Sometimes this was because they knew that the poems they wrote fell outside of what had come to be understood as the acceptable bounds of nature poetry. Sometimes this was because they never bothered to think about “nature poetry” because what had come to be understood as the acceptable bounds for the genre were of no interest to them. These poets were often those who wrote about urban and suburban environments, who examined their historically-justified fear of remote and wild places, who expressed antagonistic relationships with animals like rats and termites. But are rats and termites not part of our natural world? Must our environment only encompass reinvigorating wilderness and idyllic landscapes? Of course not. And yet, conventions are conventions, and conventions are exclusive. Luckily for our literature, conventions can be reimagined, too.

Organizing Black Nature, I eschewed two of the standard ways of arranging an anthology. I didn’t present the poets in alphabetical order. This was a nod to my own weakness. When I read an alphabetical anthology, I read from A to D (the first letter of my last name), and then I usually put the book down, intending to return but often not returning. I didn’t want the arbitrary fact of placement in the alphabet to influence readers’ chances of coming to know the variety of work represented in the book. Similarly, chronological order would influence the scope of poets readers might come to know. Instead, I chose an organizational strategy that presented individual poems within the context of other poems that engaged similarly with the natural world. Ten cycles (non-heirarchichal) each contained a variety of poets whose work conversed across a range of times, regions, backgrounds.

I worked to maintain a balanced representation of gender, region, and era in each of the cycles, but one of the most surprising revelations in the compilation of this anthology was that one cycle, “Growing Out of This Land,” contained no poem written before 1980. A significant number of the poems were written by poets born after 1965. These poems, about claiming a stake in the land, a sense of ownership, discovering a true place of belonging, could only be written after the major advances made possible by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Our relationship to the land, and how we write about this in our poetry, are influenced by race, history and the politics of power and place.

African American poets have been actively participating in conversations about nature poetry (by any of its many names), but have been too often overlooked or ignored. Phillis Wheatley, the first Black in America to publish a book of poetry, wrote of birds, oceans, and the peculiar climate in the region where she came to live. George Moses Horton, born circa 1797, wrote about the landscape surrounding him too. The same holds true for Albery Whitman (born 1851), George Marion McLelland (born in 1860), Paul Laurence Dunbar (born 1872) and Alice Dunbar-Nelson (born 1875), all poets included in Black Nature. But consider McClellan’s “sycamores and moss-hung cypress trees” (“A September Night”), Dunbar’s “caged bird” (“Sympathy”). Those who know these poets’ work know that the words “landscape” and “climate” are as much a reflection of the flora and fauna found in the worlds they describe as they can be a reflection of the legacies of subjugation and alienation inflicted on the lives they recorded. As the poet Lucille Clifton put it, “whenever i begin/ ‘the trees wave their knotted branches/ and . . .’ why/ is there under that poem always/ an other poem?” (“[surely i am able to write poems]”). Given a history of race-related violence, geographic displacement, and de-humanization, is it any wonder Black poets’ treatments of the natural world are often colored by skepticism and anxiety? In so much of our work there is no place for a peaceful walk through the woods. This is one of the reasons Black poets are so frequently excluded from the canon of nature poetry. And yet, Black poets are not, as the lacuna revealed in my lit review might have suggested, strangers to the natural world.

So long as the definition of “nature poetry” aligned itself with a placid and pastoral tradition, the work of many of these writers could not be included. As we advance our view of what it means to interact with the natural world and include conversations about environmental justice, ecology, and historically-informed environmental practices, there will be more room for nature poetry that might be viewed as politically-charged, historically-based, culturally-engaged, and potentially antagonistic. These poems have been around all along, but we’re only just now figuring out how to see them.