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Poet, Academic Camille Dungy to Give Public Reading at Duke Gardens on April 18

Dungy's 2023 Memoir 'Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden' Argues for Heterogeneity to Preserve our Planet and Each Other

“The green of growing things calms me. Plants stabilize me,” the poet and academic Camille Dungy writes in her 2023 memoir Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.

On April 18, appropriately timed to the peak of mid-spring bloom, Dungy will visit Duke to give a free public reading — “An Evening with Camille Dungy” — in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens’ Angler Amphitheater. The event is co-presented by the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI), Duke Arts, and the Duke Gardens, and co-sponsored by Department of African and African American Studies and Department of English. A reception and book signing will follow the reading.

Dungy’s visit was initiated by the Art and the (De)Colonial Garden Working Group, a collective of scholars and writers convened by Sharon Kunde, ACLS Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow at FHI.

Soil front cover

Kunde, whose research interests tend toward “representations of plants, soil, and dirt in — and as — literature,” initially began the group as a forum for sharing work and sparking discussion “around issues having to do with landscape aesthetics, settler agriculture, and expatriation.” Dungy’s work felt like a perfect fit, both for the working group and for a broader engagement at Duke and in Durham.

Soil is a tour-de-force of interdisciplinary nature writing of the kind our working group engages,” Kunde said. “A hybrid work of memoir, environmental history, abolitionist writing, feminism, and nature writing, the book adds force and heft to an oeuvre that has already broadened understanding of the scope of African American nature writing.”

Dungy, who has authored four acclaimed collections of poetry — including 2017’s National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History — also drew attention for her edited volume Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, the first anthology to focus on nature writing by African American poets.

Across 180 poems from 93 poets, Dungy-as-anthologist fills in the gaps she outlines in her introduction to the volume: “For years, poets and critics have called for a broader inclusiveness in conversations about ecocriticism and ecopoetics... African Americans, specifically, are fundamental to the natural fabric of this nation but have been noticeably absent from tables of contents.”

Soil, the focus of Dungy’s visit to Duke, brings the political and environmental down to personal scale. The memoir recounts Dungy’s efforts to diversify her garden in the predominately white community of Fort Collins, Colorado as a poetic manifesto against homogeneity writ large.

Tickets to Dungy's public reading are free, but registration is required. In addition to the public reading, Dungy will participate in an interview with James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African & African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African & African American Studies Mark Anthony Neal for the podcast Left of Black and lead a generative poetry workshop for Duke students.